The Undateables

I’ve joked before that I gravitated towards economic and social history because I have a terrible memory for dates. That’s not entirely true – it’s rather the case that I think that, most of the time, longer-term structural factors are more important than short-term l’histoire événementielle in shaping human life, and of course that applies to politics as well – but I *do* have a terrible memory for dates, and hence tend to get defensive on the subject, given that a lot of people assume that history is basically about dates so this must be what I do.

Given this proclivity, you might expect my reaction to this week’s news story about a Pompeian graffito that potentially changes our view of the date of the eruption of Vesuvius would be basically negative: whoop-di-doo, as I once remarked of the fuss over the discovery of Richard III’s bones. Not at all! Continue Reading »

Western Lights

I spent a chunk of Saturday evening marshalling traffic; only four vehicles, granted, and mostly this involved standing around waiting for them to show up so I could tell them where to park (while inwardly steeling myself for the possibility of having to tell other people that they couldn’t park in the designated area), but it was still a great source of satisfaction to play even a tiny part in the complex enterprise that is a Somerset Illuminated Carnival. Not least because Carnival is very much a local thing; anyone can watch, of course, and there’s always a need for volunteers to stand around in hi-vis jackets, but actually having a role in the organisation (albeit one acquired by marriage, as my wife is actually on the committee) is a sign of having been here long enough to be counted as part of the community, despite being one of those rootless cosmopolitan academics… Continue Reading »

Patent Absurdities

There’s a long essay in today’s Grauniad by James Miller, offering a broad-brush overview of the history of democracy, focusing mainly on what political theorists have had to say about it. I’ve come to think of this as rather an odd sub-genre; these essays are almost invariably condensed versions of books rather than written as essays for a specific publication, and they unite the desire of the author and publisher to hype the book and the desire of the newspaper to be publishing Big Provocative Ideas – hence, in this case, the claim of the title and sub-heading that this essay is all about arguing that maybe populism is essential for democracy rather than a threat to it, a thesis that is only touched on in passing in the actual piece.

The process of editing a book down to essay-length may account for a certain tendency to non-sequiturs: Continue Reading »

I’m feeling shamed by one of the cats. Admittedly this isn’t entirely a new experience – they regularly regard me with deep reproach, especially when I’ve abandoned them to go off to some conference or other, and occasionally reinforce the message by pissing on my trouser leg – but this is rather different, as it’s about their mark example. Hector has been with us barely a month; he had an infection as a very small kitten and lost the sight in his right eye, but that didn’t seem to slow him down at all. However, on Saturday night we came home to find his eye was oozing unpleasant stuff, and the vet’s response next morning was to suck in her teeth like the mechanic who’s just been inspecting your car engine to work out why it’s been making funny noises. So, yesterday morning Hector was straight in for a very expensive operation, and now… Trigger Warning: don’t click on ‘read more’ unless you’re prepared for gruesomeness… Continue Reading »

Virtue Signalling

It’s been rather an odd weekend. On Friday I had to admit that N.N. Taleb was right about something related to the study of classical antiquity, even if not in the way he thinks he is; on Sunday I came to the conclusion that my eminent and inspiring colleague Edith Hall was completely wrong about something, and I’ve spent the intervening time wondering whether I should just let sleeping dogs lie rather than blogging about it. Continue Reading »


As mentioned at the end of my last post, I spent several days last week at a conference in Serbia on Imperialism and Identity at the Edges of the Roman Empire – perhaps appropriately, held at a conference centre in the middle of nowhere, with no bar, twenty minutes’ walk from the nearest supermarket, reminding us what it must have been like to be stationed on the Roman frontier in the early days before the local culture began to change and familiar foodstuffs (tea, proper coffee, beer…I mean, wine, olive oil and garum) became more readily available… Continue Reading »

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).
Continue Reading »