A Very Present Past

“You started it!”

“We did not start it!”

“Yes you did, you invaded Poland!”

A line to clinch any argument. But also a line from a scene which reflects on the power that history has to influence present-day relationships.

Indeed, history has always played a prominent part in contemporary arguments and humans have always fought over the past – often literally, since historical grievances have regularly played a part in starting new wars and in legitimising conflicts.

But, for all of the divisive who-did-what-to-whom bickering and finger-pointing that we sometimes encounter, the process of arguing about the past doesn’t always have to have negative consequences.

Sometime in the third century BC, Erythrae, a city on the coast of modern-day Turkey, received a letter from the King of the Seleucid Empire, which, at the time, covered much of the Middle East. The king (either Antiochus I or Antiochus II) wrote as follows:

‘And since [your ambassadors] declared that under Alexander and Antigonus (the One-Eyed) your city was autonomous and free from tribute, and our ancestors were constantly zealous on its behalf, and since we see that their decision was just and we ourselves wish not to fall short in (our) benefactions, we shall help to preserve your autonomy and we grant you exemption from tribute, including all the other taxes and [the] contributions [to] the Gallic fund. You will also have [… and any] other privilege which we shall think of or [you will request from us].’ [Translation from Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest, (2nd ed. 2006), no.170].

At first glance, everything looks straightforward. The representatives of the city tell Antiochus about how the city has been treated by previous monarchs, the king decides that this is a reasonable way to behave, so declares that he will follow suit. Difficulty arises, however, because we don’t actually know anything about the status of Erythrae under these earlier kings. The ambassadors might be lying.

But it really doesn’t matter if they are; indeed, that might actually be the whole point.

It might seem strange for a historian to say that the truth doesn’t matter, but that’s because here the notion of ‘history’ is being used in a fascinating way.

Negotiations between rulers and subjects are fraught with difficulty and can lead to bad blood on either side, if the king demands too much of a city, for instance. Equally, if the king makes concessions to one city, others are going to demand the same treatment.

This problem is avoided here by the invention of a tradition to govern the relationship between king and city. In order to ensure a workable relationship in the present, and one that will be sustainable in the future, Antiochus and the city of Erythrae decide on a mutually-convenient ‘history’: if the king rules in what both parties agree is the established manner, the city will support him. In this dialogue about history, both sides can decide how they want the other to behave and claim that this is simply how things are done. Equally, by pointing to a specific tradition to explain his treatment of a particular city, the king avoids setting a precedent for his relationship with other places in his empire.

More importantly, ascribing the results of the negotiation to history provided a distraction from reality – anybody unhappy with the arrangement could blame only the tradition and not the participants in the discussions; the past is used to diffuse contemporary tension.

This opens up a much broader point about the study of history. Whenever historians are asked why they do what they do, it’s easy to trot out the trite sentiment that examining the past ‘helps us understand who we are today’, but the discussion above suggests that this is all a little too simplistic: here, history is used to create the present. The relationship between Erythrae and Antiochus might well be the result of a conscious decision, almost of a manufacturing of history. Rather than the past determining the present, here, present considerations determine the past.

When we study history, then, we are also engaged in a process which helps to develop modern identity – in the standpoint we take on certain issues, for example, or in what we choose to study. Thus, when we choose to condemn a particular historical event, we are expressing contemporary values, but, at the same time, developing our beliefs by engaging with particular issues. Although our opinions on history are derived from contemporary beliefs, this same history helps create, and then perpetuate, notions of, say, what is acceptable or unacceptable.

The example of Antiochus and Erythrae shows us something else too: the past can be a safe place to locate dialogue which might be contentious. City and king used it to work through contemporary differences, and perhaps for us history can be something we use to create an agreeable present. History is a field in which we can work through contentious issues, and deal with problematic topics and ideas, in an emotionally less charged environment. Indeed, perhaps there are modern debates which would benefit from participants reaching a historical consensus – issues like immigration spring readily to mind.

