Ancient obscenity and the world-wide web

The epigrams of Martial provide a vivid immersion into life in Rome in the reign of Domitian, the smells and sights and sounds of a man living in that environment.  As such they are of the highest value as a source, not least for what they tell us about the Roman publishing industry.

One feature of each book is the introduction of obscene epigrams part way through.  This must have been to increase ratings, as with some modern films; indeed Martial at one point jeers at a reader who has got so far, presumably on the look-out for smut.  Sodomy, paedophilia, and the crudest vice are included to tickle the reader’s fancy (and sell books).

What do we do about this stuff?  I don’t want this sort of stuff in a book myself, and I can’t think of many cases where I need to know about (e.g.) the five vices of one epigram.  Yes, I would like to walk along the streets of ancient Rome, but does that mean that I want to drown my soul in its sewers?  Do I have to visit the red-light district if I go on holiday to Bangkok?  If not, do I have to do the same when I take a trip to ancient Rome?

The Bohn translation, which I am scanning, takes a sensible approach.  It softens the stuff where it can be softened and still leave most of the meaning, adding a footnote in Latin where misunderstanding might occur.  But some epigrams are just pure filth, and these it leaves in the original Latin.  Nothing is omitted, but the reader is protected.  Of course this practise provided an incentive for generations of schoolboys to look up “Naughty Words”, but that is neither here nor there.  Since scanning Latin is hard work, I’ve so far mostly simply omitted these with a note.

But what should we do with this stuff?  To whom is it of value?

Scanning books, and the way forward

Times change, and, as always, we must change with them. 

I no longer recall certainly when I first took down from the shelves the two volumes of Payne Smith’s translation of the Commentary on Luke by Cyril of Alexandria.  Perhaps it was in 2005.  The volumes stood on the open shelves at Cambridge university library.  I had noticed them several times, while looking for out-of-copyright translations of the Fathers to scan for my website.  But I had always been put off by the size of the books.  Still more had I been deterred by the two column footnotes and the marginal notes, so characteristic of Victorian translations, so time-consuming for one scanning a text to correct, format and link to the text.

But times change. That day I took them down, and walked the long corridor to the photocopying room where, for seven pence per A4 sheet, I reduced them to a thick pile of photocopies over a period of a couple of hours.  I took them home, and placed them on a filing cabinet, where there is still a pile of material of a similar nature today.  That at least has not changed!

I see from the timestamp on the directory that it was on 1st February 2006, at 22:18 hrs, that I began to scan those copies. Using my HP6350C scanner with a 25-sheet feeder, I created 13 directories of around 60 pages each, and began to OCR the less-than-perfect images.  Slowly I laboured through most of the first volume; and then I  halted.

Because times had changed, while I was at work on this text.  When I started my site, access to the internet was by 56 kilobit/second dial up.  At that speed the only way for texts to appear online was by manual scanning to create files of texts in ASCII or HTML.  Now we all had broadband ADSL, at 2 megabits/second or more; and PDF’s of the page images were suddenly a possibility.  Google books had begun. had begun.  And, that day, I discovered that my labour was useless; the first volume of Payne Smith’s translation was available, complete, as a download in PDF form.

I halted for a long while. Like most people, I am averse to useless effort. However I did receive the occasional enquiry as to when I was going to finish. I also hate unfinished tasks.

A few weeks ago I decided to resume, in the interests of completeness. But I now made some changes. There seemed no point in worrying much about the footnotes and marginalia. These were all available online elsewhere, after all. I also decided to modernise the text slightly — to change the mock-Jacobean Thou’s and Thee’s into You’s. This reduced the value to scholars; but of course scholars could use the full text from elsewhere. It did mean that anyone reading the text didn’t have to mentally translate it into modern English before they could hear what Cyril had to say.

I have now almost completed this; only two more of those thirteen directories remain to do. But times have changed again. Yesterday I went to Cambridge, and found that the volumes had vanished, into the rare books room. I wonder if anyone will ever see them again. After all, we can access the page images from our homes; we can print a copy of them in book form at, if we wanted a printed version, for less than photocopying cost me.

All these things mean that the way forward for sites like my own is less than clear. I cannot hope to compete with Google Books, or Nor can I hope to compete with the bibliography of l’Annee Philologique, even if it is hidden behind subscription walls. Perhaps the answer is to shift to new work; to producing revised versions of old translations, and making new ones, either myself or soliciting them from others, perhaps for money. I do not know.

But times change, and we must change with them.

