The Classical Wizard: Georgius Van Buren 1948-2017

September 24, 2017 by

The Classical Wizard, Georgius Van Buren, died July 30, 2017 in Poughkeepsie, New York. He was 69.

George was a devoted member of The International Wizard of Oz Club for over three decades. He was well-known for his Oz pastiches which appeared at annual Club conventions and in print in Oziana.

George was justly famous for relying on his dyslexia to explain why he was a Luddite in the tech age. He refused computers and even typewriters, which led to long, and sometimes heated, handwritten postal correspondence in several colours of George’s hand, red pen for Latin, green for Greek, just like the volumes of the Loeb Classical Library. He may have been the world’s only person for whom Latin was his first language.

This was how we came to translate The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into Latin. George would translate a chapter in Poughkeepsie and mail it to me in Tofino, British Columbia. I’d correct it and type it up and translate the next chapter to mail to him. It took us more than two years to translate the book this way. It was published in 1987 by Scolar Press in Berkeley as The Classical Wizard / Magus Mirabilis in Oz.

I recently came to transcribe George’s last story for Oziana. We had been planning a full-Denslowcolour facsimile edition of The Classical Wizard for the last year and revising the Latin text. In that time, George also devoted himself to advising a Latin translation of Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa’s Memoirs by our editor at the University of Warsaw, Dr. Konrad Kokoszkiewicz.

I am so sorry he did not live to see his magnum opus printed in its full glory. But GVB, the classical wizard, gave his last energy to its completion. If the Land of Oz is the next life, I’m sure George can be found conversing with the ancients on his own terms!

Thus, mortui vivos docent, the dead teach the living, the next generation of Latin students. Rust in peace, my friend—big heart, like Lignator Stanneus.

Mortui vivos docent,
manibus date lilia plenis
(Aeneid VI.883)

Ferruginat in pace… 

Georgius Van Buren 1948-2017

C.J. Hinke

Capto et in fossa!

September 24, 2017 by

Nuper eram in itinere Americae Latinae habita, et non habeo quod poenitet me et non magis Latinam in schola studere ut posset loqui cum illis populo.

– Dan Quayle, Proconsul Minor, FCA, MCMLXXXIX.


Capto et in fossa. – Donald Trump, Imperator, FCA, MMXVI.

“Human Life Is Punishment,” and Other Pleasures of Studying Latin – The Paris Review

September 24, 2017 by

Frankie Thomas

The Paris Review: September 21, 2017


The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I am currently enrolled, doesn’t require you to do much of anything. Time is largely unstructured here; as long as your writing gets done, you barely have to get out of bed for two years. When I first realized this, I panicked, and then I registered for an undergraduate course in elementary Latin. I don’t even get academic credit for it.

I just wanted something in my life, amidst the subjective muck of the creative process, that I could be objectively good at—the occasional dopamine rush of a check mark, an A grade, a scribbled Great job! from an authority figure—and I remembered being good at Latin.

It had been almost two decades since I last looked at a Latin textbook, but I was optimistic that I’d retained a lot. My seventh-grade Latin textbook left a vivid impression on me. It followed the fictionalized adventures of a real-life Pompeian household (vocab words for the final chapter included volcano, to erupt, smoke, ashes, in despair), and to this day, I remember the whole cast of characters: Caecilius, a banker; Metella, his wife; Grumio, their cook; and Cerberus, the dog, who stays by his master’s side to the very end (RIP, little buddy). I’ll never forget the passage in which Melissa, a newly purchased slave girl, is first presented to the household: my translation was “Melissa pleases CaeciliusMelissa pleases Grumio. Uh-oh—Melissa does not please Metella!” It was pretty juicy material, by seventh-grade standards. (I just Googled these names, so I can tell you that the book was The Cambridge Latin Course: Book 1, and that it has a surprisingly robust fandom on Tumblr.)

My middle school required two years of Latin, and the worse I did socially, the better I did at Latin. At the social nadir of my seventh-grade year, on the heels of my thirteenth birthday and my parents’ divorce, my best friend unexpectedly dumped me dramatically in a crowded school hallway. “You’re a BITCH from HELL,” she shouted in my face, “so FUCK OFF!” I had never had such language directed at me before, and over the following weeks, as I reeled from the shock of the incident, I found myself thinking about it in Latin. The verb vituperare, which can be translated as “to yell at,” “to find fault with,” “to reproach,” “to castigate,” et cetera, summed it all up in a way that no English word could. Amelia me vituperavit, I whispered to myself on the subway, in the crowded school hallway, in the cafeteria where I now ate lunch alone. O Amelia, cur me vituperavisti?


This obsession continued to the point where I eventually composed an entire Latin paragraph asking Amelia why, indeed, she had me vituperavit. Playfully, I coined the word Cerbera, a feminized form of Cerberus: literally, “female dog from hell”. Idne est verum? Num Cerbera sum? In Latin, I was more vulnerable than I allowed myself to be in English, and though I was angry, at the end of the passage, I surprised myself by asking Amelia to be my friend again. The process was very therapeutic.

Then I emailed her the whole thing over AOL.

I don’t know what I had expected, but I was crushed when she wrote back informing me that there was no way she was going to translate all that (somehow, I had lost sight of the fact that she would have to), and that, furthermore, I was “so weird.” We never spoke again.

At the end of that year, I scored 110 percent on the Latin final. Even the teacher, a kind, soft-spoken man named Kai Ashante Wilson, seemed concerned by the fervor with which I’d thrown myself into this dead language. He never played favorites, but on the last day of school, he took me aside and gave me a special present: an illustrated Latin guide for kids, so that I could study Latin on my own over the summer. I was moved almost to tears. But when I got home and opened the book, I realized it was a poorly edited entry in a cheap series designed to teach non-dead languages. Each chapter contained increasingly surreal instructions for achieving oral fluency: visit Latin-speaking communities, the book suggested, and practice conversation with native Latin speakers. I’d make Latin-speaking friends in no time!

I decided not to continue studying Latin in high school. It met at the same time as chorus, and of the two, Latin seemed more dangerous—a seductively solitary pursuit that could, like drugs, swallow up anyone who enjoyed it too much.

The University of Iowa uses a different textbook, Wheelock’s Latin, for the beginner classes. I miss Caecilius and Metella and the whole doomed Pompeian gang, but Wheelock (as we chummily personify the text) has his own pleasures, especially for those of us who spent the bulk of our academic careers studying living languages. Here are some sentences you’re likely to encounter in beginner French or Spanish:

I would like a salad.

