Dedicated to the origins and meaning of the days and months of the Roman calendar, John of Lydus’ De mensibus meanders through nearly all the intellectual fields of sixth-century Byzantium. Astrology, number-mysticism, and cosmogony, rooted in late-antique traditions of Neoplatonism and Pythagoreanism, intermingle with Roman scholarship of the late Republic and early Empire, frequently choked with antiquarian offshoots such as the origin of chariot-racing and the commonplace controversy over the source of the Nile. The whole may be far less than the sum of its parts, yet the De mensibus is nonetheless a noteworthy document of intellectual history. By devoting so much labor to the untoward task of translating it and offering the result as a free download, Mischa Hooker has performed a singular act of scholarly generosity, made all the more notable with the release of a second edition.1 Even though a translation by Anastasius Bandy appeared posthumously in 2013, Hooker’s gift is all the more valuable not only because Bandy’s edition has its quirks and flaws, but because no translation can be definitive, at least not for long. 2
Given its range of vocabulary and crabbed prose, the De mensibus is a translator’s nightmare, yet Hooker has managed to wrangle its difficulties into a coherent form. His translation aims to be “fairly literal” (xlvii), and every page is littered with words and phrases in square brackets to supply “missing” words, though either the brackets or the supplements will strike many readers as unnecessary (e.g., 60: “in his [work] On the Festivals ”; 70: “from [the idea of one] ‘powerful in deeds.’”). This literal approach, if it lends a sense of directness and immediacy to the translation, does have the potential to muddle the plain meaning demanded by the context. For example, the Chalcidian Euripus has a “seven-times back-and-forth course” (4), “turns its movement to the opposite direction” (4), and “shifts around seven times a day” (31), but never reverses its tide. A newly elected consul, after performing sacrifice and taking up his consular garb, is said merely to “go forward” rather than, as in Bandy, appear publicly (59). The specific meaning required by the context is sometimes made clear in the notes or in square brackets (6: “he left [i.e., died]”), and there is also frequent recourse to a slash between words, either to provide alternatives or reveal an ambiguity (19: “skillful/on the right hand”; 55: “council/Senate [ boulaios ]”; 103: “incommunicable/unique,” with an alternative “unsocial/exclusive” suggested in a note). This commitment to a kind of literalism, with a focus on individual words, can obscure the logical relations between clauses, and if Hooker’s translation always succeeds in providing a general guide to the material at hand, in the details it can mislead.
A passage from Book 2 shows how distortions can arise even as the general sense of Lydus’ text remains (27):
“The fifth [day] they dedicated to the Radiant One, the most temperate of all planets. The Greeks theologically call it Zeus, producer of life. Hence they claim, in mythical terms, that he [sc. Zeus] was born on Crete, in which they say nothing mortal is generated—rather, not even a wolf or owl is [to be] found, as Antigonus says.”
The concern for the literal representation of individual words is clear from “Radiant One,” whose true name is given in a note (“Phaethon—i.e., Jupiter”); the unnatural “in which” for ἐν ἧ, instead of “where” or “on which”; the unnecessary brackets of “is [to be] found” for the simple εὑρίσκεται, and a bare adversative “rather” for ἀλλά, which muddies the sense. (Hooker in general treats particles mechanically.) None of these choices is, strictly speaking, wrong, but they can impede the flow of the thought and thus compound simple mistakes – such as “mortal” here, since θανάσιμος refers to what causes death, not what dies. This is a rare slip by Hooker, but one that betrays some inattention to the passage as a whole: the connection between the absence of owls and wolves on Crete to the birth there of Zeus ζωογόνος (“producer of life”) is that the island produces nothing that takes life, not even common birds or beasts of prey. Moreover, there is in the text of Lydus no “they say,” which seems to have crept in from the text of Antigonus’ Mirabilia, and the em-dash is misleading, since Antigonus is the source for the phrase before it as well. Τo highlight this one passage, with its concentration of problems, is somewhat prejudicial to Hooker’s translation, but it demonstrates within a brief compass a number of recurring issues. Even if one considers Lydus a gullible purveyor of nonsense, there is still a thread of thought, however slender, that runs through the text, and this seems to get lost in the literalism.
While Hooker’s translation renders the often knotty Greek more accessible, perhaps more beneficial for scholars will be the copious notes that delve deeply into the wide range of secondary scholarship, as well as the frequent citations of parallels and echoes from Plato to Ps.-Iamblichus, and Cornelius Labeo to the Chaldaean oracles. The notes can on occasion seem digressive, perhaps fittingly so, and scattered among them is some rudimentary information, seemingly directed to a wider audience (e.g., 36: “In Latin, sextus means ‘sixth,’ and bis means ‘twice.’”). On the whole, however, the notes are a rich bibliographical resource and will serve as a welcome point of departure for further research. Hooker has also written a substantial introduction, covering what is known of Lydus’ life (“Biography,” vi-xii) with specific discussion of his relationship to Christianity and paganism (“Religion,” xii-xix), a very brief treatment of Lydus’ published writings (“Works,” xix-xxi), and then two sections on “The Content of De mensibus and John’s Interests” (xxi-xxxi), which provides an overview of Lydus’ antecedents and sources, and “Transmission and Textual State” (xxxi-xlvi), a detailed discussion of Börtzler’s 1921 critique of Wuensch’s text, including columns of text for comparison. (The translation is still based upon Wuensch’s edition, with a handful of editorial interventions discussed in the notes.) The introduction concludes with a “Note on the Translation and Format” (xlvi-xlvii). Following the translation are two appendices, the first of which is entitled “Comparable Accounts of the Calendar: Catalogue and Translation,” divided into three sections: “Readily available in English translation (major extant or partially extant works),” “Works known only through fragments or testimonia,” and “Excerpts of selected extant works without readily available English translations.” Despite the awkward arrangement of material, scholars will find it a useful collection of information from some fragmentary Latin authors, with full references to editions and other scholarly treatments. The second Appendix is a “Tabulation of Correspondences between Wuensch and Bandy,” particularly helpful given Bandy’s rearranged text with its mismatched layout of Greek original and English translation.
Hooker has provided not only a useful and accessible guide to the De mensibus, but a valuable source for deeper investigation into the intellectual world of Lydus. As with any translation, caution is required, but scholars interested in Lydus and his the intellectual milieu should be grateful to Hooker for his scholarly efforts and generosity.
1. Hooker does not address the changes made for the second edition, and I have not compared them—my lifetimes are too few for that much Lydus.
2. Bandy’s volumes print Greek text and English translations on facing pages, but without any attempt to make them correspond. In addition, Bandy rearranged his text to connect material of common theme. See the review by Anthony Kaldellis in BMCR 2014.01.09.