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.