Learning in the Cathedral Close

A few months back, some old school friends and I met up again after 27 years apart. There was much to talk about and we enjoyed many laughs. We have promised to meet again not too long from now: certainly there is no plan to wait another 27 years before our next meeting all together. A long time ago, we had all been boarders and choristers together at school in Winchester, where our school fees were mainly covered by the Dean and Chapter of the cathedral in exchange for several years of hard but life-enriching work. We had lived together 11 months of the year between the ages of 9 and 13, singing in 7 services per week, while taking part in countless rehearsals, recordings and concert performances – and much more besides. We also went away on tours abroad – most memorably to Australia and the USA. Doing all this was an incredible and life-forming experience which left its mark on all of us in different ways, but in ways of which we all seem to be very conscious.

The school we were privileged to attend was, then, a home as well as an educational site to us. And the site in question occupies a beautiful location, inside the Cathedral Close of Winchester itself, a short walk from the medieval cathedral building. The bells of the cathedral could sometimes be heard after lights-out through our dormitory windows. And our sports fields were surrounded by the amazing ruins of Wolvesey Castle, the site of a medieval palace. It would be difficult, over years spent attending the school, not to pick up a sense of wonder at the grand sweep of history on display in the architecture all around you: the sights and even the sounds of the place put you directly in touch with ages gone by and with the passage of time. And of course there was the music we had come to the Close to sing: everything from medieval plainsong to the late twentieth century compositions of William Walton and Judith Weir. We even sung compositions by our own choirmaster David Hill, and one of the lay clerks, Francis Pott. Old blended with new, the splendour of the past enriched by the innovations of the present. It was a spellbinding experience – and one I have written about a little elsewhere.

At the heart of the education of those in the school was, of course, our interaction with our teachers – and there was perhaps no more influential teacher in the school at the time I was there than our quirky but brilliant English teacher Mr Robin Perry. I learnt when meeting my friends that Mr Perry had sadly passed away a couple of years ago, aged only 60, and it was partly with him in mind that I decided I wanted to write up a few memories about life in the school, and about him as a teacher. Others have already written of their fond memories of Mr Perry elsewhere; the following are a few of my own.

Mr Perry was unusual for how he took the trouble to relate to us boys as individuals: he used our first names (not all teachers did), sometimes giving us nicknames; he laughed and joked with us; most importantly, though, there was a sense that he was treating us all seriously as young minds – not so much as boys, but as young adults capable of interesting thoughts of our own. I cannot remember him ever shouting. Certainly he could get cross, but he wasn’t one to lose his rag. He would speak of being ‘disappointed’ with us if we got out of line, but he didn’t use aggression or harsh words (something other teachers did use, at times!).

I remember well the thoroughness of his marking: at the end of our assignments, paragraphs of slanted red writing would make an appearance, thoroughly feeding back thoughts on what we had submitted. This must have taken him hours to do for each pupil, but do it he did – and it had a big impact. Every piece of English work I submitted was done in the knowledge that it would be thoroughly absorbed and scrutinised. This teacher was going to turn what I’d done inside out, so I’d better give a good account of myself.

As a teacher now myself, Mr Perry’s approach to feedback is exactly the approach I try to use also: treat what a pupil has written with the utmost seriousness and give them a full and honest sense of what you think about it. It wasn’t until university level that I started to receive feedback on my own work like that which I had received from Mr Perry – but I had seen that it was possible to be similarly thorough and incisive before that stage.

Mr Perry taught me to read. He supervised the small bookstall in the school library, from where you could buy books on certain days of the week (I remember doing so every so often). If you went to make a purchase, he’d ask you about your choice and what drew you to it. You were always made to think and probe your own reasons. I remember his pleasure on seeing that I had selected a book by Paul Theroux on one visit to his stall! I was, I think, 11 at the time. He stocked some fun and oddball choices alongside more serious reading: I remember once buying a romance novel by Jackie Collins – hardly an obvious item of stock in an all boys’ boarding school. And I remember reading it too!

In class we studied John Buchan’s novel The Thirty Nine Steps. In some ways this was a conventional text to explore with schoolboys: exciting, with political and military themes, if a little timeworn; well-known, and centred on a male protagonist. The way Mr Perry taught it wasn’t at all conventional, though: he used TV! While reading the text we got to know three different film productions of the novel – one made in the 30s by Hitchcock, one from 1959, one in the late 70s starring Robert Powell.

I remember being infuriated when we did this at how Mr Perry would stop the excerpts of video from these different productions which he showed us in class to engage in long discussions about minute details of what the different film directors were up to. He pointed toward the different ways in which they departed from the original novel; the nuance and detail of how particular special effects were achieved; the camerawork; the various ways a director can manipulate or subtly suggest things to an audience; to gaffes; to plot holes. Seeing the humanness, the directorial decision-making and skills, the mistakes, and the striking differences between the 3 productions laid bare like this was a really memorable educational experience: for all of us who had grown up in an age saturated by television, seeing the workings of this medium scrutinised and laid bare like this was a revelation. It gave us the distance we needed properly to criticise this medium, even as we were now better able to admire the skills involved in achieving particular effects, and more aware of the ideological agendas in play in given productions.

Another thing about Mr Perry was his quirkiness. I remember a lesson in which we were ushered out of our classroom and into the school hall next door. We had to remove our shoes, form a circle and close our eyes. He made us zone out and try to picture a scene of complete serenity. A few minutes later we had to join with partners and imagine ourselves falling backwards, trusting that someone would be there to catch us. Would they in fact be there? That was the question he wanted us to consider. We had to think about trust, assumptions of trust, learning to live while trusting those who might not, in fact, be entirely reliable behind our backs! Or at least, that’s what I think the message of that lesson was. What was going on that day was never really fully spelled out to us!

Teaching at our school was Mr Perry’s life, or at least a very big part of it. He was involved with boarding, with Saturday games, with teaching Latin as well as English. Teaching was his vocation and, when I was at the school, he lived it fully. I have often thought over the years about how I would like to thank him for all he did for me and my own studies. In a job interview several years back, I was asked if I could think of a memorable teacher from my own days of schooling, and what it was about them that made them special. It was a good question. I immediately thought of Mr Perry and spoke about him: his attention to detail, his devotion to each student, his quirkiness, his insistence that a student must really think about what they write and about what they see. Really think. And bring this into play not just in the classroom but beyond it.

It is a sadness that I never got to say these things to the man himself. No doubt he would have played it all down, modest as he was.

I wrote at the outset of this post about the sense of history I gained from attending the Pilgrims’ School, and about how it was impossible not to absorb this and be a little mesmerised by it, particularly as a chorister in the Cathedral. I’d come to the school from the suburbs of a nearby city, Southampton. The grandeur of the Cathedral Close was not something I’d previously known. I’d also come into the school as a Catholic, an identity of which I’d grown quite conscious in my years at Catholic primary school and particularly since receiving my first holy communion. Now I was part of an Anglican world, one which was a natural environment for almost all of my (Anglican) school friends. Fortunately I did not feel very much like a fish out of water in their company: there were a few different traditions and prayers to get used to in the cathedral, and strangely enough I could now no longer receive communion (Anglicans don’t do this until they’re confirmed, I learned), but much of the music we sung would have been very much at home in the Roman Catholic world – particularly the Masses we sung for Sunday morning Eucharist. It was certainly not difficult for me to discover a deep and lasting affection for the whole Anglican choral tradition, a tradition which my family and I had never known before I arrived in the Cathedral close. And as a liberal Catholic family, it was a tradition we were very much open to getting to know.

As a parent of young children now myself, I ask myself whether I’d want my own children to go away and board to be choristers in a Cathedral. Of course there may be no option to do this anyway, as competitive voice trials would need to be passed for any such thing to happen – but the question occurs to me even so. I think it would be difficult to say goodbye to a 9 year old for seven nights of the week, eleven months of the year, just as it was for my own parents (albeit that they came to visit each week and enjoyed attending additional services from time to time also). But, then, when I think of the most formative period of my education, I think directly of those years in the Cathedral Close and what they did for me. I had pleaded with my parents to be able to sing and board: they had been reluctant, unfamiliar as they were with the whole tradition of singing and boarding, to allow it – but I myself, aged 8, had gained a clear sense of how exciting it all was, and wanted to be a part of it. So they had let me. If my own son or daughter wanted the same, could my wife and I turn them down?

And if you could add teachers like Mr Perry into the equation – teachers who would inspire and encourage while really making you think – then the attractions of such a schooling could only grow.

If I were constructing an ideal society, all schools might be located in a beautiful and inspiring setting like the Cathedral Close, where culture in the form of beautiful music and architecture, as well as religious tradition, would blend effortlessly with an exposure to the innovations, challenges and achievements of modernity (and postmodernity). And all schools would have inspiring, highly dedicated staff who wish to challenge and nurture each student as an individual – staff like Mr Perry. In the world as we find it, the standards of these ideals are not always realised – but that, I guess, is at least something we can work on.

On Antigonising

Around 15 years ago, I was sitting in a lecture theatre, listening intently to a debate that was going on between the speaker and several academics who had come to hear the talk. I forget the precise topic of the talk that day, but the general theme was the idea of ‘faith’ in the different religious traditions of the ancient Graeco-Roman world. I had an experience of zoning out completely from the discussion that day and imagining what it would be like for debate of the sort I was hearing – articulate, careful, respectful of difference and alternative viewpoints, yet wholly trenchant and intellectually honest – to be the ‘norm’ in our public debates in the world at large.

This thought left me sad. Here I was, together with just a few dozen people, hearing a fascinating debate – yet I had a clear sense that exchanges of the sort I was hearing would be so fruitful for so many more people to hear and be inspired by. What exactly was it that might inspire? Well, perhaps a sharp sense of the high standards one might hope for – or even come to expect – in debate, the (deep) level of questioning to which one can subject an important topic, the deep level of respect one can give fellow debaters who hold positions opposed to your own, even as you subject their ideas to question; and the sense that, at the end of it all, everyone can meet for a coffee and chinwag in the foyer.

No doubt there are many good reasons not to open all university lectures to the general public. But practicalities aside, a sense of lost possibilities remained with me. There was a role, I started to feel, for serious intellectual engagement to be brought more directly to the general public at large. There needed to be a more direct bridge between the lecture theatre, the seminar room and public discourse. If this could be done, I felt strongly, the results would be good – for individuals, for society, for democracy. Perhaps, unconsciously, I was channeling something I had picked up from my own father here: he had wanted to bring education in his subject – Economics – more directly to young people, and had started a magazine in the 80s (the Economic Review) to do just this.

As fate would have it, when the idea for a public forum for doing Classics was being mooted among some friends back in 2020, the chance to make concrete the sense I had had all those years ago that something important could come out of bringing Classics-related debate alive in public came into view. I had already been doing some public writing on my own blog, which I had been motivated to start while teaching Classics at Bedford school. I had been amazed by the viewing figures I had been receiving for the blog: there seemed to be so much interest from around the world in what a teacher of Euripides, Sophocles and Virgil had to say. I had mainly been writing the blog for my students and friends, but the experience of writing it showed there was an interest in what I was doing beyond this limited sphere. The presence of other, established Classics websites confirmed there was a big worldwide appetite for the Greeks and Romans, and it wasn’t long before I connected with some like-minded fellow enthusiasts to bring something bigger than my little blog into being.

Classics, as I and my fellow editors of Antigone wish to see it, is an ennobling, humane and multifaceted discipline. It consists in the scrutiny of all areas of human life in the ancient Mediterranean world, and how the ideas and practices of subsequent history – and indeed our own era and lives – are touched by this inheritance. For the past 2 years it has been a thrill to share our love for the subject as conceived along these lines with the public at large.

For me personally, there remains a strong sense that Antigone is there to improve things: to help people improve their understanding of Classics, certainly, but also to encourage high standards in the practice of public reasoning and debate. We are an ‘open forum’ precisely in the sense that we want anyone to feel they can write for us, and that they can address any topic under the Classical sun when they do so. We welcome civil, articulate, respectful, yet trenchant disagreement – and this is something that any contributor to Antigone should feel emboldened to engage in. It’s in our mission statement for a reason: because it’s the good stuff – and if it happens in lecture theatres and seminar rooms, it should happen also in the world at large, and certainly in academic fora for the general public.

Editing Antigone has been an extraordinary learning experience, at least for me – as well as a lot of work. It has put me in touch with many good people across the world, and has made me aware of the sheer quantity of goodwill which exists out there for the subject and its practitioners. Many eminent people have supported the project, but so too have many schoolchildren, students and non-specialists – and this is equally important, if not more so, to all of us who edit the site. The presence of all these groups seems like a decent indicator that the bridge between the lecture theatre and public discourse is being traversed, with positive results – and hopefully increasingly positive results – for all concerned. The world at large needs high quality discourse, debate and respectful exchange of ideas, as well as a strong understanding of what the ancient Mediterranean world was like and how it influences our own. Antigone will continue to make this happen!

