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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…

MEL: PROJECT FEAR!!!

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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“The distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers,” remarked Thomas Piketty, in a work noted for its regular references to the novels of Austen and Balzac for insights into wealth and inequality in the nineteenth century. Contrary to the claims to scientific objectivity made by mainstream economics, issues of power and money inevitably have a subjective, psychological and hence political dimension; “democracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts”, and it is the imaginative artists who can depict the effects of inequality and the workings of the economy ”with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.” (more…)

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Football has long since become an all-purpose symbol of the decadence and dysfunction of globalised late capitalist society and culture. Perhaps this is because it retains traces of its more virtuous and popular origins so we feel its transformation more keenly (plus of course there’s the Land of Cockayne where the stadiums have terraces and the lager is cheap, aka the Bundesliga, mocking us from across the Armelkanal), whereas we don’t honestly expect bankers and the like to be anything other than unscrupulous, avaricious tax evaders. So we despair over modern football because it makes us acutely aware of what has been lost in the transformation.

It’s scarcely surprising, therefore, that discussions of higher education regularly evoke modern football as their touchstone for the evils of marketisation. (more…)

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Two things on the internet caught my fancy yesterday. The first, quite widely circulated so probably already familiar, was a story in the Grauniad: How Computer-Generated Fake Papers Are Flooding Academia. This struck me as a rather wonderful thing. Of course, the basic focus of the article and the research on which it reports is the lax standard of reviewing at certain journals and conferences, so that papers churned out by simple computer programmes which are essentially gibberish nevertheless are accepted (it wasn’t completely clear from the report whether the papers are submitted  under the names of the programmers, i.e. real people with genuine university affiliations which serve as an imprimatur so that the content is simply ignored, or under fake names as well, implying that there are no quality checks whatsoever). But it can’t be that big a step to write a programme that could generate fake papers by a specific author. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if an analysis of my own works identified clear, consistent patterns in the use of certain words and phrases, tendency to resort to a limited number of key references and to start every paper with a quote from some nineteenth-century thinker intended to unsettle current assumptions, basic structural similarities and so forth (come to think of it, I’m drawing this entirely from Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, aren’t I?) – so, why not use that to produce ersatz Morley essays, barely distinguishable from the real thing? (more…)

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Plan B

An old friend, Constantina Katsari, has just announced that she’s leaving academia, perhaps for ever. I’ve known about this for a while, simply because we had been corresponding about the possibility of developing a collaborative research project on the ancient economy, which now has to be shelved [attempts to disguise fact that he’s talking through clenched teeth…]. You can hear more about this move, as well as getting a sense of Constantina’s personal and intellectual biography, in a recent interview from Radio Leicester (starts at about 12 minutes in, just after Shania Twain). I know a bit about some of her reasons and some of her plans, and I’m sure we’re going to be hearing more about the latter in the near future – there are already some hints in the way that she’s revamped her Love of History blog:

Now, I am looking at my life and my passions, while I am trying to redefine myself as a historian. For years I have published for the few academics who are interested in economic history, comparative slavery and identities. Probably a few dozen scholars dissected, scrutinised and reviewed my books and articles mostly in constructive ways. I participated in debates, I promoted the subject in conferences and participated in large projects.

Now, I am ready to take the next step. There is no reason why a professional academic historian cannot turn into a public/ popular historian. I certainly have the knowledge. It is time to share it with the many (hoi polloi). This blog is the first step towards that direction and will open new horizons to entrepreneurial activity in history.

(more…)

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Tom Holland has been doing the Twitter equivalent of prodding me with a pointed stick, loudly advertising the fact that he, Vic Reeves and Tanni Grey-Thompson were going to be discussing late Roman economic policy on ITV this evening, purely to annoy me. He must have a new book to plug, and wants to provoke a bit of controversy-related publicity. I determined, therefore, not only to watch the programme but to like it; after all, it’s great that there is still a bit of archaeology on television, at prime time no less, and it emphasises the possibility of constructive co-existence between professionals and enthusiastic (and often very knowledgeable) amateurs, and shows a wide range of fascinating objects with interesting back stories, and the celebrity presenters (including our Tom) do the necessary job of refusing to take academic equivocation for an answer from the various experts, without drowning out their caveats altogether. Interesting to note that the unifying theme of the programme was something to the effect that in this ever-changing world in which we live in, some things remain the same, rather than emphasising the equally plausible but perhaps less comforting idea that the past may in many ways be another country. Shades of heritage and Our Island Story…

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Only The Strong Survive

I’ve just stumbled across the course outline for a political science seminar to be taught this semester by Clifford Orwin at the University of Toronto (and as I was actually there last week, I really wish I’d known about it then so I could have asked him about it). The general heading is ‘Comparative Topics in Jewish and Non-Jewish Political Thought’, the course will compare Herodotus and the Book of Esther, and the outline includes the following statement re teaching methods:

OUR CLASS MOTTO IS THAT OF THE OREGON TRAIL: THE COWARDS NEVER STARTED, THE WEAK DIED ALONG THE WAY

That is rather magnificent, and cannot help but show our own pusillanimous course outlines in a rather poor light; in comparison, as my colleague Chris Bertram puts it, we offer something to the effect of “a painless ramble through ancient history in pursuit of learning objectives; positive student experience guaranteed…” (more…)

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