There’s nothing like the reporting of a sensational new scholarly discovery in the national press to make me feel that my natural environment may be in a 1950s Oxbridge common room, grumbling over the port, rather than maintaining this pretence that I am some sort of engaged, public-facing, anti-elitist academic. This morning it’s the greatest development in literary studies for centuries, with the alleged identification of a new portrait of William Shakespeare that will undoubtedly transform our understanding of all his plays (not quite sure how the presence of a snake’s-head fritillary is supposed to influence the interpretation of Hamlet, but then I’m not a literary scholar). It’s all too reminiscent of the fuss over the discovery of the actual bones of Richard III, which demanded the re-writing of pretty well the whole of English history (and doubtless is part of the unique traditions that show we should leave the EU forthwith), where I found myself quite out of step with the majority in my bemusement at the idea that this had any historical significance whatsoever (but that did generate the highest viewing figures on this blog ever, and almost led to an invitation to speak on BBC Radio Bristol on the occasion of the re-interment, so it’s tempting to try to repeat the experiment: Whoop-de-doo!). Continue Reading »

Europa Endlos

The two most distinctive cries of the professional historian are “the simple answer is, we’re not sure” and “actually it’s rather more complicated than that”. This is how it should be: the past is complex, fragmentary and always in dispute, and it should go against all our instincts and training to pretend otherwise, however much this then annoys other people in dinner party conversations, let alone our colleagues in the social sciences. Of course, this does mean that our potential usefulness to others is strictly limited, unless we bite our tongues a lot; too much damned equivocating (I always think of the famous meeting of historians of Germany summoned by Margaret Thatcher to tell her whether reunification would be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing; well, of course it depends…). Continue Reading »

Free and Easy

I don’t really have time for this post – I’m off to Berlin tomorrow for a research fellowship with the TOPOI Exzellenzkluster, and so desperately scrambling to get everything sorted out before abandoning my duties – but there are times when the only reasonable response to something is to say, very loudly, ‘¡No pasarán! Like this:

For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. (David Cameron, 13/5/2015)

I imagine that this is coincidental – as Liz Sawyer has charted, in her contribution to the Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides, British politicians (unlike US ones) are not prone to quoting Thucydides in speeches – but this does seem like a direct response to, or repudiation of, some of the sentiments of Pericles’ Funeral Oration (especially Thuc. 2.37).

Just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life we do not get in a state with our neighbour if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the sort of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings… We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law.

Of course this isn’t a completely new and dramatic lurch into illiberal policies when it comes to civil liberties, but it does seem like a shift: not just an explicit intent to intervene in the private sphere, but also a change from passing more and more laws to criminalise additional areas of behaviour to announcing, apparently, that illegality is now irrelevant if the authorities decide that they don’t like something, and encouraging everyone else to pile in. And of course Cameron then goes on to include freedom of speech, democracy and the rule of law among the British values that his government will seek to promote by, erm, ignoring them when it comes to certain people.

“Our constitution is called a democracy… We abide by the rule of law.” Not any more.

Certain strands of contemporary ancient economic history have a tendency to suffer from economics envy, rather as some social scientists suffer from science envy: partly it’s the apparent solidity and certainty of the knowledge that it generates, and the confident assertions of its practitioners, unconstrained by the sorts of wishy-washy historicist doubts that plague humanities scholars; partly it’s the fame and the money; and partly, at least some of the time, it’s about the possibility of direct engagement with the world, the fact that ‘real’ people (i.e. policy makers and governments) will actually listen to economists now and again. This envy is then one of the drivers of the adoption of economic theory in the study of the ancient economy – by no means the only driver, as there are entirely sound reasons why some economic ideas can be useful, but it’s surely a factor; hence (again, if we’re being pedantic, among other reasons) the popularity of the New Institutional Economics, which allows ancient historians to align themselves ostentatiously with contemporary (well, only slightly dated) economic approaches without actually having too abandon too much of the complexity and historical specificity that is our bread and butter. It also fuels the ongoing disparagement of alternative approaches to pre-modern economies as naive primitivism, obsessively raking over the fruitless debates of the 1970s rather than facing up to post-1989 reality. As I’ve argued elsewhere – can’t for the moment remember whether it’s here or in a forthcoming publication, or possibly both – the neoliberal agenda is pretty unmistakeable in ancient economic history as elsewhere. Continue Reading »


