Friday, December 23, 2011

17th -24th December 2011

Since tyrants have had such a high profile this year, child-slayer King Herod, an important player in Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, though absent from Luke’s, is sure to bulk larger than usual in Christmas homilies.
Pompey had annexed this volatile part of the world in 64 bc, and part of the settlement involved allying with local kings. Herod’s father Antipater had been a client of Pompey and ally of Julius Caesar. Appointed procurator of Judaea, Antipater made Herod governor of Galilee, but was poisoned in 43 bc. Antony (Caesar’s successor) saw Herod as a safe pair of hands and in 40 bc, against much local opposition, made him king of Judaea and Samaria; it was only in 37 bc that Herod eventually fought his way into Jerusalem, with the help of Antony’s legions. In 31 bc Antony was defeated by Octavian (Augustus, the first Roman emperor), but Herod was kept in power and remained loyal to Rome till his death in 4 bc. He was known for his ruthlessness, maintaining a secret police and doing away with both his wife and assorted sons when he felt threatened by them. So he was certainly the sort of man who could have ordered a slaughter of innocents, though the pro-Roman Jewish historian Josephus, who had little time for him, never mentions such an act.
Ancient Greeks, who endlessly discussed the best sort of constitution, found the single ruler acceptable on condition that his powers were limited. Aristotle, for example, distinguished monarchy from tyranny on four main criteria: whether the ruler (a) was subject to the law, (b) held office for ever, or merely for a set term, (c) was elected or not, and (d) ruled willing subjects. Herod would have failed the monarch test. So would most modern counterparts.
Romans were highly sensitive on the subject. From its traditional founding date of 753 bc Rome was ruled by kings, and many of these were admired by later historians like Livy. But the last king Tarquinius Superbus (‘the arrogant’) ruled like a tyrant; Livy tells us ‘he was the first king to break the established tradition of consulting the Senate on all matters of public business, and to govern by the mere authority of himself and his household’. When in 509 bc his son, Sextus Tarquinius, raped the noblewoman Lucretia, who subsequently committed suicide, the kings were thrown out and the republic emerged. Hating the idea of ‘king’, the Romans ensured that the top post in the new state — consul — would be filled by two people at a time, and the tradition of running all policy decisions past a Senate of 300 former post-holders held firm.
Moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque’ proclaimed the epic poet Ennius, ‘The Roman state stands firm on its ancestral traditions and its men’ (no coincidence that vir and virtus are connected); and so it did for 400 years. But in the first century bc it fell apart: big beasts like Sulla, Caesar and Pompey imposed their will by military might and brought the republic down in a welter of blood. In 49 bc civil war broke out between Caesar and Pompey. It was a development that appalled the great statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 bc). A peace-loving traditionalist, he had sided with Pompey, though half-heartedly: ‘I know whom to flee but not whom to follow’ was his doleful epigram on the matter.
It was now that Cicero began to think seriously about the meaning of tyranny. In a letter he reflected on what a man should do under a tyrant: stay put? Attempt to overthrow him internally, even if that risked the country itself? Make war on the country from outside? Of the contestants, as he said in other letters, ‘both men have always put personal power and private advantage before the safety and honour of their country’ and ‘I realise we shall never have a free state in the lifetime of those two, or either one singly’. When Caesar — ‘more Hannibal than Roman general’ — emerged victorious, Cicero lamented, ‘All power has been handed on a plate to one man, who takes no advice except his own from anyone, even his friends. But it would not have been much different had our man won.’
These get to the heart of the issue for Cicero who, marginalised politically, turned to writing. In very short order he poured out a stream of influential treatises on the art of government. On tyrants, Cicero made a specifically linguistic point:
‘A state which is ruled by a tyrant really does not deserve to be described as a state at all. For the word that defines a state is res publica, “the property of the people”, and obviously a country under a tyrannical regime is not the property of the people at all. On the contrary, it presents a situation in which the entire people is subjugated by the brutal authority of one single man, and there is no shared bond created by the law, so that those who live together in the community — that is to say, among its people — are united by no true partnership whatsoever... When, therefore, a country is ruled by a tyrant, we ought not to pro¬nounce that it is a bad kind of state, since logic requires us to conclude that it is no sort of state at all.’
This is all of a piece with Cicero’s view that ‘it is impossible to live well except in a good (properly ordered) community... he who directs a state aims at a happy life for its citizens, fortified by resources, rich in material wealth, glorious in reputation and respected for its integrity.’
Cicero’s noble cry of freedom (libertas), however, has a slightly conditional ring to it. It raises the question ‘freedom for whom, and to do what?’ The view that consistently emerges from these treatises is that ‘the best state will be one that comes under the rule of a number of good men and not just the one’. In other words, it will largely replicate the Rome republican system, oligarchic Senate and all. That in fact is what libertas meant to Cicero — the freedom to take his rightful place among the great and good and be given the chance to have a fair say in the running of the state. Under a tyrant like Caesar, that was impossible. One wonders, had he been in the inner ring, whether he would have discovered in Caesar the good tyrant who ‘considers the whole country as his estate and all the citizens as his comrades’ (Xenophon, Greek essayist). Perhaps what irked Cicero more than anything was Caesar’s enormous popular appeal.
Does a tyrant have to be tyrannical? It is a question as relevant today as it was then.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

10th December 2011

Since austerity is now the order of the day, Greeks are doing the sensible thing and beginning to barter. Aristotle thought it was the only system that kept the world honest.

At the centre of Aristotle’s thinking lay a concept dear to him — the purpose for which something was designed (its telos). So, the purpose of a shoe was to wear it. That was its ‘use-value’. Bartering it for something else did not change that: the shoe was still a shoe, with a specific use. If you did not wear it, someone else would. In return for the shoe, you would be receiving a commensurate item — a cloak, a pot, a mattock — which you would also put to the use for which it was made. Aristotle agreed there was a problem about the commensurability of any barter — how would you equalise the use-value of a shoe/bed/house? — but that did not affect the principle.

Now bring money into the equation. Aristotle’s point here was that it added a further dimension to the idea of use. Take medicine. Doctors used it to provide health. But if the doctor also used it to make money, health, a good per se, was no longer the sole aim: it was also a means to a further end — making a profit. So what were the priorities?

Further, the fact that anything from health to education could be turned into money suggested that the stock of wealth was infinite; believe that, and making money became life’s goal. But how ‘good’ was the activity of generating profit by compromising the use of something good in itself?

Aristotle knew about furthering trade by credit and loans. But his was an ethical, not economic, analysis. Barter keeps one honest because it puts equality, not profit, at the heart of all exchange. It does not judge the worth of any activity by its profit/loss potential, nor make financial accumulation the sole arbiter of life’s value.

But money in Aristotle’s time did at least derive directly from use-value. He would be aghast at today’s myriad instruments for producing fantasy money on the back of other fantasy money, and not a bit surprised by the consequences.

3rd December 2011

Newcastle University library, happily removing academic journals from the shelves to the (apparent) cheers of the academics (Letters, 12 November), is well behind the pace. Michael Wilding, an Australian correspondent, writes that Sydney University’s Fisher Library is planning to chuck out 500,000 books and journals to make room for, of course, more computers.

The first libraries we hear of are found in the Near East and, like Ashurbanipal’s (c. 650 bc), were mainly for internal reference purposes. That contained about 1,500 titles, with warnings against theft, maltreatment and late return. Libraries of the sort we would recognise began with the ancient Greeks. The finest of all was founded in Egyptian Alexandria in the 3rd century bc by the Greek king Ptolemy. His purpose was to outdo Athens as the intellectual centre of the Mediterranean, and his money ensured he did. Acquiring or copying texts went on at a phenomenal rate. Eventually it held nearly 500,000 rolls. Others got the idea, and rival scholarly libraries sprang up in Antioch and Pergamum, poaching top directors. They were a matter of national pride.

But they were not public libraries. These came with the Romans, martial conquerors of Greece but Greece’s cultural captives. Julius Caesar planned Rome’s first (39 bc). Emperors endowed them in large numbers, and by ad 350 there were 29 in Rome alone. You could not borrow the rolls, except by bribing the librarian, but you could make copies. Nowadays librarians rejoice that you can gawp, one page at a time, at a screen.

Mr Wilding likens modern librarians’ purges in favour of computerised literature to the Gutenberg revolution, when anything that was judged unworthy of becoming a printed book was lost forever, or to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, where books are rewritten to match state requirements — so easy on a computer. To that extent one must applaud another Australian university’s decision to bury books in landfill sites. When an electronic storm wipes out every computer and its contents, it will become the new Oxyrhynchus.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

5th November 2011

The title of Boris’s forthcoming book on the people of London claims that it is ‘the city that made the world’. Whoa back, steady on, now. Surely Boris means Rome, centre of a vast ancient empire, not to mention the worldwide Catholic Church?

