Odyssey’s Everlasting Allure

Illustration by Golden Cosmos

The title had me at Father, and again at Odyssey (Final, not so much). My first encounter with Homer was in an advanced literature course in my last year of high school. As a father now, with a son who found his way back home to another Ithaca, after his own odyssey, I could not resist jumping right into this story. But half way through, I stopped reading it. I will not say why I stopped, but I mentioned it to Amie, who I consult on matters of an aesthetic nature, especially when they intersect with matters of a familial nature, and she had already read it to the end. She said it was important to read it all the way through. I now understand why, and must recommend the same now, whether or not you have read the Odyssey:


My octogenarian dad wanted to study Homer’s epic and learn its lessons about life’s journeys. First he took my class. Then we sailed for Ithaca. Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In The Boston Area


Saint Barbara, attributed to the “Ghent Associates” of the Master of Mary of Burgundy, from a book of hours-missal, c. 1485-1490. Courtesy of Houghton Library/Harvard University

We check in from time to time at magazines published by universities where we have recruited. This article, which we appreciate topically because of the conservation of cultural heritage described, makes us wish we could visit the venues described in “Illuminations.”  Lily Scherlis provides a good example of why we keep coming back to this magazine–crisp, clear writing and a compelling argument in favor of looking back into history for an enriching perspective on crowdsourcing versus individual authorship (read to the end of the quoted section):

…These works were born into a world where literacy was scarce and almost universally affiliated with religion: the exhibition description refers to monasticism as, at its heart, a “cult of the book.” I imagine how compelling written religious text would have been to early readers: the words echo off the page, as if read by an invisible voice heard only by you, but are available to other readers as well. Continue reading

Renaissance & Other Possible Interpretations Of Our Times


During my morning walk today, while taking in the Onam visuals, I was at the same time absorbing sound, in the form of conversation, from the same phone that was snapping pictures. I use the time of my walks to listen to podcasts, one of the easiest ways for me to stay attuned to happenings and ideas from the USA, my onetime home, and home to many of the people who visit properties we manage.

The central idea of today’s podcast, at once frank about the perils of the “Age” we are in now but also optimistic about how to harness modern tools to navigate these times, took me by surprise:

New Maps, New Media and a New Human Condition


Some 500 years ago, Johannes Gutenberg, Nicolaus Copernicus, Michelangelo and others were part of the Renaissance, a time of significant cultural change. Now, authors Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna say we are in the midst of a second Renaissance.

Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In New York City

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History can be dry, except when in the hands of masterful story-tellers. Which reminds us of James, and other scholars who have graced these pages in recent years with practical stories of the past linked to our present day lives. The value of this Pergamon exhibition (click the image above to go to the museum’s description of the exhibition) catches our attention because this review, which exemplifies the sort of interpretation that allows history to jump into our present tense:

…This tidal wave of wealth sloshed all around the eastern Mediterranean during the three centuries that followed, the era known today as the Hellenistic Age. It soaked the shores of the half-dozen new kingdoms carved out of Alexander’s conquests…

Read the description of this exhibition below, in the words of the Met’s curators, to get a renewed sense of the important role museums play in our civic lives.

The conquests of Alexander the Great transformed the ancient world, making trade and cultural exchange possible across great distances. Alexander’s retinue of court artists and extensive artistic patronage provided a model for his successors, the Hellenistic kings, who came to rule over much of his empire. For the first time in the United States, a major international loan exhibition will focus on the astonishing wealth, outstanding artistry, and technical achievements of the Hellenistic period—the three centuries between Alexander’s death, in 323 B.C., and the establishment of the Roman Empire, in the first century B.C. Continue reading

A 750-year-old Legacy

This be the destination that Dante Alighieri envisioned then: A love that moves the sun and other stars. ILLUSTRATION: Gustave Dore

This be the destination that Dante Alighieri envisioned then: A love that moves the sun and other stars. ILLUSTRATION: Gustave Dore

A prophet of hope, herald of the possibility of redemption, liberation and the profound transformation of every man and woman, of all humanity

– Pope Francis on Dante

An epic poem running into 14,233 lines, an allegorical exploration of hell and purgatory to reach paradise and a quest to understand the authentic self and the transcendental meaning of existence – Dante Alighieri has given much to the world. With Italy and literary circles celebrating his 750th birth anniversary this month, all awe and criticism once again turn the Divine Comedy’s way. Wondering about a 700-year-old text’s relevance in this century? Well, we are talking Dante and to say his masterpiece is a timeless revolution wouldn’t be way off the mark. Over his oft-didactic narrative and theological inferences, Dante leaves readers with gruesome yet alluring imagery, the knack to examine status-quo and a careful look at the duality in life. Continue reading

Tricksters, Animals, And Narratives We Are Meant To Learn From

“Reynard” is a defining document of a vast tradition in Western art: the trickster story. CREDIT ART AND PICTURE COLLECTION / THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

“Reynard” is a defining document of a vast tradition in Western art: the trickster story. ART & PICTURE COLLECTION, THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

Thanks to Joan Acocella for illumination of a narrative form we are quite fond of:

…Animal narratives have allowed writers with lessons on their mind to make art rather than just lessons.

