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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A&M: 2003 May

3rd May 2003
The Americans say they have no plans to attack any other foreign power - at the moment. To judge by the Iraq conflict, however, it will not be St Augustine's concept of the 'just war' that controls that decision, but the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero's.

In his de officiis ('On Obligations', 44 BC), Cicero discusses how justice should be applied in a range of cases, including war. Arguing that there are laws of warfare which must be strictly observed, he continues 'since there are two ways of settling a dispute, by discussion or by force, and the former is characteristic of man, the latter of animals, we must resort to force only when discussion is no longer possible. The only excuse for going to war is that one may live in peace, unharmed'.

That principle established, Cicero starts laying down various conditions. First, no war will be just unless an official demand for satisfaction has been submitted, or a warning has been given and a formal declaration made. Second, Cicero distinguishes between wars fought for the sake of survival, and wars fought for the sake of imperium ('rule, control') when gloria is at stake. Both must be justified in accordance with his original principle, but wars of imperium must be fought 'with less bitterness'. Third, the victors have a duty to treat the vanquished mercifully, as long as the vanquished have themselves acted without cruelty or barbarism. In particular, those who lay down their arms and throw themselves on Roman mercy must be protected, 'even though the battering-ram has hammered at their walls' (this, presumably, refers to a convention that the besieged could generally expect no mercy once the rams had been brought up, since this was an indication that they had refused to surrender). Fourth, only legally enlisted soldiers can fight. Fifth, all promises must be strictly observed.

It is noticeable that Cicero sees the interests of Rome as the sole justification for war, and sees both self-defence and expansion of empire as a sufficient motive for action. Such a vision suited the most powerful state in the ancient world. Cicero's call for mercy for those of the enemy who decide to agree with Rome is equally self-serving. As he goes on to say, Rome's ultimate aim is 'peace without treachery'. Rome needed all the friends it could get.

Virgil talks of Rome's mission as 'pardoning the defeated and warring down the proud'. Rome, however, decided who fell into which category. All very von Rumsfeld.

10th May
Two British commandos from the Special Boat Service (motto: 'Not by force, but by guile') escaped capture in Iraqi by trekking some hundred miles across mountainous terrain, by night, to the Syrian border. Who were they? Nobody knows, or will know - a unique form of heroism.

In the ancient world it was public performance, and so public acknowledgement, that counted. In Homer's Iliad, Sarpedon, a Trojan ally from Lycia, gives the classic statement of the heroic 'contract' to his second-in-command Glaucus, that in return for the best of material rewards, 'we are obliged to take our places in the front ranks and fling ourselves into the flames of battle. Only then will our Lycian men-at- arms say of us: "Well! These are no dishonourable lords of Lycia that rule over us and eat fat sheep and drink the best sweet wine: they are indomitable and fight in the front ranks of the Lycians." ' Sarpedon concludes: 'My friend, if, after living through this war, we could be sure of becoming ageless and immortal, I should not fight in the front line nor send you out into the battle where men win glory. But the world is not like that. A thousand demons of death hover over us, and nobody can escape or avoid them. So in we go, whether we yield the victory to some other man, or he to us.'

Even 'resourceful, much-enduring' Odysseus, for all his tricks, cannot escape this need for acknowledgement. In order to trick his way out of the ferocious Cyclops' cave, he calls himself 'No one' and, when he succeeds, he laughs at the way 'my guile deceived him'. The word for 'guile' is mêtis - but split mê tis, it means 'no one'. 'Notion' is probably the closest we can get to the double entendre in English. But after he and his men have escaped, he cannot resist stopping to taunt the Cyclops and telling him his real name - a disastrous mistake, since Cyclops can now call the god's curse down on him. A man like Odysseus could not endure that anyone should think of him as a 'no one' - that would be the ultimate heroic humiliation.

Force or guile? We hear, in one epic tradition, that Achilles and Odysseus wrangled over which tactic should be deployed to capture Ilium. Odysseus prevailed, and Ilium fell to guile - the trick of the Wooden Horse. But Odysseus still demanded, and got, the public credit for it. He would never have cut it in the Special Services.

17th May
The footballer David Beckham has had new tattoos imprinted on his arms, complete with Latin tags. One reads perfectio in spiritu, 'perfection in spirit' the other ut amem et foveam, 'to love and to cherish', translated into Latin from the Solemnization of Matrimony in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer. What is going on?

Tattoos have a long history going back to Eleventh Dynasty Egypt (c. 2000 BC). They were especially popular in Britain - Britanni, originally Pretani or Priteni, meant 'painted/tattooed people' (cf. Latin Picti). These days they have become a form of heraldry, marking the body rather than the shield with one's personal 'coat of arms', for sexual as well as social purposes.

When the idea of heraldry first emerged from the Crusades in the twelfth century, mottos tended to be in French, usually battle cries (Dieu et Mon Droit!). Latin, however, came into favour from the sixteenth century. One can perhaps identify three broad reasons. First, over the centuries, Latin had acquired claims to a sort of universality. It had been, after all, the common European language of politics, religion and education from the fall of the Roman empire onwards. It was therefore neutral and could be universally applied. One notorious example is the use of the model of Latin grammar to describe modern languages, however little the language in question actually resembled it. English, for example, has no inflected case system, but that did not prevent generations of schoolchildren saying 'O table'.

Second, as the Frenchman Ferdinand Brunétière said, 'there are languages that sing, others that draw or paint. Latin engraves, and what is engraves is ineradicable. One might say that something that is not universal or ineradicable cannot be Latin'. Latin, in other words, surviving in countless bronze and marble inscriptions, established a claim to being the eternal language: put it in Latin and it will last for ever. No wonder twentieth-century fascist Italy, with its will to power and immortality, revived the Roman epigraphic tradition.

But Latin was not only a language with a vocation to state the universal and eternal. It was also the language of cultural aspiration. A Latin motto bestowed an indefinable class on a family, business or football club - and now on a footballer? The fact that Beckham chose to have words in English from the Book of Common Prayer translated into Latin makes his case all the more interesting.

24th May
Apologies for singing a very old song, but with the debate on a referendum over the European constitution in full swing and the term 'parliamentary democracy' being bandied about by New Labour to repel the notion, it is time to remind readers again how meaningless the term 'parliamentary democracy' actually is.

'Democracy' derives from dêmokratia, 'people-power' (Greek dêmos 'people' + kratos 'rule, authority, power'). This term was invented to describe the system put in place in Athens by Cleisthenes in 508 BC. The result was that all the decisions which our MPs take today were taken in Athens by the majority vote of the people (male citizens over 18) meeting in the Assembly. Dêmokratia was destroyed by the Macedonian conquerors of Athens in 322 BC and has never been tried since. What we have in its place is 'democracy', a term with virtually no meaning in itself, as can be judged from the fact that every state these days has claimed to be 'democratic' - Saddam's Iraq, Stalin's Russia, Mugabe's Zimbabwe, all glorious democracies. The term 'parliamentary democracy' is notably fatuous: a transparent contradiction in terms. 'Partycracy' would be more like it.

If 'democracy' means anything these days, it is 'voting'. It has nothing to do with power, let alone of the people. If one wants an accurate description of our constitution, it is (as Aristotle would have called it) an elective partycracy: we vote to put in power a party to take decisions without reference to us. There is nothing wrong with this system, but it has nothing to do with people-power. Indeed, even the Roman republican system, controlled ruthlessly by cliques of aristocrats, was more democratic than ours. Every decision taken by their de facto ultimate authority the Senate (an élite consisting of all those who had held executive office, e.g. consul, praetors etc.), had to be referred back to the people for ratification before it could become law. It is undeniable that the people voted in a sort of American 'college' system, organised so as to favour the élite vote. But the Roman people could, and did, reject proposals put before them, whereas we get no chance to vote on anything our partycrats decide. Further, the Roman people even elected their own 'tribunes of the plebs', who sat in Senate meetings with the right to veto any business they did not think to be in the people's interest. How we need one today! But then we have one, at least on this issue. All hail Boris, tribunus plebis extraordinarius!

31st May
As the forces returning from duty in Iraq know best of all, important though amazing technology is, the camaraderie and morale of the unit make the crucial difference. The Romans knew this too and took steps to nurture the right frame of mind in their soldiers.

First, punishments and incentives strongly affected personal behaviour. The penalty for sleeping on watch, failing to obey orders or abandoning weapons in battle was to be clubbed to death. But the soldier who performed well was congratulated and rewarded by the general in front of the whole army, while victory usually meant a distribution of booty among the men, often worth a very great deal (a prospect that always did wonders for recruitment).

Second, high-quality leadership brought out the best in the men. Plutarch talks of the respect gained by the leader who shared his men's hardship and dangers. Julius Caesar was never slow to set an example in the front line when his men were in trouble, though it was not a tactic to be repeated too often; a general's death or wounding ran the risk of creating panic in the ranks. Likewise, the successful leader knew how to inspire his men. While it is hard to believe in the great set-piece speeches, delivered to vast armies, 'reported' by all ancient historians (how many soldiers could possibly have heard them?), the likelier practice of delivering brief, individual exhortations to separate units before battle is on record (the emperor Julian did it).

