Sunday, November 11, 2012

20 October 2012

The Pacific countries have tended to look to the USA for protection in territorial disputes and general security, stimulating their peaceful economic expansion. But the more powerful China becomes, the more unacceptable it may find America’s involvement in the region, and the question has been posed: will it be the Peloponnesian War (431-404 bc) all over again?
The great contemporary historian of that war, the Athenian Thucydides, produced an analysis of its outbreak that has a terrifyingly plausible ring to it: ‘In my view the real reason, true but unacknowledged, is that the growth of Athenian [Chinese] power and the fear this generated in (the original super-power) Sparta [USA] made war inevitable.’ But then — significantly — he goes on to give ‘the apparent reasons expressed on both sides at the time’, which had their origins much earlier.
In 446 bc the Athenians and Spartans, knowing that war between them was all too possible, had tried to preclude it with a 30-year peace treaty. The consequence was that Greece was basically divided into two ‘empires’ — a land-based one, led by Sparta, and a maritime one, led by Athens. Let each side stick to its own domain, and peace was assured.
But Athens started picking away at territory where, if Sparta had no direct interests — the Black Sea, its approaches and Corcyra [Corfu] — one of Sparta’s main allies, Corinth, did. Eventually Corinth could take it no more, and appealed to Sparta to protect it (‘while Athens can get away with it because of your inattention, they will be careful; when they know that you simply do not care, they will go for it’). Sparta agreed, and the war began. Sparta had technically broken the treaty; but there is little doubt that Athens provoked it.
Thucydides saw that the ‘apparent’ reasons for war (Athens’ chipping away at the spirit of the treaty by provoking Sparta’s allies) disguised Athens’ ‘real’ intent, i.e. to lure Sparta into breaking the treaty. If China and the US can reach an accord, but China then starts ‘apparently’ seeing what it can get away with, Thucydides’ analysis may become all too horribly prescient.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

8th September 2012

In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates debates the meaning of ‘bravery’. The first definition is ‘resisting the enemy and not running away’. Socrates shows that flight too can be brave. The second definition is ‘a certain endurance of the soul’. Socrates shows that this endurance must be wise, not foolish, though even so he agrees that a foolish endurance could be braver. But how could what is good (bravery) be at the same time foolish? The third definition is ‘knowledge of what is fearful and encouraging’. But how then can animals be brave, asks Socrates? Perhaps, comes the reply, we must distinguish between bravery and fearlessness. And so on. So before we call anyone ‘brave’, it might be a good idea to consider its specific application.[teaser]
Plato puts it another way in his Republic, arguing that democracies, where everyone has to be ‘equal’, are especially prone to re-evaluating human qualities: so ‘shame’ becomes silliness, ‘self-control’ becomes cowardice, ‘moderation’ becomes lack of style, ‘insolence’ becomes good breeding, ‘licence’ liberty and ‘extravagance’ generosity. ‘Disability’ now seems to have been redefined as ‘bravery’.
However slippery language is, the slope that its emotional misuse leads us down is far more slippery. How often have the media described innocent people killed by a terrorist bomb as ‘heroic’? Or a horse put down after a race as ‘tragic’? Or the efficient organisation of the London games as ‘world-beating’? Paralympians do not need the bogus accolade of patronising, hyperbolic epithets to make them feel good about themselves any more than Stephen Hawking does (or is it we that need them, to feel good about ourselves?). They are professional athletes. That is their job. Winning will do quite well enough.

Friday, August 31, 2012

1st September 2012

Personal privacy in the modern sense became a cause in the USA in the late 19th century, with the massive expansion of newsprint and the development of cameras and professional snappers. Prince Harry clearly has not quite caught up yet. Even the Romans knew what the problem was: privacy was very hard to come by.

The reason then was that every top Roman had, as a mark of his status, an army of slaves with him most of the time, ready to do his every bidding. Crassus had 800. Horace composed a poem announcing that he was accustomed to walking alone, but in a few lines it appears he had his slave with him. An aristocratic wife would never venture out of the house without companions; if an adulterer was caught in her bedroom, he could reasonably claim he was pursuing the slave girl who slept in her room.

But slaves were notoriously untrustworthy. That is partly why (as Cicero said), decorum was one of the statesman’s essential virtues: it was decorum which ensured that the good statesman always exerted that stern self-control that marked out the true Roman noble and did not make him a hostage to fortune (let alone to slave duplicity). It is true that many an emperor did select hand-picked slaves to help manage affairs. But since their privileged livelihood — and life — depended on their total loyalty, these could be trusted with even the most intimate secrets. And it (largely) worked. Roman historians regularly had to resort to rumours to explain what was going on: on certain issues there was simply no solid information available.

Captain Wales surely regards it as decorum pro patria mori. Prince Harry, however, seems incapable of seeing that it is also decorum that he control certain appetites of his, or at least keep them out of the public gaze. If he cannot control them himself, his ‘slaves’ — i.e. security — must get a grip and at least ensure they remain private. This all makes the prince and his entourage look pretty dim, but Romans thought adolescence lasted till 30. What can you expect?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

18th August 2012

A lesson from St Jerome
The educational bien pensants are up in arms because Michael Gove wants children at primary school to learn their times-tables not in ‘real-life contexts’ but ‘by rote’. The ancients, whose education was thoroughly practical, had no problems with rote at all.

Take St Jerome. In ad 403 he wrote a letter to Laeta, instructing her on how to teach her daughter Paula to read and write. Laeta must get Paula a set of letters, made of boxwood or ivory, and call them by their proper names. Paula must be encouraged to play with them and get used to their shapes and names. Then she must learn their right order — a rhyme may help her to do this — but in order that she can also recognise them by sight, Laeta must constantly disarrange them and ask Paula to identify which is which and put them in the right order.

