The Man Who Knows

What would Thucydides think of the current debate about the banning of the burkini in various French coastal resorts in the name of secularism? On the one hand, there is his notorious scepticism about religion and its manifestations, which, coupled with his equally notorious conservatism and indifference towards women, might have inclined him to side with those who see the costume as a symbol of intolerance and ignorance. On the other hand, there are the words he puts into the mouth of Pericles in praise of Athens as a liberal state where people’s private lives and behaviour are their own business so long as they obey the law, coupled with his keen ear for the hypocrisy of politicians and the lamentable tendency for society to fragment into factionalism and mutual intolerance.** Continue Reading »

One of the less remarked-upon policies of the UK Labour Party in recent years has been to restore the relevance of the Athenian political system as a workable analogy for contemporary democracy. Besides all the dramatic changes in ideas and ideology since the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, charted at length by scholars like Paul Cartledge and Wilfried Nippel, the fundamental objection to the deployment of classical comparisons has always been the modern switch from direct to representative democracy, from decisions being taken directly by the votes of the demos to decisions being taken by their elected representatives. The consensus – leaving aside recent arguments that the internet now makes a return to direct democracy possible – has been that this is the only practical means of realising the ideals of democracy in the complex world of modernity. Continue Reading »

Another entry for the ‘Fake Thucydides Quotations’ file, passed on to me by the great Thucydides scholar W.R. Connor (who’s now posted something about it on his blog).

Προδότης δεν είναι μόνο αυτός που φανερώνει τα μυστικά της πατρίδας στους εχθρούς, αλλά είναι και εκείνος που ενώ κατέχει δημόσιο αξίωμα, εν γνώσει του δεν προβαίνει στις απαραίτητες ενέργειες για να βελτιώσει το βιοτικό επίπεδο των ανθρώπων πάνω στους οποίους άρχει.

A traitor is not only one who reveals state secrets to enemies, but it’s also that person who, while he holds public office, intentionally[?] does not take the necessary actions to improve the standard of living of the people over whom he governs. [translation by W. Gary Pence]

What’s interesting about this one is that it appears in modern Greek – and, so far as I can ascertain, virtually only in modern Greek; yes, there’s the usual problem of having to guess at possible translations, so I can’t guarantee the results, but so far the only English versions I’ve found appear embedded in Facebook pages and blogs (e.g. here) that are otherwise entirely in Greek, or on websites that are definitely based in Greece (e.g. here).

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Luxurious Posterior

One of the most striking items in this morning’s newspaper was the fact that the only non-anonymous funder of the aggressive grouse-shooting lobby organisation You Forgot The Birds, hedge fund manager Crispin Odey, houses his chickens in a stone edifice modelled on a Greek temple (I missed this story when the plans were first identified via his local council’s planning department website).

Crispin-Odey-chicken-coop-008 Continue Reading »

I’m a little disappointed that the Chilcot report – at least if its text search facility is as reliable as has been suggested – contains no mention of Thucydides. True, there’s no established tradition in the UK of drawing foreign policy lessons from the Peloponnesian War, unlike in the US where it’s a set text for high-powered military officers as well as being a favourite of various associates of the Project for a New American Century, above all the influential Donald Kagan. But given the involvement in the inquiry committee of Martin Gilbert, historian of 20th-century war, and Lawrence Freedman, a leading figure in war studies, one might have expected at least a passing gesture. Alas, word searches for terms like ‘Athens’, ‘Sparta’, ‘Nicias’, ‘Syracuse’ and ‘Sicily’ all return blanks (though I was pleased to see that “shambles” occurs about thirty times). Continue Reading »

One of the things I have always found rather weird and off-putting about German academia is the way that some professors include a section in their CVs about the Rufe – the offers of chairs at other universities – they have turned down. I understand, intellectually, why this happens: in many cases, especially in the past, a professor stayed at the salary level at which they were originally appointed, unless they could wave an offer from somewhere else at the university management and negotiate a better deal, so it was only rational to apply elsewhere on a regular basis – and clearly it continues to be a means of arguing for more support staff, more research money and the like, as well as a recognised indicator of social capital. Further, if everyone knows that every job will attract applications from a load of high-powered established professors who don’t really want it but will take at least six months to play this possible future university off against their current university before declining the offer – which is why, from a UK perspective, German appointment processes take a staggeringly long time – then the people who actually end up taking the jobs, two years later, won’t feel at all embarrassed that it’s all out in public: you weren’t competing on a level playing field, so winning by default, so to speak, isn’t an issue. Continue Reading »

I have a piece up on Eidolon this week: Why Thucydides? As tends to happen, the moment it’s posted I immediately think of other things I might have said, and ways I might have said them better (and I don’t just mean the fact that every other sentence seems to begin with “But…”). I stand by the three main suggestions as to why Thucydides should be the go-to ancient authority for commenting on current politics and international affairs – his work invites such identification and comparison, there are long traditions of citing him as an authority, and we really want to believe that someone understands what the hell’s going on – but I can’t help feeling that there’s more going on. Herewith some further thoughts… Continue Reading »


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