Saturday 29 September 2012


Aeneas stages hairsbreadth escape
Have you ever wondered how Aeneas managed to escape safely from Troy when practically all the other Trojan men were killed? Especially when he was lugging around Anchises and a small child? Perhaps all that pathos in the account of his flight he delivered to Dido in the Aeneid was a cover-up for something more cynical.
This week's news from Birmingham University is that the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Michael Whitby, a Classicist) is about to propose to the University Council that he will create a committee to select three of the Classics/Ancient History and several more Archaeology lecturers for compulsory redundancy. The Professor of Classics, Ken Dowden, is (at best) standing by helplessly. 
This has reminded me of an ancient explanation for Aeneas' rather anomalous survival. In one plausible  version of the Troy Story, Aeneas saves his own skin by helping Antenor betray the rest of the Trojans to the Greeks. Aeneas gets to be ruler in Italy, and  Antenor's reward is the throne of  Troy.
Professor Ken Dowden

When Classics was threatened with closure and/or a savage programme of redundancies last year at Royal Holloway University of London, the entire department, regardless of promotional level, worked together against the "Senior Management Team". That is why they won.  Attempts were made to divide and rule by buying the Head of Department and another Professor off with promises of job security if they collaborated, but these bribes failed. Staff resisted the assault unanimously. 

In contrast, the junior staff at Birmingham, out of whom several are to be selected for culling, are in an impossible situation. Their own Professor and his crony in Management  have stitched them up and handed them over to the V-C. In military terms, the Brigadier and the General have advanced their own careers by telling the  Field Marshall that it is the foot soldiers who are to blame. 
Dares' On the Trojan War
The information that Aeneas and Antenor calmly did deals with the besieging Greeks, unbolted the Scaean Gate, signalled with a torch, let them in, led them to the palace and handed over their own compatriots for slaughter, was  recorded in chapter 41 of an ancient account of the war attributed to "Dares the Phrygian". Dares was an eye-witness. He had actually been in Troy at the time, and thus benefitted mightily from his sponsor Antenor's cynical collusion with the real enemy. 

Punishment of Birmingham Uni Pro-VC?
Dowden is a specialist in ancient mythology and has clearly been paying attention to the surviving Latin translation of Dares' memoirs, on which he has certainly written. Whitby admittedly prefers the history of warfare and the more robust type of Christian miracle. But they should both remember that Dante reserved a special place in the ninth circle of Hell, the "Antenora" , for leaders like Antenor and Aeneas who cynically betray their own people.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Plebs, Proles, and Vulgar Professors

I feel for the London policeman derided as being a ‘pleb’ [allegedly]  by the government minister Andrew Mitchell.  Since Mitchell went to Rugby School, he can’t have avoided Classics, and will know that the Roman plebs were precisely distinguished from the Senatorial and Equestrian ruling classes. As someone who has inherited a large personal fortune, he will also intuitively identify with the propertied patricians against the labouring multitude.

My empathy does not result solely from my grandfather’s status as a (permanently unpromoted) London police constable. I, too, despite my impeccably bourgeois vowels and privileged profession, was last year the recipient of a class-based insult. I had submitted a proposal for funding to the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, and had made the very final committee. But one of the three anonymous referees was unenthusiastic, complaining in his/her (astonishingly un-redacted and within the AHRC widely circulated) review that I had ‘a streak of vulgarity’.

If vulgaris is traced to its Indo-European root, this snob meant that I have a streak of something connected with the common crowd or throng--the Roman vulgus was co-extensive with the plebeian class. The irony was that the project was ‘Classics and Class’, in which an affinity with the common throng might even be an advantage, since  I proposed to analyse the elitism which has historically been so endemic in Classics, and disinter the real history of working people's interest in the ancient world. The good news is that the AHRC has now changed its mind, and the project will be launched in January.

But class-based verbal abuse is rife in our so-called classless society. ‘CHAV’ is an acronym for ‘Council House Average Vermin’. We took a daughter out of a snooty school because she was bullied by the children of rich parents who referred to some of the less prosperous mothers as ‘the ferals’. When I was a student, a friend from a comprehensive school in Newcastle was derided by our Etonian peers as suffering from ‘prole displacement syndrome’.

Their horrible word ‘prole’—proletarian--is also derived from a Latin term closely related to the discipline of Classics. Servius Tullius, the sixth of the legendary kings of early Rome, divided the populace into tax-bands or classes according to their financial assets. The lowest class were the proletarii. But the propertied men in the top of his six classes were simply called the classici

The Top Men, like the millionaire Andrew Mitchell, were ‘Classics’. This is the only reason why Top Authors came to be known as ‘Classic Authors’, scriptores classici, to distinguish them from inferior or metaphorically ‘proletarian’ authors, scriptores proletarii (Aulus Gellius 19.8.15). The entanglement, historically, of the study of Greece and Rome with the maintenance of socio-economic hierarchies is thus obvious in the very term Classics

I have no great love of the police force, and the Hillsborough scandal reveals just how far the police at all levels are prepared to collude with the ruling class when their own reputations are on the line. But Andrew Mitchell, whose ideology is so out-of-date that it would suit a Roman Senator opposing the Tribune of the People’s land reforms in the second century BC, needs to be sacked immediately.

