Arguments for War

Here we go again? As plenty of people have already observed, the debate around whether or not the United Kingdom should join the bombing campaign in Syria feel terribly familiar. For most, this suggests 2003 all over again; in today’s Grauniad, for example, Martin Kettle notes the resemblances but claims that MPs have clearly learnt important lessons from last time, while Ewen MacAskill‘s analysis of Cameron’s case offers clear evidence that the government, at least, hasn’t (or doesn’t care). For ancient historians, and international relations theorists who have fallen under the spell of Thucydides, it is tempting to identify a much longer and more inexorable cycle of repetition, one that is inherent in human affairs.

Thucydides’ work could be characterised in part as a series of arguments for war, or at least for military intervention and the exercise of violence: multiple variations on a single theme. Continue Reading »

A quick plug for a podcast organised by Richard Flower at Exeter, in which I waffle about ancient and modern historiography for half an hour or so. A slightly painful reminder that when I produce my own podcasts, I tend to edit out the really long pauses and so manage to sound far more articulate, and rather less like a baritone Kenneth Williams, than I actually am in real life.

It gets wackier at about 23’45” – and, yes, you can skip ahead very easily – when Richard drops the sensible questions and asks what in antiquity I would like to experience (boring answer: drop in to visit Thucydides, to find out if he did actually finish his work, or if his daughter did, and even see if I can grab a copy), and what I would want to change about the ancient world (setting aside the possibility of just making everyone nicer and less exploitative, then I’d like to save Plataea. Not sure why, as it wouldn’t in my opinion have made the slightest difference to the course of the war, but I have always felt terribly sorry for the Plataeans…). And a final question: would we have wanted the Athenians to win the Peloponnesian War?

Yes, long time since I had time to post anything here, for which I can only apologise to anyone who’s actually interested. It hasn’t all been the usual mid-term weight of teaching and admin, nor can I entirely blame the kittens, their various ailments and the way they’ve been behaving since they got better, that have made uninterrupted sleep a rare and precious commodity. No, there was also a trip to the First International Conference on Anticipation in Trento last week, plus writing the paper for that beforehand, a fascinating and stimulating event that I shall be blogging on in due course – but you’re going to have to wait a bit until I’ve caught up on the emails.

In the meantime, if you’re feeling bereft of history-related reading, I’d like to point you in the direction of Ned Richardson-Little’s latest blog post (he’s also well worth following on Twitter, @HistoryNed, for pictures and stories from the DDR), on The Long Fall of the Berlin Wall Continue Reading »

Absence of Evidence

Apologies for the lack of posts recently; partly, the usual effects of the beginning of term crossed with a series of cold/flu bugs, and partly because I’ve spent the last week as guest tweeter for the @WeTheHumanities account, attempting to demonstrate the continuing vitality of the humanities. I’m not sure what it may mean that the comments which got the greatest level of response were those focused on artisan foodstuffs, followed by complaints about the difficulty of combining domestic chores and the academic life, while carefully crafted provocations about the possible limitations of the sorts of knowledge our disciplines can produce, compared with the apparently solid and practical findings of the sciences and social sciences, apparently fell on deaf ears – or, people just didn’t want to go there.

Still, I benefitted from thinking through some of these issues, and I’m delighted to announce that I’ve developed a completely new approach to the ‘impact’ of my Thucydides research. This is an area that has often made me feel rather uneasy Continue Reading »

Stuck in the Middle…

Just to prove that Australians don’t remotely have a monopoly on invoking Thucydides in the antipodes – and one would scarcely expect that they should, given they share with other former British dominions a common inheritance (however differently problematic) of Old World classical interests and (perhaps more pertinent) a common association with Thucydides, the Aegean and war through the Dardanelles Campaign in WWI, hence a tendency to quote the Funeral Oration on public war monuments – I’ve just been pointed towards an interesting paper by Vangelis Vitalis, currently New Zealand’s ambassador to the European Union and NATO (and a few other places): Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War and Small State Foreign Policy in the 21st Century: Lessons for New Zealand, originally given as a lecture to the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies in Canberra in 2011.

Vitalis opens with some conventional remarks about Thucydides’ “timeless” political wisdom – the Melian Dialogue. inevitably, with citations of Kaplan, Huntington (both of whom should ring a few alarm bells) and W.R. Connor – and the standard comparison of the period of the Peloponnesian War to today’s multi-polar, more or less anarchic international scene. His focus is rather more interesting, however: the behaviour and strategies of the “small states” caught in the cross-fire between Athens and Sparta Continue Reading »

Thucydides citing Pericles (2.37.2): “We show no animosity at our neighbours’ choice of pleasures, nor cast aspersions that may hurt even if they do not harm.”  Even if you don’t go so far as to change the final word to “ham” (thanks for that, @JohnPowersUS), the relevance of this line to today’s wild-fire of an unsubstantiated rumour seems obvious. But we could take it in different ways. Read straight, as an accurate reproduction of Pericles’ noble rhetoric, this can seem like a judgement on our own trivial. tabloid-driven society, in which the idea that ‘the personal is political’ becomes an excuse to ignore serious debate in favour of gossip; it’s only a day or so since people, largely the same people as are now giggling about this story, were denouncing the tabloid attacks on things that Jeremy Corbyn said or did decades ago. But then one might reasonably reply that someone who was quite happy to join in presenting Corbyn in the most lurid terms as a threat to national security has given up his right then to get huffy about other people’s muck-raking and occupy the moral high ground. And that’s before we get to the fact that Pericles was someone with an obvious reason for wanting to insist on the irrelevance of private pleasures to public life – and that Thucydides was perfectly aware of those, and could imagine that enough of his readers knew about Aspasia to hear that line and, sniggering, think “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he..?”

Here Comes The New Boss

The British media and political class don’t do really Thucydides in the way that he’s a fixture of public discourse in the US (and, it seems, is now making inroads into Australia), or we might by now have seen a rush of references from those horrified by the election of Jeremy Corbyn to “hope, danger’s comforter”, the irrational exuberance of the Athenians in the Sicilian Debate, the depiction of factional in-fighting in the Corcyrean episode, or the general “history repeats itself, people being what they are, so it’ll be 1983 all over again” pessimism of his methodological statements in Book 1.* We have already had lots of more general (and non-classical) comments in a similar vein, arguing that the ‘lessons of history’, and more particularly the lessons of the 1980s, demonstrate the foolishness of abandoning the middle ground, however far rightwards it’s moved, and however much one might yearn for a bit more principle.

It isn’t that history is necessarily a conservative discipline, Continue Reading »


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