Such tales are no doubt as old as animal paintings on cave walls. The earliest evidence we have of them is the beast fable, a form that is said to have come down to us by way of Aesop, a Greek storyteller who was born a slave in the sixth century B.C. Actually, no solid evidence exists that there ever was an Aesop, any more than there was a Homer. As with the Iliad and the Odyssey, we are talking about manuscripts that date from a period much later than the supposed author’s, and were probably assembled from a number of different fragments. In any case, a beast fable is a very short story (the Penguin Classics edition of Aesop renders “The Tortoise and the Hare,” perhaps the most famous of the fables, in five sentences) in which, typically, a couple of animals with the gift of speech learn a lesson from their dealings with one another. This moral is then stated at the end of the fable, and it is usually of a cautionary variety: don’t eat too much, don’t brag, watch out for this or that. As early as the third century B.C., these stories were being gathered together in various editions, usually for children, to teach them Latin (most were in Latin until the late Middle Ages) and some basic rules about life. Continue reading

Classics On The Upswing

Seneca was venerated as a moral thinker; he was also one of Nero’s closest advisers. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH FROM AISA / EVERETT So

Seneca was venerated as a moral thinker; he was also one of Nero’s closest advisers. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH FROM AISA / EVERETT

This book review reminds us (for example where, in the middle of the review, the reviewer irresistibly, simply, says: “These days, Seneca is again on the upswing.”) of James, now firmly planted in the green fields of Harvard University taking his classics education to the ultimate level.

James, for his part, reminds us of our many reasons for paying attention to the classics, having little directly to do with the day to day activities of Raxa Collective except that the classics help us keep it all in perspective:

…If poets and philosophers dream of influencing those in power, Seneca was uniquely positioned to do so. He was a celebrated rhetorician, a satirist, the author of several books of natural history, and a playwright. He was also what today might be called an ethicist. Among his many works of moral philosophy are “De Ira” (“On Anger”), “De Providentia” (“On Providence”), and “De Brevitate Vitae” (“On the Shortness of Life”). Seneca had been Nero’s tutor since the younger man was twelve or thirteen, and he remained one of his closest advisers. Continue reading

Why Study Classics?

In some archaeological digs in Eurasia, as many as thirty-seven per cent of the graves contain the bones and weapons of horsewomen who fought alongside men. PHOTOGRAPH BY ERICH LESSING / ART RESOURCE

In some archaeological digs in Eurasia, as many as thirty-seven per cent of the graves contain the bones and weapons of horsewomen who fought alongside men. PHOTOGRAPH BY ERICH LESSING / ART RESOURCE

For every question why like this one, there must be many answers. We post enough on the topic to have some guesses. James, one day, may tell us his. For anyone who likes a good story, part of the answer must be simply that. But there may be more; for now let this post on the New Yorker‘s website speak for itself:

The Real Amazons


Here’s a story, told by Herodotus, about the fierce female warriors known as Amazons. Many thousands of years ago, a group of Greek raiders ventured into what is now northern Turkey. Travelling across the steppe, they came across a group of warrior women. The Greeks kidnapped them, locked them in the holds of their ships, and set sail for home. But the Amazons escaped. They recovered their weapons and killed their captors. Because they were horsewomen, and didn’t know how to sail, the ships drifted far off course. Eventually, though, they landed in the Crimea. The Amazons went ashore and stole some horses. They started marauding, gathering loot, and building up their strength. Continue reading

Hermes Appears, Again

Striking Mosaic Found In Greek Tomb Dates From 4th Century B.C. by BILL CHAPPELL

Striking Mosaic Found In Greek Tomb Dates From 4th Century B.C. by BILL CHAPPELL

We are now in our second month without the classicist among our ranks, but we amateurs can still do our part to share stories of interest from the world of classics. Hermes was there all along of course, for about 2,400 years since the image above was created, but amazingly we are still finding new hiding places for a character mentioned in these pages more than once:

Archaeologists have uncovered an intricate and beautiful floor mosaic in a large tomb in northern Greece. Dating from the last quarter of the 4th century B.C., the mosaic covers a space of nearly 15 feet by 10 feet. It features two horses, a man and the god Hermes; it was found in a tomb that was discovered in August. Continue reading