At Home

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading the opening chapters of Adam Sisman’s superb biography of John Le Carré (aka David Cornwell) that the topic of fatherhood is lodged in my mind this evening. In those chapters Sisman presents a bewildering and at times hair-raising picture of the approach to fatherhood of Cornwell senior (Ronnie to his friends). It is a picture that involves long periods of absence, sudden, drunken appearances at vital moments, single parenthood, the absence of a settled family home, expensive cars, unpaid school fees, strong opinions about careers, dispatching children on strange errands over international borders, standing for parliament, building a property empire – and more besides. Not bad for 100 pages of reading so far, but what must it all have been like to live through as a young child? ‘Not very easy’, is the answer that comes through in Sisman’s account, which I won’t expand upon further to avoid spoiling the fun of reading it for anyone interested.

I hope my own approach to fatherhood doesn’t share much in common with that of Cornwell senior. I’ve reflected a little on this, this evening, during some moments spent with my own 3 year old son. The scene was the downstairs study, where he’d found me sitting at my desk, after bath-time. He’d come to fetch me to read him his bedtime story – but he asked if he could come and listen to some songs with me at the desk first. Listening to music together is something we did frequently when he was very small – but not something we’ve done very recently. I found it moving that he would want to do this now, and it called to mind some of the hours we’d spent when he was just 1, listening to many Paul Simon and Bob Dylan songs together.

Tonight it was the turn of Billy Joel – and I found on youtube two appropriate-seeming songs which deal with the topic of night-time and being asleep: River of Dreams and Goodnight my Angel (Lullabye). He, listened, transfixed, to both, asking for the second song after the first had finished. He then gave me a hug and asked again for his story. I felt a tear in my eye during the Lullabye. There are moments in a parent’s life when you become conscious of how you are doing for your own children what your own parents did for you – patiently, repeatedly, lovingly – many years ago (even if the memories of their actually doing this now feel very thin…in fact, this very thinness, and the ephemeral nature of one’s memories, somehow make them more moving).

Joel’s lyrics had a part to play in stirring my emotion. Simple, direct and gentle, the following words create a moving effect:

‘Someday your child may cry, and if you sing this lullaby
Then in your heart there will always be a part of me
Someday we’ll all be gone
But lullabies go on and on
They never die
That’s how you and I will be’.

Family life can feel at times like a subversive experience. Subversive of the market forces against and within which individuals strive to forge lives and careers in our societies, forces which incline people to learn to see and measure each other in terms of competitive frameworks, in terms of productivity, in terms of costs and benefits. Family life can also feel subversive of the priorities of ideologues who would push public discourse and others’ habits of thought and speech in the directions they desire. The love of a parent for a child, and of a child for a parent, exchanged in the quiet of a home, should always cast these economic and political forces in a stark and discomfiting light. The power of the marketplace and the power of discourse may be considerable, but in terms of the human heart, both seem of scant meaning or value when set in context against the unselfish spontaneous love between parent and child, the purity and selflessness of which might better be taken as an organising framework around which to structure our societal values. To the person who finds in this notion only ‘bourgeois’ fantasy, and who is resolutely determined to see love (only) as a ‘political’ idea, I suggest they haven’t yet changed many nappies or read many Paddington Bear stories at bedtime.

There is a brilliant short story by Chekhov, ‘Home’, in which a father speaks to his young son at the end of a day. The story can be read here. It brings to the fore a similar message: one about the depth of feeling a father can have for a son, the sense of time and of generational awareness one starts to feel in relationship with one’s own children, the sense that life in the big picture is moving in tune with economic and political priorities far beyond one’s limited control, but that one can nonetheless find a kind of infinity and precious emotional depth when experiencing love with a child and trying to keep them safe and happy. The hope is that even when one is no longer around, one will somehow have managed to leave a good and permanent imprint of love and protection with one’s child, who will in turn continue to know and feel that bond in a way that no worldly force can touch. Love within a family, like all love, somehow stands outside time, as well as within it.

Year 12 Classics Essay Competitions 2022

As with 2021, here’s a post which will summarise the various year 12 Classics-related essay competitions for the year ahead.

Every year UK universities and colleges run a wide range of essay competitions. The competitions are mainly pitched at year 12 (i.e. lower sixth form) pupils as those pupils begin to think about what they might like to study at university level.

Classics departments do a good job of this. There are plenty of essays to enter for the student who can find them. And doing the essays is a great way to explore new and different subject matter beyond the regular syllabus and to try your hand in a fun competition.

The problem, for teachers as they encourage their students to enter these competitions (unless I am very much mistaken), is that they aren’t all advertised in one place. To help with this, I am collecting all essay competitions I come across here, for ease of finding them. I will update this list as and when new information is made available. Each competition below is either explicitly focussed on Classics or contains essay questions which admit of a classical focus. Alongside the essay competitions, I’ve included the odd reading competition etc.

Please do get in touch/add a comment below if I have missed any competitions which can be added to the list. And good luck to anyone entering!

Oxford Classics and Byzantine Studies Creative Writing Competition

Deadline: not yet announced – 27 May 2021 last year

Newnham College, Cambridge: Woolf Prize, Classics Prize, Archaeology Prize

Details here: https://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduates/newnham-essay-prizes/

nb. girls only, state school only

Woolf: deadline 11th March 2022 (5 entries per school)

Classics: deadline 11th March 2022 (5 entries per school)

Archaeology: 11th March 2022 (5 entries per school)

St John’s College, Oxford: Classics and Ancient History Essay Competition

Details here: https://www.sjc.ox.ac.uk/discover/news/classics-and-ancient-history-essay-competition-now-open/

Deadline: 3rd March 2022

New College of Humanities Essay Competition

A lot of prize money available here, but only one topic (art history) of direct classical relevance.

Details here: https://www.nchlondon.ac.uk/essay/

Deadline: 31st January 2022

Omnibus Sam Hood Translation Prize

Details here: https://classicalassociation.org/events/omnibus-sam-hood-translation-prize-2022/

Deadline: 8th July 2022

Gladstone Memorial Essay Prize, ICS

Details below, deadline 8th July 2022

St Hugh’s College, Oxford Mary Renault Prize

Details here: https://www.st-hughs.ox.ac.uk/prospectivestudents/outreach/mary-renault-prize/

Deadline: Not yet announced – 30th July 2021 last year

ARLT Reading competition

Details here: https://www.arlt.co.uk/event-posts/reading-competition-2022/

Deadline: 25th February 2022

Lytham St Anne’s Branch Classics Competition

Details here: https://classicalassociation.org/events/lytham-st-annes-branch-classics-competition-final/

Deadline: 6th March 2022, 6pm

Cambridge and District Branch Ancient History and Class Civ Essay competition (Years 10-13)

Deadline: 25th March 2022

Classical Association Creative Writing Competition (11-18)

Deadline: 3rd February 2022

UCL Greek and Latin Essay Competition

Watch this space: last year deadline was 31st August

Trinity College, Cambridge Linguistics Essay Competition

Not available yet

Last year’s details here: https://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/essay-prizes/linguistics/

Last year’s deadline: 2nd August 2021

Trinity College, Cambridge, Robson History Prize

Not available yet

Last year’s details here: https://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/essay-prizes/history/

Last year’s deadline: 1st May

Gonville and Caius, Cambridge Linguistics Challenge

watch this space

Gonville and Caius, Cambridge History essay prize

watch this space

Last year’s deadline was 5th June

Girton College, Cambridge Humanities Essay Competition

Details here: https://www.girton.cam.ac.uk/humanities-writing-competition

Deadline: 18th March 2022

Peterhouse, Cambridge Vellacott History Essay Prize

watch this space: cancelled last year!

Corpus Christi, Cambridge Classics Essay Competition

Watch this space: didn’t run last year

Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge Classics essay Competition

2022 now open!

Details here: https://www.fitz.cam.ac.uk/study-us/undergraduate/opportunities-prospective-applicants/essay-competitions

Deadline: 1st March 2022

Gilbert Murray Essay Competition

Scottish pupils only

Details of last year’s competition here: https://cas.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/2020/08/13/gilbert-murray-essay-competition/

Blogging in 2021

2021 has been another year of the awful covid19 pandemic; it has not been a year of tremendous activity and publication on this blog. There is a relationship between these two facts. Because life during the pandemic has inevitably led to much greater time spent in front of a screen for teachers, the impetus to spend extra time in front of a screen writing blogposts has been sorely lacking.

Perhaps things will change in 2022 (I certainly hope they do) though early signs do not look promising. If more online teaching and learning lies in store, I will be sure to spend as much time as I can away from the screen! This will be important as there are now 2 youngsters to deal with in the household (January 2021 witnessed the arrival of number 2 – see below).

Despite the relative paucity of blogposts this year (this is only my fifth in the whole of 2021), it has nonetheless been a good year for the blog itself in terms of visitor numbers. By far the best on record, in fact (14,000 or so!). I’ll have my work cut out trying to improve on that next year, I suspect. I remain amazed at the levels of interest out there in many far flung corners of the globe to read what a British Classics teacher has to say about various classical topics. I hope regular readers continue to find the posts of interest (when they – now more occasionally – appear!).

In other news, 2021 has been the year in which the author of this blog has been involved with another website project: antigonejournal.com This site, which aims to broadcast interesting short articles on ancient Greece and Rome to a worldwide internet audience was launched in March. We featured articles by Stephen Fry and Tom Holland (among others) on launch day, and have continued to publish a stream of articles ever since (3 per week, in fact). I have contributed a piece of my own to Antigone, and a further piece will shortly be published in the new year.

The Antigone project has been another reason for my decreased activity here on my own blog: again, though, it has been amazing to see the appetite that’s out there in the wider world for Classics-related content of the kind Antigone has been making available. We have had a million views in our first nine months. Do give the site a follow if you haven’t yet come across it.

I wish all readers and followers of this blog a happy 2022 when it comes.

Catching my Breath

The summer holidays have brought welcome respite this year, as they do every year, but this year more than others. Having started a new job as a hod in London in January 2020, there wasn’t much time to settle in before the CAGs process, and all the challenges of online teaching and learning, kicked in. The first challenge of all, though, was moving into a house which was falling apart. Yes, best not to do this, I realise. But anyway: the result was that we needed to find an escape quickly, and only did so come May. Failed central heating in January, in the UK, with a 1 year old, isn’t great fun. Then, of course, there was the madness of the CAGs, and trying to get settled into a new role, to contend with too. We somehow managed!

And then there was this year. More online learning to contend with, and a new – and highly strenuous – process for public exams: TAGs. This time we teachers had to play the role of the exam boards, with all the paper setting, marking and moderating – and quality assurance provision – that that role requires.

It would have helped if all the exam boards had applied just one set of guidelines; if original papers had been made available; if more notice had been given that this is what we’d have to deal with. Delegating to teachers the task of setting and marking public exams (if that’s an acceptable way to describe what happened) had a significant impact on my timetable, as to those of many colleagues, and not just during working hours: countless late nights, mountains of paperwork, and no holidays until July, as work had to continue non-stop through the Spring holiday and Summer half term.

Now that it’s all over, I certainly hope lessons have been learnt from this year’s experience, as they plainly weren’t, really, last year, by those overseeing the process. In my own institution, we have emerged intact: the hard work has produced the intended outcomes, as the pupils – to their great credit – have done spectacularly well in very trying circumstances, and the exam boards are satisfied (the press, predictably, aren’t).

Amidst all the busyness the TAGs process (and the ordinary business of life in a busy school) has involved, my contributions on this blog have appeared with less frequency this year. There simply hasn’t been the time, especially as I’ve been cramming any spare moments I’ve had into family life and parental responsibilities, and the excitement of launching Antigone Journal, a new online forum for Classics, of which I am an editor, these past months.

However, now that I’m able to look ahead with growing excitement to being back in the classroom in September, this will perhaps change. I certainly hope so. For now, though, a quick reflection on what I’ve been up to this summer while attempting to ‘switch off’ (the inverted commas will perhaps seem appropriate enough!).

When the end of the summer term came, it was time to get down to some of the admin jobs I’d wanted to have time for, but hadn’t, over the past year and a half. Sorting out the department’s digital filing system and files; rewriting parts of the departmental handbook; redoing some of the schemes of work; doing various bits of uploading; drafting a document about department processes. All the fun stuff, in other words. That all took a couple of weeks, and involved a couple of hours a day.

My next job was to begin writing. I have been planning for a while now to start work on an accessible history of early Christianity in the period before Constantine. This history would begin its account by sketching a context – Greek, Roman, Jewish; political, religious, social – for Christianity’s first emergence.

Unfortunately this job was pushed off track by a straightforward problem: tiredness. I needed a rest. I was also aware that I had a lot of preparing to get done this summer before the new term begins. So I put the writing on hold, and enjoyed instead some r&r, some more time with family, and some time not writing, but reading.