History, then, doesn’t really make us who we are, not in any predetermined way at least. Rather, we choose who we are – but history helps us to make those decisions and to carve out our own identity. At my university interview I was asked, ‘history is dangerous; why do you want to study it?’, but, whilst we all realise that history can create problems, I like to think that we can use it in constructive ways too.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might enjoy a short film about Alexander the Great done in the style of a modern news report. Check out olympusnews.weebly.com and follow @olympusnews on twitter!

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The Grand Tourist

Never let it be said that Res Gerendae refuses to address real-world issues and provide practical careers-oriented advice, confining itself to the ivory tower of Classical academia: today, I want to share with you some of my own personal experiences in the Big Wide World of Work. Those of you who have no interest in the PwCs, BLPs or PLCs of this world, fear not though, because when I finished my BA back in 2010, I didn’t pursue any of those professions. Instead, I ran away to sea.

All those years ago, I was hanging around Cambridge a few weeks after my graduation when my dissertation supervisor sent me an email, asking whether I was interested in a job opportunity over the summer. I was, not least because I wanted to start a Master’s that autumn and needed all the money I could get. It wasn’t much later that I found myself landing in Athens Venizelos airport ready to start work on a cruise ship.


Our ship, visiting some ruins.

‘What as?’, I hear you cry. Cabaret singer? Pool attendant? No, no. The ship I was to work on was not only smaller than most (300 passengers, not 3,000) but specialised in historical tours of the Mediterranean, and I was to work in their land excursions department. In short, this involved organising, but crucially also accompanying, the tours to various sites of archaeological, historical or general interest. Not the paid holiday it sounds, by any means, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

In the interests of Master’s funding, I ended up working on board for a year or so, on and off, and was able to visit some amazing places. Prior to that summer, I had visited Crete as a six-year-old, and Rome as a third-year undergraduate, but now I saw places like Athens, Mycenae, Delphi, Pompeii, Ephesus, Delos, Syracuse, Split and Istanbul for the first time – and not just once, but repeatedly as the ship traced familiar routes several times over. I am no archaeologist, but the familiarity gained by regular visits to such sites has been invaluable to me since in appreciating their background and context. There were also some more unusual destinations: I only visited Carthage (modern Tunis), Baalbek (in Lebanon) and the Egyptian Valley of the Kings once, but they stick in the mind and are places to which I would love to return. Some other visits are less likely to be repeated very soon: Leptis Magna in Libya, Palmyra in Syria and even Mithridates’ last refuge, Panticapeum in the Crimea, are all places I feel lucky to have visited when I did.

But why should you be interested in ‘What I did on my holidays’? Well, I would like to return you to my initial point: it was, of course, a joke to describe ‘working on a cruise ship’ as experiencing the Real World beyond studying Classics, but it did bring me into contact with all sorts of ‘Real World’ people with an interest in the subject, both those coming to it as enthusiastic visitors and those working in the tourism industry. The latter were by and large very knowledgeable individuals, capable of keeping up with the latest scholarly research in their (often quite broad) respective fields, while the former were, quite naturally, mostly not.


More columns.

Many did, of course, come with a passion to find out about the Ancient World, but many were simply on holiday. For all my years of study, and all my previous visits to these locations, if I was asked a question on site, it was more likely to be ‘Can you take a photo of me?’ or ‘Do you know where the loos are?’ than ‘Is that column Doric or Ionic?,’ let alone anything more complicated. Of course, there were specialist guides and even visiting lecturers to ask that sort of thing to, but it did pose the question why people are ‘interested’ in Classical sites at all. What is the appeal of ruins to anyone other than an archaeologist? Do tourists come to marvel at their survival? Or because they are picturesque?

