By Contributing Writer Stephan Steiner

“Images have been reproached for being a way of watching suffering at a distance, as if there were some other way of watching” (Susan Sontag). In other words: If we want to understand visually, then we are in any case forced to keep our eyes open, be it at the price of voyeurism.

What is to be watched here is a torrent of tortures, literally winding its way through an oil painting. In the very foreground a young woman, breasts denuded, one nipple tweaked with heated pliers. Then, a group of people of all ages–men and women, babies, toddlers, elderly–huddled together as if refusing to move any further. But exactly this is asked from them by a neatly dressed man, halberd in one hand, pointing toward an ongoing scene of humiliation and torture with the other. Moving the eyes further counter-clockwise, one sights four men in a row, two with hands pinioned and shoulders exposed, while their counterparts in frock-coats raise fistfuls of switches, bound for imminent flagellation. A river marks the boundary to the background, in which a person sitting on a chair awaits decapitation in front of two clerics. At the far end of perspective, fading in the tremolo of (most probably) late summer’s light, corpses hang from the gallows. Thus, not only the spectators of today, but also some of the protagonists of the depiction itself become voyeuristic observers.

gypsy sign

Gypsy warning sign (Zigeunerverbotstafel) with inscription “Lost ihr zügäiner, alchier bleib kheiner, auß demn landt thuet weichen, sonst wird man euch außstreichen” (Listen Gypsies, don’t stay here, leave the country or else you‘ll be flagellated) (© Universalmuseum Joanneum / Volkskunde, Graz, Austria)

During the first half of the eighteenth century, the streets of the Holy Roman Empire as well as some of its bordering regions must have been full of such signposts. Yet only seven of them have survived (or at least historians have so far been able to detect that many) in museum collections in Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands. The example shown here is by far the most elaborate, but the iconographic programs of all the others also abound in violence, heralding corporal punishment, mutilation, and death. The addressees of such harbingers of destruction were Gypsies, as they were referred to by the majority population. But many of this population also addressed themselves as Gypsies – long before the politically correct, but historically insufficient, combined term Roma and Sinti was created.

To contemporaries the people depicted were discernible as Gypsies by the distinct outfit they wore. Especially the woman’s schiavina, an oriental shepherds’ dress formed by a quadrangular woolen scarf, tied over the shoulder, which also functioned perfectly as a baby carrier, was seen as “typical” for Gypsy nomads.

After more than one century of increasingly harsh Gypsy legislation in the Holy Roman as well as in the Habsburg Empire (which were only in parts identical), the turn of the eighteenth century marked a clear shift in mentalities away from relentless persecution to attempted extinction. In this theater of war, declared on a minority that had been in the heart of Europe for almost two hundred years, the warning signs were intended to keep Gypsies from crossing the many borders of the era and to inform them about their almost ubiquitous outlaw status (Vogelfreiheit, a cynical term in German, literally meaning “being as free as a bird”, but used to signify a status without any rights, not even the one to exist). But deterrence was only one aspect of such visualisations. The other was the elimination of any excuse of ignorance of the law by Gypsies, who when detained often claimed a lack of legal knowledge. Now, even illiteracy could not prevent them from the long arm of the law.

These signs were the perfect emblems of an absurd situation: Gypsies, not allowed in territory A, were also not allowed to switch over to the neighboring territory B, as each and every place was forbidden ground. For them there was no legal place to stay; before even being accused or tried, they were already guilty.

Gypsy warning signs made their way through half of Europe, being a new means of approaching the so-called Gypsy plague (Zigeunerplage), as it was most bluntly called by rulers and their officials. Together with common beliefs within the majority population, an explosive cocktail of (mostly ungrounded) fears was mixed: spies for the Ottomans, uncivilized “Orientals”, black magicians and notorious burglars, robbers and even cannibals–all this was ascribed to the Gypsies.

Why exactly tablets were chosen as a way of communicating the legal framework to passers-by is unclear, but probably similar signs regarding beggars, Jews, or the plague could be seen as direct precursors. The oldest trace of Gypsy warning signs can be found in a decree enacted in Kleve-Mark (a part of Brandenburg-Prussia) in 1685. In 1702, the kingdom of Prussia also ordered the erection of warning signs, as part of an edict concerning the expulsion of Gypsies. Over the course of approximately two decades, many similar orders were issued, among others in Nassau-Siegen 1707/08, the Electoral Palatinate 1709, Electoral Hannover 1710, Electoral Mainz 1711 or Bavaria 1716 as well as in the Habsburg Empire (Bohemia 1706, Silesia 1708, Moravia 1709, Inner Austria 1714, Austria above and below the Enns 1720, and Hungary 1724).

Long unquestioned from a moral point of view, Gypsy warning signs caused very practical problems instead. From the perspective of the administration, the trouble with Gypsy warning signs started even before their erection and accompanied their entire life cycle: Who was obliged to pay for them? Who would maintain them? What should be done in case they were stolen? And stolen they were, be it a simple matter of organizing firewood by the locals,  or a protest against their function as an instrument of exclusion.

Enlightenment marks the gradual fade-out of the martial mentality expressed in the warning signs. Coerced settlement first and subsequent total assimilation were now seen as the perfect solution to problems that to a great extent had been perceived in a phantasmagorical fashion or at least over-exaggerated by the majority population. But, despite all the Janus-faced altruism of the Age of Reason, warning signs in some regions quite astonishingly outlived the associated major changes in mind-set. Thus, in some parts of the Holy Roman Empire warning signs were still in use regardless of the highpoint of Enlightenment. Hessen-Kassel, for instance, renewed its respective orders in 1772, Oranien-Nassau in 1782. Some warning signs were maintained up to the first decade of the nineteenth century (e.g. in the duchy of Lippe).

Until one decade ago, pre-modern visual representations of Gypsies were thought to be extremely rare. But with more focused research by scholars such as Peter Bell and Jörg Suckow, more and more depictions of supposed “Orientals” or “social misfits” in art have turned out to be images of Gypsies instead. Interestingly enough, the phenomenon of Gypsy warning signs has so far only been studied on a systematic and continuous level in the context of the Bohemian Lands of the Habsburgs, namely in several articles by Jiří Hanzal, the Czech Republic’s distinguished scholar on Gypsies in the early modern period.

