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.

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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).

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Sewers and Octopodes

In these difficult times, I’ve found there are worse ways to maintain spirits than trying to remember fun moments in the classroom over the past term. It’s disarming to think that teachers could by now have had their last lessons in person with the pupils they’ve taught during the current academic year. Well, below, I’ve tried to record a fun portion of one of my lessons, in which discussion ranged widely – across food and drink, sea creatures, grain supply and Roman sanitation.

My year 7 class and I had been talking briefly about Roman food and drink, and about the grain-heavy diets that many ordinary Romans had. The class had recently learned about garum – Roman fish sauce – and about the Roman fondness for wine, olive oil and various other foods and tipples. We’d had a little help along the way from an amusing episode of the series, ‘What the Romans did for us’, by Adam Hart-Davis.

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Images illustrating the preparation of garum (Roman fish sauce), which seems often to have been added to desserts!

‘But what about delicacies?’ someone asked. Good question – so we started a discussion about the sorts of meats and seafoods that ancient Romans might (more occasionally) have eaten.

‘Octopus?’ suggested one class member. Probably not for most people, most of the time, I answered! But I do have a question for you about the octopus. ‘What is its plural?’

‘Octopi!’ This was the answer most of the group felt pretty confident with – especially since they’ve done a good job of learning their 2nd declension Latin noun endings (which have a -us ending in the nominative singular and an -i ending in the nominative plural). But a small smattering of class members tentatively suggested ‘octopuses’: octopi wasn’t the only pick.

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An octopus – aka polypus – on a Roman mosaic

Well, I asked, what if neither of those options is strictly accurate? Accurate, that is, if we treat ‘octopus’ as an ancient word. Confused looks.

Good, I said: this can be a little topic for you to do some research on later. Is there an additional possible plural of ‘octopus’ – and what might it be, and why?

The answer, jubilantly reported by some of the pupils in their next lesson, is that because of the Greek (not Latin) roots of octopus, the plural might best be given as octopodes.

They’d done well. Octopus does indeed have Greek roots – but, so it appears, the word doesn’t actually have an ancient provenance. Greeks certainly knew about the cephalopod we call the octopus, but the name they used for this animal was polypous (i.e. many footed creature). It was this word that Romans borrowed to give the Latin word polypus…and this is the word they used to designate the creature we know as the octopus.

It was only much later – in the 16th century. according to our best information – that the word octopus itself starts to appear for the first time, and it appears then in the English language. A nice discussion of this development is available here.

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A depiction of a Roman grain transporter ship being loaded

From our rather inconclusive discussion of the octopus (how should you talk about more than one of them?) we turned to start talking about a separate topic relating to Roman diet: the Roman grain supply. This was crucial for Rome’s development and stature as a city during the high period of its empire. In order to feed the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants, emperors would import huge quantities of grain, all the way across the Mediterranean, from North Africa, for ordinary people to eat. It was given out as a hand-out.

Some of the class were shocked by this revelation. ‘Free food. Really?!’ Not exactly free, of course, but to the Roman plebs, it must have felt like it. This in turn set off a conversation about how modern governments don’t really do this sort of thing – and maybe it would be helpful if they did?

I asked the class to reflect on another key area of Roman urban life that they might find surprising: hygiene. Walking into the city of Rome in the 1st or 2nd century AD, I asked, what – perhaps more than anything else – might have imposed itself on your senses. One pupil saw immediately where I was going with this question: ‘the smell’, she said.

I remember reading a passage somewhere in one of Keith Hopkins’ books where he really insists on this point. The smell on the streets of the ancient city would have been ghastly, overpowering, horrific. City dwellers in the developed world today have no point of easy comparison.

But this, I told the class, brings us to another topic you may wish to do some research about: the Roman sanitation and sewage system (particularly the Cloaca Maxima). Despite the toxic stench of their city, the Romans possessed a remarkably advanced sanitation system, featuring underground tunnels and drainage. Without this, the city would surely have smelt a whole lot worse.

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A modern view of the interior of the ancient Roman sanitation system, the Cloaca Maxima

I’ve noticed over the course of my time as a teacher that pupils in the 21st century classroom tend to assume that the story of historical development has been a pretty linear one of relentless progress: a sort of whiggish optimism, in other words, is pretty widespread. The history of Roman sanitation, of aqueducts and the provision of running water to urban centres, and of the Roman genius for engineering more generally, is a nice counterpoint here.

In these areas, Romans produced technologies that were not (in Europe, at least) to be matched for many centuries (over a milennium, in fact). With the demise of the Roman empire, some of the technology went out of use altogether, without being replaced by anything superior. Far from it. I’m sure my pupils now have a sense of this, even if they’re not exactly clear (as I myself am not) which word to choose if they want to talk about more than one octopus. Sometimes not even teachers have all the answers.

St Augustine on ancient Troy

Last week was Classics week at school (pictures on the departmental twitter feed here). It was an opportunity to put on a range of events – talks, trips, a quiz, a baking competition etc. – with the aim of building a sense of what the study of the ancient world is and can be about, and why it’s exciting. The theme for the week (proposed by one of my colleagues in the Classics department) was the Trojan War.

