Saturday, 30 November 2019

How To Virtue-Signal Like a Roman

This week in the peerless Aeon magazine there is a fine philosophical essay by Neil Levy on Virtue Signalling. This form of behaviour, in its true form, consists of one individual rebuking another for not being virtuous enough in choice of language, often online. The objective is to display the rebuker’s superior virtue.

Helmeted VIRTUS of Aquillius
Virtue Signals are usually distinguishable from genuine moral interventions springing from altruistic motives. But it would be helpful to have a meme, or a costume to wear, when we’re Virtue Signalling ourselves. I’ve gone to the original and literal Virtue Signals in ancient Rome to find examples.

Mn. Aquillius in 65 BCE issued a coin celebrating his ancestor’s imperial savagery in Sicily which claimed it was due to his VIRTUS. She is helpfully name-labelled but identifiable from her ringlets and elaborate helmet with an olive sprig. Olive was PR-speak for a statesman’s Achievement-of-Peace-through-Brutal-Suppression-of-Opposition, which in the game of Roman spin could also be abbreviated to VIRTUS.
Septimius Severus' VIRTUS

Sometimes Virtue waves an olive twig. She sometimes holds a statuette of another personification, Victory. She often brandishes a spear and leans on a shield. But her most distinctive accoutrement is a parazonium or long, phallic triangular dagger, held at waist level.

Trajan's VIRTUS plus parazonium
Sometimes she puts her foot on her helmet or sits on a cuirass. Philip I went furthest and simply has her as world-conqueror, one foot on a globe, her spear pointing downwards because His Virtue Has Triumphed Everywhere.

Caracalla Poses as the Goddess VIRTUS 
Fortunately, given the touchiness of the topic of gender identity today, Virtus (although grammatically feminine) looks like a male Roman soldier, while sometimes revealing one breast in Amazonian manner. But Virtus can be as masculine as Mars or an Emperor himself. The humourless and amoral Caracalla began by putting a girlish Virtus in ankle boots on the obverse of his portrait coins but later cut to the chase and simply posed as Virtue himself.

So it’s up to you—your VIRTUS could be conveyed to your Twitter followers in an instant with a snapshot of one of these images. If they don’t get the hint, then simply build a temple to Virtus, as M. Claudius Marcellus did in 222 BCE when a battle wasn’t going well. Or, like Augustus, get the Senate to award you a shield screaming to your public that you are endowed with VIRTUE as well as CLEMENCY, JUSTICE and PIETY. They added his right to put an oak wreath over his front door. That should quickly close all opposition down.


Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Troy in Nicosia:The Women's War


History was made on Sunday 17 November 2019 in Nicosia, Cyprus. The story of the fall of Troy was heard in the National Theatre entirely in the voices of women. The ten-hour staged reading of a Greek translation of Natalie Haynes’ powerful novel A Thousand Ships, translated, directed and stage-managed by an all-female team, led by my own former PhD student Magdalena Zira and Athenetta Kasiou, was sold out. Women claimed this ancient story decisively for themselves.

Over the centuries, many women have been involved with translating, adapting and performing Homer’s Odyssey, regarded as somehow lighter, less profound and more domestically focussed than the Iliad. A very few brave women have discussed, translated and adapted the Iliad, despite its heavy emphasis on testosterone-driven conflict. A friend and former student of mine named Lynn Kozak performed the entire Iliad in a Montreal bar while pregnant.

But Sunday’s collective act of taking all power over the Troy narrative away from a male bardic narrator and his dominantly male agents/speakers was breathtakingly radical. Haynes’ novel scours other ancient sources to fill out her beautifully drawn female characters.

We hear the Muse’s frustration with Homer’s androcentric focus. We hear from women who were killed before and during the war (Iphigenia, Polyxena, Creusa). We hear from women whose entire families were butchered yet who must cope with being sexually coerced by the conquerors. We hear from the Amazon Penthesilea, the nymph Oenone, the goddess Gaia, several widows, bereaved mothers, and Penelope, stranded in Ithaca for twenty years with a child, an ageing father-in-law, and a hundred unwanted male squatters.