Over the years I’ve grown increasingly impatient with dull writing, even if it’s on an interesting topic or if I’m sympathetic to the arguments being made, and this trend continued in earnest this summer. I’d read enough dull stuff in all the exam board guidelines and missives I’d received over the previous months to draw a line at the prospect of any more ugly or ponderous or flabby writing, however interesting the topic.

The annual Princeton University Press booksale (50% off all purchases) was a good event and I made a few purchases. But the book which gripped me most in the first part of the summer was the first volume in a series by the not-exactly-fashionable Cambridge historian Maurice Cowling, Religion and Public Doctrine in England. I don’t want to summarise the argument of the book, but its trenchant style, its forthright address of a major topic and major figures, and its willingness to be, well, provocative, for some reason struck a chord this summer. This is not to say I agree with some of what Cowling is up to in the book, though I do find parts of his analysis shrewd and convincing. But, in any case, the big reward of reading this book was to read someone who can really write (however polemically).

Aside from Cowling, I’ve been dipping my toe into some Tacitus and Virgil, and more recently into Plutarch, ahead of the new school year. More about my experience of these writers, perhaps, in a future post. What I will say here is that I haven’t previously spent enough time with Plutarch. His Lives (short biographies of major ancient political figures) are highly readable and interesting, as the 19th century was better at appreciating than have been the 20th and 21st. I have particularly enjoyed his life of Solon and am going to make my way through some others over the next few weeks. They are very accessible and I’d recommend them to any general reader.

A further stand-out among my summer reads has been Anthony Grafton’s New Worlds, Ancient Texts. Grafton is another historian who can really write, as I’ve discovered from reading a number of his books. So that was attraction number one here. But beyond this the topic of the book is itself one of remarkable interest. In essence, what impact did the discovery of the new world in the 15th-16th centuries have on traditions of scholarship and learning based on classical foundations? How did ancient learning now fit in to people’s understanding of the world? The answer to these questions is complex, but fascinating, and Grafton provides it with elegance and clarity. A model to aspire to.

The final components of my summer reading in recent weeks have been three brilliant ancient history books, two of which I’ve read before and have opted to revisit: Martin Goodman’s History of the Roman World from 44BC to AD180 and Elias Bickerman’s History of the Jews in the Greek Age. The first is a masterpiece of careful and acute explanation (as is most of Goodman’s writing); the second is a text I found quite a tricky read first time round a few years back, but which I am now enjoying a lot more (it’s difficult to say why, but I think I am now more willing to follow Bickerman’s sometimes complex layers of assumption and lines of reasoning than I had been previously).

The final book of the 3 is Deborah Kamen’s short book Status in Classical Athens (one of my Princeton UP sale puchases), which provides a thorough and punchy corrective/update to some of my ideas about the nature of social status among the population of fifth century Athens.

I hope to write again soon about the most enjoyable summer reading I have a chance to do. Reading, I have always known, can be such a great pleasure and indeed a privilege. Spending time with brilliant writers writing on important topics makes our lives better, I feel sure. I hope all readers of this blog are enjoying, or have enjoyed, a good break.

Eulogy for a Mother

I have wondered about sharing this but I have decided to do so despite some reservations. Part of my vocation as a teacher is to be a real human being for my pupils and, if I’m to live this out properly, it means being a real human being in the world at large. That’s what I take it to mean, anyway. Here then is a transcript of the eulogy I gave for my mother’s funeral just over 18 months ago now. It was in some ways the most difficult, sad and strange thing I have ever written; in others it was the easiest, happiest and most natural. I share it today on Mother’s day and as a record for all future Mother’s days. It’s an attempt to do some justice (however necessarily incomplete) to the life of a special person who will always be much missed.

One of my mother’s simple joys over recent years was to come here, to this church, to worship. She found it to be a warm and friendly place, and a space of special beauty. It is a place and a community that expresses the kind of Catholic, the kind of person, she was: open, kind, thoughtful and generous.

As many of you will know, Doreen Susan Foti was born in Boston, Massachusetts in April 1952. She was the daughter of an Italian-American family and grew up in what were pretty humble circumstances together with her two sisters, Camille and Connie, her Dad Ralph – Pa – and her Mum, Ethel – Ma. There was also a large extended family in the Boston area. She was an energetic and bright eyed child, intelligent and hardworking. During her teens, she would wake up at 5 or 6am each morning to master her schoolwork. The result of this work ethic was that she was a tremendous success at high school. She accordingly won a full scholarship to Wellesley College, an academically prestigious institution for women attended by the likes of Madeline Albright and Hilary Clinton, among many others. It was a stunning achievement.

But young Miss Foti wasn’t conventionally bookish. She was a city girl, with – according to those who knew her – a breezy confidence belying her years. As a teenager she went to hear the Beatles play when they visited Boston; and she was sure to accompany their performance, as was the custom, with her fair share of screams. She was also a cheerleader for the high school football team: many years later she still remembered the cheers.  

One of her contemporaries from her college years remembers being in awe of – to quote –her ‘style, spirit and urban chic’. She led several of her fellow freshmen out on excursions into the city of Boston, teaching them how to use the subway, riding every line and getting off at numerous stops. She knew the city well and she introduced it to her friends; but she also introduced them to her home, where they were fed a memorable Italian meal by her mother.

At just 21, she met a young Englishman who’d come to study in Boston, and who would soon become her husband. Once married, and with undergraduate and Masters degrees safely in hand, she left the US – together with Barry – and made the long voyage to England, which became her home. There were 5 happy years in Cambridge, followed by 25 in Southampton; for the remaining 13 she lived here in London.

Mrs McCormick, as she now was, worked as a clinical psychologist with the NHS for almost 30 years; her training was in Cambridge and Peterborough; but, on first arriving in the UK, she worked also as an undergraduate supervisor for psychology students at several of the Cambridge colleges. My father held a lectureship in the university, but he tells me my mother was an equal focus of attention at the college gatherings they attended together: she was the exotic American that people wanted to talk to. And she was exotic: not just in terms of her country of origin, which in 1970s Cambridge was something of a rarity in a way it wouldn’t be today; or in terms of her sparkling conversation and the insights she brought to High table as a young American just after the Vietnam war. But in terms of her beauty too, with her dark Italian features.

As a psychologist, my mother was in her element. She was a deeply caring person, someone who really wanted the best for anyone and everyone who came into her personal orbit. She had a very calm and patient ear; and, perhaps most importantly, she had a clear sense of what might lie beneath the surface in any given situation, and a willingness to try to bring this out – in a kind way, certainly, but – if possible – without mincing her words.

For much of her professional career, as a child psychologist at Southampton General Hospital, she worked in the most sobering of circumstances: helping children who were suffering from advanced cancer and severe diabetes and their families. I think it’s fair to say that this work left its mark on her. But she found herself able to meet the traumas and sufferings of her patients with gentleness and compassion, doing her utmost to help them work through the distressing circumstances in which they found themselves.

The remarkable calmness, courage and fortitude she displayed when confronting her own illness over the past months was born, at least in part, out of this work. It’s not uncommon that the dying seem to find it possible to deal bravely with their situations, while friends and family find it an altogether tougher ordeal to try to hold themselves together. That was certainly the case in this situation: not once did my mother breathe a word of complaint about her illness; not once did she struggle to face the facts. The anger and anguish which came so naturally to others of us when forced to confront the cruelty of her illness just didn’t take root in her. Misgivings of any sort really didn’t seem to register.

But then she’d been through the whole process so many times before, guiding and helping others to cope with the tragedies they found themselves confronting, living through the horror they were dealing with, alongside them, trying to guide, trying to help. I can only assume she’d managed to gain a kind of perspective the rest of us were always going to lack. Even with this experience behind her, however, her whole outlook over the course of her illness was still quite extraordinary: saintly, even.

It would not be possible to understand my mother without a clear sense of how she was, above all, a person deeply devoted to her family. She was a devoted daughter and sister – even from across the Atlantic ocean – and she was always on the phone to Connie and Camille, in particular. To my brother and I, she was endlessly giving and thoughtful as a mother. Cards and presents were regularly forthcoming – not just on our birthdays – while being at home meant being looked after by Mum: cooked for, fussed over, cared about. She had a special – and distinctly Italian – approach to the role of mother, an approach that mirrored that of her own mother, who’d been the lifegiving heart of her own domestic space. She was fiercely protective of us and utterly unselfish in her devotion as a mother – and she was proud too. This could sometimes feel embarrassing, but we knew how much we meant to her and we were happy to be so cared about. We never wanted for hugs and kisses. And what more could a child ask for than that?

To my father she was a constant and loving companion through 44 years of marriage: a source of wisdom and advice, of humour and fun, and of countless shared memories and delights. The deep love between them was present to the end and I know it remains still. Living in London together had proved exciting: it had meant going together to concerts, plays and operas; eating out and visiting the shops, including her favourite Luisa Spagnoli. And, for my mother at least, it had meant being a city girl once again – although this time, perhaps, not living quite as fast as she had in her youth, when she might be found, for instance, bombing down the highway in her VW Beetle, terrified passengers in tow, with hair flowing in the wind, and not a care in the world.

London life instead meant volunteer work at Westminster Cathedral and taking tours at Westminster Abbey; working for Westminster carers, counselling and helping people with complex personal problems; being part of her book club; seeing old friends and making new ones. It also meant completing her psychology PhD, something she was very proud to do, after all those years in practice. The PhD led to a pamphlet that has been used in the NHS, concerning dexamethasone, a drug used by leukemia sufferers.

Life for her was never dull, and she knew how to live it fully, while always finding a way to give of herself to others. If I were to sum this latter quality up in one sentence, I would say that she was always trying to bring something good into the world, and to the people around her; always looking for a practical way to do something positive. All of us, I would guess, will have known something of this feature of her personality, and of the down to earth but caring matter of factness which was so fundamental to her style.

My mother was many things to many people: a mother, a friend, a confidante; a wife, a companion, a carer; a sister and an auntie; a colleague, a reader of books, and a writer of papers, letters and emails; and, most recently, she became a grandmother. Most of all, though, she was a lover: a lover of life, of the people around her, and of good things. We miss her enormously, and she leaves an irreparable hole in our hearts. But we honour her and her memory if we remember that it simply wasn’t in her character to let sadness win, or to lose all hope; she never lost her faith, even in the most difficult moments. Her whole approach was to ask, in her matter of fact way, what she could do now, that was good, for those around her – and to get on and do it. That’s been my comfort in recent days, and it’s something I have increasingly felt she somehow managed to leave deeply imprinted in me, in a way I will always, I think, have with me. Perhaps others will feel in some way similar; if so, I hope it will be of some comfort to you, too. 


Year 12 Classics Essay Competitions 2021

Every year UK universities and colleges run a wide range of essay competitions. The competitions are mainly pitched at year 12 (i.e. lower sixth form) pupils as those pupils begin to think about what they might like to study at university level.

Classics departments do a good job of this. There are plenty of essays to enter for the student who can find them. And doing the essays is a great way to explore new and different subject matter beyond the regular syllabus and to try your hand in a fun competition.

The problem, for teachers as they encourage their students to enter these competitions (unless I am very much mistaken) is that they aren’t all advertised in one place. To help with this, I am collecting all essay competitions I come across here, for ease of finding them. I will update this list as and when new information is made available. Each competition below is either explicitly focussed on Classics or contains essay questions which admit of a classical focus. Alongside the essay competitions, I’ve included the odd reading competition etc.

Please do get in touch/add a comment below if I have missed any competitions which can be added to the list. And good luck to anyone entering!

Oxford Classics and Byzantine Studies Creative Writing Competition

Details here: https://www.classics.ox.ac.uk/article/creative-writing-competition-2021

Deadline: 27 May 2021

Newnham College, Cambridge: Woolf Prize, Classics Prize, Archaeology Prize

Details here: https://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduates/newnham-essay-prizes/

nb. girls only

Woolf: deadline 10th March 2021 (5 entries per school)

Classics: deadline 10th March 2021 (5 entries per school)

Archaeology: 10th March 2021 (5 entries per school)

St John’s College, Oxford: Ancient History Essay Competition

Details here: https://www.sjc.ox.ac.uk/discover/events/classics-and-ancient-history-essay-competition-2020-21/

Deadline: 25th Feb 2021

New College of Humanities Essay Competition

A lot of prize money available here, but only one topic (art history) of direct classical relevance.