The obsession with a Holy Roman Empire or a Habsburg monarchy “cleansed” from all Gypsy riffraff, harmful and mischievous to the country (schädlich- und landesverderbliches Ziggeinergesindel) as emblematically expressed in the warning signs, was a utopia the authorities yearned for during the long eighteenth century. What seemed utopia to them, turned out to be dystopia for the various groups of persecuted Gypsies.


Sign saying Roma, back to India!, pillar stand burst by the detonation (© Peter Wagner)

On February 5, 1995, four Austrian Roma were killed by a booby trap placed next to their village. The bomb was released when these four people tried to remove a sign, which in solemn letters on black ground mocked a funerary inscription, which read, “Roma, back to India!”

Stephan Steiner. Historian. Professor at Sigmund Freud University (Vienna,  Austria). His research concerns the history of violence especially in the early modern context, but also including long-term perspectives. Detailed references concerning his blog article are to be found in a forthcoming edited volume on Representations of External Threats in History (edited by Eberhard Crailsheim). Research has been partly supported by a travel grant, kindly awarded by the German Historical Institute Warsaw.

Holiday Reading: JHI Blog’s Best of 2017

We’re taking a brief sabbatical for a week during the festive season. Here is a list of our most popular posts this year to keep you in reading until we return in the New Year. Happy Holidays Everyone!

“In Dread of Derrida,” by Jonathon Catlin.

“Global/Universal History: A Warning,” by Disha Karnad Jani.

“Towards an Intellectual History of the Alt-Right?” by Yitzchak Schwartz.

“Global History of Ideas: A Sea for Fish on Dry Land,” by Dag Herbjørnsrud.

“We Should Justify Ourselves No More: Felwine Starr’s Afrotopia,” by Laetitia Citroen.

“Alice Ambrose and Life Unfettered By Philosophy in Wittgenstein’s Cambridge,” by David Loner.

“Book Forum: History as Critique,” by Michael Meng.

“How the Nineteenth Century Misplaced the Samaritans,” by Matthew Chalmers.





What We’re Reading: Week of 18th December.


A Philosopher Reading by a follower of David Tenier the Younger. Courtesy of the Wellcome Trust.


Colin Gordon, “The Legacy of Taft-Hartley,” (Jacobin)

Bella Li, “December in Poetry,” (overland)

Patricia Lockwood, “It Was Gold,” (LRB)



Christine Buci-Glucksmann, “May ’68 and the Crisis of Marxism (1978)” (Viewpoint).

John Ganz, “The Forgotten Man: On Murray Rothbard” (Baffler). See also here.

Judith Lyon-Caen, “À se fendre la poire” (Viedesidées).

Vimal Patel and Brock Read, Interview with Michael Roth (Chronicle).



James Parker, “A Mind-Bending Translation of the New Testament” (Atlantic)

Paul Levy, “Let Them Eat Bread” (TLS)

Greg Miller, “Bizarre, Enormous 16th-Century Map Assembled for First Time” (National Geographic)

Brian Phillips, “ff” (LARB)



Samia Henni, “From ‘Indigenous’ to ‘Muslim’” (e-flux)



Jenna Tonn, “White Feminism and Eugenics” (Lady Science)

Ferris Jabr, “The Person in the Ape” (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Alexandra Lamont, “Christmas Earworms” (The Conversation)

Arndt vs. Mortimer: Clash of the Dominant Strands of Australian Developmental Thought

by Contributing Writer Nicholas Ferns

Showcase StateThroughout 1972, a series of seminars were held at Monash University in Melbourne to examine “Indonesian society and politics” under the Suharto regime. Organized by the Monash University Association of Students, these seminars resulted in the publication of Rex Mortimer’s Showcase State. (Mortimer would go on to produce similar analysis of the development of Papua New Guinea.) Informed by the burgeoning field of dependency theory, Mortimer and his colleagues critiqued the dominant orthodoxy of Australian scholarship on economic development. A particular target of Mortimer’s analysis was Heinz W. Arndt, a leading developmental economist and head of the Australian National University’s Indonesian Economy Project.

According to Mortimer and his fellow dependentistas, Arndt and other orthodox developmental economists were affiliated with the American ‘end of ideology’ school, closely associated with Walt Rostow’s modernization theory (Gilman, 16). For Mortimer, Arndt was “to a greater degree than most Indonesianists in Australia, and most Indonesian intellectuals outside the governmental in-group… highly optimistic about the progress of Indonesia’s Western-conceived development effort.” (121) In contrast, Mortimer suggested:

The division of the world into countries that are growing relatively richer and countries that are growing relatively poorer is not simply the product of some historical accident … but constitutes a network of interactions which is systematically enforced by the wealthy club. (129)

This critique illustrated the divisions within the two dominant Australian understandings of economic development that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Heinz Arndt and Rex Mortimer emerged as the respective voices of the ‘orthodox’ (modernization) school and the ‘critical’ (dependency) school. Arndt, whose family had escaped Nazi Germany in the 1930s, steadily moved towards what could be considered a conservative understanding of economic development. By the late 1960s, he was heavily involved in the Australian National University’s Indonesian Economy Project, which placed him in a position to assist the Department of External Affairs in their provision of aid to Indonesia.

Rex Mortimer provided an interesting contrast. A young communist who unlike Arndt never really lost his radicalism, Mortimer was a late entrant into academia. Studying under Indonesia expert (and Volunteer Graduate Scheme pioneer) Herb Feith at Monash University, Mortimer was drawn to the radical ideas of development scholars such as Andre Gunder Frank and Dudley Seers.

Between 1945 and 1975, two schools of thought defined Australian developmentalism. The first, which emerged from the work of Eugene Staley and Paul Rosenstein-Rodan in the mid-1940s, emphasized the role of government policy in driving economic growth, which would thereby facilitate the development process. For these theorists, increased production needed to be actively encouraged in order to safeguard the welfare of poorer peoples. This growth-centric model assumed a level of orthodoxy throughout the 1950s and 1960s, manifested most clearly in the work of West Indian born-British economist, W. Arthur Lewis, and American modernization theorists such as Walt Rostow.

In Australia, this approach was epitomized in the immediate post-war period by John Crawford and Douglas Copland, and then later by Heinz Arndt. Arndt’s analysis broadly adhered to the modernization school, and would come into conflict with the more radical approach of scholars such as Rex Mortimer later in the decade. Department of External Affairs officials were particularly drawn to these ideas in the 1950s and 1960s, and the growth-centric approach influenced early post-war aid policies, particularly the Colombo Plan and the Paul Hasluck period in PNG.

