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.