This made sense as it’s a theme that dovetails neatly with the special exhibition currently showing at the British Museum on just this topic. And the theme worked well: we were very happy to welcome Dr Simon Pulleyn from UCL to talk to us about some aspects of the depiction of Helen in Homer’s Iliad, as well as about some of the linguistic questions which arise through study of the poem. Over the course of the week, and as with the British Museum exhibits, there was a chance to range widely – looking not just at the poetry of Homer, but at the way the Trojan war has been thought about and understood more broadly through time and space.

I myself started the week with a Monday morning assembly touching on a few of the contexts in which the Iliad has had an important impact. These formed the basis of 3 further talks I gave over the course of the week (possible overkill, I concede, but I couldn’t help myself…).

I looked first at the reception of Homer’s gods in ancient Greece, where the description of his poem as ‘Bible of the Greeks’ is not wholly misleading; at the use made of Homer by the Roman poet Virgil, particularly in connection with his depiction of the emperor Augustus in the Aeneid; at the use of the Iliad in the context of psychological therapy for Vietnam war veterans, as outlined in the brilliant book Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay; and at some of the recent retellings of Homer from female perspectives, in books like Margaret Attwood’s Penelopiad and Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls. There is in fact an ancient pedigree for this last sort of writing: we see it most clearly on display in Euripides’ fifth century BC play, The Trojan Women.

By the end of the week, like everyone else, I was ready for a rest. But I’ve been waiting to find a chance to write up a few thoughts about the subject matter of my final talk of the week: this concerned the way St Augustine, in his magnum opus The City of God, writes about the Trojan war, just a few years after the sack of Rome by Visigothic invaders, in the early 5th century AD.

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Antonio Rodriguez (1636-91), St Augustine

Augustine wrote at a time when stories of Troy, as presented (in particular) by Homer and Virgil, were coming to be viewed in a new and different light. The Christianisation of the Roman west was by now well underway (it had been more than a century since the accession of the emperor Constantine), and Christian thinkers had for decades now been aiming to recalibrate popular understandings of the shape and significance of Roman – and cosmic – history. Writing the Trojan war out of history (and out of Roman religion) – or at least writing it off –  was part of this process.

For first century BC Roman writers like Virgil and the historian Livy, stories of the Trojan war could occupy a proud place of precedence in their tellings of the origins of Roman history. But this way of situating and explaining the development of Roman history, and indeed world history (in relation to the Homeric tales of Troy) was something that made a good deal less sense for writers inspired by Christianity.

Christian writers tended to see the history of Rome, and indeed the history of the cosmos, in an altogether different light. They wanted to tell historical stories that followed a trajectory featuring not Achilles, Aeneas, Romulus and Remus, but instead tales of the Bible – of Noah, Abraham, Isaac and King David.

Christian history writing, as the great historian of historiography Arnaldo Momigliano emphasises, is profoundly influenced in its most fundamental conceptions by Jewish history writing. The foremost influence over the early Christian historiographical tradition, in fact, was the first century AD Jewish historian Josephus.

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Augustine himself was not a historian. But in his City of God – a work of theology – he presents passages of prolonged reflection and argument about historical topics. And, like Christian historians, Augustine is fundamentally uninterested in sustaining older linear narratives of Roman history. He is interested rather in vindicating and championing new, Christian ways of seeing and understanding the past.

His treatment of the Trojan war – to which he turns his attention in book 3 – is a case in point. For Augustine, Homeric accounts of the war at Troy do not count as credible historical records. He is particularly unimpressed by Homer’s Trojan gods, most notably Apollo and Poseidon. Poseidon, he notes, was simultaneously credited with building up the city walls of Troy, and – then – with joining the Greek assault on the city.

Poseidon punishes Trojan bad faith (the bad faith in question being the failure of Laomedon, Priam’s father, to pay the sea god for his help in constructing the original city walls of Troy, as outlined at Il. 21.441f.). Meanwhile, Augustine wonders wryly whether it’s more dangerous to believe in such a god or to let him down. He also wonders why – if Troy’s gods are indeed Rome’s gods, as Roman tradition had maintained – a Trojan act of bad faith was punishable in this way, while the perjurious acts of unscrupulous Roman senators apparently were not.

Augustine mocks the idea that the Homeric gods could have had any serious issue with the adultery of Paris (when he took Helen, Menelaus’ wife). The gods themselves were serial adulterers, he notes. He also dismisses the idea that the leading men of the Roman imperial period could reliably trace their ancestries back to Troy, and indeed to the gods themselves (‘Caesar’, he notes, was ‘convinced that Venus was his ancestress’).

Here he takes issue with the subtle perspective of the first century BC Roman encyclopaedist Varro, who supplies Augustine with much of his raw material in the City of God. In Varro’s eyes, a prominent Roman who constructed his identity with reference to divine Trojan ancestors was making a positive move. It was positive, he thought, because it might make him more energetic in action, more bold in undertaking noble deeds, and more secure within himself. The dangers of hubris, apparently, did not loom large in Varro’s view of things!

