Friday, 24 June 2016

A Classicist Hero of European Ireland

Prof Bob Mitchell Henry
In my entire research life, the biggest ever thrill took place in Queen’s University Belfast a month ago. Preparing for an excellent Dublin conference this week marking the centenary of the Easter Uprising in 1916, I dived into the archived papers of my inspirational new hero, Professor Robert (“Bob”) Mitchell Henry (1873-1950). He has never received due recognition as a role model for academics, so here is my belated appreciation.

With Prof Isabelle Torrance (convenor) & Dr Hazel Dodge
A fine classical scholar, Bob was the pillar of Queen’s for nearly three decades and led its extra-mural activities. He co-founded the local branch of the Workers’ Educational Association and the Classical Association of Ireland. He lectured to the Ulster working class on ancient women and slaves. He was the first President of the Society for Irish Historical Studies. He learned and taught Gaelic. He wrote in socialist newspapers. He energetically supported Trade Unions, the poor, and the Belfast Newsboys Club.

Queen's University Belfast
But Bob was also a republican and a tireless supporter of Irish Catholics and of Irish unity. This is all the more surprising since he was a devout Protestant of Scottish descent. Alongside books on Latin literature, he wrote the canonical Evolution of Sinn Fein (1920), a meticulously researched and sympathetic account of the background to the 1916 rebellion and the principles which motivated the rebels.

'Shooting range'--entry in Henry's diary March 1916
Several passages in this exquisitely written tragic history made me suspect that he had himself joined the Irish Volunteers. They were riflemen prepared to fight the pro-British Ulster Volunteers and if necessary die in defence of Irish independence and unity. So I consulted his pocket diaries. Rifle practice is indeed a regular feature, but only of the months January to March 1916.

Many of the Irish Volunteers were rounded up, imprisoned and deported after the uprising. Thirteen of the rebel leaders were summarily executed after hasty court-martials. Bob was undoubtedly in personal danger at the time.
The Executed 1916 Leaders

After the executions he prudently decided to promote pan-Irish independence through writing rather than revolution. I wonder what he would have made of today’s referendum result, in which the people of the north of Ireland emphatically voted in favour of remaining in Europe alongside the other Irish people sharing their lovely island.

If Sinn Fein get their way, a century on from the Easter uprising the people of Northern Ireland may finally decide that being dragged out of the EU is too high a price to pay for being subjects of the English crown. Ireland has had intimate cultural links with Europe since early medieval times. I wish I could have this conversation with Bob. It would provide some solace today.

Saturday, 18 June 2016


The Latin poet Horace said that the Britons were hostile towards strangers (Britannos hospitibus feros, Ode 3.4). Yesterday, reeling like everyone else from the appalling murder of Labour MP, and true friend of all immigrants, Jo Cox, I had to intervene on a bus between Oxford and London because the yobbish white driver was being so hostile to a foreign lady.

She only had one of the new £20 notes, for a £14 fare. Neither she nor anyone else could see whether his problem was with the unfamiliarity of the note or her lack of the right change. He accused her, loudly, of wasting his time and being too stupid to understand English. At this point a male passenger shouted at him, legitimately enough, ‘What sort of impression of our country do you think you are making on this lady?’ A brawl was imminent. I got up and paid for the lady with my multi-use ten-journey card. She thanked me politely. We set off.

Like ‘homophobia’ as a euphemism for lethal hatred of gay people, the word xenophobia is not enough to describe that bus driver. It means fear of strangers.  We need a word meaning hatred of strangers, which would be misoxeny, a word my twitter friend Graham Guest points out to me was in use in the 17th century. John Josselyn said that ‘the old Brittains’ were notable for their ‘misoxenie or hatred to strangers.’ Cartographer John Speed wrote, presciently, that misoxenie was unalterably inherent in the ‘common humour’ of our ‘Nation’.

Inter-Marriage as Foundation Myth of Marseilles
Watching my compatriots slugging it out in Marseilles with the equally misoxenic Russian football ‘fans’ last week was excruciatingly embarrassing.  I yelled at the TV that they were betraying the spirit of Marseilles, founded as Massalia by Greek vintners in about 600 BCE. A French princess named Gyptis fell in love with a Protis, a handsome Greek. The Gauls had welcomed him to a feast. She chose the migrant as her husband rather than any of her Gallic suitors. 