When it comes to writing, Laeta must guide Paula’s hand as she writes, or draw an outline of the letters for her to copy. Paula must be offered prizes for good spelling, and competition with friends must be encouraged, so that she can see how good spellers are rewarded. Nor must the learning be haphazard, but purposeful, e.g. knowing ‘the names of the prophets or apostles or patriarchs from Adam downwards contained in Matthew and Luke’.

Further, ‘you must not scold her if she is slow to learn, but praise her: that will delight her when she does better than others and annoy her when she does not. Most of all, you must make sure that she does not take against her lessons, in case that dislike continue into later years.’

This was the pattern of good ancient education: plenty of encouragement to end up actually knowing things that were useful. Clearly this is not a pattern approved of by modern educationists. But since for most pupils ‘real-life context’ is buying things, one would have thought that knowing the times-table off by heart was a rather useful means to an end. If pupils are not able to live up to the educationist ideal — and many will not be — at least they have a memory that can be put to good mathematical use. What on earth can be anti-educational or unconstructive about that?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

11th August 2012

In ancient Olympia, the first to three falls was the winner, in rounds that went on till a fall was registered. A submission also counted. While there was room for speed and skill, the celebrity wrestlers were man-mountains, like Milo from Croton in southern Italy. He won the Olympic wrestling five times in a row on a diet of 20 pounds of bread and meat, gizzards of cockerels and 18 pints of wine a day. Amazing feats were ascribed to him — for example, he could break a band tied round his head simply by swelling his veins, and once carried a bull round a stadium, killed and ate it, in one day.

The toughest of contact sports was the pankration (‘all-in power’), a single fight to the finish, where anything was allowed except biting and gouging. Sostratos, for example, beat opponents by breaking their fingers. One Arrachion, previously undefeated, found himself in a deadly neck and leg lock. Fading fast, he managed to loosen the leg hold, kick out and dislocate his opponent’s ankle. In agony, he surrendered — Arrachion had won! But he had also died. His corpse was still crowned victor.

Another difference was the crowd. The historian Polybius describes how it traditionally supported the underdog. So when a young hopeful Egyptian took on the Greek champion boxer Cleitomachos, the crowd keenly supported him until Cleitomachos, taking a breather, asked them if they really wanted an Egyptian to beat a Greek. The change of allegiance was instant, and the hopeful was thrashed ‘more by the crowd than by Cleitomachos’. So ‘home advantage’ held as good then as now, but could not be as taken for granted as it is in London.

There were no medals on offer, only wild olive wreaths for the winners, who could bid for immortality by being permitted to put up a statue of themselves at Olympia. So far, Stratford boasts a commemorative plaque in ancient Greek. Well, it’s a pretty good start. Who’s for a nude Wiggo?

4th August 2012

Boxer Lennox Lewis, arguing that women weakened a man, avoided sex for three weeks before a fight. Greeks would have agreed, but things seem somewhat different in the contraceptive-laden Olympic village.

Ancient theory was based on the idea that semen was a vital element in keeping a man strong. The doctor Aretaeus (1st century ad) said, ‘If any man is in possession of semen, he is fierce, courageous and physically mighty, like beasts. Evidence for this is to be found in athletes who practise abstinence.’ Even involuntary nocturnal emissions were thought to be enfeebling, threatening one’s endurance and breathing. The doctor Galen (2nd century ad) recommended that athletes take precautions against them: ‘A flattened lead plate is an object to be placed under the muscles of the loins of an athlete in training, chilling them whenever they might have nocturnal emissions of semen.’ Some athletes refused to tolerate even the mention of sex in their presence, walking out of the room when the conversation turned that way. The pankratiast Cleitomachus is said to have averted his gaze when he saw two dogs mating.

All this was of a piece with the notion that athletics and self-discipline should go hand in hand. This may help to explain the practice of infibulation (tying up the foreskin with a cord). Homoeroticism was normal where fit young males gathered to exercise naked, but in the context of public athletic competition, it may have been felt that displays of sexual arousal were best avoided. Infibulation was a practical way of trying to exert some external control over an organ which, Greeks seem to have thought, had a mind of its own.

But if sex before exercise was regarded as harmful, sex after was just the job (especially, one doctor recommends, running and horse-riding). As the poet Theognis said ‘Happy is the lover who goes home after working out in the gym to sleep all day with a beautiful young man.’ So losers at the London Olympics may have some compensation in store, if only with other losers.

Monday, August 6, 2012

28th July 2012

Dr Armand D’Angour (Jesus College, Oxford) has composed a brilliant Ode in ancient Greek to welcome the Olympic Games to London. It is called a ‘Pindaric’ Ode, but as Dr D’Angour knows very well, the ancient Greek poet Pindar (518–438 bc) wrote very differently. Pindar was commissioned to compose Odes that celebrated winning: not the winning athletes but those wealthy patrons who had sponsored them. 

The Odes were sung after the event, by a choir to musical accompaniment. They celebrated the patron’s family, wealth and other wins; unfolded moral or proverbial reflections on the meaning of victory; and introduced a myth of some relevance to the occasion, often with a moral point. They emphasised requirements for victory (inborn ability, effort and endurance, expenditure and divine favour) and consequences (the envy of men and gods, but fame through poetry). Startling mixed metaphors abound (‘the downy surface of poetic skill, yoked to fame-bearing streams of words’).

