Brace For Impact

For obvious reasons, the CIA is desperately casting around for friends and allies at the moment, and isn’t inclined to be too fussy about cosying up to groups with equally blemished reputations, declining public support and clouds of accusations of dubious practice. Naturally this includes Classics and Ancient History. At any rate that’s my reading of a recent piece in the Harvard Review on ‘Classical Studies and Today’s Middle East’ by one Andrew S. Gilmour, a member of the CIA’s Senior Analytic Team. Of course the article comes with a lengthy caveat to the effect that all views, opinions and analysis are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the US Government or any of its agencies, but why else would a high-level spook be waxing lyrical about the potential contribution of Altertumswissenschaft to making sense of the intractable conflicts of the region? “Let us invite professional classicists and their supporters to join the discourse. Then, we may also succeed in winning new students to a discipline too formative to abandon and too useful to forgo.”

I cannot be the only UK-based classicist to read those words and instantly think “IMPACT!!!” Continue Reading »


Signing off Twitter for the next couple of days – anything I say on there could easily be misinterpreted, even rants about UKIP-supporting badgers destroying my entire parsnip crop. Ditto Facebook; too many academic ‘friends’, some of whom I’ve forgotten I ever befriended. I *think* Spotify is safe; even if I didn’t manage to disable all the settings that wanted to share my listening with the rest of the world, the fact that 58% of the songs I listened to last year were in the post rock genre means that only ardent Mogwai fans will have any hope of deciphering my mood from the specific choice of feedback-laden drone.

Yes, it’s the day when Unit of Assessment co-ordinators for the Research Excellence Framework get sent the results, and have to avoid giving the slightest hint to anyone else of whether these are a cause for celebration, relief or despair. The ‘total share mode’ encouraged by social media is not really conducive to such secrecy…

Unreliable Narration

One of the crucial insight of Greek historiography was that different accounts of a past event might be truthful and sincere, and yet untrue and misleading. Herodotus clearly recognised this, as seen in the way that he often offers several different versions of an event (different not only in their interpretations but even in their selection of key information) and then goes on to offer his own judgement of where the truth lies, or the real story that none of these partial perspectives has been able to grasp. Thucydides went further, not only noting the inconsistency of his informants and the fallibility of human memory, but also listing the various factors that might also lead would-be chroniclers of the past astray (failure to be critical, wish to please audience etc.).

Both these writers present this as one of the great challenges they faced – and thus bolster the authority of their accounts, as they have recognised the problem and sought to address it, unlike their rivals. This insight informs their underlying historical methods, as it does the methods of all subsequent versions of critical historiography, but it also raises questions about the appropriate means of representing such divergence and disagreement – if it is to be mentioned at all. Continue Reading »

Pure Indulgence

Part of the joy of holding any sort of position of academic leadership is the need to respond quickly and imaginatively to unexpected bits of randomness appearing out of a clear blue sky. This week it was our student newspaper publishing a story about whether arts students get value for money for their student fees; they’d acquired some figures from the university under a Freedom of Information request, and divided a total for teaching expenditure in each department by the student numbers, yielding a figure for ‘spend per head’ that could be compared with the standard £9000 fee. Not surprisingly, arts students were revealed by this calculation to be ‘subsidising’ scientists to the tune of many thousands of pounds per year – with one striking exception: Classics students appeared second in the table, just after Clinical Dentistry, apparently subsidised by everyone else by more than £6K pa.

Once we’d got over the hysterical giggling, it was imperative to work out what on earth was going on so as to demand a correction, in hope of preventing the appearance of an angry, pitchfork-wielding mob of disgruntled English and History students from marching on the department. Continue Reading »


Another key theme that had unmistakably emerged by the end of the first day of Deep Classics (see previous post) is the nature of the (our) desire for the past, and its possible consequences. As Adam Lecznar remarked early on, “aren’t we just here to talk about our feelings?” One implication of developing a Queer Classics is a greater emphasis on the personal response and a concern about how to communicate this – should we be moving away from traditional academic impersonal pseudo-omniscience in favour of polyvocality, or does that risk oppressing or erasing our personal voice? Why is so much of our engagement with antiquity a purely intellectual, or at least mental, experience, when we really want to fondle it? Continue Reading »

Wir Rezeptionsgelehrten

We’re now 25% of the way through Bristol’s Deep Classics conference (which I’m also erratically live-tweeting), and some key over-arching themes and questions are already becoming clear. One is of course focused on the cultural connotations and possible subliminal messages of the name itself: is this intentionally or unintentionally referencing Deep History, or the Watergate mole, or a 1970s porn film, or the Bee Gees? Another focuses on the nature of the project and its possible hidden agenda: is Deep Classics effectively Queer Classics, as Sebastian Matzner seemed to suggest in his paper this morning? Or is it Anti-Classics, as implied by Helen Morales in her passing discussion of the conference in a review in the TLS earlier this year? Anti-Historicism, Post-Historicism or the New New Historicism?

A third theme, inevitably suggested by Deep Classics’ emphasis on the fragmentary nature of our knowledge of the classical past and “the very pose by which the human present turns its attention to the distant human past” (Shane Butler’s now much-quoted phrase), is that of its relation to Reception Studies – is this an alternative, or a development, or even a repudiation? Continue Reading »

The Outer Limits

As followers of my Twitter feed will know, I’ve spent the last two weekends away from home, giving papers and attending conferences at St Andrews (post-classical libraries) and Regensburg (migration, mobility and innovation in pre-modern cities). The cats are still barely speaking to me for abandoning them, I’m not sure my wife is a lot happier, and I feel thoroughly exhausted, but both were great experiences – if nothing else, it’s wonderful to spend some time thinking about things other than university admin, and to realise that I can actually still have ideas if given a bit of space in which to have them.

Of course, that then leads to the problem of not having any time to do anything with those ideas. Continue Reading »


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