The incident with the bus driver made me feel even worse than the Marseilles football shambles. How I’m going to feel next Friday morning if misoxeny prevails, and we Britons hospitibus feri decide to turn our backs on the rest of Europe, does not bear thinking about. If I don’t blog next weekend it will be because I have fled the country altogether, perhaps to Marseilles, portrayed here as an idyllic hybrid ancient community by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.

Saturday, 11 June 2016


This is me at 0930 on Friday morning in Patras, due to kick off a pioneering international conference on Classical Reception and the Human with a lecture at 1400. I have always hated mosquitoes since my friend Caroline Fraser, a fine physicist, died at 40 of undiagnosed malaria after visiting South Africa. The Zika virus is doing nothing to rehabilitate them in my eyes.

Dual Purpose Ancient Egyptian Netting
Mosquitoes have never liked me, or perhaps  liked me too much, but this was ridiculous. The irony was that one part of my paper was about how humans should treat animals with respect. Aristotle refers to the extinction of a species of scallop ‘partly by the dredging-machine used in their capture’. I would happily have dredged up and annihilated every mosquito in Greece.

Mosquitoes and Murder Fantasies
Herodotus tells how clever Egyptians defy mosquitoes by wrapping themselves at night in the fine-gauged nets with which they catch fish by day. But ancient Greek references to mosquitoes often occur in sinister contexts. Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, taking years to figure out how to kill her husband because he had killed their daughter, describes with double meaning how ‘lightly whirring mosquitoes whizz around’ and constantly waken her from dreams in which she imagines him suffering.

"Better the (full) mosquito that you know"
One story in Aesop emphasises the ‘jungle law’ that is so important to the cynical world view of the ancient fable: a mosquito defeats a great lion by repeatedly biting his face, but is then himself entrapped by a spider. Another Aesopic fable discourages anybody to opt for a change of master or government. A fox whose tail looked like my face yesterday morning still declined the offer to have the mosquitoes driven away. He reasoned that full mosquitoes could hurt him less than the hungry new ones which would inevitably come and victimise him.

Feeling like Aesop’s suppurating lion and fox, I had to confess the problem to the conference organiser Efimia Karakantza. She is an extraordinary woman, with a team of inspirational students. No Greek economic crisis or slashing cut to university funding has stopped them, so why should a trifling mosquito bite?

Edith, Efimia and Marietta
These wonderful young Greeks include Marietta Kotsafti, who calmly drove us to a hospital. Despite the obvious shortage of resources, I was treated for free with speed, humour, and kindness. Efimia could have done without the  excitement, especially when she broke her own glasses. Like the Graiai, there was now only one sighted person in three.

But a huge injection in my rear and by 1400 I could see enough to paste eye shadow all over the swelling and give my paper. I’m coming back in September, but this time with an armoury of mosquito-targetted chemical weapons, syringes full of antihistamines and an Egyptian fishing net. KOUNOUPIA OF PATRAS, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Edith and Efimia

Sunday, 5 June 2016

New Arguments for Reuniting the Parthenon Sculptures

South Frieze Block III.8-9 pre-crowbar
Two hundred years ago this week the British House of Commons voted to buy the exquisite sculptures, which Lord Elgin’s workmen had in 1803 crowbarred from the Parthenon, for the sum of £35,000 (£2.4 million in today’s money). I personally prefer to call them 'sculptures': 'marbles' does not convey the phenomenal amount of work which went into their production.

The Same Block post-crowbar 

The parliamentary debate on June 7th 1816 was tempestuous. A famine meant starvation for many British poor. But Lord Castlereagh, Tory Leader of the House of Commons, in triumphalist mood after Waterloo, was determined to use the incalculable symbolic value of the sculptures (despite the damage which the crowbarring had inflicted) in the cause of British national pride. He wanted to spend as much again on a British Museum in which to house them.

Peter Moore
A forgotten hero of the debate was Peter Moore, vicar’s son and radical Whig M.P. for Coventry. He announced that he was making a counter-claim for this apparently available cash on behalf of his hungry constituents. 

Cruikshank Satirises Purchase when many Britons were starving

In this cartoon, Castlereagh says to John Bull, ‘Here's a Bargain for you Johnny! Only £35.000!! I have bought them on purpose for you! Never think of Bread when you can have Stones so wonderous Cheap!!’ John Bull’s emaciated children retort, ‘Don't buy them Daddy! we don't want Stones. Give us Bread! Give us Bread! Give us Bread!

