Posts Tagged ‘reception’

There was a surprising amount of laughter at an otherwise fascinating conference at Leeds this week on Classics and Classicists in WWI. Nervousness at the subject matter, perhaps, or at the idea that we’ve decided to make sense of the appalling slaughter by spotting classical allusions in modernist poetry? Or just historical distance, as the events are far enough in the past that we don’t feel we have to empathise with these people or understand their intellectual positions properly but can observe their (by our standards) naivety and idealism with scholarly detachment? Gauging the quality and intent of laughter is of course a wholly subjective matter; it’s probably just my own prejudices that led me to hear the response to Rupert Brooke’s description, say, of travelling to the eastern Mediterranean on a troop ship as an all-expenses-paid cruise to view classical sites, as indulgent and nostalgic laughter, ‘oh those silly but heroic doomed youths’, while the claims of German classicists in 1914 that they were fighting to defend the heritage of Hellenic civilisation were laughed at scornfully. (more…)

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bertie and the bookIt has been suggested that I might have made more of the publication of my new book on Thucydides’ reception in modern historiography (available from I.B. Tauris) than bury it in a post on other things. So, here is a picture of the book, alongside a cute cat, on the principle that this might just turn viral. But probably not; Bertie looks suitably affronted that he isn’t mentioned in the acknowledgements, but it’s nothing compared with this portrait of magnificent indifference to academic achievement from one of the cats of my colleague Chris Brooke…

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It wasn’t entirely a joke. No, I don’t actually think that most people who cite Thucydides are zombies (though the mindlessness of some of these references, by no means only from the much-maligned Neorealists, does continue to demand explanation). However, the idea that we might think about the process whereby classical texts and ideas are rediscovered and reinterpreted in other contexts in terms of contagion – a viral theory of the classical tradition, if you will – does seem to me to have considerable merit. It’s a variant of an idea I floated in my article on the practice of quoting and misquoting Thucydides (and attributing quotes to him that were actually taken from other people), the notion of an ‘aphoristic ecosystem’ in which concepts and soundbites struggle to survive and reproduce in people’s minds (and I was interested to hear last week that Liz Sawyer at Oxford has been thinking along similar lines in her study of twentieth-century readings of Thucydides). Here, however, it’s the idea of Thucydides himself (and I don’t see why this can’t be extended to other classical authors) as virus: a virus that can mutate but which retains a core identity (compare and contrast ‘Thucydides as historian’ and ‘Thucydides as political theorist’, both offspring of the ‘Thucydides as most politic historiographer’ form to be found in Hobbes); a virus that finds some environments more hospitable (C19 German historiography, late C20 US International Relations theory), others less so (much of antiquity, C15-16 Europe, contemporary Europe) and has as yet scarcely penetrated further regions (Africa, Asia); a virus which affects people to different degrees, and can produce different symptoms, depending on the host’s susceptibility, their general state of health, and the extent of contact with the pathogen.


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[Note: the following report was recovered from the hard drive of a computer found in a burnt-out office in the Arts Faculty of the University of Bristol. Earlier, clearly incomplete versions were found on the university’s servers, but this dates from a fortnight later and includes substantial material not found elsewhere. There are some significant gaps in the text, and the data files it refers to are substantially corrupted; whether the report was completed but some passages have been lost, or whether it was still a work in progress, is unclear. The lack of entries on the author’s blog from mid-November suggest an approximate terminus post quem for the completion of this draft. Efforts to contact the main author and other individuals mentioned in the text or associated with the project have so far proved unsuccessful.]


Over the last 25 years, there has been an exponential increase in the number of references to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides in numerous different contexts and media; above all in discussions of global politics (focusing, successively, on the expansion of US power, the invasion of Iraq, relations with Iran and the rise of China), and war, including commemoration of the war dead and celebrations of the service of veterans. This echoes earlier periods of Thukydidismus, including his dominance in nineteenth-century debates about the nature of modern historiography, his presence in both British and German propaganda in World War I, and the widespread citation of his ideas on bipolar systems and deterrence in the Cold War era. However, there is evidence that the present phenomenon is more widespread, both in terms of the number of different fields in which Thucydides may now appear (not only international relations and military education but school literature classes and computer games) and in the sheer weight of reference, undoubtedly aided by the development of the internet and other technologies of mass communication.


