New British PM reciting the Iliad in Homeric Greek

Under another entry a commentator posted about new British PM Boris Johnson’s spontaneous recitation during a TV interview of the first 43 lines of the Iliad in Homeric Greek.

I must say that I’m impressed. Waaaaay back when, when I was in Classics at the university, I had memorized about 20 lines or so. I couldn’t now do more than… lemme check… four. That was, of course, 30 years ago for me. I wonder how long it has been for Boris.

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
5οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.
τίς τ᾽ ἄρ σφωε θεῶν ἔριδι ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι;
Λητοῦς καὶ Διὸς υἱός: ὃ γὰρ βασιλῆϊ χολωθεὶς
10νοῦσον ἀνὰ στρατὸν ὄρσε κακήν, ὀλέκοντο δὲ λαοί,
οὕνεκα τὸν Χρύσην ἠτίμασεν ἀρητῆρα
Ἀτρεΐδης: ὃ γὰρ ἦλθε θοὰς ἐπὶ νῆας Ἀχαιῶν
λυσόμενός τε θύγατρα φέρων τ᾽ ἀπερείσι᾽ ἄποινα,
στέμματ᾽ ἔχων ἐν χερσὶν ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος
15χρυσέῳ ἀνὰ σκήπτρῳ, καὶ λίσσετο πάντας Ἀχαιούς,
Ἀτρεΐδα δὲ μάλιστα δύω, κοσμήτορε λαῶν:
Ἀτρεΐδαι τε καὶ ἄλλοι ἐϋκνήμιδες Ἀχαιοί,
ὑμῖν μὲν θεοὶ δοῖεν Ὀλύμπια δώματ᾽ ἔχοντες
ἐκπέρσαι Πριάμοιο πόλιν, εὖ δ᾽ οἴκαδ᾽ ἱκέσθαι:
20παῖδα δ᾽ ἐμοὶ λύσαιτε φίλην, τὰ δ᾽ ἄποινα δέχεσθαι,
ἁζόμενοι Διὸς υἱὸν ἑκηβόλον Ἀπόλλωνα.
ἔνθ᾽ ἄλλοι μὲν πάντες ἐπευφήμησαν Ἀχαιοὶ
αἰδεῖσθαί θ᾽ ἱερῆα καὶ ἀγλαὰ δέχθαι ἄποινα:
ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ Ἀτρεΐδῃ Ἀγαμέμνονι ἥνδανε θυμῷ,
25ἀλλὰ κακῶς ἀφίει, κρατερὸν δ᾽ ἐπὶ μῦθον ἔτελλε:
μή σε γέρον κοίλῃσιν ἐγὼ παρὰ νηυσὶ κιχείω
ἢ νῦν δηθύνοντ᾽ ἢ ὕστερον αὖτις ἰόντα,
μή νύ τοι οὐ χραίσμῃ σκῆπτρον καὶ στέμμα θεοῖο:
τὴν δ᾽ ἐγὼ οὐ λύσω: πρίν μιν καὶ γῆρας ἔπεισιν
30ἡμετέρῳ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ ἐν Ἄργεϊ τηλόθι πάτρης
ἱστὸν ἐποιχομένην καὶ ἐμὸν λέχος ἀντιόωσαν:
ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι μή μ᾽ ἐρέθιζε σαώτερος ὥς κε νέηαι.
ὣς ἔφατ᾽, ἔδεισεν δ᾽ ὃ γέρων καὶ ἐπείθετο μύθῳ:
βῆ δ᾽ ἀκέων παρὰ θῖνα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης:
35πολλὰ δ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ ἀπάνευθε κιὼν ἠρᾶθ᾽ ὃ γεραιὸς
Ἀπόλλωνι ἄνακτι, τὸν ἠΰκομος τέκε Λητώ:
κλῦθί μευ ἀργυρότοξ᾽, ὃς Χρύσην ἀμφιβέβηκας
Κίλλάν τε ζαθέην Τενέδοιό τε ἶφι ἀνάσσεις,
Σμινθεῦ εἴ ποτέ τοι χαρίεντ᾽ ἐπὶ νηὸν ἔρεψα,
40ἢ εἰ δή ποτέ τοι κατὰ πίονα μηρί᾽ ἔκηα
ταύρων ἠδ᾽ αἰγῶν, τὸ δέ μοι κρήηνον ἐέλδωρ:
τίσειαν Δαναοὶ ἐμὰ δάκρυα σοῖσι βέλεσσιν.
Goddess, sing me the anger, of Achilles, Peleus’ son, that fatal anger that brought countless sorrows on the Greeks, and sent many valiant souls of warriors down to Hades, leaving their bodies as spoil for dogs and carrion birds: for thus was the will of Zeus brought to fulfilment. Sing of it from the moment when Agamemnon, Atreus’ son, that king of men, parted in wrath from noble Achilles.
Which of the gods set these two to quarrel? Apollo, the son of Leto and Zeus, angered by the king, brought an evil plague on the army, so that the men were dying, for the son of Atreus had dishonoured Chryses the priest. He it was who came to the swift Achaean ships, to free his daughter, bringing a wealth of ransom, carrying a golden staff adorned with the ribbons of far-striking Apollo, and called out to the Achaeans, above all to the two leaders of armies, those sons of Atreus: ‘Atreides, and all you bronze-greaved Achaeans, may the gods who live on Olympus grant you to sack Priam’s city, and sail back home in safety; but take this ransom, and free my darling child; show reverence for Zeus’s son, far-striking Apollo.’ hen the rest of the Achaeans shouted in agreement, that the priest should be respected, and the fine ransom taken; but this troubled the heart of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, and he dismissed the priest harshly, and dealt with him sternly: ‘Old man, don’t let me catch you loitering by the hollow ships today, and don’t be back later, lest your staff and the god’s ribbons fail to protect you. Her, I shall not free; old age will claim her first, far from her own country, in Argos, my home, where she can tend the loom, and share my bed. Away now; don’t provoke me if you’d leave safely.’
So he spoke, and the old man, seized by fear, obeyed. Silently, he walked the shore of the echoing sea; and when he was quite alone, the old man prayed deeply to Lord Apollo, the son of bright-haired Leto: ‘Hear me, Silver Bow, protector of Chryse and holy Cilla, high lord of Tenedos: if ever I built a shrine that pleased you, if ever I burned the fat thighs of a bull or goat for you, grant my wish: Smintheus, with your arrows make the Greeks pay for my tears.’
So he prayed, and Phoebus Apollo heard him.

