Return to Sender

Partly because I am a basically shy, socially insecure and rather unspontaneous person, I remember having tremendous problems as a young postgraduate student in navigating the transition from regarding academics with awe and addressing them with reverence to, well, still regarding them with awe and reverence but being treated by them in a more informal, egalitarian manner. In particular, I recall the very gradual development of letters between me and my supervisor, with his signature moving from “Peter G” to “Peter” to “P”, and me trying to come up with ways to avoid having to address him as anything for fear of arousing divine wrath through my presumption. Continue Reading »

Will the people of the future still be reading classical literature and thinking about ancient exempla – and, if so, in what ways? This isn’t a topic that gets a great deal of attention in science fiction; I’m not thinking of the sorts of books that imagine a new Roman Empire with spaceships (see this list – the Trigan Empire lives!) or which deploy classical motifs as a key plot element (hello BSG) but rather those that try to imagine the world of the future in its own terms, but take the time to mention whether anyone still references Thucydides. Continue Reading »

Chimes at Midnight

We must be old. We cannot choose but be old. We have heard the chimes at midnight at the the end of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme music – twenty years ago? It was a simpler time, when one girl (albeit with supernatural strength) and her friends could avert the apocalypse, time and again, because the apocalypse was a bunch of demons trying to open a gateway to hell, or the mayor of a small town trying to turn himself into a demon, not an entire global system of doom. Even as the threats became more powerful and apparently unstoppable – deranged hellgods, a rogue military experiment, sexually frustrated adolescent boys – they remained identifiable, nameable, and ultimately susceptible to the judicious application of violence. If only… Continue Reading »

We do seem to be having a Roman moment. To the numerous comparisons, both positive and hostile, between Trump and miscellaneous Roman emperors, the ‘hordes of Visigothic economic migrants overwhelming the frontier’ claims of Arron Banks and the numerous flattering interviews of David Engels on right-wing websites, we can now add the historical musings of Douglas Carswell in the Grauniad, explaining how Brexit is going to be a wonderful liberation but not at all nasty or populist, because Rome. Apparently. Continue Reading »

“We are either kings among men, or the pawns of kings”: Thucydides. Or not. It’s the first time I’ve seen this one on the Twitter, and it’s easy to track down its immediate source: Smallville, season 5 episode 10, Lex Luthor speaking: “Thucydides said, ‘We are either kings among men… or the pawns of kings.'” January 2006, so it’s actually surprising this hasn’t surfaced before. More interesting is the origin of the quote, which certainly isn’t anything to do with Thucydides. Various internet sources attribute a variant to Napoleon Bonaparte: “In this life we are either kings or pawns, emperors or fools.” Doesn’t appear to be authentic – and quite a lot of the citations note that this actually comes from the 2002 film of The Count of Monte Cristo, except that there it recurs in several different, shortened versions – “In life, we’re all either kings or pawns”; “Kings and pawns, Marchand. Emperors and fools”; “We are kings or pawns, a man once said” – that someone has drawn together into a single line. No trace of this in the original Dumas novel, so it does indeed seem to have been invented for the film, and elevated to a sort of theme. Really not the sort of thing that either Napoleon or Thucydides would say… Continue Reading »


There are two carved reliefs above the entrances to the Yale Law School intended to make a point about teaching. On the left (or above, depending on how your browser is showing it), above the students’ entrance, we have the students’ conception of the lecture: they’re engaged and eager to learn, but the professor is bored and would rather be doing something else, and his assistant is completely disengaged, reading pornography. On the right (below) we have the professors’ conception: brilliant, passionate lecturer with students fast asleep. The dominant contemporary image of the lecture is the worst of both worlds, with disengagement on both sides – let alone when we’re talking about scores of students rather than half a dozen. That is, the negative perceptions and expectations on either side – and, let’s be honest, there are real negative experiences on both sides as well – are taken to define the nature of the whole exercise.
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“Don’t confuse meaning with truth: Thucydides.” I think I speak for everyone when I say: huh? It’s not just that it’s fake, it’s the fact that it seems, insofar as I have any idea what it’s on about, utterly un-Thucydidean. His basic assumption – even if you interpret this as a neurotic response to trauma, as I’ve suggested in the paper I finished writing on Tuesday – is that establishing the truth about past events is the only road to understanding them, and to understanding the present. I suppose that, if you squint hard enough, you could fit this line to his sense that the significance of e.g. Athenian stories about the Tyrannicides for their sense of identity has no necessary connection to the veracity of such stories, i.e. the fact something is meaningful doesn’t make it true, but that’s definitely a stretch. Continue Reading »