Details here: https://www.nchlondon.ac.uk/essay/

Deadline: Feb 1st 2021

Omnibus Sam Hood Translation Prize

Details here: https://classicalassociation.org/events/omnibus-sam-hood-translation-prize-2021/

Deadline: 5th July 2021

Gladstone Memorial Essay Prize, ICS

Details below, deadline 10th July 2021

St Hugh’s College, Oxford Mary Renault Prize

Details here: https://www.st-hughs.ox.ac.uk/prospectivestudents/outreach/mary-renault-prize/

Deadline: 30th July 2021

ARLT Reading competition

Details here: https://classicalassociation.org/events/arlt-reading-competition-2021/

Deadline: 26th February 2021

Lytham St Anne’s Branch Classics Competition

Details here: https://lsaclassics.com/classics-competition-2/

Deadline: 11th February 2021

UCL Greek and Latin Essay Competition

Watch this space: last year deadline was 31st August

Trinity College, Cambridge Linguistics Essay Competition

Details here: https://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/essay-prizes/linguistics/

Deadline: 2nd August 2021

Trinity College, Cambridge, Robson History Prize

Details here: https://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/essay-prizes/history/

Deadline: 1st May

Gonville and Caius, Cambridge Linguistics Challenge

watch this space

Gonville and Caius, Cambridge History essay prize

watch this space

Last year’s deadline was 5th June

Girton College, Cambridge Humanities Essay Competition

Details here: https://www.girton.cam.ac.uk/lawrence-room

Deadline: 1st April 2021

Peterhouse, Cambridge Vellacott History Essay Prize

watch this space: cancelled this year!

Corpus Christi, Cambridge Classics Essay Competition

Watch this space: didn’t run last year

Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge Classics essay Competition

Details here: https://www.fitz.cam.ac.uk/study-us/undergraduate/opportunities-prospective-applicants/essay-competitions

Deadline: 30th April 2021

Gilbert Murray Essay Competition

Scottish pupils only

Details here: https://cas.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/2020/08/13/gilbert-murray-essay-competition/

Trithemius, and how not to revise

One of the best school assemblies I have heard during my time as a teacher concerned the subject of revision: how to do it, how to organise it, what works well, what doesn’t. It was an interesting subject for me for several reasons. At school I often found it difficult to sit still and concentrate, alone with my files and books: revision, in fact, was an activity I never felt I quite mastered (and this wasn’t simply a case of normal teenage activities feeling more interesting than sitting down for a couple of hours with a chemistry textbook). My technique, I was quite aware, wasn’t right.

As a teacher now myself, pupils will often ask me for advice on how best to revise, and of course I try to offer helpful suggestions. This involves rehearsing conventional wisdom about the importance of working in manageable chunks of time, with regular breaks, in accordance with a clear plan. I suggest that pupils concentrate, in particular, on revising what they’ve struggled with in the course of regular term-time study, and that they take the opportunity to ask teachers for extra resources they can use where relevant. I also suggest that attempts be made to talk things through with friends and/or family, so that revision doesn’t end up as a lonely experience. Vocabulary revision and key term learning, I suggest, benefits from this process.

Anyway, one of the highlights of the excellent assembly I heard was its address of a particular topic: the perils of just copying material straight from a textbook or from your notes, just to repeat it, verbatim, on a separate sheet of paper. This very common method, we were told, is a particularly unhelpful way of doing things. Well, I have to confess: this exact method was one of my main ways of doing revision when I was at school… and certainly it did always seem a bit – well – slow and ineffective.

What, then, to do instead? You’re better off, we were told, spending a minute or two casting your eye over a given page, then – from memory – trying to write out everything of importance that you can recall (before then cross-referencing it against the original). Then repeat if necessary. This way you can quickly build up your memory of the main take-homes on a given topic. In addition, you should develop your own questions and ideas relating to what you’re studying and use these to build up a sequence of questions and answers on a given subject. When it comes to straight knowledge acquisition (brute, fact-based learning for e.g. Biology or Chemistry exams), these seem to me excellent recommendations.

The memory of my old, obviously inefficient, approach to revision returned to me over the past few days in a quite separate context, as I was reading about the thought of the renaissance humanist scholar, the Benedictine monk and bibliophile Johannes Trithemius. In the words of the historian Anthony Grafton, whose brilliant book Worlds made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West I have been reading, Trithemius was a famous German abbot and spiritual counsellor who had to spend ‘the last 15 years of his life dealing with the accusation that he was a magician who employed diabolic help’. Just the sort of character I like to encounter in my bedtime reading.

What struck me most as I learned about Trithemius was his idea of the benefits of scribal activity, his sense of what just copying out a text (in a way analogous to what I had done as a revising teenager) can do. The monk who spends his time copying out holy books, Trithemius thought, ‘will not be burdened by vain and pernicious thoughts, will speak no idle words, and is not bothered by wild rumours’. Instead this monk will be ‘gradually initiated into the divine mysteries and miraculously enlightened’.

A copy of Trithemius’ De regimine claustralium

Sure, I had never copied out ‘holy books’. But still: it was interesting to see that the monastic discipline of copying texts was more than a means of just preserving the texts in question. It was a way, Trithemius thought, to gain access to the divine: ‘every word we write is imprinted more forcefully on our minds since we have to take our time while writing and reading’, he wrote.

The ‘imprinting’ Trithemius had in mind was not a simple matter of rote learning, then: it was of a training in spirituality, in ethics, and in theology. But knowledge acquisition clearly mattered too: copying the texts was a method of instruction, after all. Trithemius was no expert, obviously, on the cognitive psychology of test preparation (a topic on which teachers today can expect to be lectured). Naturally the approach he recommends wouldn’t have led to optimal preparation for 21st century school examinations.

The abbot was articulating his ideas at a time when the recent spread of the printing press across Europe had started to exercise a dramatic impact. The world of the monk copying texts in a cloister would soon be shaken to its core, not just by the printing press, of course, but by the 16th century reformers and their challenges to monasticism itself across western Europe.

Monks in a cloister

Trithemius was vigorously opposed to the use of printing presses: he saw them, among other things, as a recipe for idleness in monastic communities. The vision he cherished was of a Benedictine world in which ‘brothers do not spend their time in idleness, but practise the work of their hands’, i.e. by copying out texts. And there was a role for every member of a community here: while some would copy, others would bind the books in written codices, others would correct them, and others would rubricate them. This, he thought, is what ‘holy labour’ looks like.

This, then, was a world in which the copying out of texts wasn’t simply a dud revision technique, but an activity which might give life and shape to a community, an activity which could even be conceived as a way to achieve spiritual development.

From a present-day vantage point, it is interesting to me that the reading of texts, now, in the present (whether the texts are literary, religious, self help or otherwise) is still widely held to offer the same kind of potential benefit Trithemius attributed to copying. People can grow and develop emotionally through their reading: this much is still widely believed – and uncontroversially so – in the 21st century.

But, by contrast, the copying or writing out of a text is – now – not assumed (to my knowledge) to carry any similar benefits. Trithemius’ world of the text is not ours.

A very happy 2021 to all readers of this blog.

Every Jot and Tittle: Boris Johnson and Matthew’s Gospel

“We have taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation in a way that is complete and unfettered. From January 1 we are outside the customs union, and outside the single market”.

So spoke the British prime minister Boris Johnson, yesterday, on Christmas Eve.

These words formed part of a speech which seemed like an attempt to set out a bold new vision for the new year that is soon to come. If 2020 in Britain has been the year of covid, and of protracted negotiations with the EU, 2021 will be the year – according to the pm – in which the following can be looked forward to with confidence:

‘British laws will be made solely by the British Parliament, interpreted by UK judges sitting in UK courts… We will be able to set our own standards, to innovate in the way that we want, to originate new frameworks for the sectors in which this country leads the world, from biosciences to financial services, artificial intelligence and beyond….’

And so on. It’s fair to say that not every reaction to this speech was a positive one. Many were unconvinced by the promises delivered in the speech, many felt unable to accept its positive, optimistic tone. Brexit remains a fraught and fractious issue, and it would be surprising to see this change any time in the near future.

The language of Johnson’s speech, also, generated some confusion. What, many people asked, did ‘jot and tittle’ mean?

A copy of Tyndale’s translation of the Bible

The simple answer here, as indicated in the title of this blogpost, is that these words betray the influence of a phrase in the Gospel of Matthew. In Tyndale’s 16th century translation of the Sermon on the Mount, these were words that were used to translate the following section of Greek text:

ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ, ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου, ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται.

For indeed I say to you: until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota [Tyndale: jot], not one punctuation mark [Tyndale: tittle] will pass away from the law, until it all happens.

Mt 5.18

Judging from the response I’ve seen on twitter, knowledge of Tyndale’s words is not widespread. Political journalists and commentators, professors of philosophy, and many others besides didn’t understand – still less appreciate – the reference to ‘jot and tittle’. For many, the phrase constituted evidence of fancy but meaningless language – pretentious-sounding hot air to cover unimpressive policy-making.

This sort of objection didn’t really strike a chord with me. Partly this is because I am sympathetic to the idea that political speech can be made interesting and varied through the use of unorthodox turns of phrase like this. Perhaps if political language didn’t usually seem so couched in a cool tone of technocratic managerialism, more people would engage meaningfully with it.

Cosimo Roselli, The Sermon on the Mount

This said, I do find the pm’s use of this phrase in the context of his trade deal speech pretty jarring, for a couple of reasons.

First, because it doesn’t really work. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is delivering a vision of a ‘new’ law, one in which people will bless their persecutors and love their enemies (not just their neighbours). So, a new set of ideas is indeed being outlined. But in this most Jewish of gospels, great trouble is taken to show that this ‘new law’ does not usurp or supersede the old (i.e. the Torah): it simply extends an already existing moral and theological vision. For Matthew, then, there is no great rupture from established Jewish law. And indeed the whole point of the ‘jot and tittle’ line in the Gospel is that not even the tiniest element of Jewish law is going to be inapplicable until ‘it all happens’ (i.e. until the eschatological, ‘end time’, vision laid out in chapter 24 of the Gospel comes to pass).

To speak of jots and tittles would have worked well, then, if the pm had been trying to emphasise that he was keeping existing arrangements (here, the use of EU law) in place. But not, I suggest, in a context where he is getting rid of them.

Second, there is the simpler point that by invoking a phrase from the Sermon on the Mount, the pm was setting up a kind of comparison between himself and Jesus as a lawmaker, as a visionary. At Christmas. On the subject of Brexit (in world-historical terms, a somewhat minor subject; in local political discourse, an unhappy topic). Not the best of combinations if you’ve already gained something of a reputation as an egomaniac.

This, then, is why – for me – the pm’s reference to ‘jot’ and ‘tittle’ was a jarring one.

It has been an interesting prompt, though, to turn back to my commentaries on the Greek text of Matthew to take a look at the two words on which Tyndale based his translation in the original Greek: iota and keraia. Both words are used to signify smallness in this phrase.

Iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet – so that explains its use here. The meaning of keraia (in Tyndale’s rendering, tittle), however, is altogether less clear.

I translated it above as ‘punctuation mark’. But in their brilliant commentary, WD Davies and Dale Allison suggest a range of possible, more precise meanings. Keraia literally means a ‘horn’. Here this may mean scribal ornaments, or the small serifs or strokes that differentiated certain very similar Hebrew and Aramaic letters; or it may refer to accents and breathings; or to the very smallest Hebrew and Aramaic letter, yod; or to the Semitic equivalent of ‘and’ – the ubiquitous waw (w).

Whichever of these the word refers to, the overall point is the same: even the smallest parts of the Torah (i.e. Jewish law) will remain in place, even as Jesus announces his own vision of the meaning of the law.

The pm’s use of the phrase in the context of his trade deal with the EU sounds an altogether different note.

Roman Skin Colour

One of the most important and devastating book reviews I have read was published 10 years ago this year. It was written, I’m proud to say, by one of my doctoral supervisors, Professor Martin Goodman, and was published in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. The review explodes a number of claims made by the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand in his book The Invention of the Jewish People.

The review is delivered authoritatively and calmly, developing a multi-pronged case with reference to relevant facts. It can be read in reproduction here. Goodman explodes Sand’s various claims that

i) ‘there was no exile of the Jews in the aftermath of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in AD70’;

ii) ‘that the notion of such an exile was the product of Christian theology later adopted by the rabbis’;

iii) that modern Jews are all the descendants of gentiles from outside Judaea who converted to Judaism as a religion;

iv) and that the Jews were not, and should not now, be considered as a people until the Jewish people were “invented” in the nineteenth century.

Poussin, Destruction of Jerusalem Temple

Goodman’s arguments against these claims are made with careful reference to primary source materials, particularly the first century Jewish historian Josephus and the second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr. The need to marshal these sources carefully in order to deal with Sand’s wider arguments about modern Jewish genealogy was clear: Goodman’s isn’t just one reading of the surviving sources against another (Sand’s), but a carefully reasoned case against a clumsy, incoherent one. It’s on the basis of command of the relevant facts that Goodman can dismiss Sand’s claims effectively.

Reading this review was exciting for me not just because it was the work of my supervisor, but because it encapsulated the kind of ancient history writing I myself wanted to aim at doing. It showed how false modern claims about matters of great importance could be shattered by paying close attention to the ancient historical record. And it showed how false claims could be made – and be in need of trenchant correction – by eminent academic figures (Sand is a professor at Tel Aviv university). The need to question everything was all too apparent.