The effect, when delivered by expert women actors (the standout was Nede Antoniades’ blistering, witty Penelope), was that of a grand tragic oratorio. It retained all the stately grandeur and heartrending humanity of Homer’s poem, but opened up a whole world of female suffering (and child suffering), courage and resilience. This made the ghastly consequences of the Trojan War seem even more universally significant.

The emotional electricity in the beautifully restored old auditorium was palpable. The event was epic in every sense of the term. I was thrilled to be present and so high by the conclusion that I sang Flower of Scotland rather too loudly with some victorious Scottish football fans (female of course) in a taverna later. Because The Night, like Homeric Epic, belongs to Women too.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

10 Tips for Aspiring Academics Learned Since 1989


The night the Berlin Wall came down the astonishing scenes on TV inspired me to make two life-changing decisions. I left my first husband and resolved to get a permanent position in academia come what may. It was highly competitive then and still is. These are the ten commandments I would have inscribed on a tablet to give to my younger self.

1. No sex with other academics or students, ever. My first husband (marriage lasted two years) was an academic. My second one (together 28 years) isn’t. 

2. Get money in. It is amazing (if cynicism-inducing) how powerful people start treating you with respect when you’ve got outside funding.

3. Never resort to flattery. About 50% of academics are too smart to believe smarm and will not be able to trust you if you manifest it. You will also despise yourself.

4. When in doubt crack an inclusive joke. Humour is a political instrument.

Team Morale is Indispensable
5. While mental illness should not be concealed, spreading gloom is unprofessional. Get medical help if necessary and become a conscious booster of morale and esprit de corps.


6. Don’t give up. One of my two referees had died and the other had decided I was the Red Peril incarnate. Prof. Paul Cartledge, whom I’d never met, read my doctorate after I wrote to him to explain my predicament. He saved my career.

HOLD YOUR FIRE FOR WHEN IT DOES MATTER
7. Don’t do nasty reviews. For some reason young classicists think they need to establish a reputation for cleverness by demolishing colleagues’ publications. Killing the Father/Mother, let alone brothers and sisters, is tacky. Hold your fire for when it actually matters.

8. Have a point of view (I’ve taught many reputedly ‘brilliant’ undergraduates who found they had absolutely nothing to say as postgraduate researchers). Otherwise change career.

9. Get impervious to envious haters. I’m still working on this since unearned hatred is very hard to cope with. But the academic community is disproportionately blighted by narcissism, rivalry and the envy + grudge + Schadenfreude uniquely encapsulated in the single Greek concept of phthonos (φθόνος). If your intentions are philanthropic, any malicious criticism of you is motivated by envy or simple joy in destroying others. Rise above.

Aristotle's Lyceum.. The first true university

10. Remember what a university is for! Real universities, in the tradition of Aristotle's Lyceum, are noble institutions dedicated to widening intellectual horizons in all disciplines, preserving our collective records and memories as a human race and enhancing the life of the community. This vision keeps me going when I’m treated as an ‘intellectual product’ conveyor-belt worker by profit-driven managements of commercialised quondam-universities.

Many of these apply to lots of other jobs, as well. Good luck!





Sunday, 13 October 2019

Slave Revolts and Civic Honours in Sicily


You have nothing to lose
The first individual name classicists can attach to the leader of a slave revolt is not Spartacus but ENNUS or EUNUS, a Syrian slave who led an uprising in central Sicily between 135 and 132 BCE.  On Friday I fulfilled a 39-year ambition to see his imposing statue in the mountain-top fortress town of Enna, which his slave army stormed before making him their king. 
but your chains




Enna Station Kitten, called Enna?
I accidentally failed to get off at the right train station (this happens often) with my daughter Georgia (but the hour spent waiting for a taxi up the precipitous mountain was enlivened by the most beautiful station kitten). So we’d seen rather more than was necessary of the vast agricultural plains between Enna and Catania, where the Roman arable, vine and olive agro-businesses put thousands of chained slaves to work. Even in October it is hot enough to see why Ennus’ life in captivity would have been unendurable.