When the poet Martial described the opening of the Colosseum in ad 80, he observed the vast throng gathered in it and wondered if there was any race so remote, so barbarous that it was not represented — Thracians, Sarmatians (from the Danube), Britons, Arabs, Sygambrians (a German people), Ethiopians, ‘their voices a babel, yet one, when they call you, emperor, true father of the fatherland’. The emperor indeed had the whole wide world in his hands, and the peoples of the world knew it. So did the animals from all over the empire on display for their pleasure — bears, rhinos, lions, tigers, elephants.

The city used the world’s materials — Aswan granite, Numidian and Phrygian marble — and the poor enjoyed its produce: bread baked with wheat from North Africa, fish from Gibraltar, utensils of copper mined in Spain, wine from France. Wives of the rich, seated on Indian ebony or teak inlaid with African ivory, adorned themselves in silks from China, diamonds and pearls from India and cosmetics from southern Arabia.

It was not just Romans like Ovid who claimed that ‘the world and the city of Rome occupy the same space’. The Gallic poet Rutilius said that Rome offered the vanquished a share in their justice, thus ‘making a city out of what was once the world’. The Greek Aristides argued that all you had to do was to look at the city to understand how the world was ruled by it; indeed, you could visit the whole world simply by visiting Rome. Rome not merely made the world (cosmotrophos was sometimes applied to it, ‘nurturer of the cosmos’); it was the world.

A final, glorious conceit: roads out of Rome marked only the distance from the city, not to anywhere. All that counted was how near or far you were from it. Not even Boris would dare to do that for London. Would he?

12th November 2011

It seems most odd to become so agitated about the (very few) filthy rich when the (large numbers) of very poor should be the centre of the welfare state’s concerns. But if one wants to fleece the rich, a quid pro quo always helps, as the ancient Greeks knew.

Every year in Athens, the richest 300 citizens could be instructed to carry out a leitourgia, lit. ‘work for the people’, i.e. a personal obligation in service of the state (origin of our ‘liturgy’). The wealth in property that qualified a man for such a duty was 3-4 talents (18-24,000 drachmas). This duty could involve anything from equipping a trireme for a year to underwriting dramatic productions. These did not come cheap. A working man’s wage was 1 dr. a day. One of the cheapest liturgies was staging a choral show at 300 dr.; putting on a stage production could cost 3,000 dr.; and running a trireme for a year 5,000 dr. and more.

The rich, however, are a hard-headed lot, and Athenians were no different. What if old X down the road had more money than Y, but Y was landed with the leitourgia? Y could choose to challenge X to an antidosis, an exchange of property. If X agreed, Y would carry it out; if not, X would carry it out (if, that is, he lost the court-case he would bring, disputing Y’s claim).

But there was a competing, even more powerful, emotion involved: desire for public acclaim, with all the kudos and political benefit that brought. Greek literature is full of examples of the rich citing the number of leitourgiai they had carried out, and at what expense, to demonstrate the fine service they had done for the community.

If the adult male citizen population was 60,000, the top 300 would account for one 1 in 200. Today’s taxpayers number 30 million. The top 300 would equal 1 in 100,000 — about right for the really stinking rich? And what endless hilarity the antidoseis (pl.) would provide! But, as an ancient orator said, ‘The greatest leitourgia that one can perform for the city is to live, day by day, a life of orderly self-restraint’. Or fund Classics for All...

19th November 2011

The French justified Greece’s entry into the EU by claiming that they ‘could not say no to the country of Plato’. You bet they couldn’t.

In the Republic, Plato outlined his utopia. This was not a practical construct, but a vision of an imaginary, ideal community whose purpose was to act as a model for how things might be. He did this by sketching a picture of the educational and moral underpinning that went into making a good human and extrapolating from that an institutional programme that would create the good state.

The consequence was twofold. First, Plato had to show up the deficiencies of existing constitutions, to demonstrate there was no future in them. Democracy in particular, the system under which Plato lived in Athens, came in for special contempt. The EU could not agree more.

Second, Plato assumed it was worth any price to impose his vision of the perfect state, because it represented the best that humans on earth could ever achieve. But the noble vision of ‘goodness’ at its heart was ultimately tyrannical, because it denied freedom. Moral purity was to be imposed by Plato’s indoctrinated Guardians.

The EU too had a noble political vision — Europe at peace — but put economic progress at its heart. The result was the imposition by indoctrinated EU Guardians of a regulatory/financial tyranny invented by economists and controlling all the main economic levers. Such a system, as many pointed out at the time, could not work, as we are now discovering to our multi-trillion euro cost. Thanks a lot.

Yet, locked in its own make-believe shadow-world, the EU still clings to its own hype and is currently trying to solve the economic catastrophe of its own making by putting in power in countries that it has destroyed the very people who created that catastrophe in the first place — EU economists! Plato would be laughing his himation off. His famous allegory of men locked into the shadow-world of an underground cave, dogmatically refusing to open their eyes to the real world above, could not have been more exquisitely realised.

Monday, October 31, 2011

15th October 2011

Last time Pericles showed how a real politician dealt with the severe austerity measures he had persuaded the Athenians to adopt if they were to win the battle against Sparta in 431 BC (i.e. abandon their lands and come to live inside Athens’ protective walls): he pointed out these measures meant that he and the rich would lose their vast properties and the income they generated. The Greek parliament, which obviously reads the Spectator, promptly slapped on a property tax. Politicians especially will be very keen to pay it to prove they are not the cushioned shysters Athenians take them to be.

But in summer 430 BC it got worse. Athens was hit by a terrifying plague which, in the crowded conditions, killed thousands and led to a breakdown in law and order. It was every man for himself, rich and poor alike. Pericles again rallied them in words relevant to Athens today, where law and order are equally in the balance. As Thucydides makes clear of a man ‘who was even prepared to anger the people’, he did not mince his words.

A man may be personally well off, Pericles says, but if his country is ruined, he is ruined too; so you must rally to the state’s defence, otherwise you will lose grip on our common security. Again, he is a man who, loving his country and being above corruption (as Athenians knew), would never speak up for sectional interests; for ‘if a leader is corrupt, this one fault puts all his other qualities up for sale.’

The fact is, he goes on, you have failed the test of endurance when the going gets rough. You run the risk of being doubly inferior to your forefathers, who both made Athens great and kept it so – all of which you are now throwing away; ‘those who encourage such a state of mind have no place here’.

Today’s Athenians are fighting (as they see it) their own corrupt governing class for its abject servitude to Brussels. If any modern Pericles is around to rally them, he will first have to prove his own incorruptibility and willingness to make sacrifices, before he can risk angering the people by telling them, as he must, that they too are part of the problem.

29th October 2011

The Great Debate about whether people of the same sex should be allowed to ‘marry’ would have bewildered the Romans, and not because they had any hang-ups about that style of sexual behaviour either.

For legal purposes, Romans defined the familia (‘household’) as Roman citizens, joined in lawful marriage, producing legitimate children and with some property to transmit by inheritance. But as the Latin matrimonium (our ‘matrimony’) makes clear, the main point about marriage is that it is all about the mater, ‘mother’. The family gives its daughter into matrimonium, the husband leads, receives and keeps his wife in matrimonio. The Latin for ‘wife’, uxor (cf. our ‘uxorious’), seems to be etymologically related to a Sanskrit word meaning ‘sprinkle with seed’.

‘[Marriage] was ordained for the procreation of children’, says the Anglican Prayer Book, and a Roman would have agreed: ‘the state cannot survive without numerous marriages’, says Aulus Gellius. The production of legitimate citizen children was the basic purpose. This was the only way to continue the family blood-line, its traditions, its worship, its privileges and (as Romans stress) its support for the old. Romans were well aware of these wider advantages. As the first century ad Stoic Musonius writes, there must be ‘perfect companionship and mutual love... both in health and sickness and under all conditions, since it was with desire for this as well as having children that both entered upon marriage’.

We live in a world where marriage is no longer seen as essential for the production of children. Legitimacy is not the serious matter it was in the ancient world. Citizenship, again, is a matter of residence almost as much as of blood-line. The main question, then, is how far we need any more the term ‘marry’ to define the sort of institution the Romans described. If we do, then by definition the production of children will be at the heart of it; and whatever else one may want to say about same-sex relationships, the production of children can hardly be said to be their purpose.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

1st October 2011

The Greek people face serious austerity. How can their corrupt politicians (ask any Greek) possibly win them round?

In 431 BC, the ‘Peloponnesian’ war broke out between the marine super-power Athens and the almost invincible land-based Sparta. Athens knew it could survive a siege (thanks to its encircling ‘Long Walls’ down to its harbour Peiraeus, built in 457 BC) but would not be able to prevent the Spartans ravaging its territory of Attica.

