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Just a quick heads up that the call for papers and panels for the next European Social Science History Conference, to be held at Queen’s Belfast in April 2018, has just been published. Full details for the Antiquity Network, which I co-chair, can be found over at the little-frequented Social Science Ancient History blog (https://socsciah.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/esshc-2018-belfast-call-for-proposals/), so I won’t go into detail here, except to say that this is always a great opportunity to meet not only fellow ancient historians working on topics in economic, social and cultural history, but also to engage with colleagues from all periods and geographical areas. If you have an idea for a panel – and don’t feel that you need to be a senior academic to put together a proposal – then Arjan and I would really like to hear from you; we have a few plans of our own for sessions focused on one or more of the really important books that have been published in our field in the last year or so, but it’s always the variety of themes and debates that makes this such a worthwhile and stimulating occasion, and that depends on you…

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Another day, another classical Trump analogy – or rather, a reiteration of one that’s already somewhat familiar, Trump as Cleon, put forward this time by G.W. Bowersock in the New York Review of Books. I have to say that, the more I see this comparison, the more I think it’s deeply unfair to Cleon, and reproduces an old-fashioned view of Athenian democracy that is based largely on sources hostile to the whole thing. Of course we don’t expect classical analogies to be based on detailed historical insight – I don’t have much to add on this point to Donna Zuckerberg’s ‘Make Comparison Great Again’ – but there are definitely bad and worse cases, evocations of the ancient world for present political and polemical purposes that are deeply dodgy rather than just moderately dubious. (more…)

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Here is your regular Thucydides Twitter Quotes update, brought to you by @Thucydiocy and its tireless, if erratic, monitoring of quotes and references on Twitter! There’s been a minor upsurge in references recently, to a fair degree in relation to the delightful Trump, and in particular this line:

Someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.

It’s a perfectly genuine quotation, from 8.89, in Rex Warner’s Penguin Classics version. It gets tweeted without comment – too many characters for anything else? – and it would be very interesting to check exactly how different people understand it. In the context of the Donald, it seems reasonably certain that it’s intended as a critical commentary on his pre-emptive questioning of the legitimacy of the election (though it’s not so much that he’s “consoling” himself about the result as preparing the ground for anger and insurrection). Previous to that, I’m less sure; is there a possibility that the emphasis is on “it wasn’t fair” as an actual property of democratic elections, rather than as the sort of thing that losers claim? That this is being offered as further grounds for cynicism about the whole system? (more…)

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The Melian Dialogue, in which Thucydides imagines the exchanges between the powerful imperialistic Athenians and the defiant-but-deluded Melians to whom they’ve issued an ultimatum (see my adapted version in Disclaimer magazine, for example), is a founding document in game theory and the analysis of power relations. Indeed, one vaguely hopes that the UK’s newly appointed negotiators for sorting out future relations with the EU and with other potential trading partners have read it (though admittedly his in-depth knowledge of the Dialogue didn’t seem to help Yanis Varoufakis that much in the Greek economic crisis last year…).

On closer scrutiny, however, the analogy starts to fall apart, as analogies often do; not because the issues raised by the Melian Dialogue are irrelevant to the situation, but because the parts become confused. At least going by the recent statements of various Conservative ministers, these Melians seem to be convinced that they’re the ones with the advantage, and hence try to speak the Athenians’ lines as often as their own… (more…)

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It’s the week before my first week of teaching in Exeter (a week earlier than I’m used to, creating an unfortunate clash with the Deutsche Historikertag in Hamburg, so it’s actually going to be my first half week of teaching…). Busy uploading module (not ‘unit’ or ‘course’; must remember that) information onto ELE, learning the relationship between seminars and study groups, revising the ILOs according to house style, checking availability of e-books, re-writing guidance on source analysis exercises, navigating SRS to send out messages, trying to grasp the workings of BART and RECAP, and wondering where I put my copy of the guide to local acronyms. I dunno, in my day you got a photocopied bibliography in the first lecture if you were lucky, none of this spoon-feeding and eDucation nonsense… (more…)

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I must confess to having thrown in the odd Weimar comparison in the last week, and Godwin’s Law be damned: when members of parliament are assassinated by right-wing radicals on the street, let alone when society shows every sign of polarisation while moderate politics empties itself out and the extremes start to meet round the other side, it’s difficult to avoid such a feeling. But the aim of this post is not to develop the point, but to advertise as loudly as I can the fact that – as someone helpfully pointed out on Twitter – Volker Kutscher’s first Weimar Berlin Krimi, Der nasse Fisch, is now available in English translation as Berlin Babylon (http://sandstonepress.com/books/babylon-berlin). Go buy it in enormous numbers!

I think I’ve complained on here before about the scandalous neglect of the rich tradition of German detective novels, whereas every Scandinavian with a typewriter and a dose of Kierkegaardian angst gets a five-novel deal and a TV series. Kutscher is neither the best nor my favourite – that’s Ulrich Ritzel, and some day I will find time to complete my translation of his brilliant The Black Edges of the Embers, about the legacy of the Rote Armee Fraktion and far-right terrorism, which is so much better than the perfectly decent later novels that are the only ones ever available in English – but he’s still pretty damned good. Lots of historical detail about police work in the late 1920s, lots of historically appropriate crimes, shedloads of atmosphere (cabarets, gangsters, street urchins, jazz, cocaine, silent cinema) that hovers just on the right side of cliche, all seasoned with just the right amount of reference to major historical events in the background.

