G.R. Parkin: On the Study of Greek (1905)

Background: Back in March, The President of the Classical Association of Canada, Dr Mark Joyal contacted me about something I had mentioned on the Classics list way back in August of 2001. After poking around a bit, it was recalled that it was something I had come across on the About.com Canadian History site and was a letter written by (Canadian) G.R. Parkin in 1905 to entitled The Study of Greek. At the time, Parkin was Secretary for the Rhodes Scholarship Trust and appears to have been concerned about declining abilities in Greek and how that might impact applications for Rhodes Scholarships. In pencil below the title of the letter is handwritten “sent to Churchman” (or something like that) and I’m not sure who that is. In any event, Dr Joyal was seeking the letter as part of his research for his talk In Altum, In Gelidum: 350 Years of Classical Learning in the New Found Land, which was a public lecture delivered at this year’s Classical Association of Canada meeting at Memorial University. The letter itself stands as a very interesting glimpse into the state of Greek/Classics in 1905, and it also seems to have several resonances for today, interestingly enough. Since it is no longer available on the web (it’s in Canada’s National Archives), we’ll ‘reboot the blog’ by reproducing this somewhat lengthy epistle in its entirety below. I have taken the liberty of ‘correcting’ some typos in the text (Parkin actually fixed them with corrections done in ink).

The Study of Greek
G.R. Parkin

While travelling through the United States during the last two years in connection with the organization of the Rhodes Scholarship scheme I have constantly been made aware of the slight importance given to the study of Greek at many centres of American education. Even the small quantity of Greek required to pass the Responsions examination at Oxford, which is the only qualifying test applied to candidates for the Scholarship, has proved a stumbling block to great numbers of those who have aspired to become Rhodes Scholars. It has often been suggested to me that the tide is now setting so strongly in the United States against the study of Greek as an unpractical and comparatively useless subject that our chance of getting the ablest young Americans as competitors for the Scholarship would be greatly improved if we could induce Oxford to relax regulations which now make Greek a compulsory study for the ordinary undergraduate up to the time when he has passed the first public examination.

But Cambridge University, which has long enjoyed great renown as a centre of mathematical study, and is now vigorously organizing scientific research, has just rejected a motion for the abolition of compulsory Greek by a greater majority of votes than was given on a like motion at Oxford a year or two ago. So while there is in England a considerable drift in the opposite direction Greek still holds its ground more or less firmly.

I think that there is a good deal more than the conservatism of an old country and of ancient foundations behind these votes. There is the strongest conviction in many of the best minds that the interests of higher education will suffer if the great Universities yield on this point. Is this conviction right or wrong? It seems important that any bit of evidence on the question which turns up in England should be considered in America as well. Let me mention two or three.

The first comes from a scientific source.

There is no weightier name in the world of science today than that of Lord Kelvin. He has given it as his decided opinion that scientific men will lose greatly if the miss the training and mental equipment which come from the study of Greek.

At the time when the motion of the abolition of compulsory Greek was under discussion at Oxford I have to be in a company with Lord Thring, who is known in England as the greatest parliamentary draughtsman of modern times, who put into shape most of the legislation carried through by both Disraeli and Gladstone, and who work on “Practical Legislation” has been widely accepted as an authority on the subject. After various opinions had been expressed by the gentlemen present, Lord Thring somewhat surprised us by remarking that he considered that he owed his peerage to the fact that he had studied Greek. He went on to say that the explanation was simple. He had read Greek with Benjamin Kennedy at Shrewsbury. Kennedy’s favourite Greek author was Thucydides, and throughout a long course of training his boy were expected to translate the pregnant sentences of the famous historian into English which aimed at reflecting not only his condensed thought, but his condensed accuracy of expression.

This severe training Lord Thring had found invaluable in his later public life, when as Parliamentary Counsel it became his business for many years to frame English statutes for submission to Parliament. What he had done for Kennedy throughout boyhood he now had to do for Parliament, viz. to express with clearness and brevity the precise thing that had to be said. He had been able to sweep away much of the useless verbiage with which statute books were laden, and he believed that his peerage had been given him in recognition of his services in putting English Statute Law on a clearer and better basis. For this work he believed that his qualifying training had been the close study and careful translation of Thucydides under the critical supervision of his great headmaster.

