As readers of my Twitter feed will have been unable to ignore, I’ve spent the last two days at a conference in Cambridge in honour of Paul Cartledge, How to Do Things with History: a fantastic occasion with a glittering line-up of speakers – just a small selection of all Paul’s former students, colleagues and friends (overlapping categories, obviously) – engaging with a range of topics that reflected different aspects of his work, from Sparta and Marxism to Athenian political thought and practice, always with a hefty dose of theoretical sophistication. I was very flattered to be asked to chair a session, and so able to feel that I was in a very small way contributing to the event – including, once it became obvious that all the sessions were going to over-run even when the discussion was policed as rigorously as possible, being very self-restrained in not abusing chair’s privilege to trot out my own anecdotes and personal tribute. Then, during Paul’s speech after dinner, it was time for the discreet use of a handkerchief when he actually alluded to one of these incidents; and, as it does add a little to the wealth of examples of his extraordinary generosity to pretty well everyone he ever taught, I thought I’d take the opportunity to tell a fuller version of the story here…
I was one of the first cohort of Cambridge students to take Paul’s Greeks and the Other course, which was later published as The Greeks: a portrait of self and others. This was undoubtedly one of the formative intellectual experiences of my life, an initiation into many different worlds, partly through Paul’s lectures, always rich, thought-provoking, provocative and highly entertaining, and partly through the lively, engaged and incredibly supportive supervision of Jonathan Walters. I was introduced not only to the colourful world of classical studies – it’s interesting that Paul uses the same self-description as I tend to, as a historian who happens to study antiquity (indeed, maybe I took it from him in the first place), as for me Greeks and the Other exemplifies the potential of Classics as an interdisciplinary discipline, combining close reading of texts with broader historical questions – but also to a raft-load of theories and ideas from different areas of the humanities and social sciences. The opening lectures sent me off to anthropology and historical theory; exploration of Greek citizenship was the start of my interest in political theory; the sessions on Greek ideas of men and women were the push that inspired a proper engagement with feminism for the first time.
Every essay assignment became an excuse to dive into another discipline and wallow in its ideas, before attempting to cram them all into something that at least resembled coherent prose. Heaven only knows what my essays were actually like to read – I heard later that Jonathan initially thought the first thing I wrote for him was a fraud, something intended to test new supervisors on their ability to cope with a student who’s gone off the deep end – but they were exhilarating to research and write. Greeks and the Other remains for me exemplary, insofar as I would love for one of my own courses to have the effect on students that it had on me; I wanted to talk about it, and wanted to do not just the expected work but even more. Having been struck by the Herodotean descriptions of hippopotami, flying snakes, gold-digging ants and the like, I embarked in my spare time on a study of the human v. animal polarity in the four key texts of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and Aristotle, something which hadn’t featured strongly in Paul’s lectures. Partly, it seemed a reasonable bet that I’d be able to work this into one of my exam answers, probably something connected to the Greek-barbarian polarity (given that animals parallel human customs in getting weirder and less Greek the further you travel from the assumed centre), so that I’d get extra marks for smart-arse originality; and partly it was just fun.
And so we come to the exam, the last undergraduate exam I was ever going to take. By this point, I was not in the best of places; any hope of a first, and hence of funding for postgraduate study, seemed to have vanished for reasons which felt distinctly unfair and NOT MY FAULT, I felt alienated, disaffected and (by my standards, anyway) reckless, and on reading the exam paper it was clear that there was no topic into which I could easily or plausibly intrude my lovingly-prepared stuff on animals. What there was was a question that seemed to invite students to give the Greeks and the Other a good kicking; I can’t remember the precise wording, but it was something like ‘People have accused me of arbitrarily favouring a small selection of polarities and claiming that these represent Greek thought in general; please feel free to disagree’. It belatedly occurs to me that perhaps the intended or expected response was a forthright defence of the centrality of Greek/barbarian, citizen/alien, free/slave and man/woman to Greek culture and thought. What Paul got from me was a vitriolic screed, kicking off from his obviously unjustifiable neglect of the human/animal polarity to denounce the entire selective, elitist, ideologically bankrupt and Eurocentric enterprise.
(Or something like that. I don’t recall exactly. I sincerely hope that said exam script has long since been pulped, rather than being held back for the day when its publication will do the most damage).
(It was fascinating to learn, when Paul mentioned this in his speech, that Jerry Toner was the one other student to answer this question. We really ought to get together to compare notes. I wonder if he took a more positive view…).
That, for the moment, was that. No one came to discipline me for academic lèse-majesté; somehow or other I got the funding for doctoral work, and returned to the Classics Faculty; Paul never raised the matter with me, even when I started to do supervisions for Greeks and the Other. A couple of years later, I asked him to be one of my referees for a temporary job in Greek history at Lampeter; it was before I actually submitted the thesis, so I didn’t have any examiners to call upon, I’d done a fair amount of teaching for him by this point, and anyway I was trying to present myself as someone capable of teaching Greek history despite the fact that my thesis was completely Roman in focus, so thought that Paul’s name would look good. Of course he agreed; as numerous people have confirmed over the last couple of days, one thing you can always count on with Paul is his generosity in supporting graduate students and junior scholars.
With all due respect to my other referees (to whom I owe a very great deal for lots of other reasons), I think his letter is what got me the job. Certainly at least three people in Lampeter remarked to me while I was working there that Paul had written me an amazing reference – which put particular emphasis on that exam question, which he apparently represented as evidence of academic potential rather than worryingly subversive tendencies. This is why he’s one of my role models; I would like to think that I could sometimes inspire students to engage with ideas and arguments in the way that he inspired me, and that I would be able to react to a student denouncing me and all my works, provided they did so articulately and intelligently, not only with equanimity but with interest and pleasure.
Paul’s Greeks and the Other has actually spawned more than one book – even if some of them were conceived on the wrong side of the duvet, so to speak. Key themes in my Writing Ancient History are derived more or less directly from that first essay I wrote for Jonathan on ideas of history and myth, and the influence of all those readings of Thucydides is unmistakable in the stuff I’ve been doing more recently on his reception and the idea of history. But I also owe Paul for the fact that I’ve been in a position to write any books at all, thanks to that reference. If I’ve paid off even a little of that debt by attending a fascinating conference, meeting a load of old friends and getting to know people whose work I admire, drinking lots of free wine and failing to keep a discussion of Marxism and ancient history to time, then the sacrifice has been worth it.