With Mayor Orlando and Fellow Palermitana Ece Temelkuran
I’m in Sicily because I was invited to talk to the Palermo Festival of Migrant Literature, and to be made an Honorary Citizen of Palermo alongside an infinitely more significant and famous woman, the Turkish Human Rights and Kurd expert Ece Temelkuran. I had been bemused by the invitation to the festival and the award until I was inducted as a full Palermitana by the Mayor, Leoluca Orlando. But he told me that he had personally given his authorisation, having read the Italian translations of my books Introducing the Ancient Greeks and Aristotle’s Way. 

Having Orlando as a reader is indescribably flattering. He is a titanic and heroic figure in Italian politics (as Charlotte Higgins eloquently documented a few years ago), having for decades led the successful struggle against the Mafia in Palermo, at personal risk to his life. Today he stands up against Matteo Salvini’s right-wing nationalism to declare that Palermo will always welcome migrants, from Africa and everywhere else.

He is convinced that he is descended from an ancient Phoenician, is fascinated by Sicily’s classical past, and once studied for a PhD in Gadamer’s philosophy in Germany. He reads everything he can lay his hands on. He said he liked my portrait of seagoing Greeks intermarrying with other peoples across the entire Mediterranean and Black Sea worlds, and the idea that Aristotle can offer us a secular ethical system to transcend divisions maintained by religious dogma.

Levantine Europa with Greek Bull and Mare Nostrum Dolphin
It seems appropriate that the ceremony took place in a museum which holds one of the most beautiful archaic images of the Mediterranean collective project: an archaic relief sculpture of Europa (from the temple at Selinunte), the Levantine princess who took a ride on the Zeus-bull over the dolphin-rich waters of the wine-dark sea and symbolises the endlessly fruitful consequences of migration across the Mediterranean in all directions over millennia. 

Doric Temple of Selinunte
Being told that I have the right to reside in Palermo in perpetuity has come as a delightful surprise, even though jokes about "only cities notorious for crime" liking me are now a staple amongst my friends. But given the increasingly xenophobic and immigrant-hostile antics of many of my fellow Britons, I just might stay here and enjoy the ‘freedom of the city’ instead. To be continued.
Sign Me Up for a Migrant-Friendly Mediterranean City

Sunday, 6 October 2019

When Karl met Lucius Annaeus: Seneca & Marx in Vienna

Claudia Bosse

I was set an essay this week by Claudia Bosse, a brilliant Vienna-based theatre director with whom I worked a decade ago on Aeschylus’ Persians in Braunschweig, the city that gave A. Hitler German citizenship. Now she’s put on an astonishing production of Seneca’s Thyestes, which I attended with Vienna Latin Professor/Brexit victim Professor Peter Kruschwitz. But I felt like an undergraduate again because she has integrated a recital from Karl Marx’s Grundrisse, and asked me to make sense of the connection.

With (Former) Reading Uni Latin Professor
Although Marx was classically educated at Trier Gymnasium and Bonn University, and he mentions practically every Greek and Latin author somewhere, Senecan tragedy (as far as I know) never features. 19th-century Germans all believed A.W. Schlegel, a specialist in ancient drama, who thought Seneca’s tragedy was an abomination--unperformable, tasteless bombast with zero dramatic, poetical or moral value. Schlegel should have seen Bosse’s production.

5-Stong Chorus, also takes roles of Thyestes, Atreus, Fury, Tantalus, Messenger
Marx did engage with Senecan philosophy. His doctoral dissertation was on the Epicureans, but he had intended to write a post-doc thesis, a Habilitation, which discussed Stoicism as well. He did not like Stoicism for the same reasons I don’t: he thought it under-estimated the power of human agency and over-estimated Fate; he also (like Hegel) thought Stoicism heralded the dominant, subjective, individuated ruling-class male ‘I’ of western identity which alienates humans from one another.

Marx loved theatre, constantly quoting Shakespeare (especially the pound-of-flesh scene in Merchant of Venice and Timon’s realisation that money corrupts) and near-obsessing on Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. And he frequently uses the classical metaphor of cannibalism, on which theme Seneca’s Thyestes is one long variation.

His inaugural speech to the historic First International (1864) at Long Acre discussed the campaign of British workers to restrict the hours of labour, a campaign which had been bitterly opposed by industrial capitalists: they, ‘vampire-like, could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood, too.’ Industrial Kapital devours the bodies of workers, even child labourers, draining them of their life blood in order to perpetuate its dysfunctional production and consumption.     
 