I told this story one evening not long since to a group of friends in the Cosmos Club at Washington, and pointed the illustration by turning to the Congressional Record of the day before which with its one or two hundred pages of printed matter was lying on the table of the club. I think that there was a general agreement that if all the legislators in our English speaking senates could have been drilled in Thucydides the practical advantages would be enormous.

To this striking evidence may be added the remarkable letter written by Brougham, then reckoned the greatest orator of his time, to Zachary Macaulay, when the latter consulted him in reference to the training for public life that should be given to his son, afterwards the historian, essayist and parliamentary orator, Thomas Babington Macaulay. After several minor suggestions Brougham affirms that the best way he knew by which to secure a finished style of powerful and persuasive speech is by the study of Greek models — mentioning incidentally that some of his own best known orations were composed after laborious translations of the chief speeches of Thucydides, and that he had achieved his most marked success not only in the courts and Parliament, but even with mobs when translating almost word for word from the Greek.

Has Broughams’s advice been followed on your side of the Atlantic? The question is suggested by a ltter to the Times of today — written by Dr. Walker, High Master of St. Paul’s School, the ancient foundation of Dean Colat. What the Renaissance and the renewed study of Greek meant to Western Europe when Dean Colet founded St. Paul’s in 1513 all students know. That the inaugural address of the President of the United States should in 1905 be made a vehicle for the continued cultivation of Greek in the same old foundation is a fact interesting in itself and perhaps not without its element of prophecy as to the future of that study. Dr. Walker’s letter reads as follows:

Sir, – May I crave space to call attention to the extraordinary resemblance in spirit between President Roosevelt’s inaugural oration and the speeches of Pericles in the second book of Thucydides?

I doubt whether there is a sentence in the English which cannot be paralleled in the Greek, as regards meaning at least, and often as regards form.

I set today a section of the oration for translation into Greek prose, and I asked our head form, “Where does this English come from?”

The general answer was “From Jowett’s translation of Thucydides!”

I have no time to go into the general argument, but these points seem to me to be worth putting on paper.

London, March 9th. 1905

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Roman Toilet Paper/Game Piece Revisionism?

More on the game piece side, actually , although I’ll admit to not knowing about the other personal hygiene method mentioned in this item (tip o’ the pileus to Sarah Bond for setting me on to this one and to Dan Diffendale for tracking down the original article). Here’s how the Daily Mail covers it:

Ancient artefacts thought to be early gaming pieces will have to be reclassified after new research which claims they were actually used to wipe bottoms.

The flat, disc-shaped Roman relics have been in the collection at Fishbourne Roman Palace in Chichester, West Sussex, since the Sixties.

Up until now museum experts thought the items were used for early games like draughts, but an article in the British Medical Journal has now proposed that they have a very different function.

It is well publicised that Romans used sponges mounted on sticks and dipped in vinegar as an alternative to toilet paper.

Yet the idea these ceramic discs might also have been used for such personal hygiene is a revelation.

The broken pieces – known as ‘pessoi’, meaning pebbles – range in size from 1in to 4in in diameter and were excavated near to the museum in 1960.

It had been thought that they were chips used to play an ancient game, also known as ‘pessoi’, but research published last month in the BMJ drew from classical sources to present evidence that they were also used to clean up after going to the toilet.

Noting the ancient Greek proverb ‘three stones are enough to wipe one’s a***’, Philippe Charlier, assistant professor in forensic medicine at the Raymond Poincaré University Hospital in Paris, points to archaeological excavations which have uncovered pessoi inside the pits of Greek and Roman latrines across the Mediterranean.

In one such dig in Athens, American archaeologists found a range of such pessoi 1.2-4in in diameter and 0.2-0.8in thick which, Professor Charlier wrote, were ‘re-cut from old broken ceramics to give smooth angles that would minimise anal trauma’.

Other evidence from the classical world has been passed down to us in the form of ceramics painted with representations of figures using pessoi to clean their buttocks.

According to Professor Charlier’s article, the Greeks and Romans even inscribed some of their pessoi with the names of their enemies or others they didn’t like.