 

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19 Responses to New British PM reciting the Iliad in Homeric Greek

  1. acardnal says:

    Very cool.

  2. Kathleen10 says:

    People confuse glibness with intelligence. They believe a fluid speaker, even if what he says is nonsense, must be intelligent, but this is not the case. We see articulate imbeciles all the time, and one man who is front and center in American politics, and who is supremely expressive but not articulate, is put down as a moron, when he is at least very intelligent if not brilliant.
    I’m completely impressed by this inarticulate but obviously very bright man. He’s carrying a lot of people’s hope on him, please God he is successful.

  3. Unwilling says:

    I am impressed! When last was there a PM who could recite such a gobbet of Homer spontaneously? Not only that he could utter even a word of Homer, or a few lines (I could recite about ten lines of either epic, and frankly preferred lyric). But you cannot recite 43 lines (even with the half dozen or so mistakes) unless you really know (that dialect of) Greek. So, not only that. What was very, very impressive was his having mastered the dramatic meaning of those lines — for he did not only say the words, he showed that he had internalized the passage and could let us hear the emotional contours of the priest’s outrage. It is only a little unsettling that the PM chose to end on the note of revenge.

    OK, probably not totally spontaneously…

  4. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    That was amazing. That made my day.

  5. Mariana2 says:

    I’m so impressed.

    ‘Sjung, o gudinna, om vreden som brann
    hos Peliden Akilles…’

    is all I could remember : ) .

  6. Whatever else may be the case, he’s shaping up to be the most interesting Prime Minister of the UK certainly since Thatcher, and perhaps since Churchill, which is quite a comparison.

  7. JARay says:

    I was reading about his days in Australia where he was an assistant teacher for six months. He not only has a mastery of Greek but he stunned them all with his mastery of Latin as well. He clearly is a Classics scholar.

  8. Les Buissonets says:

    Fr Z, you and Mr Johnson are the same age, roughly. He was born in 1964, read Greats at Oxford (he’s a Balliol man) and graduated in 1987, so 32 years ago.

  9. jaykay says:

    He’s very probably the first PM since Balfour (he of the Declaration) who could do that. What delivery, one can almost hear the Blind Bard himself giving it to a wine-and-smoke-soaked king’s hall of the post-Mycenean age, with the warriors rumbling approval, and the dogs knawing at the thrown bones. I’d love to hear him doing “Arma virumque cano…”.