The second school of developmentalist thought revised the Western-oriented, growth-centric assumptions of Rostow and his international counterparts. From the 1950s onward, economists challenged the orthodox position, arguing that developmental policy brought benefits not to the poor, but rather to those already in a position of economic and political power. Raul Prebisch developed the earliest iteration of what eventually became known as dependency theory in 1950, and by the mid-1960s the notion had taken hold (Arndt, 120). One of the earliest demonstrations of the political power of dependency theory was the 1964 UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which posed significant challenges to Australia’s previous conception of its own developmental position. By the late 1960s, dependency theory attracted an Australian following, most evident in the work of Rex Mortimer. As seen in the anecdote that begins this essay, Mortimer particularly challenged the optimism of the growth-centric developmental orthodoxy.

Mortimer’s ideas appealed to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that sought to supplement official aid programs. The most prominent of these was the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA), an umbrella organization that directed the work of dozens of development NGOs. (Jemma Purdey (362-364) discusses the power of Mortimer’s ideas with ACFOA member organizations such as Community Aid Abroad.) As the government persisted with large programs that supposedly promoted economic growth, ACFOA became more firmly convinced of the need to tackle the causes of poverty at a grassroots level (Sutherland, 68, 180). While there were pragmatic reasons behind the growing distance between ACFOA and the Department of Foreign Affairs, including the absence of official financial support, differences over developmental ideas were pivotal in separating the two institutions (Kilby, 132). The contrast between ACFOA’s approach and the departmental adherence to the orthodox growth model was more powerful than the political forces that drew them together.

Ultimately, the challenge of the dependency school faded away relatively quickly. Mortimer’s untimely death from cancer in 1979, combined with a broader shift in international economic thought, ensured that the orthodox emphasis on growth remained most influential in aid policy-making. Despite this, the challenge posed by Mortimer and his colleagues complicated Australian attitudes towards development for well over a decade.

Dr. Nicholas Ferns recently completed his PhD at Monash University. His research examines postwar Australian foreign aid and colonial administration policies through the lens of development. He is also more broadly interested in the study of Australia in world affairs, with a particular interest in US-Australian relations. He tweets @nickjohnferns .

Argentina’s First Modern Terrorist

By Contributing Writer Craig Johnson

Alberto Ignacio Ezcurra Uriburu, the leader of Argentina’s first modern terrorist organization, was a frail, dark-haired, long-faced seminary dropout rarely seen without his thick black glasses. Right-wing power and ideology ran in his family. His father was Alberto Ezcurra Medrano, an important conservative jurist, who in the 1930s was a close personal friend with the fascist Spanish ambassador to Argentina. His paternal grandfather was the dictator General Uriburu, whose early 20th-century coup attempted to remake the nation into a Catholic, fascistic state. Through his mother, Ezcurra was a descendant of Argentina’s most important and influential caudillo of the 19th century, Juan Manuel de Rosas, who required everyone in Buenos Aires to wear badges with his faction’s red banner and to display his portraits in church beside the pulpit.

Ezcurra was well-off and had access to the highest echelons of Argentine politics and power. But in his twenties he found himself a failure. Having been forced to drop out of Jesuit seminary for his “introverted and confrontational personality” he turned to unfulfilling minor white collar work in his home of Buenos Aires. There, he drifted to the youth division of Argentina’s main right-wing political organization, the Alianza de Libertadora Nacionalista. But he didn’t stay long. One night in 1957 he and his dissolute elite friends were drinking at the hip, popular bar La Perla del Once, and, dissatisfied with the lukewarm fervor of the Alianza de Libertadora Nacionalista, decided to make a new organization: Tacuara, a knife tied to a cane, the makeshift spear Argentinian peasants had fought the English with when they invaded Argentina in 1806.

Tacuara would soon become Argentina’s first major guerilla and militant organization since the Second World War. Their symbol was to be the Maltese Cross of the crusading Knights Hospitaller. At its height in 1962-63 Tacuara boasted a membership in the thousands, spread across Argentina from Cordoba to Rosario to La Plata and in most of the country’s major universities and secondary schools. With these men Tacuara waged a campaign of violence and propaganda.


Ezcurra, standing and speaking at podium, with other members of Tacuara

In 1960, Adolf Eichman, a Nazi official who had hid in Argentina after the Second World War, was abducted from his suburban Buenos Aires home by Mossad and taken to Israel, tried for war crimes and executed. In response Tacuaristas painted the streets of Buenos Aires with black swastikas and brutal slogans: Viva Eichman; In the future there won’t be enough furnaces for the Jews. They constantly attacked the perennial enemies of the wider Latin American right: the English, the Soviet Union, and the memory of the French Revolution. Graffiti even targeted 18th and 19th-century enemies such as the Masonic League. They threw bricks through the windows of politicians, businesspeople, and government officials. The office of the Senior British consul to Argentina, Mr. Puleston, was tar bombed and littered with fliers decrying the occupation of the Malvinas by the United Kingdom. Though Ezcurra himself isn’t known to have participated in these acts, he endorsed and defended them in newspaper interviews and public addresses, calling on more Argentine patriots to fight the nation’s long list of enemies.

Tacuara graffiti

Image of Tacuara graffiti in tar: “Frondizi (then President of Argentina), Jewish Lackey ¡Long Live Eichman! ¡Join up!

Ezcurra and the Tacuaristas didn’t just use slogans and stones to make their message heard. In 1960 a group of Tacuaristas invaded the Student Center of the Engineering College of La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires province, shouting slogans, breaking windows, and firing guns at the rival student organization. Tacuaristas assaulted a peaceful demonstration by the Social Democratic Party in Miramar, ploughing a Ford into the crowd of protesters shouting “¡Viva Peron! Viva Franco! Viva Nacionalismo!” They shot at the students fleeing. One student was rammed against a tree. A dozen Tacuaristas once picked a fight with one hundred Jewish boyscouts at the beach — the resulting brawl had to be dispersed by the police. Dozens were injured.

Tacuaristas and Ezcurra had a purpose behind their violence. They were ideologues, giving media interviews, penning pamphlets and statements, reaching out to political allies and enemies, negotiating with the government to protect the members of the organization. Their violence served an ideological, nationalizing, invigorating purpose: it defended the nation from its enemies; it built new, battle hardened, Catholic men; it cemented the preeminence of Argentina’s Catholic and Spanish identity before the modernizing, Western alternative. Behind each of their targets, justifying each tactical move, were centuries of counter-revolutionary, conservative Catholic, and fascist thinking. Tacuara’s newsletter, which Ezcurra edited and wrote for, went so far as to issue reading lists full of difficult texts in multiple languages: from Jacques Maritain, to Thomas Aquinas (in the original Latin of course), to a treatise on the history of Protestantism in Spain from the sixteenth century onward. Tacuaristas weren’t uneducated men of the street but, like Ezcurra, disaffected members of high society, the falling stars of fading families. Their thuggishness was balanced with their embrace of conservative cultural theory and scholastic theology.