Prometheus/Marx being tortured by Capitalist Censorship
Marx was intimate with the legend of the family of Tantalus, who cannibalised his son Pelops, whose grandson Thyestes ate his own children, and whose great-grandson Agamemnon sacrificed his girl-child. Marx once wrote that the hordes of British soldiers dying in the Crimea were suffering all the pains of Tantalus without his guilt. On another occasion, when deriding the supposed reforms of bourgeois liberals, he wrote that Lord John Russell, ‘when he amused the House with a Reform Bill which he knew would prove another Iphigenia, to be sacrificed by himself, another Agamemnon, for the benefit of another Trojan War. He performed the sacrifice indeed in true melodramatic style, his eyes filled with tears’

Most importantly, Marx understood the ancient dramatists’ fascination with ignorance in connection with atrocity (Thyestes does not know what he’s eating any more than Oedipus knows whom he’s marrying) as expressing the idea of false consciousness. We all suffer delusions about the economic system we live under. They enable us to tolerate the atrocities it entails. 

Claudia's 2008 Persians with mass chorus of local citizens
So I ended my essay with one of my favourite sentences in world literature. In Rheinische Zeitung Marx wrote, ‘Ignorance is a demon which will, we fear, be responsible for many a tragedy yet; the greatest Greek dramatists were right when they depicted it, in the terrible dramas that deal with the royal families of Mycenae and Thebes, as tragic fate’.  This is a significant reason, I believe, why ancient tragedy still resonates so much today, as the Vienna performance emphatically shows.








Saturday, 21 September 2019

Why We Need Pro Bono University Extension Classes Again


Greek Alive and Well on the Strand!
This week I kicked off my weekly A-Level Greek classes for adults, free. I'm tenured, with a lighter teaching load than younger academics and in a relatively secure department, so can find the time.  It was a joy to read some Greek tragedy with such an attentive and committed audience. If like-minded lecturers gave up a couple of hours a week to offer their specialist knowledge to local people gratis, we could begin to remember what a university is for: enhancing the intellectual and cultural life of the community.

To provide some context, the two-term Beginners’ Greek class at Oxford University’s Dept. for Continuing Education is advertised as costing 'From £373.00'.  This week I received a request to join my initiative from an East End Pensioner who had to give up the Greek classes at CityLit because s/he can’t afford the £169 per term as well as feed the cat. I accepted.

With Co-Author Henry at Victoria Station
This country used to have a proud tradition of University Extension and Extra-Mural Education, offered free, affordably or funded by Trade Unions. In our forthcoming A People’s History of Classics, Henry Stead and I trace the exemplary public courses in classical subjects pioneered by socially committed professional ancestors at several universities from the late 19th century onwards.
Toynbee Hall, Tower Hamlets

Albert Mansbridge, who later founded the Workers’ Educational Association, had taken Extension courses at my own King’s College London. Many London professors gave up time to teach the proletarian students at Toynbee Hall. At Leeds, Prof. Rhys Roberts organised archaeology and classics classes for local working men in the 1910s. It was the QUB Professor of Latin, Robert Mitchell Henry, who almost single-handedly founded the Belfast Workers’ Educational Association in 1910; 56 local people took his first course on ‘Roman Social Life Under the Early Empire’. 

Katherine Glasier, Newnham Extension Tutor
At Cambridge, Newnham College Classicists took a day out a week in the 1880s to teach postmen and cab-drivers. The Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men received ‘public recognition from the representatives of nearly all the Universities and a large number of labour organisations’ at a meeting in the Examination Schools of Oxford University on 25th August 1908: of the radicals at Oxford who wanted to see their university opened to a much wider social range and its wealth redistributed, every single one had studied or was teaching Classics there:  R.H. Tawney, William Temple, Alfred Zimmern, Richard Livingstone, J.L. Myers and William Beveridge. 

