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Posts Tagged ‘Pericles’

The problem with developing an interest in classical references in modern political discourse is that the evidence never stops piling up. It’s the advantage of blogging, of course, that it’s easy to update whenever something interesting comes along. When it comes to proper academic analysis, however – since blogs are still not taken seriously for that purpose – there’s a constant fear that a new development will suddenly put things into a different light, locked in endless struggle with the wish/need to get the thing finished.

I cannot decide whether it’s a good or bad thing that my chapter on depictions of Trump as Roman emperor was submitted months ago so can’t include references to the analogies being drawn between his 4th July authoritarian military spectacle and the vast, expensive shows put on for Caligula (more…)

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There are times when – if I was completely confident that he is human, rather than a papier-maché marionette enchanted with a spirit of pure ambition and entitlement – I could almost feel sorry for Boris Johnson. How to answer questions about one’s self, when either it doesn’t exist or it has been firmly suppressed in favour of an attention-seeking public persona? Brexit? Easy: optimism, boldness, do or die, codswallop, no surrender, blah blah. Domestic policy? Tax cuts and infrastructure investment for everyone! Private life? That should remain private, so there. Okay, which figure from history would you like to be…? (more…)

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Since it more or less coincided with his decision to read the whole of that old warhorse, Tennyson’s Ulysses, at a meeting of the Bruges Group, hard-line Brexity Spart Mark François’s quotation of Pericles – “Freedom is the sole possession of those who have the courage to defend it” – at a Brexit rally on Official Leaving Day has gone relatively unnoticed, except of course by me. It did seem significant that this is the A.S. Way version of the Funeral Oration, as featured on various war memorials but not in any published translation of Thucydides (see Liz Sawyer‘s account); rather as the most obvious source of the poem is Judi Dench from Skyfall, so it seems more likely that the MP has been visiting the Bomber Command memorial rather than leafing through the Peloponnesian War.

Two minor additions this morning. The first is to note that it’s actually a mis-quote, and perhaps a significant one: Way’s original has “freedom is the sure possession…”, whereas François makes the more exclusive claim that only those who fight for freedom are entitled to it. He’s not the only person to do this on social media, and one might suggest that in the military and veteran circles where this line is often quoted, it’s a readily comprehensible mental step. The second is that, as I discovered in checking this, François has used the line several times in Parliament, in his erstwhile role as Armed Forces Minister. This was too late to appear in Liz’s survey of Thucydides quotes in British and US politics; I’m not sure if she’s done an update that I’ve missed, but given that her main conclusion was the marginal status of Thucydides in the UK compared with the US, it is interesting that at least in this context things are changing slightly. I am not saying that it’s a good thing…

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One of the ways in which the Athens of Pericles is a terrible model for how to manage a just society is the ultra-restrictive citizenship law he introduced in 451, reserving full legal and political status only for those whose parents were both Athenians. At least in part because of a shortage of sources, the context and purpose of this law is much disputed; Aristotle’s suggestion (Politics 1278a) seems as plausible as any, that this is a means of restricting the numbers of citizens in a polis that is expanding, presumably in order not to spread the benefits of citizenship (and, in Athens, of empire) too widely. In other circumstances, the benefits of immigrants are widely recognised; we can see this in Xenophon’s proposals in the Poroi for revitalising the Athenian economy by attracting more foreign traders and other entrepreneurs – though without actually opening up citizenship – and still more in Thucydides’ account of the way early Athens grew through offering a safe haven to refugees from other parts of Greece: “by becoming citizens from the very earliest times they so increased the city’s population that Attica could not contain them and the Athenians later sent out colonies to occupy Ionia as well” (1.2.6). Immigrants as an asset – but sometimes a state decides that it wants all the benefits of their contributions without offering anything much in return, however long they’ve lived there and however much they’ve done for their adopted home…

#EUCitizensChampion

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Whom would you rather have make a speech about the death of one of your loved ones, Donald Trump or Pericles? For Simon Schama over on the Twitter yesterday, there’s no contest: “Grief obliges eloquence or silence. Pericles. Lincoln. Then ‘evil losers'”. It’s certainly true that there’s no contest when it comes to eloquence and rhetorical skill, or even basic grammar – but the differences aren’t so stark when it comes to the ends of such speeches. For Trump, the deaths of children, teenagers and their older relatives in Manchester are fuel for his confused, ill-directed crusade against ‘radical Islwmic terrorism’, fuelling suspicion of Muslims in general. For Pericles, the deaths of Athenian soldiers were weaponised to urge the survivors to sacrifice themselves for the city as well, with the grief of their families waved away. The issue with Schama’s contrast isn’t that Pericles lost the war or was responsible for starting it, as various people responded to him; it’s that the contrast isn’t as stark as he implies. As for his “Thucydides would block you and so will I”, nice line, but would the man willing to face up to the full ghastliness of human weakness and violence really filter reality like that?

Meanwhile, if you’ll excuse the sub-tweet, I feel ever more disturbed by the sorts of people who choose to incorporate Thucydides into their Twitter identity, and the violent right-wing views many of them seem to hold – and what this says about the modern image of Thucydides, if not necessarily the work itself…

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How minimal and commonplace can a quotation or allusion be, and still be traced back to its source with some degree of confidence? Labour’s adoption of “For the many not the few” as its election slogan provoked comments on the Twitter (e.g. from Jonathan Freedland of the Grauniad) about whether Jeremy Corbyn realised he was quoting Tony Blair’s revised version of the infamous Clause IV – doing away with references to the common ownership of the means of production etc. – followed by the argument from Phillip Collins of the Times that this was actually taken from Pericles’ Funeral Oration, the famous line (as included in the preamble to the draft European Constitution!) that “our constitution is called a democracy, because it is administered for the sake not of the few but of the many [or: of the whole people]” (2.37).

I don’t actually recall any discussion, back in 1994/5, of the possible sources of Blair’s new wording, and I haven’t found anything helpful on the internet – any suggestions or information gratefully received! (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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