Barry Baldwin ~ Some Bookcases

Reprinted with permission of the author himself, who years ago had to deal with yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription accrue to the latter.

(Companionette to Harry Bruce’s Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers, McLelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2009.)

“To keep on sending little frogs… is like keeping on teaching Latin and Greek. What’s that for? Most of the somewhat good writers know little of either” – Fort, Books, p668.

Homer was said to be blind. His name means ‘hostage’. Three links with the sightless, once gaoled epicist John Milton.

The anonymous Contest between Homer and Hesiod (paras315–26) has the latter win a poetic cutting contest. But Hesiod was soon murdered by the brothers of a girl he allegedly seduced. Homer, having composed his own epitaph, fell fatally into a clay pit.

Archilochus (seventh century) was a mercenary soldier, Forsythian “Dog of War”. His name means “Leader of the Pack” (thus, patron saint of the girl group Shangri-Las). His fragmented poems run from nonchalant confession of cowardice (“Threw my shield away, can always buy another”) to squaddie consolation (“Ares is a democrat”), to (fr103) the still-puzzling “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing,” which always fascinated that old windbag Isaiah Berlin (cf. his published letters & Michael Ignatieff’s biography).

Classical writers were rarely Men of Letters’, insulated from reality. Aeschylus fought at Marathon and Salamis, only to perish when an eagle dropped a tortoise onto his bald head. Sophocles was elected to both military and civilian offices, possibly commanding a fleet against the Samian one led by the philosopher Melissus (Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve can’t compete there). When accused by his son of senility, he won the case by reciting lines from his new Oedipus at Colonus – son was adjudged the real lunatic. Three competing versions of his death: 1) asphyxiated from reciting a long passage from his Antigone without drawing breath; 2) choked on grapes at a wine festival; 3) died of joy over his last drama competition.

Euripides is said to have lived in a cave, in a ménage à trois with wife and amanuensis Cephisophon, possibly an unacknowledged co-author (shades of Dorothy Wordsworth). Self-exiled to Macedon, he was eaten alive by wild dogs.

Plato was sold into slavery in Sicily – a pity he was ransomed. Aristotle landed a plum job: tutor to Alexander the Great, at whose poisoning some suspected he connived. Many and various were the foibles and fates of Greek eggheads (no wonder they intrigued Bertrand Russell, no stranger to anecdote and scandal), best read in their Lives by Diogenes Laertius.

Poet-librarian Callimachus was the Greek Philip Larkin. Which hat was he wearing when proclaiming “A big book is a big evil”?- I never met a student who disagreed.

“Water-drinkers can’t write good poetry” (Horace, Epistles, bk 1 no19 vv1-11, instancing Homer and Ennius). Not all agreed: “Water is Best” ran one Greek proverb. Horace was thinking of Athenian comedian Cratinus, said (Aristophanes, Peace, V7700-3) to have died of grief at seeing a wine-jar smashed. He would have agreed with Brendan Behan’s “I’m a drinker with a writing problem.” Not so Julius Cæsar, an energetic author (he dictated his book on grammar while galloping on horseback in Gaul – one both pities and admires his secretary), so temperate as to be dubbed (Suetonius, Caesar, ch53) “the only sober man to ruin Rome”.

Comic playwright Terence (so Suetonius’s biography) was an ex-slave who slept his way into literary eminence (no shortage of modern parallels there), earned unparalleled monetary success with six plays, then simply vanished – a superior ancient Simon Dee.

The ultimate literary workaholic was Pliny the Elder. According to his nephew’s account (Epistles, bk3 no5), he read and wrote through the night, was read to during meals, litter-rides, and bathing, though didn’t prefigure Voltaire in using a mistress’s naked back as book-rest. (Bruce, pp165–71, adducing, e.g., Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Orson Welles for these and similar habits.)

How to choose between Virgil’s two rival maxims, Omnia vincit amor or Labor omnia vincit?

“Perhaps if Existence should stop sending little frogs, and stop teaching Latin and Greek, a whole would be in a state of amnesia” – Fort, p669.

Classical Corner 137: Fortean Times 273 (May, 2011), p. 19.


Barry Baldwin ~ The Old Dupe Pedlars

Reprinted with permission of the author himself, who years ago had to deal with yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription accrue to the latter.

(titular apologies to Tom Lehrer)

“Imposture merges away into self-deception so that only relatively has there ever been an impostor”-Fort Books, p669.