Fast forward 10 years to the present where, earlier today, on Twitter, Professor Mary Beard found herself arguing against some people who wanted to claim that ‘Romans were white’. It’s strange to me that some (I would think only very few) people can become attached to claims like this. The Romans conquered vast areas of land, across North Africa and the near east, very far beyond the confines of modern Europe. The Roman empire was a huge place and it contained a very diverse population.

The Roman citizenship was initially held only by a select few people, but in the 3rd century AD, under the emperor Caracalla in AD 212, it was extended widely. All free men across the empire now enjoyed Roman citizenship. They could thus legitimately see themselves very much as Romans (if they had not already done so), not just as the Romans’ subjects. Free women too enjoyed a (more limited) form of citizenship from this date.

Certainly, being Roman (in the sense of having a sense of Roman identity) was possible for people across the Roman empire long before Caracalla came along: Caracalla’s extension of the citizenship will merely have formalised a sense of belonging that will already have existed for many. People of diverse backgrounds from across the empire, for example, had long served in the Roman army, going far and wide as their roles demanded.

Bust of Caracalla

All this should make it easy to see why Romans weren’t just, well, ‘white’. And in Mary Beard’s rebuke of her disputants, she addresses this directly, writing: ‘some [Romans] were and some weren’t [ie. white]’.

But wait. It’s important to remember that modern racial categories (‘black’, ‘white’ etc) come to us with their own histories. The habit of dividing people between these particular categories (and endowing them with great significance) only really emerged quite recently in world-historical terms, over the past half milennium. The ancient Romans did not categorise themselves in this way. Certainly, they observed differences in skin colour, but they did not use labels such as ‘black’ and ‘white’ to divide up the membership of whole populations.

When Mary Beard writes that some Romans were ‘white’, she in fact imposes on the Romans a modern category that the Romans in question did not use to describe themselves as a group of people. For Romans, as was pointed out by another commenter on Beard’s post, the only sub-groups ‘white’ (Lat. albus, candidus, niveus) referred to, when used of skin pigmentation, were: a) some northern barbarian tribes; b) women’s skin; c) the unhealthy. Not, then, as an identity marker or as a description in anything like the way it can in contemporary societies. There is nothing, for instance, to suggest that the label ‘White-Italian’ would have made any sense to an ancient Roman.

Mary Beard will of course know all this. So it’s interesting to me that she chooses to ignore it, instead deciding to apply the term ‘white’ to ‘some Romans’. Perhaps it was an unintentional, hastily written phrase (though she didn’t correct it). Or perhaps she does in fact take the view that telling a more complicated story of the kind I have hinted at above is just, well, unnecessarily complicated. And that using modern racial categories of ancient people is reasonable practice.

Whatever the case may be, for me, the Romans’ own practice in this area makes a different approach seem preferable. If Romans didn’t call themselves ‘white’ in the way someone today might, I’m reluctant myself to do so when referring to them, not least because it may cloud my ability to get a grip on their understanding of their ethnic and cultural identities. The Romans just didn’t see the world in terms of black and white in a way that can seem natural to us now – and this, I think, offers a useful chance for reflection.

Here, then, on the question how we might best discuss Roman skin colour, is an important area where ancient historical subject matter intersects with contemporary issues of race and identity. As with Martin Goodman’s review of Shlomo Sand’s book, it’s an area that deserves careful handling. But, if done judiciously, it’s an area that can open genuine space for perspective.

Love Minus Zero: an attempt at Dylanology

Bob Dylan sings Love Minus Zero, 1965

I’ve been meaning for a while to share some thoughts on this, one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs. I decided I’d spend a few moments this weekend tidying up my initial musings – and here below is the edited version. The simple but beautiful melody of the song is something I don’t touch upon, but new listeners might enjoy the tune as much as Dylan’s words, which form the basis of my comments. The video too is worth viewing: Dylan manages to captivate some of the people he’s with when he performs the song.

I make no pretence at subject specialism in offering my reading of Dylan’s lyrics here. The reading is very much my own – and open to improvement! (Some confident words of comment on the song can be read here).

Here, for clarity, are the lyrics of the song:

My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
People carry roses
And make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge

The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring
The wind howls like a hammer
The night blows rainy
My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

This, I think, is a song about an exceptionally captivating woman who doesn’t feel capable of sharing her full self with the poet. She is a free spirit, utterly unpretentious, and she can’t be bought with romantic gifts. She speaks in understated but direct tones while adopting a position of remove from the everyday scenes she sees around her. She avoids the temptation to judge those she perceives as she looks on. She likes to encounter reality simply, vividly and without affect, embracing a total perspective that confronts things as they are, refusing to dilute the truth by idealising it. This makes sense, for she herself feels raw and undilutable: her determination to live and think truly produces the comparison with ice and fire, these being natural phenomena which are powerful, blunt, pure and difficult to tame.

All around her the world carries on its business – people live their lives, caught up in the words, stories, activities and environments which occupy them. They repeat things they hear, discuss gossip, and read books and draw their own conclusions as they go about their daily tasks.

Naturally things don’t always play out well: whenever the delicate edifice that constitutes civilised society breaks down, this woman is all too aware of it. The matchsticks out of which humans construct statues (i.e. objects to venerate) are redolent of the ominous statue of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel: this too turned out to be ephemeral, flimsy and prone to falter. All that is solid can melt into thin air. And mighty empires fall.

A series of further images evokes the vast array of human activity that stands to represent the ‘real’ – human life and human society in its true outlines.

The horsemen represent, in my reading, the movers and shakers in the world: the bourgeoisie. These horsemen stand – like knights on a chessboard – in superior relation to the ordinary pawns who can’t help but bear a grudge against them. The ceremonies performed by the horsemen perhaps symbolise the power to enact authoritative ritual in a society: perhaps this is what the pawns resent when they hold their grudge.

The dangling cloak and dagger and the madams’ candles, meanwhile, suggest intrigue, mystery, secrecy: the hidden side of life in this world. As for the ‘banker’s nieces’ (who seek perfection, and who seem to recall the banker’s niece in A portrait of a Lady), could they represent those around us who devote themselves to the unending pursuit of beauty, glamour, success, finery? This would fit with the idea that what they’re seeking is ‘all the gifts that wise men bring’ (i.e. presumably, gold, frankincense and myrrh, the gifts which symbolise the treasures of this world in the nativity).  

The woman of the song is acutely aware of this bigger picture. She sees it all, and she looks on wryly and imperturbably at the scenes which confront her. She winks at what she sees, but she doesn’t argue or judge. The wink, I think, is not necessarily a sign of ironical or callous indifference, for there seems to be a serious moral dimension to her approach.

On one hand, as already mentioned, she is careful not to judge or to argue about what she sees (she ‘knows too much’ to do this). On the other, while being keenly aware that success in being human necessarily involves failure, she paradoxically maintains a tough and pitiless view of how failure, in the final analysis, cannot constitute any kind of (worldly) success. Does she get this right? It might seem to clash with her position of knowing remove. Perhaps her wink is slightly callous after all.

This woman, despite sharing herself and her perceptions with the narrator, won’t allow herself fully to embrace his affections. She prefers instead to loiter, injured, in the person of Poe’s raven, at his window, in the pouring rain as it beats down on her. She refuses the warmth and safety of his home, despite her vulnerability – and so she remains something of an outsider to him, as she is to the world.

There is no suggestion that the narrator thinks this raven’s broken wing could be healed by coming inside, but perhaps the wing’s brokenness is what prevents her from flying off rather than any special sense that she would like to stay perched on his particular precipice, haunting him.

The narrator may happen to be a good and understanding listener who can appreciate this unusual individual’s depth at a moment when she is looking for someone capable of doing this. A convenient – and temporary – object of interest. This raven has set a clear limit around the scope of their interaction, making clear its limited boundaries.

The song’s lyrics are about finding and knowing a strikingly perceptive person who is capable of sharing the profundity of their reading of the world. But the lyrics also indicate the limits of this particular relationship: they respect the integrity of Dylan’s ‘love’ as she finds her own way. The raven will disappear into the night any time she wishes – if, that is, she can brave the dark while carrying her wound.

Being Solon (in the classroom)

It’s been a lively and fast-moving start to the new term. The reality of the covid pandemic has meant that everyone has been kept very busy with ‘hybrid’ teaching, observing various protocols, teaching with masks or visors on, and adjusting to a pretty different new routine. Thankfully there’s been plenty of fun and learning going on alongside all the covid-related adjustments.

I’ve been meaning for a few days to write up a little account of a couple of fun lessons I’ve had with my sixth form Class Civ classes over the past couple of weeks. Here it is.

‘The Democratic Battle’, by the contemporary artist Muvindu Binoy

The pupils have this term begun to study the emergence of democracy in ancient Athens. We began by reflecting on the nature of democracy as a form of government over the course of world history, about its unpredictable career – both as an idea and as a reality – over time, and about some of its varied forms; how it first appeared in the ancient world, before (largely) disappearing out of sight for many centuries, only to re-emerge rather recently (and in new and different forms), and with spectacular and far-reaching results that touch all our lives.*

The first part of the course involves learning about the reforms of Solon in the early 6th century BC, reforms which – so it appears through hindsight – put in place some of the key building blocks (economic, political, legal, ideological) of the fully-fledged democracy that would later emerge in the city of Athens and its surrounding territory.

My approach in teaching this material has been to see it as an opportunity not just to learn some interesting and important facts about the past, but to try to encourage pupils to develop their own ‘democratic’ temperaments and skillsets. To study a political reformer like Solon, to appreciate what he seems to have done (the record of our sources is not unambiguous) and what he seems to have stood for, should not – I think – just be about learning to write good essays or enhancing one’s picture of history. It can also be about building life skills and a sense of self and other.

With this in mind, among other tasks the pupils have attempted over the past weeks, they have been asked – each in turn – to play the part of Solon (as pairs), speaking and acting as the man himself as he delivers his proposals for reform.

An image of the Areopagus rock, where the council met, today

The setting in which they were asked to do this was the Areopagus council (a council consisting of influential aristocrats who – in various ways – presided over the city). This council had itself chosen Solon (as one of their own) to introduce some reforms in Athens, in order to allay the possibility of political revolution and the setting up of a tyranny.

But being chosen for the task wouldn’t necessarily make Solon’s job easy.

Pupils, playing the part of Solon, had to justify the reforms they wished to see enacted to some rather frosty council members (played by other pupils in the class, and me). We gave them some pretty robust opposition. Why these reforms? Why such radicalism? What, moreover, if anything, do the city’s aristocrats stand to gain?

More specifically: why should the debts of those who haven’t been able to repay them be, just, forgiven? Why should enslavement of the hopelessly indebted now be made impossible? Why should legal decisions which were made by wise Areopagus council members now be open to challenge in a court made up of ordinary rank-and-file Athenian citizens? Think of the dangers this might present!

Why, for that matter, should a new way of structuring society (around 4 different property classes), all of a sudden, be introduced? How would this pave the way for harmonious co-existence? And why, now, should anyone – in theory, provided they can earn enough money – have access to Athens’ prestigious archonships (i.e. magistracies)? These had previously been open only to the nobly born.

Pupils had to deal with some tough cross-examining from their colleagues on questions such as these. To help deal with this, they were encouraged to frame the news of the proposed reforms in a way that they felt would be most likely to appeal to the sensibilities of the Areopagus council. This, I wanted them to see, was a chance to develop their skills of diplomacy and persuasion, not just their public speaking.

Once they had done this, and after having just about persuaded a pretty nonplussed Areopagus council to go along with their proposals for reform, they were then asked – still in character as Solon – to head down to the agora, the Athenian marketplace.

A view of the Athenian agora today

Here they would deliver the news of the reforms, in person, to a crowd of ordinary Athenians. What sort of reaction might they expect now? What sorts of doubts, questions and responses would these ordinary Athenians be likely to have? How might they deal with different sorts of responses from different individuals? What might need to be different about addressing the agora, as opposed to addressing the Areopagus?

These were the sorts of questions I wanted pupils to think about – and they did an excellent job of exploring and responding to them. I don’t think anyone succumbed to full-on Machiavellianism, or to brusque dismissal.

These lessons, then, were fun occasions (I think for all concerned, even those who were a bit apprehensive about the ‘public speaking’ requirement). The chance to get into character, to do something fun with a role, was part of the reason for this. It was also good to have the opportunity to play the part of a difficult interlocutor, either as a member of the Areopagus or as an ordinary citizen, when quizzing one’s classmates as they played Solon.

But beyond mere fun, I think the experience of ‘being Solon’, of ‘doing politics’ in the classroom in this way, can feed (as mentioned above) into a developing sense of self, a growing confidence to speak and address an audience in a thoughtful and appropriate way, and a capacity to argue imaginatively and respectfully, but also directly with one’s peers about some weighty questions.

