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One of the things I have always found rather weird and off-putting about German academia is the way that some professors include a section in their CVs about the Rufe – the offers of chairs at other universities – they have turned down. I understand, intellectually, why this happens: in many cases, especially in the past, a professor stayed at the salary level at which they were originally appointed, unless they could wave an offer from somewhere else at the university management and negotiate a better deal, so it was only rational to apply elsewhere on a regular basis – and clearly it continues to be a means of arguing for more support staff, more research money and the like, as well as a recognised indicator of social capital. Further, if everyone knows that every job will attract applications from a load of high-powered established professors who don’t really want it but will take at least six months to play this possible future university off against their current university before declining the offer – which is why, from a UK perspective, German appointment processes take a staggeringly long time – then the people who actually end up taking the jobs, two years later, won’t feel at all embarrassed that it’s all out in public: you weren’t competing on a level playing field, so winning by default, so to speak, isn’t an issue. Continue Reading »

I have a piece up on Eidolon this week: Why Thucydides? As tends to happen, the moment it’s posted I immediately think of other things I might have said, and ways I might have said them better (and I don’t just mean the fact that every other sentence seems to begin with “But…”). I stand by the three main suggestions as to why Thucydides should be the go-to ancient authority for commenting on current politics and international affairs – his work invites such identification and comparison, there are long traditions of citing him as an authority, and we really want to believe that someone understands what the hell’s going on – but I can’t help feeling that there’s more going on. Herewith some further thoughts… Continue Reading »

Where would you want to be when the world ends? I’ve had that phrase running around inside my head for the last couple of weeks, convinced that it must be the tagline for a film that I’ve never actually seen – but I can’t actually find it anywhere on the internet. Which is a shame, because what I wanted to do was start with that and then say, well, of course it isn’t the end of the world – although given everything that’s happened in the last month it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that history is trying to cram in as much as possible having realised that the deadline is rather closer than expected – but only Brexit, but it’s still a valid question. Where would you want to be when your country’s decided to go for self-immolation while jumping off a cliff? Continue Reading »

There’s a very interesting article up on Eidolon* by Lisl Walsh called Giving It Up in the Classroom, about navigating questions of authority in teaching classics: the authority of existing interpretations and scholarly consensus that manifestly needs to be analysed and criticised (indeed, this is our core task in teaching students, even if they think our job is to convey a fixed body of essential information and then test them on their ability to regurgitate it), and the authority of the teacher. The crux of the problem that Walsh addresses is the relationship between the two: the risk that, in developing a critique of the former and emphasising the openness and ambiguity of historical and literary interpretation, the teacher undermines her own authority, with adverse consequences for student motivation and learning, and thereby for course evaluations, career prospects etc. Continue Reading »

There’s a powerful passage in Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History where he talks about the appalling experience of looking at the past: the display of passions and the consequences of their violence, the rule of Unreason, the evil, vice and ruin that has afflicted every society humans have ever tried to build – and the temptation to find a way in which this won’t affect us so much:

We endure in beholding it a mental torture, allowing no defence or escape but the consideration that what has happened could not be otherwise; that it is a fatality which no intervention could alter. And at last we draw back from the intolerable disgust with which these sorrowful reflections threaten us, into the more agreeable environment of our individual life — the Present formed by our private aims and interests. In short we retreat into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore, and thence enjoys in safety the distant spectacle of “wrecks confusedly hurled.”

Hegel doesn’t endorse such an attitude – but to some extent simply offers an alternative route to the same goal, explaining and justifying all the miseries of history as the working through of a necessary process. I’ve found myself thinking of this passage twice in the last couple of days, firstly in relation to Uwe Walter’s observations, in his discussion of the Mytilene Debate and how this might offer a way back from Brexit, about the excitement experienced (if only momentarily) by historians at the spectacle of a truly momentous event, a single decisive decision rather than the usual compromise, muddling through and can-kicking. Then this morning there was a striking phrase in David Graeber’s commentary on the current travails of the Labour Party and the democratising aims of Momentum: “I cannot help find it a fascinating historical experiment.” In both cases these are honest reactions, not in the least intended to belittle the actual experience of being caught up in these events or their possible consequences – but still, I can’t help feeling like one of the people on the sinking ship, as the crew squabble amongst themselves about who gets to wear the big hat and whether the charts can be trusted, while being coolly observed from the shore…

How do people acquire their knowledge of Thucydides? It’s now well-established, I think, that academic readings (in whichever discipline) are far from the whole story; there are many different ways in which someone might encounter his name and (purported) ideas, from computer games to quotations on Twitter to Bob Dylan’s unreliable memoirs to newspaper articles and even to references in BBC radio comedy programmes, which is one reason why this blog collects and discusses examples of such Thucydideana at every opportunity (and I really must get round to recording a music podcast with songs that quote or reference Thucydides…).