So a multi-purpose Pindaric Ode in favour of whichever corporate sponsors you prefer might begin something like: ‘Chocolate is very good, fizzy pop swells the wind of song, but sing, my soul, of burgers, which pluck the finest fruits of every excellence, especially when sprinkled with a soft dew of fries….’ 

A myth would then describe how some hero of the past did not crouch in darkness, aimlessly nursing an undistinguished old age but, watering a healthy prosperity, shot joy into men’s hearts, and so too Usain Bolt, launching the bronze javelin of his swift knees, dropped his anchor at the furthest limits of happiness, loading onto the losers bitter returns home, jeering tongues and skulking journeys. It would end: ‘Without skill, toil and the gods’ help, none can climb the steep path to glory, but burgers’ bright radiance is the surest light there is for men.’

In poetry, as in everything else, the modern Olympics bear no relation to the originals. But one can rather see why Dr D’Angour took the path he did. Jeering at losers is not quite the modern Olympic spirit.

21st July 2012

‘Olympism’ is, according to the 2011 Olympic charter, ‘a philosophy of life which places sport at the service of humankind… exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind… Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.’

The great Greek doctor Galen, who knew a bit about athletes, took a slightly different view. He wrote: ‘All natural blessings are either mental or physical, and there is no other category of blessing. Now it is abundantly clear to everyone that athletes have never even dreamed of mental blessings. To begin with, they are so deficient in reasoning powers that they do not even know whether they have a brain. Always gorging themselves on flesh and blood, they keep their brains soaked in so much filth that they are unable to think accurately and are as mindless as dumb animals… Will they claim the most important blessing of all — health? You will find no one in a more dangerous physical condition… Further, the extreme conditioning of athletes is treacherous and variable, for there is no room for improvement. The only direction they can go is downhill.’

Galen was not alone. The thinker Xenophanes 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… Some exercise is essential, but it must be neither violent nor specialised, as is the case with athletes.’ The Roman emperor Augustus’ confidante Maecenas lamented: ‘The cities should not waste their resources on number and variety of games… ruining the public treasury and private estates thereby.’

Ancient Greeks had no such concept as ‘Olympism’. They just wanted to win at games. So do modern athletes. The consequences that the ancients describe remain (largely) the same. The spectacular hypocrisy of the Olympic charter makes one want to throw up.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

30th June 2012

The Chancellor is desperate to get more cash into his wallet. Why not try the old trick - a tax on luxuries, or rather, an even greater tax on luxuries? True, it might not bring in much, but it plays well with the voters. Suppressing luxury was always a big hit in the ancient world.

In 115 BC the Roman consul Scaurus fixed his beady eye on the yummy dormouse and, at a stroke of his pen, passed a sumptuary law banning them, together with shellfish and imported birds, from the menu at banquets. Not that there had been any campaigns to save them. The ancients had been doing this sort of thing for a long time.

The Greeks’ earliest law-code (7th C BC) legislated against women wearing gold and silk unless they were getting married, Rome’s against expensive funeral arrangements. In 184 BC, the stern Cato the Elder (‘Carthage must be destroyed’), as well as inveighing against pickled fish from the Black Sea, legislated that jewels and women’s dresses above a certain value be assessed for tax purposes at ten times their value, and then raised the tax on them by 300%.

Clothing, with banquets, seemed to be the major preoccupations. If males over-dressed, they could be thought to have become feminised, or at best, easternised. Offices, triumphs, priesthoods, spoils of war – that was their business. Women were different. Love of luxury and especially over-dressing could be seen as signs of vice, but at the same time it could be argued that ‘elegance of appearance, jewellery, clothes, these are badges of honour for women; in these they rejoice and pride themselves’. In other words, separate worlds had separate signs of distinction, but in women’s case, ambiguous ones.

Romans thought greedy love of luxury caused the downfall of the Roman Republic. These days, we are told it generates ‘social divisiveness’. Well, if the Chancellor cannot stop it or its display, he can at least look ‘tough’ and tax its products. This is the age of austerity, and he must ensure the rich are perceived to share in it, right down to the last dormouse.

23rd June 2012

During the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, every Polly in the world chanted dispraise of Her Majesty, who is personally responsible (one claimed) for Trident, public schools, income difference, lack of job opportunities and tax havens. What they want is a Republic.

The Republic was invented in 509 BC (traditional date) by the Romans to replace a tyrant king, who ‘ruled neither by decree of the people nor authority of the Senate, had no right to the throne bar force ... instilled fear by executing, exiling, and confiscating the property of, many ... and governed the state through a private circle of advisers’. The parallel with the power of Her Majesty is obvious.

‘Republic’ is formed from two Latin words, res meaning ‘property, wealth, affair, interests, business, situation’; and publica meaning ‘of or belonging to the people corporately, official, universal, public’. So to a Roman, res publica carried with it meanings associated with affairs of state, the body politic, the public good, a state in which all citizens participated.

Romans expressed it another way. SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘Senate and Roman People’, was the acronym displayed on army insignia and inscriptions all over the Roman world. This added another element: the Senate. This was the body that advised the consuls (the annually elected heads of state) and other officials on the running of affairs. Admission to the Senate was automatic for those who had once held any of the top offices. It was therefore a body of huge experience. All legislation emanated from the Senate, but the People came into the equation because only they could ratify it, by vote. True, the voting system favoured the Senate; but there was still an element of democratic control. All this clearly made the point that the Republic was run by an equal partnership of Senate and People.