Eddie O'Hara: RIP
Last week Eddie O’Hara died. He was the inspiring Chairman of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, of which I am a member. It is heartbreaking for his family. It is awful that he was deprived of the opportunity this week offers for public debate about the issue so close to his heart. His death is a cruel blow to the cause.

Eddie O’Hara was a working-class boy from Bootle. He got to Magdalen College, Oxford, to study Classics, in the days when such upward mobility was still made possible by Direct and Student Maintenance Grants.  He served for twenty years as Labour MP for Knowsley South. He was passionate, principled, energetic, and will be difficult to replace.

If you live in Britain, or are a Briton abroad sympathetic to the campaign to reunite the Parthenon sculptures in the city where they were created, you can find out more about how to help the BCRPM here, for example by writing to your MP.

I am about to do this, again. I will point out that since most Britons had no vote in 1816, the purchase of the sculptures had no democratic mandate. I will also suggest that the current Lord Elgin donate the £2.4 million his family extracted from the British taxpayer, in exchange for sculptures expropriated from the residents of Athens, to a poverty charity or pressure organisation such as the Child Poverty Action Group. The children of Coventry, one third of whom live below the poverty line, would be a good place to start. 

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Another Non-Tomb of Aristotle

The tomb in Stageira causing a fuss
Call me a cynic, but has archaeologist Kostas Sismanidis really found a single shred of evidence that the tomb excavated in ancient Stageira long ago in 1996 houses the remains of Aristotle? After the Amphipolis ‘tomb of Alexander’ fiasco last summer, we are entitled to be sceptical. And releasing the information in the 2,400th anniversary year of Aristotle’s birth strikes me as a little too much of a coincidence.

The Tomb Mandeville claimed to have seen
Amongst Sismanidis’ alleged ‘literary sources’ which ‘prove’ that Aristotle was really buried there is, I believe, John Mandeville’s 1499 Travels: ‘In this country was Aristotle born, in a city that men clepe Stagyra, a little from the city of Thrace.  And at Stagyra lieth Aristotle; and there is an altar upon his tomb.  And there make men great feasts for him every year, as though he were a saint.  And at his altar they holden their great councils and their assemblies, and they hope, that through inspiration of God and of him, they shall have the better council.’

I am happy to believe Sir John when he says that there was a cult of Aristotle in medieval eastern Chalkidiki. Aristotle was by far the most famous person from that part of the world and read obsessively in medieval universities. I also LOVE the illustration of the tomb in the manuscript. But Sismanidis is carefully not telling the world that Aristotle’s ‘actual’ tomb has been sensationally ‘discovered’ before.

Waldstein enters Aristotle's Other Tomb
If you read the article published by famous American archaeologist Charles Waldstein  in Century magazine in 1892, you will find that that 'Aristotle’s' marble tomb was excavated by the American School of Archaeology of Athens at Eretria in 1891. Waldstein, a colourful figure who deserves a whole blog to himself, claimed to have found styluses (although he didn’t go so far as to say that they were the ones used to write the Nicomachean Ethics), a portrait statue of the philosopher, and an inscription bearing Aristotle’s name. 

Portrait Statue of Aristotle Waldstein found in Euboea Grave
Waldstein’s ‘tomb of Aristotle’ is much nearer the place where the actual ancient sources said the philosopher died,  in Chalcis, Euboea, in 322 BCE. Early Christians claimed he had drowned himself, after a last-minute religious conversion, in the wild tides of the Euripus, but other ancient writers say he died of his longstanding stomach complaint.

I am delighted by the attention Aristotle is getting as I am finishing a book called Ten Ways Aristotle Can Change Your Life. I wrote on his life and death in this month’s History Today. I would love to believe that anything new about the Magnificent Man from Stageira has been unearthed. But I am not impressed by any of the ‘evidence’ Sismanidis has ‘revealed’ so far.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Using Classics to Oil Corporate Wheels

Fiennes' Oedipus, sponsored by Shell
What is it with enormous oil companies and the sponsorship of classics-themed cultural activity?  In 2008 the National Theatre accepted funding from Shell to stage Sophocles’ Oedipus, a play concerning a plague-stricken land suffering from blighted crops and airborne pestilence. Now BP is pretending that it cares about our oceans.

What BP want you to associate with them
On Tuesday I enjoyed the press preview of the British Museum’s stunning new exhibition ‘Sunken Cities’, featuring underwater finds from the lost Greek cities of the Nile Delta. As I said on BBC Radio’s Front Row, it is exquisitely designed, accessible but erudite, and perfect for All The Family.  Besides the sensational statues, the best thing is the juxtaposition of artefacts with video footage of the divers on the sea floor pulling them from the sand.

