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Get Real

It’s always going to be the case, I reassure myself, that when exploring the reception of a particular classical author or theme across the whole range of scholarship and other writing in a given period, you’re bound to miss loads of examples – at least until everything gets digitised and is easily searchable. All you can do is hope that new things coming to light don’t radically undermine what you’ve claimed, or, if they do, at least do it in an interesting way – and that it’s not utterly embarrassing that you didn’t find the reference in the first place. Beyond that, well, it’s one of the great advantages of having a blog that I can simply post an update to a previously published article (it would of course be even better if I could post a link on that article to the update), so I don’t have to feel too regretful that I wasn’t able to discuss this at the time… Continue Reading »

I’m doing the final polish of this piece while wondering why watching Meet Me In St Louis seemed like a good idea – THIS is one of the classic movie musicals?!? – and ignoring the cats, who are NOT getting fed until half eight. It was sketched out last week, between rewatching Independence Day (far superior to Meet Me In St Louis despite lack of songs and some common themes), then drafted in between cooking vindaloo and chana masala, sitting on the train into work, and eating homemade muffin (proper English muffin) while being yelled at by cats who want to be let outside to intimidate the local wildlife. Continue Reading »

What’s the key lesson of the Melian Dialogue? The dominant tradition has been some sort of variant on Crude Realism, from the perspective of the would-be superior power: justice only between equals, we the strong have the right to dictate and you the weak must comply, and forget all this nonsense about hope. The usual response, from those who reject such a worldview and/or, perhaps more significantly, aren’t in any position to pursue it, is to question and reject the Athenian logic, by detaching it from the authority of Thucydides and pointing to the consequences of their attitude. But of course it is also possible to be one of the Weak and nevertheless accept the logic of the Strong; like the prisoner in Life of Brian who praises the Romans for their strict approach to crime and punishment, or the cow at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, there are those who fully accept the right of others to dictate terms and exact obedience. Continue Reading »

There’s an interesting contrast of different dynamics of classical influence in two articles that I happened to read this morning. The first is George Monbiot‘s denunciation of capitalism in the Grauniad, in which he mentions an alternative principle of socio-economic organisation he’s been promoting for a couple of years: private sufficiency and public luxury. The more times I see this phrase – I was more sceptical when it first appeared – the more it looks like something derived from classical thought, and in particular the line from Cicero’s Pro Murena that the Roman people hates private luxury but loves public munificence; it’s not just the neat rhetorical antithesis, but also the recourse to value terms like sufficiency and luxury, and the idea that wealth is not good or bad per se, but it depends on whether it’s being deployed for public benefit. Continue Reading »

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…