At a time when our public discourse can seem a bit thin on the ground when it comes to some of these qualities, it’s been good to see them put into practice.

* Two good books on democracy over the longue duree are John Dunn’s Setting the People Free and Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: a life.

The featured image is ‘Solon before Croesus’ by Nikolaus Knuepfer (c. 1650).

On the A level fiasco

A level results day yesterday was a very unusual day. There has been a lot of comment, a lot of confusion, and a lot of ‘noise’. It’s not yet clear whether we’ve seen the final word on the subject from the government: it’s still possible that last minute amendments could be made to the process for generating grades, perhaps to parallel what has already happened in Scotland.

In this post, I want to question some features of the coverage of the day itself in newspapers and other media outlets, the nature of some of the responses I’ve seen to the headlines, and also to question some of the decisions the government and Ofqual the regulator have made. Suffice to say, the quality of comment that’s out there has been variable. Some thoughtful, lucid and careful analysis has appeared; other analysis has been crude, simplistic and misleading. The need for the former type of analysis is vital in a situation where a large number of young people find themselves confronting a really upsetting and difficult situation and (understandably) want answers.


The initial decision

Some words first on the government’s initial decision, back in March, to cancel the summer exams. From this everything else has flowed.

Certainly there were those (including me) who felt that this was a decision that needn’t have been made. In the recent words of Vicky Bingham, head of South Hampstead High school, ‘we could have managed exams. With a bit of imagination and planning we could have done it’. This reflects the thoughts of numerous teachers and leaders in education back in March.

In the place of actual exams, the government asked schools to produce teacher-generated grades (or, to use the jargon, CAGs – centre assessment grades). These were then to be subjected to a process of review and moderation by exam boards (overseen by ofqual, the exam board regulator).


Ofqual and the government could have offered some really clear advice to schools about how it would conduct the process of reviewing and moderating grades that schools submitted. Perhaps they could have done so along the lines suggested here. They didn’t.

A further crucial intervention that could have been made at this stage would have been to try to prevent a situation where pupils would miss university offers by dint of others’ best guesswork. Could special arrangements of some sort have been made for pupils in this situation? If so, what? One possibility would have been to ask universities to defer places for pupils in this situation until they’d had a chance to sit actual exams, either in November or next June. Or to ask them to hold open as many places as possible, regardless of exam outcomes. If this did happen, no one has heard of it.

It’s pretty clear to me that not enough thought went into trying to look after the interests of pupils in this category, to try to find something like a ‘fair’ route forward for them.

CAGs, Ofqual’s algorithm and Grade Adjustments

School-generated grades were always going to be a mixed bag. Some schools achieve very similar results year-by-year. Other schools can expect quite different results, depending on the cohort of students they have. Some schools have smaller year groups (where bigger year-by-year shifts are quite likely); some don’t.

Equally, some teachers and institutions – for various reasons – will have been quite generous with their pupils’ CAGs; others won’t. On the whole, generosity seems to have been more common. Back in July, Ofqual revealed that schools had submitted grades that were 12 percentage points higher than last year’s grades.

Some form of control on what was happening would be necessary, then, if we were not to see significant grade inflation. Or, to frame the matter in a different way, if we were not to see some pupils benefit from having generous/optimistic teachers, where others had had no such privilege.

Ofqual’s plan in dealing with the grades gathered from schools was to use statistical analysis and a specially configured algorithm with the data they had received. Crucially,  schools’ exam performance in previous years would be factored into the analysis and used to generate a similar batch of results for the present year.

Ofqual’s use of its algorithm is described, with clarity and in detail, here in (of all places) the Daily Mail. What we have ended up with, as a result, is an overall picture that looks pretty similar to the picture we’ve seen before in recent years.

The risk of sudden grade inflation, then, has been avoided. But the changes needed to achieve a familiar-looking picture have been considerable, and they have created needless upset.

An article on the BBC website reports how CAGs as a whole have been affected by ofqual’s interventions. The graph below shows the overall picture and speaks for itself:


A lot of press reporting has focussed on the fact that high-performing (outlier) students in schools where results are mostly low or average have been badly affected by the (mainly downwards) adjustments that have been made. If you are at a school whose pupils rarely achieve top grades, and your teachers have (justifiably) predicted you e.g. straight A*s, you are less likely – once an adjustment is made by Ofqual’s algorithm – to receive your teacher’s predictions than a pupil at a school where results are very often high. There is a nice case in point of this precise situation here.

To compensate for this sort of situation, Ofqual could have created a clear, straightforward appeals process, as suggested by Sam Freedman in this excellent Twitter thread here. The government could perhaps even have made special arrangements for such pupils to sit their exams in June or July. It didn’t. Instead, it’s been left to universities to pick up the pieces, making ad hoc judgments about the students who find themselves in this situation. Some students, inevitably, have been left disappointed. And some universities/courses/colleges have been more generous than others in responding to the situation.

For the vast majority of students who have experienced it, being downgraded must feel a very bitter pill to swallow. Students have been able to find out the grades their schools submitted on their behalf. For those who have not received those grades, especially if this means missing out on a university place, I feel incredibly sorry. My big feeling is that all the problems we have seen could have been obviated earlier in the year if the government had simply been determined that, come what may, all pupils would sit their exams.

How pupils have been affected: by school, by background

A further feature of the press reporting of the A level debacle has focussed on differences in outcomes between pupils in different types of school, and of different socio-economic backgrounds. Clearly there are some slight differences in the likelihood of having your teachers’ grades changed, depending on these factors. But to talk of ‘bias’, as some commentators have done, in my opinion profoundly distorts the issue.

The table below illustrates the issue in relation to school type:


The first table summarises adjustments made by school type. A big part of the commentary claiming there has been ‘bias’ toward independent schools in Ofqual’s policy has hinged on the statistic highlighted in yellow: 4.7% more A/A* grades were awarded to independent school pupils this year than last. There are several things to say here, and perhaps I’m particularly inclined to say them as someone who works in the independent sector.

First, that the independent school sector is diverse. Inevitably some schools will have done very badly out of what’s happened, and their statistics won’t reflect the overall trend. Others will have done well. A school that sees large variations in year-by-year performance, with a particularly good year group this year (with GCSE results to match), for example, may not have done well out of Ofqual’s review process. Put simply, many pupils at independent schools won’t have been advantaged by what has happened this year at all.

Second, although 4.7% seems a clearly higher figure than the other figures in the table, when seen as a proportion of A*/A grades awarded, it’s in fact not much out of keeping with the other figures. It represents an 11% increase in A*/A grades. For secondary comprehensive pupils there was a 9% increase in these grades, for selective secondary schools it was 3%, for sixth form/FE it was 1.4%, for academies it was 7% and for ‘other’ institutions it was 13%. So independent school pupils have done slightly better on the whole, but the 4.7 figure isn’t the outlier it might seem in the table when the statistics are seen in proportion.

Third, as some in the commentariat have pointed out, independent schools are more likely to have small class sizes than other types of school. For small class sizes, Ofqual has said that there is a problem applying its algorithm: the data pool is too small. As a consequence those with small class sizes have been more likely to receive their teacher-allocated grades. A further word here on the existence of these small classes, which some commentators have described as sites of privilege, of advantage. Well, another way of seeing them is just as places where subjects which are not currently as faddish as the most popular A level choices are being taught.

Fourth, it may just be that teachers in some schools – e.g. selective secondary schools and Sixth Form/FE colleges – submitted CAGs that were less optimistic for their pupils. If so, Ofqual should have adjusted for this more than they have done.

Below is a summary of outcomes for pupils of different socio-economic backgrounds:


The bullet points above the table are worth reading. On the face of it, it perhaps looks as though students of ‘Low SES’ have been more harshly treated: 10.42% of their CAGs have been downgraded, as opposed to 9.49% of medium SES and 8.34% from high SES backgrounds.

However, a) teachers of low SES pupils, as the table says, are more likely to over-predict (this can be borne out from historical data); b) they have actually achieved more highly this year (74.60% achieving C or above) than in either 2018 or 2019.

It has been a similarly good year for those in the Medium SES category, 78.20% of whose CAGs have been awarded C+, a better statistic than for either 2018 or 2019.

Only those in the High SES category have done worse than was managed in 2018, though they have done better than was managed in 2019.

So, when looked at carefully, ‘bias’ here, or in relation to school type, is difficult to detect. Of course, it ought to go without saying that ‘bias’ toward one or another type of school is something it would be bizarre to find a regulator doing.

The individual and the system

From my point of view, as I’ve said above, the real argument about these A level ‘results’ ought to have been happening in March. It’s all very well Keir Starmer today condemning the ‘disaster’ of this year’s results (and he isn’t wrong), but where was he earlier in the year, when he should have been pointing out the entirely predictable problems we’ve seen?

For a certain type of newspaper columnist, and for a certain type of twitter commentator, everything we’ve seen over the past two days points to ‘systemic bias’, to social inequality, and to entrenched injustice. ‘The whole [exam] system’, as one senior academic puts it, ‘is not to recognise individual merit or attainment, but to maintain its own credibility in the eyes of big business and pundits, and to sort the population according to predetermined criteria and maintain the status quo’. Some would say that’s a quite extraordinarily cynical way of seeing things.

But a less extreme version of this strand of opinion has been widely endorsed by numerous public figures. This claims simply that this year’s results have been ‘biased’, or that, in the words of the historian Peter Frankopan, the results have been ‘devastating for social equality/mobility’. Or that, in the words of Andy Burnham, ‘the government created a system which is inherently biased’ against FE and Sixth form colleges.

In my view, when looked at carefully, the tables considered in the section above highlight the obvious problems with perspectives like these, where the only ‘bias’ I can detect is in the attempt to seek broadly to replicate the results of previous years.

What is clear to me is that an opportunity has been seized to make some political capital out of the situation, by suggesting that the government has been biased against those of lower socio-economic backgrounds. On this occasion, though, the data simply doesn’t bear that out. And it’s almost as though some people are so intent on foisting their social theories and political assumptions on the data that it doesn’t really matter how badly those theories and assumptions actually tally with the facts.

A more productive way forward, surely, would be to emphasise that this has been a fiasco that has touched many people – pupils, teachers, parents, schools, universities – across the whole education sector, and across all sections of society; that very many pupils have been adversely impacted through no fault of their own; that proper plans and support should be put in place for those pupils who want to sit their exams; that now is not the time to play political football with young people’s lives and aspirations, but to try to respond to the situation without reaching for extreme judgments.

It’s good to see, for example, that Worcester College Oxford has promised to fulfil its offer of places to all who received one. I wonder about the practicalities/good sense of all universities/colleges doing this, but it’s certainly a very decent gesture.

Meanwhile, if there is to be a wide-ranging and trenchant critique of the socio-economic forces at play around A level assessments, it would be nice to hear it done thoroughly, accurately, and at a really opportune moment: like, for example, in March.

Deeds, not Words

Deeds, not words. That’s the little motto I sometimes call to mind when I’m struggling for inspiration to write, or when I’m trying to remind myself of what matters most. It’s a prompt to remember that life is for the living, and that getting on with things in the world is what, before anything else, gives life its shape and meaning.

The phrase came to mind more than once today, and for quite distinct reasons, as I read through pieces of writing that jumped up at me from various locations on Twitter: from this moving piece on the life of the unheralded Jesuit priest, Vicente Canas; from this superb piece on the controversy surrounding the scholar and Soviet informer Anthony Blunt; and from this beautifully written blogpost on being diagnosed with autism as an adult.

In each case, the writing points to truths about how to live in the world.

With Canas, a rich picture is evoked of a priest who lived in poverty while embracing the culture of an Amazonian tribe. For defending the land rights of the tribe, he ended up dying a martyr. ‘In the eyes of the world’, says the article, ‘he lived an ‘insignificant life’ and he died unnoticed’. Not quite unnoticed, of course – and it’s an honour to pay Canas some notice on this blog.

With Anthony Blunt, a controversy ensued when it emerged publicly in 1980 that he had betrayed his country to the Soviets, acting as an informer. In particular, should his fellowship of the British academy be revoked? Amidst the controversy, the late church historian Owen Chadwick emerges as something of a hero. Chadwick is someone only really known to me through the brilliant books of his that I’ve read: The Secularisation of the European Mind in the 19th century, Newman, From Bossuet to Newman and Hensley Henson. As a historian, the article fairly characterises him as one who ‘wrote like an angel, and still repays reading for his grace of mind, his delicate judgement, his rich historic instincts, his bleakness about earthly motives and his countervailing generosity of spirit’.

Hepple, Norman, 1908-1994; Professor Owen Chadwick (b.1916), DD, OM, Master (1956-1983)
Owen Chadwick

Having already known Chadwick the historian, I could now meet Chadwick the man – practical, wise, humane: ‘He believed both in the reality of repentance and the duty of forgiveness, and that both were fundamental to human decency and self-respect’. Putting his principles into action, Chadwick won the day.