If any stray Polly could show how the introduction of a Republic would usher in greater democratic control of our closed oligarchic parliament, they might have a case. But their sole desire is to end the monarchy. They are oligarchs to a woman.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

2nd June 2012

Culture minister Jeremy Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith landed the minister in the soup by his too-cosy texts to News Corp about the proposed BSkyB takeover. He resigned, and Labour smells Hunt’s blood. What can Hunt do? The buck stops with him, but Cicero would argue that if Smith had had no criminal intent, but just became over-excited, Hunt is in the clear. The Murena defence shows how.

In 62 bc Cicero was defending Lucius Murena on a bribery charge. He concentrated his fire on the prosecutor Cato’s refusal to compromise his Stoic principles and acknowledge human weakness. Cato is one of those people, Cicero says, who believes ‘that the wise man never allows himself to be influenced by favours and never forgives wrongdoing; that only fools and the weak show mercy; that a real man does not yield to entreaties or prayers; that all sins are equal, and all are serious crimes, so that he who unnecessarily strangles a cock commits no less a crime than he who strangles his father; that the philosopher guesses at nothing, repents of nothing, is never wrong, never changes his mind.’ Most men, Cicero goes on, treat such things as an academic exercise, but Cato has embraced it as the rule for life. So, when a grief-stricken suppliant comes to ask for help, Cato will say you are acting criminally and immorally if you allow yourself to be swayed by compassion. If someone admits he has done wrong and asks for forgiveness, Cato will say it is a crime to forgive a wrong. If you make an assertion, Cato will not let you take it back. ‘But it was only a conjecture.’ Philosophers do not offer conjectures, comes the reply. You make a genuine mistake: no, you did it on purpose. Cicero concludes by calling this all good, debating club stuff, but in fact to make concessions to human failings is a proper philosophical position. Cicero won the case.

By defending his adviser, Hunt would defend himself. Further, if the former Cabinet secretary Lord Butler of Brockwell is right that Hunt committed a technical, not a sacking, offence, he might still wriggle clear.

26th May 2012

So: Angela Merkel proposes a Greek referendum on the euro, David Cameron says the forthcoming election there is the equivalent of a referendum. But as ancient Greeks knew, what is needed at this point is an ostracism.
An ostrakon (pl. ostraka) was a piece of broken pottery. It cost nothing (unlike papyrus) and was widely available. On it, Athenian citizens wrote the name of the individual whom they wanted removed from the political arena in Athens and sent into honourable exile for ten years.
It worked like this. Once a year, Athenian citizens in Assembly were asked if they wanted to hold an ostracism. The reason for it can be understood only in the context of real democracy, i.e. where citizens made all the decisions after listening to the arguments for this or that course of action put forward in the Assembly. If two diametrically opposed courses of action were so evenly supported that deadlock ensued, it made sense to remove one of the speakers. So the purpose of ostracism was essentially administrative, to clear the air. It could always be revoked.
If the Assembly voted for an ostracism, it was staged two months later. This gave plenty of time for Athenians to debate among themselves the pros and cons of getting rid of one or other turbulent politician. On the day of the ostracism, there was no debate in the Assembly on the matter; each citizen simply scratched on an ostrakon the name of his chosen candidate, and as long as 6,000 ostraka were cast, the man with the most votes was given the order of the pot. 
If an ostracism did not automatically improve things, at least it made them, for a time, less confusing. Since Greek politics have always been a nightmarishly tangled Medusa’s hair of spitting snakes attacking their own side as much as the opposition, a pro- vs anti- bailout ostracism might achieve some clarity. But what to do with the losers? Exile might be rather too appealing. So remove them instead from the Greek political scene by sending them off to the European Commission. ‘Irony’ is a Greek word, after all.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

21st April 2012

As local councils seize more power from central government, with more to come if e.g. Osborne’s plan to link salaries to location comes good, Labour MPs are already giving up on the Miliband Miracle and deciding to satisfy their control instincts by seeking election as mayors or police commissioners. This is no surprise. Power, on any terms, is in MPs’ DNA, as it was in Julius Caesar’s.

The essayist Plutarch (c. AD 100) provides two telling stories about Caesar that neatly make the point. In 67 BC, while serving in Spain, ‘he was reading some part of the history of Alexander when, after sitting for a long time lost in thought, he burst into tears. His surprised friends asked him the reason. “Don’t you think”, he said, “that I have reason for regret, when I reflect that at my age [33] Alexander [who died age 33] already ruled so many peoples, while I have not enjoyed a single brilliant success - yet?” ’ These were not tears of self-love, however, like those Ken gushed at some actors’ declarations of his indispensability. Rather, they expressed Caesar’s resolve to achieve that ‘brilliant success’.

In the second story, ‘he was crossing the Alps when he came to a small, sparsely inhabited native village, an altogether miserable-looking place. His friends, shrieking with laughter, said “No doubt here too you’d find men ambitious for high office, scrapping to come out on top, and jealous rivalry between the great and good.” Caesar then said to them - and he meant every word: “I would rather be first man here than second in Rome.” ’ Indeed, even in death he was determined to stay on top. His last words to Brutus – not et tu, Brute but Greek kai su, teknon ‘You too, son’ – far from being a cry of despair or disbelief or plea for sympathy, meant ‘And the same to you, kid’.

So if parliament cannot fulfil these MPs’ thirst to crack the whip over us, councils will have to satisfy their strange urges. The difference between them and Caesar, of course, is that Caesar did not intend for one moment to be top man anywhere other than Rome.

31st March 2012

As vicars, traditional or trendy, assert that God is or is not in favour of something, one is reminded that there were cultures for whom divinely inspired scriptures did not exist. Poor old Greeks and Romans! How on earth did they get by?