    Maybe he will. In the House.

  10. robtbrown says:

    Boris Johnson was born in NYC. His father was studying economics at Columbia. BJ was a dual citizen and had to renounce his US citizenship when he ran for a seat in parliament. Of course, Churchill’s mother was an American.

    BTW, Theodors Roosevelt had the Sony of Roland memorized . . . in French

  11. Hugh says:

    Paul Johnson in “Modern Times -The World from 1917 to the 1980s” mentions that the vastly underrated Pres. Calvin Coolidge – “Silent Cal” – did a translation of Dante’s “Inferno” during his courtship of his future wife Grace. And the ill-fated President James Garfield came up with a unique proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. When I think of these people – Boris Johnson, Coolidge, Garfield, I want to steal a great line from Bl J H Newman and give it a twist: “To be deep in history is to cease to be arrogant.” Except that I can’t aver it, as, alas, I’m far from being “deep” in history. I just sense it’s true.

    In my early adulthood, I had a motorbike, and memorized Belloc’s “Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine” Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and Eliot’s “Prufrock” and a few others to get me, reciting to the air, to and from mates’ houses. This was way before Ipods, etc, and I’m so grateful for putting in the hours. Lines from these still come round the corner and smack me in the face.

  12. Gab says:

    “the vastly underrated Pres. Calvin Coolidge ” One of the best Presidents your country has ever produced. During his Presidency, low unemployment (<5%), low taxes, higher wages, fewer strikes, new technology, and a shrinking federal budget, fewer public servants so that industry could grow. Won't see the likes of him again.

  13. Hidden One says:

    Sir Humphrey (Appleby) would be pleased. At last he could call upon his classical education in conversation with the Prime Minister of Great Britain!

  14. veritas vincit says:

    “I’m completely impressed by this inarticulate but obviously very bright man. He’s carrying a lot of people’s hope on him, please God he is successful.”

    Given her other comments, I’m not sure Kathleen10 was referring to Boris Johnson — or Donald Trump. Whatever else you can say about him (much of it far from good), Trump has already come through on a lot of people’s hopes with regard to the Supreme Court. May Boris Johnson be as successful in regards to carrying through Brexit to a successful conclusion, as successful as he is knowledgeable of Homer.

  15. pedantic_prof says:

    Boris Johnson renounced his US citizenship in 2016, 15 years after being first elected an MP and it has nothing to do with his political career since dual citizenship is not an impediment to becoming a member of either House of Parliament.

    Like Churchill, Harold Macmillan also had an American mother.

  16. pedantic_prof says:

    Actually, Balfour’s successor, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, could well have since he studied Greek and logic at Glasgow and took two degrees in Classics from Cambridge. His successor, Asquith, had been a classics fellow at Balliol, so was presumably well placed to cite this from memory. Perhaps even Harold Macmillan could given that he read classics for two years at Balliol.

  17. MB says:

    Um, not to be a killjoy, but doesn’t psalm 95:5 say: “For all the gods of the Gentiles are devils …” If you were in trouble, why in the world would you recite that contains the names of demons?? They’re not really known for providing sound assistance. Bethink me that an Ave Maria should serve thee better.

    [I am simply… amazed. We might as well burn all the books of antiquity. Hmmm… come to think of it, the Fathers of the Church were trained in reading these texts. We should burn their stuff too.]

  18. robtbrown says:

    Pedantic_prof,

    I stand corrected, at least relative to being elected an MP.

    Becoming PM, however, is another matter. I never said it was a legal impediment–it might have been a political impediment. That notwithstanding, Boris said it was because he objected to being subject to the US tax system.

    I don’t find it remarkable that a PM has studied classics. Europeans are much more oriented toward the liberal arts than Americans are. Even so, John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton were proficient in Greek and Latin.

    It is remarkable in these days that any politician would be able be able to recite extensively Greek or Latin from memory.

    Unfortunately, attention to the liberal arts/classics is now almost lost in American education. I have a very good friend, a semi-ret attorney (teaching a few classes in law school) with a national reputation. He has no idea what law should be, never having studied philosophy of law. Except for a very few private high schools, there is nothing in the US like the Italian Liceo Classico.

  19. Kathleen10 says:

    Just because, I have since found out that Boris Johnson supports abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia, so he’s not as smart as I thought. Or something. It also occurred to me he said when he’s in trouble he quotes those 40 lines of the Iliad, but he’d be better off memorizing some Scripture.
    It was impressive though, his recitation. He must have a fantastic memory.