The dialogue around Classics over the past few years has increasingly circled on the nature and role of the subject in popular discourse and society. Latin and Greek have been traditionally admired for their polished marble and cryptic books. They are the languages of composition for literary masterworks whose names we know, even if we have not opened them. But amidst this admiration, we forget the simple fact that they are languages like any other, taught by parent to child for centuries. Movements today to destigmatise Classics and shred its air of mystical authority are to be praised for showing that Latin and Greek are but languages, and their culture accessible to all. Classics is not the ever-more-niche examination of the same material from mothballed antiquity again and again. It has to be an evolving, popular organism whose scope of scholars and scholarship continues to be redefined.
One such novel area that has begun to take off in the past few decades is the study of Latin and Greek written in modern times. It never ceases to amaze people – even Classicists – that these two languages are active tongues of composition, even today. If we turn our gaze on Ancient Greek, for instance, many such original compositions in the language are ones that are relatively short. When it comes to verse, they are typically epigrams, elegies, maybe a Pindaric Ode to dazzle now and then. But anything longer is unusual.
Writing extended poetry in one’s second, third, or fourth language is no easy task, and the challenge is most extreme with the tutored prolixity that is the epic poem. Only a very few poets in the post-Classical period have summitted Mount Helicon while clutching a long scroll of hexametric Hellenic characters. Several of those highly-educated Renaissance humanists did so. Laurentius Rhodoman (1545‒1606), for instance, wrote five Greek epics on mythological themes on the proceeds of surviving ancient literature, while Nicolaes van Wassenaer (c.1571‒1630) penned an account of the Siege of Haarlem (1572‒3) by Philip II of Spain. After them, however, the tradition broadly expired. Until the 1990s, that is, when it found new life.
Jan Křesadlo – the pen-name of one Václav J.K. Pinkava – holds the laurels for composing the most recent Ancient Greek epic. Born in 1926 in Czechoslovakia, he was taught Greek in the local Gymnasium (grammar school), demonstrating exceptional skill in that language. He went on to attend Charles University in 1947 to read English, but was expelled shortly after the Communist coup in February 1948 and arrested on the phoney grounds of organising a revolt against the state. He survived interrogation and was miraculously acquitted, returning to Charles University to study Psychology, later specialising in sexual deviations at an outpatient clinic affiliated with the main Prague psychiatric hospital.
Thanks to increasing liberalisation before the 1968 Prague Spring, he was able to defend his PhD thesis – on the application of logical modelling to human sexuality. After the Soviet invasion, however, and just before the clamp-down on freedom, he emigrated to Britain with his wife and four children, settling in Colchester, Essex, and heading the Psychology department at a hospital there. He eventually retired in 1982 to write prose and verse full time, mostly in his native Czech. His first novel, Mrchopěvci (“GraveLarks”), for instance, is plotted around a (deeply ironic) 21-line Ode to Stalin composed in Homeric Greek; but the rest of the book is in Czech, although also available in English translation. That Hellenic tour de force was a remarkable exception in his Czech-language bibliography. But, at the very end of his life, in six months spanning 1993 and 1994, he wrote the Astronautilia. He died in 1995.
The Astronautilia is an epic, written in Homeric Greek hexameters, 6,576 lines in length; it is based on the Odyssey. Křesadlo wrote the whole poem in manuscript, and a reproduction of his hand-written text was what was posthumously printed. The published volume has his Ancient Greek handwriting on the lefthand page, and a corresponding typeset line-by-line Czech translation on the right. (The Greek-Czech version has since been republished online by the Municipal Library in Prague.)
Despite the poem’s strongly Classical bent, it is an outlandish space opera, describing the far-future cosmic voyage of the space captain Oudeis (“No-one”). In the first person, Oudeis recounts his voyages in his spaceship, chasing after the villainous Mandys, who has stolen a cosmos-observing sheep. According to quantum mechanics – so Oudeis tells us – the cosmos can exist only because it is observed by some particular entity, rather creatively titled the Cosmos-Observer. And, it turns out, this Cosmos-Observer is a sheep on Earth, the μῆλον κοσμοθεωροῦν. All the universe depends on the perpetual gaze of this one sheep, so it had been placed under guard, an operation in which Oudeis holds a leading role. However, Mandys, a renegade guardian, swipes the sheep and flies off into the cosmos in a spaceship. Along with the other guards who were on duty at the time, Oudeis is punished by being sent off to chase after Mandys through the universe, in a ship called Τόλμα (“Daring”, named with a nod to the Starship Enterprise).