Finally, and most importantly, soldiers were encouraged to develop a strong sense of solidity with the unit in which they were serving. Swearing-in ceremonies had impressive religious connotations; constant drilling instilled in men the discipline of obedience to orders and made them not only look but also feel like soldiers (the Jewish historian Josephus said it prepared body and soul); a unit's gear with its distinctive markings, especially its standards, generated a sense of cohesion and esprit de corps (to lose the standards in battle was a terrible disgrace); and one's own mess-mates became a focus of especial loyalty (Livy talks of a soldier's tent becoming his 'hearth and home'). Personal honour, pride and shame, confidence in the leadership, and emotional commitment to the unit created the 'All for one and one for all' mentality that service in the legions was designed to generate. For all the high-tech weaponry that western armies wield today, these are still the qualities without which no army can function.

A&M: 2003 April

5th April 2003
Commentators are complaining that the Iraqi army is refusing to confront the coalition forces head-on. Very sensible of them. Quintus Fabius Maximus (charmingly known as Verrucosus, 'covered in warts') would have applauded.

In 218 BC Hannibal brought his Carthaginian army (complete with elephants) from north Africa, across Spain and southern France, and over the Alps down into Italy. His purpose was to take revenge on the Romans for the Carthaginian defeat in the first Punic War (265-241 BC). In battles at Ticinus, Trebia and Trasimene he thrashed the Romans in open field, at a cost to the Romans of about 50,000 casualties. The Romans were appalled at this turn of events. It was time for them to re-think their strategy against an inspiring and innovative general with a superbly trained and highly flexible army, and Fabius was the man to do it. His proposal was not popular, but it was their only hope: to fight Hannibal where Hannibal was not. Consequently, Fabius started to dog Hannibal's steps, following him wherever he went as if he were 'Hannibal's paedagogus' (i.e. the slave who followed the young master to school, carrying his books), as those contemptuous of the policy put it. Fabius camped on high ground, where Hannibal would not dare to attack, and engaged in a war of attrition, harrying his foraging parties so that they could not collect food or fodder ('kicking the enemy in the stomach', as Romans later called it). He upset Hannibal's lines of communication, attacked his allies, launched swift guerrilla raids and generally did everything he could to lower enemy morale by causing maximum disruption, but without ever engaging in the open. On one occasion he even had Hannibal trapped, but let the chance slip. When Fabius returned briefly to Rome to supervise some religious rituals, his colleague Minucius won a skirmish against Hannibal and foolishly decided to take him on properly. Only Fabius' intervention saved Minucius' army from a very severe mauling. Even so, the Romans did not learn their lesson: they fielded a gigantic army to confront Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BC, and lost some 50,000 dead. They learned it then.
So Romans went back to harassing. They denied Hannibal reinforcements and attacked Carthage in Spain and Africa, and Hannibal was finally forced out of Italy. Fabius earned the nick-name Cunctator, 'delayer', for his strategy (an improvement on Verrucosus). His tactics stumped Hannibal. Will they stump von Rumsfeld?

12th April
Wilfred Owen is always quoted in times of war, especially his poem ending '...you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old Lie: dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori'. But Owen's understanding of the 'old Lie' is not quite fair to the ancients. They were no keener to die in battle than Owen was.

Owen's quote comes from Horace's Odes (III.2), but Horace is not preaching the virtue of dying. He goes on to say 'death also chases down the man who runs away and does not spare the back or hamstrings of young cowards'. His point is that, if you must die in battle, better to die gloriously: even a coward can make the best of the situation and lessen death's bitterness.

Likewise, Homer's Iliad is regularly seen as the prototype heroic epic glorifying warfare and a martial death. But, with one exception, no hero seeks out death. The hero's desire is to win, and to die is to fail. At the same time, when death does come, it is construed as inevitable. Indeed, Homer's word for 'destiny' usually means 'the moment you die', which (the poet tells us) is fixed the moment you are born. In these cases, the hero does go for glory at all costs. Thus Trojan Hector, pursued by Achilles round the walls of Ilium but deceived by Athene into stopping and fighting, when he realises that he has been tricked and that the gods have deserted him, reflects 'So now my destiny confronts me. Let me at least sell my life dearly and not without glory, after some great deed for future generations to hear of' - precisely the point Horace was making seven hundred years later.

The one exception is Achilles. As a direct result of his own refusal to return to the fighting, his beloved companion Patroclus is killed in battle by Hector. Achilles' mother Thetis tells him that, if he takes revenge on Hector, he will die next. Achilles bursts out 'Then let me die immediately, since I let my companion be killed when I could have saved him'. Achilles proceeds to win what immortal glory he can with the single-handed rout of the Trojan forces, culminating in the slaughter of Hector; but, as the Odyssey shows, that is cold comfort. Odysseus in the underworld says Achilles 'lords it over the dead'. Achilles retorts that he would rather be a labourer for a landless peasant, and at once asks after his living son, Neoptolemus. Life is what counts.

19th April
What will be Middle Eastern historians' judgement of Saddam's regime and its enforced collapse? Is there a Tacitus among them? In his Histories, Tacitus describes the traumatic 'Year of the Four Emperors' (AD 69) that followed the death of Nero, a year when general after general attempted to seize power by force, and the Roman world seemed to fall apart. There is an especially dramatic description of the fall of the third brief tenant of the imperial throne, Vitellius - an end which may yet mirror Saddam's.

When Rome was captured by the troops of his successor, Vespasian, Vitellius was taken by chair through the back of the palace to his wife's house. His aim was to lie low and get away by night to his brother's home, sixty miles to the south in Tarracina. But unable, in his terror, to make a final decision, Vitellius returned to his 'vast, deserted palace. Even the lowest of his menials had slipped away, or avoided meeting him. The solitude and silence of the place terrified him. He tried locked doors, and shuddered at the emptiness around him. Eventually, exhausted by his miserable wanderings, he crept into some shameful hiding place, where he was discovered and hauled out by a tribune of the guards called Julius Placidus. His hands were tied behind his back, his clothes torn and he was led away, heaped with insults, a disgraceful sight, evoking not a single tear of pity.' (Other sources describe his hiding-place as the janitor's room, or a dog-kennel.)

Forced to watch as statues of him were pulled down, Vitellius was taken to the place where a previous emperor, Galba, and a city prefect had been murdered. As the jeering mob abused him, Tacitus records a comment showing true nobility: 'Whatever you may say, I was your emperor'. With that he was cut down, 'and the mob reviled him in death as viciously as they had flattered him while he was alive'.

Tacitus has a number of targets in his sights here. The first is the degradation brought on the highest office in the Roman world by people like Vitellius (hence Tacitus' comment on one sign of nobility in him); the second is the behaviour of the brutal, fickle, value-free mob, happy to be swayed by whatever pleasure and advantage they could extract from a situation. It all makes for a dreadful vision of the perversion and degeneracy of a world about which Tacitus felt so deeply. There will be room for Middle Eastern historians of similar passion and honesty when it comes to assessing events in Iraq.

A&M: 2003 March

1st March 2003
The debate grinds on about whether to bid for the Olympic Games to be staged in London. It is time to apply a little ancient wisdom.

The youthful Alcibiades, darling of the Bright Young Things in fifth-century BC Athens, was very proud of his achievements in the prestigious chariot race at the Olympic Games (he entered seven teams, finishing first, second and fourth). He argued that, since his performance generated tremendous regard for Athens' power, it could hardly be regarded as a 'folly', as some had said.

But Alcibiades was talking not about staging but winning the Games, something Brits rarely do. And even winning was pooh-poohed by the poet and thinker Xenophanes, who pointed out that, however much the victor at the Games was honoured, 'the city would not thereby be better governed, nor its granaries filled'. Aristotle thought 'the athlete's style of bodily fitness does nothing for the general purposes of civic life, nor does it encourage ordinary health or the procreation of children. Some exercise is essential, but it must be neither violent nor specialised, as is the case with athletes.' Cicero was even more contemptuous: when Milo, a famous wrestler grown old, saw young men practising and lamented that his own arms were now dead, Cicero said 'No, you fool, you are dead, since your nobility came not from yourself but from your arms and legs'.

The Greek doctor Galen, who practised in Rome, raised another issue. 'Perhaps it is because they make such huge sums of money, much more than anyone else, that athletes put on airs. And yet you can see for yourself that they are all in debt, not only when they are playing but when they retire.'

The Roman emperor Augustus' confidante Maecenas lamented the expense of it all: 'the cities should not waste their resources on number and variety of games, in case they exhaust themselves in futile exertions and quarrel over unreasonable desire for glory. They should not ruin the public treasury and private estates thereby.'

Which is exactly what happens today, as cities compete to stage the Games. The ancient Greeks knew better: the original Olympic Games were held every four years in exactly the same place, a sanctuary of Olympian Zeus in a backwater of the western Peloponnese.

Unproductive, unhealthy, ignoble, pauperising: just about sums up the whole Olympic Games manifesto.