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Varro

But, back to Augustine, whose major query about the Homeric (and Roman) gods was this: why should these gods have been so incapable of protecting Troy, yet so capable of protecting Rome (at least, that is, during its years of imperial greatness)? And what was missing from Troy that Rome had come to possess, so that the gods might favour one city, but not the other? Here, in Augustine’s view, was a key and unanswerable question – and it is a question whose unanswerability (he thought) ought really to undermine in its very foundations the traditional, and rather naive, Roman religious worldview.

Augustine has a final point about Troy. He notes that the Roman general Fimbria, in the early 1st century BC, brutally razed a rebuilt latter-day Troy, completely destroying the city and ordering the slaughter of all its inhabitants. But wait: was this not the city that had given the Romans their gods? Why, then, should a Roman general destroy a city whose gods (which were also his own) ought to have been protecting it? The flawed logic of Roman theology is, for Augustine, exposed here all too clearly.

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A depiction of Gaius Flavius Fimbria, whose exploits are first recorded by Livy

In Augustine, the tragic fate of ancient Troy, and the stories told by Homer, are not subjected to thoroughgoing scrutiny – historical, literary, archaeological – in the ways characteristic of modern scholarship. Augustine’s exploration is motivated rather by a desire to dislodge a theological perspective whose weakness he feels confident in identifying. He does not accept that ‘the gods’ acted as protectors either of Troy or of Rome in its imperial heyday.

Even in his doubts, however, Augustine remains very much a theologian: he does not wish to suggest that no god can act as the protector and champion of a people through history. Indeed, his contention is that the rise of Rome, and the city’s greatness, are things that have in fact happened under the oversight of the Christian God, rather than the gods of Troy. Given the recent sacking of Rome, this might seem (and might have seemed also in the 5th century) a quite remarkable point of view for a Christian theologian to advance.

Featured image (top) is Destruction, from Thomas Cole’s series, The Course of Empire.

Just another day on the Via Sacra

You’re ambling along one of the main thoroughfares of ancient Rome, minding your own business, with not a lot on your mind. It’s a route you know well and, despite being a pretty important figure round these parts, you’re blending fairly well into your surroundings: no one is really noticing you.

Though of course someone does. Oh dear. A pest, a bore, a social climber, a wannabe literary type strides up. He peppers you with conversation, having grabbed your hand with a note of urgency, and he insists on addressing you with an uncomfortably over-familiar greeting: ‘Dahhhhhling’. The campness of the greeting doesn’t offend but the presumption does.

So what can you do here? Naturally, you must do your best to deflect him: you suggest (not perfectly) politely that you really must be getting on now, that you’re due on the other side of town, that you need to see someone who’s not very well and whom he definitely doesn’t know. Your implication is that there won’t be a welcome for him at the end of it if he follows you on your journey.

The truth is that this bore, this try-hard, this nobody wants you not for your conversation, but for your contacts. He doesn’t seem to care sincerely for your everyday affairs, nor for your welfare more generally… still less does he show any sign of caring to praise or discuss your poetic genius! Hmmph.

Let’s be clear, then: it’s influence, introductions, and a route upward he’s after. And you represent a nice networking opportunity. Which is to say you’re a cog in a machine here: not a figure of veneration, nor – frankly – any kind of inspiration.

This might just be an example of the cost of your literary celebrity: dealing with people who care about your connections, not your talent. Well, sort of. In a way – and let’s admit this very quietly – this whole interaction is in fact a nice reminder that you matter. That you know important people and that important people care about your work.

But shhhh. Back to what an ordeal this whole thing is. That feels safe and modest. And yes, it’s awkward being you, right now, in this situation. But then again: you’re good at doing awkward. It is, in fact, one of your talents (if you do say so yourself!).

Now, before you rejoin the conversation, consider this: doesn’t this pest remind you of someone? Well, ummm yes. Because of course there was a time not too long ago when you yourself weren’t exactly flavour of the month among the Roman cognoscenti. Could this be the reason, then, why you’re not quite able to summon the brusqueness his impudent outpourings deserve? Why you’re (just about) prepared to indulge him where others would have given him a brisk dismissal?

See, this is why you’re good at awkwardness: you like finding yourself in your adversaries.

And so there you have it, maybe. Now: allow yourself to be peppered! And don’t pretend there’s nothing of creative interest here for you. Because, actually, this might just be the scene of a poem for a talented poet like you. A walk down the Via Sacra with this character might well titillate your regular readers, if skilfully done. And if you go to print, then future pests will have a way to know what you’re really thinking!

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Looking back on 3 weeks of reading Horace’s Satire 1.9 with my sixth form classes, I thought it might be fun to try to give a sense of the scene we’ve been looking at together. Above was my hasty attempt to do just this. In it, I wanted to try to capture something of the delicate sensibility and subjective awareness I think we encounter in the poem, but also to bring to light a few further ideas and issues that may simmer beneath the surface of the poem in a way Horace himself does not.

While we’ve been looking at the satire together, I’ve been trying to put my finger on the full range of experiences that pupils (and teachers) might hope to have when reading it.