This is a pencil.

Where is the library?

Here are some actual sentences that appear, context-free, in the first few chapters of Wheelock:

You are in great danger.

Few men have true friends, and few are deserving of them.

Human life is punishment.

Our translation exercises are epic, portentous, full of grandeur and violence. Wheelock is particularly preoccupied with the idiom poenas dare, which he translates as “to pay the penalty.” People in Wheelock are always paying the penalty for their anger, their greed, their foolishness. “You are all to blame, thunders one sentence, “and tomorrow you will pay the penalty. As with all of Wheelock’s sentences, you can easily imagine it delivered by a Hollywood super villain. Seize him, you fools!


My class meets for an hour at ten thirty every morning, and as I labor to decipher our daily Wheelockian pronouncements, I remember why I loved Latin to begin with. Each sentence is a little puzzle, a Rubik’s Cube of words to be rearranged into their proper order based on arcane rules and hidden clues. There’s a creative thrill, too, in the task of transforming Latin into English, the miniature power trip of deciding whether to translate superare as “to rise above,” “to overcome,” “to conquer,” or even—if I’m feeling saucy—“to fucking crush.” The relative sparseness of Latin vocabulary makes me savor the richness of English all the more.

English is constantly on my mind in Latin class. Unlike non-dead languages, Latin places no pressure on the beginner student to outgrow the training wheels of one’s native language. Spontaneous conversation is not the goal, and thank the gods for that. Even at the highest levels, all Latin study is undertaken with an eye toward translation. In this respect, it hardly qualifies as “learning a language” at all; it has more in common with my mother’s addiction to those maddening cryptic crosswords in The Nation. Or, for that matter, her fondness for the crime novels of Walter Mosley and Michael Connelly. Every Latin sentence is a mystery to be solved, and the joy of translation, as with all detective fiction, is the promise that life can be untangled and reorganized into something neat and orderly.

More than anything, though, I love Latin because it has nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with anything in my life. Classics evangelists who argue for the practical utility of Latin, its historical significance and English vocabulary-building potential, are profoundly missing the point: Latin is fun because all its native speakers are dead and will never have to meet you. Even if you could communicate with them through space and time, and even if your Latin skills were up to the task, what could you possibly say that would mean anything to them? You, personally, have no place in Latin. As far as Latin is concerned, you don’t matter; you don’t even exist. Studying Latin is an exercise in ego death.

I’m realizing now that this must have been what drew me to Latin in the seventh grade, when I wanted nothing more than to flee my own existence. Today, at the age of thirty, I enjoy my existence much more, but there’s still something to be said for starting every day with an hour of structured self-annihilation, especially when one is meant to spend the rest of the day working on a novel. I suspect that Kai Ashante Wilson, my gentle Latin teacher from middle school, would agree: I just Googled him and discovered that he is now a Hugo- and Nebula Award–nominated science-fiction author.

Seeing this news, I laughed with delight—who’d have guessed it?—and felt a new appreciation for the best part of Latin: not studying it, but leaving it behind. At the end of every class, when I pack up Wheelock and step into the bright light of an Iowa City morning, I am ready to inhabit the world again. I am ready to superare it all. I might even be ready to write about it.


Frankie Thomas is the author of The Showrunner, which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her writing has also appeared in The Toast, The Hairpin, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She is currently studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Roman Roads – Sasha Trubetskoy

September 24, 2017 by

June 3, 2017

If you think this would make a cool poster, follow this link and send me a few bucks. I’ll email you a crisp PDF for printing!

It’s finally done. A subway-style diagram of the major Roman roads, based on the Empire of ca. 125 AD.

Creating this required far more research than I had expected—there is not a single consistent source that was particularly good for this. Huge shoutout to: Stanford’s ORBIS model, The Pelagios Project, and the Antonine Itinerary (found a full PDF online but lost the url).

The lines are a combination of actual, named roads (like the Via Appia or Via Militaris) as well as roads that do not have a known historic name (in which case I creatively invented some names). Skip to the “Creative liberties taken” section for specifics.

How long would it actually take to travel this network?

That depends a lot on what method of transport you are using, which depends on how much money you have. Another big factor is the season – each time of year poses its own challenges. In the summer, it would take you about two months to walk on foot from Rome to Byzantium. If you had a horse, it would only take you a month.

However, no sane Roman would use only roads where sea travel is available. Sailing was much cheaper and faster – a combination of horse and sailboat would get you from Rome to Byzantium in about 25 days, Rome to Carthage in 4-5 days. Check out ORBIS if you want to play around with a “Google Maps” for Ancient Rome. I decided not to include maritime routes on the map for simplicity’s sake.

Creative liberties taken

The biggest creative element was choosing which roads and cities to include, and which to exclude. There is no way I could include every Roman road, these are only the main ones. I tried to include cities with larger populations, or cities that were provincial capitals around the 2nd century.

Obviously to travel from Petra to Gaza you would take a more or less direct road, rather than going to Damascus and “transferring” to the Via Maris. The way we travel on roads is very different from rail, which is a slight flaw in the concept of the map. But I think it’s still aesthetically pleasing and informative.

Here’s a list of the roads that have authentic names and paths:

  • Via Appia
  • Via Augusta
  • Via Aurelia
  • Via Delapidata
  • Via Domitia
  • Via Egnatia
  • Via Flaminia
  • Via Flavia (I, II, III)
  • Via Julia Augusta
  • Via Lusitanorum
  • Via Militaris
  • Via Popilia
  • Via Portumia
  • Via Salaria
  • Via Tiburtina
  • Via Traiana
  • Via Traiana Nova

Some roads have real names but were modified somewhat:

  • The Via Latina I combined with the Via Popilia. In reality the Popilia ended at Capua, and the Latina went from Capua to Rome.
  • Via Aquitania only referred to the road from Burdigala (Bordeaux) to Narbo (Narbonne).
  • Via Asturica Burdigalam similarly only refers to the Astrurica-Burdigala section.
  • “Via Claudia” is not a real name, but refers to a real continuous road built by Claudius.
  • Via Hadriana was a real road in Egypt, but it refers to a slightly different section than the green route.
  • The name “Via Maris” is considered to be a modern creation, referring to real ancient trade road whose real name has been lost to history.
  • Via Valeria only referred to a section of the yellow Sicilian loop.
  • The roads around Pisae, Luna and Genua had several names for different sections, including Via Aemilia Scauri. Sometimes “Via Aurelia” referred to the entire road from Rome to Arelate.
  • Via Sucinaria is the Latin name for the Amber Road, a trade route from the Baltic region to Italy that carried amber as a valuable good. It probably was not used to refer to a single literal road.
  • Via Gemina and Via Claudia Augusta are real names that referred to small parts of the routes marked on the map.