So Athens’ leader Pericles set about persuading the citizen assembly (which took all decisions) that the only course of action was for those in Attica to abandon their homes and farms and take up residence within the city walls. His argument was that they should think of themselves as islanders, ready to abandon homes and land, but keeping close guard on sea and city. ‘Property is the product, not the producer, of men. If I thought I could persuade you, I would tell you to destroy your property now and show the Spartans you will never surrender on that score.’

And to make the point, he promised that if his guest-friend the Spartan general Archidamus did not ravage his country property as well as everyone else’s, he would hand it over to the state. Pericles won the argument, and the country-dwellers, ‘distressed and resentful at having to leave their age-old homes and shrines, tantamount to exile’, relocated in the city. Talk about austerity!

Pericles, master of persuasion, always ‘knew what needed to be done’ (Thucydides) — in this case, sharing the burden. And what sacrifices will his ‘give us the money’ successors make, desperate to cling to the feather-bedded comfort of the eurozone? Not to mention the Eurocrats, determined that everyone else but they shall pay the price of their irresponsible fantasy?

ERRATA: In my piece about classics last week, the YouGov sample was taken from a cohort of 10,000 who had done something classical, out of a total of 80,000; and the figure for those who had benefited or greatly benefited from their classics, having studied it up to age 16 and no further, was 77 per cent. See for the full survey report.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

17th September 2011

Too big not to fail

Commentators bang on endlessly about the desirability of a ‘global world’, with every economy linked seamlessly to every other. But when it goes wrong, as it has done in the last three years, the painful consequences are equally global. Ask the Romans.

The Roman empire stretched from Britain to Iraq and from the Rhine-Danube to the northern edges of the Sahara desert. At its largest extent (c. ad 117) it probably comprised about 50 to 60 million people and covered 2.5 million square miles. When Rome took over a province, the local elites continued to run the show, as they had always done, but now under the ultimate jurisdiction of Rome’s governor and his remarkably small staff. The one fixed condition was that Rome got its taxes and could station its army there, when needed (in fact, only Britain required a constant legionary presence). Otherwise Rome applied no unitary control. It was up to the governor to lay down the ground-rules. Not even Rome’s legal system was imposed, let alone its coinage, or anything else.

But even under such a loosely centralised regime, the consequence, intended or not, of 700 years of Roman provincial government was a prosperous economic network stretching across the whole empire: flag-makers from Syria worked for the Roman army in South Shields; high-quality pottery from southern Gaul found its way to Africa, Spain, Italy, Britain, Germany and Denmark; and as ice-cap pollution levels show, metal-working (lead, copper and silver) was on a scale to be matched only from the 16th century onwards.

But in the fifth century the empire in the West collapsed. Germanic tribes, harried by Huns, poured into Europe, and Rome was unable to stop them. They established their own kingdoms, taxes stayed local and Rome, starved of money to pay its army, could no longer enforce its authority. The wider consequence was the complete breakdown of the empire-wide economic links that had brought such prosperity to the West. This dramatic economic collapse lasted some 200 years.

As we too are now finding, the bigger the structure, the more catastrophic and wide-ranging the disaster when it all caves in.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

As Greeks howl for other people’s money and the EU coughs up, both should reflect on Aristophanes’ comedy Wealth (Ploutos), which pinpointed the mind-sets 2,400 years ago.

Chremylus, a poor man, brings home a blind man, who turns out to be the god Wealth. Blinded by Zeus so that he cannot distinguish the good man from the bad, he bestows riches on the bad alone (a typical Greek take on life). Chremylus restores his sight at the shrine of Asclepius and returns home to find his cistern full of olive oil and his crockery turned to gold and silver. The rest of the play is taken up with the amusing consequences, e.g. a starving Hermes complains everyone is so rich they no longer offer the gods sacrifices, and is found a job in the kitchen. It culminates in the decision to instal Wealth in the state treasury on the Acropolis: every modern Greek’s fantasy.

Aristophanes, however, is not that simple-minded. In the course of the play, Poverty, a hideous old woman, makes an entrance. Mocked and reviled, she argues that poverty turns men into lean, implacable fighters, not fat, gouty ones like the rich; bestows wisdom, not a lust for power; and nurtures justice, not anti-democratic criminality. Many a poor Greek, eyeing hybristic Athenian toffs, would have agreed. Further, if everyone has millions, who will do the work to produce the goods that the wealthy require, let alone luxuries like ‘pillows, carpets and perfume’? Chremylus responds with a tirade about the miseries of poverty, but Poverty accuses him of describing beggary, a very different thing.

What Poverty is describing is the state of simple, honest self-sufficiency, the lot to which most ancient Greeks felt they could aspire. Chremylus agrees there is some truth in this but ends defiantly ‘You won’t persuade me, even if you persuade me’, and Poverty is driven out.

If Greeks could now aspire to such self-sufficiency, that would help. As it is, they scream for cash, and the fat, gouty, power-mad, anti-democratic EU supinely shells it out. Much more of this and it will not be long before they are both reduced to beggary – with millions of others.

3rd September 2011

If the Libyans really do want to move from forty-two years of tyranny to a western-style ‘democracy’, i.e. an elective oligarchy, they will need a friendly tyrant to help them make the transition. In his Politics, Aristotle offers some top tips on the subject.

Aristotle distinguished two sorts of turannos: one who, knowing that the people hated him, rendered them incapable of moving against him (Gaddafi), and the other who manoeuvred to make the people unwilling to move against him. The former protected his rule by three main strategies: (i) stamping out anyone with any independence of mind or spirit, (ii) ensuring no one had any trust or confidence in anyone else, and (iii) depriving his subjects of the chance of building up a power base. So he kept the people leaderless, obsequious, uneducated, disassociated, poor, working and under a constant watchful eye

The alternative tyrant, Aristotle went on, wished no less to maintain his power over those who did and did not want to be ruled by him – ‘his permanent, fundamental principle’ – but did so by different means: (i) he appeared more like a responsible manager of a household than a tyrant, (ii) he led a life of moderation, as a trustee of public resources, and (iii) he embraced men of drive and ability so that they did not feel they could do better under a different regime. By the same token, he took care that his subjects did not feel ill-used by him, because such people did not spare themselves. Here Aristotle quotes the fifth century BC philosopher Heraclitus: ‘Anger is a difficult enemy: he buys with his life’. Finally, (iv) he did all in his power to keep both rich and poor onside and reconciled to him and to each other. In this way, Aristotle concluded, the alternative tyrant ensured that he ruled over ‘better men, because they are not reduced to impotent submission’, and therefore had a chance of staying in power for longer.

Aristotle strongly disapproved of tyrants. But if one was necessary, he thought it an improvement that he should be ‘not wicked, but only half-wicked’.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

20th August 2011

Prime Minister Cameron wants to fix the ‘moral collapse’ that caused the recent riots. So do we all, but how?

In a dialogue by Plato, Protagoras told the following mûthos about how man developed respect for others (aidôs) and a sense of justice (dikê). When men were first created, Prometheus gave them the knowledge of skills, so that they could develop language, agriculture, houses and so on. But living in small groups, they were vulnerable to attack from wild animals. So they began to group themselves together into cities. But lacking any of the required social skills, they at once turned to crime and fighting each other. Zeus therefore sent Hermes to instil in every one of them aidôs and dikê. As a result, genuine communities could at last be built.

The point was that aidôs allowed humans to live successfully together because it was an impulse to respect mutually agreed social norms, while dikê, in the name of those norms, enforced that respect among those who decided to ignore them. Personal values and public sanctions, in other words, were integrally connected. But how were they then transferred down the generations? They were just picked up, says Protagoras, from the home, from school, from society as a whole. And here comes the crunch: to ask who taught you them, he said, was as pointless as asking who taught you your native tongue.

Protagoras was right. He thought lecturing people about values was almost a complete waste of time. Socrates too was baffled by the problem, arguing that there were many good people whose children turned out to be wastes of space. Even education made no difference to them: they simply ‘browsed about like sacred cattle, hoping to pick up values automatically’.

The idea that one can ‘fix’ such moral collapse with ‘measures’ is the sort of thing politicians have to say. But they know it is nonsense (especially as the rioters loved every minute of it). The best they can do is to make sure such riots never get going.

27th August 2011

There has been considerable comment on the severity of the punishments handed out to the looters in the recent riots. In Aristotle’s Problems, most of which, admittedly, is not by the great man, a stern justification is mounted.

The problem is posed as follows: ‘Why is it that, if someone steals from a public bath or gymnasium or market-place or anywhere like that, the penalty is death, but if from a private dwelling, it is twice the value of what was stolen?’

In the case of the private house, Aristotle offers three arguments: first, it has walls and locks, and it is possible to set a guard; second, it rests with the owner whom to admit and whom to exclude. But in a public place, there are no such physical safeguards, nor does one have any choice about who is allowed into a bath or gym or not. Aristotle then adds a third: those who steal from public places will care nothing about their public reputation, and therefore be unreformable, while those who steal from private homes may be known to the owner and want to retain their reputation by returning the goods.

