August 13th is the 28th International Left-Handers’ Day. The usual journalistic response is to point out the disproportionate number of US Presidents who have been left-handed, including Thomas Jefferson, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Few of those succeeded, within 8 months in office, in threatening us with nuclear war and Nazi rallies, so perhaps the Americans’ great mistake last November was to elect a right-hander.
For light relief let’s look at some of the rare indications of left-handers in antiquity. A papyrus in Göttingen contains a letter written by the clearly left-handed Aurelius Victor, a post office accountant in Oxyrhynchus. The experts can tell this from the contorted way he pens his lambdas. A vase in the Louvre depicts FOUR mysteriously left-handed lyre-players. This could at a pinch be an artist’s mistake, but I like to think that the artist was left-handed and paying himself a secret compliment.
Left-handedness is often thought to be correlated with high IQ. Aristotle is sometimes said to have been left-handed simply because he was fascinated by the natural differences between left- and right-handed children. Plato said that we are all by nature ambidextrous, but that through ‘the folly of nurses and mothers’ we lose power in one hand: this causes problems in warfare if anyone ends up left-handed. If you think about the hoplite phalanx you can see what he means, so I’m intrigued to find a left-handed hoplite lion on a lovely Greek gemstone in the BM. Shield on right paw and sword held in left.
A left-handed gladiator, however, was at an advantage if fighting a right-hander, because his opponent might have had little opportunity to train against left-handers. The Emperor Commodus (the one in the movie Gladiator) liked to boast about his left-handed gladiatorial prowess. Albanus, the figure on the right in this graffito from Pompeii, is a left-hander fighting the right-handed Severus, and the abbreviation SC. after his name represents SCAEVA, ‘left-hander’.
Assyrian kings liked to be portrayed fighting from chariots, but in only one such portrait, a wall-painting from Til-Barsip near Aleppo in Syria, is a left-handed king portrayed. He holds the bow in his right hand, and his sword is sheathed on his right. He is probably the obsessive astrologer Esarhaddon, who reigned from 681 – 669 BCE.
The most famous ancient left-hander was Gaius Mucius, a Roman citizen who volunteered to assassinate the hostile Etruscan king Lars Porsena in 508 BCE. He was not very bright and accidentally killed the wrong man. He was captured. To show how brave Romans were, he shoved his right hand into a sacrificial fire and did not cry out. Porsena was impressed, freed him and sued for peace with Rome. So our newly one-handed hero was given the honorary cognomen Scaevola or ‘Left-Handed’.
|President Garfield brushing up his classical languages|
But I can’t finish without pointing out that one ambidextrous U.S. president, Andrew Garfield, could simultaneously write the same sentence in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other. This was impressive because he had risen from abject poverty. It sadly did not prevent him serving for less than a year; he was assassinated in the September of 1881 only months after entering office.
A pity. Those were the days when U.S. presidents still said things like ‘Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained’. How Times Have Changed.