Greek temples are a good example. Countless passengers would, after travelling round Greece and Southern Italy, express a common sentiment: “Not Another Bloody Temple.” I could sympathise, but what kept me interested wasn’t the ancient contexts, religious cults or architectural terminology; rather it was the different modern approaches taken in each case. Some temples were left much as they were found, which could range from crumbling ruin to surprisingly intact. Others were held in their state of semi-decay by props and clamps. Others still were rebuilt from the scattered remains, or even ‘restored’ with new stone, like the Parthenon. Behind each were presumptions about why people came to see them: to learn how things ‘really’ were then, to gaze, as if at Ozymandias’ feet, at the last remains of Antiquity, or just to take a nice picture?

Interior of the Temple of Neptune from the North-East, G.B. Piranese, 1778 (currently in the Sir John Soane's Museum, London)

Piranese’s Holiday Snaps.

I don’t mean to disparage the last motive as a rationale for tourism. Many aesthetes embarked on the Grand Tour of Classical lands in the 18th and 19th Centuries for just the same reason. Others, for all that they knew their Latin and Greek authors better than most modern tourists, were no more serious scholars, and were motivated no less by their own contemporary interests. My point, I suppose, is that it is only because of this less ‘worthy’ interest and enthusiasm for the Ancient World that Classical scholarship can continue to exist.

What goes for archaeological remains, goes in large part for all of Classical literature and thought too. The reason Classics and Ancient History are still worthwhile pursuits are because of the ongoing interest that is shown today by millions of visitors to ancient sites and readers of Classical literature. Nor does everyone who goes to these places or reads these books want to become an expert but the job of the ‘professional’ Classicist is to explain why these things still interest us, not just to fellow experts, but to the wider public too. The old ivory tower of academia may be a cliché, but certainly one that seems to have the ring of truth after hours holed up in the library: some time in the ‘Real World’ is often just what’s needed.

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War and Strife in Ancient Philosophy: Graduate Philosophy Conference

On the 27-28th March,  the Faculty of Classics will be hosting its fifth annual graduate conference in Ancient Philosophy.

Achilles & PenthesileaThe theme of this year’s conference will be War and Strife in Ancient Philosophy. This was a central important topic for ancient philosophy (unsurprising, when you think of all the war that was going on back then), most obviously for political philosophy: even if you’re building an ideal city, you need to guard it against external and internal foes. But it’s also frequently used to illuminate more theoretical parts of philosophy: for Heraclitus, War is ‘father and king of all'; for Empedocles, Strife is one of the fundamental cosmic principles. We want to approach this topic from both of these angles: how ancient philosophy thought about war as a topic in its own right, and how it used martial metaphors to illuminate other areas of philosophy.

The conference will be held in Cambridge, on March 27th-28th 2015. For more information, plus Call for Papers, please see our website.

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Classics in South Africa: a personal view from somebody who didn’t know anything about it before going there and still doesn’t know very much

I’ve recently returned from a conference at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. A lot of people in Cambridge clearly regarded this as a rather dubious trip. The way people said ‘You’re going to a conference in SOUTH AFRICA?’, rather reminded me of the ‘A Tiger! In Africa?’ scene from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.

Just as tigers stereotypically live in Asia and Los Vegas, so classicists are stereotypically in Europe, North America, and Australasia (even the last group probably has good reason to feel forgotten.) In a sense, they had a point: what were a bunch of classicists doing at a conference in suburban Gauteng? Like all good questions, this requires a bit of history to answer, which I will shamelessly crib from Michael Lambert’s highly informative book The Classics and South African Identities  (Bristol, 2010)

The continent of Africa was, of course, far from untouched by classical antiquity. Those of us who work (as I increasingly do) on early Latin Christianity should always be mindful of the fact that most of sources lived not in Europe but in Africa, and that many of them were ethnically not European, but Berber. It was almost certainly in north Africa that the Christian scriptures were first translated into Latin. Continue reading