Thus everytime they went to the toilet they would literally be wiping their faecal matter on the names of hated individuals.

Examples of such stones have been found by archaeologists bearing the names of such noted historical figures as Socrates, Themisthocles and Pericles, Professor Charlier reported.

Museum curator Dr Rob Symmons said: ‘When pottery like this is excavated it is someone’s job to wash it clean.

‘So, some poor and unsuspecting archaeologist has probably had the delight of scrubbing some Roman waste off of these pieces.

‘It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we could still find some further signs of waste or residue.

‘However, these pottery pieces have no monetary value because we are essentially talking about items once used as toilet roll.

‘The pieces had always been catalogued as as broken gaming pieces but I was never particularly happy with that explanation.

‘But when the article produced the theory they were used to wipe people’s bums I thought it was hilarious and it just appealed to me.

‘I love the idea we’ve had these in the museum for 50 years being largely ignored and now they are suddenly engaging items you can relate to.’

Dr Charlier’s research indicates that the use of such stones would have probably been rather hard on the rear ends of the ancients, and could have caused a variety of medical issues.

He suggests the abrasive texture of the pessoi could have led to skin irritation, mucosal damage, or complications of external haemorrhoids.

He wrote: ‘Maybe this crude and satiric description by Horace in his 8th epode (1st century BC) — “an a*** at the centre of dry and old buttocks mimicking that of a defecating cow”— refers to complications arising from such anal irritation.’

Dr Symmons, who has been at the Fishbourne Roman Palace museum for seven years, added: ‘We will obviously have to think about re-classifying these objects on our catalogue.

‘But we hope the pieces will make people smile when they learn what they were used for.

‘They would have probably been quite scratchy to use and I doubt they would be as comfortable as using toilet roll.

‘But in the Roman era it was that or very little else.’

… plenty of photos at the Daily Mail page, which will give you an idea of the (uncomfortable, it seems to me) size of these things.

As mentioned in the article, this all stems from an item in the British Medical Journal by Philippe Charlier et al (Toilet hygiene in the classical era). I was initially skeptical (primarily due to the size of the things) but there does appear to be archaeological, literary, and forensic (not sure if that’s the right word) support  for all this. An excerpt from the article (footnotes can be tracked down in the original):

Many pessoi have been found within the faecal filling of Greek and Roman latrines all around the Mediterranean world (fig 1).6 Pessoi found during the American excavation on the Athens’ agora, for example, are described as 3-10.5 cm in diameter and 0.6-2.2 cm thick and having been re-cut from old broken ceramics to give smooth angles that would minimise anal trauma.4 Use of a pessos can still be seen on a Greek cylix (wine cup) conserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, US. The cup, dating from 6th century BC, was found in Orvieto, Italy, and shows a man, semi-squatting with his clothing raised. The man is maintaining his balance with a cane in his right hand and is clearly wiping his buttocks using a pessos with his left hand.

Some scholars suggest that ostraka, small pieces of broken ceramic inscribed with names that the Greeks used to vote to ostracise their enemies, could also have been used as pessoi, literally putting faecal matter on the name of hated individuals. (Examples of ostraka with the names of Socrates, Themisthocles, and Pericles have been found in Athens and Piraeus).

The two pessoi in figure 1 belong to a private collection. Their precise archaeological origin (discovered in the filling of latrines close to deposits of excrement) and their morphology (rounded form with the edges recut) clearly indicate their use for anal cleaning. Solidified and partially mineralised excrement can still be seen on the non-cleaned and lateral surfaces, which has been confirmed by microscopy (fig 2).