And so on goes the poem. Each book is, broadly speaking, its own self-contained episode, in which Oudeis arrives on an alien world in the hopes of finding Mandys and the sheep, but most of the time he fails and becomes wrapped up in some bizarre tale. On one planet, for instance, he encounters a race of aliens, the Degenerates. They appear to be human, but after the crewmates are inspected and forced to attend a feast, their king explains that his species was devastated in a nuclear apocalypse which irradiated their DNA; now they clad themselves in fake bodies to hide their deformities. They want Oudeis and the companions to stay and impart their non-mutated genetics. Consider the following extract of the king’s speech at Astr. 5.176–85:
Which, in literal English, reads:
We are not responsible, because our forefathers are:
they who, in an age that has passed and is ancient,
designed the well-fashioned, nuclear bomb
to destroy men and cities, or everything even,
terribly: one bomb destroyed a great city. (180)
Using them, our forefathers fired at each other.
They destroyed all the land and devastated too
animals and plantlife and many-peopled cities,
men, women, and children and the elderly,
all technologies and wisdom and learning. (185)
I have given Křesadlo’s original handwriting for this extract, as it is published, in order to give the reader a better idea of what this poem looks like. What an extraordinary scene to be reading in Homeric hexameters! It is a shame that we do not hear more about these alien Oppenheimers. The word that Křesadlo uses for “nuclear” is πυρηνιακός. Since this is a sci-fi poem, and Ancient Greek naturally lacks many words for concepts typical to this genre, he retrospectively had to coin them.
At the end of the Astronautilia Křesadlo writes a “Glossary of Unusual Forms and Words”, where he lists his lexical innovations. Under his entry for πυρηνιακός he calls it “NG”, i.e. “New Greek”. Křesadlo borrows many words from Modern Greek where Ancient Greek falls short. Modern Greek has πυρηνακός, derived from πυρήνας, “stone, pip” and “atomic nucleus” – itself derived from Ancient Greek πυρήν, also “stone, pip”. Although this word is not Homeric, it nevertheless has an Ancient Greek precedent, so this is not so extreme an introduction to the aritifical, poetic language of epic – its Kunstsprache. The nucleus of the atom is the “pip” which is split in nuclear fission; indeed, English “nuclear” is derived from Latin nucleus, the diminutive of nux, “nut”. In turn, the Modern Greek πυρήνας meaning “atomic nucleus” is itself a calque on the English “nucleus”.
But some greater oddities present themselves in the Greek above. For instance, in line 185 the particle τε is not postposed to after its word: πάσας must agree with τέχνας. Křesadlo ubiquitously uses constructions such as “Χ τε Y” as well as “X Y τε” throughout his other Greek pieces as well. He is not making a careless mistake, though; he is fluent enough to know that Ancient Greek will only ever say X Y τε. So often does he break this rule, however, that he forms another.
Indeed, his use of particles is rather chaotic and metrically conditioned: περ in line 179 is required for scansion (rendered as “even” above); similarly so for γε in 178 and γ’ in 180. Grammarians would find this linguistically profane. We can reanalyse their function as semantically empty but metrically necessary. Indeed, even with errors throughout his poem, Křesadlo does care about metre: notice the breve he writes in ἐπαίτῐοι in 176. Here he is overly cautious, though: that iota scans short anyhow. Perhaps he thinks it is naturally long; after all, he scans σοφίην incorrect at 185 as ∪―― rather than ∪∪―.
My work on the Astronautilia began in earnest during the lockdown summer of 2020, in my second year of undergraduate study at Oxford. I got in touch with one of Křesadlo’s sons, the homonymous Václav (Z. J.) Pinkava, who generously supplied me with a PDF of the Greek text. I started reading it over the early days of lockdown and became increasingly fascinated. I started translating the Greek, working through the poem in order, book by book. There was little to no material about the text online, so there were genuine surprises as I read.
The problem with reading Homer is that the tales are so well-known that we all know the rough story before we open the book. The Astronautilia, on the other hand, was a total mystery, which I had to unravel slowly and painstakingly, turning a couple pages of Greek a day. Eventually, once lockdown restrictions loosened in August, and I was able to return to Oxford to collect my belongings, I arranged a meeting. Václav, then staying with his elderly mother in Didcot, invited me over. With proper social distancing, we chatted in the garden. They generously presented me with a copy of the Astronautilia, and recounted precious tales and anecdotes about their late husband and father.