A big focus when looking at the poem has been on its stylistic and literary features: the way words and phrases are used and manipulated, the way the writer creates effects. There is a subtle genius to the way Horace presents his account of the encounter with the literary pest that is made manifest through close study of his Latin.

One feature of the poem I’ve tried to emphasise is that it’s useful to think in terms of 3 voices being in play in the poem: the voice of the narrator (Horace) when he’s speaking with the pest, the voice of the pest himself, and then the voice of the narrator when he’s not speaking with the pest (that is, when he’s relaying to the reader his inner thoughts about their encounter).

I stressed the interest of thinking about these different voices, about how Horace plays them off against each other – but also about how we get a very interesting (and uncannily contemporary-feeling) sense of the narrator’s subjective consciousness as a result of this style of writing.

On this latter point, it strikes me that the poem calls to mind something of what it’s like dealing with everyday interactions for us, still today. For it shows an example of a context in which we might say one thing and think another, and it gives an example of how and why a person might be led to do this.

Its central theme, maybe, is the subtlety and complexity that can be at stake when dealing with everyday human interactions of the kind we might find tricky or awkward, as we try to negotiate them. Rather than trying neatly to dissolve (or resolve) any of this trickiness, Horace just takes us into one such situation, and shares an account of dealing with it (or not dealing with it). It’s an invitation, perhaps, to reflection.

And so maybe, then, I should have asked pupils to think in terms of 4 voices being important for their reading of the poem: the fourth being their own. Because there is an implicit invitation from Horace to join him in the poem, to try to wrestle with the situation involving the pest, with him. I suppose this post has been my attempt to take part (just a little) in this very process, and to give an expression to my own ‘fourth voice’.

Favourite Reads of 2019 (2)

(Continued from previous)

5 Josephine Kamm, How Different from Us: a Biography of Miss Buss and Miss Beale

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A fascinating read about the lives of two Victorian educators, Frances Mary Buss and Dorothea Beale. I discuss some of the highlights of the book in another post here.

4 Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity

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Another book about which I’ve written already (here): Nussbaum, as the title of the book intimates, wants to redirect the focus of education in the humanities back onto the cultivation of humanity itself (and she does so with reference to some of the key arguments in ancient philosophy). The book was written in the 90s but its arguments felt relevant – perhaps even urgent – at a time when the intellectual tenor and human sensitivity of our public discourse isn’t exactly the best it could be.

3 Isobel Hurst, Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: the Feminine of Homer

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This is a bit of a cheat – as, so far, I’ve only read the first 2 chapters. However, it’s already given me some clear glimpses of a whole area of history and research re: the classical world (19th century women’s reception) that I’ve not thought much about before. It’s also beautifully written.

2 Martial, Epigrams 

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I hadn’t previously appreciated just how racy, funny and exuberant Martial’s epigrams are. My (inaccurate) memory of studying a selection of them many years ago was that they offered little more than a pretty unremarkable window into everyday Roman social reality. That selection must have omitted a lot of good stuff – and what sort of ‘social reality’ is it that we get in Martial, anyway? I’m looking forward to reading some of the Epigrams with students over the course of the upcoming term.

1 Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

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Another beautifully written book (which I blogged about earlier this year here). I’d first tried to read this novel a couple of years ago, but couldn’t get into it then. This year, however, it stood out as the novel that (for various reasons) it made sense to read to my mother at her bedside during her final illness. She enjoyed it immensely – as did I, and its story (and the memory of reading it) will always hold a profound meaning for me.

Favourite reads of 2019 (1)

As it’s the end of the year, a number of people have started to list their favourite reads of the past 12 months. I thought I’d do the same – mainly because I’ve read some great books this year – though with the caveat that none of these books was actually published in 2019… I will have to do better at staying up to date by this time next year.
10. Christopher Stray, Living Word: WHD Rouse and the Crisis of the Classics in Edwardian England
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A fascinating portrayal of the life and career of an Edwardian classicist and headmaster (of the Perse school, Cambridge), it’s a quick read. For me, there was also the interesting connection that Rouse, who pioneered the Direct Method of teaching Latin, worked earlier in his career at Bedford school (where I worked myself until this past term).
9. Russell Jacoby, The Last intellectuals: American culture in the age of academe
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For anyone interested in academic life and campus culture changes (and disputes… I want to avoid the word ‘wars’…) in recent decades, this should prove a thought-provoking read. Jacoby’s is a sane, interesting voice in a debate where all too often the only arguments in town are either from the reactionary corner or the extreme left.
8. Keith Thomas, In Pursuit of Civility: Manners & civilisation in early modern England
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I’ve tried one of Keith Thomas’ books – Religion and the Decline of Magic – before, but couldn’t get into it. This was a different story altogether. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the moral world of everyday social interactions and ideas of civility (and politeness) in 18th century England. Thomas was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in this year’s new year’s honours list.
7. Horace, Satires 1 (w commentary by Emily Gowers)
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I first read Horace as a teenager and it’s been great spending some time with him again in recent months. In the Satires, I like his social commentary and his complex literary persona, but also his humanity. Emily Gowers’ commentary is brilliant and added hugely to my understanding of the text.
6. Noel Annan, The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics, Geniuses
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Another book about the history of university education – and one perhaps worth reading for its clipped, rhythmical prose alone. There are plenty of entertaining anecdotes revealing the eccentric behaviour of dons over the past two centuries. My favourite anecdotes concerned the Victorian scientist William Buckland and his son (who, as a child, collected exotic animals in his college rooms). On one occasion, the dean of the college is reported to have admonished him: ‘Mr Buckland, I hear you keep a bear in college; well, either you or the bear must go’.