Eventually Ezcurra’s band of young men disintegrated into several splinter groups, much as Tacuara itself had originally separated from its parent organization. Some held true to the organization’s original radical right wing principles, but others became Trotskyists – one of their leaders is even said to have traveled to Vietnam to fight the US imperialists. These betrayals were hard on Ezcurra, who continued to lead the main branch of Tacuara until the late 1960’s, after which he returned to seminary in Paraná, capital of Entre Rios Province, and left the heart of Argentine civilization and power forever.

After he was ordained as a secular priest Ezcurra fulfilled various offices in the Church until finally landing in San Rafael, a small city in the dry and distant Mendoza province, where he was both a parish priest and attached to the local Seminario Mayor, educating future generations of clergy. There he lead his life relatively disconnected from the political world he had spent his youth influencing, performing the rites of his office, developing syllabi, and giving lectures at the seminary to seated, studious young men.

Excurra as priest

Ezcurra as priest

By contrast the lives of most Argentines had become vastly more dangerous and deadly in these years due in no small part to the destabilizing influence of Tacuara. After oscillating between civilian and military governments from the mid fifties to the mid seventies, in 1976 the Peronist government was overthrown by a military coup that ushered in a period known as “the Dirty War”, in which tens of thousands of Argentines suspected or accused of involvement in leftist politics were killed by the country’s far right military government and its paramilitary allies. Ezcurra was an open supporter of the military government, which he saw as a culmination of the the struggle against the Marxist, secular left. The Church had a complex relationship to the military government, with some priests ardently in favor of the national political cleansing and others in relatively silent opposition, like the man who would later become the Catholic Pope Francis I, who was at the time the provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina.

Ezcurra died peacefully in San Rafael in the early 1990’s, prompting a small flowering of eulogies and statements of grief and loss from the right-wing organizations that still look to his Tacuara for inspiration. Argentine nationalists have dedicated books, lecture series, YouTube tributes, short films, and even a webcomic to its legacy, and particularly to Ezcurra, loyal to his nationalist, right-wing, Catholic politics to the very end.

Ezcurra webcomic

Webcomic, Ezcurra (glasses) speaking with other Tacuara founder José Baxter (smoking).

Ezcurra was a consummate reactionary who believed that only the better sort of people should rule, and that he and his fellow downtrodden elites should form the center of a political order that hearkened back to the Middle Ages, before the Protestant Reformation, before the rise of capitalists and businessmen, before the rule of the masses, when the bearers of natural and divine authority ruled as kings and clergy. And yet in another sense this  story is as modern they come: a young man, down on his luck, who bands together with friends to try to change the world according to their vision for the future. This tension, between Ezcurra’s claim to believe only in tradition and the old, natural way of things, and his modern methods and tactics, runs through every other far right organization from Accion Francoise to the Nazi Party to the alt-right of today. This unstable marriage of the reactionary and the revolutionary is what makes far right and fascist politics so volatile – it captures the minds and bodies of young men, like Ezcurra, and demands that they build a new world in the image of the past with the weapons of the present.

Craig Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of California Berkeley, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Chicago (2011). His primary interest is the mid to late twentieth-century Southern Cone, principally Argentina and Chile, and at the confluence of religion and politics. Craig’s current research analyzes why and how the right-wing of Latin America engaged with a wider Catholic sphere, and how this should inform our understandings of right-wing politics and the contested place of religion in the modern world.

What We’re Reading: Week of 11th December.


Captivée by Lesrel Adolphe Alexandre.


Emily Badger, “What Happened to the American Boomtown?” (New York Times)

Michael J. Lewis, “Cedar Grove, restored” (New Criterion)

Jeanine Michna-Bales, “The Long Road to Freedom” (Oxford American)

Gordon Wood (podcast interview), “The World in Time” (Lapham’s Quarterly)



Eric Foner, “The Embryo Caesar,” (LRB)

Paul Ortiz, “Discovering a new history of empire, and resistance, in the words of Black radicals,” (ThisIsHell)

Tyler Parry, “Slavery, the Plantation Myth, and Alternative Facts,” (Black Perspectives)

Ned Richardson-Little, “The Leizig Affair: A Discussion with Author Fiona Rintoul,” (History Ned Blog)

Jessica Whyte, “Human Rights After October,” (overland)



Daniela Blei, “How the Index Card Cataloged the World” (Atlantic)

Jason Middleton, “Free-Range Horror” (LARB)

Alexandra Schwartz, “The Disarming Paintings Made by Guantánamo Detainees” (New Yorker)

Naomi Wolf, “Sex and Intellect” (TLS)



Sarah Jaffe, “What a Band of 20th Century Alabama Communists Can Teach Black Lives Matter and the Offspring of Occupy” (The Nation)

Erik Linstrum, “The empire dreamt back: Britain’s imperial dreamcatchers and the truths of empire” (Aeon)

Josh Salisbury, “Saluton!: The Surprise Return of Esperanto” (The Guardian)


Before we left for Paris, Christie’s sold Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450,312,500 (buyer’s premium included). Almost half a billion dollars spent in one night, and all for a single painting. And one whose provenance and attribution were both … interesting…  (The painting has a convoluted history, and as Christie’s condition report notes, was quite damaged when it was “discovered” at an auction in 2005. It was restored in 2007 by Dianne Dwyer Modestini (Institute of Fine Arts, NYU). It looked like this before the restoration. In a 2012 review of the Leonardo survey at the National Gallery (London), Carmen Bambach wrote, “Much of the original painting surface may be by [Leonardo’s student Giovanni Antonio] Boltraffio,” while Frank Zoellner argued that it was “a high quality product of Leonardo’s workshop.” Both Bambach and Zoellner agree that Leonardo was personally involved with the painting, but did not do most (or all) of the painting. Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp stands by the autograph attribution to Leonardo. In any case, the sale led to this Instagram post from Tom Campbell, the ex-director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was itself the subject of some fascination.) After the sale, so many questions: Who was the buyer? Who in their right mind would spend almost half a billion dollars on a single work of art? And what does that say about the art market, our culture, the widening global inequality between “High Net Worth Individuals” and … everyone else?