The 5th C BC thinker Protagoras argued that men must by definition possess a sense of standards, otherwise they could not live in communities at all. In the absence of holy books, tradition played the main role in determining what those standards were, which is why attacks on tradition from radical thinkers like Socrates and Diogenes generated such mistrust. Fables like Aesop’s – which Quintilian, the Roman professor of education, said particularly appealed to ‘country boors and the uneducated’ – popular stories and sayings all reinforced the cultural message.  

Taken together, they depicted a society dominated by inequality, hostility and fear, in which hierarchy came naturally, justice was all about maintaining the social order, and harmony was a utopian dream. Their morality focused on the public and social (not private) sphere (in particular, on mitigating conflict) and the importance of the relationship between the human and the divine (especially in ensuring justice). They opened up a world of materialistic glory and opportunity, where wealth was desirable, education could transform your chances and friendship was important. Stories about gods argued that (bad) Fortune could be overcome – courage was vital - but moral responsibility lay with humans, as individuals, groups and states, states in particular. Respect for family, state and ritual (pietas) was of great significance. The general conclusion was that gods were committed to justice and good faith while, with luck, success bred success. But life was still fragile, harsh and short. The ‘good’ life depended largely on making decisions that would enable you to survive, whatever life threw at you, and even (with luck) thrive. Being good at something was usually the key to success.

All strongly reminiscent, in fact, of the Rev. Giles Fraser on Thought for the Day, though with rather more spiritual depth.

3rd March 2012

Humanists are breast-beating about the wicked influence of Christian practice on civil life. Julius Caesar would have put them straight.

There were no pagan scriptures underpinning creeds, belief in one true god, or moral and ethical standards. Polytheistic religion was simply a system of cult practice: performing ritual - doing the right things, in the right way, at the right time - taking auspices, and interpreting portents. It was performance-indexed piety, designed to help men keep gods onside and understand their will. Further, since worshipping one god did not prevent you worshipping any other, and morality did not come into it, only in very exceptional circumstances did the Roman state intervene in any individual’s choice of deity.

The big, public rituals were run by state-appointed priests. These were not trained professionals. Julius Caesar, a virtual atheist but knowing the political importance of the role, was elected (at vast personal expense) to the top priesthood, pontifex maximus, in 63 BC, spent ten years conquering Gaul, defeated Pompey in a civil war, made himself dictator and was assassinated. He gave no moral or spiritual guidance, laid on no coffee mornings. He just performed the rituals for all to see.

Romans never publicly questioned the validity of this religious system, based as it was on unchanging, constantly repeated, traditional rituals, linking past with present and future, for ever. That is what made it a religion, and them Roman. Almost every aspect of institutional life had some ritual protocol wrapped round it. Caesar may not have believed a word of it, but he was not so thick as to underestimate its human and political importance.

Romans would see the C of E serving precisely the same vital function for us, though in quite different, and to them baffling, terms. That is why Julius Caesar’s example is so telling. Christianity has a ritual part to play in many aspects of civil life as a human communal force, creating cohesion, lending gravity to proceedings, recalling the way things have ‘always’ been done, making us what we are. Humanists, live up to your name.

18th February 2012

While it is obviously the case that every university wants to teach bright students, it is statistically probable that Oxbridge fails to pick up a number of students who are bright, but poor. It must be a huge relief to them that a government is to appoint an expert in ‘fair access’, Professor Les Ebdon, of the University of Bedfordshire.
‘Expert’ has the same (Latin) root as our ‘experience’, the basic meaning of which is ‘try out’, and thus ‘have experience of’. Our ‘empirical’ likewise comes from the Greek empeiros, ‘practised in, skilful’. Expertise in any matter was a subject of great interest to the ancients because (as Socrates argued), while it obviously applied to technical matters, like temple-construction and ship-building, it was not so clear that there was such a thing as expertise when it came to e.g. goodness or politics. He famously pointed out that any non-expert spouting away on technical matters in the Athenian assembly would be shouted down, but when it came to making good judgements on policy, anyone could have a say – ‘carpenter, smith or cobbler, merchant or ship owner, rich or poor, high born or low born, and no one objects’. Socrates thought the reason was that technical matters could be taught, but things like ‘goodness’ could not. So if one wanted to be ‘good’, it was not clear at all to whom one would go for solid instruction. Even fathers could not teach their own sons: look, he said, at Pericles’ children, who had all the technical know-how in riding, music, athletics and so on, but were in other respects no credit at all to their illustrious father.
So presumably Professor Ebdon can define what ‘fair access’ means and how it can be ensured. Likewise, he must know what it is that Oxbridge has to do to attract poor but outstanding students. Clearly, the University of Bedfordshire must be stuffed to the gunwales with them as a result of the Professor’s expertise. Otherwise, why appoint him? Of course, if Oxbridge does succeed, it will at once be accused of ‘creaming off the poorest’ – but not by Professor Ebdon!

P.S. ‘Expert’, obviously, does not derive from Latin expers, ‘completely ignorant’.

7th April 2012

Any appeal to the electorate that the coalition may once have had seems to be fading fast. If the decision to put VAT on a hot pasty turns out to have been the turning point, the Gang of Four who run the Cabinet have only themselves to blame for not paying enough attention to Plutarch, the great Greek essayist (ad 46–120), whose ‘Tips on Statecraft’ would have kept them straight.