The other roads have relatively uncreative names that I invented, usually based on a place that they pass through. I have never formally studied Latin and I’ll admit that I am somewhat confused by the distinction between -a and -ensis endings, so there’s a chance I may have messed that up.


A Fantasy Subway Map of Ancient Roman Roads – The Atlantic

September 24, 2017 by

If the Roman Empire had managed build a continents-spanning transit system for its empire, it might have looked like this.

John Metcalfe @citycalfe

The Atlantic: June 8, 2017

Sasha Trubetskoy

They say all roads lead to Rome, but they also lead outward to a number of intriguing places. There’s Antinoopolis in northern Africa, Londinium in what we now know as the U.K., and—should funding from the mighty Emperor Hadrian arrive—the yet-built Panticapaeum station along the Pontus Euxinus, or Black Sea.

Or so says this wonderfully thought-out fantasy transit map from Sasha Trubetskoy, showing the major thoroughfares of the Roman Empire circa 125 A.D. as dozens of stops along multicolored subway lines.

Trubetskoy, who when not dabbling in history has explored the judgmental cartography of the Bay Area, started poking into the idea after noticing there was a dearth of good maps of Rome’s old road network, let alone train-themed ones. So he decided to go for it, pouring about 50 hours of research and design work into his sprawling “Roman Roads.”

“I enjoy reading about history, though I’m not a huge classics buff,” says Trubetskoy, a 20-year-old statistics major at the University of Chicago. “But there’s something alluring about Rome’s ability to carve out such a huge and advanced empire, with a legacy that lasts today.”

Note: This is only a portion of the larger map. (Sasha Trubetskoy)

Trubetskoy’s primary points of historical reference were the Peutinger Table, sort of a gas-station highway map of Rome dating from ancient times, and the Antonine Itinerary, an atlas of thousands of places in the empire with estimated distances calculated among them. He also used Stanford University’s ORBIS tool and the Pelagios Project from Sweden’s Johan Åhlfeldt, which he describes as “kind of like Google Maps for Ancient Rome.”

Trubetskoy didn’t try to represent every single road and town in the empire, going instead for major routes and large-population cities to mark some “stations.” In certain cases he mapped routes with real titles—the famous Via Appia, for example, the first major road in Rome. When the historical name didn’t exist or was unknown, he chose creative nomenclatures like the Via Claudia for a road built under Emperor Claudius and the Via Sucinaria (or the Amber Road) to mark an old trade route running from Italy to northern Europe.

“I thought of myself as a Roman government official designing a map that people would actually be using—how do I make it effortless to look at?” he says. “I also had to make sure things were evenly spaced, colors were distinct, and the labels were unambiguous. I started from scratch at least five times before I arrived at the current design.”

So how’s it work? Well, if Emperor Aurelian wanted to send troops from Rome to the front during the Battle of Immae—a third-century conflict against rebels in the east led by Queen Zenobia—they’d have to get on the yellow Via Flaminia, two stops later transfer to the green Via Sucinaria, make additional transfers at Carnuntum, Sirmium, Singidunum, and then switch a whole hell of a lot more among orange/blue/purple lines until arriving at the Palmyra stop in modern-day Syria.

If that sounds exhausting and a nice way to cultivate a galaxy of blisters, it is—making such a journey on foot would take roughly 121 days covering 2,235 miles, according to Stanford’s distance calculator. Of course, back in the day travelers sliced a lot of mileage by using waterways—sailing through rivers and over seas. There was also a nifty Roman method for getting messages and property around quickly that relied on a network of horse-riding couriers. “They had a system called the cursus publicus, kind of like a mail service,” says Trubetskoy. “Forts and stations were spread at even intervals, each with stallions ready to go at a moment’s notice. It could relay messages from Rome to Constantinople in a handful of days, while normal travel would take nearly a month.”

Look closely and you’ll notice a few clever twists. Like most modern transit maps, dotted lines delineate routes planned for the future. ”I stuck to the spirit of the subway map and made them look like ‘proposed lines/stations,’” he says. “These were areas like Crimea, Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Nubia that Rome had conquered at some point, but didn’t hang onto for very long or didn’t exercise full control over them.”

To truly complete the effect, Trubetskoy also created snappy-looking modern logos for the ancient empire, like a stylized SPQR emblem of the Roman Republic (it stands for Senatus Populus Que Romanus or the “Senate and the People of Rome”). In the middle there’s a wreath of laurels, a Roman symbol of power, and Quattuoviri Viarum Curandarum, a reference to an infrastructure-strengthening organization formed under Augustus. “It’s sort of like a Roman DOT,” Trubetskoy says. “Literally the name means, ‘Four officials who care for the roads,’ although it grew to more than four officials.”

(Sasha Trubetskoy)

The text in that last box is an inside joke for Latin-speaking cartographers: “The final one is an inscription that says, ‘The Emperor, Caesar Augustus, Supreme Bridge Builder, created this map with a computer program,’” Trubetskoy says. “The meaning is silly, but it echoes plaques that were found all around Roman roads.”

Whiteness, Racism And Color In The Ancient World – Forbes

September 24, 2017 by

Forbes Magazine: April 27, 2017

Although we often romanticize the bare marble of ancient sculpture today, most of these specimens were in fact painted in bright shades of blue, red, yellow, brown and many other hues. Over the past few decades, scientists have worked diligently to study the often-minute traces of paint, inlay and gold leaf used on ancient statues and to use digital technologies to restore them to their original polychromy.

As this history of painted statuary returns to view, it brings with it an unsettling question: if we know these statues were polychromatic, why do they remain lily white in our popular imagination?

Head of a Young Man. Centrale Montemartini, Rome, Italy. Color and gilding still visible. Uncovered in the area of Piazza Dante.

How we color (or fail to color) classical antiquity is often a result of our own cultural values. Before a show on color in antiquity at Frankfurt’s Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, art historian Max Hollein noted that well into the twenty-first century, the idea of a “pure, marble-white Antiquity” prevailed despite many hints that sculpture was often painted. One influential purveyor of this falsehood was Johann Joachim Winckelmann (d. 1768). His two volumes on the history of ancient art, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, were hugely popular in Europe and helped define art history as we know it today. They also perpetuated and further entrenched the idea that white marble statues like the famed Apollo of the Belvedere were the epitome of beauty.