In the case of theft from public places, Aristotle again proposes a range of answers. First, and most important, not only does the victim suffer private loss, but the city is discredited, ‘in exactly the same way as responsible public behaviour brings it the greatest honour’ — and here he draws a parallel with the heavy penalties imposed on those who insult legal and other public authorities, but none on those insulting an individual.

He also adds that if one loses property in private, one can bear the misfortune in private; but if in public, there is the prospect of the humiliation the victim will have to bear in addition to the loss. The example Aristotle cites is that of a man whose clothes are stolen at the public baths: ‘it is embarrassing enough to have to walk home in the nude anyway, quite apart from being laughed at, which is worse than any loss’.

This, of course, was a time when self-help and a man’s public reputation, whatever his circumstances, were the order of the day…

Sunday, August 14, 2011

30th July 2011

The EU, cobbled together in Brussels for ideological purposes, is fast turning into a creaking alliance of rather disenchanted member states. Let us see if we can help little Herman Achille Van Rompuy, the EU’s current president, to rally his besieged troops in Brussels with a Periclean speech.

In summer 430 BC Athens [Brussels] was having trouble with Sparta [its interest rate policy] and had just been struck by a murderous plague [collapse of the banks]. Since it was Pericles [van Rompuy] who had insisted on this policy, which would enable it to keep a grip on its empire [the EU member states], Pericles came forward to remind the Athenians [EUcrats in Brussels] that they must not falter. The following is extracted from Thucydides’ account of that speech.

Pericles makes three basic points. First, he is cleverer than all of them. That is why they agreed to his plan in the first place, about which some are now having doubts; and he could not be expected to have foreseen the plague [banking collapse]. So, no U-turns.

Second, they must not listen to the nay-sayers. Their city [Athens-Brussels] has the greatest name among men for its refusal to yield to adversity. It will be remembered for all time that it held the greatest power over any empire. Hatred and resentment have always been the lot of the brilliant: if that must be incurred, incur it in the name of the greatest aims which will bring Athens [Brussels] present glory and future fame to endure in men’s hearts for ever.

Finally, ‘you cannot shirk the burden without abandoning the pursuit of glory. If you lose your empire, there is danger from the hatred towards you that it engendered. So you no longer have the option to abdicate from it. The fact is that the empire you now possess is like a tyranny. It may have been wrong to acquire it, but it is certainly dangerous to let it go.’

And then, van Rompuy will go on, Thucydides commented that, on the death of Pericles, policy was changed, with (as he had foreseen) disastrous consequences. There! EU know it makes sense.

6th August 2011

The closure of El Bulli, the world’s most highly rated restaurant, has been greeted with cries of anguish from the world’s foodies. Lament no more! Romans were in the joke food business long before El Bullshit.

Around ad 65, as Nero was going more and more crackers, the great Roman satirist Petronius produced his Satyrica (a title encompassing both lechery and satire). What survives of it contains an account of a feast put on by one Trimalchio, an ex-slave made very, very good in property and now a multi-millionaire. The absurd Trimalchio naturally regards himself as the coolest man in town, and is especially proud of his cook. For dessert, the cook serves up pastry thrushes stuffed with raisins and nuts, quinces with thorns implanted in them to look like sea-urchins and then a fat goose surrounded by a fish and every type of bird, but in fact made of pork. Trimalchio comments: ‘There can’t be a more valuable man anywhere. If you ask him, he’ll make fish out of tripe, a pigeon out of bacon, a turtle out of ham, a chicken out of a pork-knuckle.’

Similarly, Livy tells of a host who served game out of season and explained that ‘by clever seasoning these various forms of wild game were in fact made out of swine’. The poet Martial mocks one Caecilius who produces a complete meal out of pumpkins, turning them into cakes, lentils, beans, mushrooms, sausages, tuna fish, sprats and sweetmeats. Horace describes a feast in which the host lectured his guests on every course and why it bore no resemblance to anything anyone would expect (guests fled before another disquisition on the quality of the charred blackbirds and rumpless pigeons). The boy emperor Elagabalus was famous for his different coloured meals — all blue, green, or glass-coloured. Sometimes paintings of food were served up; sometimes different courses in different houses miles apart. He enjoyed camel’s heels and cocks’ combs. Peas were served with gold pieces, lentils with onyx and rice with pearls.

It all makes El Bulli look desperately dull. Perhaps it will give the cook some much-needed new ideas.

Friday, July 22, 2011

23rd July 2011

The value of honour

The Murdoch family keep on saying ‘sorry’, but the popular feeling is that they should be saying they feel ashamed. That, however, suggests they have a sense of shame in the first place.

For Homer’s heroes, shame (aidôs) and its counterpart honour (timê) were the two most powerful forces that controlled their behaviour on and off the battlefield. Aidôs was an emotion, derived from heroes’ image of themselves, that was acutely responsive to the way other people thought about them. The major difference with our world is that Homeric aidôs was prospective. It was not what you felt after you had failed; it is what you summoned up to ensure you did not fail. ‘Put aidôs in your hearts’, Homeric heroes urged on their men, as they went into battle. ‘I shall not retreat like a coward’, said Trojan Hector to his wife Andromache. ‘I would feel aidôs before the Trojan men and long-gowned women if I did.’

The root of the word timê was financial — your positive value to the world you lived in. This lay in serving your society (and so yourself) by winning on the battlefield. It was desire for timê, accrued over a lifetime, that gave the heroes the chance of winning the greatest prize of all — kleos, the reputation that lived on after their death.

People’s reaction to Murdoch’s sleazy empire is equally Homeric. The word is nemesis — the anger a man feels at someone’s failure to feel due aidôs at what is understood to be shameful behaviour. This gets to the heart of the outrage felt at Murdoch and his journalists. For them, timê lay in getting the big headline story, irrespective of the consequences for anyone’s feelings. There was no glimmer of aidôs holding them back — why should there be, when the timê they desired was getting the scoop in the first place? Was that not their job?

That is the world of Murdoch and the rest of them — a world without aidôs except in its own self-serving, journalistic terms.

As for the police, whose timê is surely defined by their commitment to the lawful conduct of society, words almost fail.

Friday, July 15, 2011

16th July 2011

Belonging to the emperor

Since the emperor is going through a bad patch at the moment, his News International slaves had better watch out. One bloodbath may not be enough for the old monster. They can expect to have to bend even more obsequiously to his commands over the coming months if their positions are to remain secure.

Imperial life was a nightmare for Romans. They needed all the self-defence mechanisms they could muster against its insecurities. The emperor Caligula, Seneca tells us, imprisoned the son of Pastor, a distinguished Roman, because of his foppish hairstyle. Pastor begged for his life, so Caligula immediately had the son executed, but invited Pastor to dinner the same day. Pastor turned up, old and gout-ridden as he was, and ate and drank as if nothing had happened, without signs of grief or remorse. ‘Why, you ask?’ Seneca goes on, and answers: habebat alterum — he had another son.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (once a slave) pointed out the humiliations involved: ‘If you wish to be consul, you must stay up all night, run back and forth, kiss hands, say and do many slavish things, send many people gifts and, to some, presents every day.’ Even so, he goes on, ‘the emperor might die; or what if he became your enemy?’ But Epictetus understood the lure of it all: ‘No one loves the emperor, but we do love riches, a tribunate, a praetorship, a consulship. When we love and hate and fear these things, those who dispense them must necessarily be our masters.’

An old courtier explained as follows how he had survived so long for one in his position: ‘By accepting insults and expressing gratitude for them’. So whatever his courtiers’ feelings about his recent behaviour, Murdoch can look forward to even more servile adulation from them than normal: they know which side their bread is buttered, and they want to keep it that way. Their careers are at risk. But for the actual staff of News International, of course, no sweat: the emperor will now shine his Sun on them on Sundays too. Which is precisely the problem gnawing away at those poor old MPs.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

9th July 2011

What to do about the old? In the ancient world, the welfare state did not exist, and few people lived to be old in the first place (perhaps only 5% could expect to make 60). They still had strong views on the matter.

One of the most touching passages in Homer’s Iliad is spoken by Phoenix, the man who raised Achilles. Childless himself, he describes how he ‘always had to take you on my knees and feed you, cutting up your meat for you and holding the wine to your lips. You would often soak the front of my tunic, dribbling wine all down it - just like a baby! I went through a great deal for you and worked myself to the bone, aware that the gods were not going to send me a son of my own. So I tried to make you my son, godlike Achilles, so that you would save me some day from a miserable end.’ That was a duty of children. If an Athenian wanted to hold public office, he had to declare ‘whether he had family tombs and where they were, and whether he treated parents properly’.

Romans had always seen the family as the foundation of the stable society. The key to it was pietas, the respect for man and god that created and nourished the bonds that held the family together. Pius Aeneas, mythical ‘father’ of the Roman people, was the great exemplum, carrying his aged father on his shoulders out of burning Troy.