Last week, new reports kept surfacing: first, the buyer was an obscure Saudi prince named Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, then, the buyer was actually the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. It seems that all of these princes were acting as proxies for Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism. One thing is certain: the Salvator Mundi is headed for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as the museum announced on Twitter. (The initial announcement didn’t reveal that the museum had actually bought the painting.)

Now that I’m back in New York, and counting down the hours until a vote on the new Republican tax bill, the Salvator Mundi sale keeps creeping back into my mind, as an emblem of the way that these blockbuster art prices also serve as bellwethers of inequality. Take a look at this chart. And then take a look at this 2016 study by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman. Let’s leave it at that.


Make Acrostics Magical Again? Part II

by Contributing Writer Sarah Scullin


Between the period of Biblical/Babylonian acrostics and those of the Christian era, the Greeks and, later, the Romans, used acrostics in their literature in ways that were as difficult to decode as the later Jesus fish example. These puzzles were used primarily in poetry as a way for the author to—quite literally—sign his work. Thus, many of these ancient acrostics consist of the poet’s name. Vergil has several: for example, at Georgics 1.429-33 he encodes his text with MA-VE-PU (Maro Vergilius Publius—a reverse of his name Publius Vergilius Maro). A signature like this is thought to have functioned much like a formal seal (in fact, the literary term for this kind of device is “sphragis,” which is the Ancient Greek word for “seal”), whereby the author both takes credit for his work and seeks to prevent plagiarism or alteration of his words.

These are usually incredibly sneaky acrostics, often going undiscovered for thousands of years. Some of them are “syllabic,” as is the case in Vergil’s MA-VE-PU, and require skipping lines and adding together the first syllable of every other line; others are in boustrephedon format (Greek for “as the ox turns”) and require the decoder to reverse every other line of text in order to find the hidden message. Unlike the obvious “hidden” messages of the Babylonian/Biblical authors or today’s political actors, the very existence and intention of these acrostics can leave the reader in doubt: the scholar who recently (re)discovered another Vergilian acrostic—the name of the Roman god of war M-A-R-S at Aeneid 7.601-4—despite mounting a convincing case for the validity of his reading, nevertheless claims to be awaiting “the men in white coats.”

The most one could say about these “signature” type acrostics is that—in addition to being a vanity project—they may have been thought to have some kind of binding power; the other main use of acrostics in Greco-Roman antiquity, however, is arguably kind of inane, consisting essentially of clever wordplay.

So the author might signify his aesthetic style by weaving a term into the poem that expresses his artistic tastes. This is literally the equivalent of hiding the word “pretty” or “nice” in a poem. So the poet Aratus encoded the term λέπτη (“delicate”—a Hellenistic buzzword for the kind of refined aesthetics they prided themselves on inventing) in his poem about constellations. Other acrostics are merely playful, often just echoing the first word in a line, like a kind of literary times-table: so the author Apuleius (Met. 433) spells out M-O-N-S (mountain) vertically off of the inflected form of the same word (montis). How clever.

Both of these types of acrostics—the signature and the aesthetic—don’t seem overly concerned with being easily decoded. In fact, this blatant obscurity may be the very point. Greek poets like Aratus and the Roman poets who consciously followed in the Hellenistic Greeks’ poetic footsteps, prided themselves on catering to a “refined,” learned audience. If you don’t have what it takes to pick up on their incredibly learned and subtle puzzles, they don’t want you in the club anyway. This may be a secular—and, ok, not very solemn or deep—use of the acrostic, but it does draw on the same kind of “speaking to the initiated” coding that we later see in the Jesus fish.

If acrostics were historically used for glorifying the author, the alphabet, god, or the king, how did people—like Vergil—go about registering political protest? The answer depends on which historical period we are discussing. To take Rome as an example, one acrostic author, the statesman Cicero, writing when Rome still had a republic, penned and delivered blistering political dissent in speech after speech. Cicero almost lived to see the complete collapse of the Republic, but Mark Antony (Cicero’s Trump) had him decapitated and mounted his hands and tongue in public, blaming the very tools Cicero had employed to write and speak, respectively, in protest.

By the time Vergil composed his poetry, Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, was firmly in power, after winning a Civil War and destroying his political enemies. Despite having suffered loss of family property and, presumably, also having lost friends and family at Augustus’ hands, Vergil nevertheless wrote poetry in praise of the emperor (or “first citizen,” as Augustus preferred to be called).

Vergil’s acrostics are not subversive. But his poetry, as scholars have recently begun to argue (if you consider the past 100 years to be recent, which you ought to when the poems themselves are twenty times that age) does criticize, condemn, and R-E-S-I-S-T the powers-that-be. This line of scholarship—dubbed the “Harvard School” and composed primarily of American classicists—argues that much of Vergil’s poetry is receptive to multiple valances, or meanings: so, something that can be read as direct praise of Augustus, like Aeneas visiting the underworld (Aen 6) and seeing arrayed there the glorious future of Rome, including Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Augustus himself, is later undercut. In this case, after praising and glorifying Augustus in this underworld scene, Vergil claims that Aeneas departs the underworld through the gate of “False Dreams.” Is Vergil hinting that Augustan propaganda was all lies, perhaps?

This type of subversive messaging is so covert that scholars still argue about whether or not it’s entirely there. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, even conceding the interpretive possibility of dissent, it’s easy enough to point to, say, Vergil dying a natural death and the Roman Empire surviving for hundreds of years beyond Augustus and conclude that most people didn’t get his message. Other poets under the empire weren’t so lucky: Ovid was sent into exile for “carmen et error” (“a poem and a mistake”), while other authors were murdered (or forced to kill themselves) for openly protesting, or conspiring against, the emperor.



To return to our modern acrostics and consider them in light of the history of this artistic device: I think few people could convincingly argue that these acrostics are straightforward hidden messages—or commands—to a secondary audience. Kammen is not simply ordering Congress to impeach Trump, nor is the Committee on the Arts and Humanities trying its hand at “inception” and trying to convince other dissenters to resist Trump. But is R-E-S-I-S-T a magically invocative word? Is I-M-P-E-A-C-H an attempt at binding Trump to a hoped-for fate, a way of saying a prayer to the gods (aka Congress), or an underscoring of the substance of author’s overt message?