8th March
The EU has recently proclaimed that, for the purposes of its statistical analyses, Britain is not an island. That poses an interesting question: when did it become an island? It has recently been argued that it became one, in Roman eyes at any rate, on July 21st 54 BC, at 9.21pm.

The historical and archaeological record shows that, in the first century BC, Britain enjoyed very close commercial and political ties with Europe. This, indeed, is probably what attracted Julius Caesar to it in the first of his expeditions here in 55BC, for which he was officially thanked by the Senate in Rome. But it did not work out at all well. As he admits in his Gallic Wars, he was caught out by fierce storms and high tides caused by the full moon, which damaged his transports that were at anchor and the warships which had been beached. The date was August 31st, high tide at 3.36am.

Caesar had a second go at Britain in 54 BC, crossing from Gaul in July, using the currents to land near Deal or Sandwich and then setting out on a night march to Canterbury. Consultation of nautical tables tells us that the date of the landing was July 20th. But then, Caesar tells us, dispatch riders brought news of a great storm on the night of July 21st which again caused havoc with the fleet. Caesar immediately returned to camp, had the boats repaired, won a few victories and sailed back to Gaul. Interestingly, however, Caesar fails to admit to a significant event: that there was a full moon on the evening of July 21st, at 9.21pm. In other words, he tried to cover up the fact that he had forgotten the lesson of the previous year.

It was this second disaster, it is argued, that was the turning point in Rome's perception of Britain. Nearly a hundred years were to pass before they tried again, and still the soldiers were very reluctant to make the crossing. Caligula's refused outright in AD 40, and in AD 43 Claudius' army baulked to start with, 'believing that they were sailing beyond the limits of the inhabited world', before they were finally persuaded and did indeed take the island. Even so, in AD 61 Boudicca could still argue to the troops she was stirring to revolt against the Romans that the Britons 'possess a world of our own, so separated from the rest of mankind that we have been believed to dwell on a different earth and under a different sky, and that some of the outside world, even their wisest men, have not known for certain even by what name we are called'. That's the spirit.

15th March
In his already classic sociological study of the Hoorah Henry in last week's Spectator, Professor Oborne did not have space to explore in full the ancient precedents for this style of behaviour. Herewith, then, a humble footnote to his marr-sterful overview, together with a forward-looking proposal.

The Professor was right to mention the importance of the drunken riot, kômos. This took place in the context of a symposion, symposium or drink-in, in which vast quantities of wine (up to c. 18% alcohol content) diluted with water, were hoovered up. The comic poet Euboulos describes the stages through which the occasion went. After the first three mixing-bowls, when the wise man was recommended to leave, 'the fourth leads to violence, the fifth to uproar, the sixth to riots (kômos), the seventh to black eyes, the eighth to summonses, the ninth to vomiting and the tenth to madness and throwing things about.'

All very St Edmund's, Oxford. But that is the point. The symposium was a private occasion, on which aristocrats linked by status, age, wealth and common interests drank, talked, plotted, recited poetry and shagged the night away within their own four walls. But it regularly reached its climax in the kômos, when the plastered young komasts spilled out onto the streets in a display of exhibitionist public behaviour designed to show how unconventional they were, demonstrate their power and lawlessness and generally thumb the nose at ordinary citizens. It was on such an occasion, as the Professor remarks, that Alcibiades and his gang rampaged through Athens damaging the herms (statues of the protector Hermes) that stood at every front door, a typical piece of aristocratic vandalism.

Military Sparta offered a different model. As Plato's uncle Critias said, Spartans at their tables 'drink only enough to lead the spirits of all to joyous hope and the tongue to friendliness and moderate mirth'. To judge by the number of occasions on which his heroes eat and drink together, Homer too knew that commensality could foster a life-saving sense of fellowship and personal loyalty among soldiers. Influenced, perhaps, by all this, Plato specifically recommends in his last work, Laws, that training in sensible drinking be a part of the school curriculum.

Time for St Edmunds to found a Hoorah Henry Chaise Longue in Komastic Studies with entry restricted to private school pupils with Ds at A- level and Professor Oborne as its first incumbent.

22nd March
George Bush wishes to see democracy - he means, of course, elective oligarchy - imposed all over the middle east, whether middle easterners want it or not. Alexander the Great had the same sort of idea, but his way of doing it was not quite what Mr Bush has in mind.

Alexander set out from Macedon in 334 BC, he said, to take revenge against the Persians for attacking Greece in 490-479 BC (the 'Persian Wars'). His formidable army drove the Persians out of Asia Minor (Turkey) and marched into Iraq; and on October 1 331, Alexander defeated the Persian king Darius at the climactic battle of Gaugamela. When he took Babylon (Baghdad), Susa and then Persepolis with their fabulous riches (he never needed to raise another penny), the job was effectively done. But the prospect of further conquest was irresistible, and he marched relentlessly on through Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush and then down into the Punjab (325). Here his men finally called 'Enough'. He turned back for Babylon, where on June 10 323 he died, evidently planning further conquests of the Persian Gulf, Arabia and the Mediterranean as far as Carthage and southern Italy.

Alexander saw himself as the sole monarch of the vast regions he conquered. All the way to India he planted cities, controlled by possibly reluctant Greek elites thousand of miles from home, and supported off the land by equally reluctant locals - beacons of civilised Greek language and culture to some, oppressive imperial outposts to others. But he was not afraid to elevate locals to positions of power, introducing Persians even into his elite 'Companion' cavalry. Loyalty to Alexander was the key to success. He adopted Persian dress and customs appropriate for an eastern monarch, and encouraged inter- marriage between Macedonians and locals, setting an example himself by marrying Roxane, daughter of a noble from Bactria (north of the Hindu Kush) in 327. There was talk of a complete fusion of power between Persians and Macedonians - under the one monarch.

Men will judge Alexander a fanatic or a visionary, a civiliser of the benighted or power-mad fantasist. But in his will, he seems to have envisaged a new order in which 'cities should be merged and slaves and manpower exchanged between Asia and Europe, Europe and Asia, in order to bring the two greatest continents to common concord and family friendship by mixed marriages and ties of kith and kin'. Not quite Bush's vision, perhaps, but his daughters could set an example.

A&M: 2003 February

1st February 2003
What is it in our interests to do about immigration? The ancient Athenians came up with an interesting answer.

The reason for Athens’ control of immigrants (metoikoi, ‘those who change their habitation’, metics) was suspicion of aliens (war being endemic in the ancient world) and paranoia about the purity of their own citizenship. Any non-Athenian who wanted to take up residence in Athens, temporary or permanent, had to fulfil certain conditions. First, they registered with the state authority; then they registered with the local authority (the ‘deme’, roughly ‘parish’) where they were living. These registers were kept for administrative purposes. They also had to pay a unique monthly tax, and were liable for military service, but they could not own land or take any political role.

But there was another requirement, too: intending metics had to find themselves a citizen sponsor (prostatês), both to support their application for metic status in the first place and (possibly) to continue to ‘sponsor’ them in some way or other when it had been granted. Indeed, a specific case could be brought against any metic thought not to have a prostatês, the penalty for which was enslavement.

The purpose of all this was to ensure that metics did not get ideas above themselves. It was a privilege for them to live in Athens, and they were welcome enough, but on strictly subordinate terms. That, however, did not prevent them from coming. Athens was a powerful, flourishing, ‘international’ city: there was money to be made from being part of it. Since metics could not own land, they started up businesses in Athens and especially its harbour area, Piraeus, a prolific trading centre. Success combined with decent, orderly, law-abiding behaviour reaped its rewards in social mobility. The renowned orator Lysias was a metic who made his money writing speeches for others; his father, Cephalus, a Syracusan by birth, made a huge fortune from arms-manufacture in Athens (Plato’s famous dialogue The Republic was set in his house); intellectuals like Protagoras flocked to Athens to make money there as teachers.

The purpose of the ancient state was to protect and advance the interests of its own citizens, not anyone else’s. It dealt with aliens purely on the basis of the advantages they could bring, which could be many. The concept of a sponsor, perhaps to go bail for good behaviour, is particularly interesting. Might the mosques oblige?

25th February
Whether war against Iraq is justified or not, hardly a day goes by without someone condemning it because (a) the enemy will be crushingly defeated and (b) the West will seize control of Iraqi oil-supplies. And these are reasons for not fighting? On the other hand, proponents of the war argue that we have a humanitarian mission to save Iraq from itself. On both counts the Romans would have thought we had lost our senses.

Though, as Cicero said, 'taxes are the sinews of the state', from 167 BC Romans paid no direct taxes, only those demanded in the course of certain sorts of activities (e.g. harbour dues). Lucrative foreign wars were the reason, increasing state revenues dramatically during this and subsequent periods. In 62 BC, for example, Pompey returned in triumph to Rome after sorting out the Eastern empire, not only depositing vast quantities of gold and silver in Rome's treasury but almost trebling Rome's annual income. Plutarch tells us that Julius Caesar captured and sold more than a million slaves during his conquest of Gaul. Octavian (Caesar's nominated heir) inherited this fortune, and when he defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 BC, seized Egypt, a stupendously wealthy territory, before re-naming himself Augustus and becoming Rome's first official emperor.