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Will Comic Book Fans Read Ancient Poetry? – Graphic Novelising the Metamorphoses

businesscard_template_ukIt is a commonly accepted rule in the comics community that the formula for the perfect webcomic is mundanity + magical-realism. It is a rule that holds true for everything from so-called ‘sitcom’ or ‘slice of life’ comics, where any series that doesn’t include a magical animal or talking inanimate object is laughed out of the room,* to fantasy adventure comics that often try for a more complex blend of magic and/or science fiction with a cynical self-awareness, which constantly refers the reader to the real world and makes fan-children squeal in delight.** As a comics fan (and a webcomics fan, in particular), I know and appreciate this fact quite well; indeed it is because of this blending of the mundane and the magical that I feel so exhilarated by webcomics. It is not just webcomics, however, that make me feel this way. The Metamorphoses of Ovid captivates my imagination through similar means to the webcomics: it blends the most human of elements (love/lust, anger, sadness, joy, conflict etc.) with supernatural elements (divine power, magic, natural wonders and more). It exhilarates me, challenges me, inspires me, repulses me and then draws me back into its world in a way little else has. For this, I can say that the Metamorphoses is truly my favourite book. As most people will understand, I want to share my favourite book with anyone who will listen; the problem is that most people aren’t interested in a 2000+ year-old poem. They don’t see how its stories and values could affect them today; they don’t think the material will be relatable; most importantly, the majority of people today can’t read Latin. Translations are little help, being often densely packed with big words that send the average person to the dictionary a half-dozen times before they finish a page. I wanted to share this story with people in a way that would make the poem new again; I wanted to inspire and exhilarate others the way I had been myself; I wanted people to get excited about reading the Metamorphoses the way they do when reading Homestuck, Questionable Content and other popular webcomics. Fortunately, I happened to own a Wacom Bamboo Graphics Tablet and a copy of Photoshop. Continue reading

Posted in Classics and pop culture | 2 Comments

On thinking about wine

Yesterday, it was Thanksgiving Thursday in the United States.  On Thanksgiving Day, I often think about wine.  It is a day many associate with the drink.  Beaujolais Nouveau, a bland and generic vin du primeur, is released in the week leading up to the holiday and, thanks to a marketing strategy straight from the house of De Beers, promoted as the traditional Thanksgiving wine.  For me though, it is the memories of spicy Burgundies and rich Bandols that are hard to shake.

wine cup symposiumAs a committed wino, I think about wine quite often, but yesterday I thought about thinking about wine. A school boy error, perhaps.  Most authors of books about wine I have read would, no doubt, reproach me.  Wine is about unabashed hedonism, they say, not a subject for jejune philosophising or ersatz self-seriousness.

That, at least, has been the response by some of the wine establishment to the recent uptick of interest in the ‘philosophy of wine’.  Clive Coates, whose books on Burgundy, though idiosyncratic, have taught me a great deal, called a recent collection of philosophical essays on wine ‘a load of pretentious rubbish, and not very elegantly or comprehensibly expressed at that’.

Mr Coates may not think philosophy has much to do with wine, and, at least in part, it is hard to disagree.  The word ‘philosophy’ has been diluted to the point where its commonest use is preceded by the word ‘my’ and followed some deeply boring and yet, still horrifying, life story couched in the form of sage advice.  It is easy to think that calling a book ‘the philosophy of wine’ contributes to the difficulty those with an interest in philosophy have in explaining what philosophers actually do. Continue reading

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Classical Gothic

OtrantoGothic literature started in 1746 with Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. That’s the orthodox line, the version you’ll see at the British Library exhibition. But it’s notoriously difficult to pinpoint the origins of literary genres; especially one as fuzzy and hard to define as ‘Gothic’. While there was certainly a definite tradition that started with Otranto, one thing that came quite clearly out of the exhibition was that the further you get away from that, the less cohesive and well-bounded that tradition becomes. Where do you draw the lines? Is Weird Fiction Gothic? Sometimes or always? Are zombies? What’s the difference between horror and Gothic? These aren’t questions I mean to answer – I don’t think they necessarily have simple answers – but if you include some of the more debatable offshoots of the tradition after Walpole, why not some things beforehand?

What I’m coming down to is this: is there such a thing as Classical Gothic? Continue reading

Posted in Discussion, Museums | 4 Comments