The famed Apollo of the Belvedere was unearthed during the Renaissance but dates back to the early 2nd c. CE. It was seen as the ideal of beauty in the 18th century. The statue is now in the Vatican Museums in Rome.

The Apollo of the Belvedere is itself a marble copy of a Greek original likely done in bronze in the 4th century BCE. While many Greek sculptors used bronze for their statuary work, Romans preferred the more durable marble. Particularly during the Roman empire of the second and third centuries CE, sculptors made use of marble more regularly in their copies of bronze originals. While the Romans were, in part, making material decisions, Winckelmann saw something else. In white marble classical sculpture, he viewed the embodiment of ideal beauty. As emerita Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter details in her book The History of White People, Winckelmann was himself a Eurocentrist who regularly denigrated non-European nationalities such as the Chinese or the Kalmyk. As she puts it, “color in sculpture came to mean barbarism, for they assumed that the lofty ancient Greeks were too sophisticated to color their art.” Winckelmann was wrong, of course, but his visual narrative continues to be told.

Romans also did copies in different colored marbles to add skin tone. This was likely the case why the rosso antico marble was used for this 2nd century Roman copy of a Greek original that depicted a centaur.

So, what did this painted sculptural exterior actually look like? Yellow, red and black were often applied as an underpainting before painted details were added. Art historian and polychromy expert Mark Abbe has emphasized that painters could then apply paints over this base coat to accentuate hair, eyes, eyebrows, jewelry and clothing with a vibrance white marble could not provide alone. Indeed, ancient sources such as Vitruvius or Pliny, note the presence of color used by ancient sculptors. But as Abbe states, “Burial, early modern restoration practices, and historic cleaning methods have all reduced the polychromy on Roman marble sculptures.”

Istanbul Archaeological Museum, room 5 – Reconstruction of the original polychromy of a Roman portrait of the emperor Caligula (37-41 CE). On a loan by the Glyptotek in Munich for the Bunte Götter exhibition.

For their part, Romans had a great variety of skin tones within their Mediterranean world. Frescoes, mosaics and painted ceramics from both the Greek and Roman periods reveal a fascination with black Africans and particularly Ethiopians, but did not employ what W.E.B. Du Bois would call a “color prejudice.” Although Romans generally differentiated people on their cultural and ethnic background rather than the color of their skin, ancient sources do occasionally mention skin tone and artists tried to convey the color of their flesh.

A view of the Ara Pacis museum lit during the celebrations for the 2000th anniversary of the death of the Emperor Augustus in Rome on August 19 , 2014. The projection, made in digital, modular and allows to modify the profiles and colours in real time. The choice of the individual colours of the Ara Pacis was made on the basis of laboratory tests, comparisons with Roman painting, especially in Pompeii, and colour research on architecture and ancient sculptures. (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Classical artistic depictions could indeed exaggerate facial features in a way not dissimilar to the racist knickknacks that can still be found in flea markets and antique shops across the country. Yet ancient persons did not engage in the construct of biological racism. As emeritus Howard University classicist Frank Snowden has pointed out, “nothing comparable to the virulent color prejudice of modern times existed in the ancient world.”

So what does it say to viewers today when museums display gleaming white statues? What does it say when the only people of color one is likely to see appear on a ceramic vessel? Intentional or not, museums present viewers with a false color binary of the ancient world. One that, in its curation, perpetuates this skewed representation of antiquity.

The excellent Tumblr “People of Color in European Art History” addresses the dearth of people of color in art history, and museums should take note. As noted on their Tumblr page, the group’s mission is to return color to the past: “All too often, these works go unseen in museums, Art History classes, online galleries, and other venues because of retroactive whitewashing of Medieval Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia.”

A southern Italian (likely Apulian) oinochoe (wine pitcher) from c. 350 BCE which depicts a black African. These are aesthetically though not contextually similar to the later racist “face pitchers” popular in the American South. This pitcher is on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA.

A return of variety to the ancient world’s skin tones paints a truer picture. It also asks us to reflect on the current state of those disciplines, fields, and practices connected to historical study. As a classicist, I am no stranger to the seas of lily white, spectacled and tweed-wearing people at conferences. My field is dominated by white folks. We have known for a long time that we have a diversity problem, and one way to address this might be to emphasize what an integral part people of color played within ancient Mediterranean history. But the onus is also on the media and fashioners of popular culture. For example, depictions of ancient Rome within video games perpetuate the perception of whiteness through their recreated statues and depictions of the people of ancient Rome. As digital humanist and video game expert Hannah Scates-Kettler noted to me, the whiteness depicted in popular video games set in the ancient world–like Ryse: Son of Romediscourages many people of color from seeing themselves in that landscape. Together, we sat down and played the game last week and there were indeed a lot of white people and white statues.

University of Iowa Digital Humanist and video game expert Hannah Scates Kettler plays Ryse: Son of Rome on the screen outside the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa.

The whiteness of these games, like that of museum exhibits, is not an altogether conscious decision. Game developers and curators alike have inherited these false constructions of the past. However, classical archaeology, science and new digital technologies now allow us the ability to go back and more accurately depict the ancient Mediterranean. In doing so, we can abandon the Eurocentric art history of the 18th century and its championing of whiteness as equal to beauty. In its place we can illustrate the diversity of the Mediterranean, its people and its history. And, perhaps, in this truer representation, we can come to better understand ourselves.

Mummy Portrait of a Bearded Man, Romano-Egyptian, about 150 – 170 C, Encaustic on wood. So-called “Fayum Portraits” often give a better idea of the skin tone of Mediterranean peoples, particularly in Egypt. Now at the Getty Museum. 

Sarah E. Bond is an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa. For more on ancient and medieval history, follow her @SarahEBond.

The Strange and Grotesque Doodles in the Margins of Medieval Books

September 24, 2017 by

When the edges take center stage.

Anika Burgess

Atlas Obscura: May 9, 2017

Illustrations from John of Arderne’s medical treatise Mirror of Phlebotomy & Practice of Surgery. GLASGOW UNIVERSITY LIBRARY MS HUNTER 251 (U.4.9)

Manuscripts can be seen as time capsules,” says Johanna Green, Lecturer in Book History and Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow. “And marginalia provide layers of information as to the various human hands that have shaped their form and content.” From intriguingly detailed illustrations to random doodles, the drawings and other marks made along the edges of pages in medieval manuscripts—called marginalia—are not just peripheral matters. “Both tell us huge amounts about a book’s history and the people who have contributed to it, from creation to the present day.”

