Friday, 17 April 2015

An Encounter with the Greek Letter Tau

Lecturing at Hunter College in New York City has introduced me to a monumental public sculpture called TAU right outside the college’s doors on Lexington Avenue. It is the work of Tony Smith (1912-1980), a famous architect-turned artist from New Jersey who once worked as a welder for Frank Lloyd Wright and later taught at Hunter.

The college is proud of TAU. The Classics Department website points out the ancient Greek connection, but nobody could explain the sculpture’s meaning to me. Cue for several hours of jetlagged wakefulness investigating this ancient symbol, which the Greeks borrowed from the final letter of the Phoenician alphabet, taw. In Phoenician the word 'taw', which gave the letter its name, meant simply a ‘mark’ and looked like our ‘X’. The Greeks rotated it to the perpendicular and knocked its top off.

Tau matters.  In mathematics, it holds the secret of the circle constant. It is the ratio comparing the circumference of a circle with its radius, which is apparently more important than the much-celebrated pi, invented in the 18th century, which compares the circumference with the diameter. There is a movement to get rid of pi altogether in teaching maths and replace it with tau: an Oxford conference in 2013 was entitled "Tau versus Pi: Fixing a 250-Year-Old Mistake."

Tony Smith’s family ran a municipal waterworks factory. He was fascinated by the machinery of heavy industry. TAU has little to do with circles, so I suspect the meaning Tau Smith was interested in was the one it holds in mechanics. Tau means a ‘shear stress’, a force which is parallel to a material cross section. If you squash the top of a rectangular shaped object it becomes deformed into a parallelogram. Smith’s TAU looks like diagrams showing one of these squashed parallelograms.

Zoser's Pyramid
But TAU also sports fancy geometrical shapes on its diverse faces. I was not at all surprised to read that Smith’s greatest hero was the Egyptian Imhotep, who designed the Pyramid of Zoser and is probably the first artist in world history whose name is known. So I’d met not only the ancient Greeks on this Manhattan sidewalk, but the Phoenicians and Egyptians too. 

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Water in Yemen then and Now

Yemeni Children's Desperate Quest for Clean Water
Water shortage threatens more than fifteen million people in Yemen, many of them young children, with death by famine and disease. Drought is not the right word: there is actually enough water—more is supplied by nature than in some nearby countries—but it has been hopelessly mismanaged. The water table drops further every day. Few can afford the diesel required to operate the pumps; a disgraceful proportion of the available H2O is used to irrigate crops of qat, the leaves of which, when chewed, offer adult men addictive mood-enhancement.

It is staggering that any population in that oil-rich part of the world can run out of diesel. Can’t the Yemenis’ neighbours in Saudi or Oman spare a few barrels? The (Sunni) Saudis have instead been bombing Yemen in the hopes of wiping out the rebel (Shia) Houthis, while failing, despite pledges, to support international humanitarian efforts to help civilians. The thirsty millions without clean water are, in consequence, terribly vulnerable to disease.

Beyonce costumed as Queen of Sheba
Archaeology reveals that the South Arabians, or Sabaeans,  had effective irrigation systems from as early as 1500 BC. The fecund, prosperous homeland of the Queen of Sheba, a civilisation with advanced literacy and enigmatic sculptures, the Sabaean realm, was known to the Greeks as Arabia Eudaimon and the Romans as Arabia Felix (‘Happy’ or ‘Blessed’); it is the ‘fortunate city’ beside the Indian Ocean, offering exotic opportunities, mentioned in Aristophanes’ comedy about utopias, his Birds of 414 BC.

The ancient alphabet of south Arabia
Complex Sabaean irrigation systems indicate proper human humility and respect towards nature. The mental and physical labour involved in maintaining them always posed problems to would-be invaders of Arabia Felix. Augustus, attracted by its famous wealth, tried to ‘subdue’ it in 26 BC, but the geographer Strabo reports that his general Aelius Gallus lost many soldiers to local diseases ‘caused by the water’.  The Romans had to carry water supplies on camels on long marches. They abandoned sieges on the brink of victory because the water ran out. The entire army died, but only seven of them in combat. It was a humiliating defeat.
Ancient Art of Arabia Felix

The Roman poet Horace wrote his cryptic Ode 1.29 about Iccius, a philosophical friend who had joined Gallus on the doomed imperial quest for south Arabian booty:  ‘Why are you so greedy for the Arabs’ rich treasures? The tough life of the army? Sheba’s kings aren’t even conquered yet.’

