Saturday 30 November 2019

How To Virtue-Signal Like a Roman

This week in the peerless Aeon magazine there is a fine philosophical essay by Neil Levy on Virtue Signalling. This form of behaviour, in its true form, consists of one individual rebuking another for not being virtuous enough in choice of language, often online. The objective is to display the rebuker’s superior virtue.

Helmeted VIRTUS of Aquillius
Virtue Signals are usually distinguishable from genuine moral interventions springing from altruistic motives. But it would be helpful to have a meme, or a costume to wear, when we’re Virtue Signalling ourselves. I’ve gone to the original and literal Virtue Signals in ancient Rome to find examples.

Mn. Aquillius in 65 BCE issued a coin celebrating his ancestor’s imperial savagery in Sicily which claimed it was due to his VIRTUS. She is helpfully name-labelled but identifiable from her ringlets and elaborate helmet with an olive sprig. Olive was PR-speak for a statesman’s Achievement-of-Peace-through-Brutal-Suppression-of-Opposition, which in the game of Roman spin could also be abbreviated to VIRTUS.
Septimius Severus' VIRTUS

Sometimes Virtue waves an olive twig. She sometimes holds a statuette of another personification, Victory. She often brandishes a spear and leans on a shield. But her most distinctive accoutrement is a parazonium or long, phallic triangular dagger, held at waist level.

Trajan's VIRTUS plus parazonium
Sometimes she puts her foot on her helmet or sits on a cuirass. Philip I went furthest and simply has her as world-conqueror, one foot on a globe, her spear pointing downwards because His Virtue Has Triumphed Everywhere.

Caracalla Poses as the Goddess VIRTUS 
Fortunately, given the touchiness of the topic of gender identity today, Virtus (although grammatically feminine) looks like a male Roman soldier, while sometimes revealing one breast in Amazonian manner. But Virtus can be as masculine as Mars or an Emperor himself. The humourless and amoral Caracalla began by putting a girlish Virtus in ankle boots on the obverse of his portrait coins but later cut to the chase and simply posed as Virtue himself.

So it’s up to you—your VIRTUS could be conveyed to your Twitter followers in an instant with a snapshot of one of these images. If they don’t get the hint, then simply build a temple to Virtus, as M. Claudius Marcellus did in 222 BCE when a battle wasn’t going well. Or, like Augustus, get the Senate to award you a shield screaming to your public that you are endowed with VIRTUE as well as CLEMENCY, JUSTICE and PIETY. They added his right to put an oak wreath over his front door. That should quickly close all opposition down.

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Troy in Nicosia:The Women's War

History was made on Sunday 17 November 2019 in Nicosia, Cyprus. The story of the fall of Troy was heard in the National Theatre entirely in the voices of women. The ten-hour staged reading of a Greek translation of Natalie Haynes’ powerful novel A Thousand Ships, translated, directed and stage-managed by an all-female team, led by my own former PhD student Magdalena Zira and Athenetta Kasiou, was sold out. Women claimed this ancient story decisively for themselves.

Over the centuries, many women have been involved with translating, adapting and performing Homer’s Odyssey, regarded as somehow lighter, less profound and more domestically focussed than the Iliad. A very few brave women have discussed, translated and adapted the Iliad, despite its heavy emphasis on testosterone-driven conflict. A friend and former student of mine named Lynn Kozak performed the entire Iliad in a Montreal bar while pregnant.

But Sunday’s collective act of taking all power over the Troy narrative away from a male bardic narrator and his dominantly male agents/speakers was breathtakingly radical. Haynes’ novel scours other ancient sources to fill out her beautifully drawn female characters.

We hear the Muse’s frustration with Homer’s androcentric focus. We hear from women who were killed before and during the war (Iphigenia, Polyxena, Creusa). We hear from women whose entire families were butchered yet who must cope with being sexually coerced by the conquerors. We hear from the Amazon Penthesilea, the nymph Oenone, the goddess Gaia, several widows, bereaved mothers, and Penelope, stranded in Ithaca for twenty years with a child, an ageing father-in-law, and a hundred unwanted male squatters.

The effect, when delivered by expert women actors (the standout was Nede Antoniades’ blistering, witty Penelope), was that of a grand tragic oratorio. It retained all the stately grandeur and heartrending humanity of Homer’s poem, but opened up a whole world of female suffering (and child suffering), courage and resilience. This made the ghastly consequences of the Trojan War seem even more universally significant.

The emotional electricity in the beautifully restored old auditorium was palpable. The event was epic in every sense of the term. I was thrilled to be present and so high by the conclusion that I sang Flower of Scotland rather too loudly with some victorious Scottish football fans (female of course) in a taverna later. Because The Night, like Homeric Epic, belongs to Women too.

Wednesday 6 November 2019

10 Tips for Aspiring Academics Learned Since 1989

The night the Berlin Wall came down the astonishing scenes on TV inspired me to make two life-changing decisions. I left my first husband and resolved to get a permanent position in academia come what may. It was highly competitive then and still is. These are the ten commandments I would have inscribed on a tablet to give to my younger self.

1. No sex with other academics or students, ever. My first husband (marriage lasted two years) was an academic. My second one (together 28 years) isn’t. 

2. Get money in. It is amazing (if cynicism-inducing) how powerful people start treating you with respect when you’ve got outside funding.

3. Never resort to flattery. About 50% of academics are too smart to believe smarm and will not be able to trust you if you manifest it. You will also despise yourself.

4. When in doubt crack an inclusive joke. Humour is a political instrument.

Team Morale is Indispensable
5. While mental illness should not be concealed, spreading gloom is unprofessional. Get medical help if necessary and become a conscious booster of morale and esprit de corps.

6. Don’t give up. One of my two referees had died and the other had decided I was the Red Peril incarnate. Prof. Paul Cartledge, whom I’d never met, read my doctorate after I wrote to him to explain my predicament. He saved my career.

7. Don’t do nasty reviews. For some reason young classicists think they need to establish a reputation for cleverness by demolishing colleagues’ publications. Killing the Father/Mother, let alone brothers and sisters, is tacky. Hold your fire for when it actually matters.

8. Have a point of view (I’ve taught many reputedly ‘brilliant’ undergraduates who found they had absolutely nothing to say as postgraduate researchers). Otherwise change career.

9. Get impervious to envious haters. I’m still working on this since unearned hatred is very hard to cope with. But the academic community is disproportionately blighted by narcissism, rivalry and the envy + grudge + Schadenfreude uniquely encapsulated in the single Greek concept of phthonos (φθόνος). If your intentions are philanthropic, any malicious criticism of you is motivated by envy or simple joy in destroying others. Rise above.

Aristotle's Lyceum.. The first true university

10. Remember what a university is for! Real universities, in the tradition of Aristotle's Lyceum, are noble institutions dedicated to widening intellectual horizons in all disciplines, preserving our collective records and memories as a human race and enhancing the life of the community. This vision keeps me going when I’m treated as an ‘intellectual product’ conveyor-belt worker by profit-driven managements of commercialised quondam-universities.

Many of these apply to lots of other jobs, as well. Good luck!