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This blog is going to go quiet for a couple of weeks as I’m off on holiday (and desperately trying to finish scribbling a paper on ‘History as Political Therapy’ for the American Political Science Association conference at the end of the month), but I thought I’d sign off with advance notice of a couple of events related to the Thucydides research project in Bristol in the autumn.

Might is Right? Ancient and Modern Debates

Sunday November 10th, Foyles Bookshop, Cabot Circus, 2pm.

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”  So claimed an aide of George W. Bush in 2004, but it’s an idea that dates back to 5th century BC Greece and the historian Thucydides – one of the most-quoted ancient writers in debates about contemporary affairs, including on such topics as the invasion of Iraq and post-9/11 US foreign policy. This public event, part of the University of Bristol’s annual InsideArts week, draws on the work of the Bristol Thucydides project over the last four years: Studiospace, the UoB Student Drama Society, will be staging the Melian Dialogue, the famous passage in Thucydides’ work where he explores different approaches to justice and interest in inter-state relations, and this will be followed by a discussion between scholars working on different aspects of the topic (including Neville Morley and Ellen O’Gorman from Classics & Ancient History, and Torsten Michel from Politics; chaired by Josie McLellan from Historical Studies), and plenty of opportunity for questions from the audience.

Attendance is free, but we do ask you to reserve a place in advance; further details will appear on the project website (www.bris.ac.uk/classics/thucydides/events/) in due course.

Thucydides: Reception, Reinterpretation and Influence

Monday 25th-Tuesday 26th November, Clifton Hill House, Bristol

This final colloquium of the Bristol Thucydides project draws together different themes in the modern reception and influence of Thucydides, in different spheres of activity – history, politics, war and culture. It will probably have a different title at some point, and certainly a much better blurb, but obviously the main attraction is the line-up of speakers…

Geoffrey Hawthorn (Cambridge): Who does Thucydides please?

Aleka Lianeri (Thessaloniki): Time and Method: Thucydides’ contemporary history in nineteenth-century Britain

Christian Thauer (FU Berlin /U of Washington): Re-approaching Thucydides? An Intellectual History Perspective

Edith Foster (Ashland University): Narrating Battles: Thucydides and Ernst Jünger

Seth Jaffe (Toronto): The Straussian Thucydides

Andreas Stradis (Bristol): Thucydides and Vietnam: A Vehicle for Ethical Professional Military Education

Neville Morley (Bristol): The Idea of Thucydides in Western Culture

Ben Earley (Bristol): The Spirit of Athens: Thucydides as a theorist of maritime empire

Christian Wendt (FU Berlin): discussant

If you have any queries about either of these events, please contact me on n.d.g.morley(at)bris.ac.uk.

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I’ve just finished writing my lecture for this evening on Thucydides and modern political theory; as ever, it was only at about halfway through that I worked out what I wanted to say, so the text switches from nicely polished and word-processed sentences to scribbled notes that may or may not turn into coherent sentences on the night. One of my starting-points builds on the work of Eddie Keene at Oxford (in his chapter for the forthcoming Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides), noting that the conventional genealogy of ‘realism’  in International Relations theory, looking back to Hans Morgenthau and E.H.Carr, really doesn’t account for the importance of Thucydides in this tradition, as neither of them really discuss him (Carr, I think, ignores him completely; Morgenthau has at the most a couple of passing comments). Of course it is, as copious empirical evidence demonstrates, all too easy to interpret Thucydides’ account as a forerunner of neorealism, if you squint at it the right way and assume that e.g. the Mytilene Debate and Melian Dialogue are simply expressions of the historian’s analytical conclusions, but that doesn’t explain why it should be felt to be necessary to bring in Thucydides at all. (more…)

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The great historian of concepts Reinhart Koselleck is one of my intellectual heroes; it’s one of my great regrets that I didn’t discover his work until it was too late (he died in 2006) to agitate for Bristol to give him an honorary degree – he spent some time as a student at the university, and then returned as a lecturer between 1954 and 1956. Since I’m currently in Bielefeld, where he was a key figure in the establishment of the Faculty of Historical Studies and was Professor fuer Theorie der Geschichte from 1973 until his retirement in 1988, I’m trying to make time to read as much of his work as possible, given that I can access a load of stuff that simply isn’t available in the UK.

