Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

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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Do classicists and ancient historians have a particular relationship with Europe or special reasons to fear a British exit from the European Union, compared with other academic disciples? I’ve been asked this question in relation to the newly-founded Classicists for Europe, which aims to add our voice to the campaign for the UK to STAY, and my answer would be: basically, no. We may perhaps be more likely than some to feel an affinity to Europe, given that most of us work on material from other European countries in close collaboration with continental colleagues, while the cultural inheritance of classical antiquity clearly transcends national claims or identities. But even if this gives us a slightly different outlook from historians of early modern England or analytical philosophers, it’s clearly about Europe rather than the EU; when it comes to the latter, our fears are those of researchers, teachers and students in all the other sciences – the threats to mobility, funding and infrastructure, the consequences of prolonged instability and uncertainty – and so the message of the campaign is ‘Us Too!’ rather than ‘We’re Special!’ (more…)

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The Melian Dialogue, with its fascinating insights into the dynamics of power imbalances and issues of might versus right, is one of the best-known episodes in Thucydides’ account, and continues to be drawn upon as a source of insight into contemporary events. Few people know that this is, strictly speaking, the second Melian Dialogue. Just over seventy-five years earlier, in 481, in the middle of the Persian Wars, a delegation from Melos had arrived in Athens and demanded to speak to representatives of the Greek alliance against Persia. In the standard version of Thucydides’ text, this event is mentioned only in passing, as it appears to have had no lasting consequences; however, one manuscript variant includes a more extensive account of the ensuing discussions, with some surprising echoes of the later episode – some of which may help explain the brusque response of the Athenians to certain Melian arguments in 416.

ATH: This isn’t really the best time – you know, major military threat from the East, refugees from Ionia, economic crisis, that sort of thing – but we’re always willing to talk to our allies. What can we do for you?

MEL: We want to leave the alliance. You jack-booted bureaucratic imperialists.

ATH: Okay… What exactly is the problem?

MEL: You take all our money and then order us around.

ATH: Well, every state pays a proportionate contribution to the defence of Greece against the Persian threat, and we reach collective decisions about strategy that we’re all expected to obey.

MEL: Just like we said. What do we get out of it? And don’t give us any of that nonsense about preserving peace or protecting workers’ rights or supporting scientific research. We don’t care about your values and ideals.

ATH: All right, if you insist on framing this purely in terms of expediency, would you not accept that there are benefits for all of us from solidarity and collective action?

MEL: What benefit is there for us in being your slaves?

ATH: But you’re not… Mutual support and security? Pooling of resources? The powerful are always going to try to do exactly what they want; the weak need to band together to become strong.

MEL: Are you suggesting that we’re too small and weak? Are you? Melos is Great. Melos is Strong and Uniquely Inventive and the Envy of the Aegean. We’re not being dictated to by a bunch of rootless cosmopolitan owl-huggers.*

ATH: All right, what about a looser form of alliance, in which you don’t have to do anything you really don’t want to do, so long as it doesn’t damage the rest of us?

MEL: Tyranny! Dictatorship! We might as well be in Persia!

ATH: Have you really thought this through? The risks in what you propose to do are considerable…


ATH: You are going to need allies.

MEL: Everyone will want to be our friends once we’re free from your tyranny. Including you. Because we’re better than everyone else. And the gods will be on our side.

ATH: Hope is always a good thing, but if it’s all you’ve got…

MEL: It’s all we need – that, and our freedom from this imperialistic alliance of independent sovereign states that is oppressing us! Melians never shall be slaves! It’s time to take back control!

[At this point the manuscript breaks off…]

* Word otherwise found only in fragment of Aristophanes. Presumed sexual reference.

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One major reason for the versatility of Thucydides’ account as a source of insight into the present, as noted before, is its lack of specificity. That is to say, we’re presented with a detailed, multi-faceted account of specific historical events, having been primed to expect that we’ll spot resemblances and analogies with later events and our own situation – but without any authorial direction as to what resemblances and analogies we should expect to see. As Hobbes observed,  Thucydides doesn’t teach a lesson but simply makes us spectators of events, free to draw our own conclusions (but encouraged to do so). His work is not so much a mirror as a Rorschach blot; you see universal principles of inter-state relations that speak to tensions between the USA and China, I see a complex meditation on uncertainty and anticipation that is (as Simon Schama has been astute enough to observe recently) perfectly suited to a well-paid consultancy with the insurance industry. (more…)

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Not a new discussion of citations of Thucydides with reference to the Eurozone economic crisis – I’ve been up for only a couple of hours, and only one new example has appeared in that time (see previous post), and in any case I need to finish writing a paper for Goettingen this afternoon on a completely different topic (though, come to think of it, much of this material probably could be worked into a discussion of ‘responses to change and uncertainty’…). However, given the level of traffic over the last couple of days – almost beating, I think, the time when I started poking the admirers of Richard III with a pointed stick – I thought it might be helpful to provide links to all my posts on this general theme, in chronological order:

The New Alcibiades (30th January) Is Alexis Tsipras the new Alcibiades, or the new Kleon? See additional material in comments, with first discussion of Yanis Varoufakis’ interest in Thucydides.

The Empire Strikes Back (20th February) Is the Greek situation more like Melos or Carthage? See additional material re Thucydides in comments.

The Melian Dilemma (27th March) More detailed analysis of Varoufakis’ reading of Thucydides and game theory.

Hesiod the Neoliberal (27th June) Not Thucydides, for a change, but similar themes

Democracy on Melos (28th June) On elites versus the demos, and #Greferendum (see also Thoukidideia below)

Here We Go Again (1st July) On Zaretsky’s NYT piece.

Greek Nightmares (5th July) Why is it always the Melian Dialogue? Why not Corcyra?

Peak Thucydides? (7th July) At this point I am getting very cross with the whole thing…

Thoukidideia (8th July) Now the Greeks are doing it as well.

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Sometimes you recognise immediately that you’re in the same situation as before, but can still do nothing about it; sometimes it starts differently, and you realise only gradually that events are playing out just as they have in previous nightmares, and that they will continue to play out in exactly the same way to the end, or until you can tear yourself away. Another week in the ongoing agony of Greece and Europe, another Thucydides reference. Why is it always the bloody Melian Dialogue? (more…)

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Here We Go Again

Just for the sake of completeness – I occasionally refer back to posts here on examples of Thucydideanisms in the media, and I imagine that others may do so – I note the piece in today’s New York Times by Robert Zaretsky, Professor of French History at the University of Houston, entitled What Would Thucydides Say About The Crisis In Greece?. Yes, of course it’s a summary of the Melian Dialogue, along the now-familiar lines. One might have hoped that the developing polarisation within Greek society, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations about the forthcoming referendum, would mean that we could move on to the Corcyrean stasis for a bit, to be followed eventually by the Sicilian expedition (leaving aside the well-attested capacity of the EU to keep kicking that can down the road so nothing ever gets anywhere near an actual resolution), but no… (more…)

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