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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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On a couple of occasions in his Economics of Good and Evil – which I’m skimming, trying to suppress irritation, in search of a few ideas for the piece I’m writing up on the market in classical antiquity – Tomas Sedlacek refers to the fact that money plays no role in Middle Earth: “the extremely careful J.R.R.Tolkien (who loved to immerse himself in details) never mentions currency anywhere in the Lord of the Rings. In this it is similar to most older tales, fairy tales, myths, and stories” (137; cf. 20 n.5).

Since Sedlacek’s aim is to find the economics in myth and other early literature and the myths in economics, it’s all too tempting to offer such an analogy between the Myth of Gilgamesh and “our own modern myth” – but clearly he doesn’t know the books very well. I found monetary transactions in the first two places I thought of looking in The Fellowship of the Ring: in chapter 3, Frodo sells Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses – and there’s some discussion locally as to what the price might have been, and whether he’s selling because he’s run out of money – and buys a little house at Crickhollow; in chapter 10, at the Prancing Pony in Bree, there’s no reference to payment for room and board (my first thought; surely it’s implied?), but when confronted with Strider Frodo “thought uncomfortably that he had brought only a little money with him” – and in the next chapter, the hobbits buy Bill Ferny’s knackered old pony for 12 silver pennies and receive 18 from the innkeeper for the loss of their horses.

There’s no doubt that the rest of the epic operates in the realm of gift exchange, guest friendship and the like, and quite possibly this is part of the drama of the journey from the comfortable, everyday Shire into the realms of danger and adventure; Frodo and the others have to learn how to navigate a world in which social interaction is based on status and codes of honour rather than monetary worth. The Shire  is an idealised community of bourgeoises, in which monetary transactions are taken for granted as one of the bases of social life; the whole point of the last gasp of heroic/feudal struggle is the preservation of a world of petty commerce, even at the expense of the higher values that have no place in such a world. It’s all so reminiscent of the opening of the 18th Brumaire

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Two interesting, if occasionally problematic, research seminars in the last fortnight. Most entertaining was the visit of Greg Woolf for a discussion of his newish book Tales of the Barbarians, based on his Bristol-Blackwell lectures back in 2009 – not least when he revealed that he’d been re-reading his notes from the discussions afterwards, to see who had asked what, with all of us pretty well conforming to type. It could have been even funnier if he’d waited until afterwards to reveal this, as I don’t imagine I was the only person there who was all set to raise points on exactly the same lines as on that occasion…

The most striking theme, for me, from the chapter we were considering was the lack of consistency in the theories that Roman ethnographic writers offered to account for differences between peoples – they might move from a genelogical explanation to a quick burst of climate determinism in the course of a single discussion – and, more important still, the fact that this appeared not to bother them in the slightest. Whereas in, say, ancient mathematics there was a clear drive to recognise and resolve inconsistencies between different explanations, and to discard some theories in favour of better ones, ancient ethnography showed no such inclination. It raises the question of which approach is more typical for classical antiquity – were ethnographers particularly laissez-faire compared with everyone else, or were mathematicians especially obsessive – and highlights the fact that it’s precisely our (modern? modern scientific?) concern with consistency of explanation that makes this bother us so much. A fortiori if there’s a degree of identification or fellow feeling with these ancient scholars; they’re engaged, more or less, in the same enterprise as we are, so why aren’t they more bothered about stuff that bothers us? A reasonably prominent theme in readings of Thucydides (though more often found in debates about why on earth he thought it was okay to make up the speeches) – there are times when it’s quite understandable that political theorists develop such selective readings on the basis of very few passages, precisely because they can then derive nice clear theories of human behaviour without having to worry about the fact that other parts of the narrative really don’f fit this neat model. Personally I’d read Thucydides as suggesting rather that humans are consistent in their inconsistency, or at any rate that human behaviour is always shaped by specific circumstances and the course of events as well as by consistent principles of action – but then I’m just a wishy-washy humanities type.

The week before, Richard Seaford had come to discuss the latest development of his studies of the impact of money on archaic Greek society, arguing that this not only brought about the birth of philosophy (notion that everything could be translated into a single universal substance, and vice versa) but also the genesis of the subject, as the breakdown of reciprocity under pressures of market economy produced the concept of the self-contained individual. Hmm. Difficult, in retrospect, not to think of this as an example of the excesses to which the modern drive for consistency can lead: the search for a single, all-embracing theory, in which one key factor brings about everything else in a straightforward linear process.  The humanities part of me worries about excessive simplification and reductionism, the way in which every text is turned into an example of exactly the same thing and the process of historical change appears as unilinear, deterministic and implausibly straightforward; the social science part of me, meanwhile, is happy to entertain the occasional grand theory, but feels a bit concerned about the limited range of comparison: it may be true (if we don’t worry too much about precise definitions and their modern connotations for the moment) that in both India and Greece we find urbanisation, commercialisation and a belief in reincarnation in close proximity; it may be true that one of these three is determining the others in both cases; but can we really feel confident about this, let alone elevating it to a general historical principle, without considering possible examples of (a) societies with cities and trade but no reincarnation; (b) societies with no cities or trade but some form of belief in reincarnation; (c) societies with trade but not cities or cities but no markets… At times like this, the ancient anthropological approach suddenly seems more attractive; after all, what might we be losing in reducing the development of these two societies to a simple story about the impact of money, insisting that apparently similar developments must have a single consistent cause..?

 

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