But there was another side to the question. In his dialogue on old age, Cicero argued that physical and mental decline could be kept at bay by frugal eating, moderate exercise and intellectual pursuits (very keen on memory exercises). Pliny the Younger admired the regimen of the 77-year old senator Spurinna: up an hour after dawn, three mile walk conversing with friends or hearing a book read, rest, carriage ride with wife and friends, another mile on foot, back to his room to write poetry in Latin and Greek, naked open-air exercise with a ball, bath, rest, and simple dinner accompanied by a play or a reading.

Old age is no respecter of persons. But while families have a responsibility—certainly to keep care homes up to scratch—so do oldies: while one can, preparing oneself to be old.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

25th June 2011

The pride of Greece

A burning desire to come out on top is bred into the bone of every modern, as it was of every ancient, Greek. Now that the EU is publicly humiliating the country, no wonder there is revolution on the streets.

When Achilles went to Troy, his father ordered him ‘always to be best and superior to everyone else’. In another war, another Greek hero Amphiaraus ‘had no desire to be reputed the best: he wanted to be the best’. Victory at the Olympic Games, in the opinion of the poet Pindar, brought a man as close as it was possible to being a god on earth. But if Greeks cared very much indeed about winning, they cared even more about losing. But at least there was one compensation: if they failed, revenge was always at hand, and that was almost as sweet.

Romans felt exactly the same way. Lucius Caecilus Metellus founded one of the great noble houses of Rome and died in 221 bc. His son Quintus said of him at his funeral: ‘My father achieved the ten greatest and best things, which wise men spend their whole lives seeking. He wished to be the first of warriors, the best of orators, and the most valiant of commanders; to be in charge of the greatest affairs and held in the greatest honour; to possess supreme wisdom and be regarded as supreme in the Senate; to come to great wealth by honourable means; to leave many children; and to be the most distinguished person in the state. Since Rome was founded, none but he has achieved all this.’ Such intense desire for personal glory had its merits; but, like the Greeks, Romans too harboured a determination to get even if they felt themselves demeaned.

Brussels, happy to suspend the economic laws of gravity in its pan-European power grab, allowed the Greeks into the EU on an economic assessment that both knew perfectly well was a lie. Now the eurozone is paying the price. Come on, you Greeks: do you really want Brussels to win? Time for heroic self-sacrifice — or revenge. Destroy the eurozone, now. Brussels’ fantasy world has to collapse as some stage. You can earn some credit for it.

2nd July 2011

The Olympic flame relay did not begin in Ancient Greece

The Olympic Committee has begun its quest to find ‘inspirational men and women’ to carry by hand the sacred Olympic torch from its ancestral home in Greece to its final destination in London. One can sense Zeus stirring from his eternal slumbers on cloud-capped Mount Olympus in anticipation of this age-old ritual, well satisfied that the greatest Panhellenic event of the ancient world, once held in his honour at his sanctuary in Olympia 140 miles away, is still signalled by the flame’s traditional progress in the hands of relays of runners from country to country. Some things, we may smugly reflect, never die.

But a moment’s further reflection may suggest there is something rather fishy about this circumambulatory torch. These days, it carries the flame from Olympia to the city where the Games are going to be held. Question: where were the Games held in ancient Greece? Answer: every four years, from 776 bc till ad 393, in the same place—Olympia. So it was lit in Olympia and then carried to Olympia, was it? πολλὰ τὰ δεινά [Polla ta deina], said Sophocles, ‘There are many astonishing things’, but this was not one of them.

Nor, incidentally, was there anything unique about the flame, as if it might have needed transporting anywhere in the first place. Every sanctuary in the whole Greek world had fires burning in it, for the simple reason that fire was divine, stolen from Zeus and given to mere mortals by Prometheus (who was severely punished for his pains). Where else should it burn but a sanctuary? So Zeus might well be boiling with rage that his rituals were being mucked about with.

Time, therefore, to wipe the steam from the mirror of yet another Olympic delusion with a few facts, the first of which is that the only ghosts to be stirring will be those of Hitler, Goebbels and their tame Nazi sports-administrator Carl Diem. Further, they will be stirring with self-satisfaction, since the international cross-country torch relay was their idea.

Berlin had been told that it would be granted the Olympic Games for 1916, but the Great War ended all that. Germany was banned from participating in the 1920 and 1924 Games, but its two skilful and committed administrators, Carl Diem and Theodor Lewald, restored German entry to the Amsterdam Games (1928), and after Los Angeles (1932) won the 1936 Games for Berlin. They might have been scrapped when Hitler came to power in 1933, since he suspected that international sport was a conspiracy cooked up by Jews and Freemasons. But he had his mind changed by Goebbels, who saw them as a golden opportunity to showcase what an advanced nation Germany had become, how vastly superior the Aryan race was and how worthy an inheritor of ancient Greek ideals and values. (The Olympic Games? Political? Don’t be ridiculous.)

It was in this context that in 1934 Diem dreamed up his idea of inaugurating the Games in Berlin with a flame, carried across Europe by a relay of racially acceptable runners, in a torch lit in Olympia. So on 20 July 1936, the ‘sacred’ Olympic flame was duly created from steel reflectors (by Zeiss) — the same technique is still used today — in a ceremony featuring virginal priestesses in short skirts, a high priestess, and a choir singing a Pindaric ode, and duly transmitted to a magnesium-fuelled torch (by Krupp) held by a Greek athlete. Thence it was relayed over the 1,400 miles to Berlin, mainly via countries that would within a few years find themselves under the peace-loving Nazi jackboot. On 1 August, in an arena hung with huge banners sporting the swastika, Hitler assured the crowds that sport helped create peace between nations and expressed the wish that the Olympic flame should never die. The 3,075th runner lit the ‘eternal’ flame, and Hitler was presented with an olive branch from Olympia.

Where on earth did Diem get this idea from? Its origins may lie in a blend of two ancient Greek customs. First, cities held local torch relay-races of a religious nature, where the winner placed his torch on the altar of whichever god(dess) was being celebrated; second, in the spring of each Olympic year, three ‘sacred heralds’ were sent from Olympia to travel the Greek world, asking city-states to ensure safe passage for travellers to the Games. But whatever the explanation, the idea proved an instant winner with the IOC and has been repeated ever since.

So should it be banned? Of course not. Ritual, however bogus, is by definition the life-blood of Solemn Rites like the Olympic Games, signifying the mystical union of nations. Further, the argument that the torch-relay is not ancient is completely irrelevant. The original Games were a cult festival in honour of the gods and devoted to sacrifices, offerings and prayers; were staged only in Olympia; lasted five days, with virtually no change in the 13 events on display from 520 bc onwards (and certainly not including the Marathon, another modern invention as an Olympic event); had no concept of ‘records’; gave prizes (an olive-wreath) only to the winners; featured males, not females, naked, not clothed; and were contested not by teams from different Greek states, but by professional, locally financed individuals who had to present themselves in Olympia a month in advance. They were given a strict training regime by the judges, and competed in trial contests. The result was that some athletes won the prize akoniti, ‘without dust’, i.e. without a contest: their rivals, seeing the competition and keen not to be humiliated, simply withdrew. You got nothing for a pathetic second or third in those days.

In other words, except for the professionalism, the cheating and a few of the events (sprint, the ‘mile’, javelin, discus, boxing, wrestling, long-jump, pentathlon), nothing survives of the ancient Olympics whatsoever. So what? We don’t live in ancient Greece. And what’s the odd Nazi-inspired fantasy between the IOC and its mission of peace, harmony and goodwill between all peoples?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

25th June 2011

A burning desire to come out on top is bred into the bone of every modern, as it was of every ancient, Greek. Now that the EU is publicly humiliating the country, no wonder there is revolution on the streets.

When Achilles went to Troy, his father ordered him ‘always to be best and superior to everyone else’. In another war, another Greek hero Amphiaraus ‘had no desire to be reputed the best: he wanted to be the best’. Victory at the Olympic Games, in the opinion of the poet Pindar, brought a man as close as it was possible to being a god on earth. But if Greeks cared very much indeed about winning, they cared even more about losing. But at least there was one compensation: if they failed, revenge was always at hand, and that was almost as sweet.

Romans felt exactly the same way. Lucius Caecilus Metellus founded one of the great noble houses of Rome and died in 221 bc. His son Quintus said of him at his funeral: ‘My father achieved the ten greatest and best things, which wise men spend their whole lives seeking. He wished to be the first of warriors, the best of orators, and the most valiant of commanders; to be in charge of the greatest affairs and held in the greatest honour; to possess supreme wisdom and be regarded as supreme in the Senate; to come to great wealth by honourable means; to leave many children; and to be the most distinguished person in the state. Since Rome was founded, none but he has achieved all this.’ Such intense desire for personal glory had its merits; but, like the Greeks, Romans too harboured a determination to get even if they felt themselves demeaned.