… I’m still somewhat skeptical now, however, because all the evidence adduced (including a bit from Aristophanes that I skipped) comes from the Greek world. Then again, Graecia capta asperum victorem cepit, and perhaps that, er, assault extended to the latrines (the Wheelock gloss on Horace’s original seems punnishly appropriate here)? Or perhaps this gives us an idea of what Romans did in the latrines while waiting? Whatever the case, it’s another interesting detail to add to the arsenal …

Other coverage:

Dyslexia and Ancient Greek

Tip o’ the pileus to Graham Shipley, who mentioned this study on the Classicists list … here’s the abstract of an article by Kate Chanock:

This paper recounts the process by which a severely reading-disabled adult student taught himself to read and write Ancient Greek, and in so doing, improved his ability to read and write in English. Initially, Keith’s reading and writing were slow, difficult and inaccurate, accompanied by visual disturbance. However, motivated by a strong interest in Ancient Greek literature and philosophical ideas, Keith enlisted me (his Faculty’s academic skills adviser) to help him learn the language. Working on transliteration focused Keith’s attention on the alphabetic principle separately from meaning, while practising translation focused on the formal markers of meaning. Relieved of the stress of performing under pressures of time and others’ expectations, Keith made good progress with Greek and, after 6 months, found himself reading more fluently in English, without visual disturbance. This paper seeks to contribute to our knowledge of how adults learn to read, looking at the interplay of motivation, phonological awareness, knowledge of how form conveys meaning, and the learning environment. It both draws upon, and raises questions for, the neuroscientific study of dyslexia.

Treebanking Greek and Latin at Alpheios

Not sure if we’ve mentioned the Alpheios project before, but they’ve sent me this little missive, which should be of interest:

The Alpheios Project should like to announce the availability of sentence diagrams for selections from book one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the entire Iliad and Odyssey, five of the plays of Aeschylus, the Theogony and Shield of Heracles of Hesiod and the Ajax of Sophocles. We hope to be able to provide several more plays of Sophocles and examples of diagrammed prose in both Latin and Greek in the near future, beginning with Plato’s Euthyphro.

The diagrams have been fully integrated into the Alpheios tools and are available from an icon in the browser window. As always, the tools remain free and open source.

Sentence diagrams are an invaluable tool for close study of a text as well as learning its language, and when collected into “treebanks” have become a basic resource for contemporary corpus linguistics.

Creating sentence diagrams has proven to be pedagogically effective and popular with many students, and anyone interested in contributing their work to the ongoing project is encouraged to visit:


Classical Chickens

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lengthy article in Smithsonian Magazine about the rise of the chicken to its current place of culinary dominance has scattered Classical allusions (most of which are familiar) of interest:

The chickens that saved Western civilization were discovered, according to legend, by the side of a road in Greece in the first decade of the fifth century B.C. The Athenian general Themistocles, on his way to confront the invading Persian forces, stopped to watch two cocks fighting and summoned his troops, saying: “Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.” The tale does not describe what happened to the loser, nor explain why the soldiers found this display of instinctive aggression inspirational rather than pointless and depressing. But history records that the Greeks, thus heartened, went on to repel the invaders, preserving the civilization that today honors those same creatures by breading, frying and dipping them into one’s choice of sauce. The descendants of those roosters might well think—if they were capable of such profound thought—that their ancient forebears have a lot to answer for.


For the Romans, the chicken’s killer app was fortunetelling, especially during wartime. Chickens accompanied Roman armies, and their behavior was carefully observed before battle; a good appetite meant victory was likely. According to the writings of Cicero, when one contingent of birds refused to eat before a sea battle in 249 B.C., an angry consul threw them overboard. History records that he was defeated.


Artistic depictions of rooster combatants are scattered throughout the ancient world, such as in a first century A.D. mosaic adorning a house in Pompeii. The ancient Greek city of Pergamum established a cockfighting amphitheater to teach valor to future generations of soldiers.


Around the Mediterranean, archaeological digs have uncovered chicken bones from about 800 B.C.. Chickens were a delicacy among the Romans, whose culinary innovations included the omelet and the practice of stuffing birds for cooking, although their recipes tended more toward mashed chicken brains than bread crumbs. Farmers began developing methods to fatten the birds—some used wheat bread soaked in wine, while others swore by a mixture of cumin seeds, barley and lizard fat. At one point, the authorities outlawed these practices. Out of concern about moral decay and the pursuit of excessive luxury in the Roman Republic, a law in 161 B.C. limited chicken consumption to one per meal—presumably for the whole table, not per individual—and only if the bird had not been overfed. The practical Roman cooks soon discovered that castrating roosters caused them to fatten on their own, and thus was born the creature we know as the capon.