Joe Guy, a miner from Sacriston, in 1952 studied Greek on a course set up by the National Union of Mineworkers and Durham Colleges’ Board of Extra-mural Studies.  The Durham University Extension Lectures aimed ‘to bring some of the benefits of University teaching within the reach of persons, of either sex and of every class, who have been unable to join the University as Matriculated Students’.  In 1916 the extra-mural teaching was directed by Revd. E.G. Pace, whose ambition was 'to interest more pitmen in Extra-mural work’.   In the late 1940s, Walter Taylor’s extra-mural Social History course covered the Roman Occupation of Durham County, and his evening classes (1957-8), entitled Archaeology and History of Roman Britain, were well attended at Billingham Technical College.  One H.W. Harbottle taught Ancient History from 1954-56, in the pit communities of Langley Park and Chester-le-Street. 

We could do this again, for free. We CAN fight back against the disgusting commercialisation of our universities, whose over-riding imperative is now to make enough money to pay the ludicrous salaries of the talentless management class. It is disgraceful that so few Higher Education organisations today pay serious attention to the provision of cost-free education for the less privileged members of society. 


Aristotle, who taught the public in the afternoons, says that tyrants always shut down community reading groups because they foster the critical thinking and social bonds which will always, ultimately, destroy tyranny. He was right. Let’s Make British Universities Really Matter Again!

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Of Mice, Men, and Classical Time

Greek mouse-shaped baby-feeder decorated with a hippocamp

My office at King’s College London is in an elderly wing often compared to a rabbit warren. But the mammal who scuttled across it on Thursday afternoon was a mouse. This was during a two-day conference I convened with my PhD student Connie Bloomfield-Gadêlha, which combined papers on time, tense in different genres of ancient Greek literature by scholars from 1st-year PhD status to distinguished Ivy League professors.

Roman bedside shelf for holding oil lamp
I had been going to blog on what thirty years of running conferences has taught me about ensuring their success: making all sessions plenary, breaking up cliques, setting up running jokes, plentiful booze, talking personally to every single delegate as well as every speaker, Stalinist timekeeping with narcissistic mega-professors from one particular European country.

But ancient Greek mice, the stars of several of Aesop’s fables discussed by our Bulgarian delegate Dimitar Dragnev, are more interesting. I’ve always been puzzled by the infestation of the British Museum with no fewer than fifteen classical mouse statuettes and several mouse-shaped baby-feeders. Both Greeks and Romans liked decorating oil-lamps and shelves to hold them with mice, but why? As nocturnal animals? Symbolically to discourage mice from devouring oil and wick? Because they are cute?

Mouse on far right running away from ear of corn under Demeter's gaze
My favourite mouse perches beside the ear of corn on the coins of Metapontum; Demeter is arable goddess on the other side. But the mouse’s strongest relationship was, strangely, with Apollo, least terrestrial of gods. Around Troy his cult title, which features in the Iliad, was Smintheus, Mousey (in some Greek dialects the word for mouse was not mus but sminthos). Coins from the area showed him with a mouse, perhaps connecting the god of medicine with epidemics of plague. But some scraping tools shaped like a mouse’s whole body, belonging to one Hygeinos Kanpylios, perhaps a doctor, have been said to be medical instruments.
Scraping Tools (Medical?) in the Shape of Mice

The wonderful poet Alicia Stallings is about to publish her translation of the bizarre ancient poem Battle of the Frogs and Mice. If it’s as good as her versions of Lucretius and Hesiod, it will be outstanding. The poem hilariously parodies the conventions of the Iliad (Athena refuses to help the mice because they’re always gnawing the threads she uses for weaving). There were other ancient burlesques featuring epic battles between fauna: the hero of the war between the mice and weasels preserved on Papyrus 6946 in Michigan is a mouse called Trixos, or ‘Sqeaky’. He is slain and eaten by a dastardly weasel, leaving Mrs. Trixos widowed back in Greece, ‘with both cheeks torn’.

Boris Johnson’s favourite saying is AUT HOMO AUT MUS? (Are you a man or a mouse?) When challenged to being blasted by a water cannon, after ordering three to use on London streets in 2014, he eventually agreed, saying, ‘Man or mouse.You've challenged me, so  I suppose I'm going to have to do it now' [Inevitably he never did]. I haven’t found the saying in any ancient author, though am happy to be corrected; what seems more appropriate to Johnson these days is the Scottish mouse proverb immortalised by Robert Burns, The best laid schemes of mice an' men/Gang aft a-gley.