When the Roman emperor Trajan finally ended the trouble on the borders of Romania in AD 106, he lost a lot of men but the result was that Romania became a province (Dacia) and Trajan returned to Rome with five million lbs of gold and ten million of silver - about thirty times Rome's total annual revenue. Coins were struck throughout the empire to celebrate the occasion. When Trajan returned to Rome in AD 107, foreign embassies from as far as India were waiting to greet him, keen to avoid a similar fate. Hand-outs were given to the Roman people, and an unprecedented five months of games put on.

Romans conducted foreign policy in terms purely of their own self-interest. To risk Roman lives because a foreign people could not sort out its own affairs would have struck them as little short of criminal. The interesting question, though, is why fund-raising through war of the sort conducted by Pompey, Caesar and Trajan, commonplace throughout human history till the early twentieth century, is frowned upon these days in the west. What generated the change in attitude? The disastrous economic consequences for the winners of the first and second world wars? The United Nations?

A&M: 2003 January

4th January 2003
‘Prepare for war, Blair tells army,’ announces a newspaper headline, stirring the ghost of the Roman military historian Vegetius in its grave.

The civil servant Vegetius composed his Epitome of Military Science — the sole surviving Latin treatise on war — in the late 4th century ad. His only memorable utterance is qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum, ‘let him who desires peace prepare for war’, better known in its slicker form si vis pacem, para bellum. He reinforces it later on by saying that the Romans always keep their fleet at the ready ‘since no one dares to challenge or harm a people they know are fully armed and ready to fight’.

This saying sounds like the basis of one theory of deterrence. It is, presumably, the message which the Americans and British are now trying to get over to Saddam. Vegetius goes on, ‘He who wants victory, let him train his men diligently.’ The Americans are. Is Saddam? Then, ‘He who wishes a successful outcome, let him fight with a strategy, not at random.’ Does Saddam have a strategy? And finally, ‘No one dares challenge or harm one who he realises will win if he fights.’ Are you listening, Saddam?

There is, however, another theory of deterrence, and this one is available to Saddam: the ‘pre-emptive strike’ theory. In 424 bc, the Boeotians were expecting an attack from their neighbours, Athens, and the contemporary Greek historian Thucydides makes their general, Pagondas, say to his troops, ‘When one has to think about the safety of one’s own country, calculations about what is prudent do not come into it. Prudence is for those whose country is secure and who are attacking someone else. But the Athenians are the most dangerous of all people to have living next door, and such people will always march out boldly against those who make no move against them but merely defend their own territory. But when someone goes out to meet them and takes the initiative, their enthusiasm for battle wanes.’ Saddam would, of course, be mad to adopt the pre-emptive strike theory, such would be the overwhelming American response. But is he mad?

If the Americans are not mad too, they will be preparing for peace even more keenly than for war. As the 5th-century bc Greek historian Herodotus puts in the mouth of the defeated King Croesus of Lydia, ‘No one is so foolish that he prefers war to peace. In peace sons bury their fathers, in war fathers their sons.’

11th January
Mrs Samira Ahmed, an ex-university professor in Sudan, has launched a sex-strike in an attempt to end the nineteen years of (un)civil war that have torn the country apart. The newspapers went into their usual routines about Aristophanes' Lysistrata (411 BC) - and, as usual, got it wrong.

In Lysistrata, we are regularly told, the women of Greece are persuaded to refuse to sleep with their husbands in an attempt to end the Athens-Sparta war that had begun in 431 BC; as a result, the sex- starved men, sporting huge erections all day, give in and the war ends. This is true as far as it goes, but in fact the sex-strike is only the half of it. The women of Athens also seize the Acropolis, where the financial reserves were kept, and 'manfully' protect it against counter- attack from the elderly chorus (the only men left in Athens); and the women of Sparta repeat the trick there. Thus deprived of cash, the two sides are unable to prosecute the war anyway, sex-strike or no.

Then we are told that the comedy is really about 'the liberation of women'. But this is not true either. It is about the destruction of family life. The frustrated males do not immediately resort to prostitutes, nor the equally frustrated women to any passing potential lover. It is their spouses they all long for, and at the end of the play there is a celebration of restored family life and conjugal love.

Finally, we are told that Lysistrata is a deadly serious 'anti-war' play which comments on 'the futility of war itself'. As one would expect, there is a major problem about how exactly one derives 'serious comment' from the illogical fantasies of comedy. The situation with which Lysistrata deals derives from contemporary political life, but that does not mean it is supposed to feed back into it (cf. Yes, Minister). But even aside from that debate, there is not one word in Lysistrata about 'the futility of war itself'. Lysistrata's aim is to force an end to this war, on equal terms for both sides, and a sex- strike was a good comic device for achieving this. It was, however, an impossible dream in real life, since Athens in 411 was pretty much on its beam ends, and Sparta would never have agreed to any peace except on terms that would have been wholly unacceptable to the Athenians.

Good luck to Mrs Ahmed, but to end the civil war in Sudan will require more than a comic sex-strike (which can hardly work anyway if the men are away all the time fighting a war). On the other hand, if she could gain control of Sudan's finances ...

25th January
Every week professionals such as teachers and doctors express their desire to get out of their jobs. Why? Because they have lost their independence. Greeks and Romans would have richly sympathised.

When Cicero was discussing the problems of old age, he said, ‘The old will be respected only if they fight for themselves, maintain their own rights, avoid dependence, and assert their authority over their households as long as life lasts.’ His point is that in old age one tended to yield one’s grip on that independence and control over one’s own affairs that gave one a sense of purpose. This was why satirists like Juvenal could be so contemptuous of the people and their ‘bread and circuses’, happy as they were to be locked by the state into servile dependency with free grain, festivals, banquets and games. Indeed, ancients valued their independence to such an extent that even working for someone else was felt to be the equivalent of slavery, since it made one dependent on the payer.

This determination to remain in control surfaces in all sorts of unexpected contexts. In his old age Sophocles is said to have welcomed escaping from his sexual urges ‘like a slave from a cruel and savage master’ (those in thrall to such urges were a constant butt of jokes in Athens). When Seneca writes to the emperor Nero to discuss the meaning of ‘mercy’, he distinguishes it from ‘pity’. For Seneca, ‘pity’ is ‘akin to wretchedness’ since it involves helplessly ‘succumbing at the sight of the ills of others’; but ‘mercy’ involves rational decisions of which one is in full control.

But independence did not mean refusal to co-operate. When, for example, vast silver deposits were found at Laurium on the southern tip of Attica in 483 bc, there was a considerable faction urging the Athenian assembly, the decision-making body consisting of all Athenian males over 18, to split up the surpluses among themselves to spend as they wished. But Themistocles persuaded the assembly to think of long-term advantage and to use the money to construct a fleet — the beginning of Athens’ maritime empire and greater prosperity than they could ever have imagined. Persuasion was the key. The assembly took the decision freely, seeing it was in their best interests. No one forced them into it.

Pride in one’s work and loyalty to one’s employer are generated by the feeling that one is trusted and valued. A government whose ever-rising stream of bossy demands makes it clear that it regards its public servants as slaves cannot expect to retain them.

A&M: 2002 December

7th December 2002
Talking about wills, St Augustine remarked on the paradox that ‘while the dead man lies, insensible, under his tombstone, his words retain their full legal validity’. Time, surely, for New Labour to ‘modernise’ this transparent absurdity at a time when the Chancellor is desperate to grab money from any source he can to do what he does best and pour it into his latest, shiniest drain. But he had better watch out if he does.

The Romans adored wills. ‘I hear that Sextus is dead. Let me know who his heir is, and when his will is to be opened,’ says Cicero in a letter, one of many such requests; and Seneca the Younger talks of the time one spends drawing up a will, the internal debates about how much and to whom one shall give, and the pleasure yielded by the thought of enriching this or that person and adding lustre to their position. The reason is that Romans saw wills as an essential means by which family and society reciprocated, and a man’s social networks constructed in life could be duly acknowledged and assured of continuing after death.

But, naturally, everyone wanted to know what those networks were, and that is why the contents of a will were so eagerly awaited. They gave the dead man the chance to tell the truth. As Pliny said, ‘Wills are commonly believed to be the mirror of the man’, since the dead testator (being dead) now had carte-blanche to reveal what he really thought about those who imagined they were his chums. The testator regularly declared who were his dearest and least dear children, who his rarest and most obnoxious friends.

One grande dame caused a stir by commending all the great and good of Rome, but passing over the emperor Tiberius in silence. Others went further. One will savagely indicted Tiberius and accused his prefect Macro of terrible crimes; Petronius, the ‘arbiter of taste’, ordered to commit suicide by Nero, listed Nero’s debaucheries. Not surprising, then, that, for example, the emperor Augustus was paranoid about the last judgment of those friends he considered he had helped, downcast if they did not praise him enough, delighted if they talked of him ‘gratefully and piously’. That latest judgment really counted.

If, therefore, the surly Scot does start ransacking the graves of the dead in his next Budget (after all, what could be more elitist than personal networks of chums; who knows how to spend money better than he?), those with the most money to lose might suddenly find an incentive to use their wills to unfold what they really know about him and the government he works for.