Finally, in Cora Beth Knowles’ reflections on her discovery that she is autistic, I found a deep honesty and humanity: her post confronts in an understated way the nature of the process of diagnosis, and the awkwardnesses and uncertainties surrounding it. She links her desire to be tested, movingly, to a desire to connect with her son, and she reflects – again movingly – on her life and character. The post, for me, is an object lesson in how a deed – here, taking the plunge and doing a test – can invigorate and enrich, while serving also as inspiration to others.


In case all this seems a bit far-removed from my usual posts about the ancient world, there might just be a connection of relevance to point to: an interview I did last week, for Cora Beth’s website (as luck would have it), about an ancient text I sometimes turn to when in need of cheering up: Minucius Felix’s Octavius. The interview can be viewed here.

The Octavius might not seem an obvious text to turn to when in need of cheer: it describes a religious argument between a Christian (Octavius) and a worshipper of the polytheistic deities whom he tries (successfully) to convert. Not exactly bucolic poetry, then. And certainly not a text (I would think) that could enthral devout postmodern secularity.

Then, too, there’s the fact that one might read the Octavius simply as an exercise in persuasion, as a text which confidently, if urbanely, tries to show educated Roman readers how Christianity can become a good and thinking person’s best option as a religious philosophy; though certainly the debate between the speakers can be seen as one which begs as many questions as it answers.

And yet – there are beautifully observed features of the text (as I say in the interview) that capture the imagination and enable the reader really to enter the scene.

So, for example, the children of Octavius are described as being now at an age where they speak innocently and endearingly in half-formed words.

And, as the debaters walk along the beach, they enjoy feeling a gentle breeze blow against their bodies and sense the sand sinking away beneath their feet. And then they see a gathering of small boys skimming stones across the sea water, competing to skim their own stone the furthest.


If there is a winning dimension to this text, it is – for me – in these details, and in the charitable tone its author manages to convey.

And so here again, perhaps, is an illustration of how the ‘deeds, not words’ formula can apply. Since it’s in the context of descriptions of human beings being human in uncomplicated, quotidian ways (toddlers speaking jumbled words, men feeling the elements, boys skimming stones) – their actions in other words – that the text really comes to life and leaves an impression.

Clearing my Shelves

The summer holiday has arrived and it’s time to refresh, relax and (in our case) catch a breath and finish the process of moving in to a new place. One activity that will be very much part of this routine will be the removal of various books from my shelves.

As the years pass and more books accumulate, shelving space is increasingly at a premium. It makes sense, then, to try to pass on to others (either through charity shops or online sales) the books I don’t intend to read or rely upon again.

There’s something cathartic about doing this, deciding what will stay and what will go. Exercising control over what belongs on my shelves feels like an enjoyable assertion of my own free will: I’m not going to be kept in thrall by those books I don’t/didn’t enjoy is the thought, and I can follow the thought with decisive action.

In this post I’ve tried to force myself to reflect pretty candidly on the different reasons why the books I’m selling no longer seem to belong on my shelves. Here below is a picture of the books I currently have available for purchase (as displayed on a shelf I’ve allocated to them in the garage). They cover a whole range of subjects, from ancient philosophy to land law to psychology to an educator’s memoir. Below that is a summary of the various reasons why they’re for sale.


a) Books which served a purpose and are not needed anymore: the primary examples here are the law books – mostly textbooks. In some cases they’re now quite out of date, in a field where new textbooks are published each year, and in most cases they’re available pretty cheap. I do retain some books from my period of legal studies – like Treitel’s classic treatise on the Law of Contract, and a textbook on company law (a nice study aide when I wrote a successful mini-dissertation on minority shareholder remedies), but I don’t envisage an imminent need for detailed reading material on criminal, EU, or tort law. Those, then, can go.

b) Books that excited me at the time but that don’t anymore: in this category I’d include some of the philosophy books – Bernard Williams’ Problems of the Self (a collection of essays) and Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Arlie Hochschild’s Commercialisation of Intimate Life, a sociological book with some interesting observations, also falls into this category, as do some history books, for example Mark Bevir’s The Logic of the History of Ideas and RG Collingwood’s classic study, The Idea of History. In each case, these books (or at least parts of them) were enjoyable when I first read them, but I can’t imagine returning to them again anytime soon. Partly, this is because my interest in philosophy itself has dwindled over the years: my reading tastes now focus more on biography and various types of history. Why? I’m not exactly sure but there has certainly been a more general shift from the abstract to the concrete in my choice of reading material over the years (philosophy and theology out; politics, economic history and biography in).

c) Books I didn’t enjoy or couldn’t get into: this is perhaps the biggest single category of book on the shelf. Of course, there are probably a lot of books like this on any avid reader’s shelves – and many such books remain, in fact, on my own ‘not for sale’ shelves, mainly because they could be useful as works of reference, or because I might want to give them a second chance. On this shelf, my recently purchased copy of John Cooper’s Pursuits of Wisdom, a sort of primer of ancient philosophy, which just doesn’t flow, is an example of the type; so too Charles Taylor’s large book on Hegel (Taylor picks fascinating topics in his books – many of which I own – but his prose style can be long-winded and trying); so too David Graeber’s book Debt (which held me for the first 10 or so pages before I found myself getting too frustrated with the assumptions he was making). Graeber is almost the opposite of Taylor in terms of prose style: he’s overly punchy. Others? Edward Said’s book on Humanism and Democratic Criticism was okay, but I have better books of his in my possession (and worse: On Late Style was a particularly disappointing read); John Burrow’s Crisis of Reason: European thought 1848-1914 addresses a fascinating topic but does so in a very stodgy way; Terry Eagleton is usually very readable but Trouble with Strangers: a study of ethics is among the least enjoyable of his books – its argument patchy, its prose not as luminous as that of his other books, and ethics is hardly his special field anyway; as for Galen Strawson’s Real Materialism (a collection of philosophy essays), I found both the writing and the subject matter more or less impenetrable.

d) a subset of c): Classics books that didn’t work for me. Here some examples are Neville Morley’s Antiquity and Modernity (a great topic, but the approach of the book didn’t speak to me at all), Irene de Jong’s Narrators and Focalizers (very dry) and Jonathan Hall’s Hellenicity (an interesting argument about the development of Hellenic identity, but a dense read: too dense for me at any rate). William Harris’ book on the Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity was another case of an interesting topic that wasn’t a particularly absorbing read (Harris’ other books, which unfortunately are very expensive, read really well, by contrast). Garth Fowden’s Egyptian Hermes – on Hermes the thrice-great – is the definitive treatment of its topic, but again it’s too dense for my tastes and it didn’t feel like an effort was made to bring the subject alive.

e) books it makes commercial sense to sell – I would be quite happy to keep hold of my copy of the collection of essays on Gender and the Body in the Ancient Mediterranean, edited by Maria Wyke, but if I can make £35 for it (and in advertising it for that price, I am the cheapest would-be seller online) I’ll gladly take the money (the book was purchased years back for £7).

f) books whose wisdom I no longer need: Mike Carot’s book of poker tells and Hwang’s book on pot limit omaha fall into this bracket. Read into that what you will… Also Terence Irwin’s book on Plato’s Ethics is surplus to requirements because this subject is fully covered in a different book I own by the same author (The Development of Ethics, volume 1). A further example here is the collection of essays on animal ethics: I’ve been a fully signed up vegetarian for a number of years now and no longer need to be convinced of the ethical case for vegetarianism.

g) Books I reviewed (somewhat ruefully): I spent far too long wondering about how to review two books on the shelf for journals (a book about the theology of Henri de Lubac and one about gender and ancient religion). These books hold particular memories. Influencing my approach to both reviews was the comment of Mary Beard that ‘you shouldn’t write anything in a review that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face’. Well, maybe I’ve grown bolder over the years but I’d certainly review both books quite differently now if I were to do so again. In one of the books, for instance, there were issues with dryness, unshapely sentences, jargon and the ‘so what?’ question (i.e. what does this matter?). None of this was mentioned in the review. With the collection of essays, there was an attempt to tie the essays together under a single banner which didn’t really work (the essays covered different topics in quite distinct ways and bore only the loosest of relations to one another) This is a common complaint of many reviewers of such volumes but it’s one my review didn’t manage to touch upon. I suppose I feel now that life is short and that these are the sorts of things (among others) that should just be said without hesitation if they’re what a reviewer feels – and let the chips fall where they may.

h) Duplicates: I already possess JA Mangan’s excellent book on the Games Ethic and Imperialism – an exploration of the place of sport in British education in the 19th century – so this copy is for sale.

So that’s a rough – and admittedly candid, though hopefully not too curmudgeonly – summary of the reasons these books are for sale. I hope I didn’t put you off making a purchase!

Caesar’s Prose

My recent bedtime reading has been Nicola Gardini’s fun little book ‘Long live Latin: the Pleasures of a Useless Language‘. The book is a nice combination of personal reflection and linguistic and literary discussion. Gardini focuses on a range of Latin texts he has encountered and on the nature of his personal responses to them over the course of his education and career.

The book has by turns intrigued and frustrated me.

One part of the book I didn’t much warm to was Gardini’s discussion of the prose of Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars (Caesar’s account of a major stage in the Roman conquest of Gaul). This is a text I haven’t read much myself since sixth form days, but my memory of its style is good enough: Caesar displays a special knack throughout the text for conveying the brutal suppression of his enemies and the trials faced by his armies with unnerving understatement and precision.

For Gardini, Caesar is, straightforwardly, the ‘matter of fact’ prose stylist par excellence: he is a rationalist, a pragmatist, someone who wants to ‘recreate the world mathematically and geometrically, as if the obscurity and vagueness of our deeper motives had no place here’ (p72-3).

Well, yes, as far as this goes. But what about the chilling nature of some of Caesar’s descriptions (chilling, that is, precisely because of their lack of graphic description or celebration where some such might have been expected)? There is a good deal more to say about his prose style, I felt, than Gardini does say.

That this is indeed the case was nicely brought to light on (of all places) a Twitter thread recently. A number of classicists aired views on themes and stylistic elements in the Gallic Wars which confirmed (and indeed challenged) my own thinking. The thread, started by John Ma (link below), is worth viewing in full:

The notion (suggested by Llewelyn Morgan) that Caesar’s ‘pragmatic’ style in his writing reflects an attempt to ‘keep it that of a plain soldier’ struck me as a particularly interesting possibility.

My starting (and strong) assumption here is that the Gallic Wars was not a text intended for a readership of ordinary soldiers: why, in that case, write like one? Well, perhaps to identify oneself as a particular sort of character to one’s actual (well-heeled urban?) readers. A character, that is, who might come across as the very opposite of an effete aristocrat, and instead as a down to earth man of the rank and file military. (Quite a threatening posture to adopt in relation to these readers, in other words, and one that fits with the image of a Caesar who was interested in stirring things up in Rome itself).

Certainly I’m more interested now in a range of questions about the relationship between political and military authority and literate communication that I hadn’t considered all that clearly before. So thank you, classical Twitter, for the stimulus to reflection. Perhaps it’s time for me to revisit some Caesar this summer (Gardini, an unabashed enthusiast for this writer, would doubtless approve).

Did you ask a rhetorical question, Euripides?

The argument has just begun, and it isn’t long before things heat up a little. So far, one party to the argument has been keeping pretty quiet. When he does speak, he gives every appearance of doing so (I think) with a lofty hauteur, suggesting he’s waaaaaay above the trivial and silly insults put forward by his interlocutor, who’s been goading away, doing his best to touch on some raw nerves. Now, something of a breakthrough, maybe.

The following exchange takes place (935f):

‘Is it necessary to make mention of a cockerel in tragedy?’

‘Well how about you, enemy of the gods…what did you include [in your tragedies]?’

What struck me about these lines, when I read through them with my class the other day, is the way an initial question is answered with a further question. Is there a literary term for this phenomenon? If there is, I don’t know of it.


Of course, questions are often asked in arguments, and these questions appear in a pretty big argument. They’re posed in the middle of the Frogs, Aristophanes’ 5th century BC comic play, first performed in 405. The interlocutors are two dead playwrights, Aeschylus and Euripides, both legends of the stage. They are having a competition (Gk agon), presided over by the god Dionysus, as to who gets to leave Hades and be taken back up to Athens, where the citizens, we are told, are in dire need of a great tragedian.

In the above dialogue, Euripides poses the initial question, Aeschylus the second. One label that might apply to Euripides’ question, at least, is ‘rhetorical’. Arguably, the question simply answers itself: it should be obvious (both to speaker and interlocutor) that it isn’t necessary to make mention of a cockerel in tragedy.

So, if Aeschylus (who did use a cockerel in one of his tragedies, apparently) had given this question a direct answer, he might have looked simple, perhaps, or even a bit foolish. Better to fire back at Euripides with a question of his own, assuming the front foot and going on the offensive.

