Trading Places

One of the many ways in which we can read Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue’ is as a study of trade-offs, and how people calculate and evaluate them. The Athenians explicitly use such language; for example, off-setting the loss of respect and trust among Greek neutrals if they destroy Melos against the increase in fear among their subjects, with the view that the result is a net gain in their security – and their claims about Spartan reluctance to help their allies unless it suits them takes for granted a similar way of thinking. It is of course a paradox of their position, insisting on an unsentimental evaluation of present circumstances rather than speculating hopefully about what might happen in future, that their calculation rests so heavily on assumptions about how people will behave and hence how events will turn out – and Thucydides effectively critiques their assumptions, both by showing the Melians refusing to follow the same logic and by narrating the subsequent events that show how poorly the Athenians actually anticipate future developments. Continue Reading »

Just Disillusion

The idea of Thucydides as a man without illusions, who sees the world as it really is rather than as he or anyone else might like it to be, is a dominant strand in his modern reception. It lies at the heart of the historiographical representation of him as someone not merely impartial but genuinely objective; it underpins Nietzsche’s rhetorical contrast between Thucydides and Plato, and Arnold Toynbee’s portrait of a man “broken” by the events of his time who then puts himself back together; and of course it’s the foundation of the whole Realist tradition in International Relations.

No illusions, no arguments, no hope; take all that away, and what’s left? Me. Continue Reading »

Somewhere in the middle of my very long list of ‘things it might be fun to do if I can ever find the time’ is the idea of writing an article, or at least do some thorough research, on the subject of ancient sausage-making (both cooked and fermented), if not curing and brining more generally. I can’t decide if it’s a character flaw, or just a predictable habit, that I generally feel an urge to ‘academise’ my hobbies; my bee-keeping phase led to what’s still one of my favourite publications, I have a half-finished piece on reading Roman agriculture through the principles of organic growing… It’s a fairly predictable but effective move: compare what we know of ancient practices with modern scientific understanding and/or principles, as a way of opening up questions – not least, on occasion, wondering about how on earth the Romans could have kept bees for centuries and still believed that one could gather a new swarm from a dead ox… Continue Reading »

What’s In A Name?

Considering how far the Twitter is full of bots or sock puppets pretending to be people, so that’s become the automatic accusation against someone you don’t know spouting stuff that you don’t like, it’s interesting how far proclaiming oneself to be a bot is taken completely at face value. Especially when winding up angry, ill-informed neo-Nazis. Continue Reading »

Goodbye to Berlin

I sit in Kilkenny’s Irish Pub
In Flughafen Schönefeld 
Uncertain and afraid
Or at least rather depressed
As the clever hopes expire
Of an interesting couple of years...

This has been my final week in Berlin as Einstein Visiting Fellow Continue Reading »

IP, IP, ‘Ooray!

It’s interesting – I can’t work out whether it should also be sobering – to reflect that my main ‘legacy’ to academia, broadly defined, may have nothing at all to do with any of my miscellaneous scribblings about Thucydides, the ancient economy, historiography, the influence of classical antiquity on the development of 19th-century social theory or counterfactuals. It won’t even be directly related to my teaching, but rather to my past identity – somewhat out of step with my usual academic persona – as ruthless academic bureaucrat, determined to bring order and consistency to the organisation of teaching and learning at department, faculty and university level. As a legacy of my time as Faculty Education Director in Bristol, and more specifically being named on the website in such a role, I still occasionally get invited to apply for positions as Pro-Vice-Dean for Educational Enterprise, and even occasionally wonder about that alternative career path. A certain preference for tidyness leads to guideline writing, guideline writing leads to subject review processes, subject review processes lead to the dark side… Continue Reading »

Today seems like a good day to talk about the culpability of Classicists in the ongoing horror clown saga that is the Brexit process. Partly, I think that it might be good for everyone in the UK, whichever way one voted (or didn’t), to admit to some degree of responsibility for the mess in which we now find ourselves, as a principled counter-example to the unedifying spectacle of those who do actually bear a considerable amount of responsibility merrily distancing themselves from the shambles and pretending that it’s nothing to do with them and if only people had listened to them we wouldn’t have all this trouble (I mean, how can anyone have the brass neck, or total lack of shame, to repudiate an agreement that they were involved in negotiating, less than twelve hours after they’d accepted a collective cabinet decision to endorse it?). Partly, with a bit of luck there’s so much else going on that no one will notice… Continue Reading »