Reading David Andress’ thought-provoking new book Cultural Dementia*, on the ways that the anger and resentment of much contemporary politics in the UK, France and USA are founded in confused, self-serving and largely imaginary ideas of national pasts, I’m inevitably reminded of Thucydides, and his denunciation of the Athenians’ unwillingness to make any effort to enquire into the truth of the past but simply to accept the first story the hear – especially, we may surmise, if it flatters their sense of themselves and their place in the world, like the story of the tyrannicides that served as a foundation myth of democracy. The duty of the historian – the theme that I’m lecturing on in Toronto this week, as it happens – is to struggle to uncover the truth of things, to treat everything critically, to make no compromises for the sake of personal loyalties or entertainment, to acknowledge ambiguity and complexity, and try to help others to come to terms with it. Continue Reading »

Thucydides 5.84ff

…and sent envoys to enter into discussions. They spoke as follows:

Athenians: Since these negotiations are not to go on before the people, so that we may speak without inconvenient interruptions and continue trying to deceive the ears of the multitude without listening to any counter-arguments, please don’t bother with any set speeches, but let us discuss things in a civil manner without reopening the question of the valuation agreed in January.

Melians: How can we have a proper discussion when you’re not willing to discuss the central issue? We see you have come to be judges in your own cause, and all that we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is continuing conflict and disruption to students, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and otherwise we just become your slaves. Continue Reading »

If you’re ever short of a case study in the anxiety of influence, turn to the new BBC Civilisations series. It’s a programme which, in important ways, makes very little sense unless you’ve seen the original, while simultaneously doing its utmost to telegraph a wish to distance itself from much of what was supposed to be great the first time around. It’s a reboot made not by fans – which brings its own problems, of course – but by people who want to cash in on the cultural capital of the brand while at the same time claiming superiority. Basically, it’s the American remake of Inspector Spacetime, only with pretensions. Continue Reading »

How Democracy Dies

How does democracy die, and can the process be stopped? It’s a pressing question at the moment, not only in the United States – the focus of Levitsky & Ziblatt’s new book, How Democracies Die – but across much if not most of the rest of the world, from South Africa to Germany to India, and even at a more local level, such as the steady marginalisation of all but a tiny clique in the management of universities, despite them still being presented as communities of teaching and scholarship – the reason why I’m writing this blog post when I would normally be talking about such issues in the context of Thucydides and his account of the crisis of Athenian democracy with my students.

It’s a shame, then, that a book with the subtitle “What history reveals about our future” is so lacking in historical perspective. Continue Reading »


C5E35E6F-49BA-48C8-9154-53C7777EF683I’ve always been much more of a cat person than a dog person; no offence to the memory of dear old Bailey the neurotic greyhound, or to the various dogs of family members and neighbours, but it’s cats that I can’t imagine living without. Continue Reading »

Der Wiki’ser

One of the things that I’ve meaning to do for ages, in the event that I had any spare time or energy, is to contribute something to Wikipedia. The basic principle of the collective creation of a gigantic repository of knowledge is inspiring, the overall quality of entries has improved so much over the years so that we academics need no longer discourage students from drawing on it (as a first step, and without citing it, of course, let along copying it…) – and it has been very helpful at times, when trying to correct Thucydides misquotations and misattributions on the Twitter, to be able to point people towards the small Misattribution section within the entry on Thucydides, which gives the correct source for the ubiquitous ‘Scholars and Warriors’ quote.

Don’t bother looking for it; it’s not there any more. Continue Reading »

Atrocity Exhibition

Things happen out in the world, and someone, somewhere, then tweets a bit of Thucydides. (I’m aware that my perspective on this is skewed, because I actively monitor it, but it does happen). Over the last week, two different events have prompted such a response. The murders at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, brought this thoughtful post from the ever-interesting Sententiae Antiquae, quoting 7.29-30 on the massacre of schoolboys in Mycalessus by a gang of Thracian merceneries who’d been let go by the Athenians. As SA notes, when we think about this passage in relation to school shootings in the US, it is the differences between the situations that seem most productive and disturbing. Continue Reading »