New work on the “Apocriticus” of Macarius Magnes, Porphyry “Contra Christianos”

The “Apocriticus” of Macarius Magnes is a 4th century dialogue with a pagan, in five books.  The work nearly did not survive; a manuscript known in Venice in the 16th century which contained book 5 was never printed; a damaged manuscript located in Greece in the late 19th century vanished from the Greek National Library, some years after being printed, but did not contain book 5.  The statements of the pagan seem to be drawn from Porphyry’s lost Contra Christianos.

A welcome email from John Cook has drew my attention to further work in this area, since I last looked at it some years ago.  First a new edition of the text, in two volumes with French translation, has appeared by R. Goulet.  A review of this in BMCR is here.

This is very helpful, not least since the sole version previously was very hard to obtain.  Indeed the copy that arrived at Ipswich library was proudly marked “for use in library only”.  Luckily the assistant didn’t spot this, and issued it to me, whereupon I went straight down to the local copy shop and photocopied the lot!  An English translation of this by Crafer is available online, while the ‘Porphyry’ passages were retranslated by R.J.Hoffmann more recently.

In addition Goulet has written a lengthy article which rebuts some recent ideas about the nature of the Contra Christianos:  “Hypothèses récentes sur le traité de Porphyre Contre les Chrétiens.” in: Hellénisme et christianisme, Mythes, Imaginaires, Religions, ed. M. Narcy and É. Rebillard, 61-109, Villeneuve d’Ascq 2004.

John also mentions his own work, The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism, which addresses some of the same issues raised in Macarius Magnes.

Apparently the complete translation of all the fragments of Porphyry by R. Berchman has not received a very favourable response.  P. W. van der Horst seems to have reviewed it positively in Vigiliae Christianae 60 (2006):  239-241.  I must admit that Berchman was hard to read, since it arose from his work as a philosopher.

Some more reading here for me, I think!

Sir Walter Scott, on ancient obscenity

Yesterday I was reading the collected letters of C.S.Lewis, and saw a description of Boswell as the best biography ever written.  As it is a favourite of mine, I concur.  But Lewis also gave second place to Lockhart’s “Life of Sir Walter Scott”. 

I’m not a great fan of much of Scott’s writing, but of course that is neither here nor there as regards the biography.  So today I went to Google Books and had a look for a copy.  Turning at random to p.140 of a one-volume version, I came across the following letter to Mr. Ellis:

“My principal companion in this solitude is John Dryden.  After all, there are some passages in his translations from Ovid and Juvenal that will hardly bear reprinting, unless I would have the Bishop of London and the whole corps of Methodists about my ears.  I wish you would look at the passages I mean. One is from the fourth book of Lucretius; the other from Ovid’s Instructions to his Mistress. They are not only double-entendres, but good plain single-entendres — not only broad, but long, and as coarse as the mainsail of a first-rate. What to make of them I know not ; but I fear that, without absolutely gelding the bard, it will be indispensable to circumcise him a little by tearing out some of the most obnoxious lines. Do, pray, look at the poems and decide for me.”

Of course this was in a period when being accused of indecency was not the mild thing that it is today, but more like being accused of racism — something that could ruin a career. 

I’ve ordered a copy of the old Everyman edition of Lockhart.  It cannot fail to be of interest, I think.

The epigrams of Martial

If I look around the web for English translations of ancient texts, I am quickly struck by the degree to which patristic texts are commonplace, while classical ones are rare.  The difficult-to-use Perseus site continues its well-funded progress, it is true.  But amateur collections seem few.

These ruminations were provoked by the need to consult the epigrams of Martial recently in order to discuss some elements of the Roman book trade.  They were inaccessible.

This was not due to the lack of an out-of-copyright translation.  Other texts, such as the historical anecdotes of Valerius Maximus, have only recently received an English translation.  But for Martial, a version exists in the 19th century Bohn library.   A PDF does exist of this online.  I have started to OCR the pages, to produce something useful and searchable, although the scan was so poor that I find it is slow work.

Nevertheless, it is my first encounter with Martial.  As a long-time devotee of Juvenal, I am rather enjoying the picture it gives of the days of Domitian.  But how many people have read Martial, these days?

While reading this, there was a reference to the plays of Plautus.  But again, where do I go to read these?

My own projects consume already more time than I have available.  But I wish someone would create something free and accessible, an English version of the Latin Library site.

Microsoft live books now blocked to UK readers

I found today that I could not access, despite having language=EN-US.  I presume this means that Microsoft have ramped up their decision to restrict content to US readers only. 

This is most annoying, since a lot of their content is supplied by UK libraries such as the Bodleian.  Indeed I was searching to see if Thomas Gaisford’s 1846 edition of Eusebius Eclogae propheticae was on there.