Gadamer and the Greeks

Moving house means moving possessions and, amidst the upheaval this has involved, I’ve found a few spare moments to reacquaint myself with some possessions I haven’t paid much attention to in a while. Tucked away in a bag of books, I discovered the other day a hardback I once received as a gift, way back around 20 years ago, which I’ve barely looked at since.

The book is a series of interviews with the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, a thinker whose ideas struck a chord with me when I first read about them as a teenager. I found in Gadamer’s ideas an attractive alternative to the deconstructionist philosophy of the philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose writings – which I didn’t warm to – were very much in vogue at the time (and still are, to some extent). I particularly liked Gadamer’s concept of the ‘fusion of horizons’ (described briefly here), which represented a more optimistic alternative to Derrida’s radical hermeneutical pessimism.

But this book – Gadamer in Conversation – I remembered as something of a disappointment: for the teenage me, Gadamer was really too impenetrable a thinker, and his reflections on his career frankly didn’t hold all that much meaning for me. So the book was filed away and left pretty much unopened – until now.

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I think it’s fair to say I’m in a better position to enjoy Gadamer’s conversations today than I used to be. And, on opening the book, I immediately noticed a chapter – ‘The Greeks, our Teachers’ – which caught my attention. The chapter takes the form of an interview between Gadamer and the classicist Glenn Most – and in it, Gadamer makes a number of interesting arguments and comments about the nature and influence of ancient Greek philosophical thought, some of which caught my eye. What follows now is my attempt to do them justice.

Although Gadamer is known chiefly for his book, Truth and Method, he mentions that his training was in ancient Greek philosophy (and in Greek and Latin): he wrote his PhD thesis on Plato and his early publications were all on subjects in ancient Greek philosophy. For Gadamer, ancient Greek philosophical practice can be favourably compared, in some respects, with the practice of modern philosophers.

The cardinal emphasis placed by many Greek philosophers on writing protreptikoi (works designed to encourage people to follow a particular school of philosophy), and of intervening in the life of the state, are things he approves. The contrast between these Greek practices and certain dominant tendencies in the present, where philosophy – particularly analytic philosophy – has become very professionalised and encapsulated, and relates only to itself, is described by Gadamer as a ‘real danger’. The danger here, presumably, is of a move toward an increasingly solipsistic philosophy which stands further and further aloof from what might be labelled ‘public reason’.

A striking phrase Gadamer uses when he appraises the way the Greeks did philosophy is this: ‘discovering contradictions is a good weapon for a lazy reason [Vernunft]’. This is a point that appeals to me for several reasons.

As a teenager, I used to love to test out the strengths and weaknesses of arguments and to (try to) rip into what I considered silly claims. Of course it is important to be able to dismiss silly claims with good reasons – but, at the same time, I remember feeling that I’d made a real step forward when I encountered a (university) teacher who wanted to force me to make (only) constructive arguments in my writing, and to minimise my inclination to spend time on paper exploding others’ not particularly silly claims (this could almost always be done, I came to see, either implicitly, or gently in footnotes). So Gadamer’s words chime on that front.

They also chime because, just as Gadamer doesn’t have ‘a very high opinion of the denials of the unity of reason that have become stylish in this age of narrowed rational perspectives’, neither do I. What Gadamer describes as a style of thinking that sees ‘everything as embroiled in contradictions’ is a style of thinking that is a pretty normal feature of the postmodern modes of thought that are observable in some quarters in contemporary western societies: for Gadamer, this is a style of thinking ‘that does not see far enough beyond its own contradictions’.

And when some fellow philosophers show signs of a commitment to this sort of view, Gadamer avers, they depart from the example of the ancient Greek philosophers, for whom the unity of reason was never in doubt. Of course they may do this self-consciously: they may even locate ‘what is ‘modern’ precisely in being doubtful about the unity of reason’ (in Most’s words). This sort of position really takes off with Nietzsche – and it flies in the face, Gadamer thinks, of ‘the rich cultural heritage’ (not only that which stems from the Greek philosophers!) we have – and could do a better job of enjoying.

In spite of the fragmentation of academic research into different subdivisions and specialisms which is characteristic of contemporary intellectual life, Gadamer nonetheless maintains that ‘our whole image of the world, and also the turn to mathematics [in modernity], rests on the [ancient] Greek view of a numerically harmonious world’. And in spite of modern science’s instrumental use of mathematics, Gadamer argues, ‘research today still remains oriented to the Greek visions of a simplicity, unity and beauty’ in the world, ‘a world ordered and regulated in itself’.