Monday 17 September 2012


In an unprecedented and never-to-be repeated rupture in the weekly cycle of this blog, I am publishing this scandalous image of my philosophical trance last Thursday, with the marvellous artist/dramaturg Alexandre Singh in the foreground, before any lubricious magazines in France, Italy or Ireland are able to profit from this scandalous invasion of my privacy.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Aristophanes and Embarrassing Photographs

In a GROTESQUE and UNJUSTIFIABLE invasion of my privacy, I have heard that French and Italian magazines may be about to publish intimate photographs of me looking as though I was asleep on the job last Thursday.  

Work-In-Progress for Alexandre Singh's The Humans
I had arisen unforgivably early to travel by Easyjet from the UK to the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. Along with three other academics from France, Britain and the Netherlands respectively, I was taking part in a public audio-recorded discussion, which lasted an exacting SIX HOURS. It was  convened in the hope that it might assist the exciting Anglo-French artist Alexandre Singh in his fascinating new Aristophanic performance/installation project The Humans (to reach fruition in 2013).

Shortly before Philosophical Trance
Following a traditional Dutch lunch heavy on carbohydrates (pumpkin soup and cheese pie), I was unwise enough at one point in the afternoon to close my eyes and adopt a horizontal position. Paparazzi using sophisticated telephoto lens technology snapped away while I was actually engaged in an interior monologue which entailed advanced philosophical reasoning (see below). 

The photographer now blackmailing me claims that “the photos are by no means degrading. They show a middle-aged woman not on vacation, not beautiful, fully clothed, and not with her husband.”  This reprehensible individual also claims that it is certainly “in the public interest” for it to be proved by these shocking images that I am so signally not earning my living, since (until the British universities were recently privatised) British academics were paid by the British taxpayer.

Socrates, thinking, gets Horizontal
I have two comments to make. First, I was NOT asleep. I was thinking. I can surely be allowed to contemplate the Form of Absolute Beauty in Rotterdam, if Socrates could have a philosophical trance in a military camp such as is described by Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium: “One day, at dawn, he started thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldn't resolve it, but he wouldn't give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot… He stood in the very same spot until dawn!”

A Sleep-Deprived Scipio
Second, obviously no well-trained classicist EVER goes to sleep in a public place, since they all know that sleeping people can be raped and impregnated (the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia—see last week’s blog), blinded (the Cyclops), diverted from superintending the Trojan War (Zeus in the Iliad), abandoned by their lover (Ariadne on Naxos), ambushed and murdered (Rhesus in the Iliad), or have their cattle stolen (Apollo by Hermes). Moreover, properly valiant warriors in antiquity could manage far more than a six-hour symposium without succumbing to a snooze: Scipio stayed awake for six whole days and nights in order to achieve the siege of Byrsa (the citadel of Carthage), at least according to Appian (Pun. 130).

Ancient Greek/Roman gods and heroes did not have many privacy rights. They understood that if they wanted to be rich while doing absolutely nothing constructive or useful, they had to take care of their public image. But I, on the other hand, was hard at work. I will certainly sue any media outlet which, motivated by unadulterated greed, thinks it can boost sales by publishing these fruits of shameful and prurient prying. I can offer a reward (a transcript of my inner philosophical dialogue while apparently asleep last Thursday) for the original images. Please email me privately via my website, or write c/o The Gadfly, St. James' Palace, London.

Saturday 8 September 2012

On a Vestal Virgin's Fallopian Tubes

Rhea Silvia, 'Date-Rape-Drug' Victim
It was only last Monday’s strange dream about Romulus and Remus which got me over my reluctance even to address US Republican Congressman Todd Akin’s view that women don’t get pregnant as a result of rape. The reason he may not hear much about such pregnancies is obvious to any woman. If the two individuals I know personally to whom this has happened are anything to go by, women who are pregnant as a result of rape get themselves unpregnant fast. 

The source of Akin and his fellow idiots’ information seems to be a 1985 article by one Dr. John C. Willke. According to the website of the ‘Life Issues Institute’, this fantasist is an ‘expert in human sexuality’. His theory is that in a woman who is raped, sperm can’t traverse the fallopian tubes because the tubes go ‘spastic’.

What Does it Look Like 'in spasm'?
Now the ancient Greeks and Romans were hardly advanced on either gynaecology or rape. Indeed, with many sexual encounters in classical mythology, there are variant versions which show how much it was disputed whether e.g. Helen was forced into sex by Paris or seduced by him. Men have always liked to imagine that women are enjoying sex which is forced upon them. There isn’t even a word in ancient Greek or Latin which corresponds to the modern term ‘rape’, the emphasis being laid more on abduction of another man’s property than penetration of an actual person’s body. 