14th December
Tragic fun for all the family: the Fall of the House of Archer

Christmas is the time for stimulating educational games round a roaring open telly. This year’s is a real festive winner: construct your own Greek tragedy, on any subject of your choice. The rules, observable in Sophocles (496–405 bc) and Euripides (485–406 bc), are strict:

1. The tragedy lasts about two hours and is played in real time: i.e., it represents an unbroken two-hour period in the characters’ lives.

2. It takes place in a single location, out of doors. Since Greek tragedies were frequently about kings, that meant outside his palace: i.e., in the palace front garden, or on the roof — a stimulating location indeed.

3. Only three actors are allowed, though they can play as many parts as the tragedian wishes. In one tragedy the three actors played 11 parts between them. So crowd scenes, assemblies and battles are impossible; nor must anyone die on stage because that leaves you with only two actors.

4. One of these actors must be the main centre of the play’s dramatic attention, even if he/she is not actually on stage for the whole time; there may also be a secondary main character, acting as a foil to the first. This could leave the third actor with a lot to do (give him time to change costumes).

5. After the first ‘act’ (epeisodion, cf. ‘episode’), a chorus consisting of 15 men or women comes on stage to do a song-and-dance routine relevant to the unfolding action. It remains on stage for the rest of the tragedy, doing its routines between the acts. It has a collective identity, which remains constant throughout the play, and its leader may engage in conversation with the actors. Its main purpose is to bring a collective and communal dimension to the individual tragedy being worked out before it.

6. Characters can enter and leave only via the palace (i.e., the backdrop) or the side exits, one leading to the city, the other to the country.

7. Because of the limitations of ancient technology, monsters and miracles can only be reported. On stage, generally, strict realism is the rule.

The big question the ancient tragedian faced was: whose two hours? The point is that Greek tragedy linked the present with the deep past. But that deep past could not be shown on stage; it could only be dredged up from the characters’ or chorus’s memories (‘Yes, I do now recollect...’) or reported by someone else (‘Surely you must remember when...’). Know-all prophets, able to pinpoint the significance of past events and hint about the future, came in handy here. Likewise, deaths, wars and journeys could not happen on stage. They, too, needed to be reported. As a result of this knowledge, characters then made things happen (wisely or unwisely) in the here and now; these tended actually to happen off stage, with results reported later.

Greek tragedy, then, is structured round the protagonists uncovering the past and taking action in relation to it in the here and now, but slowly discovering the ghastly consequences of their decisions. ‘At last! Now I see’ is the climax. That is why Greek tragedy is nearly all talk. The ‘action’ is in the past, or off stage; the ‘action’ on stage is the emergence of the true meaning of it all, with its terrifying consequences. The poet’s main structural job, then, is to sort out what is to be ‘here and now’, what is to be ‘past’, and what is to be done off stage and reported back.

So much then for general dramaturgy. But we now hit problems: what will be our subject matter? The important point is this: once the truth is out, Greek tragedy’s inescapable conclusion is that it is better never to have been born, or, if born, to die soon. As Kafka says, ‘There is an abundance of hope, but none for us.’ People being randomly unhappy, or badly treated, or dying unexpectedly, mere violence and horror, are not a sufficient condition to warrant the title ‘tragic’ in any sense that Greek tragedy would understand. Greek tragedy is not random; there is a terrifying inevitability about it all. Happy Christmas.

Nevertheless, this does not scupper the proposed game. Parody, after all, is a noble art and can teach us much. If Housman can parody tragedy — ‘O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots/Head of a traveller’ and all that — so can we. Let us, then, by way of example, take on the BBC’s recent plodding satire, and attempt an Archereia, or ‘Jeffrey Archer: The Tragedy’.

As soon as one starts thinking about the big question — whose two hours? — it immediately becomes apparent that the tragedy has to be Lady Archer’s (M). She is the real victim in all this. But to what effect? Is the tragic moment to be that (a) her life has been left in ruins by J’s misfortunes, or (b) she is a wronged woman who will take brutal revenge on her husband for betraying her?

If scenario (a), the two hours will cover the court case which sent J to prison. The mise-en-scène would therefore be the pavement outside the Old Bailey. M will receive regular messenger-style reports from inside about how the case is going, while figures from J’s past — Monica, various MPs, judges, editors, share-dealers, etc. — come on to tell her their version of events, before disappearing into court. A chorus of taxi-drivers comments on proceedings. M heroically resists all their urgings, and, in a tear-jerking closing scene, J at last emerges on stage to be carried off to prison, calling on the gods to witness how unjustly he has been treated, while M bewails her fate.

The ‘wronged woman’ mise-en-scène (b) would be set outside the Archer home in Grantchester, with a chorus of sympathetic secretaries. M is awaiting her husband’s arrival, but various incomers hint at their misgivings about him, increasing her suspicions, till finally he enters — with Monica. A Clytemnestra routine follows. M ushers them warmly in, murders both (screams from the house) and emerges, bloodstained and triumphant.

A Women of Trachis scenario might also work. Deianeira/M, hearing her husband Heracles/J has fallen in love with Iole/Monica, decides to win back his love by giving him the shirt of Nessus/some equivalent. But this, in fact, is a killer garment, slowly consuming the wearer who dies in agony (good messenger speech).

Or how about a Medea? In this case, the play would open with M, already alerted to her husband’s feelings for Monica, chewing over what to do about it. She attempts a reconciliation with him, but he can see nothing wrong in what he has done. She therefore swears the secretarial chorus to silence and plots a hideous revenge which will leave him abandoned and ‘devastated’ (one must remember tragedies can have happy endings too). But here one hits a brick wall: is there anything that really would leave J ‘devastated’?

Problems, problems. But they only go to show what superb masters of the conventions the Greek tragedians were. One hardly notices the conventions at all. This is the virtue of the game, even if it is only a technical one. ‘The arts’ today reject the idea of restrictions. That is why they are so dire. It is the restrictions that create the masterpiece.

How about the House of Windsor...?

28th December
As the argument over firemen's pay and conditions rumbles on, Mr John Scorer reminds me of the correspondence on the subject of a fire service between Pliny the younger, governor of Bithynia-Pontus in north-western Turkey, and the emperor Trajan.

Pliny asks if it would be a good idea to establish one in the province, but Trajan advises that such collegia can cause political trouble; people should be provided with their own equipment and, if a fire starts, call on help from the watching crowd. The fire-service in Rome offers more helpful parallels with the current situation. Prevention was originally in the hands of a committee of three, in charge of a body of public slaves stationed around the gates and walls of the city. But they were in the wrong place and ineffective.

The emperor Augustus got a grip on the problem in AD 6. With a 4% tax on the sale of slaves to fund the operation, Augustus put a praefectus with his own headquarters and office staff in charge of seven cohorts of fire-fighters (vigiles). Each cohort consisted of 500 men, commanded by a tribune and divided up into seven 'centuries' (i.e. c. 70 per 'century'). Each cohort looked after two of the city's fourteen administrative regiones, and were housed in barracks. They patrolled extensively at night when the danger was greatest, since (in the absence of matches or other instant sources of fire) householders kept fires burning unsupervised. Owners of houses were required to keep a supply of water available and other instrumenta for fighting fires - vinegar, mats, poles, ladders, sponges, buckets and brooms. In the absence of hoses, man- and bucket-power was essential; the brigades brought pumps, hooks, mattocks and axes, and ballistae to knock down nearby houses and create fire-breaks. Four medici were attached to each cohort. On average there seem to have been about a hundred fires a day in the city, twenty large, two serious. There were probably no more than four large fires at any one time, and, given their size and careful distribution, the patrols could deal with them. The secret was to get in
early (smell was very important).

Today's fire-brigade is right: keep fully-staffed night patrols. So is the government: military organisation for the whole force; fire-engines to be re-located at specific times to places where they are most needed; and property owners to take preventative measures. And Gordon Brown is evidently planning to charge 5% VAT on house sales too - another real winner from the surly Scot.

A&M: 2002 November

2nd November 2002
Julian Horn-Smith, second-in-command to Sir Chris Gent at the mighty Vodaphone, has been extolling the virtues of being vice-admiral rather than admiral, on the grounds that a major defeat might cost the admiral his job. The ancient Greeks knew all about that argument.

In Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus has good reason to believe that his second-in-command Creon has been plotting his downfall and claims his wealth, power and ability have excited Creon's envy. Faced with this accusation, Creon does a Horn-Smith. Would any man, he argues, merely to increase his authority, choose the fears and sleepless nights that go with kingship? Like any man, he would rather have the substance, not the show of authority; and that he has, because he is a confidant of Oedipus, with all the power but none of the worries. So every man greets him warmly, and he them, since he can make or mar them. He would be foolish to surrender this happy position to take on Oedipus' load of cares, let alone have himself known as a traitor. 'Heard that one before', sniffs Oedipus. 'String him up'.