Entering public life not for gain but out of honourable conviction, Plutarch argued, the politician must make it his first task to understand the character of the citizens with whom he was dealing. So he had to start by working with the grain of public opinion in order to win a good reputation and public confidence. Here lifestyle was an important ingredient of a politician’s appeal: ‘It is not just their words and deeds that will be held to account by the public, but also their dinners [got that, Mr Cameron?], affairs, marriage, pleasures and interests.’

That confidence won, said Plutarch, the politician stood a chance of bringing about the changes he thought necessary, but he must also bear in mind that it was always the big picture that counted. Here Plutarch quoted the monarch Jason of Thessaly: ‘Those who wish to do right overall must be ready to do wrong in unimportant matters.’ No, said Plutarch: that was the act of a tyrant. Rather, one should say: ‘Win the favour of people by giving way in small things in order to stand your ground on the big issues.’ If not, he said, you will get a reputation for unbending, unfeeling intransigence which accustoms people to opposing you. Show flexibility, he advised, ‘as we do with errant behaviour in the young, so that we do not lose our authority by constantly banging on and can be firm on matters where it really counts’.

And so Her Majesty’s government solemnly legislates on hot and cold pasties. Only politicians with no comprehension of the British character could possibly consider tinkering with such small, inexpensive, everyday pleasures. If the Gang of Four wants to lose the people — and the big arguments — this is the way to do it.

14th April 2012

The principle of the Royal Mail is far older than our youthful version, which was founded in 1516 by Henry VIII’s ‘Master of the Posts’ and made publicly available in 1635. When Xerxes, king of the Persians, realised the extent of the disaster he had suffered at the battle of Salamis (481 bc), Herodotus tells us that the Persian equivalent, the angareion, was put into operation to take the news back home. Nothing human is faster, he said, and ‘neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds’ [rather, ‘course, race’] — words running along the frieze that fronts New York’s General Post Office (1914).

This observation is typical of Herodotus, who loved to inform his countrymen of the wonders he had heard about. He likened the Persian angareion to a relay race: horses and riders posted along the route, a fresh pair for every day of travel, each handing the message on to the next. The soldier-essayist Xenophon, writing c.390 bc, implied that a later king, Cyrus, re-set the staging posts by first checking the maximum distance a horse and rider could travel in a day without breaking down.

The Romans knew a good thing when they saw one and spread the system across the empire. Eventually, there were changing stations for horses every 8 to 12 miles, and overnight rest-houses every 20 to 30 (about 5,000 stations in all, each with at least 40 horses, as well as pack animals and oxen). By the 4th century ad the system covered over 53,000 miles of roads. It provided priority transport for all urgent military and government needs: mail, personnel, imperial freight, the military (e.g. weapons, payment for troops, sick soldiers), etc. But there was no personal mail delivery. Long distance letters could be delivered only by friends going that way. Local deliveries were made by slaves, who waited to take back the reply.

In 2016, we shall celebrate 500 years of the Royal Mail, and probably literally too, because only the royal family will be able to afford it. They’ve got the horses, you see?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

17th March 2012

Nick Clegg’s idea of taxing tycoons sounds very ‘modernising’, but tycoons need a pro quo for their quids, sorry, quae, as the Roman historian Livy knew.

For Romans, there was no such thing as a tax on income. Bar money raised from e.g. harbour dues, sales and inheritance taxes, the Senate got its money from the proceeds of empire. So Romans did not pay tax: they got others to pay it for them. (Come on, Ed. It’s a winner.)

Before the Romans gained an empire, however, the Senate taxed to pay for the army. This system divided citizens into seven classes (whence our ‘class’) by wealth. The top group, the equites, were the richest men in society. They were liable for the most tax. Then came five numbered classes, from first classis to fifth. Finally, there was an unnumbered group, the proletarii, with no wealth at all, only children (Latin proles, ‘child’). Regular censuses took place to determine your classis, with severe punishment for evasion.

This system baffled Livy: why were the rich willing to pay tax as a proportion of their wealth and therefore vastly more than anyone else? He found the answer in the same classis-based voting system for passing Senate legislation. This was collegiate, and the wealthiest two classes commanded 98 of the votes, while all the rest put together — the vast majority of the citizens — had only 95!

In other words, the return for the rich was effectively total control over the conduct of affairs on which the state spent their money. ‘No taxation without representation’, we say. Livy might emend that to ‘No more than anyone else’s taxation without more representation’. What’s unfair in principle about that, Nick? It’s proportional, isn’t it? Especially since, in your ‘fair’ system, 650 MPs out of 46 million voters actually make all the decisions! Further, they are not even rich — all, in fact, as poor as church mice, as they endlessly bleat.

Here’s the deal, then: tycoons, pay the full whack of tax that the state imposes, and have another vote or 12. Do not pay it, and no votes for you, just like prisoners.