Gadamer’s claim here is that, in spite of the fragmented nature of contemporary academic study and, for that matter, in spite of the presence of the Nietzscheans, the Greek tradition that links together natural science, ethics and aesthetics, and insists that a unity of reason is possible among them, in a sense persists. Moreover, although academic disciplines may indeed be increasingly subdivided and fragmented, Gadamer notes that we nevertheless face a situation in which ‘the modern world is gradually coming together into a functional unity through science and technology’. The move toward functional unity, I myself suspect, may yet prove fatal for even the stubbornest exponents of what might be labelled postmodern Nietzscheanism.

So what role will the study of Greek philosophy have in shaping world culture in the future? In all likelihood, a very significant role, Gadamer thinks, because he knows of ‘no substitute for the immediate conceptual power of Greek as a spoken language’. There is a polemical edge to this comment – ‘all modern languages of international exchange are becoming bland’, he adds. But, really, what Gadamer wants to argue is that, through coming to know the ancient Greek language and ancient Greek convictions about the unity of reason, points of solidarity may be created and discovered among future people.

This is a nice idea, but Gadamer is certainly not naively expecting a sort of Greek renaissance. He expects that there may also be things in the traditions of ancient India or China that will rival the Greek tradition, and that discovering these things will be good for (our understanding of) the ancient Greek sources – and perhaps good for ‘us’ too.

On Leaving

I began my journey in teaching soon after leaving school, working initially in my old primary school providing some classroom assistance, before going off to teach at a farm school on a gap year in South Africa. These initial experiences were enormously uplifting ones. So much of what I found out about teaching then continues to be central to my enjoyment of the job today… the chance to combine learning and fun in the classroom; the satisfaction of managing to convey things to pupils that they might find tricky; the feeling of somehow being able to bring a subject alive, of helping others come to see things in new ways; and the chance to watch children grow in confidence and develop toward adulthood before your very eyes. All these things are not just enjoyable: they are privileges of a job I love.

For the past 10 terms I’ve been enjoying doing these things at Bedford school. It is a special environment in which to work, and a place in which life beyond the classroom really matters: out on the sports field, in musical or artistic activities, extra-curricular clubs and societies, in the theatre, and in the chapel. The food and scenery are great too.

I had a clear sense when I was a teenager that I didn’t want a job that involved seeing the same 4 walls of an office every day. I briefly considered joining the marines, and would have loved to have tried professional football (but wasn’t good enough). I also liked the idea of life as an academic or in the church, but ended up feeling neither was for me for various reasons. Teaching was also in my mind.

In teaching, and certainly in teaching at Bedford, life is never dull: there are opportunities to get involved in multiple pursuits at school every day and there is always something new to try, something interesting to experience. That is something I’ve valued immensely and it informs my sense that it’s really important to show pupils that living something like a rounded existence – with interests in different areas of endeavour – is important (and possible!).

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A happy moment: winning the staff general knowledge quiz!

I will miss the school, my colleagues and pupils. I have some great memories from my time there – of coaching teams, of assemblies and lessons, of breakthroughs in the classroom, and of lots of laughter.

I will also look back on my time at the school with some sadness, because it was while I was working there that I lost my mother: I know that she was happy to see me happy at the school, and indeed the senior staff at the school were wonderful in making it possible for me to spend time with her during her final illness. I will always be grateful for that.

So it’s a fond farewell to Bedford school and to Bedford the town, which has been our home for the past 3 and a half years. It’s been nice knowing you.

Boys and Books

I’m asked fairly often by the boys who visit my classroom about the books they see on its shelves: about whether I myself have read them all (I reply that I certainly haven’t); about what a particular book that catches their eye is about (sometimes this can lead into an interesting conversation); and, perhaps most commonly of all, about whether I myself have a favourite book… and if so, could I recommend it?

As someone who loves books, this last question is not one I find it particularly easy to answer. There are just so many great books to choose from, and I prefer to try to tailor any recommendations I make to individuals, having worked out what they’ve read and enjoyed in the past and/or what they’d like to explore in some new reading.

This all being said, I’ve also been thinking a bit recently about the books that I myself found exciting as a teenager, and in this post I’m going to consider whether these might be good texts to recommend to a teenage reader still today.

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Before I start, a necessary admission: my memory of my teenage reading is far from perfect, and I certainly don’t want to misrepresent its true scope and nature. I had been a voracious reader up until about 13/14 years of age, mainly of fiction and history. Standout favourite reads in my pre-teenage years had included Richmal Crompton’s series of Just William books (I seem to remember that the sight of me reading these books would irritate the headmaster of my prep school, who regarded them with scorn for some reason), various animal themed books by Colin Dann, and (when I was about 12) the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. I also remember enjoying both The Great Gatsby and Buchan’s 39 steps when we studied them in English.

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However, for 3 or so years after that (until I started my A levels) I found that the tasks of keeping on top of academic work, learning two musical instruments and playing a lot of sport didn’t really leave much time for anything apart from ‘fun’ reading (particularly footballers’ biographies and autobiographies).

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Nevertheless, one text I did read during this time stands out in my memory for the impression it created: Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder. This book managed to combine a simple storyline about an inquisitive young girl with an introduction to some of the key western philosophers. I greatly enjoyed the book, which I remember as having a thoughtful tone, and I liked especially its exploration of the life and philosophical approach of Socrates.