On medieval pages, marginalia can run from the decorative to the bizarre, which Green engagingly documents on her Instagram account. There are two broad categories of marginalia: illustrations intended to accompany the text and later annotations by owners and readers. Both can be vehicles for delight, disgust, and befuddlement.

An example of useful intentional illustrations can be found, for those with a strong stomach and an interest in medieval medicine, in John of Arderne’s Mirror of Phlebotomy & Practice of Surgery, which is located at the Glasgow University Library. Known as the “Father of English Surgery,” Arderne produced several important medical texts in the 14th century. Fortunately, he was also a prodigious illustrator. His textbooks contain ample amounts of delightfully detailed (and occasionally rather gruesome) illustrations.

Hanging out in the margins.

“The margins are full of images of disembodied body parts, plants, animals, even portraits of cross-eyed kings, which relate to the main body of text and act as a mnemonic for the reader,” Greene says. “Even though you open the manuscript knowing it is a medical text designed for practical use, nothing quite prepares you for seeing a disembodied leg, posterior, or penis pointing at salient parts of the text!”

In Arderne’s texts the marginalia has a clear purpose, but in other manuscripts the meaning of the drawings can be indecipherable. There are countless examples of unusual marginalia—monkeys playing the bagpipes, centaurs, knights in combat with snails, naked bishops, and strange human-animal hybrids that seem to defy categorization.

Beyond these weird and wonderful illustrations, random doodles from later readers are also significant. “Each time we find an annotation in the margin, the form it takes gives us an insight into the kinds of encounters or interactions those people had with these books,” says Green. For medieval texts, “a gloss, biblical reference, or some commentary suggests the user was reading the text closely, compared with pen trials which show scribes breaking in a new nib, while other marks and illustrations often give the impression of a bored reader using the blank parchment of the book as we might use scrap paper. It is essentially a form of archaeology, but for books.”

Pen trials of various letters in the margins of Life of Our Lady. GLASGOW UNIVERSITY LIBRARY HUNTER 232 (U.3.5)

If the idea of doodling in a book either appeals to you or repulses you, then consider the pages of a copy of the long 15th-century poem Life of Our Lady, by John Lydgate. It is adorned with pages of doodles from the 16th century: “illustrations of dogs, defecating goats, peacocks with stick-figure riders, boats with tiny passengers aboard, and other marginal marks that look like very young children’s scribbles.”

Atlas Obscura has compiled a selection of doodles and drawings from medieval manuscripts. They are, by turns, silly, dramatic, and puzzling—but always illuminating about the way scribes and readers connected with the texts.

A unicorn.

A portrait of King Edward III from Arderne’s treatise. GLASGOW UNIVERSITY LIBRARY MS HUNTER 251 (U.4.9)

A collection of animals and hybrid creatures.

An illustration of a medical procedure from Arderne’s treatise. GLASGOW UNIVERSITY LIBRARY MS HUNTER 251 (U.4.9)

Possible children’s doodles of two peacocks (one unfinished, at left, and one with a human rider, at center), from Life of Our Lady. GLASGOW UNIVERSITY LIBRARY HUNTER 232 (U.3.5)

A disembodied penis in a basket in the margin’s of Arderne’s treatise. GLASGOW UNIVERSITY LIBRARY MS HUNTER 251 (U.4.9)

Swordfights and spearing what looks like a giant fly, early 14th century.

Arderne engages in some Latin wordplay with this drawing of an owl. “Bubo” is both the Latin word for owl, and the word to describe swelling from rectal cancer. This would help those with a knowledge of Latin find the relevant section. GLASGOW UNIVERSITY LIBRARY MS HUNTER 251 (U.4.9)

Doodles in Life of Our Lady appear to depict a ship with rigging. GLASGOW UNIVERSITY LIBRARY HUNTER 232 (U.3.5)

One of the cheekier examples of marginalia.

A sad-looking dog being roped by a four-armed, two-headed creature.

Some vengeful rabbits.





The mystery of the lost Roman herb – BBC

September 24, 2017 by

Cyrene ruins (Credit: Alamy)

British Broadcasting Corporation: September 7, 2017

Julius Caesar kept a cache of it in the government treasury and the Greeks even put it on their money. It was worth its weight in gold – but no one knows if it still exists.

Long ago, in the ancient city of Cyrene, there was a herb called silphium. It didn’t look like much – with stout roots, stumpy leaves and bunches of small yellow flowers – but it oozed with an odiferous sap that was so delicious and useful, the plant was eventually worth its weight in gold.

To list its uses would be an endless task. Its crunchable stalks were roasted, sauteed or boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Its roots were eaten fresh, dipped in vinegar. It was an excellent preservative for lentils and when it was fed to sheep, their flesh became delectably tender.

Perfume was coaxed from its delicate blooms, while its sap was dried and grated liberally over dishes from brains to braised flamingo. Known as “laser”, the condiment was as fundamental to Roman haute cuisine as eating your food horizontally in a toga.

Then there were the medical applications. Silphium was a veritable wonder herb, a panacea for all manner of ailments, including growths of the anus (the Roman author Pliny the Elder recommends repeated fumigations with the root) and the bites of feral dogs (simply rub into the affected area, though Pliny warns his readers never, ever to try this with a tooth cavity, after a man who did so threw himself off a house).

Finally, silphium was required in the bedroom, where its juice was drunk as an aphrodisiac or applied “to purge the uterus”. It may have been the first genuinely effective birth control; its heart-shaped seeds are thought to be the reason we associate the symbol with romance to this day.

Pliny wrote that within his lifetime, only a single stalk was discovered

Indeed, the Romans loved it so much, they referenced their darling herb in poems and songs, and wrote it into great works of literature. For centuries, local kings held a monopoly on the plant, which made the city of Cyrene, at modern Shahhat, Libya, the richest in Africa. Before the Romans invaded, the Greek inhabitants even put it on their money. Julius Caesar went so far as to store a cache (1,500lbs or 680kg)) in the official treasury.

But today, silphium has vanished – possibly just from the region, possibly from our planet altogether. Pliny wrote that within his lifetime, only a single stalk was discovered. It was plucked and sent to the emperor Nero as a curiosity sometime around 54-68AD.

With just a handful of stylised images and the accounts of ancient naturalists to go on, the true identity of the Romans’ favourite herb is a mystery. Some think it was driven to extinction, others that it’s still hiding in plain sight as a Mediterranean weed. How did this happen? And could we bring it back?