10th March 2012

Though our ‘democracies’ are designed to prevent any popular involvement, there are times when the situation becomes so critical that only the people have the authority to make the final decision. Modern Greeks face that situation now, as Athenians did in 431BC.
Athens’ fleet ruled the sea, the army of its deadly rival Sparta ruled the land. When war broke out, Athens’ influential leader, Pericles — whose only power, in a real democracy, was that of persuasion — argued that they should not take on the Spartans by land, but abandon their farms and seek refuge within the long walls of Athens. These ran from the city all the way down to the harbour at Piraeus, providing total protection. People, he argued, were far more important than property; by maintaining their grip on the sea and the revenues from their maritime empire, they would win through.
The citizen body agreed to this complete transformation of their normal existence. The contemporary historian Thucydides commented: ‘this total upheaval was not easy for them, especially as they had just rebuilt their homes after the Persian invasion. Demoralised, they took it hard, abandoning their homes and their ancestral shrines, facing a change to their whole way of life, tantamount for every man to nothing less than exile from his own world.’ But that was what the Athenians had agreed, as a citizen body, of their own free will, to do, and do it they did. It got even worse when the Spartans invaded, and a plague hit. But while Pericles lived, they stuck it out.
The ancient Athenians were capable of seeing what had to be done, however painful. Modern Greeks, too, now face a climactic moment: the long walls of the drachma, or the ruthless despotism of the euro? But the vain, starstruck politicians who, lying their way to the top table, got them into the mess in the first place, will not be bearing the grim burden of either decision. It is the common people who will do that. If they are not allowed, as a people, to vote on that one decision, and show they can stick to it, they will have no peace for a very long time. It would be the ultimate test for the inventors of real democracy.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

7th January 2012

With the death of Kim Jong-il and accession of his son Kim Jong-un, these are dodgy days in North Korea. It all goes back to Jong-il’s father Kim Il-sung, who became its first dictator in 1948 and also invented North Korea’s professional army. The first Roman emperor Augustus provides the model for what is happening.

Since Rome had never had an emperor before, the big question became: what happened when the long-lived Augustus died? Augustus was all too aware of the problem and, with no male offspring of his own, could only watch aghast as, one by one, his personal choices dropped off the perch. According to Tacitus, it was all down to his wife Livia. She was determined that her less than enthusiastic son Tiberius by her first husband should succeed, but the ailing Augustus turned at the last minute to a previously unfavoured grandson. Livia stepped in. She summoned Tiberius back from his post in the Balkans, sealed the roads round the palace, posted hopeful messages and then announced Augustus was dead and Tiberius emperor. The grandson was immediately murdered. Job done. The point is this: Il-sung was dictator till 1994. He faced exactly the same question: would the job stay in the family? But at least Jong-il was grown up and knew what was entailed. Jong-un is a dim, untested stripling in a still newish line of descent.

Which is where the military comes in. Like Il-sung, Augustus developed Rome’s first, professional, career-based army and put himself at the head of it, determined that there would be no more private armies of the sort that destroyed the Republic. So Rome became, effectively, a military dictatorship. But that still left the question: would the army remain loyal to the man who took over on Augustus’ death? In fact Balkan and Rhine armies both mutinied, looking for better terms of service. No doubt the North Korean Army and its generals are equally keen to make a persuasive point to Jong-un’s team in a poverty-stricken country.

Tiberius likened being emperor to a man holding a wolf by the ears. Doubtless Jong-un would see the point.

14th January 2012

Sir Paul Ruddock has revealed that he received his knighthood for none but philanthropic reasons. Every ancient would have cheered him to the roof and wondered why bankers like Sir Paul do not front up more about their beneficence.

Those who go round a classical site or museum will find themselves regularly bumping into inscriptions on statue bases, with or without statue, publicly proclaiming the benefits which the person so celebrated has bestowed on the town. Such a mark of honour was, as Aristotle said, ‘what we assign to the gods as their due and is desired by the eminent and awarded as their prize’.

Greeks and Romans alike were quite open in admitting that ‘honour’ was their motive for giving. Some even stated the precise conditions: ‘My gift is to be inscribed on three marble stones, one by my house, one in the temple, and one in the gymnasium,’ said a Greek from Gytheion. More generous donors, like the Libyan Flavius Lappianus, would even pay for the monument to be set up themselves, ‘being content with the honour alone’, as he said.

An added bonus was to be remembered down the generations. The Greeks even had a saying for it: ‘Man likens himself to a god in doing good.’ The Christian writer Tertullian pointed out to those who mocked the idea of eternal life that they themselves tried as far as they could to provide a kind of resurrection of the dead! But Christians too were not averse to thinking of charity in such terms, and being applauded in heaven as euergetai (the technical Greek term for benefactor).

So Sir Paul’s proposal that citations for honours should go into detail about what honorands have done to deserve it is to be applauded, even more so if the person so honoured is a (dread word) banker. Let those who make untold millions from financial transactions not be afraid to make clear how they have used it for the benefit of all and win the honour and gratitude that such generosity deserves. Think Carnegie, Getty, Mellon, Rockefeller, Rowntree, Gates....

21st January 2012

The reason why shadow chancellor Balls is such a liability is that he is incapable of understanding how other people feel. That may not matter in relation to the opposition — they do not care how he feels either — but it does, for what one would have thought were fairly obvious reasons, when he is dealing with us. Aristotle (384–311 bc) explains why.

In his brilliant Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle devotes considerable space to a discussion of the emotions and the way in which they may be manipulated to one’s advantage. He is especially interested in anger and its opposite, praotês, which means ‘calm, mildness, patience, tractability, good temper’. ‘We are angry with those speakers who belittle us,’ he points out, ‘but calm toward those speakers who treat us as the speakers would treat themselves; since no one would ever disregard or belittle himself.’ We also appreciate a little humility, he goes on, ‘for such speakers appear to be agreeing that they are inferior, and an inferior person would never belittle another.’

Aristotle illustrates the point charmingly from Homer’s Odyssey, when dogs rush out to attack Odysseus, but he cunningly sits down and (apparently) defuses their anger. Again, we stay calm before those we respect but also those we fear; presumably Aristotle is thinking of someone who would fight back if we got angry, though politicians can do nothing about us throwing things at the telly when they are on. All these, Aristotle concludes, should be borne in mind by someone who wishes to win an audience over.

