Parting of the Ways

Unlike certain other historians and classicists, I’m not proposing to offer my ha’penny worth on the Scottish Question, for all that it would probably do temporary wonders for my visitor stats. Rather, I run the risk of annoying people on both sides by declining, and/or being unable, to choose. I can see merits in the arguments of both sides, as well as serious flaws; I can feel something of the emotional and cultural charge of both; I have been inspired and energised, in quite contradictory ways, by passionate voices on both sides; and I am all too aware of how far my own situation and interests influence my evaluation of the debate – which is to say that, if I were living in Scotland and so actually had a vote, I suspect I would still be undecided, even at this late stage, but in rather different ways from my current uncertainty. It is, one might say, the stance of the typical historian; congenitally incapable of not seeing how complicated, ambiguous and uncertain everything is.

What I did want to comment on was a remark in one of the letters in the Grauniad this morning, addressing the article on Scotland and its relation with the Tories by Tom Devine.

Tom Devine seems to show that while historians are good at analysing the past, they are no better than the rest of us in making political judgements about the present or the future.

Well, yes. Continue Reading »

I Have A Dream…

I dream of a better world. A world in which academics can be trusted to take a visiting speaker out to dinner without blowing the entire school budget on hookers and gin, or indeed inventing entirely fictional visiting speakers in order to create a plausible opportunity to spend the university’s money irresponsibly on personal pleasure. Sadly we do not live in such a world, or at least that’s the only reasonable conclusion from the fact that I have had to fill out a load of forms to prove the existence of each visiting speaker, establish his/her academic credentials and explain why we’re wasting valuable time inviting them to the department, and justifying giving them dinner – and another set of forms to beg for an exemption from using the university catering service, who wouldn’t be in a position to provide a quick dinner for such a speaker in any case. Academic behaviour in the past must have been pretty dubious to have inspired the creation of these rules; we can only try to control our appetite for luxury and self-indulgence in future…

Tip of the Tail

The thoroughly wonderful avant-pop-electro-folk duo Trwbador have just released their second album, Several Wolves (which you should all rush off and buy*), and I was struck by a remark from guitarist and producer Owain Gwilym: “I know this album has done way better than the last because it was pirated within 24 hours and is now on about 300 pirate websites“. And that’s good? I asked him. Apparently yes: unless you’re a really successful mega-band, record sales are basically a loss leader: the real sources of income come either from things that can’t easily be copied (live performance) or from people who can’t get away with not paying (national media, advertisers). The record is now a means of advertising the product rather than the product itself.

Partly because I’m in the final throes of getting a book ready for publication (the 600-page Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides), this led me to reflect on parallels and comparisons with academic publishing. One obvious conclusion is that we academics were well ahead of the game; while there are still plenty of musicians complaining loudly that music piracy is robbing them of a living, I doubt if we academics have ever thought that royalties on academic publications would give us a steady income, or recompense us for even a modicum of the time and labour invested in writing and editing them. Continue Reading »

I’ve been contemplating possible historical analogies for the role of Head of Department (or Head of Subject or Subject Lead, the titles now in use in my own faculty) in a context where all the control of financial matters, and a lot of control of everything else, resides at a higher level of the organisation. The position is temporary, a matter of a couple of years (even fewer, if I can provoke my colleagues into launching a coup), rather than permanent; it is supposedly meritocratic, but more likely depends on a mixture of seniority, status and vulnerability to moral pressure (there may be people who really want this sort of job, but mostly it appears to get assigned to those who accept that they have some sort of duty and/or haven’t come up with a good enough excuse to avoid it). More or less no power that I’ve been able to identify, but not purely ceremonial; on the contrary, a fair amount of responsibility: to represent the department to higher authority, to defend it against wacky schemes and exciting initiatives, and at the same time to try to cajole colleagues into obeying the dictats that can’t simply be ignored, sometimes trying to translate them into a language that’s more acceptable or accessible to academics… Continue Reading »

A couple of weeks ago I was in Trier on the invitation of Prof. Christoph Schaefer to give a paper in a series on ‘Connecting the Ancient World: Mediterranean shipping, maritime networks and their impact’ – a series that I really wish I’d heard the rest of, but will just have to wait for the publication. The real pleasure of the trip, besides the excellent hospitality and the fact that Trier is a wonderful city for all lovers of Roman stuff – I’m already thinking about organising a student trip, to give me an excuse to go back – was the opportunity of hearing about the work of the ancient history team there, and questioning a few of my own preconceptions about methodology.

Experimental archaeology, for example; there’s something about building replica ballistas in order to fire iron bolts at dummies wearing replica armour that seems too much like fun to be proper academic research. Continue Reading »

The appalling events in Gaza over the last couple of weeks have brought to the fore a long-standing debate about the proper place of emotion and subjective judgement in journalism. Those reporting on such topics as war, famine, the death of children and so forth are constantly faced with difficult moral questions about their own conduct, their role in packaging horror for a mass audience, and the expectation of neutrality in all their accounts. The decisions of Jon Snow and Channel 4 that he should to express his personal view in a YouTube video while maintaining the normal appearance of objectivity and aloofness on air has been widely discussed, including a passionate but problematic article by Giles Fraser in yesterday’s Grauniad: How Can Journalists Be Objective When Writing About Dead Children? Continue Reading »

Catching up on last week’s edition of Die Zeit – a hectic trip to Trier, of which more shortly, followed by desperate efforts to catch up with the overgrown garden and the burgeoning pile of emails – I find further evidence that the idea of Thucydides as all-purpose authority on international relations and global politics is infiltrating German discourse on these topics – or at any rate the pages of Die Zeit, whose Radakteur, Josef Joffe, has some form in this regard: see comments below this blog. In an article entitled ‘Kann man Kriege verhindern?’, which also draws in Ian Morris’ claims for the useful and productive nature of war, Andrea Boehm and Gero von Randow offer a conventional reading of Thucydides’ account of the causes of and motives for conflict:

The face of war has changed over the centuries, but the motives for war have stayed the same. What the ancient historian Thucydides described in his work The Peloponnesian War is still valid today. For example, that the causes of and reasons for [Anlass and Ursache] a war must be differentiated. Whatever form the trigger may take – a box on the ear, a fall through a window, an assassination, a law related to language as occurred not long ago in the Crimea or a murderous kidnapping as that of the three Israeli students recently – the central motives remain those which Thucydides established over 2000 years ago: fear, honour and interest.

Continue Reading »


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