Technology Aids Access Of Classicists To Classics

The Loeb classics, newly available online

The Loeb classics, newly available online

We do not know whether James has made his way to the library yet, but we imagine there are classical treasures in the vaults at Harvard University that can only be appreciated in person. But a scholar’s best friend will likely, increasingly be technology like this:

WHEN JAMES LOEB designed his soon-to-be-launched series of Greek and Roman texts at the turn of the twentieth century, he envisioned the production of volumes that could easily fit in readers’ coat pockets. A century later, that compact format is still one of the collection’s hallmarks. Beginning in September, however, the iconic books will be far handier than Loeb had hoped: users of the Loeb Classical Library (LCL) will have the entire collection at their fingertips. After five years of dedicated work on the part of the library’s trustees and Harvard University Press (HUP), which has overseen LCL since its creator’s death in 1933, the more than 520 volumes of literature that make up the series will be accessible online. Besides allowing users to browse the digitized volumes, which retain the unique side-by-side view of the original text and its English translation, the Digital Loeb Classical Library will enable readers to search for words and phrases across the entire corpus, to annotate content, to share notes and reading lists with others, and to create their own libraries using personal workspaces.  Continue reading

Shakespeare, Crown Toady?


In honor of the departure of James from Xandari, we send him off with a blast of relative modernity. Shakespeare is certainly classic, but tres nouveau in terms of a classicist.

Little did any of the liberal arts majors among Raxa Collective contributors know that the image we have of a witty, well-versed but ultimately populist entertainer is confounded by a consistent streak of conservatism. But we are thankful for the enlightenment, that far from being an equal opportunity observer and critic of all forms of foible, the Bard was so unwilling to bite the hand that fed:

Ira Glass recently admitted that he is not all that into Shakespeare, explaining that Shakespeare’s plays are “not relatable [and are] unemotional.” This caused a certain amount of incredulity and horror—but The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg took the opportunity to point out that Shakespeare reverence can be deadening. “It does greater honor to Shakespeare to recognize that he was a man rather than a god. We keep him [Shakespeare] alive best by debating his work and the work that others do with it rather than by locking him away to dusty, honored and ultimately doomed posterity,” she argued. Continue reading

Laughing At, And With, Ancient Rome

romelaughThis post is about as random as we get on this blog, but still, there is a mission-driven point. Along with all our work, there must also be reflection and communication; education in the classics strikes us as an excellent preparation, as excellent as any, for our line of work. In further honor of James during the last week of his work in person at Xandari, we share a book review to help us understand laughter in the olden days:

…Even a simple comic device can land us in deep water, psychologically speaking.

What, if anything, does Geng’s piece have in common with the movie Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment? What does either have in common with knock-knock jokes, or with Gilbert Gottfried’s famous performance of “The Aristocrats” a few weeks after September 11? These are not easy questions to answer, even for a culture we know from the inside. And the difficulties only multiply when we confront the humor of another time and language. It is that challenge that Mary Beard sets herself in Laughter in Ancient Rome, the printed version of her lectures as the 2008–2009 Sather Professor at Berkeley. Continue reading

Note To A Classicist, For The Day When He May Seek Employment

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

We are midway or more through the summer, when interns are most commonly in our midst. Normally, but not always, they are enrolled for the other nine months of the year either in undergraduate or graduate programs of just about every conceivable variety. And within a year or two of their internship they will seek employment. So we encourage them to contribute to this blog in part to practice their communication skills for when that day comes; this post in the Atlantic caught our attention for that reason, so we pass it on especially to our interns.

And to one more than the others, which seems fair in this case. As noted earlier, one of our adventurers in Costa Rica is headed soon to Cambridge, MA (USA) to enter a doctoral program in Classics. He will not likely seek employment, gainful or otherwise, for some years to come.  But when that day does come, this reference may come in handy, from one of the class classic acts of all time:

Selling yourself often feels like a grotesque act. So job applicants’ cover letters seem unlikely to contain much great prose. Instead, we tend to fill the page with false notes and empty phrases. (“I believe my skills make me the ideal candidate, and I would appreciate your consideration…”)

But it doesn’t have to be that way. When a 30-something Leonardo da Vinci sought work in the court of the duke of Milan in the 1480s, he wrote a short, bulleted list of ten skills that would have been sure to catch the eye of any Renaissance-era ruler: he could design portable, indestructible bridges; build unassailable vehicles; destroy most fortresses; and so on. (He also could “execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay,” and wasn’t so bad with a paintbrush, either.) His letter was brisk, convincing, and a pleasure to read…

Continue reading

A Different Brand Of Men’s Linen Suit


Raxa Collective is fortunate to have classicist contributor, James, currently in the field with Seth in Costa Rica. Slacklining, occasional ichnologizing, and restoring a coffee plantation are (we think) the perfect prelude to a Ph.D. program in Classics. James will be in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the next few years, utilizing the Latin, Classical Greek and other languages he has already mastered, preparing to teach the next generation in the liberal arts. We never know, nor really need to know, where the liberal arts may take us. They are important for the sake of thinking and communicating effectively, in any walk of life, and we hope they remain alive and well in perpetuity for undergraduate university students.