The central character, Gereon Rath, is an almost total Arschloch, albeit with the obligatory complex family background rooted in the First World War and an earlier blotting of copybook in Köln which arguably explains a bit of this; he lies, cheats on his on-off girlfriend Charlie, snorts cocaine, gets into hock with gangsters, falsifies evidence and regularly bunks off duty because of hangovers. Almost every other character, apart from an assortment of aristocratic Nazi sympathisers, is more sympathetic – including people, like some of Rath’s superiors, whom he sees as stupid and unpleasant but we see as basically decent and honest.

But this is part of the drama of the series – or at least this is what I tell myself to keep reading at certain moments. His creator clearly also thinks he’s an Arschloch, but with a core of decency and commitment to justice (not necessarily always the law). The point is that we know what is really happening in the background and where it’s leading, and so we know that either Rath will be finally corrupted – never a committed Nazi, but one of those who were too compromised and weak and/or too ambitious and self-centred not to go along with things – or this will end tragically sooner or later. Kutscher is never sadistic towards his characters (unlike certain Scandinavians) – but he’s never sparing of their faults or inclined to offer a sentimental view of the world.

One of the major themes of German culture over the last sixty-odd years has been the question of complicity and responsibility, and of course this is reflected in detective fiction. RItzel’s main characters are in the Chandler mode: dogged and decent, seeking to pin responsibility where it belongs, frustrated by the system that would prefer to shove certain crimes and memories under the carpet. The drama lies above all in the plot, the slow revelation of shameful secrets and the links between past and present – almost always, a recent crime turns out to have deep roots. Kutscher’s crimes are centred in the present of 1930s Berlin, and are often almost trivial, a trigger for Rath’s flaws to undermine him yet again rather than the centre of the story; we have a sense that events, rather than the political system, are closing in on him – and that the ultimate questions of guilt and responsibility will focus on him, not on the criminals.

To put it another way: Kutscher’s books get steadily better as the looming nightmare comes closer, and not just because his style matures – which is why you need to buy Berlin Babylon, to make sure that the rest get translated (and maybe even pave the way for Ritzel…). My fear is that they will feel too close to home at the moment; far from prompting a warm feeling of smug superiority that we Britons would never have succumbed to such extremism and popularism, the splintering of society and impotence of the state in the face of popular anger may feel alarmingly familiar. Detective fiction that is the precise opposite of comforting escapism…

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The ‘Thucydides Trap’, having infiltrated both Australasia and China from its incubation in the USA, now appears to have turned up in the UK, with a piece in the Independent (not sure if it’s just on the webpage, or… Actually, is there anything else?) entitled ‘The Next World War Will Be In The South China Sea. Ask Thucydides’. It’s our old friend, Graham Allison’s analysis of the confrontation of the hegemonic power and the rising power, with added apocalyptic noises about the imminence of nuclear war (whereas the role of the nuclear deterrent in reducing the impact of the supposed dynamic of Great Power rivalry is something many critics have put forward as an objection to Allison’s transhistorical claims) and some especially amusing asides. “And as has happened in international summitry since the time of Pericles, sweet talk, fraternal visitations and hearty dinners proceeded in tandem with steely military build-ups  on both sides.” Yes, Thucydides is full of that sort of thing.

I live in hope that someone will ask me, or someone else from the classical side, to write a piece on why this is a dubious reading of Thucydides; I do have a draft that I’ve been meaning to finish at some point… In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to post links to the various things I’ve written on this in the last couple of years, in one easy-to-access post…

The Thucydides Trap (October 2012)

The Tao of Thucydides (April 2014)

The Real Thucydides Trap (May 2014)

Who Laid the Thucydides Trap? (August 2015)

Stuck in the Middle (September 2015)

Absence of Evidence (October 2015)

 

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Someone over on Crooked Timber asked if I could outline the debates about the nature of the ancient economy and its historiography, in the context of discussions about the contribution of Ellen Meiksins Wood; I was thinking of posting my response here anyway, just to keep the blog ticking over and to avoid these thoughts languishing at the bottom of a thread that no one’s following any more, but it’s taken me so long to get round to writing this that the thread has closed to comments, and this is the only outlet I have. Of course, if you’ve read much of my academic work these ideas will be pretty familiar, but for everyone else…

What Are We Talking About When We Talk About The Ancient Economy?
(more…)

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RIP Ellen Meiksins Wood (and see also here)

A week and a half into term, and I am already being forcibly reminded of why I didn’t manage to post more than once or twice a month for much of 2015. It’s not as if I don’t have a load of stuff I’d like to write about – not least because Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australian, has just produced a load more Thucydides references in a recent speech, on the (not unreasonable) assumption that this is how to communicate with US foreign policy types these days (cf. Xi Jinping) – it’s just the quantity of other stuff that has to take precedence. But some things do deserve recognition and comment, above all – despite the fact that this blog has started to look like an obituary column – the passing of yet another significant figure in my intellectual pantheon. I have got to find some younger, healthier people to get influenced by… (more…)

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There’s a great scene in the 1990s Welsh teenage drama series Pam fi, Duw? [Why me, God?], where everyone has gone to London (can’t remember why) and the indomitable grandmother insists on dragging the family across the city to visit the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square – to their utter bemusement, as she’s a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, but you don’t argue with Mamgu. When they finally get there, she sticks up two fingers at it and says something to the effect of “That’s for Tonypandy, you bastard!” (more…)

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