Dudley's Pen mightier than truth?
But the effect of all these translucent aquamarine Mediterranean seascapes is jeopardised by the surreal hypocrisy of the ‘Sponsor’s Foreword’ to the exhibition guidebook, penned by Bob Dudley, Group Chief Executive of BP.

A few Environmental Protesters at the BM
Discovery is part science and technology, part human endeavour… we feel a strong affinity with the maritime archaeologists who have created and studied their own maps of the Mediterranean seabed to discover the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. We may work at different depths, but like our fellow marine explorers, BP knows the Nile Delta and the waters off the Mediterranean coast well… We continue to invest in Egypt’s future … through our social programmes which are supporting education and local communities. We remain grow [sic] production safely, reliably and efficiently.’ Nauseating.

What I actually associate with BP
The worst oil spill in U.S. history occurred on April 20 2010. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded. It killed 11 people. By July 15, when the well was finally capped, BP’s pipe had leaked more than 3 million barrels of oil into the ocean off Louisiana. Both the oil and the chemicals used to disperse it did incalculable damage to water quality, seaweed stocks, wildlife, coral and the Gulf coast as well as the entire ecosystem and human health.

Mexico Gulf Dolphins
Sponsorship is not philanthropy. In this case it is a cynical attempt to obscure well-deserved reputational damage. BP have never issued any very convincing apology to anybody, let alone the millions of whales, dolphins, turtles, fish and 93 species of birds which they killed at the peak of spawning/nesting season. But they were forced into pleading guilty to 11 felony counts related to the human deaths and lying to congress.

Please go to this marvellous exhibition. But get your children to read the Smithsonian Museum’s account of the effects of the Gulf catastrophe before you take them. Because I have a  thing about dolphins, they (rather than BP’s alleged work for the environment and the poor) dominated my consciousness as I gazed into the clear turquoise waters lapping round those divers in the sparkling video installations. As Cervantes said, ‘Truth shrinks and doesn’t fragment, and  lies on top of falsehoods like oil on water.’

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Cheiron the Centaur for Minister of Education!

Cheiron teaches Jason the lyre
A Warsaw conference on mythical beasts allowed me to celebrate the centaur Cheiron. Where other centaurs are hyper-randy,tanked-up brutes, Cheiron is an expert in healing, botany, lyre-playing and hunting. He teaches these skills to heroes in childhood and adolescence. He is an Agony Uncle and initiation guru who gives youths romantic advice.

Centaur toy from 10th century BCE
But, far more excitingly, he is also the ONLY ancient Greek author with a non-human lower body. There was a poem as old as Homer and Hesiod called the Precepts of Cheiron, addressed to the teenager Achilles. It consisted of Cheiron's own timeless wisdom for all children and the people raising them.

In our days of compulsory testing of the literary and numeracy of even the very young (in my view, year 2 SATS are a form of child abuse), it's good to recall that Cheiron said that forcing children to read before the age of seven was counter-productive.* Cheiron for Minister of Education, say I!

Box on table is labelled CHEIRONEIA
Sadly, his poem has not survived except in fragments. Nor has the other poem in which he starred, the Cheironeia. Panaitios, the youth seated left on this vase in Berlin, is reading this epic intently in the presence of his tutor. The vase tells us that the both the boy and the poem are BEAUTIFUL.

The Greeks, then, would be shocked at how we ‘educate’ our four to six-year-olds. But they wouldn’t be surprised at the popularity of centaurs in modern youth culture. I spent hours this week baffled by the explicit initiatory adventures of she-centaur Himeno Kimihara, in the bestselling manga series A Centaur's Life, until my own youngest teenager patiently explained that you start such books at what I call the ‘end’, the right-hand cover as you hold it.

But the best find of the week was this old bike advert. Cheiron, who had attempted to teach the youth to ride a horse, is in my view not racked with envious desire for a velocipede. He doesn’t need one. What he is actually planning is a centaur revolution: ‘four legs good, two wheels bad’. 
Peirce Brosnan as Cheiron in Percy Jackson movie

* That seven is the earliest age (aetas) at which a child is able "intellectum disciplinarum capere et laborem pati" was a Cheironic Precept  (Quintilian Inst. Orat. 1.1.15).