Bread and Circuses

One imagines that the Daily Mail, and a fair number of members of the governing coalition, look back to ancient Rome in longing and admiration: a state that on the one hand was both rich and powerful, and on the other hand had an utterly minimalist conception of its duties – basically, making war and protecting the interests of its rulers. Whenever there was any sign of concern for the mass of the population, it was strictly delimited and controlled: no attempt at poor relief or support for the weakest and most vulnerable in society, but a share in the spoils of empire for a privileged group in the capital – citizens only, no migrants or other foreigners. This morning’s story about an undercover reporter claiming to be unemployed and desperate, and receiving a voucher for a food bank as a result, reminded me for some reason of the story about a senator who’d voted against the corn dole turning up in the queue to claim his share – but almost entirely because it highlights the differences: the ‘scandal’ today is that a charity failed to assume that every person asking it for help is a lying, cheating scrounger, whereas in Rome this would be taken for granted – what else could one expect from the plebs, and why would one give them anything?

I’ve written previously (in my contribution to the Atkins & Osborne collection on Poverty in the Roman World) about the influence of Roman depictions of the plebs, and especially Juvenal’s ‘bread and circuses’ line, on modern perceptions of the poor as idle spongers. Increasingly, we retain that image while the bread gets ever scarcer, the hoops become ever harder to jump through in order to get it, and the poor and desperate are themselves made into a circus for the entertainment and reassurance of the comfortable classes. The Roman elite regarded all the poor as morally inferior (since they lacked the leisure for self-improvement), and largely ignored them; their modern equivalents share that disdain but feel obliged to disguise it through a tendentious distinction between honest hard-working artisans and grasping benefits cheats. Perhaps the closest equivalent is Cicero’s distinction, at another time of crisis, between the honest plebs who supported him and the odious rabble who supported Catiline; the elite’s obsession with demonising (a part of) the poor reveals how far it feels threatened by the prospect of a change in the order of things.

Link to the Trussell Trust’s Easter Appeal: http://www.justgiving.com/crack-uk-hunger?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=socspondesktop&utm_content=crack-uk-hunger&utm_campaign=post-sponsorship-donation-desktop.

Casualties of War

There was a surprising amount of laughter at an otherwise fascinating conference at Leeds this week on Classics and Classicists in WWI. Nervousness at the subject matter, perhaps, or at the idea that we’ve decided to make sense of the appalling slaughter by spotting classical allusions in modernist poetry? Or just historical distance, as the events are far enough in the past that we don’t feel we have to empathise with these people or understand their intellectual positions properly but can observe their (by our standards) naivety and idealism with scholarly detachment? Gauging the quality and intent of laughter is of course a wholly subjective matter; it’s probably just my own prejudices that led me to hear the response to Rupert Brooke’s description, say, of travelling to the eastern Mediterranean on a troop ship as an all-expenses-paid cruise to view classical sites, as indulgent and nostalgic laughter, ‘oh those silly but heroic doomed youths’, while the claims of German classicists in 1914 that they were fighting to defend the heritage of Hellenic civilisation were laughed at scornfully. Continue Reading »

It seems that Thucydides is starting to infiltrate China: back in November (I heard about this only in the last couple of weeks, courtesy of @JakeNabel), President Xi Jinping participated in a session at the Berggruen Institute for Governance’s conference on ‘Understanding China’. His opening address can be read at http://berggruen.org/topics/a-conversation-with-president-xi-at-big-s-understanding-china-conference, and after a hilarious put-down of the idea that a bunch of world leaders could possibly ‘understand’ China as the result of a brief conference – “As we Chinese say, one needs to read ten thousand books and journey ten thousand miles to gain understanding” (yay, world figure recommends reading!) – we find the following gem within his broad overview of China’s prospects:

We all to need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap – destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers, or between established powers themselves.

Continue Reading »

There’s probably enough material for an entire article on modern classical reception in the coverage of the Hoeness Affair in this week’s Die Zeit. One piece develops an analysis of the relationship between Hoeness and the Bayern fans through a comparison with the Roman arena: Franz Beckenbauer may be known as the Kaiser, but Uli is the emperor in reality, looking down at the gladiatorial combat that he has orchestrated – and, unlike in Sandalenfilme (the term for Italian classically-themed films from the 1950s), where the audience roots for the gladiators, here it is the emperor with whom the fans identify, as someone who is equally powerless (as a spectator) and equally devoted to the success of the red team.  We’re not quite at the point where individuals are taking it in turns to declare “I’m Uli Hoeness!”, but you get the feeling that it’s only a matter of time. Meanwhile, a second article reflects on the enormous power that Hoeness had (and may still have) in the FCB set-up by bringing in the example of Athens, where over-mighty individuals could be sent into exile for a limited period of time for the good of the community. Is this about to happen with Uli, now seen not as a down-to-earth representative of the masses but as the sort of out-of-touch member of the 1% who can ‘accidentally’ forget to declare 28 million Euros of income to the tax authorities? Or will a spell in prison serve the same purpose as exile, to put those crimes firmly in the past? All that’s missing in these analogies is a more specific identification of which ancient figure Hoeness most closely resembles. I’m currently inclined towards Vespasian…

