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The New Normal?

It’s the first day of the new term! Interesting to see how far the countryside along the line from Castle Cary to Exeter has changed in just a month, especially with all the warm weather we’ve had in recent weeks. An excuse to drop into The Exploding Bakery next to Exeter Central station, as it’s over a month since I last indulged in one of their cakes. Lovely to meet up with colleagues again. Above all, however, it’s the culmination of my final-year Thucydides module, the student conference on Thucydides’ Contemporary Relevance, in which they all offer their different perspectives on the text that they’ve been slogging through all year, culminating in a guest lecture and general debate. Well, that was the plan… Continue Reading »

Fear Itself

The Thucydides Bot (@Thucydiocy) is not monolingual, but I remember only occasionally to check variant spellings like Thukydides and Thucydide, and to be honest I very rarely remember Tucidide. It’s therefore taken me a while to realise that there is a new iffy quotation in town, that is circulating almost exclusively in Italian media and social media (with one slightly surprising reference from an Albanian language school in Kosovo), so that even the couple of citations of the line in English use Tucidide rather than Thucydides. Continue Reading »

Toxic!

#HowCoronavirusDemonstratesTheEternalRelevanceOfThucydides Part 752… There are still few signs that the infection curve is flattening out; no sooner had I finished a snarky Eidolon piece on the proliferation of ‘Thucydides and the plague’ hot takes then a couple more appeared – thankfully, without doing anything to undermine my general claims about the pointlessness of most of these discussions. I did quite enjoy Jennifer Roberts’ ventriloquism, perhaps a distant cousin of my occasional donning of a fake beard to make Thucydides videos.

The positive aspect of all these different evocations of the Athenian plague has been the fact that they’re mostly accurate summaries (the repeated assumption that democracy came to a permanent end after the Peloponnesian War aside); the problem is what this summary is supposed to signify. But this morning brought an exception, which seemed worthy of remark; not an entire article on Thucydides and plague, but one of those ‘Ever since the days of Thucydides…’ openings, familiar from international relations pieces, in a bizarre Washington Times article on coronavirus as bio-terrorism.

The idea of biological warfare has been with us over the centuries. You can start with bits of Thucydides’ vividly ugly description the Plague of Athens in 430 B.C.E…. Mycotoxins, biological agents that can occur in nature from rotting or spoiled food or grain, would produce that sort of horrible death. Thucydides briefly considered the possibility that the enemies of Athens mixed toxin-laden grain in shipments to Athens. 

Yeah, but no. What we have here is a confusion of something that Thucydides did mention – the rumour, at the beginning of the outbreak in Piraeus, that the Spartans had poisoned the wells – and one of the innumerable modern theories about the nature of the plague, given the bewildering range of symptoms Thucydides recorded, namely ergot from spoiled grain. As far as I can recall, there is no suggestion in the latter discussion that this was deliberate – after all, if Athens’ enemies had known enough about the dangers of toxic grain to concoct such a plan, the Athenians would have known enough to recognise the problem – but the idea of accidental poisoning, like the idea of an epidemic as a devastating natural occurrence, doesn’t fit with an article whose basic aim is to present Covid-19 as a deliberate Chinese plot, abetted by the World Health Organisation.

It’s an interesting example of the garbled transmission of second- or third-hand information (writes and then deletes ‘Chinese whispers’…) and inadequate fact-checking. As a reception of Thucydides, however, it’s rather dull; he’s the ever-reliable reporter and authority figure, and if he noted the possibility of enemy action (and not as “this is what some foolish people believed”, which would be more accurate but less convenient) then we all ought to be on our guard…

My Name Is…

There’s nothing like an enforced lockdown in the middle of a global pandemic to force someone like me – not antisocial, exactly, but inclined to assume that others are happy to get on with their lives without me imposing on their precious time – to start making contact and reinforcing connections. Longer emails for family and close friends, regular social media contact for everyone else – with a powerful sense of how far I’m already a member of a couple of really important online communities, consisting mainly of people I’ve never met in person, that are now even more important.

One of the things this has brought home is how downright weird some of the algorithms have become. Continue Reading »

People respond to crisis, not to say imminent apocalypse, in different ways. I’d been expecting to struggle through the final two weeks of term, staggering punch-drunk out of the maelstrom that was 150 Greek History essays into the need to write the final classes – an interesting exercise to view the expansion of Rome from the perspective of the eastern Mediterranean, but to be honest I wasn’t looking for new intellectual experiences at this time of year – and hours of consultations, about dissertations, essay feedback, final essays and the Bloody Impact Case Study. I was planning to spend most of next week asleep.

Instead, I find myself strangely full of energy. Continue Reading »

Doom! Doom!

What is the point of these proliferating ‘Thucydides and coronavirus’ takes? Besides giving different academics a chance to get an article into one or other prestigious publication, obviously – never let a good crisis go to waste… This was one of the key themes that emerged in the course of an online discussion this morning with at least some of my final-year Thucydides class, for the final session of the year (and I can’t quite believe how emotional I feel about having a chance to interact with some students, rather than just creating discussion topics that no one comments on and launching audio files into the void…).

If there is a point besides self-advertisement, it’s not a consistent one. Some takes seem focused on reassurance – if only that Thucydides was able to make sense of such events, 2500 years ago, so we should feel okay about it. Others take the opposite tack, seeing the new Plague as the thing that will finally trigger the Thucydides Trap they’ve been confidently predicting for some years – or as something that will sound the death-knell for democracy (whatever happened to the fourth century..?). It makes me feel like a bit of an outlier, since – in my contribution to the ongoing flood, an interview for a podcast at the War on the Rocks website – I took the line that the Plague seems to have had remarkably little effect on the ability of the Athenians to wage war, apart from the possible consequences of the death of Pericles.

Obviously if Xi does get Corvid-19 and is replaced by a new generation of more aggressive and reckless leaders, indulging the demands of the people for an aggressive strategy, we should all start worrying.

People Are Strange

Has the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) read Thucydides, or Camus? The indications aren’t promising; on the basis of the publication yesterday of the evidence supporting the UK government’s rapidly evolving (sic.) strategy to handle the epidemic, this is the Scene That Celebrates Itself, with a list of scholarly literature mostly consisting of publications by members of the group (way to massage the h-index, guys!). Yes, a major plank in the case for deploying behavioural science to deal with the coronavirus outbreak is an op ed article arguing for the deployment of behavioural science to desk with the coronavirus outbreak… Continue Reading »