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Ciceronian Disputations

"Cicero denouncing Cataline," The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett, 1850s.

“Cicero denouncing Cataline,” The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett, 1850s.

What’s this? A creative piece, you say?

You’re spot on. This is a dialogue between Cicero and my supervisor at uni, Assoc. Prof. Parshia Lee-Stecum. I originally wrote it for Orpheus, the publication of MUCLASS (Melbourne University Classics and Archaeology Students Society). I was a little worried that my supervisor might not like it… Cicero does get a bit bitey with his replies! But thankfully it gave Parshia a chuckle and he said it was a good satire. In the end, I’m satisfied with the result.

As a senator of MUCLASS, I’m very proud of our first publication. The rest of Orpheus is full of amazing entries, including ancient recipes, Latin poetry, historical fiction, brilliant essays and much more.  Do go and check it out on our new blog at muclass.wordpress.com – if you like anything classical or archaeological, I am sure you will enjoy it.


(CICERO knocks on the door to Assoc. Prof. Parshia Lee-Stecum’s office, which is half-open.)

PARSHIA: Oh, please come in, Marcus.

CICERO: (lingers in the doorway, somewhat affronted)

PARSHIA: Marcus? (glances at paper) Sorry, you’re Marcus Tullius Cicero, right?

CICERO: Well of course. I’m just astonished that anyone could be so barbaric as to call an unfamiliar by his praenomen.
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When Classics students talk with Theology students

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Theology students have it harder in other areas, but not in learning Greek. While I’m struggling through Plato and Herodotus, they’re generally translating shorter, more straightforward sentences. The nerve of them! Don’t they have to deal with bizarre verb forms, multiple dependent clauses, and the general uppitiness of the writers? Instead, they’re translating the stuff that sweaty-armpitted fishermen wrote so that other unwashed fisherman could understand. The New Testament was written in Koine so that it would be wonderfully accessible to anyone who would listen. But don’t take my word for it. Learn Attic, and it may drive you temporarily insane: Koine Greek is a cinch.

Real men wear moisturiser

Dear modern society,

Men should be allowed to rub skin cream into their skin. Deal with it.

"Samuel anointing David", Illustrator of Bible Historiale, 1372. (Source)

“Samuel anointing David”, Illustrator of Bible Historiale, 1372. (Source)

The message I’m writing really should not need any historical precedent. For one thing, we accept that men and women both have teeth, and not only is it permissible for both men and women to brush their teeth, this is encouraged. What a daring new development! People in other societies might have looked down on our teeth care as a purely cosmetic preoccupation, but we know that teeth are important to our overall bodily health and that as responsible human beings we should take good care of them. Why isn’t the story the same with skin care? Both men and women have skin, and skin is a very important organ, regardless of gender. If it is damaged, it can become a site of infection. Worst of all, sun-damaged skin can become cancerous. A freckle-sized melanoma just one millimetre deep can become malignant, causing slow and horrifying deaths for thousands in cancer wards.

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Another Latin word for kill

roman soldiers relief

While I was translating some unseen Latin passages with my high school tutoring student, lo and behold, we came across another word for kill which I hadn’t yet collected! This word is:

cōnficiō, cōnficere, cōnfēcī, cōnfectum (con [with] + facere [make])
to make, effect, complete, accomplish;
to wear out, consume, destroy;
thus, to put an end to, kill.

It has been duly added to the list of Latin words for kill.

Of course, one of the larger questions remains unanswered. Namely, why does Latin have so many words for kill? What drove people to say the word “kill” in so many, many ways?

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Greek words for love, in context

A while ago, I tallied up the Latin words for kill. Today I’m doing something different: I’ll be studying the Greek words for love. Can I hear an “aww” from the audience? Or… was that a sigh of impatience?

010 agape_detail

Because to be honest with you, I’m tired of people talking about the Greek words for love.  It’s a staple of church sermons, and I think in the course of time a lot of misconceptions have developed around the Greek words. Etymology (or often folk-etymology) is one of the oldest rhetorical devices for moving into a meditative discussion of the “real”, “true” or “original” concepts behind words. Talking about the concepts is good, but I’d like it if people made less fudgey mistakes about the language in the process. And whether you actually know Greek or not, talking on and on about a Greek word is a perfect way to pad your sermon while looking like you know what you’re talking about. Now, I don’t mean to disparage the use of Greek in itself – discussion how something goes in the original text is pretty much the backbone of good exegesis. What I take issue with is the unwary and unthinking focus on the exact meanings of individual words outside of their context. And the endless talk of two Greek verbs for love, agapaō and phileō, is possibly the most meticulously bungled case of them all.

Because no matter what language you speak, love makes more sense in context than on a vocab list. Let’s explore.

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Romans paint better perspective than Renaissance artists

Fresco from the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, second-style wall painting, preserved by ash in 79 AD

Fresco from the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, second-style wall painting, preserved by ash in 79 AD

Visitors who see this fresco at the Met museum are often amazed at what seems to be a pre-Renaissance understanding of perspective. One visitor wrote that this “looks like an entire city–perspectivally rendered! The Middle Ages lost those lessons on perspective for sure.”

The statement picks up on a very common triumphalist attitude towards perspective. Perspective is a lesson to be learned by all good art students, it is the golden standard of realism, and the Renaissance Masters either discovered it or rescued it, after the utter ignorance of the Middle Ages.

But what do we mean by “perspective”? Did the Romans use linear perspective? And is the linear model really the best anyone could come up with?

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How to beg for mercy in Latin

How to beg for mercy in Latin

What do you do when you have committed a sacrilege, when the Emperor has overheard your snide remark,[1] when you handed in your essay late, or you forgot to attend a meeting with your superior? You may have offended a higher power, who would rightly chastise you for your misdeeds. You must now avail yourself of this person’s mercy and hope to quickly mend the breach in your friendship.

If that is the case, you’ll want to apologise for your mistake. But what better language to ask for mercy in than Latin?

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