The first classical hoax was Helen of Troy (below). Herodotus (Histories, bk2 chs118-20) believed she remained in Egypt for the war’s duration, Achilles and company spending 10 years fighting over a doppelganger, perhaps a phantom. Some scope for Churchillian cadences here – Some Chick. Some …

Persian king Cambyses should have been succeeded by son Smerdis. But he was dead. 30 the throne usurped by his physical double, one of the Magi. It worked for several months, until the fake Smerdis was detected by one of his wives who, taking her first turn in his bedroom rotation, discovered that he was earless, the result of a previous punishment End of usurper  – Herodotus, bk3 ch361-79. A North Korean solution – keep the dead ruler in official charge – might have been a better bet.

Upon his accession, Tiberius had Augustus’s grandson Agrippa Postumus liquidated in his island exile. Three years later, Agrippa’s slave Clemens masqueraded his late master and appeared in Italy to great acclaim – such impostures were easy in a world without photographs or television, An alarmed Tiberius had him arrested in Rome and done away with in the palace – Tacitus, Annals, bk2 chs3940.

After his ‘artistic’ suicide (think Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis?) and secret burial, three fake Neros appeared in regular sequence (AD 69, 79, 89) over the next decades, the last one being especially popular with Rome’s eastern enemy, Parthia – obvious chance to cause trouble: Suetonius Nero. ch.57 para2 Tacitus, Histories, bk2 ch. 8-9; Dio Cassius, Roman History, bk64, ch9 para3.

We ought perhaps to ask why the evil Nero remained so talismanic? Shades of those reported Hitlerian epiphanies after the War? Or Nero’s understandable popularity for (e.g.) lavish shows in Rome, rending Greeks all taxation and suchlike goodies?

At the imperial level, hoaxes went both ways. Suetonius (Caligula, ch47) says that the emperor dressed up slaves & prisoners of war to boost an undeserved triumph. Tacitus (Agricola. ch39 para1) levels the same charge against Domitian. I have read that this same stunt was pulled by the modern Caligula, Idi Amin.

In his own lifetime, Nero was duped

(Tacitus, Annals, bk16 chs1-3) by a lunatic Carthaginian, Casellius Bassus, who (claiming many previous successful manifestations) told the cash-strapped emperor that a dream had revealed to him the site of Queen Dido’s immense buried treasure. Hopes ran high, nothing was found, Bassus took refuge in suicide.

Philostratus (Life of Apollonius of Tyana, bk6 ch39) mentions a fellow who sacrificed to Mother Earth in hopes al excavating buried treasure – a tip for lottery hopefuls?

One of the thaumaturge Apollonius’s acolytes was a quack doctor whose come-ons (what spam he would nowadays have generated) included ads for love-charms,  lethal spells against enemies (what Kipling called ‘sendings’), and how to find buried treasure. All this seduced his young rent-boy Alexander of Abanoteichus into pulling off one of the biggest scams in ancient history.

Lucian, who finally unmasked him along with (strange bedfellows) local Christians and Epicureans,  tells the story in his Alexander the False Prophet. His rascally career (AD 150-170), in which he duped more than one high Roman official is attested by coins and inscriptions. Along with a freelance pop-song writer Cocconas, Alexander concocted his grand design, financed by a credulous rich widow. Planted fake prophecies, the cooked up public discovery of divine serpent, oracles delivered in impressive gibberish along with fake religious seizures, and the staging of godly utterances through ‘autophones’ (thereby anticipating The Wizard of Oz) earned him notoriety any modern televangelist would envy.

Lucian reports his comeuppance with undisguised glee “a most wretched death” from gangrened leg and maggots infesting his groin – a fate the likes of Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts unhappily escaped.

One Byzantine look-in (Agathius, Histories, bk5, chs6-8). Quarrelling with his Constantinopolitan neighbour Zeno, the famous architect-engineer Anthemius (designer of Justinian’s Hagia Sophia) contrived mock earthquakes and thunderstorms with contraptions of boiling cauldrons, elaborate pipes, and powerful solar reflecting devices to terrify his enemy into public flight and consequent embarrassment — strong candidate for  ‘Neighbour From Hell’ status.

Of course, if we believe the much-publicised allegations of Anatoly Fonenko that all ancient history is a medieval delusion, then everything in this column is itself a hoax.