Don’t you hate the copyright industry? offline and all my email blocked

My new webhosts,, have seen fit to take down all my websites without notice after receiving a complaint of spam, supposedly from ‘Feedback’ at my domain.  Needless to say it was nothing to do with me.  I apologise if this causes a problem to anyone, and I hope that they will reinstate my service quickly.  If the sites remain down for long, I will move hosts over the weekend and let my credit card company teach them why this sort of behaviour is not a good idea.

(Some hours later): I’ve now temporarily moved hosts back to, and email should come through and most of the sites should now be functional, although with the odd broken counter.  Site5 support was very strange; they ignored all my queries and requests for help and just added a note telling me to make a case to them (which I did, and they ignored it), and that they were ‘down to earth guys’ (?!?).  In fact they never did anything, as far as I can tell.  I registered a domain with them; they’ve been ignoring a request for a transfer code for that too.  All in all, very bad, bad people to deal with. and offline

I’m moving web hosts (to and so these sites are offline while the various DNS servers around the web update each other.  Email to me probably won’t work either, unless you send it to!  But is already available, however.

Back from Luxor

A week in Luxor leading up to Christmas — pure delight!  I stayed at the Maritim Jollie Ville (formerly the Movenpick), which consists of chalets in gardens of palm-trees, and ate a fillet steak every lunchtime on the terrace overlooking the Nile.  The steak, indeed, was only 6 GBP.   The hotel is on an island 3 miles from Luxor, and the management take every security precaution.  They also vet the taxi-drivers that are allowed to pick up passengers there, and have a price-list at the desk to which they must conform. 

Luxor is much more touristified than I remember.  The town has been cleaned up, and there has been massive investment, including traffic lights!  The west bank feels a little more like a theme park than it did.   

Tours remain expensive.  My operator (First Choice) wanted almost 40 GBP a head for a morning visit to the Valley of the Kings etc.  But it is still possible to take a taxi from your hotel to the Valley of the Kings for the morning.  4 hours cost 15 pounds sterling, for the taxi, not per person.  This was undoubtedly the way to do it. 

Unlike my former visit, it is now possible to visit Edfu and Kom Ombo; and Abydos and Dendera; as day-trips from Luxor.  However these must be done in convoys under police escort, although this is rather token.

On the other hand I had a taxi-driver that I hired at Karnak try to shanghai me and take me for a ride into the backstreets of Luxor, which was somewhat frightening.  Another that   Walking in Luxor, you are constantly accosted by taxi-drivers and Caleche drivers.  Indeed I went into Luxor Temple purely to avoid this hassle!  Returning to the resort was a relief.

Edfu temple is pretty splendid as the tops of the walls are intact.  I wish that I had more than an hour there.  Kom Ombo was interesting, but waiting for the escort for 3 hours was too long.

I don’t recommend First Choice Airlines.  The seat space was the smallest that I have ever experienced, and less still once the boor in front reclines his seat.  I spent some 5 hours in cramped discomfort, experiencing actual cramp at one point.  First Choice also encourages you to sign up at the start for expensive excursions which are non-refundable in the event of tummy upsets.  Naturally the most expensive are scheduled for the back of the week, when the bug is most likely to have struck.  I was a victim of this myself, having to cancel a trip to Abydos. 

One tip: wash your hands after handling Egyptian money.  The notes are filthy, and handling them is a prime cause of upset stomachs.  I am certain that I ate only with the greatest caution, and still had minor cramps.  On the positive side I did lose half a stone in weight — no chocolate, you see!

But a great way to spend a week in the dire run-up to Christmas.  The actual price of such a week is around 400 GBP; nothing much, in other words.  Recommended.

Visiting Luxor

I first went to Luxor in March 1986 with a friend from college, and staying in the Hotel Philippe, where the air-con didn’t really work.  It was very scruffy, and we had to negotiate our own way to the Valley of the Kings.  But it was very special.

I seem to remember going again at Christmas time some time in the 90’s — my memory seems rather fuzzy, somehow — this time staying in the Hilton and taking a day-trip down to Dendera by boat to see the spectacular temple of Hathor.  What I remember best about Dendera is the temple compound, the mud-brick walls of which looked like a Hollywood set for The Mummy.  I also remember eating nothing on the boat — the plates are often washed in Nile water — and learning later that everyone else had been struck down with ‘gyppy tummy’.  I remember visiting Medinet Habu and being greatly impressed by it.

I’m going again soon, to get some sunshine and get away from the cold and dark.  I went out and bought some guidebooks, and learned to my astonishment that there are now armed guards everywhere.  I don’t know whether this will prevent me visiting Esna and Edfu, but I hope to do so.  I’d like to see KV5, the massive tomb excavated by Kent Weeks, which made quite a splash a few years ago.  They found two staircases in the tomb, but no-one ever said if they went down the second one.