Legend has it that silphium was first discovered after a “black” rain swept across the east coast of Libya over two and a half millennia ago. From then onwards, the herb spread its broad roots ever further, growing luxuriantly on lush hillsides and forest meadows.

It might sound strange – after all, North Africa is hardly famed for its greenery, but this was Cyrenaica, a land of tiered highlands with an abundant water supply. Today parts are known to receive up to 850mm of rain (34in) per year, which is nearly as wet as Britain.

Cyrenaica was originally settled by the Greeks and conquered by the Romans in 96BC. Almost immediately, silphium stocks began to decline at an alarming rate. Within 100 years, it had disappeared altogether.

The thing is, the fussy plant only grew in this region. Its entire range consisted of a narrow strip of land about 125 miles (201km) by 35 miles (40km).

Try as they might, neither the Greeks or the Romans could work out how to farm it in captivity. Instead silphium was collected from the wild, and though there were strict rules about how much could be harvested, there was a thriving black market.

The herb stumped even the most enthusiastic plant geek of the day, Theophrastus

The dried sap was sold on the streets by unscrupulous “laser dealers” for sky-high prices. They’d say pretty much anything to get you to buy their product, including pawning you off with the notoriously stinky asafoetida. The spice is popular in India and Central Asia today, where it lends its garlicky notes to dahls, meatballs and roasted vegetables. But now, as in classical times, it was known primarily for its powerful sulphurous smell, like a mixture of dung and overcooked cabbage. Its Latin name means “fetid gum”.

The Romans considered asafetida a reasonable substitute, but some swaps were harder to swallow. It was regularly adulterated with rubber or ground beans, while other spices such as black pepper were bulked out with cheap mustard from Alexandria or even juniper berries; bitter, astringent, best known as the principal flavor in gin, they’re hardly a perfect match, but “…well, they’re a similar size,” says Erica Rowan, a classical historian from the University of Exeter.

Silphium was so fundamental to Cyrene’s economy, the locals stamped its image on their money (Credit: Alamy)

Central to this botanical riddle is the fact that silphium couldn’t be farmed. But why?

The herb stumped even the most enthusiastic plant geek of the day, Theophrastus. Widely known as the father of botany, this Greek author was best friends was another giant – Aristotle, the father of biology – and wrote extensively about the characteristics of plants. He observed that they tended to grow best on land which had been dug up the previous year.

There are several possible reasons for this. “Often the issue is the seeds,” says Monique Simmonds, deputy director of science at Kew Gardens, London.

Take poppies. A single plant can produce up to 60,000 seeds, which means that, assuming 90,000 plants, a single field may contain around 5.4 billion. But they must be exposed to light to grow. Without it, they’ll just sit there until they’re eaten or begin to rot. For this reason, poppies thrive on disturbed land where light can creep into gaps in the soil, such as the battlefields of the World War One.

Theophrastus is known as the father of botany (Credit: Alamy)

But there are other explanations – and perhaps the best place to look for clues is a plant that has eluded farmers to this day.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people descend on America’s National Parks, from the Pacific Northwest to the mountains of Montana and Idaho. Instead of hiking gear, they’re armed with baskets, pots and pans, ready to brave grizzly bears and territorial gunfights in pursuit of one of the most coveted fruits on the planet: the huckleberry. The tart red berries are added to jams, sauces, pies, ice creams, snow cones, daiquiris, and even curries – and every year, demand exceeds supply. But there isn’t a single commercial huckleberry farm on the continent.

After early colonial settlers failed to bring the berry to Europe, serious efforts to cultivate the plant began in 1906. More than a century later, the stubborn shrub still hasn’t yielded to captivity. When they’re grown from seed, they are mysteriously devoid of fruit.

The huckleberry is native to the mountain slopes, forests and lake basins of North America. The plant consists of wide, sprawling roots topped by a bush which grows out of an underground stem.

Replanting them would be like trying to grow a pile of leaves

Lacking a dense, centralised root system makes them especially difficult to replant. Early huckleberry farmers made an easy mistake, digging up their long underground stems instead of the roots. Replanting them would be like trying to grow a pile of leaves.

But now that they’ve defied the best efforts of modern botany, it looks like there really is no secret trick to growing them. Instead the answer is thought to lie in their natural habitat. “The plants growing in an area can have a big impact on its soil chemistry,” says Simmonds. Farming inevitably alters the balance of elements such as magnesium, so some plants will never grow well on cultivated land. As of 2017, the only way to grow more huckleberries is to clear some woodland and leave them well alone.

According to Kenneth Parejko, emeritus professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Stout who has studied the silphium enigma, wildflowers are particularly sensitive to this. “Here in the northern US there are many growing in the prairies, but if you try to take them to plant in your garden – as I have – they don’t survive at all.” On some level, the ancient Greeks may have known this. After attempting to grow silphium in Europe, they wondered if their land might be missing a “humour” necessary to nourish it.

But there is another possibility: silphium was a hybrid. Crossing two separate species can have delicious or handy results. When you mix a male camel with a female llama, their cama babies have all the wool-producing talents of their mother and the size and strength of their father. It’s the same story for garden strawberries, which are a cross between North American and Chilean varieties; they’re bigger and juicier than either of their parents. Meanwhile, the oddly-named Toast of Botswana, a one-of-a-kind hybrid of a male goat and female sheep, was an exceptionally fast grower and extraordinarily resilient to disease (it was also unexpectedly lustful, and had to be castrated).

Like the spice asafoetida, laser would have been made from the milky sap of the silphium plant’s roots (Credit: Alamy)

The trick is well known today. One of the most widespread hybrids is corn, which is produced to the tune of around 14 billion bushels (360 million metric tonnes) every year. But while the first generation produced by such unions can be highly desirable, their offspring usually aren’t in the same league. Second-generation hybrids are extremely unpredictable, as the dominant genes from either parent begin to take over and tip the balance of their features. In the end, you might end up with an animal with the temperament of a llama and the wool-making abilities of a camel.

In wild plants, this isn’t a problem. In fact, the hybridisation only needs to happen once – from then on, the plants don’t grow from seed, but asexually, by spreading their roots. This is the case with the cemetery iris, Iris albicans, which produces fragrant white flowers traditionally planted on graves in Muslim regions. It has double the usual number of chromosomes and is completely sterile – yet it has been going strong since its parents met in the Middle Eastern desert thousands of years ago.

If silphium were a mongrel, when the Greeks tried to grow some from seed the result could have been barely recognisable. Intriguingly, this fits with ancient reports of silphium from Media (northwest Iran), Syria and Parthia (northeast Iran), which was much less valuable than the stuff from Cyrene. Given the liberal substitutions in ancient markets, it’s possible that these products weren’t silphium at all – but maybe, just maybe, they were the weedy descendants of a hybrid.

