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Bunny Business

One does have to admire, in a teeth-gritting sort of way, the unscrupulous ingenuity of university press offices: selling a story about the discovery of a rabbit leg bone* at Fishbourne villa dated to the first century CE** by linking it to the Easter Bunny, despite the fact that the earliest mention of the Osterhase comes in an early modern German text and no one has ever suggested either that it was a Roman custom or that it originated in Britain. All credit to Esther Addley in the Grauniad for dutifully summarising all the quotes from the academics, including “this very early rabbit is already revealing new insights into the history of the Easter traditions we are all enjoying this week” from the project leader, Naomi Sykes, and then adding a note of scepticism at the end. Continue Reading »

Constant Craving

Change. War. Violence. Unpredictability. Competition. Malevolence. Food. Music. The Rangers in the universe of Babylon 5. Inter-ethnic slaughter. Death. And that no one cares a whit about the Armenians.

This is a precis of the search results for “the one constant in human history”. Add ‘Thucydides’ to the mix, and the themes narrow down to war, violence, and human nature – which doesn’t, however, get me any further in tracking down the source of the specific quote I’m looking for: “Human nature is the one constant through human history. It is always there.” Google that, and you get a large number of low-rent quote sites, a number of annoying motivational posters, and regular blogs from one Earl Heal for the Daily Republic, a local news site in California, who trots out the same set of quotes about the glories of classical political institutions on almost every occasion. Continue Reading »

Since it more or less coincided with his decision to read the whole of that old warhorse, Tennyson’s Ulysses, at a meeting of the Bruges Group, hard-line Brexity Spart Mark François’s quotation of Pericles – “Freedom is the sole possession of those who have the courage to defend it” – at a Brexit rally on Official Leaving Day has gone relatively unnoticed, except of course by me. It did seem significant that this is the A.S. Way version of the Funeral Oration, as featured on various war memorials but not in any published translation of Thucydides (see Liz Sawyer‘s account); rather as the most obvious source of the poem is Judi Dench from Skyfall, so it seems more likely that the MP has been visiting the Bomber Command memorial rather than leafing through the Peloponnesian War.

Two minor additions this morning. The first is to note that it’s actually a mis-quote, and perhaps a significant one: Way’s original has “freedom is the sure possession…”, whereas François makes the more exclusive claim that only those who fight for freedom are entitled to it. He’s not the only person to do this on social media, and one might suggest that in the military and veteran circles where this line is often quoted, it’s a readily comprehensible mental step. The second is that, as I discovered in checking this, François has used the line several times in Parliament, in his erstwhile role as Armed Forces Minister. This was too late to appear in Liz’s survey of Thucydides quotes in British and US politics; I’m not sure if she’s done an update that I’ve missed, but given that her main conclusion was the marginal status of Thucydides in the UK compared with the US, it is interesting that at least in this context things are changing slightly. I am not saying that it’s a good thing…

In a second-hand bookshop in Salisbury, in the year 1965 in the Fourth Age of Middle Earth, there was once a Book.* There were of course many other books there, but only this one merited the capital letter: The Fifth Book of Thucydides, edited with a short introduction and notes by C.E. Graves, MA, Fellow and late Classics Lecturer of St John’s College, Cambridge, and published by Macmillan & Co. of London in 1891 (reprinted 1899, 1908).** History does not record why Zillah Shelling chose to leaf through this particular book, but she did so, and was struck by a series of curious annotations in an unknown script that a former owner had added to the pages, including one long one at the very back, as well as by one of the names written on the flyleaf: J.R.R. Tolkien. Continue Reading »

Citations Needed

A passing thought, largely as a distraction from the fact that the paper I’m currently supposed to be writing is going absolutely nowhere; the idea is that writing anything may get the creativity flowing, or at least an ability to construct vaguely intelligible sentences… I’ve always felt rather uncomfortable when discussion on the Twitter turns, as it sometimes does, to condemnations of self-citation, because this is something I seem to end up doing quite a lot; not, honestly, as a means of self-promotion or gaming citation indices, but simply in order to supply a reference to discussion of a point or a topic that hasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, been discussed elsewhere. Yes, there is an obvious risk that I’ll cite myself just because I’m more familiar with my work, rather than taking the trouble to seek out other relevant material, but in many cases I really don’t think there is anyone else. Continue Reading »

The great advantage of classicists getting involved in the analysis of contemporary political rhetoric, given that it seems to be full of classical references at the moment (Johnson going on about Punic terms, the die-hard fanatics of the E”R”G – yes, the lunatic fringe’s lunatic fringe – going under the name of the Spartans, a Tory MP called David Jones citing chunks of Tacitus, including Latin, in a meeting of the influential 1922 Committee) is that they’re highly sensitive to nuance, allusion, and the history of reception of different figures, ideas and phrases. The disadvantage of classicists getting involved is that they’re highly sensitive to nuance, allusion etc etc. In other words: it’s not that these references are imaginary, but perhaps they aren’t as important as we tend to think they are. Or at least not as important to others, including those who made them in the first place, as they are to us, seeing classical antiquity yet again being besmirched by its appropriation by people with distasteful and dangerous politics. Continue Reading »

Lawful Neutral?

If what you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If what you have is a copy of Thucydides, everything looks like the Melian Dialogue.

Sometimes, this is a great advantage: Thucydides offers a way – definitely not the only way – of seeing new connections between things, and asking new questions through a process of comparison and contrast. This was the way things turned out at Queen Elizabeth School, Crediton, yesterday, where Lynette Mitchell and I were running our first pilot session with Hattie Andrews from The Politics Project; the students had great fun playing what’s become known as the Peg Game – basically, the Peloponnesian War considered as Rock, Paper, Scissors – which then led perfectly into consideration of different examples of unequal power relationships, setting things up for next week’s exploration of the Melian Dilemma choose-your-own-adventure game. The only thing we could have asked for was an extra twenty minutes for discussion. Continue Reading »