One way to analyze the history of acrostics is to think of them as a message that is either an artistic, aesthetic flourish, meant to be subtle and very much hidden from public view, or an overt, obvious message of adulation. So an acrostic historically was either something that only the initiated (in the case of the Jesus fish) and the most erudite (in the case of poetry) could decode or was an obvious and safe way to express support of the powers-that-be. In either case, historically, political resistance has been either way more covert and open to interpretation or overt, culminating in the form of actual conspiracies and rebellions.

In these more modern acrostics, however, the messaging is both overt and politically rebellious. Everyone is “in” on the message and the message is, mutatis mutandis a “F-U-C-K Y-O-U” to the emperor. Which leads me to ask: what is the purpose of these new types of acrostics, then? Is the acrostic really hidden when everyone sees and shares it immediately? I think that the only person we can be reasonably sure is unaware of the hidden messaging in these letters is the recipient himself, since I doubt any of the recent articles on acrostics have made it into his twice-daily happy folders—although perhaps we should examine his twitter feed for an acrostic response? C-O-V-F-E-F-E, perhaps?

Even if Trump were aware of the presence of these covert words, I think it’s reasonable to assume that he is not the intended audience of these messages. He is not supposed to R-E-S-I-S-T or I-M-P-E-A-C-H. Rather, the immediate audiences would appear to be the general public, and the House of Representatives, respectively. We are not supposed to feel clever for “finding” this hidden message; rather the acrostic seems to be a way of loudly, publicly, and overtly registering resistance.

Just as Vergil’s MA-VE-PU, though built in to reward a clever reader or two, ultimately shines a light on the author and his cleverness, so too do these overtly political acrostics reflect on the authors of the letters, more than reward or stimulate a particular audience. The messaging may not be subtle; it may not be particularly “effective” or “productive,” if we want to judge it in terms of the changes it brings about. But it’s nevertheless an artistic expression of opposition, and can therefore also be judged in terms of what it stands for. In this case, the fact that someone can code such a message into a public letter, and still have his head the next day, is a good thing.

Sarah Scullin is Managing Editor for Eidolon, a public-facing journal that aims to make the Classics political and personal, feminist and fun. She received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012.

A “Usefull (Indeed Most Usefull) Thing” and the Fortunes of a Scholarly Petitioner in Interregnum England

By Contributing Writer Simon Brown

In November 1647, the dispossessed cleric Thomas Harrison wrote yet another petition to the Parliamentary Committee for Plundered Ministers, imploring them this time to use his innovative note-taking system for ordering all their records taken “since these times of much vanity.” Harrison appealed to the “vanity” of a parliamentary state that increasingly sought to render, in his words, a “ready Representation” of itself through diligent record-keeping of all transactions. That “vanity” could also evoke, however, the waste leveled in civil war and the lives needlessly overturned, including Thomas Harrison’s. The first stage of the civil war which had engulfed Britain over the previous six years reduced the royalist Harrison to regularly beseeching parliament to invest in his note-taking project and his own sustenance. Those petitions came to naught, and at the bottom of one of the many, a colleague recorded his death on September 12, 1649.

Thomas Harrison signature and death

Annotation in Harrison’s petition to the Committee for Plundered Ministers, dated August 27, 1648. British Library, Sloane MS 1466, ff 80-81.

The “poor, shipwrecked fortunes” that Harrison himself lamented had collapsed on a changing economy of scholarship hastened by war and republican government. Harrison’s career and demise illustrate how a transformed landscape of political institutions compelled scholars to engage by means of petitions and the language of projection to advocate their erudition. The insistence on the usefulness of their knowledge to the public interest raises questions about the relationship between the shifting political conditions in which petitioners advocated their knowledge and novel conceptions of that knowledge itself.

Though Harrison’s schemes went unrewarded in his lifetime, some contemporaries and modern historians recognize his place in the history of scholarly innovations in the seventeenth century.  His design for arranging and rearranging bibliographic notes on slips under topical headings exemplifies the intricate schemes to manage an “information overload” of scholarship, which historians like Ann Blair and Noel Malcolm have reconstructed. Blair and Malcolm trace the fortunes of Harrison’s method and find that a description was published in 1689 by the scholar Vincent Placcius, decades after parliament neglected to meet Harrison’s request to do so. Harrison’s scheme did garner the curiosity of his contemporaries, chief among them Samuel Hartlib, the intellectual correspondent extraordinaire of Interregnum England. Hartlib sought support from his widening circle of projectors and pedagogues to sustain Harrison and publish the details of his note-taking scheme, but to no avail.

Harrison foundered in the system of scholarly petitioning which Hartlib and his associates dominated, and which they extended into visions of future “Offices of Address” that would accept and publish proposals for employment of the poor and treatises on the meaning of scripture alike. Hartlib and his associates exploited the perpetually-sitting parliament of the 1640s and inundated their chambers with petitions for reforming  education in languages and erecting colleges of husbandry, among other more sweeping plans for reform. These petitions increasingly relied on pointed references to published plans for pedagogical or social reform that accompanied the more direct request for financial support.  Jason Peacey has demonstrated how the frequency of petitioning during the Interregnum rendered parliamentary chambers the direct audience for many disquisitions on schemes that addressed not only the employment of the poor, but also, as we’ll see, pedagogy in classical languages and the organization of bibliographic information.

The increasing desperation which marked Harrison’s frequent proposals to parliament represented a danger that even relatively successful petitioners cautioned against: the threat that scholars, teachers and craftsmen might be reduced to the status of “Projectors.” Engineers, architects and noblemen who had been granted support to prove their expertise through “projects,” like the draining of the fens for farmland in eastern England, had acquired a suspect reputation in the 1620s, associated with secretive monopolists exploiting Crown favor. Vera Keller and Ted McCormick have surveyed a growing literature on “projection” in early modern Europe to reconstruct the conditions under which scholars and scientists could be associated, often against their protestations, with projectors. As petitioners beseeched parliament for funds to reform schools, churches and workhouses, Thomas Harrison and his contemporaries increasingly resembled projectors, and increasingly talked like them as well.