Classical Corner 135: Fortean Times 273 (April, 2011), p. 19.

Barry Baldwin ~ Pie in the Sky

Reprinted with permission of the author himself, who years ago had to deal with yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription accrue to the latter.

(Titular honours shared with policeman-cook Henry Crabbe)

“Every mathematics master dreads the day when he will have to explain the Theorem of Pythagoras” – HF Ellis, The World of A. J. Wentworth, B.A. (Penguin, 1964), p18.

Not that the square on the hippotamus, as we schoolboys dubbed it, plays any part here (anyway, the Babylonians had cracked it long before). Go to Plato’s Meno for an ancient geometry lesson, and for a modern novel Arturo Sarigalli, Pythagoras’ Revenge: A Mathematical Mystery, (Princeton, 2009). Pythagoras (below), who like Socrates and Christ wrote nothing — some late forgeries did circulate —  was the archetypal numbers rather than letters man, thinking them key to the Universe (touch of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and everything else – good man to have beside you when doing the lottery.

Sources for Pythagoras (sixth-century BC. no precise dates) date long after his death, Plato largely ignoring him and Aristotle’s treatise on Pythagoreans being lost. Chiefly the biographies of lamblichus, Porphyry, and (most detailed) Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers (bk8). Best modern thumbnail sketch is Bertrand Russell’s (History of Western Philosophy, NY, 1945, p31): “He may be described as a combination of Einstein and Mrs Eddy. He founded a religion, of which the main tenets were the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans.”

Our sage claimed several pre-existences, including that of Trojan War warrior Euphorbus. He once stopped someone beating a dog, claiming to hear an old friend’s voice in its yelps – a very doggy dogma. Living acquaintances included his slave Zamolxis, later equated with Saturn and worshipped by the Getæ tribe (Herodotus – sceptically, Histories, bk 4 ch93).

The bean-ban, one of a long list of his sectarian taboos, coming oddly from the strict vegetarian Pythagoras (direct link with Adolf H here), was variously explained by their flatulence potential or physical similarity to testicles – a lot of balls?). It was his eventual downfall. “‘The unregenerate hankered after beans” (Russell), Crotoniates rebelled, the fleeing Pythagoras refused to cross a bean field to safety, and was lynched – thus the no-have-bean became a has-been.

Another reason for local discontent was probably his ideological objection to fucking, declaring it a sin, especially if indulged in summertime – no beach-orgies on the Costa del Pyth, then.

Admirers called him the wisest man who ever lived. However, his near contemporary, Heraclitus “The Weeping Philosopher’, gibed (1140) “Much learning does not bring intelligence, otherwise it would have taught Pythagoras” – classic academic back-biting, a bit rich from one who (Diogenes Laertius, bk9 chl) thought being buried in cow-dung would cure his dropsy – literally in the shit.

Born on Samos, Pythagoras spent time on Lesbos and Crete, learned his lore in Egypt, and ended up heading a pre-Platonic dictatorship of the philosophers at Croton in southern Italy. For good measure, he is credited with an educational trip to the Underworld. Samos was then ruled by Polycrates, famous for flinging a ring into the sea and having it returned via the belly of a fish (Herodotus, bk3 ch42 – “The ring lost in a lake, and what was found when a fish was caught…” – Fort, Books, p864).

Apart from his trip to Hades, Pythagoras was also credited with space and time travel and omnipresence, making him an ancient combination of Dr Who and Hermione Granger: When terrestrially crossing the River Nessus, bystanders swore they heard it address him by name. Though no ordinary author, he claimed the ability to write on the Moon, achieving this lunography by tracing letters in blood on a looking-glass, which he then reflected on to its disc. He comported a glowing bodily aura, along with a publicly displayed golden thigh. This gained literary gloss through his public utterances, written down by his disciples with the pioneering tag Autos Epha (Ipse Dixit), and circulated as his “Golden Sayings. “…Tomorrow we must have a real go at Pythagoras…” – Ellis, p21

Classical Corner 134: Fortean Times 272 (March, 2011), p. 17

Barry Baldwin ~ Puns in Liddell and Scott

[Editor’s note: years ago we regularly featured transcriptions of Barry Baldwin’s Classical Corner items from Fortean Times, and we are happy to announce we will be resuming this (with the author’s permission). Just to get the ball rolling, here’s a recent piece from Barry Baldwin, reprinted with permission of the author himself, who years ago had to deal with yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription accrue to the latter]