Brussels, happy to suspend the economic laws of gravity in its pan-European power grab, allowed the Greeks into the EU on an economic assessment that both knew perfectly well was a lie. Now the eurozone is paying the price. Come on, you Greeks: do you really want Brussels to win? Time for heroic self-sacrifice — or revenge. Destroy the eurozone, now. Brussels’ fantasy world has to collapse as some stage. You can earn some credit for it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

June 18th 2011

The footballers Rooney and Giggsy are doing a Donald Trump and spending thousands of pounds on their bald patches. Poor darlings! But they are not alone. The topic was of such interest in Rome that the emperor Domitian even wrote a treatise on it. So too did Cleopatra.

The doctor Galen (c. AD 129-216) quotes from Cleopatra’ book on ‘Adornment’ as follows: ‘For bald patches, powder red sulphuret of arsenic and take it up with oak gum, as much as it will bear. Put on a rag and apply, having soaped the place well first. I have mixed the above with a foam of nitre, and it worked well.’ But you can do better than that, she goes on. ‘The following is the best of all, acting for fallen hairs, when applied with oil or pomatum; acts also for falling off of eyelashes or for people getting bald all over. It is wonderful. Of domestic mice burnt, one part; of vine rag burnt, one part; of horse’s teeth burnt, one part; of bear’s grease one; of deer’s marrow one; of reed bark one. To be pounded when dry, and mixed with plenty of honey till it gets the consistency of honey; then the bear’s grease and marrow to be mixed, the medicine to be put in a brass flask, and the bald part rubbed till it sprouts.’ Alas, it did not work for Julius Caesar, a notorious dandy who was very worried by his baldness, or perhaps he ignored his mistress’s advice. The problem was solved when the Senate allowed him to cover up by wearing a laurel wreath at all times.

The satirist Martial (AD 40-104) had great fun with barbers, of which Rome boasted a hatful. One he mocked for taking so long that a second beard grew before he had cut the first. As for the balding man artfully piling up curls on the top of his head, he pointed out, the wind soon blew them back, leaving the dome bald as ever, but now fringed with ringlets. What, he concluded, could be more repellent than a bald man covered in hair?

Trump that!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

28th May 2011

Legal distinctions

Abysmally incompetent as Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke was in attempting to describe some new thinking about the law of rape, it did not merit the outrage of those who argued that rape is rape is rape and that is the end of the question. But the law is all about distinctions.
Murder is murder is murder too, but it still has to be defined accurately and culpability assessed before justice can be done.

In 287 BC, the lêx Aquilia dealing with unlawful damage was passed in a Roman assembly. It was named after its proposer, the tribune Aquilius.
Its opening chapter referred to the unlawful killing of a ‘four-footed beast of the class of cattle’. What taxed the Roman jurist Gaius was the question: since ‘cattle’ covered cows and bulls but also other farm and domestic animals, which came under the rubric? Were sheep, goats, horses, mules and asses ‘classes of cattle’? Yes, he thought. What about pigs? Some jurists, he agreed, had wondered about pigs, but yes, he reckoned, they were too. What about dogs? No, he concluded — and even less so bears, lions and panthers. How about elephants and camels?
Tricky, that, he mused: wild they may be, but they are used as draught animals. Therefore, on balance, yes.

Having first, then, identified what was in that class, one could go on to questions of culpability and its relation to justification for and intentions involved in any action. Roman jurist were fascinated by this. What if someone carrying an excessive load, or who could not control a cart or horse through weakness or experience, killed another? Or someone who operated negligently on a slave? Yes, they would count under the lêx Aquilia. What if you annoyed a dog and it bit somebody? No, unless the person had a dog on a lead and caused it to bite someone. What if a lunatic caused damage? No. Or an infant? No, unless over seven, and able to distinguish right from wrong. And so on.

Clarke, an ex-barrister, was very properly trying to make distinctions. But if that was typical of his usual performances, no wonder he gave it up to go into something else.

4th June 2011

Helen Wood described in last week’s Spectator how she ‘escorted’ a wealthy footballer, Wayne Rooney. He applied for, and got, a super-injunction. So did she, and was refused. What is going on here? The Athenian orator and statesman Demosthenes (384-322 bc) knew.

Helen Wood described in last week’s Spectator how she ‘escorted’ a wealthy footballer, Wayne Rooney. He applied for, and got, a super-injunction. So did she, and was refused. What is going on here? The Athenian orator and statesman Demosthenes (384-322 bc) knew.

In 348 BC Demosthenes brought a case against a personal enemy, one Meidias, for punching him while on duty at a religious festival. Demosthenes did not argue on the grounds that this violated a ritual or even just himself. He saw a much larger issue at stake.

Meidias, he argued, confident in his contacts, wealth and reputation, had committed a crime that struck at the very heart of the safety, security and well-being of each and every citizen, whoever they were, rich or poor, great or small, footballers (had they had them then) or escorts; and if that sort of behaviour were ever to be passed over as unimportant, no one, whatever their status, would be safe.

For wrongful acts in violation of the laws were public acts against everyone. If the jurors agreed with him, he went on, ‘the instant this court rises, each of you will walk home, one quicker, another more leisurely, not anxious, not glancing behind him, not fearing whether he is going to run up against a friend or an enemy, a big man or a little one, a strong man or a weak one, or anything of that sort. And why? Because in his heart he knows, and is confident, and has learned to trust the state, that no one shall seize or insult or strike him.’

It is clear that the ‘super-injunction’ is a law for the rich and (in)famous and them alone, as if Wood’s reputation were somehow less valuable to her than Rooney’s to him, and in a case where both were sharing the same, legal, activity.

But on what legal grounds is the reputation of struggling proles less important than footballers’? Demosthenes was right. The Athenians knew that one rule for the rich, one for the poor, made nonsense of the law. One might have thought our judiciary would have noticed. Apparently not. Super-injunctions for all, please — or none.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

21st May 2011

Most universities have decided to pitch their fees at the maximum allowable of £9,000 a year. One hopes this is one part of a Cunning Plan to ensure that Plato’s vision of a real education is realised.
Plato was once invited by groupies to come to Sicily and try to turn the tyrant Dionysius into his ideal Ruler King. Plato gave it a go, but it did not quite work out first time round. Some years later, Plato was assured Dionysius was coming on very well in philosophy, and was persuaded to try again. When he arrived, he found Dionysius full of hopelessly garbled ideas but persevered and put him to the ultimate test: he outlined to Dionysius everything that would be required of him and the effort it would entail, if he were genuinely serious about his academic interests. That way, said Plato, you find out whether a pupil has the ‘divine spark’ in him or not, and it also absolves the teacher of responsibility if the pupil cannot meet the demands.
But Dionysius turned out, as Plato suspected he would, to be the sort of pupil interested in philosophy only as a form of sun-tan, supplying a superficial, overall veneer—a wonderful image—well fitted to those who liked soft living and were incapable of hard work. Plato wryly comments that Dionysius went on to write a book about the subject.
So if the huge fees that universities plan were to be combined with brochures that explained exactly what a real university education would entail rather than expounding on the number of nightclubs available, it could have the wholly beneficial consequence of making the young think very hard indeed about the value of going there or not, and ensuring that only those who seriously wanted to learn would apply. If that turned out to be the case, numbers would plummet to a level at which the very best of the bunch, rich or poor, could be educated free, and standards would rocket. Valueless institutions and courses would close, but if one wants an educational elite—and why spend state money on anything else?—there is no conceivable reason why they should survive. After all, any fool can get a sun-tan.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

14th May 2011

If Romans had had such a concept as a ‘right to life’, their jurists would have dealt with the question whether it should be possible to lose it. Given that the salus (safety/security/well-being) of the people should be the ultimate law (Cicero), one can guess what their answer would be. But whatever one’s view of bin Laden’s tragic passing, al-Qa’eda’s preference for settling disputes with the bomb and gun throws up a juicy prospect: there is a vacancy for a new mastermind.

The collapse of the Roman republic in the 1st century BC was down to dynasts such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar using the might of soldiers loyal to them, and not the state, to impose their own will on the Senate. As Cicero lamented to Brutus, ‘We are made a mockery by the whims of soldiers and arrogance of their generals. Everyone demands as much political power as the army at his back can deliver. Reason, moderation, law, tradition, duty count for nothing.’ Vicious civil war was the disastrous consequence.

But the emergence of a ‘constitutional’ imperial system under Rome’s first emperor Augustus did not affect this very basic Roman instinct. When Nero committed suicide in AD 68, there was no obvious successor. Four generals promptly fought it out for supremacy, each briefly declared emperor in turn, until Vespasian settled the matter. During the 3rd century AD, increasing pressure on Rome’s borders from Germans in the north and Persians in the east made professional soldier emperors the fashion. In the hundred years before Constantine (312), there were more than 60 emperors, or people declared emperor; in 238 alone there were technically six. And this was Rome!

