|Apuleius, tried in a Sabratha court|
On the radio news this morning the place-names of the two international tragedies reported as headlines sent shock-waves round my system. Near Sabratha, north-western Libya, a British man and his friend from New Zealand have been found dead. A horrible thing to happen to people who may have been visiting the ruined city there.
|Sculptures on the Sabratha Theatre|
It was in Sabratha, in 158 AD, that Apuleius, the author of the amazing Golden Ass, the archetypal Latin novel about the man who was turned by magic into an ass, was himself tried for witchcraft. He was accused of casting spells in order to captivate a wealthy older woman. There is little I would not give to time-travel and be present at that trial. The Sabratha theatre itself is a miracle of 3rd-century architecture, its relief sculptures offering some of the best evidence for ancient ballet dancing—‘pantomime’—in existence.
|Battle of Cunaxa, near modern Fallujah|
Next up was yesterday’s fall of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, to Al-Qaeda, with at least a hundred fatalities. This retrieves bitter memories of the ferocious second battle of Fallujah in 2004, with heavy losses on both US and Iraqi sides. But Fallujah also reminds any classicist of the bloody battle of nearby Cunaxa in 401, when two Persian royal brothers decimated each other’s armies, leaving Xenophon and his fellow Ten Thousand Greek mercenaries stranded, to march their way up-country (the Anabasis) to freedom.
So what difference is made by knowing the vivid ancient history of places today in the news? It is useful in that I can locate them quickly on my internal mental map. But I’m not at all sure it is useful emotionally. On the one hand it reminds me that humans have been vile to each other for all of documented history, and in some ways little has changed. On the other hand, it reminds me that we are so privileged in modernity at least to have the lost world of the ancient pagan Mediterranean to enrich our thinking about the really long view, the one that matters, into the future.
|What I have to miss because of my lager-and-front-crawl habit|
Meanwhile, I have just declined an invitation to help make a film based on a Greek tragedy in Iran, specifically at the ancient seat of the Achaemenid monarchs in Persepolis. There is no reason why I should not visit Iran, except that I would last about three days in a country without being rude to someone in power because I could not drink a cold beer or splash in a Speedo! swimming costume in a pool in public. Having to say ‘no’ to such a wonderful project really does make me slightly ashamed and wish I was a better person.