WILLIAM Shepard Walsh opined: ‘A joke might appear to be to be the last thing one would seek in a dictionary’1

However, he did excavate one example of humour from an unexpected quarter: The Greek Lexicon of Liddell & Scott.2

In cause is their entry for Sykophantes (our ‘Sycophant’). This term comported various meanings. The last one listed derives it from people who informed against those who exported figs stolen from the sacred trees of Athens. On this, Liddell (father of Lewis Carroll’s Alice) and Scott observed, ‘ But this explanation is probably a mere figment.’
Shepard Walsh thundered: ‘ Even puns’ and very bad puns, have found their way into the most ponderous lexicons. But, to the credit of Liddell and Scott, this ghastly attempt at a joke appeared only in four editions, when, yielding to public opinion, the word “ figment” was changed to “invention.’

In the current 1968 edition, the conclusion was further altered to read ‘ modern explanations are mere guesses.’

One has to wonder how much actual ‘ public opinion’ was heard on the matter? Greek lexica are not usually the subject of mass concern.

This offending paronomasia did not appear in the first edition of 1844. Could it be more than coincidence that the first recorded use of the phrase ‘ figments of the imagination’ appears to be in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre  (1847)? Or, given his relationships between Alice Liddell and her parents, might we see Lewis Carroll, a notorious punster, as a possible inspiration?

As edition succeeded edition, this famous figment excited various individuals to publicize their thoughts on the matter via a flurry of communications in Notes and Queries.3

One contributor, Dr. V. Paten-Payne, dubbed the pun ‘ unintentional’, referring to the fifth edition (1864). Alfred Ainger (a specialist in Latin Verse Composition) noted that ‘ it undoubtedly occurs’ in this same one. Three other correspondents cited its occurrence in editions 4-6. W. G. Boswell-Stone ‘ vaguely recalls’ an obituary of Scott in the Daily News  which remarked that there are two jokes in the Lexicon, not specifying the other, adding that the figment did not occur in the latest edition. This prompted one E. A. R. Ball to ask where the second one was. One response was to cite Dr. Greenhill, Dean of Christ Church, to the effect that he was unaware of any second one.

It was, in fact, very likely to be their definition of Alochos: ‘ Bedmate, the a  being copulative.’

Apropos of Scott, T. Selby Henrey wrote:
‘ Oxford men have been heard to say that, when Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon was first published, it contained not a few touches of hidden humour, which were deleted in later editions – one explanation of this being that Scott smuggled them in and Liddell was too matter-of-fact to detect them.’4

From this, might one surmise that Liddell never read his daughter’s apotheosis, Alice in Wonderland?

Liddell died in 1898, ten years after Scott. This prompted no less than Thomas Hardy to knock off a droll poem, ‘ Liddell and Scott, On the Completion of their Lexicon.’ Nowhere in it does he allude to it as containing any jokes or puns.

Henrey, who cited the figment, adduced other examples of lexical levity. One was from D. B. Munro’s Homeric Grammar, wherein the middle voice of louomai is elucidated thus: ‘ I wash myself. this is comparatively rare.’ Hervey glosses: ‘ It is current in Oxford that an undergrad first detected the humorous side of this sentence.’

Despite the deleters, it is congenial to conclude by observing how the fig-ment has hung on. In Christine Longford’s novel, Making Conversation (1931), a friend of the heroine Martha, reading Classics at Oxford during The Great War, when told about Liddell and Scott’s ‘ only joke’, responds, ‘ What a perfect Oxford joke!’ The next sentence reads: ‘ The serious student looked hurt.’

Other survivals, drawn at random, range from The Ohio Educational Monthly5 to H. R. Hall’s  A Season’s Work at Ur-‘Ubaid, Abu Sharain-Erdu-and Elsewhere.6
So, we may leave Liddell and Scott in full fig.


1 Handy -Book of Literary Curiosities (London, 1892), 236
2 The full story of Liddell, Scott, and their Lexicon is best recounted by Christopher Stray, Classical Dictionaries: Past, Present and Future  (London, 2010), 94-118.
3  7th Series, vii-viii, June-July, 1889.
4. Good Stories from Oxford and Cambridge: The Saving Grace of Humour (London, 1919), 86-7.
5 Vol. 21, 1873, 49.
6 London, 2014, 139, comparing stories about local shadowy bandits to the lexicon’s figments.