When the all-powerful Persian king Darius hears that Sardis, his principal city in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), has been captured and burnt by an alliance led by Aristagoras from Miletus, he summons Histiaeus, tyrant of Miletus, for an explanation. Darius had been holding Histiaeus at his court for some time, and Aristagoras was his deputy. Histiaeus hornsmiths away very convincingly: 'Master, is it likely I should do anything, great or small, to harm your interests? I have all I want. What motive could there be for treachery? Is not what is yours, mine too? Do I not have the honour of sharing all your counsels? If Aristagoras is guilty as you say, be sure that it is entirely his own doing. Of course, if you had not been keeping me here in your court, none of this would have happened. So the best thing you can do is to let me return to Miletus, where I shall hand over Aristagoras to you and sort everything out.' The historian Herodotus continues 'The purpose of this was to deceive to Darius, and it worked. The king believed Histiaeus and let him go, telling him to return when he had done what he promised.'

The style of argument deployed by Creon and Histiaeus was classified by Greeks as an argument from 'likelihood'. It depended on successfully constructing yourself as the sort of person who would just not do that sort of thing. Since Horn-Smith has been not doing it for many years now, perhaps Sir Chris can sleep easy after all.

16th November
How delightfully Roman the Tory party seems at the moment! One would hardly know a 'party' exists at all.

Despite Michael Portillo's recent assertion that 'no democratic system has found a way to be without [parties]', the ancient Greeks got on spiffingly without them, as did the Romans. Politics in ancient Rome had nothing to do with adversarial debates between established 'parties' with 'policies' wielding power in a 'House of Commons' on behalf of 'constituents'. The Senate consisted of all those who had served as executive officials (e.g. consul, praetor etc.) and a Roman reached those positions of power and authority by gathering round him the Great and Good who would support his candidature before the People's assemblies. This involved all sorts of alliances, with reciprocal obligations and duties attached, but they were all temporary, and membership of a party never came into it. The Roman was out for himself. Over a career he would build up an extensive personal network of supporters (amici and clientes), and if he was successful, a large part of his political life would consist in nurturing those relationships. Cicero, for example, defended friends at court, spoke for interest-groups (e.g. tax-gatherers), recommended friends for loans, and even represented whole communities (on one occasion, those who felt land-allotments had been unfairly distributed). Senate membership alone did not give him that authority. As for 'policies', in the absence of tax-raising and social services, they hardly existed. Executive officials argued out issues of war and peace, taking them to the Senate if they felt like it (which they usually did).

Partes, as they were called, did exist, but only in times of crisis, when the political world itself had become polarised. Thus when Pompey and Caesar were scrapping for power in the late 50's BC, people talked of two partes in Rome. As for a factio, this was a term of abuse which you directed against political opponents who had banded together for (in your eyes) nefarious purposes. When Pompey, Caesar and Crassus formed a coalition in 59 BC, those outside it saw it as a factio. Indeed, when Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy in 49 BC, he claimed it was to free the people from just such a factio, led (surprise, surprise) by his old coalition partner Pompey. As the Tiny Beasts of the Tory party creep about constructing allegiances and to hell with all this 'party' nonsense, the IDS of March suddenly seems all too imminent.

23rd November
The prime minister has been sounding off about the importance of 'respect', which he does not define but clearly thinks is a vote-winner. In fact, as ancient Greeks saw, 'respect' - aidôs - is the other side of a far less cuddly emotion, 'shame'. Aidôs in Greek is to do with the judgement one makes about one's self- image in front of other people - either positively recognising someone else's status ('respect'), or acknowledging a sense of inhibition at the way one has oneself performed ('shame'). Feeling 'abashed' about oneself before others might cover both usages.

In Homer, aidôs tends to be generated by external sanctions, i.e. by what other people will say about you if you behave in a certain way. When Andromache begs her husband Hector to defend Troy from behind its fortifications, Hector replies that he would feel nothing but aidôsbefore Trojans and their wives if he slunk like a coward from the fighting; besides, he adds, 'my heart forbids me, since I have trained myself to be a good warrior, to take my place in the front line and try to win glory for my father and myself'.

When near the end of the Iliad, however, Hector admits that he has destroyed the army by his stupidity in leading them out to confront Achilles, he says he feels nothing but aidôs before Trojans and their wives in case some second-rater says of him 'Hector trusted in his might and destroyed his people'. He concludes 'better to waste no time but to get to grips [with Achilles myself] and find out to which of us Zeus hands the victory'. Driven by aidôs to perform heroics in battle, Hector is also driven by it to realise that he has made a wrong judgement and then to shoulder the responsibility of trying to put it right.

Aidôs is clearly a powerful force for good, but later Greeks wondered whether the external sanction was enough. What, for example, of the criminal who could always escape detection? Aidôs would have no effect on him. It awaited the fifth-century philosopher Democritus to think of aidôs as a form of internal sanction, rooted in some concept of conscience, when he argued that one should feel aidôs first and foremost not before others but before oneself - the only way to ensure that one's behaviour corresponded with one's ideals.

One can see why respec', man, should appeal to a politician. How they would love a little. They might get some if they occasionally showed some of its other half, shame.

30th November
What a fuss everyone is getting into about the funding of universities! If ministers would only sit back with their Aristotle and Plato and think about results, all would become clear.

Aristotle is very keen on the telos - the goal or end of things - and when he discusses the state, he decides its telos is 'the sharing by households and families in the good life, for the purpose of a complete and self-sufficient life'. This result being of supreme importance, state control over education is required. As he says in his Politics: 'since the whole city has one goal, it is evident that there must also be one and the same education for everyone, and that the superintendence of this should be public and not private...Public matters should be publicly managed.'

So far, so Blairite. What, then, should be the telos of a university education? Here Aristotle becomes very cagey, pointing out that 'there are no generally accepted assumptions about what the young should learn, either for virtue or the best life, nor is it clear whether education ought to be conducted with more concern for the intellect than for the character of the soul...for things useful in life, or those conducive to virtue or directed at exceptional accomplishments'.

Here Plato comes in. In his Seventh Letter, he distinguishes between two sorts of education: 'sun-tan' education, where the student just rolls over occasionally if he can find the time and work up the energy, and real education, where the student is admitted only if he is alerted to what the education entails - 'the nature of the subject as a whole, and all the stages that must be gone through, and how much labour is required' and sees it as 'so wonderful that he must follow it through with all his might'. How does one tell? By results, 'truth flashing on the soul like a flame kindled by a leaping spark'.

From Aristotle, then, any subject can be studied, but the education must be 'the same' for all. So there must be a common standard - all exams set and marked to that standard in all subjects. Only the best being good enough in Blair's Britain, Oxbridge standards apply. From Plato, only those absolutely committed to study should be allowed in. But Blair wants everyone to have the chance. Impasse? No. Let all pay the full price, wherever they go to study - after all, they will all be following an Oxbridge standard course. Then let the results decide. Those who graduate get their money back; those who don't, don't. Good market economics, that. Degrees might be worth something, too.

A&M: 2002 October

5th October 2002
Stinker Pinker’s latest book has caused a furore by arguing that nature has a much greater effect than nurture on human behaviour. Or was it the other way round? Not that it matters. It has been argued over for millennia, in slightly different terms but with equally little effect.

Ancient Greeks thought of the problem in terms of nomos (‘custom, convention, law’) or phusis (‘nature’). Were nomoi (plural) part of the natural, immutable order of things, or merely a human imposition whose purpose was to restrain natural instincts? If the former, one could argue that they were necessary for the survival and reasonable functioning of society; if the latter, that they were a destructive force, designed (as Plato’s opponent Callicles argues on one occasion) to keep weaklings in power and constrain the naturally stronger and better. But then Greeks wondered where ‘unwritten law’ fitted into the antithesis, which, as Antigone famously argued, was the gods’ ‘unfailing rules, not of today or yesterday, and no one knows when they first appeared’.

Another way to construct the problem was in terms of fate or free will. Stoic philosophers, for example, reckoning that the divine pneuma, a sort of fiery air, pervaded the whole universe, argued that the divine will must therefore hold sway at all times: this was a deterministic universe. But in that case how could human action be free? In particular, how could one make choices (a crucial part of Stoic doctrine)? Stoics had recourse to analogy to explain how. One example was that man is like a dog attached by a long leash to a wagon travelling remorselessly from A to B. The dog ultimately has no option but to go along with it, but its leash allows it a certain amount of leeway in which to express its free will; in particular, it can struggle against the wagon and be miserable, or follow it and be happy. It is up to the dog.

Ancient Greeks invented argument by antithesis — mind or matter was another favourite — but it is a tool of limited use since its terms define the argument before the argument has ever begun. The nature–nurture antithesis, then, is crippled from the start. But if one must use it, Homer’s view of the matter solves the problem, as he expressed it in relation to another famous antithesis dealing with the same issue: who is responsible for man’s decisions, man or god? Homer’s answer was that they both were, in exactly the same proportion (100 per cent). So with arguing whether nature or nurture is responsible for human behaviour — which is why it is a pointless exercise.

