Europa Delenda Est

In yesterday’s Grauniad, Martin Kettle turned to the Roman Republic for an anti-Brexit blueprint:

Those of us with only a smattering of knowledge about the ancient world know one thing about Cato the Elder. During Rome’s long wars against Hannibal, Cato ended every speech in the senate with the same words: “Carthage must be destroyed.”

“Brexit must be stopped” is unlikely to last as long as Cato’s catchphrase has managed to. But it focuses the mind. Those who think Brexit must be stopped are not the majority. But they have a case and a cause, and they are right. So how might stoppage be achieved?

Be clear whom you need to be talking to, play the long game and keep chipping away (“Remember Cato”); “the prize is immense – and Hannibal was not defeated in a day.”

Classical Allusion Fail Klaxon! Continue Reading »

Events, Events, Events

The legend of the great Fernand Braudel, one of my historiographical heroes, is that he completed his doctoral dissertation in his head while sitting in a prisoner-of-war camp in the Second World War, and that in the course of his captivity the core thesis was turned upside down: from a conventional study of the Mediterranean policy of Phillip II of Spain, to the now-familiar revolutionary vision of how the Mediterranean – its environment, its climate, its underlying structures – shaped and limited the reign of Phillip in ways of which he was barely conscious. Continue Reading »

Vicarious Virtue

The seminar text for my Roman History course over the last fortnight has been the opening of the third book of Varro’s Rerum Rusticarum, the convoluted argument about the nature of the ‘true’ villa and the disputed legitimacy of pastio villatica. It’s a great passage for opening up questions about the nature of the work – the unexpected use of dialogue in a supposedly practical handbook of agriculture, as a means of raising problematic ethical and political questions (ancient sock puppets!) without necessarily trying to resolve them – and about how Roman aristocrats thought about the world at the end of the first century BCE; in particular, how one negotiates tensions between inherited values (the ‘farmers are the best citizens and soldiers’ ideology offered by e.g. Cato, harking back to exemplary early Romans like Cincinnatus) and the realities of a globalised economy in which money pervades every area of society and politics. Pastio villatica – the raising of bees, birds, snails, dormice, game etc. in the vicinity of the villa – is good insofar as it’s productive (rather than the purely consumptive villas where the wealthy relax and show off their wealth), but it’s bad insofar as it’s intimately bound to the development of luxurious tastes in the city, founded on the corrupting influx of wealth from the acquisition of empire – and hence involves precisely the sort of risky pursuit of profit that Cato had condemned in merchants and money-lenders. Continue Reading »

Spitting Image

The Thucydiocy Bot (@Thucydiocy) continues its tireless work to combat misattributed, distorted and downright invented ‘Thucydides’ quotations on the Internet; touched by the people who offer heartfelt thanks for its corrections, irritated by those who insist on the veracity of their version even in the face of actual evidence, and driven to distraction by the gentleman who regularly tweets a legitimate quotation from the Funeral Oration with the tagline ‘Stop Socialism’, as if this was remotely Pericles’ intended meaning. Most depressing, however, is the fact that the same ones appear again and again – especially around Veterans’ Day, when that bloody William F. Butler ‘The nation that divides its scholars from its warriors…’ turns up all over the place…

Just in the last month, however, a marginally different version has appeared (at least, I haven’t found it before 1st November, on the basis of skimming back through the last two months, but it may be older): same quote, but this time with a picture: Continue Reading »

Brexit Paradoxes 2

Today’s headlines suggest the discovery of a new fragment from the philosophical works of Zeno of Elea (as discussed here a couple of months ago), perhaps from an ancient commentary on Aristotle’s Politics:

On the impossibility of making policy. For in order to pursue a course of action – setting aside any of that voting nonsense – the state must have a plan for that action. But first it must plan for the development and discussion of that plan, and before that there must be a plan for the planning, and so forth.

This may help to explain a passing remark (in italics in the quote below) on Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, which has previously puzzled commentators:

Hence it does not follow that a thing is not in motion in a given time, just because it is not in motion in any instant of that time. Nor that there is an absence of thought, simply because there is no appearance of thought at any given moment. Honestly. Well, you never know.

Into Darkness

The next generation of politicians, all as mediocre as one another, and competing with one another for primacy with little concern for the good of the state, abdicated the control of affairs to the whims of the people. They concentrated on their personal intrigues and ambitions instead of exercising any sort of leadership; they undermined any influence they might have had overseas, and plunged their own societies into factional conflict.

(Thucydides 2.65, very loosely adapted)

So it begins. It seems a reasonable bet that the election of Trump will join Brexit in the category of Momentous Events of 2016, at least within the horizon of l’histoire événementielle, joining various developments whose significance we haven’t recognised yet in hammering an extra stake into the heart of that ‘End of History’ nonsense. But the beginning of what? Competing narratives before the election seemed to be offering a choice between the Return of American Greatness and the Rise of the New Nazis as the likely outcome; now that it’s actually happened, we can add ‘small earthquake, relatively little damage’ predictions like Trump as the new Berlusconi to the mix. History offers us a myriad of possibilities; we don’t know which one (if any) is the better comparison, or how far our choice is driven by emotions (fear, hope, desire, loathing) rather than any sort of reason. History offers comfort, if that’s what we’re looking for; it offers reasonable grounds for buying gold and a copy of The Zombie Survival Handbook. It doesn’t offer any kind of certainty. Continue Reading »