If a Roman poet were to write a Fasti on the notable dates of the modern Western calendar, April Fools’ Day on April 1st would surely deserve a mention. As with many ancient festivals, this day – although not a public holiday – witnesses the disruption of social and cultural norms, as friends and media outlets attempt to fool others through a range of hoaxes and pranks. It is a day where you can circulate “fake news” liberally and legitimately. If an ancient god were to patronise the day, it would almost certainly be Fama, the many-eyed, -eared and -mouthed personification of gossip, a monster which “clings to fictions and distortions as much as she brings news of the truth” (tam ficti pravique tenax quam nuntia veri, Aeneid 4.188).
Over the years, there have been a number of entertaining Classics-themed April Fools’ jokes online. Our fragmentary encounter with the ancient world clearly makes it especially open to the fantasy of discovering lost and unknown secrets.
Below are a selection from this year’s showing – I hope you enjoy (and that my comments don’t succumb to the common vice of ruining jokes by explaining their humour!)
1. Forthcoming Commentary on Ovid’s Medea
Cambridge Classics’ Facebook Page “The Greeks, the Romans and Us” promised us a new Green & Yellow commentary edition of Ovid’s “Medea” by a certain Benjamin H. Kennedy, to be published on 31st June 2017. Supposedly, a special lecture had been given on the text in the Faculty last week, a recording of which was available to watch on youtube.
This certainly sounds like exciting news, and seems to have fooled a few people based on the comments to the post, but on closer inspection, everything is rather fishy: for a start, Ovid’s “Medea” has survived in meagre fragments (2 verses), hardly enough to fill up an entire commentary, especially a student-focused Green & Yellow!
The editor of the volume appears to be Benjamin Hall Kennedy – a prominent Classics scholar who died as long ago as 1889, although his work is still extremely useful for the many modern students who learn their Latin morphology and syntax from “Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer”.
As for the alleged ‘special lecture’, not only does the 31st June not exist, but the youtube link to the event ends up nowhere other than a music video of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” – an example of the internet phenomenon ‘Rickrolling’, the prank involving the unexpected appearance of this very video. Yet in this specific context, this ‘Rickrolling’ could also have a deeper significance: the lyrics of the song’s chorus are especially apt for the story of Jason & Medea, and particularly foreboding in light of Jason’s duplicitous treatment of the Colchian maiden in the mythical tradition – he will be all too ready to “give Medea up”, “desert her” and “make her cry”. The final promise never to “tell a lie” also feels knowingly ironic in the context of April Fools’ Day.
So it turns out that this advertised commentary is little more than wishful thinking. Ovid’s original tragedy was famous and highly regarded in antiquity – the rhetorician Quintilian goes so far as to say that it “shows his potential for excellence” (Ovidi Medea videtur mihi ostendere quantum ille vir praestare potuerit, 10.1.98) – and it would certainly be a great boon to have a complete, commentary-worthy version of the text available today, but that – alas – is little more than a fantasy for now.
2. Calabrian Society Book List
Following the tradition of the past three years, Queens’ College Classicist David Butterfield displayed his erudition and wit on the international Liverpool classics email list by circulating lists of fake Classics books for sale from the so-called “Calabrian society”. Over the years, these hoaxes have become ever more learned and complex, full of multilingual puns and self-aware references, alongside much parody of list conventions: the asterisking of certain entries in other book lists was mocked in 2015 with the illogical “Items marked with an asterisk are in the list, and those marked with a further asterisk are for sale,” while the habitual email refrain of “with apologies for cross posting” this year became “with apologies if cross at posting.” Some of the more immediately accessible titles in this and previous years include:
(2017) Bannon, S. Io Trumpe! Daily Life Under Donaldian Rome. Legacy Books, Atlantic City, NJ. 92pp. A hair-raising reconstruction of life amidst the Domus Maxime Aurea. Sig. to ffep (in minium/lipstick?) ‘Ivanka Imperatrix’. $65. **Lacks content**
(2016) Karl ‘n’ Dee Apriles. Straight Outta Chrysostom: A Critical Survey of Dionic and Johannic Influence on Gangsta Rap. NY-Cricklade: Roc-A-Fella Reception $tudie$, 2012. i, , 12 [? Mike: check]. The chapter ‘Magnum 44 ex parvo‘ (on the lyricism of Lil’ Durk, Lil’ Herb, Lil’ P-Nut and Lil’ Snot Dudley) has been ill-treated. $65
(2015 – also featuring another commentary on Ovid’s Medea!) **Hardsell, Robyn (ed.). The Blackwell Companion to Blackwell Companions (Blackwell Supplements to World Knowledge 9.2) (New Oxford/York: Wily-Blackwell, 2015; h/b, 1,302pp. + 116 ill. + Blu-ray [pres. M. Bragg.]). $249
(2014) HARTMANN JR, TROELS, Long, Long, Short, Long, Long, Caesura, Short, Short, Short, Long, Short, Long, Short, Anceps:Observations and Reflections on the Tragic Trimeters of Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger. Pr. pr., Daytona Beach, 1956. 2,332pp. An expanded and augmented version of the author’s doctoral thesis (reprinted as Appendix XIX). Hb. and scarce, $250.