13th October
British youth has every right to be angry about the A-level grading fiasco, but their self-pitying sobs — ‘What of the effect on our future careers, income, quality of life and happiness?’ moans one tragic whinger — have not impressed. Is taking a year out really that awful? But then, they have been raised in a victim culture. Even more disgusting has been the chorus of sympathy from adults encouraging them. Seneca has the answer.

In about ad 60, Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius about their mutual acquaintance Liberalis, who had been much downcast at the news of a great fire that had completely wiped out the proud Roman colony of Lugdunum (Lyon) in two days. Seneca starts by observing that fires, like earthquakes, damage but rarely destroy a whole town at one go, as had happened on this occasion. So this event has been, he goes on, a serious test of Liberalis’ usually steadfast will, especially as it was so unexpected, ‘for the unexpected exacts the heaviest toll on us’.

Therefore, Seneca concludes, ‘We must ensure that nothing is unexpected by us. Our minds must look ahead at all times and think about not what usually happens, but what can possibly happen.’ He points out that Fortuna is able to strike in any number of ways; she can turn our own hands against us or produce disasters out of top hats; one is never safe from her, especially at times of greatest hopes and happiness, and when she strikes, it is with terrifying rapidity. Cities, like mountains, casurae stant, ‘stand but to fall’.

The consolation in all this is that reverses often lead to a more prosperous outcome. Seneca quotes a friend of Augustus with such a grudge against Rome that the only reason he felt aggrieved when buildings there burned down was because he knew far better ones would replace them. But at all events the mind must be disciplined to understand and endure a human’s lot: ‘Into such a world have we entered, under such laws do we live.’

Plato pointed out that in democracies the old are always tempted to suck up to the young because they do not want to be thought tyrants. The young could extract some good out of this whole mess if they read their Seneca, took the lessons on board, and then expressed their feelings about those politicians and commentators who fell over themselves to outdo each other in their ever more lurid assessments of the magnitude of the tragedy that had befallen ‘our young people today’ — the patronising creeps.

27th October
Lord Archer, now serving four years for perjury, has been shocked to find that jails are full of criminals, living in cells fitted with bars and steel doors. So he is writing a diary to inform the Home Secretary of this appalling state of affairs. What he really cannot understand, however, is why he is there, having to mix with these people. The Romans would have sympathised with his predicament.

Under the Roman empire it became standard practice for the law to discriminate between different classes of people when it came to handing out sentences. Two social classes are commonly referred to, though it is difficult to be precise about who fitted into which category: the honestiores and the humiliores (slaves made a third class).

Take, for example, the Cornelian law on wills: ‘Anyone who knowingly and with wrongful intent forges ...a will is liable under the lex Cornelia testamentaria. Honestiores are to be deported to an island, humiliores are either sent to the mines or are crucified.’ Or take the Cornelian law de sicariis, ‘on murderers’: ‘Capital punishment is usual these days, except for those whose status is too high to sustain the statutory penalty. These are deported to an island, while humiliores are usually either crucified or thrown to beasts.’ For the crime of removing boundary stones, we learn that slaves were condemned to the mines, humiliores to hard labour and honestiores to temporary expulsion with one-third confiscation, or full deportation. The lex Julia de maiestatis, ‘on treason’, laid down that humiliores should be thrown to the beasts or burnt alive, honestiores capitally punished.

The issue here is public degradation. The honestior does not evade punishment, but expulsion, deportation and/or confiscation of goods do not propel him into the popular limelight, let alone humiliate him there. Even if he is sentenced to capital punishment, an execution is a comparatively quick and clean death, in the face of which he could win credit by exhibiting proper stoic fortitude. The humilior, on the other hand, is sent to the mines, crucified, thrown to the beasts or burnt at the stake, the first a slow death-sentence, the last three carried out in public, before mocking crowds in the arena.

Doubtless Lord Archer will soon be proposing revolutionary distinctions of this sort. How proud, but humble, that other prison-reformer and novelist Charles Dickens would be to find himself linked with such distinguished company in working for change.

A&M: 2002 September

14th September 2002
It is, apparently, a problem for many males that when they retire they feel dissatisfied because ‘society’ does not value them any more. It is hard to see what ‘society’ as such can actually do about this, but it raises the question why anyone should want to be valued by society, especially one of the sort described week after week by, for example, that sober judge of human nature, Dr Theodore Dalrymple.

From Diogenes the Cynic (4th century bc) living in his wine-jar (not barrel) to the ascetics of the late Roman world atop their pillars, many ancients argued that not being valued by society was the only way to live. Diogenes rejects the concept of ‘society’ tout court, seeing true values and moral standards only in animals, primitive man, barbarians and the gods. The Epicurean Roman philosopher Lucretius (1st century bc) points out how sweet it is to remain immune to the mad passions that drive the majority to spend their life competing against each other, striving for status, struggling night and day to emerge top of the heap. Even the Stoic thinker Seneca the younger (1st century ad), who was for a time an adviser to Nero and as a Stoic was committed to the idea of public service for the public good, seems to think that withdrawal into a private life of study can be justified.

Asceticism — Greek askêsis, ‘training, practice, routine’, the belief that humans had an almost limitless potential for spiritual development through ‘exercises’ designed to transform the personality — had had a long pagan history before it became associated with Christianity. Among pagans, however, it was a practice for the educated rich, a ‘lifestyle’ statement they could afford to indulge. But for Christians, anyone of any class could renounce the world, the flesh and the Devil, or sell all that they had and give to the poor; hence the hermit (Greek erêmos, ‘solitary’) and the fascination with the desert, the powerful symbol of the renunciation of man as a social and civilised being. Not that everyone had to go that far: renunciation of the demon sex was often felt to be enough of a statement about one’s other-worldly perspective.

The assimilation of these and other practices awaited the conviction that only the teaching and traditions of a Catholic Church, under a pope invested with the authority of Christ, really counted.

Retire to your study; become a hermit; abjure sex; go to church — unlikely advice for the retired, perhaps, but anything must be preferable to pleading abjectly with ‘society’ to value you.

21st September
The USA and the Middle East are quite content to engage in commercial exchange, but seem incapable of using such transactions to realise any deeper cultural understanding, let alone interaction. In the ancient world the two frequently went hand in hand, especially when the Middle East was the ‘superpower’.

Ancient Greece is the ‘cradle of civilisation’ for the Western world, but what was the cradle of civilisation for the Greeks? The shaft-graves of Agamemnon’s Mycenae (16th century bc) tell the story, with their glass beads from Iraq, elephant tusks from Syria, jugs and vases from Egypt, drinking vessels from Egypt or Syria/Palestine made of Nubian ostrich eggs and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.

So, too, does the great Iraqi epic of Gilgamesh, some 2,000 years older than the first voice of Western literature, 8th-century bc Homer. Gilgamesh is a hero, the son of a mortal father, Lugalbanda, and a goddess, Ninsun. Father stays out of the way, but mother plays a large part in his life, advising him and interceding on his behalf with the powerful god Shamash. Gilgamesh is strong, proud and impulsive, and as a result he causes the death of his dearly beloved companion Enkidu; he is prostrate with grief, etc.... Achilles is a hero, the son of a mortal father, Peleus, and a goddess, Thetis. Father stays out of the way, but mother plays a large part in his life, advising him and interceding on his behalf with the powerful god Zeus. Achilles is strong, proud and impulsive, and as a result he causes the death of his dearly beloved companion Patroclus; he is prostrate with grief, etc.... However the interaction actually came about, the first literature of the West is deeply indebted to the East.

For some 6,000 years the rich cultures of the Middle East, especially Mesopotamia/Iraq, fed into south-eastern Europe everything that was to make the Greek miracle possible: the cultivation of cereals, flax, vines and olives; pottery (hand- and then wheel-made); working in copper, then bronze and iron; writing on clay tablets, papyrus and skins; town walls; the harp, the lyre and the double oboe. They gave the Greeks their religious practices and gods, as the Greek historian Herodotus was only too happy to acknowledge, much of their cosmology, eschatology and astronomy, and the concept of treaties and law-codes. They....

But then it was so much easier in those days. Pagan gods were not on the whole jealous gods, imposing on their followers the exclusive demands typical of some of our more modern deities.

A&M: 2002 August

3rd August 2002
Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbeard of Canterbury elect, has been unfolding his thoughts on abortion. He has gratifyingly little that is new to say on a debate which is at least 2,500 years old.

Dr Williams raises the problem of whether the foetus counts as human, and might thus be said to have ‘claims’ of its own. Presumably he is a Pythagorean on the issue, since they were convinced that the foetus had every innate human capacity, body and soul, from the moment of conception, and abortion was therefore wrong — a strongly held position in the early Church. On the other hand, Exodus xxi 22–4, the only clear reference in the Bible to abortion, does not regard it as homicide — to the annoyance of some early Church fathers.

But one cannot really debate the subject unless one has an argued position on the status of the foetus, and Dr Williams seems happy merely to assert its inviolability. No ancient would have accepted this. Some argued that the foetus’s movement in the womb indicated sensibility; others that it was a plant, moving without conscious thought; others that it was more like something that was asleep. Most were gradualists, arguing that animation and sensation developed only slowly (so early abortion was permissible). Ancient doctors, inevitably, took a pragmatic approach. They did not want to be seen as abortionists, arguing that their duty was to save life, not destroy it, but well understood that, in certain circumstances relating to the wellbeing of the mother, they had little option.

