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2019 on The Sphinx

As I now seem to remark at the end of every December, and yet persist in the belief that things will now be different: it’s been one of those years… I suppose the basic motive for persisting in that belief is that the alternative is uncomfortable; both that I will continue to feel tired all the time and uninspired – but on the edge of inspiration, if only I could get a couple of decent nights’ sleep – most of the time, and that I would then need to take some difficult but necessary decisions about whether I can really spare the time and energy to persist with this blog and all the other random stuff that tends to seem more attractive than solid, sober scholarship… (more…)

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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. (more…)

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“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… (more…)

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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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Another installment in my long-term project to make available copies of old chapters and articles, when I have a spare moment. This one is prompted by another exchange with Will Pooley at Bristol, who asked on the Twitter about modern historians using the dialogue form, whether invented or found. My immediate thought was Keith Hopkins’ A World Full Of Gods, which (if you don’t know it) experiments with a variety of unexpected literary forms to capture different aspects of religions in the ancient world and the numerous historiographical issues involved in trying to study and represent them. As I think I’ve remarked on here before, I’m not convinced that many of Hopkins’ experiments actually work properly – the professional exponents of science fiction do time travel stories rather better, for example – but it’s amazing that it was done at all, and a great shame that this aspect was largely passed over by reviewers as quickly as possible with an air of great embarrassment. (more…)

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I am not a gambling man – but I know a pretty sure thing when I see one. David Engels has written a substantial rejoinder to the critique of his ‘The EU Is Doomed, Because Rome’ argument written by Roland Steinacher and me, characterising it as an Althistorikerstreit, and concludes with the suggestion that time will show whether he’s right or not. Fair enough; if over the next 20-30 years Europe collapses into civil war – and it’s worth stressing that this is not about a return to warring nation states, according to Engels’ model, but about conflict between suburbs and districts within different regions of Europe – and then willingly surrendersĀ in toto to a single charismatic autocrat, then he wins, and as the prophet of the new regime will presumably be in a position to have me locked up and my property confiscated. We win if it doesn’t. My real problem is deciding what the stakes should be; let’s say 10 litres of fresh water, as that will be worth its weight in gold in any post-apocalyptical wasteland you care to imagine, and will be perfectly serviceable in any case. (more…)

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“The future is dark, the present burdensome. Only the past, dead and buried, bears contemplation.” Thus G.R. Elton in The Practice of History, a book that I read at an impressionable age and so can still quote large chunks verbatim despite disagreeing with most of it. This line has always struck me as particularly, but interestingly, wrong; it encapsulates, tongue in cheek, the essentially conservative view of history as a means of escape into a past that is always conceived as preferable to the present – if only because it’s already over, so human suffering is more bearable (echoes again of Hegel’s account of history as the view from the shore of a distant shipwreck). It’s also linked to an explicit anti-determinism; there is no underlying logic to historical development, so the past speaks only to itself, not to the present, let alone to the future. Stuff happens, and we can grasp it properly only in retrospect. (more…)

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