These scholarly petitioners advocated their innovations by insisting on their contributions to the “public interest,” rendering them worthy of political support. Harrison himself pressed the “usefulness” of his note-taking system, all while preempting any accusations of self-interested careerism. In one petition from 1646, he assured his readers that he could have sought benefits from the King when he first presented his note-taking system to him before the war had begun, and before he was stripped of his clerical living. Unlike the “Court Chaplaines that use to study themselves,” he “scorned to make so noble a desire a stalke horse…to preferment.” It was that “noble desire” to produce something useful that guarded him, he thought, from accusations of self-interested projecting. In the same petition, he describes his “invention” as “a usefull (and indeed most usefull) thing” which is “intended for the general and extraordinary advantage of all sorts of learning.” He proceeds in a later letter, dated 1648, to explain that his “tedious troubles” in scholarly labor through his note-taking method were spent “not unprofitably for the publick good.” Ultimately his copious notes taken in service of the public good left him with a product whose weight attested not only to his labor but also its utility, explaining “The Worke, as it is Useful, so it is very large.”

Like his associates in Hartlib’s orbit, Harrison cited the “useful knowledge” that his invention offered as a contrast to the mysterious, unprofitable schemes of self-interested projectors. Koji Yamamoto has argued that the Hartlib Circle insisted on open publication of inventions and proposals lest the “useful knowledge” they claimed to provide be seen as mysterious means for engrossing one’s wealth and reputation at the expense of the nation. For many in Hartlib’s circle, the public had an interest in all knowledge that could be “useful,” in this case, for improving the nation’s material wealth and increasing England’s dominion over its resources.

This insistence on public interest and advocacy for state investment in uniquely useful knowledge exemplifies the kind of political and economic claims that, according to McCormick and Heller, intellectual histories that consider the status of “projection” can uncover. The public proposals for institutions dedicated to “useful knowledge” did not subside with the English republic, but rather continued and proliferated in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, such as with John Bellers’ Proposals for raising a colledge of industry of all useful trades and husbandry (1695), and Lewis Maidwell’s A scheme of learning propos’d to be taught in the Royal Schole for the real improvement and advancement of useful navigation (1700).

Harrison advertised his scheme for note-taking as a “usefull (indeed most usefull) thing,” but the erudition in “all sorts of learning” it sought to organize and propagate were not confined to trades, husbandry, or navigation. He may have advocated his invention in the projectors’ language of public interest and usefulness, but his vision of what knowledge could count as useful was not yet constrained to the domain of natural improvement. Other manuscripts in the same collection at the British Library (Sloane MS 1466), likely owned by Hartlib himself, forward proposals to advance the public interest through forms of knowledge far from the natural science or commercial trades which later projectors referred to as “useful” education. In correspondence with Hartlib as early as the 1620s, the competing pedagogues Joseph Webbe and William Brookes sparred over the proper method for teaching classical and foreign languages. Brookes justified his critical appraisal of Webbe’s unorthodox pedagogy for teaching languages without reference to grammatical rules as a necessary labor to advance Hartlib’s “pious endeavour for the publique good.”

Neither Brookes nor Webbe explicitly described knowledge of languages, or language pedagogy, as “useful,” but their debate turned on a question about the role of “Use” for acquiring knowledge of languages. Webbe insisted that teaching grammatical rules could instill nothing but frustration in students, given the nature of language itself. For Webbe, effective and elegant composition proceeded from the “use” of language, which one could learn from sustained encounters with classical authors unmediated by grammarians, and immersive travel in foreign cities (in 1652 the German scholar Georgius Hornius combined these methods and wrote to Hartlib suggesting the establishment of whole colonies composed of classical Latin, Greek and Hebrew speakers, strictly for educational purposes). Brookes received Webbe’s radical vision of a grammar-less pedagogy with skepticism, but concurred that “The Overthrow of all Learning is the not fitting it to use therefore Languages must be taught also in the same manner.” In this debate, both authors elevate “Use” as a, possibly the, most important pedagogical principle to distinguish genuine knowledge of language from pedantic knowledge of grammar.

Bookes and Webbe’s debate suggest that while “useful” became a ready descriptor for any invention, scheme, or patent proposed to advance the public interest in the mid-17th century, scholars were also exploring the relationship between knowledge and its “use” in abstract terms. “Useful knowledge” would come to refer primarily to those sciences and arts that yielded a greater authority over nature, but humanistic scholars and erudite projectors like Thomas Harrison did insist on the uniquely useful quality of the knowledge they offered, all while debating whether knowledge without use could count as knowledge at all.

The same theologians and educators who debated the relationship between knowledge and its use proceeded to propose plans to realize ideal grammar schools and bibliographic tools in the name of the public interest. These discussions of “use” in humanist pedagogy and practical divinity suggest that the proliferating language of projection accompanied shifts in the conception and construction of the knowledge it sought to describe. The sources of those new conceptions and the political and religious pressures that spurred them offer a generative field for further research.

Thomas Harrison failed to convince the right people that his note-taking system was useful enough to warrant the generous support for which he pleaded. While his associates excelled in propagating their plans for education reform and national improvement, his scheme sat unnoticed and largely unknown for decades after his early death. Whether he met his demise because the “usefulness” of his invention was plausible only to him, or because, as he feared, the republican government had little patience for a dispossessed royalist debtor, becomes an important question when we begin to follow the history of the concept.

Simon Brown is a PhD student in history at UC Berkeley. He is interested in theology and political economy in early modern England, and his research focuses on “Useful Knowledge” between the Reformation and the Enlightenment. 

What We’re Reading: Week of 4th December

At a Book (oil on canvas)

At a Book (oil on canvas), Bashkirtseva, Maria Konstantinova (1860-84) / Kharkov Art Museum, Kharkov, Russia / Bridgeman Images


Alex Shephard, “The politics of the Middle East peace process is shifting in favor of Israel” (The New Republic)

Ted Genaways, “Compromised” (The New Republic)

Leon WIeseltier, “Reason and the Republic of Opinion” (The New Republic)

Jeffrey Toobin, “Justices Ginsburg and Kagan Ask about the Artistry of Wedding Cakes” (The New Yorker)


Richard Beck, “I guess I’m about to do a highly immoral thing: On The Vietnam War” (n+1)

Ceridwen Dovey, “Mapping Massacres” (New Yorker)

Menachem Wecker, “Confederate Monuments and the Power of Absence” (Religion and Politics)


Sam Kean, “Twenty-First-Century Alchemists” (New Yorker)

Caroline Crampton, “Falstaff shows Verdi can be funny” (New Statesman)

Josh Kramer, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Striking Pop-Cultural Legacy” (The Atlantic)

Leonard Barkan, “Ingestion / What’s for Dinner?” (Cabinet)


Neal Ascherson, “Big Man Walking,” (LRB)

Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, “How A Democracy Dies,” (New Republic)

Sashi Nair, “A Federation of White Anxiety,” (Overland)


Make Acrostics Magical Again? Part I

By Contributing Writer Sarah Scullin

Acrostics—the name given to secret words spelled out in the first lines or paragraphs of a text—are experiencing a bit of a renaissance thanks to two high-profile letters that used this hidden coding to protest the Trump administration. In Late August, Former Science Envoy Daniel Kammen tweeted out a resignation letter, addressed to Trump, that featured the acrostic I-M-P-E-A-C-H. Just five days earlier the 17 members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, in a joint letter, spelled out R-E-S-I-S-T.

