Mosaic of fish

February 28, 2015, by Oliver Thomas

This INSANE post will change your life!

Oliver Thomas goes fishing for your attention with the help of some ancient Greek authors.


I find ‘clickbait’ one of the most annoying features of the internet. When I’m minding my own procrastinatory business on Facebook, suddenly something entitled ‘This INSANE article will change your life’ pops up in my feed, aggressively colonising my attention by dangling some quality time-wasting just a finger-tap away.

This week, the department’s research seminar welcomed back Rosie Harman, a former PhD student here, who is now a lecturer at UCL. She gave an excellent talk about Xenophon’s Constitution of the Spartans and Education of Cyrus.

But what has that, you might ask, to do with clickbait?

In the discussion after the paper, Helen Lovatt drew attention to the clickbaity way that the Constitution of the Spartans begins with the narrator ‘one day being struck… and marvelling that…’. Or, in modern terms, ‘When I thought this about Sparta, I was just… whoa!’

I thought I’d try to run with Helen’s idea.

Of course, Xenophon didn’t want to gain his readers’ fickle attention for just a couple of minutes. And it’s hardly surprising that ancient texts try to grab the readers’ (or listeners’) attention with a bold opening gambit. But might we nevertheless be able to put the enormous amount of data that clickbait offers about modern attention-grabbing to some profitable use in elucidating classical authors?

On websites which offer advice about which terms generate the most click-throughs, words like ‘insane’ and ‘weird’ seem to do particularly well. And so we are back to Xenophon’s tantalising thauma (marvel) in the first sentence of the Constitution of the Spartans.

In fact, thauma is a common place to start Greek prose texts. Xenophon himself also begins the Memorabilia with his wonder. ‘Marvellous deeds’ are there in Herodotus’ preface – whereas Thucydides plumps for ‘most worthy of record’ (and ‘most important’ is not quite so alluring, on average, for perusers of Buzzfeed lists). Lysias 4 begins ‘Wondrous is it…’. Isocrates’ Panegyricus begins with Isocrates’ wonder, while his Archidamus and Areopagiticus start with the audience’s. The second book of the Hippocratic Prorrheticon lays it on thick, advertising its ‘many fine and marvellous prognoses, which I have never proclaimed nor have I heard anyone else proclaiming them’ – 43 (chapters of) amazing predictions you’ve never heard of!

So, did Greek authors frequently start with wonder because they intuited, as clickbait now demonstrates, that marvels are particularly attention-grabbing? This would be especially interesting in texts where wonder appears in the first few words, which might have appeared on the external label of an ancient scroll, to lure in the browser of a library.

However, Greek authors sometimes ‘start with wonder’ without implying that the material to come is amazing. In Antiphon’s third Tetralogy, both the second and third speakers begin ‘I’m not at all astonished by the last speaker’. Gorgias began his Olympic Address by saying that the locals in his audience were a thing of wonder. Plato slips wonder into the opening of the Apology, Crito, and Theaetetus. Probably the trope of starting with wonder shouldn’t just be reduced to the function of grabbing interest for what is to follow.

Any other links people might see between clickbait and ancient prefatory strategies will be gratefully received. Meanwhile, let’s see if Buzzfeed can provide me with 43 AMAZING tips for ancient Greek authors…

Image: Pompeian mosaic, now in Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples; (c) Massimo Finizio, via Wikimedia Commons.

Posted in Greek literatureseminar