This is the very last thing that Balls seems to understand. When he solemnly tells us that he has been enthusiastically cheering on the coalition cuts from the moment they were announced, and no policy has ever been dearer to him, you really do wonder what he takes us for. Aristotle goes on ‘there is disrespect in denying what is obvious, and disrespect and contempt amount to shamelessness. We show no respect to those for whom we feel contempt’.

Which is precisely how Balls feel towards us. The feeling, he can be assured, is mutual.

28th January 2012

So: So: capitalism bad, ‘responsible’ capitalism good. But is ‘responsibility’ the real issue? What is irresponsible about taking bonuses written into your contract? For people in that world, there should be more at stake.

Cicero’s de officiis (On Duties) — so influential that it was the first Latin text set in print (1465) — was composed at great speed (it shows) in the last months of 44 BC. This, with his other major tracts on ethical theory and government written at this time, was his response to the situation in which he found the Roman state: heading for tyranny in the grip of the new generation of politicians like Caesar and Marc Antony, who had jettisoned patriotic republican values in favour of self-aggrandisement by whatever means, however destructive.

De officiis laid down the markers for the redefinition of political values that Cicero thought was the only remedy for Rome in its plight at the time. First, the gloria that every upper-class Roman yearned for should be granted not just for military or similar triumphs, but only when greatness of spirit was integrally connected with justice, at the service of enlightened social awareness. That would generate among the public the goodwill, trust and admiration that was the source of true gloria for such a man.

But given that not everyone was cut out for a life of gloria, Cicero continued, all could still aspire to honestas: in Latin, the integrity that won the respect of the community. The key to this, Cicero argued, should be the identification of one’s personal interests with the state’s. In other words, the honestas of the individual should be judged by the extent to which his actions were utile for the republic.

Cicero’s vision of self-serving plutocrats, contemptuous of public concerns, maps neatly onto our world. So forget prissy ‘responsible’ capitalism. Raise the rhetorical temperature. Do these people want real gloria, or not? If they do, make clear they can earn it only with an ‘honourable’, ‘principled’, ‘public-spirited’ capitalism that is directed at serving the state’s interests.

4th February 2012

The Grand Olympic Opening Ceremony will apparently inform us ‘who we are, who we were and who we wish to be’ — just in case we had forgotten — and you will have to pay to sit in a stadium to watch it. Romans did not go in for this sort of claptrap, let alone restrict attendance to officials and a few paying customers. When they celebrated, it was for everyone.
The Roman triumph featured a massive procession through the streets led by the victorious general’s army, with booty, captives and paintings and three-dimensional models of Great Moments on display. There would be street parties, shows and handouts.
For Pompey’s celebration of his conquest of the East in 61 BC, 700 ships were brought into harbour. Captured royalty and generals (324 in number), all in native costume, featured in the march-past, with gold mountains, thrones and statues, and wagons hauling 75,100,000 silver drachmas, more than the total revenue of the whole Roman empire, enough to feed two million people for a year.
Julius Caesar’s triumph over Pompey in 46 BC, after a civil war fought all over the empire, was celebrated in five separate and different performances. Crowds, saddened by depictions of the heroic death of Romans they respected, cheered and laughed at the paintings of the demise and flight of exotic foreigners. One of the placards celebrating a victory in Turkey proclaimed ueni, uidi, uici. Horse races, plays, musical contests, athletic contests and gladiators all featured, with ‘an elephant fight with 20 beasts a side, and a naval battle with 4,000 oarsmen plus a thousand marines on each side’. Handouts to soldiers and people, rent-remission and luxury street dinners capped the fun. Forty elephants carrying lamps accompanied Caesar to the Capitol by torchlight for the final thanksgiving at the temple of Jupiter. People were crushed to death in the crowds.
Now that’s a celebration. Our Grand Olympic Opening Ceremony will have to end by midnight to allow spectators to get home by public transport.

11th February 2012

The world informs us that the ex-Sir-cised knight Fred has been tipped off his horse onto a scapegoat. Wrong again. The Judaic [e]scapegoat ritual provided annual blanket cover for the community by transferring its sins mechanically onto a wilderness-bound goat. It was not a response by the ‘mob’— that’s us — to a one-off crisis. For that, we turn to the Greeks.
Their scapegoat (pharmakos) often referred to those who touched religious sensitivities at times of political crisis. One Andocides, for example, was involved in a sacrilegious scandal in 415 BC that threatened the success of a huge Athenian military expedition to Sicily. The prosecutor said of him ‘in punishing Andocides and ridding yourselves of him, you are cleansing the city, purifying it of pollution, expelling a pharmakos and one who has offended against the gods’.
Kings, whose authority was thought to come from Zeus, were especially open to responsibility for communal disaster. The reasoning seems to have been that, while ordinary men were controlled by law, only divine wrath could restrain kings or a community that decided, in special cases, not to uphold its own principles. ‘Through big men is the city destroyed,’ said the statesman Solon.
This absolved groups like the ancient equivalent of bankers, the corn-dealers, who held sway over a vital area of life. In one court case they were accused of ‘having interests the opposite of other men’s. They make their greatest profits when they hear bad news has struck the city and can sell their corn dear. So they are delighted to see disaster hitting you.’ But they were just being greedy. No religious sensitivities were involved.
Perhaps they are now, if we wish to see Mammon as today’s god of choice. In that case, bankers would doubtless prefer the Judaic tradition, when a goat took the hit, not one of the guilty parties. But just to be on the safe side, the ‘mob’ — that’s us — might suggest the Queen’s honours list nominate annually a People’s Goat (Banking Division).