The Daughter’s Story

If I ever have any spare time ever again (at the moment it doesn’t feel like that’s especially likely), I have something new to add to the list of things I shall do, besides experimenting with some exciting new beer flavours (I’m strongly inclined to see what I can do with rosemary) and having another go at making pastrami: it is high time that someone tried approaching Thucydides and his history from the perspective of his daughter. It’s probably not widely known that he even had a daughter, and I can’t find any evidence that we know her name; it is suggested by several sources that he married a woman of high birth from Thrace (also nameless, as far as I know), hence his connections with the area and financial interests in gold mines, and presumably this marriage produced at least one child. The reason we know anything about this at all is because Marcellinus, the main ancient biographer of Thucydides, mentions that some people thought the daughter was responsible for writing the final book of the History, which was generally felt to be inferior to the rest and hence not by Thucydides at all. Marcellinus dismisses this suggestion without any hesitation:

That it is not his daughter’s is clear. For it is not of the womanly nature or art to imitate such virtue. Furthermore, if such a one should exist, she would be anxious not to be unknown, nor would she have written only that eighth book, but would have left behind many others, bringing to light her nature.

That’s her told: a woman couldn’t possibly have written such a history, and if she had she couldn’t possibly have stayed quiet about it and let her father take the credit.

This seems to open up so many different possibilities, depending on how much anachronism is to be admitted, for countering the pervasive image of Thucydides as the lonely martyr to the truth: the loyal daughter who not only got dragged into exile with him (so one assumes) but continued to support her father’s obsessions to the end; the daughter as interlocutor, putting the case for a different approach to historiography to the extremely masculine, war’n’politics, harsh reality of the nasty world approach of her father. Should we read anything more into the dismissive attitude of Pericles in the Funeral Oration towards the grieving women, told that their duty is to be as little talked of as possible? Was this a deliberate rebuke to his daughter – or a blow for feminist consciousness, subtly revealing the destructive masculine arrogance of Athenian imperialism?

I feel that I like this woman already, and I’ve only just started to imagine her. The crucial question: a short story (I’m torn between Borges and Lorrie Moore as models), or a full-blown novel..?

Whose Thucydides?

I’m currently trying to write a piece entitled ‘The Idea of Thucydides in Western Culture’, which aims to combine the development over the last few centuries of an idea of Thucydides as an individual authority figure (largely or entirely separate from his work) and the appearance of Thucydides in non-academic contexts; depending on how much time I get to work on this over the next week, it will either be appearing in the Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides that I’m editing (manuscript submission can’t be postponed any longer, hence pressing deadline), or will have to be developed for publication somewhere else. I’m focusing on the Western tradition because this is where I’ve found virtually all of my examples; it may be the case that Thucydides is (or at least has been) a significant figure only for writers in this tradition (even if this is now changing), or it may be that I just need to look harder, but in any case the intention of the title is not to claim that Thucydides is the exclusive property of the West but rather to emphasise that the conventional (Western) image of Thucydides is not automatically to be taken as universal and eternal.

Still, it is pretty pervasive, for obvious reasons. Continue Reading »

This morning I spent just over an hour working through the fifty-odd emails that had turned over the previous day; reading, responding, sending out other emails as a result, filing and deleting. Lots of deleting. Of those fifty-odd, over half were from subject-related email lists, most of which could be deleted just on the basis of the subject line; the rest were equally divided between departmental admin, school and faculty admin, student and student-related queries, research-related exchanges with colleagues, exchanges with external collaborators, other external research-related stuff, purely personal messages and proper junk. Responding to those messages that required or merited response involved, at least half the time, checking information on the university webpage or on external sites. At a rough estimate, given that emails continue to arrive at a similar rate, I’ll have spent at least a fifth and possibly a quarter of my time by the end of today working through them.

This is *not* a traditional academic rant about the pernicious encroachment of email on every corner of our working lives. Continue Reading »


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