World in Motion

How does our knowledge of classical antiquity relate to the present and its problems? How do we as classicists – to address at least a subset of my readers – engage with the world through our knowledge of the classical past, or is our chosen field of activity precisely a means of not engaging with the world?  Continue Reading »

As I’ve remarked on here before, I really wish I had some grasp of Mandarin, in order to be able to get a proper sense of how Thucydides is being discussed in China: do they simply follow the conventional US international relations reading, and especially Allison’s Thucydides’s Trap theory, on the basis that this will help them understand American foreign policy thinking, or are they engaging with this and other classical texts (including Chinese ones) more creatively? A recent report from the Asia News International website (original link from @rogueclassicist) suggests the latter may be more likely, as it reports on an article from the official news agency Xinhua that speaks not of Thucydides but of the hitherto-unremarked Tacitus Trap. Continue Reading »

Singapore Slim

A measure of the success of an idea, or at least its temporary trendiness, is when it crops up in completely irrelevant and inappropriate places. It can only be a matter of time before ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ starts getting referenced in sports reporting (Bayern versus Red Bull Leipzig?) or pop music (Taylor Swift versus someone we haven’t heard of yet?), but at the moment it does appear compulsory to mention it in any discussion whatsoever of inter-state relations in Asia. This morning’s example comes from a piece by John Blaxland of ANU in East Asia Forum asking ‘Do the lessons of Thucydides apply to Singapore?’

Tl;dr: nope. The real question: why did anyone imagine that they would? Continue Reading »

That radical “a plague on all your houses” centrist Thucydides is muttering “I told you so” to himself again…

Factionalism and polarisation became facts of political life, and places that were affected later rather than sooner, hearing what was happening elsewhere, went to ever greater extremes in identifying new grievances and new accusations against their opponents. The usual valuation of words and actions was changed. What was once seen as reckless aggression now appeared as the loyalty one owed to fellow campaigners, while forethought and hesitation became cowardly equivocation; calls for moderation meant you lacked decency, while seeing different sides of the question was a sign of secret sympathies with the enemy. (3.82.3-4)

There is one crucial question about Graham Allison’s ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ model of power transition and the confrontation of rising and ruling powers* that has not yet, so far as I’m aware, been asked: what sort of trap did Thucydides have in mind? Mouse? Elephant? Bear? Rat? Lobster? Honey? Because clearly this must affect how we imagine the process of being captured and the possibility, if any, of escape – and indeed the likelihood of realising that one is in a trap in the first place, before it’s too late. A basic starting assumption for such an analysis is that the idea must be based on ancient Greek hunting technology, and so, in the absence of any comment on the subject from Thucydides himself – we can safely assume his familiarity, as an Athenian aristocrat, with the basic techniques – we turn to a comparable figure in the next generation, Xenophon, and his treatise Cynegeticus, or Hunting with Dogs. Continue Reading »

It’s ages since there’s been an episode of Poetry Corner here – mainly because, oddly enough, Thucydides doesn’t inspire an enormous amount of poetry. But there is not none, and every so often a new poet draws on the same powerful images of conflict and the crisis of civilisation that inspired W.H. Auden in 1 September 1939. Thucydides is, as ever, the dark prophet who anticipated our fate, not least in his terrifying account of civil war and social breakdown in Corcyra.

A storm had brewed over Corfu Isle

Thunder roared with the sounds of revolt

Moods had fashioned this weather a while,

All that was needed was a bit of a jolt.

Continue Reading »

This isn’t the Summer of Love; it may be the Summer of Bad-Tempered Arguments About Classics and Racism. Over in the US, Sarah Bond‘s articles on the ‘white-washing’ of classical statues – that is, why do we think of them in terms of gleaming white marble when they were actually painted? – have provoked a furious backlash from the far right, including death threats.* In the UK, an alt-right blogger objected to the fact that a BBC educational cartoon on life in Roman Britain included black people – “I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?” – and was carefully schooled by @MikeStuchbery_, Matthew Nicholls from Reading, Mary Beard and others – with the result that Mary, at least, now seems to be spending six hours a day responding to people on Twitter about this.

What is surprising about these two arguments is that the substantive issues – ancient statues were painted, the Roman Empire (including Britain) was ethnically diverse – are such old hat. Continue Reading »