We also hope that while he is in Costa Rica James has the chance to visit the home Seth grew up in, across the Central Valley from Xandari, where some of Raxa Collective’s contributors have had the opportunity to see the uniform of Seth’s great-great grandfather on display. More than a century old, and lovingly restored by a friend of Seth’s family who does museum restoration work, the uniform looks something like what Alexander the Great may have worn. After seeing it James may have more to say on this post by Joshua Rothman on the New Yorker website’s “New ideas from the arts and sciences” section:

Intellectual life thrives on mystery. When it comes to ancient Greece, one of those mysteries is the linothorax—the flimsy-looking, hip-length armor that you see warriors wearing on Greek vases. (Linothorax means, literally, “linen chest.”) Why go to war, archaeologists have wondered, in what looks to be a linen minidress? While a linothoraxlets you show off your muscular legs to great effect, it hardly seems like practical protection against the enemy’s swords and arrows. And yet, judging by how frequently linothoraxes are represented in Greek art, they were extraordinarily popular among soldiers in ancient Greece and around the Mediterranean between 600 and 200 B.C. Because no linothoraxes have survived—linen doesn’t last—no one knows why. Continue reading

Hats Off To Dr. Seuss

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Whether you’re a “hat person” or no, we’d be surprised if news of this exhibition didn’t bring a smile to the lips of anyone familiar with Theodor Seuss Geisel‘s books. For the first time in history “Dr. Seuss’s” personal hat collection is on tour in an exhibit called Hats Off to Dr. Seuss!which debuted at the New York Public Library in January and will stop in six states over the next seven months.

Continue reading

205 Years Ago On This Date

The London Review: Volume 14. John Telford Benjamin Aquila Barber. January 1, 1860. J.A. Sharp – Publisher

He has plenty of detractors, and while those detractors are less likely to read anything on these pages we still reach out with a thought: Charles Darwin’s birthday is an important one, to the degree any birthday is important after someone is no longer among us.  A day to remember someone who lived what can only be called a good, important life.  Below we link to a quotation that Seth found, as archival researchers and modern folk are likely to do, in a journal reviewing On the Origin of Species early in 1860:

Hitherto we have said nothing of the aim of this book. It is an attempt to prove that all existing plants and animals have not been created in their present sharply-defined specific forms, but have been gradually changed in the course of millions of millions of generations, under the operation of a law of unlimited variation. ‘Probably all the organic beings that have ever lived on this earth have  Continue reading


Sulphur Vent – Solfatara

Solfatara, a shallow volcanic crater in Pozzuoli, near Naples, is a hotbed (no pun intended) of geothermal activity. Upon walking into the depression, hemmed round by steep hills, the smell of rotten eggs greets your nose. The stench comes from the clouds of sulphurous steam pouring forth from vents in the rock. The Romans believed that this steam had healing properties Continue reading

Encased in Ash

Encased in Ash – Body Mold from Pompeii

In 79AD, Mt. Vesuvius erupted with disastrous consequences for the residents of nearby Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other cities in the Campania region. Flows of boiling mud and rock rushed down the slopes, clouds of noxious fumes billowed upwards in the wind, and thousands of tons of rock and ash rained down upon the countryside. Pliny the Younger saw the eruption and likened it to a pinus, a pine tree. This may baffle some American readers, who may be accustomed to see pine trees that taper from a wide base to a narrow point Continue reading

The Hut of Romulus

Hut of Romulus (Post holes where arrow is pointing.)

Today, all that remains of the so-called “Hut of Romulus” are the holes you see in the picture above (the slight indentations on the platform where the arrow is pointing). When intact, Romulus’ humble wattle-and-daub dwelling, located in the southwest corner of the Palatine Hill in Rome, might have looked something like this. One might have expected that the passing of nearly three millennia would not have treated well the wood, straw, and twisted bark ties of the hut, but even in its own day the Hut was prone to accidental destruction. One particularly ignominious story has a crow dropping Continue reading