Admittedly, it’s striking that this isn’t a tactic (answering a question with another question) that’s used elsewhere in the play.

Answering a question with a question, after all, is a good mode of deflection, if nothing else. And Aeschylus, perhaps, has good reason to deflect, at this stage of the agon. He’s been quiet while Euripides has been jabbing away, landing plenty of scoring shots – scoffing at the grandness and verbosity of Aeschylus’ tragic style, accusing him of being complicated where he could be simple, and pretentious where he could be straightforward. Further on, Euripides even suggests, the Aeschylean style is just not democratic.*

Answering a question with a question, in this context, makes sense.


What most interests me about Aeschylus’ response to Euripides, however, is just how true to life it feels, still today. In the heat of an argument, when an opponent makes a powerful point, or simply one that can’t be easily denied, or that it would be odd to contest, how often do arguers still today deploy the technique that Aeschylus deploys here? Answering a question with a question.

I’ve certainly done it. But I can’t say that each time I’ve done so, it’s been because I’ve been asked a rhetorical question…as opposed to one that’s just difficult to try to deal with.

*Euripides is probably assisted in making this point by the fact that the bulk of Aeschylus’ plays were performed before the democratising reforms of Ephialtes at Athens in the mid-fifth century…. and by the fact that all of Aeschylus’ plays were performed, and indeed Aeschylus himself had died, before the slightly later reforms of Pericles. Meanwhile, Euripides wrote most of his plays in the aftermath of both of these sets of reforms.

Not Contrary to Mary: the Art of Criticism

A couple of months ago, some words in print from two writers whose work I enjoy – the classicist Mary Beard, and the Observer writer and TV critic Rachel Cooke – caught my eye. In essence, something of a dispute between the pair had emerged. The source of the dispute was Beard’s recent TV series on artistic nudes, The Shock of the Nude.

Cooke hadn’t enjoyed the series and had set out some reasons why in one of her New Statesman TV review columns. Beard duly responded to Cooke in her TLS blog, A Don’s Life (which I’ve enjoyed reading since its earliest infancy). Cooke, for her part, responded at length to Beard in a revealing and thought-provoking piece.

The common thread in all three of these pieces of writing is criticism (a subject I’ve discussed in the past on this blog). With each piece, there are questions to ask about the making of criticisms, the nature of acceptable criticism in our print (and other) media, and the way one handles criticism that has been dispensed.

Rachel Cooke

At the heart of the debate, for Cooke at least, is the question of telling the truth: ‘what is the point of a critic’, she asks in the final piece, ‘if not to tell the truth?’ But beyond this, some further questions might seem important too: what does the job of ‘telling the truth’ involve for the critic? Is it safe to assume, for that matter, that telling the truth is criticism’s central function? And what (if any) ‘truths’ might criticism wish to exclude from its purview? Finally, what – if anything – qualifies one to make criticisms?

The dispute between Beard and Cooke touches, then, on some undeniably important questions. Rather than address these questions directly myself (I need to keep this post manageable!), I want instead to explore some of the points raised by Cooke in her initial review of Beard’s TV series.

When I first saw Beard’s response to this review, I thought she was being prickly and even a bit precious (her admission that the central thrust of Cooke’s review is ‘not stupid’ didn’t exactly seem overly magnanimous). It seemed rather that Beard had simply taken badly to some not-very-constructive criticisms. I’ve since, however, changed my mind.

So, then, to Cooke’s review. The headline is ‘Mary Beard’s Shock of the Nude was both weird and exasperating’. The subtitle elaborates: Beard’s ‘conviction that her own ideas are vastly more thrilling than those of the artists she is investigating’ is what will be at issue. Hardly the gentlest of beginnings, then (hat-tip, perhaps, to the sub-editors!) – but hey, this is criticism. And in a negative review, we’re well accustomed to serious negativity!

What to say about this? Probably a major aim – the major aim – of such negativity is to entertain. A key role of the critic might just be to disabuse the criticised of their pretensions and delusions, and to expose them to some stark home-truths. We, the readers, get to look on at this spectacle as it unfolds. Truth? Well, maybe… but a good proportion of readers likely won’t have seen, and may not even wish to see, Beard’s TV series. How, then, can they form an opinion as to the truthfulness of the review? Not easily. What this means, I think, is that the truth or otherwise of the criticisms ventured in most reviews will likely be a secondary (if not entirely irrelevant) consideration for many readers. Perhaps also (dare I say it) for some critics?

Returning, though, to Cooke’s opening salvo. A negative tone is established early. Next, Beard is accused of chutzpah: she’s borrowed part of the title of her series from an earlier 1980s TV series about modern art by Robert Hughes. But she lacks the breadth, wit and pizzaz of Hughes, says Cooke. Tut tut, Professor Beard, for whom my guess is that the accusation ‘lacks breadth’ is not one she has fallen victim to often (quite the opposite, in fact, I would imagine…).

Robert Hughes

Now, a new line of attack: ‘I accept that our culture rates self-involvement increasingly highly. But still, I find the way that Beard keeps putting herself, almost literally, into the picture both weird and exasperating’. This criticism applies, Cooke says, to the TV series under review – and to Beard’s ‘self-involved’ style within it – but it seems to have a more general application. Beard’s attempts at public history (in toto) seem to be the object of criticism here: Beard herself is too much to the fore in these attempts, Cooke seems to be suggesting.

In this respect, we are told, Beard is symptomatic of a more general cultural trend (i.e. putting oneself at the centre). It’s a well-worn point – the pervasive (western) obsession with the self – but it’s a point many would concede. At the same time, though, my instinct is that in all kinds of ways Mary Beard is in fact utterly asymptomatic of general cultural trends. Why not mention this too? (Answer: there are good rhetorical reasons not to interrupt a nice, punchy negative flow – or perhaps Cooke simply doesn’t believe it).

Titian’s Venus D’Urbino

Cooke doesn’t like the way Beard asks her audience to consider what exactly Titian’s Venus of Urbino might be up to in her naked state (see above). She certainly doesn’t like the way Beard reveals that ‘in my fantasy, I’m with this naked lady’ and ‘we’re both giggling at men leering at us’. Is Cooke prudishly uncomfortable with this idea? Apparently not, but she says she doubts the sincerity of Beard’s claim on the basis of the way she delivers it.

Here I think Cooke could be missing something important. What Beard may be trying to gesture toward with her statements about Titian’s Venus is a sense that she – like Venus – is both subject to, and maybe even drawn to, the male gaze (which is what she is trying to discuss). This might just be an uncomfortable thing to admit (hence the appearance of lacking sincerity, which in fact could be discomfort misunderstood). One can, of course, be sincere in one’s discomfort.

Naturally I could be wrong about this, but it’s my own best guess. (Before I go on… the ‘male gaze’: this is a phrase the determined liberal in me bristles at. Aren’t there many male gazes? Well yes – but I find my own stern inner critic advising me to accept that we can and – alas – must generalise about gendered activity when we try to decode cultural psychology – even if we hasten to add that generalisations don’t apply universally across the board).

Returning to Cooke’s review, where Beard is next taken to task for her discussion of Courbet’s famous painting L’Origine du monde (1866). Cooke (rather hastily) concedes that this piece of art ‘does further her [Beard’s] argument that the line between pornography and art is at times non-existent’, before turning to voice some criticisms. In essence, Cooke is underwhelmed because of what Beard neglects to mention: ‘there are other things at play here, too’, she says.

A sleeping nude by Courbet (not Origin du monde)

What she has in mind is that Courbet produced his art at odds from ‘what he regarded as repressive bourgeois taste’; that his paintings were ‘often deemed unexhibitable on political grounds’; that he both embodied and was at odds from his time. Cooke wants a richer, more layered discussion of Courbet.

She anticipates that Beard might counter that she isn’t trying to present all available interesting detail about her subject matter: she’s pursuing a single theme. This, for Cooke, won’t wash: it’s boring! Cooke wants Beard to capture the ‘multifaceted’ nature of ‘great art’, whose meaning changes all the time. Beard seems only to be interested in her own point of view.

I think a more interesting take than this is possible. A counter-argument in favour of Beard’s emphasis on her own perspectives might be that she’s trying to model for her viewers what an active, 21st century engagement with the artwork she’s discussing might look and feel like.

The richness, the detail, the multifaceted nature of the art: sure, yes – Cooke isn’t wrong – this all matters. But what might matter also is trying to engage people for whom the art under discussion is all a rather impenetrable and not very interesting set of historical artefacts.

Beard wants to show the visceral ways in which the past can live and speak to present-day subjectivities not so different from those of ordinary viewers. Complex lessons in art history can wait for another day. This, I think, is the nub of the matter – and it is a shame that Cooke doesn’t engage with it in her review.

Hylas and the Nymphs by Waterhouse

Cooke’s final charge is that Beard is lily-livered, in that she doesn’t make her case clearly, and that she doesn’t have the courage of her convictions. She hangs these claims on the observation that Beard isn’t sure whether Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the Nymphs should stay up on the wall of Manchester Art Gallery. Beard should (but doesn’t) challenge the interviewee who claims this is a painting which is ‘symbolic of some problems’, Cooke thinks.

But, then, if there is a blurred boundary between art and pornography, and if for many people pornography is ‘problematic’, why not treat the interviewee’s statement as a simple illustration of the issue? As Beard does.

Beard’s (slightly, if understandably, prickly) response to Cooke’s review was barely longer than a sentence in length. In return, Cooke penned the long piece I’ve linked to above, insisting that critics are truth tellers who need to be respected. It’s a good piece but it strikes me rather as overkill.

I certainly don’t always find myself in agreement with Mary Beard, much as I admire what she does as a public face of classical studies. On this occasion, though, I find myself very much in sympathy with her.

Consuetudo loquendi est in motu

‘Our manner of speech is in flux’: these are the words of Varro, the first century BC Roman encyclopaedist, as mediated through my slightly loose translation. Varro wasn’t thinking of individuals’ use of language when he wrote this – though, no doubt, his is a point that applies over the course of the life of an individual, just as it does over the course of a language’s life. Instead, he was participating in a highly self-aware Roman discussion about the developing use of the Latin language.

For many people who know some Latin today, it is easy enough to imagine the language as an impressively logical system – of clearly defined grammatical tables, of distinct word endings, and (more generally) of order and rational control. This image of the Latin language is in significant measure a product of the habits of teaching and learning favoured by 19th century educators: hefty Victorian grammatical textbooks are just one tangible artefact of their influence.

What I hadn’t really been aware of before this week was how the Romans themselves imposed considerable (conscious) control over the nature and structure of their language. This comes through in a range of first century BC discussions – in authors like Varro, Cicero and indeed Julius Caesar – of which I’m now aware. And it reflects an older Roman (and Greek) tradition of thinking about language use.

My education in this area has come about through reading Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Rome’s Cultural Revolution, a text I’ve had on my shelf for several years but which I’ve only just found the time to get into.


Romans of the first century BC were sometimes acutely conscious of linguistic differences in the way Latin was spoken (and written). Just as modern English speakers can effortlessly spot the differences between regional accents, national accents, formal and informal speech (etc), so too ancient Latin users would have spotted similar differences. But what were the boundaries of correct usage in amongst the (perfectly natural) linguistic variety that could be observed?

This is a question, Wallace-Hadrill suggests, that assumes an importance only with Rome’s – and Latin’s – imperial extension in the first century BC: ‘hand in hand with an insistence that others use one’s language is the establishment of authoritative standards by which to lay down what that language is’.

For Cicero, writing in his Brutus on the history of oratory, there was a pure use of Latin which all good orators – and indeed all good speakers of the language – should aim to practise. There was a time, Cicero thinks, when all Romans would speak this pure form of the language as a matter of custom. So what changed? A flood of people of diverse origins, he explains, has entered Rome. They have tainted the language, polluting its proper use!


Cicero’s explanation is strikingly reductive (and prejudiced!) – but it is interesting that he seems to assume that ‘proper’ Latin was only ever spoken at Rome (and that non-Romans were never in command of pure Latinitas). Wallace-Hadrill makes short work of Cicero’s argument, pointing out the myth of ‘purism’ while noting also that ‘purism’ can only be imposed on a language by the imposition of an external authority (e.g. a grammarian!).

Varro, unlike Cicero, was a realist about linguistic change, just as he was about other changes of custom. Old practices can give way to new ones in clothing, building and furniture. Traditional usage in these and other areas has been replaced. The same is true for words. Consuetudo – custom, then (whether linguistic or otherwise), can itself be remade: it is not forever set in stone, as a Cicero might have preferred.

By the end of the first century BC, the power to define consuetudo, when it came to language, seems to have begun to move away from influential patrician figures like Cicero and Varro, who had previously been the key voices in its constitution. From this point, upper class influence on correct Latin usage was no longer to have quite the weight it once did: instead the foremost authorities when it came to defining what was ‘correct’ Latin would soon be professional grammarians. This is an area about which I have more reading to do.