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.