One thing that’s striking, given the current focus of my interests, is how often he brings up Thucydides as a key example; (more…)

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Interesting to note that the Father of the House Sir Peter Tapsell is declining to speak in this afternoon’s Margaret Thatcher Respectful Tribute Slam in Parliament.  “It is not a university and I am not the public orator.  I don’t want it to be thought that I have to get up and make a Periclean speech every time there is a tragedy.”

My initial response was to wonder whether a Cleonic oration might be more appropriate for the occasion; my second was to start thinking about Sir Peter’s use of the term ‘Periclean’.  Of course the Funeral Oration is meant, as the standard go-to for commemoration of the glorious dead in speeches and epitaphs – see Jennifer Roberts’ chapter in Thucydides and the Modern World on the tradition from Gettysburg to the aftermath of 9/11, and a piece I wrote for Aeon on the use of quotes on war memorials.  But that was a speech to commemorate the deaths of a fair number of people in war, and that’s how, more or less, it’s been used since – not least as a means of co-opting those deaths into the national cause, reducing the individuals involved and their grieving families into faceless components of the collective endeavour.  It’s not an obvious choice for memorialising a single individual, which might be a good reason for eschewing Periclean orations in this instance – but my reading of his comment is that Sir Peter doesn’t think that they are inappropriate per se, just that he doesn’t see why he has to be the one to give them every time.


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It is, I suppose, an example of the way that specialists come to take their topic entirely for granted, or at any rate develop certain blind spots: I realised this morning that I have never previously Googled ‘Thucydides’ without any qualifying terms. If I ever had, I’m pretty sure I would have clicked on the third result to show up in the list, which describes its contents as follows: “Thucydides is a tool that lets you use WebDriver-based unit or BDD tests to write more flexible and more reusable WebDriver-based tests, and also to generate ” I have no idea what that means, but was eager enough for an excuse to spend five minutes away from the book – okay, I know that playing on the internet on the PC doesn’t count as a proper break from the laptop – to ferret around in search of the rationale for the choice of name. I think it’s rather sweet…

Thucydides (Thoo-SID-a-dees) is a tool designed to make writing automated acceptance and regression tests easier. It provides features that make it easier to organize and structure your acceptance tests, associating them with the user stories or features that they test. As the tests are executed, Thucydides generates illustrated documentation describing how the application is used based on the stories described by the tests.

Thucydides provides strong support for automated web tests based on Selenium 2, though it can also be used effectively for non-web tests.

Thucydides was a Greek historian known for his astute analysis skills who rigorously recorded events that he witnessed and participated in himself. In the same way, the Thucydides framework observes and analyzes your acceptance tests, and records a detailed account of their execution.

Of course, the obsessive pedant in me now wants to start speculating about whether the Thucydides framework appears to provide a reliable record of the execution of acceptance tests, which can serve as a basis for future practices (kata to hupologistikon, so to speak), but is really manipulating the user according to its own hidden agenda…

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(This is a guest post from Andreas Stradis, one of the doctoral students on the Bristol Thucydides project)

In his bestselling, semi-autobiographical account of the Vietnam War, Karl Marlantes devotes much attention to the plain-speaking, hard-drinking Lieutenant Colonel Simpson, torn between the needs of his battalion and his promotion prospects. A Korean War veteran and true ‘field’ Marine, he is also an outsider. Despite his combat experience, he is phased by his much younger equal in rank, a suave, educated Annapolis graduate. He sits a world apart from the Ivy League elite, to which Marlantes himself belonged as a Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar. At Georgia State University, taking the less prestigious route to a commission, Simpson ‘never had time to learn how to socialize’, or to ‘put pithy quotes into his reports the way he knew he ought to.’ After all he had done, ‘Why should he have to remember pithy f****** quotes?’ Quotes were incommensurate with the plain-speaking man, and otiose in the jungle.


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