The Well-Watered Natural Environment of North Yemen
The difference today is that the people who are about to die from lack of water are not the invaders but the residents. They have been utterly betrayed. Taking ancient archaeology and history more seriously might just have helped prevent this entirely avoidable catastrophe. Arabia is Infelix now.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

A Pint of ‘Classics Heavy’ in Scotland

"Is that a plastic cup of Lager, Sir, or are You just pleased to see us?"

A research trip to ask how the Greeks and Romans have featured in Glasgow’s class struggles climaxed with a booking and fine from the Glasgow police. My esteemed colleague Henry Stead was apprehended in possession of an open container of alcohol, locally illegal since 1973. He had simply left the Citizens’ Theatre at the interval, to look for a cash machine, without putting down the small plastic cup containing his half of lager. I will always feel guilty because he was looking for cash with which to buy me a small plastic cup of wine.

Foulis' Demetrius-forst Greek book printed in Glasgow
But before the run-in with the Lanarkshire Law, we uncovered the inspirational role that classical culture has for centuries played in Glasgow, even when—or especially when—it has not been solely in the form of an elite curriculum. 

William Wilkie, the ‘Scottish Homer’ fluent in ancient Greek, composed a nine-book epic about Thebes while personally ploughing his few fields in order to plant potatoes. James Moor, Glasgow Professor of Greek in the mid-18th century, never got over his upbringing and preferred to live in humble quarters with a lower-class ‘wife’.  Robert Foulis, who set up a world-famous publishing house and transformed the quality of Greek printed texts, was the son of a maltman. Robert’s first career was as a barber. He only discovered his passion for classics in adulthood. There have been many such lower-class Glasgow scholars. 

Today, April 5, is the anniversary of the ‘Battle of Bonnymuir’, when in 1820 the West Scottish weavers’ insurrection against pay cuts was brutally put down by the military.  The weavers were well-known for their habit of self-education: take Robert Tannahill, the ‘Weaver Poet’ of Paisley,who
begged the Muse for a National Bard, and received one in the form of Robert Burns. The carpenters were equally well read and self-educated. They included the Paisley-born craftsman John Henning, world-famous for his various reconstructions of the Parthenon frieze.

We expect soon to establish the classical reading of some of the radical weavers’ ringleaders, who were hanged or deported soon after their 1820 revolt.  You will be able to read all about it on the beautiful Classics and Class website (designed by the esteemed colleague now known to the Glasgow police) which is exactly two years old this week.  Onwards and Upwards!

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Toby, the Classically Educated Pig

Can Swine Really Digest Pearls, Ma''am?
Researching the Horrid History of intellectual snobbery, I have this week collected many instances of rich morons who have claimed that offering the Greeks and Romans to working-class people is equivalent to ‘casting pearls before swine’ (Matthew 7:6).  This research has introduced me to Toby, the SAPIENT PIG, OR PHILOSOPHER OF THE SWINISH RACE, who toured pubs in late Georgian England exhibiting his prodigious intellect. The frontispiece to his autobiography The Life and Adventures of Toby the Sapient Pig implies that the learned swine’s preferred reading was Plutarch.

Note the name PLUTARCH on the spine (lower left)
Toby’s excellent literary taste suggests that he or his entrepreneurial owner had read my favourite essay by Plutarch (best known for his Lives of famous Greeks and Romans), the Gryllus. This stars a brainy ancient hog whose name means ‘Grunter’. Gryllus conducts a delightful mock-Platonic dialogue with Odysseus and Circe. He has been transformed into a philosophical pig and does not want to be changed back into a human.

The British showed their intellectual superiority over the French in 1751 with another classically educated animal. When Le Chien Savant (or Learned French dog, a small poodle-ish she-dog who could spell words in French and English), arrived in London, she was trumped by the New Chien Savant, or learned English Dog, a Border Collie. The triumphant English Dog toured Staffordshire, Shrewsbury, Northamptonshire, Hereford, Monmouth and Gloucester as well as the taverns of London. She had clearly been to canine Eton, since she knew the Greek alphabet, could spell PYTHAGORAS, answer questions about Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and was an expert in ancient history.  She could mind-read. She was advertised as possibly being a latterday reincarnation of Pythagoras the ancient Greek philosopher himself.
The Learned English Collie puts the Sigma in PYTHAGORAS

I'm sad that I was born too late to witness either the Learned English Dog or Toby the Sapient Pig in performance. But I have learned from researching them. Knowledge of ancient Greek and classical authors, including the (by no means lightweight) Ovid and Plutarch, was absolute proof of the prodigious intelligence of an animal. This Is in turn  telling evidence of the degree of difficulty—and therefore cultural prestige in financial and class terms—associated by the provincial inn-going public with such an educational curriculum.