If that is anything to go by, and bin Laden, as well as being a figure-head, really was as central to the organisation as the Americans claim, it may be that we should put serious behind-the-scenes efforts into encouraging the Egyptian al-Zawahiri and the Americo-Yemeni al-Awlaki to blow each other to bits for the top job — but only on the very purest of ideological grounds, of course.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

7th May 2011

Romans would have been disgusted by the death of bin Laden. They expected better of their enemies, even if mass murderers, than to be supinely dispatched, cowering behind his wife, without a fight or heroic gesture.

Mithradates, king of Pontus in Asia Minor (northern Turkey), plotted against Rome for nearly 30 years. In 89 BC he launched his first assault against the Romans there, engineering the slaughter of 80,000 Roman residents on one night of the ‘Asiatic Vespers’. He was finally betrayed by his son in 63 BC while planning an assault on Italy. Having inoculated himself against poison, he ordered a slave to run him through, commenting that he had not guarded against the most treacherous of all poisons — domestic treachery. Rome’s Pompey hailed him as the greatest king of his day. Hannibal, too, tracked down to Pontus (northern Turkey) after a chance remark, took poison, ‘not wanting to put his life at anyone else’s disposal’. He became a key, and not unadmired, figure in Rome’s historical memory.

Those who were taken alive after battle were paraded in the general’s triumph. Even this was a back-handed mark of respect: no honourable Roman would celebrate the defeat of a non-entity. The Briton Caratacus held his head up before the emperor Claudius, pointing out that if he had surrendered without a fight, there would have been no glory for Claudius, and if he were to be executed, the memory of the great triumph would soon fade. He was spared.

That said, the ancient world also knew all about the mysterious grip that some could still exert in death. The crazed emperor Nero, very popular out East for his artistic and sporting performances there, killed himself in despair in AD 68. But many believed he was still alive. Sightings were reported in the East. A hotch-potch of poems constructed him as a champion against Roman tyranny, a hero of popular culture who had not really died but was waiting to return to ‘save’ his people.

Who would bet against bin Laden being turned into a similar sort of Elvis figure by his infatuated adherents?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

23rd April 2011

The public razzmatazz surrounding the royal wedding is not the sort of thing Romans went in for on such occasions, but their approval for marriage was unconditional.

It was military triumphs and generals returning loaded with gold and silver that triggered the great public celebrations. Marriage in the Roman world was, for the most part, a private affair. A legal digest defined it as ‘a joining together of a man and a woman, and a partnership for life in all areas, a sharing in human and divine law’. So whatever family interests may have been in play—and Roman aristocratic marriage often looks like a business deal—marriage ultimately depended on the personal will of the couple involved, affectio maritalis bringing and keeping them together. Naturally, marriages broke down, but the ideal was there.

Further, the family home was a holy place, generating strong emotional feelings. The god Limentinus protected the threshold, Forculus the doors and Cardea the hinges (!). The continued worship of the family gods was of prime importance, centred round each household’s Lārēs (guardians), Penātēs (penus, ‘provisions’), and Genius locī (the male spirit of the family’s tribe, gēns, personified in the head of the family).

In this the household reflected its close ties with the state: for Rome too was a ‘family’, with its state Lares and Penates, and the emperor its Genius loci. But though the state never intervened to ratify marriage, it did define the conditions under which children were deemed legitimate—through citizen marriage alone. Further, in the absence of children, it encouraged adoption to keep lines going—not of babies either, but of adults, usually males. The first emperor Augustus, himself adopted by Julius Caesar, had great trouble lining up a suitable successor. It was finally his adopted son Tiberius who took over.

So while Romans would applaud the forthcoming marriage—what could be more important than the head of state’s line?—they would think it an insult that it conferred no greater legitimacy on its offspring than any other union.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

16th April 2011

The war in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001. Its purpose was to clear the land of Al-Qaeda and Taleban and establish a democratic state. Last week’s Spectator questioned the current military strategy. Alexander the Great could have expanded on the matter.

When by 329 BC Alexander had dealt with the Persian king Darius—the main object of his mission—he pushed on into Bactria/Sogdia, a tribal area roughly equal to northern Afghanistan and its borders, to pursue Darius’ successor Bessus. He met with immediate success, and Bessus was captured and executed. The Americans too in 2001 soon drove the Taliban into Pakistan.

But an insurgency then developed behind the Americans’ back, and in the last ten years only marginal progress has been made, despite a surge. So with Alexander. He too found it very difficult to handle tribal guerrilla warfare, he too tried a surge, throwing in 22,000 extra troops, and in the event spent more time and lost more men in settling this one area than anywhere else in his conquests to date.

Alexander did have one advantage, in that borders meant nothing to him. He could attack across them at will, though it did not help him much. For the western allies this is not possible, except by aerial drones. This, however, does nothing for the west’s international reputation.The point is that the war is being fought against a people whose capacity for endurance is matched only by their hatred of foreigners, in tribal territory where no alliance can be guaranteed.

Alexander ‘settled’ the place by leaving 30,000 Greeks there and departing. But at his death, Bactria was the first place to revolt. When the Roman emperor Augustus was told that Alexander, having conquered the world at 32, had no idea what to do next, he expressed surprise that Alexander thought it was more important to win an empire than to organise it once it had been won.

A settled, unified, democratic Afghanistan is a pipe dream. Afghan tribes and the west share no common vision. When we depart, what will we have actually done for them—or to them?

Monday, March 21, 2011

5th March 2011

After 40 years of a culture of tyranny, what hope for Libya’s future?

Plato describes how the tyrant comes to power: he is smiling, affable and promises much. Some enemies he does away with, others he conciliates. The courageous, intelligent and wealthy he eliminates, and appoints a cabinet of creeps. Aristotle pinpoints the general strategy from there on: keep the people demoralised, mistrustful and weak. In that condition they lack the spirit of enterprise, the confidence to put their faith in each other and the sheer manpower needed to force a tyrant out.

The problem is that, from that position, the tyrant leaves himself no alternative but to continue. As Pericles argued before the Athenian assembly, Athens had to maintain a stranglehold over her empire ‘because of the danger from those whose hatred you have incurred in gaining your empire … which you now possess like a tyranny. It may be thought wrong to have acquired it, but to let it go would be extremely dangerous.’

When the first Roman emperor Augustus defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 31 bc, he did not bring about a revolution: senate, consuls, praetors etc remained. Rather, he changed the terms of the game: power, which in the republic had been up for grabs between the great Roman families, would now reside in one man: himself. The day of his death, therefore, was a key moment: what next? Would there be a succession? Or would the system collapse? When his stepson Tiberius took over, the answer was given. Imperialism was now ‘legally established’ and would soon become ‘ancestral’. Farewell, freedom, unless someone was prepared to strike the emperor down. But would that change the system or merely lodge power somewhere else?

There was a further problem. Under the tyrant-emperor, only the obedient could climb the political ladder. This culture became so ingrained that bodies like the senate effectively gave up their authority. So when e.g. Caligula was murdered in ad 41, the senate flapped, and the army imposed Uncle C-C-C-Claudius.

None of this bodes well for Libya.

19th March 2011

Recent cases over Christians refusing gay couples hotel accommodation and Christian couples wanting to adopt have brought Christian belief into conflict with the law.

Recent cases over Christians refusing gay couples hotel accommodation and Christian couples wanting to adopt have brought Christian belief into conflict with the law. The Christians have lost. Lord Justice Laws, arguing in 2010 that Christian belief was ‘subjective’, laid a marker for those judgments by drawing a distinction ‘between the law’s protection of the right to hold and express a belief, and the law’s protection of that belief’s substance or content’.

In classical Athens, a number of charges could be brought against individuals on religious grounds, under the general heading of asebeia (‘impiety’). These included perversion of ritual, desecrating religious property, revealing ‘mystery’ cults, entering holy places when disenfranchised, introducing new divinities and expressing certain opinions about the gods.

What, then, was Greek religion’s ‘substance or content’ that was felt to need such protection? Despite the absence of any divinely inspired texts for guidance, it was the virtually universal belief that gods were unpredictably hostile or benevolent, and that the listed infractions guaranteed their hostility. Since the state subscribed to those beliefs, it was a matter of simple self-protection to uphold them in law. Plato in his Laws reached the same conclusion. For him, gods were the benevolent upholders of moral virtue. So anyone who tried to persuade people otherwise had to be punished, for society’s general well-being.

Lord Justice Laws’s judgment applied to beliefs which he characterised as ‘subjective’. Since Athenian society did not regard its beliefs on asebeia as subjective, an Athenian Laws would presumably have ruled differently. But is the real legal distinction between an individual’s beliefs, which (whether subjective or not) must by definition be private, and their application to justiciable public situations, e.g. when you own a hotel or want to adopt? If so, Christians might console themselves by accepting the judgments, and reflecting on the behaviour of early Christians. On the ‘Render unto Caesar’ principle, they argued that Christians obeyed the law far more rigorously than pagans ever did.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

26th February 2011

The point about crowds, as Gaddafi is now learning, is that there are more of them than there are of him. Romans knew this only too well and, like Gaddafi, went out of their way to prevent large gatherings. Time, therefore, for Libyans to take radical Roman action.

