Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Jumping Frog: A Shocking Tale of Scholarly Plagiarism


I’ve been waiting for May 13, Jumping Frog Day, to roll round, so keen am I to relate a dastardly tale of plagiarism by a renowned teacher of ancient Greek. In his Introduction to Greek Prose Composition with Exercises (1876, but still in print), A. Sidgwick, who announced himself on the title page to be ‘Assistant-master at Rugby’,  included a text for translation into ancient Greek entitled ‘The Athenian and the Frog’.

One man beats another in a competition to test whose frog can jump further by secretly feeding the opponent’s frog small bits of stone or shot to weigh him down.

Sidgwick had taken every detail of the tale, besides substituting an Athenian and a Boeotian for two men in California, from Mark Twain’s short story Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog. The first of many versions was published in the New York Saturday Press in 1866. Its later incarnations were published under the title The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.


When Twain met Sidgwick in 1899, the pedagogue admitted that exercise XXI on p. 116 of his famous textbook was borrowed from Twain. He had seen no need to say so in print.

Twain was disappointed, but not because he hadn't been credited. When he'd first heard about the exercise in Sidgwick, he had inferred that there was an original Aesopic fable of this kind. Moreover, he decided it was exciting proof of the universality of frog-jumping competitions across human history, or at least in both ancient Greece and modern California, and published this theory in The North American Review,  No. 449 (April 1894).

Sadly, there is no such ancient Greek fable extant, although maybe one was told on Seriphos, home to a particularly fine species of Anura Neobatrachia, portrayed on the island’s ancient coinage. Sidgwick however provided an elegant Greek translation of his own English text to help teachers. Unfortunately I was unaware of this when I composed my own version in 1977 at Nottingham Girls' High School, for which I recall Miss Reddish gave me an Alpha minus bracket minus.  

Apparently the world record frog jump was achieved in 1986 by Rosie the Ribeter, who jumped 21 feet, 5 and three quarter inches. But I still don’t know why Frog Jumping Day is celebrated on May 13th. Any suggestions would be gratefully received.



Saturday, 12 May 2018

Campaigning for People's Classics: Interim Report

It is exactly a year since work began on ACE, the project I’ve been funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council to lead, encouraging the introduction of qualifications in Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in secondary education across the nation.  Huge strides have been made—I've visited many schools, and events to publicise the campaign have been run in Kent, Belfast, Glasgow, Bristol/Bath, Exeter and Leeds. We have identified plenty of teachers of other subjects keen to give the ancient world a go.

Cambrian Pottery Designs
This week we went to Swansea, crucial to my previous (related) project, Classics and Class in Britain. It was in the South Wales Miners Miners’ Library that colleague Dr Henry Stead and I became aware of the miners’ extensive reading in classics and ancient history. And the Swansea Museum houses several of Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn’s famous line of inexpensive ceramics imitating ancient Greek models, produced in his Cambrian Pottery, in the mid-19th century.

Swansea's Dr Stephen Harrison in action
Our tireless partners at Swansea University bused in dozens of teenagers from all over the region to think about ancient Greece and Rome for a day. Did women in Greek myth get out of the kitchen/boudoir into heroic action? Which city had the coolest foundation tradition—Athens or Rome? And is the laughably racist depiction of Xerxes in the movie 300 true to the ancient Greeks stereotype of Persians? I got to retweet my first ever text in Welsh, celebrating the idea of Classics for the Many not the Few!

With our Keynote Speaker, Prof. Chris Pelling
Best of all was the keynote speech by Christopher Pelling, retired Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, who honoured us by returning to what he always calls God's Own Country. He confided in us about growing up in Cardiff and eventually deciding to be a scholar/teacher rather than a lawyer. Fascinated by modern as well as ancient history, he gradually became aware that the ancient world could be used for good causes, like fighting tyranny (as in many productions of Antigone) or very bad ones, like fomenting hatred (Enoch Powell quoting the Aeneid in 1968).

Some of the Swansea Attendees
Next week the ACE event is at Reading, and both the project’s Research Fellow, Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson and I are speaking at the annual conference of the Historical Association, hoping to persuade hundreds of history teachers that introducing Ancient History or Classical Civilisation can only benefit everyone in their schools and 6th-form colleges, the world, the universe and space.


Between now and early July our partners in Warwick, Nottingham and Durham are also running events. And even better is the news that Arlene will be continuing in her role, at King’s College London, until at least 2021. The campaign continues. To quote Freddie Mercury in Welsh, Peidiwch ├ó rhoi'r gorau i mi nawr! DON’T STOP ME NOW!

Saturday, 5 May 2018

What Marx Learned from Boyhood in Roman Trier

Despite failing to persuade my Tory fellow villagers 
in Cambridgeshire to elect me Labour Councillor
this week, I remain persuaded that the people who
do the hard work deserve more than a derisory
share of money and power. This is one reason I 
admire the thought of Karl Marx, born two hundred
years ago today.  

Karl’s super-brain developed from infancy, during 
his classical education at Trier's Gymnasium, in the shadow
of one of the Roman Empire's most imposing relics. What 
the Material Boy found in the Material World just
outside his home at Trier was the very material Black Gate.

Karl Marx's house is one of those to the left of the Porta Nigra
On October 1 1819, when Karl was not out of nappies, his  father Heinrich 
bought the house at Simeongasse 1070 (now Simeonstra├če 8). This was at 
exactly the time when Rome Two, Roma Secunda, ‘Roman Trier’ was rediscovered. 

In 1804, Napoleon had ordered it to be returned, in a symbolic deletion of the
Holy Roman Empire, to its former glory. Its medieval Christian accretions were
removed. The complete Napoleonic transformation of the Rhineland through 
bourgeois revolution was achieved in less than the generation immediately 
preceding Karl's arrival on the planet. The Porta Nigra was operating during 
his childhood as Trier’s Museum of Classical Antiquities.

It is no coincidence that Karl Marx came from a town so intimately associated 
with revolutionary change, founded by Augustus, the architect of the Roman 
revolution, as Augusta Treverorum, in about 15 BCE. It was later from Trier 
that Constantine masterminded the conversion of Europe to Christianity, at 
the time when feudalism became the dominant mode of production. 

The Ruins of Roman Trier are present in much of Marx's work (as I've discussed
in an article I'll send anyone if they email my two names separated by a dot 
@kcl.ac.uk), especially his classic 1852 The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis 
Napoleon:

"The question to be solved, then, is how it came about 
that the popular masses in the Roman Empire so far
preferred this nonsense—preached, into the bargain, by 
slaves and oppressed—to all other religions, that the 
ambitious Constantine finally saw in the adoption of this 
religion of nonsense the best means of exalting 
himself to the position of autocrat of the Roman world."  
How, he ponders, are people so easily deluded by cynical leaders? 
Well, in election weeks that always seems a good question to me.