Dr Williams further argues that abortion cannot simply be a matter of one person’s choice, since it has wider political, ethical and cultural implications. This was well understood in the ancient world. As Cicero says in his Pro Cluentio (79 bc) of a woman from Miletus who had had an abortion, ‘she deprived her husband of the hope of becoming a father, the memory of his name, the successor to his generation, the heir to his family, and the city of a future citizen’.

Finally, Dr Williams claims that ‘choice’ in such a matter merely boils down to a question of ‘who can more successfully defend their interest against others’. But so does removal of choice. This is a philosopher-king argument which Plato would have keenly applauded.

All this is an excellent omen. Dr Williams adds virtually nothing to a debate which has been going on for millennia. This is precisely what any respectable religious organisation deriving its authority from an ancient, sole source of truth should expect of its leaders.

17th August
Tom Stoppard has written a trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, and the critics are reeling with amazement that the National can put on a nine-hour marathon, lasting all day, involving 30 actors playing 70 roles. Ancient Greeks would have been even more surprised: what other way was there to stage plays? And 30 actors for a mere 70 parts would have seemed to them ludicrously luxurious.

Greek tragedies were staged as trilogies, and lasted all day. The number of actors allowed was strictly limited: it eventually became three. It is not possible to be absolutely certain how parts were distributed among the actors, but in the sole surviving complete trilogy, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the three actors were needed to cover Clytaemnestra, Agamemnon, Cassandra, Aegisthus, a watchman, messenger and herald in Agamemnon; Orestes, Electra, Clytaemnestra, Pylades, Aegisthus, nurse and servant in Choephori; and Orestes, Apollo, Athena, priestess at Delphi and ghost of Clytaemnestra in Eumenides — 19 parts in all. It is hard to say whether that would have been seen as a light or heavy load. Euripides’ Phoenician Women on its own demands that the three actors cover 11 parts (Jocasta, Antigone, Teiresias, pedagogue, Polyneices, Creon, Eteocles, Menoeceus, two messengers and Oedipus), as does Euripides’ Rhesus (Hector, Odysseus, Alexander, Aeneas, Rhesus, Athena, Muse, Dolon, shepherd, Diomedes and charioteer). We do not know what demands the other plays in the trilogies may have made, but it is possible to see that three actors may on occasions have had to cover more than 30 roles between them in the course of a day.

And what diverse roles they were. In Sophocles’ Women from Trachis, it is likely that one actor played the two big parts — both the mighty muscleman Heracles and his jealous wife Deianeira; in Antigone, one actor probably played both Antigone and her fiancé Haemon, and if the part of Creon absorbed the energies of one other actor, it is not impossible that the poor old third actor had to feature as Antigone’s sister Ismene, a guard, a messenger, the blind prophet Teiresias and Creon’s wife Eurydice. In some plays, it is impossible to distribute the parts among three actors without two different actors playing the same role at different times.

Not to mention the fact that the trilogy was then rounded off with a fourth, so-called ‘satyr’ play. So ’appen, lad, it’s a grand life at t’ National, in’t it?

Two American film companies are evidently racing neck-and-neck to bring out a film about the great Carthaginian general Hannibal, and the word on the street is that one of the companies is proposing to cast a fashionable black actor in the lead. That’s the stuff, boys. Africa! Cuddly Blacks v. Wicked Anglo-Saxon Romans! Great box-office! The truth is somewhat less, um, Hollywood.

To generalise, black Africans (the so-called Negroid type) in the ancient world lived south of the Sahara: to the east, that meant south of Aswan, and to the west, southern Morocco. Blacks, it seems, did not inhabit the coastline of north Africa — at any rate, when the Greeks and later the Romans established themselves there, they did not talk of the local inhabitants as Negroid in type. That was a description they reserved for Africans from elsewhere. This is not to say that there was no contact between black Africans and people further north. Egyptians, for example, were in contact with them from the third millennium bc.

But whoever the indigenous inhabitants of north Africa were, they first met the people we know as Carthaginians in the eighth century bc. It was then that Qart Hadahst, ‘New Town’ (later latinised into Carthago), was established near modern Tunis by the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were a Semitic people from along the coast of Lebanon/Syria. Expert traders, they established way-stations along the Mediterranean in their search for markets and metals. From such beginnings the powerful independent state of Carthage arose.

Hannibal (246–183 bc) was a member of Carthage’s ruling elite, the Barca family, which could trace its origins back to Carthage’s first ruler, Queen Dido. His name is the latinised form of Chenu Baal, ‘grace of Baal’, that Old Testament god who gave the Israelites such problems. So whatever racial mixing may have subsequently taken place after the Carthaginian arrival in north Africa, Hannibal was not a black African.

But he was a quite brilliant general. It was his leadership qualities and capacity to manoeuvre the enemy into the position he wanted that made him so formidable. Hitting the inflexible Roman legions from the side was a speciality. As a result, he came within an ace of defeating Rome in the second Punic War (218–202 bc).

It all makes for a great story, but if the Americans really want to go for authenticity, they should cast a Semite from Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria or even Palestine in the lead. Ah! Not such good box-office.

24th August
‘Anger-management consultants’ have been appearing all over the papers in the past few weeks discussing how the footballer Roy Keane might learn to control his foul temper. The papers could have saved the cost of their predictable services by reprinting selected chunks from Seneca (4 bc–ad 65) De Ira, ‘On Anger’, and Plutarch (ad 46– 120) Peri Aorgêsias, ‘On Negation of Anger’, and following up with Aristotle’s view that anger was an excellent thing.

Seneca gives a fine picture of the angry man: devoid of self-control, forgetful of decency, unmindful of loyalties, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trivialities, incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, he wears a bold and threatening look and a fierce expression; his eyes blaze and sparkle, his whole face is crimson with blood, his lips quiver, his teeth are clenched, his joints crack with writhing (when, in the delightful Keane’s case, he is not cracking other people’s), he groans and bellows, and so on. After which Seneca launches into a lengthy moral diatribe against anger in any of its forms.

Plutarch, meanwhile, couches his treatise in the shape of an account by the notoriously irascible Roman Fundanus of how he finally beat the bug.

It was a long exercise in behaviour therapy: first, observing how unhinged people looked when they became angry and seeing how ineffective anger was as a means of achieving anything; and second, identifying the causes of it, usually in the belief that one is being slighted or ignored. As a result of this analysis, Fundanus adopts patterns of belief and behaviour which help him to avoid situations in which anger can bubble up.

At which point, enter Aristotle (384–322 bc). He will have none of this. For him anger was just another natural human ‘passion’ of which one can have too much or too little. The irascible man will fly off the handle at nothing or, even worse, suppress his anger and keep it warm over years, ruining his life in the process; the ‘angerless’ man, however, will not get angry at, for instance, injustice or wrongs done to his friends, and be equally miserable. One must learn to be angry for the right reasons, against the right people, in the right way, at the right time.

The first word of Western literature (Homer’s Iliad) is ‘anger’. Tragedy and satire (‘indignatio makes my poetry’, says Juvenal) depend on it; so do the minor prophets and that arch-exponent, the God of the Old Testament. Aristotle, as usual, was right.

31st August
As the USA considers its impending assault on Iraq, von Rumsfeld would do well to ponder Thucydides’ Melian debate. Athens was at war with Sparta, and in 416 bc decided to attack the island of Melos, which was populated by colonists from Sparta but, unlike the other islanders, had remained strictly neutral in the war, helping neither side. Before Athens did so, however, it sent a deputation, and the contemporary historian Thucydides records the ensuing debate:

Melians: Such is your state of mind, it is clear that the result of the discussions will be either war or our own enslavement by you.

Athenians: There will be no point in continuing with these talks if you are simply going to speculate about the future and not face up to the real issue, i.e. how you can save your city from destruction.

Melians: We get the point.

Athenians: We are not going to say we have any right to control this part of the world; nor will it do you any good to say that you have remained neutral. The point, as you well know, is that when these matters are discussed by practical people, right is in question only between those who are equal in power, and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept whatever they have to accept.

Melians: But there is a principle at stake of common interest to all, that of fair play and just dealing. This affects you as much as anyone, since your fall would be accompanied by the most terrible vengeance, an example to the world.

Athenians: It is a risk we are prepared to take. Now: for or against?

Melians: We could not, we suppose, remain neutral.

Athenians: Certainly not. That would be a sign of weakness in us.

Melians: But will that not make enemies of all the states that are presently neutral, who will immediately assume that you will attack them too? Thus you will strengthen the enemies you have already and force others, against their inclinations, to turn against you.

Athenians: We are not worried about them. Gods, we believe, and men, we know, by a necessary law of nature rule wherever they can. We did not make this law. It existed before us, and will exist when we are gone. We merely act in accordance with it, knowing that anyone else in our position would do exactly the same. Think about it.

It may not give von Rumsfeld any sleepless nights, but friends of America could toss and turn a bit.