Now, before one lobs accusations that this acrostic-usage is a bit of partisan foolishness, let me just mention that these are merely the most recent in a long line of what could be accused of bipartisan foolishness, given the long-lived B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I Twitter acrostic is accused here of being “inane” and “crazy” and “extremely distracting.” For those centrists who like to believe themselves above the fray, may I direct you to the governator’s subtle F-U-C-K Y-O-U to San Franciscan lawmakers.

Image #1 Acrostics copy

Berkeley Professor and former science envoy to the State Department Daniel Kammen’s resignation letter contains an acrostic spelling of “IMPEACH.”

Acrostics, then, seem to be considered an equally partisan—if “not exactly sophisticated”—way to register protest. But this practice didn’t begin four years ago on Twitter, it has deep roots in antiquity; and it wasn’t always used for registering political anger or protest.

Contextualizing these recent acrostics within the history of the practice is a useful way of analyzing them. It’s certainly easy enough to dismiss the B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I tweets as empty “insanity,” or to label the Trump resignation acrostics as “infantile inanity.” After all, most Americans’ experience with acrostics happens in grade school, when we’re forced to crayon a M-O-T-H-E-R poem for Mother’s Day or eke out a rhyming poem that matches each letter of our first name to some kind of self-esteem boosting creed of “things I’m good at.” But comparing the ancient and modern usage can lead us to ask deeper questions we might not have otherwise: What kind of message does an acrostic really send? How can we assess if an acrostic is “productive”? Are acrostics hidden messages or overt snark? Are they—in fact—childish tricks, or do they have some kind of binding, magical force?


Some of the oldest acrostics are found in the Hebrew bible. These biblical puzzles are primarily of what’s known as the “alphabetic” type. Now these earliest examples don’t really absolve acrostics of their grade-school reputation, since they literally just spelled out—as the name implies—the alphabet (see, e.g. Psalms 9-10). These types of acrostics were meant to capitalize on the magic (like, actual magic) that the alphabet was thought to possess. This is the same kind of magical thinking that underlies the term “abracadabra,” or the practice in kabbalism of assigning numerical power to letters.

In this case, the message is not so much contained within the meaning of the actual encoded word as it is in the binding power of the acrostic form. When looked at this way, those grade-school alphabetic acrostics aren’t just a case of an author being clever (or practicing his ABCs), but speak to some of the most powerful issues that underlie artistic expression, especially that of the written word: everything we say, everything you read, for better or worse (and in these days of online commentary, more seems to be for the worse than the better) is made from a small handful of letters. The power of the word—of the letters that make the word—should not, perhaps, be dismissed as sophomoric.

Nearly as old as the biblical examples, Babylonian acrostics date back to the 7th c. BCE kings Ashurbanipal and Nebuchadrezzar II, both of whom were recipients of acrostic poems that spelled out their names (gifts for ancient Babylonian Father’s Day?). Similar to the R-E-S-I-S-T and I-M-P-E-A-C-H acrostics, these puzzles are decoded by stringing together the first letter of each stanza (i.e. paragraph) of the poem. In direct contrast to our modern political examples, the majority of these acrostics, found in hymns, prayers, or wisdom poems, spelled out names or sentences that were obvious praise for an authority—usually the king or a god.

There is one exception, however: one Babylonian acrostic does seem to allow for political dissent, even if it actually reverses the situation we see in, say, the governator’s acrostic: the poem entitled The Babylonian Theodicy is ostensibly about how terrible the gods are (the poem presents a dialogue between friends, one of whom blames the gods for his misfortunes, while the other, who defends the gods for the majority of the poem, eventually concedes the point that the gods are, in fact, assholes). The author of this poem, however, uses an acrostic to embed the message that he, unlike his fictional subjects, loves the god and the king (“I, Saggil-kînam-ubbib, the incantation priest, am adorant of the god and the king”). Rather than registering dissent, here the author uses an acrostic to protect himself from charges of heresy and disloyalty.

This example is more appropriately a reversal in the form, not the intent of Schwarznegger’s acrostic, where plausible deniability is assured for both Arnold and Saggil-kînam-ubbib. In the case of R-E-S-I-S-T, I-M-P-E-A-C-H, and B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I, however, the relationship between the messaging of the acrostic and the main text is one of reinforcement: both resignation letters already registered their dissatisfaction with the Trump administration. I mean, they’re resignation letters. What’s more, the letters, while addressed to a single recipient, were disseminated widely and publicly  by their authors. If we think of these acrostics as failed sneaky attempts to register dangerous dissent against the current administration, we are the inane ones.

Some acrostics, in fact, I would argue, every acrostic I’ve discussed so far, is meant to be found: the alphabetic acrostics were long and a robust enough genre to be easily recognizable, while the Babylonian acrostics signaled their presence within the main text by repeating identical cuneiform signs. Schwarznegger’s representative’s response, “My Goodness. What a coincidence.” might as well be punctuated with a final “/s”

Acrostics again show up in a religious context in the early Christian era, and again perform a sort of magico-religious form of praise. The eighth book of the Sybilline oracles, for example, encodes a reference, in Greek, to Jesus that seems intended to glorify Christ. This acrostic is not as easy to decode as the religious examples above, however: it actually spells out ἰχθύς—the Greek word for fish, but is also an acronym for iêsous chreistos theou uios sôtêr stauros (“Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior, Cross”). And that’s why people have Jesus fish on their cars.

This combination of both acrostic and acronym points to the fact that this puzzle was encoded in an era in which to be “outed” as Christian was to risk death or torture. It’s doubtful that just anyone was intended to be able to understand this hidden code. Rather, this is a type of acrostic that is meant to be undiscovered by most—found only by those “in the know” who had been initiated into Christianity.

Sarah Scullin is Managing Editor for Eidolon, a public-facing journal that aims to make the Classics political and personal, feminist and fun. She received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012.