Just before Christmas, I had a most enjoyable time participating in a discussion, organised by colleagues from Historical Studies, of the new History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage – still available as a free download here. In considering some of their claims for the potential usefulness and relevance of history if only it can lose its parochialism and narrow focus and follow their prescriptions, I was regularly reminded of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century claims about Thucydides. Of course, that’s what I do, so it was very interesting to see that the review of the book by David Reynolds in this week’s New Statesman also focused on Thucydides in its closing paragraphs, offering his work as the prime example of a history concerned with the present and orientated towards policy-makers. Continue Reading »

Let’s Work It Out

Who works in the text? According to Tom Geue, in an excellent paper in the Bristol Classics Research Seminar last week, this question is at least as important for our understanding of Roman culture as the more familiar “Who speaks in the text?”. He took as his case study Georgics IV, a poem ostensibly devoted to old-fashioned Italian small-holding in which remarkably little real work gets done. Slavery is of course more or less invisible throughout the Georgics, with the slave treated as a mere prosthesis so that his labour is credited to the owner, but the fourth book takes things still further. Half of it is devoted to bee-keeping: a gift of heaven, a slight field of toil bringing great reward, in which the owner’s labour is limited to tearing off the wings of the ‘kings’ so that the bees are not inclined to give in to their tendencies to idleness… Continue Reading »


Well, so much for the resolution to blog more regularly – I think that has as much chance of success as the one about cutting down on self-medication for stress with cake and gin. A partial explanation for this failure is that, as someone who is engaged with political issues and occasionally comments on them (albeit almost invariably through the prism of Thucydides), not to blog about issues of freedom of speech and Islam, despite my obvious lack of expertise on either of those topics, has felt problematic over the last week and a half. Continue Reading »

A Grimm Prospect

[My resolution for this year is to find a bit more time for this blog. After all, it’s considerably more fun, and offers far more opportunities for developing ideas that are original and interesting (or at any rate more “me”) than writing conventional, properly referenced journal articles. Either REF2020 will not actually happen, or they’ll have worked out a way to take proper account of social media, in which case my 23 followers here will be serious currency… Since I am currently away in the snow-covered forests of the land of the Brothers Grimm, rather than a proper post I thought I’d share an old folk-tale with you. Of course, Märchen are far more serious, and far more connected to the realities of existence, than they may at first appear…] Continue Reading »

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 »


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