When I reached the sixth form, I had time and space to do a little more reading, and I was lucky that my parents’ bookshelves had plenty of titles to investigate if/when I was feeling intellectually curious.

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Undoubtedly the single most important book I discovered on these shelves was Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. From page one, I was gripped – not just by Russell’s prose style, which I still find to be both grand and acute, but by the scope of the book. I realise this is a common experience for those who read Russell for the first time (and I know that reading Russell is not an altogether unheard of formative experience for intellectually minded teenagers).

My honest recollection is that I felt that Russell’s book really did pull the rug out from under much of the learning/studying I had been doing at school. Why weren’t school classes considering what seemed to be the fundamental questions that Russell and these other thinkers had devoted their lives to? And why did so many people around me seem to live without paying much attention to these incredibly important questions? Another abiding memory of reading Russell is that I was completely entranced by his exposition of the thought of the early Greek philosophers. I think the book remains worth reading for those chapters alone.

I was compelled to go out and find more Bertrand Russell to read and managed to get hold of two further books, both of which I liked a lot: two essay collections, Unpopular Essays and Why I am not a Christian. For a while, as a 17 year old, my goal in life was to become a modern day Bertrand Russell.

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Studying both Virgil and Horace at school as part of Latin A level had given me a sense that there was a lot of fascinating material waiting to be explored in classical literature – and I was lucky to be presented with an Oxford Classical Dictionary as a Christmas present during the sixth form. I spent quite a lot of time with my nose in this, though I remember struggling to sustain an interest in a number of the minor biographical entries. (For my sins, I also used to enjoy browsing an English Dictionary and learning new words before I went to bed at night).

Perhaps my number one fiction read from this time was Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which I found to be absorbing and well-written. It was good also that Conan Doyle’s stories were short, as I didn’t have much patience for long drawn-out fictional tales at this point in my life.

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So that’s about it: a brief survey of some of the standout reads of my own adolescence. I think I’m still happy to recommend these books to anyone who asks for a recommendation today (well, perhaps not the OCD if a page-turner is what’s required). Strangely, though, I’ve never put any of these books in the hands of pupils who’ve asked me for recommendations to-date (though I have mentioned them). I’m not completely sure why this is: perhaps because I don’t retain my copies of Russell or Conan Doyle any longer on my shelves. There are certainly, though, many other good books to try instead.

Kadmos’ Wager

I don’t know the whereabouts of my copy of Pascal’s Pensées. I imagine it’s lying somewhere in one of my parents’ spare bedrooms, its tricky French languishing there unread, awaiting the time when I discover the urge to locate and read it once again. I won’t pretend. I’ve never spent much time on Pascal. But he’s still a figure who interests me (I have a large soft spot for any good pre-enlightenment philosophe), and I remember reading a particularly interesting and lucid exposition of his famous ‘wager’ in a book by the philosopher John Cottingham.

Pascal’s wager was a topic that came straight to mind early this morning, in one of my A level Classical Civilisation classes. We are currently reading Euripides’ Bacchae, the famous play in which the king of Thebes, Pentheus, refuses to recognise or honour the god Dionysus, despite warnings that he must do so from all and sundry around him. The result of Pentheus’ failure to recognise the god is dreadful: he is brutally dismembered by the worshippers of Dionysus (a troupe of women known as maenads). Before this terrible fate unfolds, Pentheus unwittingly rejects an opportunity to avoid this terrible conclusion, by dismissing the arguments of some of the wise old men of his city – Kadmos and Tiresias.

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The dismembering of Pentheus

The arguments of both old men are interesting, but that of Kadmos particularly caught my eye today. Doubtless I haven’t been paying enough attention to the text of the Bacchae when I’ve read it in the past, but I didn’t before realise that right there, in Euripides’ text, is a clear intellectual antecedent of Pascal’s wager itself, placed on the lips of wise old Kadmos.

‘My boy’, says Kadmos, addressing Pentheus, who has already shown himself to be an individual who is going to be difficult to help. ‘Live as we [i.e. Kadmos and Tiresias] do, and not beyond the order of the laws’. ‘Even if this is not the god’, he continues, ‘consider him a god and call him such!’. Kadmos proceeds to warn Pentheus that failing to worship the god could result in a terrible fate, similar to that of Actaion, the hero of Greek myth, who is torn to shreds by dogs. Pentheus is not persuaded.

There is a clear parallel here with Pascal, whose most famous argument (very loosely) is that individuals have very little to lose by believing in and worshipping God (and much, potentially, to gain) – whereas there is much, potentially, to lose by not believing in him (i.e. for Pascal, eternal damnation), and very little to gain…therefore you should believe in him! (A proper and thorough explanation of this wager is offered here for anyone dissatisfied with my cursory description).

