Friday, December 09, 2005

Menander, Sappho and a comet

A hundred years ago, a parlour game that classicists liked to play was to ask what ancient author, now lost, they would most like to read. Invariably, the answer would be the comic playwright Menander whose works were once highly esteemed but none of which have survived in the manuscript tradition (bar a few quotations and aphorisms). Then, large chunks of Menander, including an entire play, were discovered in the sands of Egypt. There was great excitement that the lost master was now found and the publication of the discoveries eagerly awaited.

Sadly, the result was universal disappointment. Menander turned out to be decidedly second rate. Dull would be the kindest word to describe him. Even the famous aphorisms were seen, in context, to have been in rather coarse humour. Classicists realised that the Byzantines had actually shown good taste in preserving the old comedy of Athens rather than wasting time copying out Menander's drivel.

Today, if a classicist would risk playing the same parlour game they would probably ask for the collected works of Sappho. The loss of her poetry gave rise to all sorts of legends in the sixteenth century that supposed early Christians had trashed them. A few gullible atheists still believe them today. As an old book (on line here) states:
Scaliger says, although there does not seem to exist any confirmatory
evidence, that the works of Sappho and other lyric poets were burnt at
Constantinople and at Rome in the year 1073, in the popedom of Gregory VII.
Cardan says the burning took place under Gregory Nazianzen, about 380 A.D. And
Petrus Alcyonius relates that he heard when a boy that very many of the works of
the Greek poets were burnt by order of the Byzantine emperors, and the poems of
Gregory Nazianzen circulated in their stead.

Julius Caesar Scaliger, Jerome Cardano and Peter Alcyonius were all sixteenth century humanists but no earlier trace of their stories has even been found. As all three had issues with the church, we can dismiss them as late legends and bias. You will not find this stuff in modern discussions of Sappho but the myth lives on. Her poetry is a bit erotic but as we have works of Aristophanes, Horace and other very naughty ancient poets in full, this is not a reason that Christians would have destroyed them. Interestingly, Alcyonius was accused himself of burning the last remaining copy of Cicero's De gloria. It's alleged that he plagurised it and then destroyed the original to cover up the evidence. Modern textual studies of the supposedly plagurised material, however, have absolved him of any blame. Wherever he found it, it was not in Cicero.

Incidently, yet another legendary conflict between science and religion is debunked here (this is a link to which requires you to enter your age and zip code). It turns out that the old saw of the pope excommunicating Halley's comet is an invention, reported as fact by My Gullibility himself, Carl Sagan (remembering his fantasy on a theme of the Alexandrian Library). It is extremely ironic that Sagan is revered by sceptics for his "Baloney Detection Kit" from Demon Haunted World. It is just a shame he never used it himself.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

No comments: