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Posts Tagged ‘Boris Johnson’

How should we evaluate the Roman Empire? It’s an important question, given the role that the image of Rome has played in modern imperialism, both as a model for imperial powers and as a source of legitimisation for the whole enterprise (echoes of this recently in reports of Mark Zuckerberg’s reputed obsession with Augustus, which bears a striking resemblance to the sorts of claims made by IR theorists like Michael Doyle about the ‘Augustan moment’ when hegemonic power becomes accepted and welcomed by its subjects). It’s difficult to buy into the “and don’t forget the wine” discourse of What The Romans Did For Us without getting entangled in similar claims about the bringing of Civilisation (i.e. European Culture) to the benighted primitives of South America, Africa and Asia.

Fortunately the great scholar-politician of our time has the answer: it’s complicated. (more…)

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I think it would be fair to say that the idea of Boris Johnson as a national figurehead for classics was problematic long before he started deploying far-right dog whistles in his newspaper column. I actually don’t intend this as a criticism of the charity Classics For All for having invited him to be one of their patrons; I can entirely understand the logic of seeking the support of a prominent public figure who not only studied classics but who continues to make classical references at every opportunity. But the benefits of such an association inevitably come with a potential cost, especially in today’s febrile culture where every controversy is immediately magnified and accentuated, and especially with a political figure who actively courts controversy, in the form of throwaway remarks that can always be excused as a joke if the consequences look like becoming too serious – the current burka fuss is by no means Johnson’s first foray into vulgar racism.

But this goes beyond the sort of embarrassment produced by, say, having a patron convicted of financial irregularities (more…)

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The next generation of politicians, all as mediocre as one another, and competing with one another for primacy with little concern for the good of the state, abdicated the control of affairs to the whims of the people. They concentrated on their personal intrigues and ambitions instead of exercising any sort of leadership; they undermined any influence they might have had overseas, and plunged their own societies into factional conflict.

(Thucydides 2.65, very loosely adapted)

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It was scarcely a revelation that Boris Johnson should have written two articles about the EU Referendum, trying out the arguments and testing the different propositions before choosing the side that seemed to suit his personal ambitions best. A little more surprising was the lapse in his knowledge of classical myth, confusing two different classical accounts of journeys into hell: “He [Cameron] was going to probe the belly of the beast and bring back British sovereignty, like Hercules bringing Eurydice back from the underworld.” Johnson’s gratuitous classical references are, we may reasonably suspect, all part of his carefully constructed image, and I wouldn’t be wholly surprised if one of the reasons for the crisis of A-level Classical Civilisation turned out to be widespread aversion to classical literature and history as a result of his appropriation of them, making it ever harder to argue against the association of the subject with arrogance and privilege. But this supposed display of superior intelligence and education does depend on him getting the references right… (more…)

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Has Boris Johnson ever given a speech without throwing in a classical reference or two? It’s part of the brand, clearly – and always reminds me of Josh Ober’s classic study of Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Ober noted the surprising readiness of wealthy Athenians, especially those who’ve chosen an active role in public life, to parade their wealth and their difference from the mass of the citizens, even when faced with the task of winning over several hundred jurors drawn from the ordinary population. The ancient equivalent of a modern British politician taking off his jacket and tie, rolling up his sleeves and dropping a few aitches is conspicuous by its absence. (more…)

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