How do you say "In Medias Res" in Greek?

Alex Petkas |

Where Latin So Often Dominates the Discussion, Alex Petkas Muses on Greek Life.



 Diogenes in his Barrel, by Jean-Leon Gerome (1860).Diogenes in his Barrel, by Jean-Leon Gerome (1860).

Greek and Latin say and think things differently, so it is a question worth asking of a journal notionally dedicated to both, how we should render its Latin title into Greek. Horace popularized the phrase “in medias res” in order to describe the narrative style of Homer, after all; plenty of ancient Greek fans might have wanted to express how their greatest poet took them into the middle of things with his choice and arrangement of narrative material.

One place to begin is the Greek word for “middle,” meson; and where better than some of the many places in the Iliad where Homer launches his own characters into it?

Greek’s word for “middle” is (like its Latin counterpart, medius) an adjective: Paris throws a spear at Ajax and hits meson sakos (Iliad 7.258). One could translate this as “the middle shield” but that is simply how Greeks would idiomatically translate the English “middle of the shield.” It is one of the shield’s stronger points, incidentally, and the pike doesn’t go through.

But meson also occurs as an abstract noun, frequently designating what is “in between” people. Paris, early on in the Iliad, nervously offers to fight Menelaus in a duel — a champion battle of winner take all, which could end the ten-year war. Sit everyone else down, he says, and put me and Menelaus in the middle (ἐν μέσσῳ; 3.69); in other words, in between the armies, gathered under a truce, as spectators to this high stakes fighting match. The “middle” is here a space in which individuals contend as representatives of the larger groups they are “in the middle” of. (Why didn’t the two sides think of doing this earlier?)

After Paris is miraculously snatched away from sure failure in the duel by Aphrodite, Athena descends from heaven, looking like a comet to the surprised troops, and rockets into the “middle” of them (ἔθορ’ ἐς μέσσον; 4.79). But then she disguises herself as a Trojan and persuades the Trojan Pandarus to break the truce by shooting Menelaus with an arrow. Pandarus’ succesful hit quickly causes the middle ground between the armies, and the truce that had opened it, to vanish. The “middle” thus affirms the decisive interference of the god in human affairs by specifying a central location for her epiphany.

On the Shield of Achilles, Hephaestus depicts a trial taking place in a city at peace — a man has died and another is being blamed for his death. Two talents — a lot of money — lie in the middle (κεῖτο …ἐν μέσσοισι, 18.507 — a poetic plural) of a public gathering of people: it is a reward for the person who speaks the most justly to the dispute between accused and accuser. The middle is thus the place where the prize for wise speaking lies. Later, in the funeral games for Patroclus, Menelaus accuses Antilochus of cheating in the chariot race. He demands the Argives “judge to the middle of both of us,” i.e., “between us”: ἐς μέσον ἀμφοτέροισι δικάσσατε (23.574). Here again, meson is a metaphor for a contest: it is a space dividing individuals, which will presumably vanish if a judgment be delivered there and accepted.

The above senses of meson as a metaphor of social space all imply an audience, and an event being decided in real time for or in front of that audience. They therefore suggest some real stakes and energy behind one of the standard classical Greek expressions for “publishing” something: to “put” or “give” something es meson, “to the middle.” We have not begin to touch the res (“things”) of Horace’s fine phrase; the difference between res and, say, Greek pragmata (things… or rather “deeds”) is best left to another occasion.

The purpose of this inquiry, in fact, has rather been to provoke es meson more entries on Hellenic topics. Yes, In Medias Res has decided to open up an “Office of Greek letters” with this new channel. Greek language enrollments at the college level have plummeted in recent years — 35% from 2009 to 2013, and are falling still. For this and other reasons it seemed like a good kairos for a new column — which we will call “Greek Life” — to foreground in particular the Greek language itself, in its widest chronological and geographical span. Why is it useful or pleasurable to learn Greek? How does it clarify or destabilize our experience today? What are the best ways to begin it, or master it? If you have a word (or several), send it to [email protected].


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Alex Petkas

Lecturer - University of California San Diego; Business Development Manager - HoldTight Solutions Inc


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