Toby at Oxford before Betrayal to the Abattoir
The poet Thomas Hood saw that no amount of learning could ultimately save a pig—or a lower-class human—from being sacrificed in the interests of the voracious ruling class. His Lament of Toby, the Learned Pig, woefully concludes with the poor porcine, despite being crammed with Classics at Brasenose College, Oxford, being fed and readied for slaughter:
        My Hebrew will all retrograde
        Now I’m put up to fatten,
        My Greek, it will all go to grease,
        The dogs will have my Latin!

Food for thought, especially for a born-again vegetarian.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Challenging the Classical Conservatives

Perhaps it was the eclipse, but this week I have got cross with two separate men who are bedded down deep in the British Classics Establishment.

Aphrodite's Bottom, the Opening Experience of the Exhibition
Asked to read the brochure for the imminent British Museum exhibition
Defining Beauty for Radio 3’s Free Thinking, I politely said what I thought to its esteemed Curator, Dr Ian Jenkins. It is a safe, reverential presentation of masterpieces of ancient Greek art.  The conceptual framework underlying it does not challenge the view, first promulgated by 18th-century Aryanists, that ideal male beauty was unproblematically defined for all time as white, sporty and powerful, and female beauty as white and erotic, in the  fifth and fourth centuries BC.

I don’t like the athletic, powerful Amazons being put in the ‘monsters’ section, or the Persians and Africans being  dumped in the ‘realism and character’ section rather than those on beauty or thought. There is no attempt to ask whether the Page Three girl’s ancestress was actually titillating ancient statues of Aphrodite.

But heck, the exhibition is stunning. The artworks are unforgettable, the lighting and the loftiness of the plinths admirable. I saw it today when Nat Haynes asked me to do an interview with her and Mike Squire, world champion at ancient Greek art commentary, for a TV documentary. But it could scarcely be more intellectually conservative.

‘Intellectually conservative’ is not the right way to describe the classical Luddite Harry Mount, who published a destructive article in the Telegraph complaining that ‘the high-minded, mind-expanding beauties of Greek’ have been pushed out of state schools by  the ‘easy’ options of ‘classical civilisation, or classics-lite, as you might call it’. Thus glibly are the many thousands of people who take Classical Civilisation at GCSE and ‘A’ Level across the land publicly demeaned and viciously insulted by a privileged and privately educated snob.

I have experience of teaching Greek, Latin and Classical Civilisation at every level from primary school to elite universities. Indeed, I thought I had taught Mr Mount to ratiocinate in Homer classes I ran long ago at Magdalen College Oxford.  

How different have been the dynamic dialogues I have held with hundreds of students who arrive at universities every year after Class Civ. ‘A’ Level, with their wide knowledge of ancient literature and society, art, architecture and philosophy? They are so excited that learning Greek just takes a few months. How brilliant have been the questing students I have accepted for PhDs after doing Classical Studies degrees at the Open University?

Some of The Magnificent Hackney Uni Extension Classicists!
How intellectually challenging have I found teaching the University Extension Scheme in Hackney this term alongside King’s College colleagues?*  We have faced provocative and genuinely ‘mind-expanding’ questions about ancient theatre, religion and law, posed by amazingly bright members of the public, including teenagers from local comprehensives taking Classical Civilisation. Most of them, at seventeen years old, could make mincemeat of Mr Mount’s arguments. I think they and all State Sector Classicists deserve an apology.

*Dr Matthew Shipton, who has just completed an outstanding PhD with me at KCL on youth in Greek tragedy, after an OU Masters, and Dr Henry Stead, who did a joint OU/Oxford doctorate and is now Postdoctoral Rellow on the Classics and Class project at KCL.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Pig Tale for Mother's Day

The ancient Athenian equivalent of Mother’s Day? The Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries. These took place in March. They celebrated the springtime return to the goddess Demeter of her daughter Persephone from her rapist/ husband Hades in the Underworld.

Eleusinian celebrants sacrificed a piglet. This is not something I will be doing this year. After seeing a pitiful lorryload of mammals being taken to an abattoir, I have this week had one of my several (hitherto embarrassingly shortlived) conversions to vegetarianism.  The last time was in Australia in 2011 when I was offered a steaming plate of kangaroo stew after visiting a marsupial park and shaking paws, eye-to-eye, with one of its residents.