They might have grazed it right down to the roots and killed it – Kenneth Parejko

Either way, the Roman lust for true silphium proved too much. Pliny the Elder wrote that Roman landlords had been forced to fence off the herb’s meadow habitat to stop local sheep from devouring the whole lot. “They might have grazed it right down to the roots and killed it,” says Parejko.

Eventually the locals rebelled, tearing the fences down to increase the value of their flock; silphium-fed sheep were the ancient equivalent of Wagyu beef. Amid rising tensions, sometimes they’d break in just to sabotage them.

The herb was being attacked from all sides – overharvested and overgrazed. And throughout it all, it may also have been undermined by its own biology. The Greeks had strict rules about how much of the root could be harvested at one time, which suggests that if enough was left in the ground, it would bounce back. But inevitably the economics of supply and demand kicked in. As the plant’s value increased, unscrupulous smugglers may have taken the whole lot. “If you’re going to take the roots, you really need a plant that grows well from seed,” says Simmonds.

Despite centuries of trying, the huckleberry has never been successfully farmed (Credit: Alamy)

The story of silphium’s decline is depressingly familiar today. Medicinal herbs are a multi-billion-dollar industry and growing. Many are under threat from climate change and development – and to add insult to injury, the vast majority are collected from the wild. In South Africa alone, 82 medicinal herbs are threatened with extinction and two have already vanished.

Meanwhile the bluefin tuna, which swims in the waters off the coast of Libya has still, after decades of trying, never been raised successfully from egg to adult. Like silphium, the latter is becoming ever more profitable as it edges closer to extinction. In early 2017, a single fish was auctioned for £517,000 (US $668,000).

But there is a glimmer of hope. There have only been a handful of studies on the plant diversity in Libya – if even a few plants escaped the clutches of the Romans, it may still be found. “It could absolutely still be there. It’s not an easy country to survey,” says Simmonds.

Of course, this is made slightly trickier by the fact that no one knows what they’re looking for. “We tend to find the seeds of other plants, such as coriander and dill, at ancient sites. But no one has ever found silphium,” says Rowan.

Theophrastus described the plants as having thick roots covered in black bark. They were extravagantly long; if you were to hold one up against the human body, it would be around the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger (an ancient unit of measurement known as a cubit). Though the plant was “most peculiar”, he said it had a hollow stalk a bit like fennel and golden leaves which resembled those of celery.

It could absolutely still be there. It’s not an easy country to survey – Monique Simmonds

The ancient coins which bear its image show a plant with flowers arranged in what botanists call a “large apical umbel”, which Parejko describes as a disc like the end of a watering can. “It would have looked quite conspicuous,” says Simmonds.

Theophrastus compared it to another herb, Magydaris pastinacea, which grew in Syria and on the slopes of Mount Parnassus near the Greek city of Delphi. He believed both were “spineless under shrubs” related to fennel.

He may have been onto something. Scientists now think that, like asafoetida, silphium may have belonged to a group of fennel-like plants, the Ferula. They are actually related to carrots and grow wild as weeds across North Africa and the Mediterranean. Incredibly, two of these plants – giant Tangier fennel and giant fennel – still exist in Libya today. It’s possible that one of these is silphium.

So could silphium make a comeback? According to Rowan, even if the herb isn’t extinct, it probably wouldn’t be to modern tastes – in the Western world at least. “There’s a whole bunch of seasonings that the Romans used to use, like lovage, that today most people haven’t even heard of,” says Rowan. Back in the day, lovage was a staple of the Roman dinner table. Today it’s virtually impossible to buy, consigned to niche online shops and obscure corners of garden centres.

The ancient herb may be hiding in plain sight as giant Tangier fennel (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Yan Wong)

In fact, Roman cuisine wasn’t at all like Italian food. It was all about contrasting sweet with salty and sour foods (they liked to eat fishgut sauce, garum, with melon). Instead Rowan compares it to modern Chinese food. “If it was edible, they were eating it – nothing was off the table.” She says.

If you’d like to see for yourself, why not try this Roman recipe for braised flamingo and parrot, substituting asafoetida for laser.

Scald the flamingo, wash and dress it, put it in a pot, add water, salt, dill, and a little vinegar, to be parboiled. Finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander, and add some reduced must [condensed grape mush] to give it color. In the mortar crush pepper, cumin, coriander, laser root, mint, rue, moisten with vinegar, add dates, and the fond [drippings] of the braised bird, thicken, strain, cover the bird with the sauce and serve. Parrot is prepared in the same manner. Apicus 6.231

We may never learn the true identity of silphium, but we can learn from its decline. The last survey of Cyrene showed that its biodiversity is in decline, as land is given over to deserts and once again, it’s overgrazed. The Roman Empire may be long gone – but it seems we’re repeating the same mistakes.

Poisonings went hand in hand with the drinking water in Pompeii

September 24, 2017 by

The ancient Romans were famous for their advanced water supply. But the drinking water in the pipelines was probably poisoned on a scale that may have led to daily problems with vomiting, diarrhoea, and liver and kidney damage. This is the finding of analyses of water pipe from Pompeii.

Birgitte Svennevig,

Southern Danish University, August 16, 2017

– The concentrations were high and were definitely problematic for the ancient Romans. Their drinking water must have been decidedly hazardous to health.

This is what a chemist from University of Southern Denmark reveals: Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a specialist in archaeological chemistry. He analysed a piece of water pipe from Pompeii, and the result surprised both him and his fellow scientists. The pipes contained high levels of the toxic chemical element, antimony.

The result has been published in the journal, Toxicology Letters.

Romans poisoned themselves

For many years, archaeologists have believed that the Romans’ water pipes were problematic when it came to public health. After all, they were made of lead: a heavy metal that accumulates in the body and eventually shows up as damage to the nervous system and organs. Lead is also very harmful to children. So there has been a long-lived thesis that the Romans poisoned themselves to a point of ruin through their drinking water.

An original Roman lead waterpipe in Bath, England. Photo: Andrew Dunn/wikipedia.

– However, this thesis is not always tenable. A lead pipe gets calcified rather quickly, thereby preventing the lead from getting into the drinking water. In other words, there were only short periods when the drinking water was poisoned by lead: for example, when the pipes were laid or when they were repaired: assuming, of course, that there was lime in the water, which there usually was, says Kaare Lund Rasmussen.