Once I returned home, my pace of translation increased, now that I had physical sheets to leaf through. Shortly before I returned to Oxford for my third year, I completed a rough translation of the entire poem. This was the first ever English translation of the poem. Since that had never been done before, I had produced a dodgy jot-down that technically rendered the poem. Now that I knew the whole text and had a feel for Křesadlo and his style, and that there was a gap in the market that no-one else seemed likely to fill, I decided that I would have another go.
In November 2020, I started translating the Astronautilia again into English, this time into metre, in dactylic hexameter, line-by-line, just like Křesadlo’s Czech version in the physical book. So while I moved onto Greats (the second and final phase of the four-year Oxford Classics course), I continued on the side to translate the poem, book-by-book. And then in March 2023 – after graduating, moving on to an MPhil, enduring translation crises, personal crises, engaging in many rewrites, taking extensive hiatuses, tediously standardising repeated expressions, and even starting to learn Czech – I finished a draft. I am editing this near daily, and have started writing to publishers. I hope that, before long, it might be published, so that everyone will be able to read what is not only the longest Ancient Greek epic in centuries but a masterwork in its own right.
One charge levelled against the field of Classical Reception is that, by focusing on post-Classical material written in languages beyond Latin and Greek, it cannot be considered “Classics” because it falls outside the chronological and linguistic scope integral to the subject matter. This outdated view has been, and should be, smashed. But even the most reactionary defender of this argument will squirm when presented with the Astronautilia. How can we look at a 6,600-line epic poem written in Homeric Greek in the 1990s and disregard it as “not Classics”?
It passes the linguistic test, and while it falls way outside the chronological limit, the sophisticated Homericism and linguistic choice override any such objection. Greek epic as a tradition did not terminate in late antiquity with the eclectic poets like Nonnus, Oppian, and Quintus of Smyrna; they are as far from Homer as Křesadlo is from them. The tradition of Homeric epos is, in fact, so contemporary that many readers of this article – although I myself was born a few years too late – could have shaken the hand that wrote an Ancient Greek epic.
I include as a coda three additional passages of the Astronautilia (including a warts-and-all transcript of one of its introductions) to advertise the content and style of the poem, followed by a simple English translation.
Lector optime docte (vel lectrix optima docta) salve!
Tibi praelatus textus iacet graecus modo rhapsodiae navis cosmicae de peregrinatione inter astra, in hexametris linguâ epicâ compositus, qualis talis, en!, Odyssea nova hodierni, vel, si vis, futuri aevi, tamen brevior antiquae, hoc modo degenerationem indicans humanitatis. Illis τοῖς πολλοῖς, qui linguam nesciunt graecam, et illorum gratiâ translatio bohemica, ut vides, est adiuncta.
Tibi autem, optima persona docta—lector aut lectrix—textus patet originalis, quem te benigne legere eoque perfrui humiliter exhorto. De quô textû tibi, ut consuetum, aliqua paulum volo communicare linguâ latinâ, cuius omnes nostris temporibus personae, quae linguam sciant graecam antiquam, aeque sunt capaces.
. . .
Secundo etiam aliqua de linguâ istius rhapsodiae adnotantur: Scriptum est poëma, ut legas in Prooemio, ab ente artificiali „bioplasto“, ut dicunt, quod fuit translator linguarum cosmicarum universalis, hac ratione constructus.
Decem myriadas sciens linguarum, alias autem multas capax fuit generandi de illis quas iam novit legibus etymologiae.
Forma istius translatoris similis fuit animali terrestri, quod zoologi mephitin appellant, ratione ioculi sic constructa. Scripsit tamen translator ille universalis narrationem de peregrinatione cosmicâ in linguâ homericâ modo erroneo, false putans quod illa magnificent et promoveant narrationem, incorrecte tempus hodiernum cum illo XVIi aevi confundens.
Suspicio tamen Frantam (quô nomine translator appellabantur universalis) linguam graecam antiquam illiusque dialectum homericum non directe novisse, illum illem generavisse ex illis quas sciebat linguis, ut consuetus, tantoque non semper abolute correcte voces formasse, de quibus immo plurmia habebis.
Most learned reader (or most learned readeress), greetings!
Placed before you lies a Greek text in the style of a rhapsody on the wanderings of a spaceship amongst the stars, composed in hexameter in the epic language, just as it was so it is, behold!—a brand-new Odyssey of a present, or, if you will, future time, yet shorter than the ancient one, in this way reflecting the degeneration of humanity. For hoi polloi who do not know Greek, and for their benefit, a Czech translation, as you can see, is attached.