Yet I am just relieved that madmen like Willke and Akin were not in control of policing ancient literature, since if their idea had been given any credence in antiquity, Classics would not exist. The Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia was certainly ‘raped’ in the modern sense by Mars, since she was asleep when he had sex with her. He had used a ‘date rape drug’, the ancient equivalent of Rohypnol. Her tubes did not go spastic, and she produced Romulus and Remus. If you can’t get pregnant through rape, we would therefore never have had ancient Rome AT ALL.
Was it Consensual Because She Laid an Egg?

I’m afraid it’s the same with Greek myth and literature, at least with all of the works dealing with the Trojan War. Helen of Troy may have actively agreed to embark on an affair with Paris, but it’s not at all clear that either of the mothers the ancients proposed for her–Leda, Nemesis—wasn’t forcibly inseminated by whatever means male swans use. Without Helen there is no Trojan War. 

If rape victims’ tubes had been believed to go spastic, the entire genre of New Comedy—Menander, Plautus and Terence—would never have happened because so many of its plots unedifyingly begin with a baby resulting from the rape of a freeborn female teenager. 

And one of the most astonishing texts in the ancient repertoire would have to be completely rewritten: in Euripides’ tragedy Ion, the Athenian queen Creusa remembers when she was raped as a defenceless adolescent by the lustful Apollo, despite her heartrending, ‘desperate screams for help from mummy’. 

'Expert in Human Sexuality'
The rape resulted in her pregnancy with the boy Ion: like countless rape victims before and since, she recalls how she concealed the pregnancy out of shame, gave birth alone, terrified, and in secret, before trying to get rid of the baby. Euripides makes his spectators face the longterm psychological damage these experiences caused Creusa. They continue to haunt her in middle age. 

Akin and Willke urgently require a remedial course in human biology. But I would be happy to supplement it with a course on rape in antiquity.  It just might make the tubes connecting their gonads to their brains a little bit less spastic.

Saturday 1 September 2012

My Personal Greek Credit Crisis

Everything Flows in the Ionian Sea
PANTA RHEI: “everything is in flux”, “everything flows,” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Unfortunately this does not apply to either cash or credit on the island of Zakynthos (next one along from Ithaca). 

For my week’s package holiday I brought with me many euros plus my trusty visa credit card. But using my plastic friend proved difficult. So did finding a cash machine in working order, with any cash left in it to dispense, let alone one that didn’t apply vast charges to the user--raw profit which goes not to the currently impecunious Greeks but to the international bankocracy. 

A restaurant where the VISA machine works
This meant that my well-intentioned (if probably patronising) desire to hand over all my allocated holiday money this year to Greeks, via their tourist industry, was frustrated.  We wanted to eat out every night, but only a few places, such as the friendly “Spartakos” fish restaurant on the waterfront in Zakynthos town, some distance away, actually possessed the equipment to extract money from us via VISA.  

Many shops and services do not take credit cards at all. Others have the VISA sign in the window, but when you actually present the retailer with your card and the large handmade mosaic you want so much of Odysseus slaying the suitors (some of whom actually came from Zakynthos), you are told that they have “run out of” the special paper signature slips to go in the machine which stamps a carbon copy of your card (chip and pin has not yet arrived).  So yet  another 75 euros did not flow from the British into the Greek economy and I have no mosaic of the incident on Ithaca.

The problem is compounded by the habit of our hotel (which bafflingly does not take credit cards at all) of taking chunks of cash off the customer via hidden extras in the form of deposits. You are given these back only when you leave for your departure flight at 3.00 a.m., i.e. far too late to inject into the local economy (e.g. 25 euros for the safety deposit box, 40 euros (seriously!) for the TV remote). 

Training offspring in sea-monster-dom
I ended up using the Anglo-German-owned scuba diving company and not the Greek one because they took credit cards (this hurt). So did several Russian nouveaux riches, two of whom, Vladimir and Natasha (ironically the names of V.I. Lenin and his partner N. Krupskaya) told me how frustrated they were at the lack of facilities where they could flash their plastic. I am absolutely sure, from their clothes and jewelry, that they have a great deal more money than we do.

My new bust of Demokritos!
The good news was that I managed to find one shop equipped to take VISA selling plaster busts of ancient Greeks, which I collect in lieu of garden gnomes. At last, at last, I have acquired a Demokritos to support my claims to be a committed atomist (the fluxy Heraclitus still, alas, eludes me). The bad news  is simply that I (along with many far richer tourists) have conducted far fewer financial transactions with Greeks in Greece than I had intended. 

I know that VISA cards entail charges for the vendor. I know that many Greeks, with justification, no longer have any trust in money that they can’t see physically in their hands, let alone in northern Europeans who practise virtual banking, institutionalised fraud, and victimisation of much smaller southern European nations.  But every study ever made shows that customers spend more when they can access next month’s wages as well as the immediate contents of their wallets. Come on, Greeks, in defence of your fatherland, get some credit card machines working!