In Praise of Famous Men

The Thucydides virus continues to spread through British political culture, and has inevitably made the jump from the naturally-susceptible Conservatives (cf. the statistics on the number of MPs with classical degrees) to the wider population. On Monday, Ian Blackford of the SNP came out with a bit of Pericles in the House of Commons: “Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it” – no, not the most exciting or original quote, but it’s normally the preserve of the E”R”G Sparts, not least because of its association with the Bomber Command Memorial, and a few years ago any sort of classical reference in the House of Commons would have been greeted with mockery. And yesterday Nick Clegg read a substantial portion of the same Funeral Oration as part of the memorial service for Paddy Ashdown in Westminster Abbey. I fear that my new paper for History & Policy on the use and abuse of Thucydides in political commentary has come too late to serve as any sort of vaccine…

The obvious reason for including Pericles in Ashdown’s commemoration Continue Reading »

You Don’t Own Me…

I’ve spent the last couple of days in Aarhus, enjoying some fabulous (though eye-wateringly expensive) beer and giving a lecture to students on ‘Who Owns Classics?’ The answer to that is of course some combination of ‘everyone’ and ‘no one’; the following forty-three minutes was taken up with the exploration of why nevertheless some people feel they have a special claim on classical culture and others may feel excluded or even unworthy (heroically avoiding any mention of one B. Johnson as the epitome of an entitled, proprietorial attitude towards antiquity – until someone else raised it in the questions afterwards). Continue Reading »

Project Fear

I for one welcome our new Thucydides-quoting overlords… Well, no, not really. Back in 2013, when Dominic Cummings publicly expressed his love for Thucydides and his belief that there is no better book to study for understanding politics, I expressed concern that this was one more data point for the proposition that studying Thucydides can be a Really Bad Thing that leads people to Terrible Conclusions. I decided then not to spend any time developing a detailed analysis of the role played by Thucydides (and Pericles) in his essay ‘On education and and political priorities’, aka the ‘Odyssean Education’ piece, as on first reading it seemed that Cummings was mainly taking Thucydides as a model for critical thinking, something with which I wasn’t inclined to disagree too much, even if this idea clearly then led us in very different directions. A few years later, when Cummings resurfaced in the Vote Leave campaign, there seemed more important things to do than re-read the essay – though in retrospect, as discussed below, I now suspect that there were a few clues in there about his approach to politics that could have been worth discussing.

And now? Continue Reading »

Between the Wars

One of my least favourite novels in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time sequence is the sixth, The Kindly Ones. I’m not entirely sure why; it offers one of his most sustained bits of classical reception, the Kindly Ones being of course the Eumenides or Furies – but my love of Powell, and personal response to this book, long pre-date any serious classical interest – and is just as full of unforgettable scenes and character sketches. More than likely it’s my habit of over-identifying with certain characters and then feeling vicariously miserable, and perhaps I simply shouldn’t enquire too closely. But in the last year or so it’s been difficult to avoid being reminded of the book on a regular basis, and that is Not Good – finding oneself in The Kindly Ones is akin to the Chinese curse of living in ‘interesting times’. Continue Reading »


You know, I think the following tells us something vaguely interesting about the impact of the Internet. In 1998, the critic Harold Bloom edited a collection called The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997, which he had selected from a regular publication called The Best American Poetry, with an introductory essay, also published as part of a forum in The Boston Review (April/May 1998), entitled ‘They have the numbers; we, the heights’. It opens like this: Continue Reading »

The Outrage Machine

Victor Davis Hanson is at it again… “It’s fun to celebrate Sparta, but let’s look deeper,” he declares in The National Review. “There are so many lessons we can learn from the Greco-Roman city-state, especially from those who ran it.” So far so boilerplate – I’m not sure whether he’s directly responding to recent articles by Myke Cole and Nick Burns in The New Republic. Then it gets weird: “The main ideology of Sparta was that all men should be educated as scholars… Homer wrote that the culture wars are never ended. However, so long as our educational system leaves millions of young men without the basic technical know-how to wage war, the cult of arms continues to roam the Earth…”

Okay, it’s not actually VDH Continue Reading »

Time, and Money. One of my most concrete achievements so far this summer – besides winning first prize for ‘a truss of cherry tomatoes’ at the local garden show – has been getting the front of the house painted. Does the money saved by doing it myself, and the sense of satisfaction, actually balance out the fact that a professional would have done it at a much lower hourly rate than one might calculate mine to be, so I could instead have devoted more time to working on all the chapters and articles I’m supposed to be writing / have written – with substantially less potential satisfaction? I do tend to revert to an autarkic ‘why pay someone if you can do it yourself?’ attitude, especially as I like doing practical things, rather than spending money to make everything but the research go away? Continue Reading »