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Brexit negotiations. Yes, we’re still replaying the Melian Dialogue, with the UK still stuck in the attitude of the Melians, offering the equivalent of “Surely there’s advantage to both of us in being friends rather than enemies?” and “Can’t you see that this will damage you as well as us?” as if these are knock-down arguments. My final-year Thucydides class has been having some really interesting discussions over the last couple of weeks about Pericles’ manipulative rhetoric and parallels to the Leave campaign – offered spontaneously by the students, before anyone puts me onto that government watch list – so I’m tempted to skip forward to the Melian Dialogue while these issues are still fresh. But, realistically, the negotiations aren’t likely to be going much better in February, when we’re scheduled to get to Book V, so the issues will still be fresh enough… Continue Reading »

Goodbye Europe!

March 2015. While his mother, a typical liberal academic, heads off to an evening of European cinema sponsored by the German embassy, young Alex joins a UKIP rally. Unfortunately she sees him waving a Nigel Farage placard, and has a heart attack that puts her into a coma. She sleeps through the election of David Cameron’s Tory government, the referendum campaign, the vote to Leave and the final departure of Britain from the EU*; when she regains consciousness, Alex is terrified that another shock will kill her (and also wracked with guilt), and so endeavours to conceal from her the fact of Brexit. Continue Reading »

Irregular Verbs

We appear to have reached a tipping point, where future historians of this period – not necessarily human – will simply refuse to believe what they find in their sources on the grounds of plausibility. Just as with the Julio-Claudians, we can discuss the discourse of polemic and invective, and the values and cultural assumptions it reveals, but not the historical reality that lies somewhere behind it; we cannot study Boris Johnson as a real historical individual, but only the image of him as cartoonish buffoon constructed by hostile sources… Continue Reading »

It’s Complicated

I’m still awaiting my copy of Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey, but on the basis of passages circulating on social media and this New York Times Magazine interview it’s going to be well worth it. Certainly it’s already setting off some fascinating discussions of issues in translation: the particular choices that have to be made in trying to express concepts that don’t have an exact equivalent in the target language, and in particular words that have multiple senses and associations in the original. This is a problem in the very first line of the poem, with the word used to describe its main character, polytropos: Continue Reading »

Either the ‘Thucydides’ Trap’ has now infiltrated France, or Bernard-Henri Lévy has been spending a lot of time in Washington lately; in either case, his latest discussion of the fate of the Kurds (French version in Le Point (£), English in Tablet) and denunciation of Trump’s USA for abandoning them invokes Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War extensively* – though not in the most illuminating manner. Continue Reading »

Invisible Borders

I’m just back from a weekend break in Croatia, a trip that was partly about the glorious food and excellent Zagreb craft beer scene, partly about the history and architecture, and mostly about giving a seminar and lecture at the University of Zagreb, hosted by Jelena Marohnic, and also being interviewed by the history students’ journal. The latter was especially nerve-wracking, with a strong sense of the risks of putting my foot in it inadvertently through sheer ignorance of local circumstances, without having had the opportunity to think about any of the questions in advance. Why are they so concerned about the chronological boundaries of ‘ancient history’? How does the ‘ethnicity in Roman Britain’ debate look from here – and was it a good or bad thing that I didn’t until afterwards think to chuck in a remark to the effect that Roman Pannonia and Dalmatia must have been equally multicultural? Continue Reading »

Kunst und Revolution

If you hang a pistol on the wall in the first act of a play, Chekhov remarked, you need someone to fire it in the next act. On the same principle, if you build a big set of the New York Stock Exchange for Götterdämmerung, you’re going to burn it down at the end. Unless, of course, you’re Frank Castorf, in his Bayreuth production of the Ring that reached its conclusion this year. What did you expect – fire, flood, revolution, the destruction of the old order and the birth of the new? People die: Siegfried, Brünnhilde, Günther, the unnamed ‘everyman’ character who’s reappeared in every episode. The system, however, endures, as it was always likely to; the gods may have thoughtlessly set events in motion, and supplied the weapons of destruction, but they are at best mildly inconvenienced.

Götterdämmerung 2017 3 Continue Reading »