3. New Linear B Discovery
Cambridge postdoctoral researcher and former Res Gerendae editor Anna Judson offered her own April Fools’ Day prank by pretending that a new series of Linear B tablets had been discovered in Athens, providing “sensational” new evidence for Mycenean ritual practices.
Again, an exciting prospect, but she leaves many clues for the wary reader. Not only is the excavation director responsible for the discovery called ‘Ilithios Apriliou’ (‘Fool of April’ in Greek), but the ritual in question is said to have taken place on the first day of a month called ‘Apate’ (‘trickery’ or ‘fraud’ in Greek), which Anna claims is “tentatively identified as the fourth month of the Mycenaean year” (i.e. our April 1st). What’s more, the ritual may have involved participants competing “to tell the most outrageous stories in honour of the trickster god Hermes.” All of this adds up to a nice imaginary aetion (‘origin-story’) for our own April Fools’ Day, joining a tradition of other invented origins for the day – compare Boston University Professor Joseph Boskin’s claim in 1983 that the day derives from the occasion on which Emperor Constantine left a jester Kugel (the name of a Jewish noodle pudding) in charge of his empire for a day!
4. Second Book of Aristotle’s Poetics
[Thanks to Lea Niccolai for pointing this one out to me!]
Nor is the phenomenon of April Fools’ Day restricted to the Anglophone world.
Prof. Paul Schubert, papyrologist at the University of Geneva, claimed that today would also bring us the first revelation of a newly-discovered manuscript of the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics. According to the sneak previews available, not only did this book re-introduce the notion of katharsis (a key concept in Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy) for the humbler ‘cleaning’ of fish markets, but the philosopher also promised a third instalment of the Poetics on lyric poets, teasingly expanding our list of known ‘lost’ texts.
Yet again, Prof. Schubert offers a fair few hints of his trickery along the way: the peculiar obsession with fish nods to the idiom “poisson d’avril”, the French phrase designating an “April Fools’ joke”; the monastery where the manuscript is alleged to have been found is that of St. Paul Apatelios (‘Deceitful’) on Crete – an island whose inhabitants were notorious in antiquity for being ‘perpetual liars’; the names of the scholars responsible for the discovery place an emphasis on truth and falsehood: Kassandra Immerwahr and Rainer Lügner, “two very different personalities” (“deux personnages à la personnalité très contrastée”): the former nods to the mythical heroine Cassandra, daughter of Priam, destined to tell the truth but never be believed (‘Immerwahr’ means ‘always true’ in German); the latter has a name meaning ‘pure liar’ in German (and a forename which might – at a push – point to Rob Reiner, known for criticising ‘lying’ American presidents – most recently Donald Trump as a “pathological liar“). Finally, in the quoted ‘translation’ from the new text, Aristotle is said to have claimed that “to make a lie acceptable, it’s enough to associate it with truthful elements” (“Or pour faire accepter un mensonge, il suffit de l’associer à des éléments véridiques”), summing up the whole strategy of April Fools’ jokes.
Clearly, Classicists can have lots of fun letting their imaginations run wild. Hopefully there’ll be a similarly interesting batch next year! And if you’ve spotted any that I’ve missed, do let me know and I’ll add them to the list :)
For Fama in literature, check out Philip Hardie’s Rumour and Renown: Representations of Fama in Western Literature, Cambridge, 2012.
For what we actually do know about the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics, see Walter Watson’s The Lost Second Book of Aristotle’s Poetics, Chicago, 2012.
Other Classics- / Cambridge- / Higher Education- related “poissons” from 2017:
- Independent scholar Andrew Calimach reveals a lost Robert Burns love poem with “uncharacteristic Classical references.”
- Cambridge College Gonville & Caius unveils the first driverless punt for the river Cam.
- Universities ordered to end ‘partisan prejudice’ against Brexit (THE)
- ‘Airbnb for academia’ plans (THE).
- New outreach plans forcing Russell Group universities to depict university leaders in “normal, everyday activities”, like drinking tea and enjoying a hot pasty (THE)