Kissing, Feeding, or Telling it Off?
My intermittent revulsion against sinking my canines into the flesh of other animals will probably also prevent me from accepting this week’s invitation from the North Cotswold local press. If I do attend the annual Moreton Pig Show, I am promised a chance to Guess the Weight of “the magnificent British Lop Boar named Pastie” and witness the Marquess of Salisbury, President of the British Pig Association, bestow trophies on the victorious swine. I hope he won’t imitate whatever ritual this ancient Egyptian is performing in Saqqara tomb art (suggestions welcome in the Comments section).

Robert Michael James Gascoyne-Cecil KCVO PC DL 
As an urban leftie, stranded for love in a reactionary rural backwater, this is where I draw the line. The Marquess, universally said to be delightful, is just not my kinda guy. He alighted from Eton effortlessly in Oxford to achieve a Third Class degree. He has a vast personal fortune. His appointments have included Merchant Banker, Tory MP, Peer of the Realm and now breeder of Ginger-Haired Tamworths. 

In 2011 he told the Financial Times that politics was much “easier” than pig-keeping. “I regard politics a bit like fox-hunting; there’s nothing more serious while you’re doing it, but there is [sic] always buttered eggs for tea afterwards.”

Demeter & Pet Pig, 4th c. BC
It is very good to be thus reassured about the intellectual prowess of our hereditary ruling class. 

I can't quite follow the analogy between fox-hunting and politics myself, but then I have never regarded myself as gifted enough to govern the populace.

Although I probably won’t go to the porcine prize-giving, I will take up the buttered egg suggestion. Currently I doubt if I’ll ever be able to face another bacon sandwich.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Excavating NIMRUD: Lest We Forget

Layard supervises Removal of Artefacts
Nimrud is one of the four great cities of the Assyrians built between 2000 and 700 BC within a small region of the Tigris valley in what is now North Iraq. The world heritage site, currently being bulldozed from the face of the earth, only re-emerged from its depths between 1845 and 1851. It was dug up by Iraqi workmen under the direction of Briton Austen Henry Layard.

Fig from Layard's bestseller
Layard originally thought Nimrud was the biblical Nineveh. His bestselling book was erroneously titled Nineveh and its Remains. Yet Layard’s Nineveh was the first archaeological blockbuster in English, and in abridged form one of the first six books published in 1852 in the imprint Murray’s Reading for the Rail sold at  W.H. Smith  station bookstalls.

Tenniel's Assyrian-Influenced Hybrid Creatures
When the astonishing Assyrian remains arrived at the British Museum, Layard became a national hero. The press went wild. Queen Victoria donated money to the archaeological fund. Assyrianised guardian-monsters appear in John Tenniel’s 1865 depiction of the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Kipling uses the model of Nineveh in the poem which produced his most famous line, ‘Lest we forget!’

Westernised Ancestors of Assyrians
Nimrud and Nineveh mattered because Christian Victorians desperately needed confirmation of the historical veracity of the bible, including its statements that the Israelites had dealing with the people of Assyria and Mesopotamia. Nineveh had after all, according to Genesis 10.11, been founded by a descendant of Noah and Shem called Assur. The new science of Biblical Archaeology allowed the literal truth of the bible to be defended against allegorical interpreters, and subsequently Darwinian doubters, on new terms. The material history of the Judaeo-Christian religions was not only emerging from the deserts of Mesopotamia, the birthplace of these faiths, but arriving in central Bloomsbury. The working-class Victorian autodidact and clergyman John Relly Beard was typical when he used Layard’s discovery of the cities named in connection with Noah in the Old Testament to defend its historicity against contemporary geologists’ attempts to disprove the universal deluge.

Agatha & Max  in Iraq
USA Nabu at Library of Congress
I do not know whether the Islamic State bulldozer drivers consciously connect Nimrud and Nineveh with Judaeo-Christian self-definition. I do not know how explicitly they associate them with the western imperialism which allowed Layard and later generations of European and  American archaeologists (including Agatha Christie's husband Max Mallowan) to take by far the majority of the detachable objects away from their Mesopotamian home westward to infidel museums. But perhaps they see, or subconsciously intuit, representations of the ancestors of the other Abrahamic religions in the stony faces they are smashing of Nabu and Ninurta, Assyrian gods of written records and of victory respectively.

If so, then their hatred, although no less terrifying and its results no less of a catastrophic outrage, may be just a little easier to understand.