One crucial influence on his reception – and this is true of many academic readings as much as of popular ones – is translation: assuming that most anglophone readers are relying on translation, which translation is it, how does this shape their understanding, and why is it so often Richard Bloody Crawley? (As Mary Beard has observed of his translation, the more readable and memorable it is – and Crawley does coin some memorable phrases – the less likely it is to be accurate or authentic). After all, there are plenty of other translations out there of much higher quality, offering different advantages and disadvantages: Hammond, Warner, Lattimore, Mynott, to say nothing of the older ones (Hobbes, Smith, Jowett) and the various new ones rumoured to be in preparation.

Part of the answer is The Landmark Thucydides, offering a modified version of Crawley, which has the enormous advantages of a nice friendly cover and lots of really excellent supporting material, maps etc., plus widespread availability. It feels as if you’re getting a lot more for your money than ‘just’ the text; purely subjective opinion, but if this had been available when I first had to read Thucydides as a teenager (learning Greek but also interested in wargaming, history etc.), it’s the one I’d have gone for, and I can easily imagine the appeal to a wide range of potential readers – if they have the money.

That may be an important point, and I’m slightly embarrassed that it took me a while to think of it (about six months ago, but I haven’t had time to work on this until now); because it’s not just a matter of £15-20 for the Landmark rather than £5 for Hammond, but also the potential competition from much cheaper electronic versions. After all, if you’re the sort of person who has a Kindle or other eBook reader, how likely are you to spend substantial amounts of money on one of these editions if you’re just a casual browser who’s heard something about Thucydides and wants to dip your toe in the water, when Amazon offers a load of much cheaper options?

A quick search on the Amazon website threw up ten cheap electronic versions of Thucydides in the first couple of pages; since these are the ones, I imagine, that a standard normal punter will encounter first, this analysis is focused on them. Top of the list: Richard Crawley, completely free, currently at #4,028 in the list of Free Books on Kindle. Second up is the Color Illustrated edition (ca. #60,000 in Paid-For Kindle list), clearly a contender for most staggeringly inappropriate cover picture ever (see below), which purports to offer the Rex Warner Penguin Classics translation – but is actually Crawley.* Of the next eight, I wasn’t able to check one as my Kindle isn’t working properly here in Berlin (and I’m also reluctant to spend actual money on any of these), one had the Jowett translation (and wants £1.40 for it, despite the fact that the Perseus online version is free and much easier to search; ca. #110,000), and the other six were Crawley. It’s obvious that these editions are not selling huge quantities – the majority hang out in the #1,200,000-#1,500,000 places, but have jumped up and down quite substantially in the course of the three hours I’ve spent working on this on and off, suggesting that in this neck of the woods a single purchase can make a huge difference to the placing. But evidently people are buying them…

Thucydides explosion

Basic conclusion: Crawley rules, followed by the Henry Lord Havell paraphrase version, Stories from Thucydides (free, around #23,500 in the Free Kindle list), which also gets incorporated into a couple of the editions of Crawley. The positive view of this is that Crawley is indeed accessible, in language and in price, so this helps broaden the reach of Thucydides beyond the academy. The bad news? Well, partly that depends on one’s view of Crawley’s translation and how far it is actively misleading – but at any rate, no one is going to learn how to spell ‘Peloponnesian’ correctly…

*I assume the Warner translation is still in copyright, so Penguin would come down on them like a ton of bricks if they actually copied it – one major reason why Crawley is so popular for this sort of reprint, of course – but this looks like actionable mis-selling…

In the aftermath of the onset of BRAGNARÖK, a number of people have been talking somewhat wistfully of the Mytilene Debate in Thucydides (3.36-48), when the Athenians changed their minds about massacring the entire population of a rebellious allied city. I think the first reference I saw to Mytilene on Twitter was from Angie Hobbs (@drangiehobbs) on 25th June (given how rapidly events are developing at the moment, I think it’s important to keep the chronology clear…), offering it as an exemplum rather than an analogy, but in recent days there’s been a blog post by Caitlin Harris, an MA student at Swansea (https://projects.swan.ac.uk/ancient-world/?p=386), arguing that it would be fundamentally undemocratic to deny people the right to vote again with a different perspective; a letter in the Grauniad from one Shoshana Goldhill in Cambridge (now there’s a famous classical surname…) arguing that it shows the ability for democracy to self-correct its own excesses; and an article in the Frankfürter Allgemeine Zeitung from Uwe Walter (Professor of Ancient History at Bielefeld, for anyone who doesn’t know his work), ‘Man müsste bloß wieder zurückrudern’, drawing on the work of Egon Flaig to explore in detail the circumstances of the second Mytilene debate and concluding by wondering whether the fateful Article 50 trireme that’s been dispatched will be over-hauled by a new Parliament, a courageous government or the obdurate Scots. Continue Reading »

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