Too Much

One of the highlights of last academic year for me was a trip to the University of Toronto at Mississauga, to participate in a student-focused event; a lecture to undergraduates (they’d given me the general theme of ‘Authority and Nonconformity’, which I decided to interpret in terms of the historian’s duty to speak truth to power, Lucian’s idea of the historian as “apolis, autonomos, abasileutos” etc.) and an all-day workshop for postgrads (focusing on Varro, as I always like talking about Varro, and thence on wider themes of economic thought and social science ancient history).
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Tight Fit

If I ever want to write a distillation of the political wisdom and insights of Thucydides that will get noticed by serious newspapers and sold in proper bookshops, it’s clear that I’m going to have to develop an eye-catching binary distinction with which to make sense of the entire world, the equivalent of the Nowheres and the Somewheres, or the Tight and Loose cultures distinguished by a social psychology study that claims to “provide a consistent way of understanding differences observed from antiquity to the present day, in everything from international relations to relations in our homes.” Hmm. The Thucydides and the Thucydidose? The Thucydiscerning and the Thucydiots? The people who believe in reductionist binary distinctions with universal validity, and everybody else? Continue Reading »

Good Rome, Bad Rome

How should we evaluate the Roman Empire? It’s an important question, given the role that the image of Rome has played in modern imperialism, both as a model for imperial powers and as a source of legitimisation for the whole enterprise (echoes of this recently in reports of Mark Zuckerberg’s reputed obsession with Augustus, which bears a striking resemblance to the sorts of claims made by IR theorists like Michael Doyle about the ‘Augustan moment’ when hegemonic power becomes accepted and welcomed by its subjects). It’s difficult to buy into the “and don’t forget the wine” discourse of What The Romans Did For Us without getting entangled in similar claims about the bringing of Civilisation (i.e. European Culture) to the benighted primitives of South America, Africa and Asia.

Fortunately the great scholar-politician of our time has the answer: it’s complicated. Continue Reading »

Unreliable Memoirs

I had completely forgotten – it’s well over thirty years since I read it – that the second volume of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, Rommel? Gunner Who?, opens like this (thanks to @riversidewings on the Twitter for the reference):

I have described nothing but what I saw myself, or learned from others of whom I made the most careful and particular enquiry. Thucydides. Peloponnesian War.

I’ve just jazzed mine up a little. Milligan. World War II.

It’s the Jowett translation, interestingly, rather than the more popular and widespread Crawley. I do wonder whether this might be a legacy of Milligan’s school education, but have too much else on to try trawling through biographies; I am also resisting the temptation to work through every episode of The Goon Show looking for echoes of the Melian Dialogue… Continue Reading »

How should we imagine the Athenians at Melos – coldly rational technocrats, bombastic neocons, sardonic British imperialists..? (As I’ve mentioned before, one of my embryonic projects is to explore different ways of presenting the Melian Dialogue, to bring out different facets). One obvious – probably too obvious – possibility is the comic book supervillain, not least because this draws attention to the ultimate hollowness of their words – we know that there’s going to be a weak spot in their master plan, probably intimately connected to their arrogant self-confidence, even if there’s a lot of explosive special-effects destruction to come first. Conversely, comic book supervillains do have a tendency to talk like bad versions of the Melian Dialogue, in capital letters: “MWAHAHA! SOON MY DEATH RAY WILL DESTROY METROPOLIS! THE STRONG DO WHAT THEY WANT AND THE WEAK WILL BOW BEFORE THORAXIS!”

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The Go-Between

The past is political is personal is political. It offers a wide range of resources for different political purposes: slogans, battle-cries, values and ideals, costumes, exemplary figures and actions, a stand-point from which the present can be viewed and held to account. Of course all such analogies and appropriations drastically simplify the complexity of the actual past, and even of later understanding of it – that’s how they’re able to operate, by emphasising resemblances and erasing differences. But this process is never wholly under the control of the one making a connection between past and present; the awkward bits of the past that get smoothed over or whitewashed for the purposes of making the comparison plausible have an awkward habit of re-emerging regardless…

FB9F8AEF-8D73-4CEE-8A9F-987A5E864340 Continue Reading »

Tainted Love

I think it would be fair to say that the idea of Boris Johnson as a national figurehead for classics was problematic long before he started deploying far-right dog whistles in his newspaper column. I actually don’t intend this as a criticism of the charity Classics For All for having invited him to be one of their patrons; I can entirely understand the logic of seeking the support of a prominent public figure who not only studied classics but who continues to make classical references at every opportunity. But the benefits of such an association inevitably come with a potential cost, especially in today’s febrile culture where every controversy is immediately magnified and accentuated, and especially with a political figure who actively courts controversy, in the form of throwaway remarks that can always be excused as a joke if the consequences look like becoming too serious – the current burka fuss is by no means Johnson’s first foray into vulgar racism.

But this goes beyond the sort of embarrassment produced by, say, having a patron convicted of financial irregularities Continue Reading »