But for you, most learned person—be you a reader male or female—the original text lies open, which I humbly encourage you to read and fully enjoy. About such a text, as is customary, I want to impart just a few things in Latin, in which everyone from our times who know Ancient Greek are equally proficient.
. . .
Secondly, other matters about the language of this rhapsody are also noted: The poem was written, as you can read in the Introduction, by an artificial entity, a “bioplast”, as they say, which was a universal translator of the cosmos’ languages, constructed for such a reason.
Knowing tens of thousands of languages, it was yet capable of generating others from those which it already knew through the laws of etymology.
The shape of this translator was like that of a terrestrial animal which biologists call a mephitis [a skunk], constructed thus for a humorous reason. Yet that universal translator wrote the story about the cosmic wandering in the Homeric language in an erroneous manner, wrongly believing that this would magnify and advance its narrative, incorrectly muddling our present day with the 17th century.
Nonetheless, I suspect that Franta (by such a name is the universal translator called) did not straightforwardly know Ancient Greek and its Homeric dialect, that it generated one and the other from those languages which it knew, as was its wont, and not always absolutely correctly did it form words, regarding which you will certainly have many examples.
Astr. 13.289–317, an anthology-book made up of short tales of the crew. This almost Lovecraftian tale has always stood out to me.
After this, we star-sailors arrived at a planet
where it had air and, I presume, sheep could live. (290)
This was the strangest of all that had appeared to us.
The plain was so alien, and some evil fat enwrapped it;
an awful stench blew across the whole planet.
Not was there any plantlife upon such a world,
but there grew strange lengths, solid rods in the earth, (295)
coming towards which we toiled like beasts,
since the force of gravity was stronger than that on our earth.
We recognised alien creatures, a wonder to witness,
like the lice on our earth, but monsters;
the size of them was like that of foals. (300)
These massive lice drilled with their snouts
the surface of the planet—it was a riddle to see it.
One of my companions blasted an alien beast with his phaser.
Struck it immediately dissolved like mist
and the monster turned transparent and no more existed. (305)
The other lice clearly noticed nothing:
thoughtless and slow and dumb were these beasts.
However from out the hole which the dead louse had been drilling
excessively and violently leapt up a lot of black blood.
As we saw this, trembling took us, realising now (310)
this was one great living planet,
not made of rock and earth—but living flesh!
Then fear gripped me and my noble companions
that the living planet would seize us like lice.
Into the ship we fled, especially afraid and trembling. (315)
Straightaway the rocket drove on the ship from the plain;
we flew into the cosmos, leaving the living planet.
Astr. 14.261–85, where the crewmate Kypta has stolen one of Tolma’s smaller spacecraft and the ship’s gold and flown off with it; Oudeis and the crew chase after him through the vacuum of space, where they use one of the few similes in the Astronautilia:
So we sail in the depths of the empty cosmos
to chase after the barge and Kypta through the chasm.
We were unable now to any more see the barge,
since the especially crafty fellow had fled much earlier,
but the sensors on our ship detected it (265)
flying so quickly in the depths of the empty cosmos.
We started now to chase him, grieving in our heart,
and very much enraged, for a very great anger had seized all
the men and robots and life-moulded Franta.
For nine earth-days we sail through the chasm of the cosmos (270)
but no capture appeared to us as we chased.
Small was the skiff, and for only a few men to board,
but it was easier and speedy at cosmos-exploration.
However when the tenth earth-day had appeared
we saw the fleeing barge on our television (275)
directly with our eyes: for it was a great delight.
Straightaway I ordered the men and robots
to increase the nuclear force; Tolma flew especially quickly.
Like how the predator eagle chases a sparrow
flying so quickly, stretching its talons forth, (280)
so did Tolma speedily carry us and the robots
flying so quickly, eager to capture Kypta,
but no success in capture came to us astro-explorers,
since Kypta when chased was clever at travelling,
and he weaved countless tricks to escape us. (285)
Ben Broadbent is currently an MPhil student at Balliol College, Oxford, who is researching Homer and the composition of Ancient Greek in modern times. In the course of his work, he has delivered a dozen or so talks on the works of Jan Křesadlo, whose entire corpus of Greek and Latin poetry he has translated into the metre of the original. He is currently beginning research on further post-Classical Greek epic poets; beyond this he continues his studies in Golden Age Latin poetry, Classical Linguistics (with a particular focus on conlangs), and textual criticism.