Instead, he believes that the Romans’ drinking water may have been poisoned by the chemical element, antimony, which was found mixed with the lead.

Advanced equipment at SDU

Unlike lead, antimony is acutely toxic. In other words, you react quickly after drinking poisoned water. The element is particularly irritating to the bowels, and the reactions are excessive vomiting and diarrhoea that can lead to dehydration. In severe cases it can also affect the liver and kidneys and, in the worst-case scenario, can cause cardiac arrest.

This new knowledge of alarmingly high concentrations of antimony comes from a piece of water pipe found in Pompeii.

– Or, more precisely, a small metal fragment of 40 mg, which I obtained from my French colleague, Professor Philippe Charlier of the Max Fourestier Hospital, who asked if I would attempt to analyse it. The fact is that we have some particularly advanced equipment at SDU, which enables us to detect chemical elements in a sample and, ever more importantly, to measure where they occur in large concentrations.

Volcano made it even worse

Kaare Lund Rasmussen underlines that he only analysed this one little fragment of water pipe from Pompeii. It will take several analyses before we can get a more precise picture of the extent, to which Roman public health was affected.

But there is no question that the drinking water in Pompeii contained alarming concentrations of antimony, and that the concentration was even higher than in other parts of the Roman Empire, because Pompeii was located in the vicinity of the volcano, Mount Vesuvius. Antimony also occurs naturally in groundwater near volcanoes.

How the Latin Alphabet Ended Up in Vietnam

September 24, 2017 by

This is why Vietnamese is (much) easier for Westerners to read than Chinese.

Nick Dall

The Daily Dose: September 10, 2017

Alexandre de Rhodes gets all the credit, but his Portuguese predecessors did the donkey work. Today, Western travelers in rural parts of China are met by signposts and storefronts filled with alienating logograms, or characters. But if they cross the border into Vietnam, they’re greeted by a far more welcoming alphabet. Abundant accents aside, the words look so familiar that they may even be tempted to give pronouncing them a try, and they have Catholic missionaries to thank.

The Vietnamese writing system known as chữ Quốc ngữ (“national language script”) was developed by these missionaries in the 17th century, using Latin script, Portuguese orthographic conventions and nine diacritics (accents) to create additional sounds or denote tones. The French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes, author of the first Portuguese-Tonkinese-Latin dictionary, is widely credited as the inventor of the script. But, as professor George Dutton from the UCLA department of Asian languages and cultures points out, the use of Portuguese orthography is a “dead giveaway that the true pioneers of the script were not French.”

De Rhodes had not even been born when the Jesuits were expelled from Japan in 1587, when the missionaries began spreading out across Asia. Tonkin, as northern Vietnam was then known, was “an afterthought mission,” writes Hung T. Pham in Composing a Sacred Space. Most of the early Jesuits were from Portugal, but their number also included Germans, Italians, Spaniards and at least one Frenchman.

The Vietnamese Alphabet Can Be Taught in a Matter of Months, and Once Learned There Are No Orthographical Irregularities.

The Jesuits’ primary goal? To evangelize the Vietnamese. Unlike their counterparts in South America and Africa, the Tonkinese Jesuits encountered an elaborate, bureaucratic state governed by a well-established monarchy. This meant that they had to tread very carefully and focus their efforts on disenfranchised sections of society. Despite the challenges, says Dutton, the number of converts in Tonkin by 1639 was estimated at about 80,000. Less than 30 years later, there were perhaps 350,000 Vietnamese Catholics, and it wasn’t just a fad: Visit the coastline between Hai Phong and Ninh Binh today and you’ll encounter hundreds of churches and a deeply established Catholic tradition. Countrywide, Vietnamese Catholics still comprise around 7 percent of the total population.

Alexandre de Rhodes

When the Jesuits arrived in Tonkin, classical Chinese was reserved for formal documents, while Chữ Nôm — a rendering of Vietnamese vernacular based on the Chinese script — provided a less highfalutin alternative. Chữ Nôm served as a very useful transitional communications tool for the Jesuits, allowing them to spread the word rapidly while remaining relatively inconspicuous. But the vernacular’s shortcomings soon became clear, Dutton explains. Not only were there significant regional differences, but knowledge of the full character-based Chinese system was required to read and write. “The price of admission was too high,” he says.

So the missionaries started looking for alternative ways to reach the masses. As French scholar Roland Jacques points out, three Portuguese Jesuits should be given at least as much credit for the development of chữ Quốc ngữ as de Rhodes. Francisco de Pina, who arrived in Vietnam in 1617, quickly became fluent in the language — by 1623 he had already “made a little treatise about the orthography and tonalities of this language.” Building on de Pina’s pioneering efforts, Gaspar do Amaral developed a Tonkinese-Portuguese dictionary, while António Barbosa worked on a Portuguese-Tonkinese equivalent. Unfortunately, none of these handwritten documents were ever found, but de Rhodes acknowledges all three of them in the prologue to his dictionary, published in 1651.

This is not to say that de Rhodes — who, when he arrived in Hanoi in 1620 likened the language to “the singing of the birds” and confessed to “losing all hope of ever being able to learn it” — does not deserve plenty of brownie points. All three Portuguese missionaries died before they were able to finish their projects, and de Rhodes systematized and standardized what they had started in one volume that allowed for triangulation between Latin, Portuguese and Vietnamese. What’s more, he also published a second book, the Catechismus, an explanation of Christianity aimed at a Vietnamese audience.

Nevertheless, says Dutton, chữ Quốc ngữ played second fiddle to Chữ Nôm well into the 18th century, and suspicions about the Latin script’s colonial heritage lingered for at least another hundred years after that. In the early 20th century, when Vietnamese intellectuals debated the future of education in French Indochina, it was eventually agreed that chữ Quốc ngữ presented the fastest route to literacy.

The Vietnamese alphabet can be taught in a matter of months, and once learned there are no orthographical irregularities. Everyone agreed that chữ Quốc ngữ offered an avenue to rapid literacy, but substantial concerns remained about the long-term viability of the script. Scanning Vietnamese newspapers of the time, says Dutton, shows that many prominent thinkers felt the new script would not be able to capture the breadth and nuance of modern life and that ultimately French would have to be adopted as the national language.

But history has proven them wrong. Close to 100 million people use chữ Quốc ngữ on a daily basis, and Vietnam has developed a literary culture to rival the best. And today, while grade schoolers in Vietnam play ball with their friends, their Chinese counterparts will likely hear mothers imploring them to study the 3,000 characters required to read a newspaper in their mother tongue.