A big hello to anyone who’s newly arrived here as a result of my brief appearance, with the wonderful Katherine Harloe, on this morning’s Today programme on Radio 4 – especially since this blog was presented as my main claim to authority on the subject. I should make it clear from the start that I don’t write this thing full-time (and was I imagining the disdain in John Humphry’s voice at the thought that I did? What is happening to British universities these days..?); it’s very much a side-line compared with the teaching, administration and academic publications that actually produce a salary, something that I can keep going by scribbling posts on the train when travelling in to work, just as a way of keeping my brain functioning when there doesn’t seem to be any free time for thought… If only this were full-time, and I actually got money and/or kudos for doing it (okay, it has yielded an invitation onto the Today programme, which isn’t to be sneezed at).

One of the consequences of this is that posts here are, at best, rather erratic; I try to put something new up at least once a fortnight, but it really depends on whether I have any inspiration and the time in which to do something with it. Another consequence is that this has a tendency to be somewhat self-indulgent at times, to say the least; this is a chance for me to think through random ideas that interest me, which may end up becoming something more serious in due course or which may end their lives as a blog post, and so they really can be quite random – lots of Thucydides, but also economic history, German literature, pop music, beer, jazz and a fair amount of griping about certain tendencies in modern higher education. It all interests me; I don’t for a moment imagine that it will all interest anyone else, so feel free to skip as much as you like (and I do try to be quite careful with tags for different posts, so you should be able to find topics that do relate to your own interests).

Update: incidentally, if you are particularly interested in the issue of Thucydides, the Melian Dialogue and the current stand-off between Greece, Germany, the IMF and the Eurozone, the relevant posts are here, here (see also the second comment), here (again, see also the comments) and here (long post on Varoufakis and game theory), plus a more accessible version of the latter over at the Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post.

I’m also particularly fond of the thesis I developed a couple of years ago, which I decided not to mention in this morning’s discussion, to the effect that Thucydides is actually a virus that turns people into shambling Neorealist zombies: here.

Glory and Gore

Was Thucydides’ unsuccessful attempt at relieving Amphipolis simply the result of bad luck, as he seems to imply in his own account, so that on another day the whole course of the Thracian campaign against Brasidas might have turned out differently? Was the Athenian expedition to Sicily always a hubristic bit of imperial over-reach doomed to failure, or might it, in slightly different circumstances, have been the brilliant gambit that led to an overwhelming victory in the war and the establishment of a true Athenian Empire? Now you too can explore the counterfactual possibilities that Thucydides dangles before his readers, by playing an exciting new board game, Pride and Glory: the Peloponnesian War. If I actually had any free time, I now have a new way of filling it in prospect… Continue Reading »

Someone – sorry, can’t for the moment recall where I saw this; maybe in commentary on Jon Hesk’s recent blog post on the ‘Challengers’ debate and ancient political rhetoric – recently noted in passing that they knew of some school students studying Aristophanes’ Knights with Nigel Farage playing the role of the Sausage-Seller, the rogue who out-bids even the shameless Kleon in his rabble-rousing. Fair enough, one might say, apart from the fact that it does let other politicians off the hook by attributing manipulative and shifty rhetoric to Farage alone; arguably they’re all Sausage-Sellers, or at least – and this is perhaps a more reasonable interpretation – they’re all being encouraged by highly-paid advisers to bury their decent instincts and reservations in the interests of victory, in the spirit of the end justifying the means.

This is most obvious in the case of the repulsive discussions of immigration as the Great Spoken issue of the election campaign, where even Labour is producing souvenir merchandise of their capitulation to, at best, profound moral feebleness.

Continue Reading »


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