In 494 BC, the Roman poor were in conflict with aristocratic landholders because so many of them had been placed in bondage through inability to pay their debts. The Senate refused to move on the matter and, in the face of riots and disturbances, threatened to bring in the army to quell incipient mutiny spreading among the ordinary people (the plebs). So in order to protect their interests, they moved as a body to the Sacred Mount, overlooking the Tiber a few miles upstream from Rome, where they constructed a fortified camp and refused to move: a potential ‘state within a state’.

The result in Rome was panic among the whole remaining citizen body. If they were attacked by enemy forces now, and the plebs refused to fight, they would be in serious danger. So Menenius Agrippa was sent to appeal to the plebs to reunify the state. He used the analogy of a body which, fed up with the lazy belly that did nothing but enjoy all the goodies it received, went on strike: the hand would carry no food to the mouth, the mouth would not accept it nor the teeth chew it. The result was that the whole body started to waste away. The plebs saw the point and agreed to return, as long as concessions were made.

The final result was the formation of the plebs’ own corporate organisation—a legal assembly with its own officials, the tribunes of the plebs. These tribunes were designated as inviolable, and could therefore bring force to bear on anyone who threatened a pleb in any way. In time, these plebeian tribunes were given seats in the Senate, where they could veto any business. Plebeian ‘aediles’ were also created, probably to oversee the grain supply and in time to run the markets, protect Rome’s fabric and put on games—good, popular moves.

Pleb power worked then. Intelligently organised, it will work again.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

19th February 2011

The Egyptian people want power in the face of government intransigence. So what happens next? Ancient Rome went through this phase, and very destructive it was too.
For five hundred years, Romans from aristocrats to plebs had broadly agreed that the final say on all major political matters should be the Senate’s (senex, ‘old man’), an oligarchy consisting of current and retired executive officials (consuls, praetors etc.). But after the defeat of Hannibal in 202 BC and the expansion of Roman power into North Africa, Spain, Greece and Asia Minor (western Turkey), the gap between rich and poor widened radically, and the soldiers who had done the fighting did not feel they had been satisfactorily rewarded for their efforts.
In 133 BC, the disillusioned aristocrat Tiberius Gracchus saw this as a chance to win power. For hundred of years, those appointed as ‘tribunes of the plebs’ had acted as the voice of the people in the Senate. Tiberius stood for and won that position. He then laid before the Senate proposals to divide up land in Italy more fairly between rich and poor. The Senate, owning most of that land, naturally turned it down. Previously, that would have ended the matter. But Tiberius took the proposal straight to the plebs’ assembly, whose decisions were technically binding on all the Roman people. Naturally, they passed it.
The floodgates opened. For the next hundred years, Roman politics – the world of Pompey and Caesar - was dominated by men seeking power by these radically different routes, traditional (senatorial) and popular. It led to rioting and bloodshed (Tiberius and his brother Gaius were both killed in this way). When soldiers joined in, enticed by the rewards on offer to support one side or the other, vicious civil war ensued. The final result was the end of the Republic in 31 BC and the emergence of Octavian/Augustus (Caesar’s adopted heir) as the first Roman emperor: a monarchy, or dictatorship as some saw it. Entrenched oligarchs, popular revolt, the army - throw Islam into that volatile mix, and one does rather tremble for Egypt’s ‘democratic’ future.

Monday, February 7, 2011

5th February 2011

Romans would have regarded Hosni Mubarak as effectively the emperor of Egypt. But they would not have thought he had played a very intelligent hand.
The Roman emperor held supreme authority. As head of state (princeps), he ruled the Treasury, controlled all the top political appointments, passed all laws, was final arbiter in all legal cases and selected provincial governors. As pontifex maximus, he led all the major state rituals in honour of the gods. As commander-in-chief (imperator), he ruled over the armed forces, chose all generals and determined military policy, often leading the army himself. To help him he had a circle of hand-picked, trusted advisers and a remarkably small civil service.
But life was far too busy to spend his days indulging in orgies. Petitions, for example, poured in from all over the empire—requests for citizenship, repayment of tax, legitimisation of children, a portion of an inheritance, and so on. It looks as if they were personally dealt with, too. And that was just the private business.
Further, there were the people of Rome to keep happy. Romans knew all about that. In the republican period, the billionaire Crassus once paid the grain supply for every Roman in the city for three months; Julius Caesar put on games featuring 320 pairs of gladiators, equipped with ornate silvered armour. So important were such spectacles for generating popular support that the emperor Domitian ruled they could be staged only by members of the imperial family. After his triumphs in AD 108 in Dacia (N. Romania), Trajan staged 117 days of entertainment at which ten thousand gladiators fought and eleven thousand animals were killed. This was not just about keeping the people sweet, either. The emperor himself was on display on such occasions, and if the crowd had reasons to vent its feelings against him, they did. Emperors paid attention.
Most Roman emperors understood that they would survive and prosper only by persuading most of the people most of the time that they ruled in their interests, not in those of the imperial household and its chums. It does not seem too much to ask of today’s equivalents.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

29th January 2011

So everyone is going to live much longer and will therefore have to work much longer to pay for their pensions. But what is so wrong with dying, Greeks and Romans would ask?

They came at the problem from different angles. Homeric heroes sought to compensate for death with eternal heroic glory (and got it, judging from the number of people who still read Homer). Plato argued that the soul was immortal. The Roman poet Lucretius thought that was the problem. For him, life was an incipient hell because of man’s eternal desire for novelty. So as soon as he had fulfilled one desire, he was immediately gawping after another. What satisfaction could there be in that? The soul was mortal, he argued, and death, therefore, should be welcomed as a blessed relief.

This tended to be the general response. Cicero, for example, thought in terms of a time and season for everything. ‘Boys have their own typical pursuits, but adolescents do not hanker after them because they have their own interests. These in their turn cease to attract mature grown ups because they too have their special interests – for which, when their time comes, the old feel no desire since they again, finally, have interests peculiar to themselves. Then, like earlier occupations, these activities fall away; and when that happens, a man has had enough of life and it is time to die.’ A character in one of Euripides’ tragedies put it more succinctly: ‘I can’t stand people who try to prolong life with foods and potions and spells to keep death at bay. Once they’ve lost their use on earth, they should clear off and die and leave it to the young’.

For Seneca the question was whether ‘one was lengthening one’s life - or one’s death’. A terrifying myth made the point: Eous (‘Dawn’), divine wife of mortal Tithonus, wanted her husband to live forever and her wish was granted. But she forgot to ask for eternal youth at the same time, and he just faded away, quite unable to die.

Marcus Aurelius put it beautifully: ‘Spend these fleeting moments as Nature would have you spend them, and then go to your rest with a good grace, as an olive falls in season, with a blessing for the earth that bore it and a thanksgiving to the tree that gave it life’.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

15th January 2011

Last week Geoffrey Wheatcroft speculated whether a regiment of what he called Gay Gordons might not have something to be said for it, giving a whole new meaning to ‘once more into the breach, dear friends’. Ancient Greeks would probably have approved, but with some reservations.

Plato argued that Sparta and Crete were largely responsible for introducing a homosexual ethos into the military, a practice that came to be imitated elsewhere in the Greek world. In Sparta, for example, boys were removed from their parents at the age of seven to spend their time in common messes where they were trained up as soldiers. Every twelve-year old had to take a young adult warrior as a lover till he was eighteen, though the purpose was pedagogic as much as pederastic.

The most famous example of such institutionalised homosexuality is provided by the Theban ‘Sacred Band’ (c. 378 BC) an élite troop of 150 pairs of lovers. The historian Plutarch explains the rationale by arguing that a regiment bonded by sexual feelings was ‘indissoluble and unbreakable’ because they did not flinch in the face of danger out of their feelings for each other. He goes on to say that this band was never beaten until the battle of Chaironeia (338 BC), against Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great). Further, when Philip came across the place where they had ‘fallen in their armour, all mixed up together, facing the enemy head on, he wept and said “Perish all those who claim that these men did, or allowed to be done to them, anything shameful”.’ Two hundred and fifty four skeletons have been found in the vicinity, laid out in seven rows – the very men?

Yet there was a residual doubt. The military commander Xenophon tells us how he formed a regiment of the handsome because of the example of one Episthenes, who offered himself to die in place of a young boy who was about to be executed. But desire for wasteful self-sacrifice is not much use in a soldier. ‘Such lovers often seek danger beyond the call of duty’, comments Plutarch.

Such conduct is no part of a soldier’s code. One’s duty is to look after one’s mates, and one does not need to be gay to do that.