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Blaise Pascal

Anyway, I found myself feeling surprised by Euripides’ prescience – though maybe I shouldn’t have been. At least one internet encyclopedia of philosophy comments that Pascal’s wager is anticipated in Euripides’ Bacchae – so I certainly can’t claim any great insight in noticing the connection. Nonetheless, I find it a bit strange that some of the most eminent commentators on the text – Dodds, Segal – don’t comment at all on what seems to me a quite remarkable argument (‘worship someone to avoid something terrible – and don’t worry too much if they’re not in fact a god after all!’).

Reading around this topic a little this evening, I am now particularly struck by Eric Csapo’s observation that the whole of the Bacchae, as a play, has occasionally been seen as evidence of a kind of deathbed conversion on the part of Euripides. Euripides is a poet who has often been seen as decidedly anti-theistic. By contrast the Bacchae itself, says Csapo, has been seen as a ‘last cynical Pascal’s wager’ on the part of the poet, particularly on account of its vivid portrayal of the terrible fate that may await an individual like Pentheus who refuses to honour or recognise the gods.

I suppose the lesson of my encounter with the Bacchae today might be summed up like this: there are always new things to discover in ancient texts; or, rather, there are new old things to discover in ancient texts, and unexpected connections to notice too.

I am left to wonder whether Pascal may in fact have read Euripides. This is a question whose answer I haven’t yet been able to find.

 

Oedipus in Art

Like so many figures in Greek mythology, Oedipus has been the subject of numerous works of art down the centuries. In this post I’ve collected together a few examples of depictions of Oedipus that I find interesting as part of my ongoing project to keep the experience of reading Sophocles’ play fresh for me after five straight years of doing so.

An immediate thought about bringing these pieces together is that this isn’t the sort of collection one would expect to see in a typical display in a gallery or museum. Museums and galleries (at least in my experience) tend to group artwork by period or by artist. Thematic organisation – the tracing of depictions of a famous mythological figure, such as Oedipus, over time – is not something I’ve really seen very often. Perhaps I haven’t been paying enough attention: in any case, for me as a student of history interested in the longue durée, this is a nice way to approach art history.

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A depiction of Oedipus and the sphinx, taken from an Attic kylix produced by an artist known to modern scholars as ‘Painter of Oedipus’.

My first piece is taken from ancient Greece. It is an Attic kylix (Attica being the land around Athens; Kylix being a type of wine-drinking cup) which was produced around 470 BC. It can be seen today on display in the Gregorian Etruscan museum in Vatican City. In this scene, Oedipus is addressing the Sphinx, the mythical being – half-human and half-lion, who blocks the road to Thebes, refusing to allow anyone to pass unless they can solve its riddle. Oedipus – uniquely – manages to solve the riddle: as a consequence, the sphinx (dramatically) kills itself. One thing I like about the scene depicted here is Oedipus’ contemplative pose: his hand is on his chin, his legs crossed. The sphinx, meanwhile, is in a sense unreadable: he has no eyes! He also stands high over Oedipus, on top of a column, but of course his supremacy will not last. Contemplative Oedipus – who certainly doesn’t look like any kind of aggressor or dethroner in this scene – will emerge triumphant over the sphinx in due course.

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Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx (completed in 1827)

There have been many artistic depictions of Oedipus’ meeting with the sphinx. Perhaps the most famous is a painting by the French symbolist Gustave Moreau. I happen to prefer this, by another Frenchman, Ingres. It’s a rich scene: the use of light and dark colour is obviously striking, and the narrowness of the pass into Thebes (which can be seen in the background) is clearly evident. Oedipus himself attracts the eye: he is quite young here, but strong, and his pose exudes confidence and boldness. He also looks like he has no trouble being matter-of-fact. He’s dealing here with a riddle you almost sense he can solve – and I think the rather perturbed expression on the face of the sphinx reflects this. What, meanwhile, is the reaction of Oedipus’ colleague in the background supposed to signify? Fright, in all likelihood: at the bottom of the picture, a skull and crossbones clearly show the unfortunate fate of those who fail to solve the sphinx’s riddle. This draws Oedipus’ phlegmatic daring all the more clearly into focus.

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Oedipus and the Sphinx, by Francois-Xavier Fabre (c. 1806)

A quite different depiction of Oedipus’ meeting with the sphinx is presented by Fabre here. Here again Oedipus is strong and muscular, but this time he seems assertive rather than contemplative. He is also set more against the background of the wider (pleasantly rustic) landscape, high up in the mountains, with the city nowhere in sight. The body position of the sphinx makes it look almost ready to pounce on Oedipus, yet this sphinx seems somehow less imposing and menacing: its bodily dimensions aren’t as intimidating as they might be, and (for me) it doesn’t command the space of the painting in a way the sphinx of Ingres – from its dark corner – does.

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Antoni Brodowski, Oedipus and Antigone (1823)

Brodowski’s Oedipus and Antigone (above) depicts a scene from Sophocles’ Oedipus sequel, Oedipus at Colonus. Here Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter, guides her father as he wanders around in exile outside his city. The dark clouds and dark rock in the background betoken the gloom that has descended upon Oedipus, but also the darkness that affects him personally: he is now blind. The pair look courageous and strong, despite Oedipus’ predicament. Other paintings of this scene depict Antigone looking lovingly at her father: here she is unabashedly leading the way, looking ahead (or to the side), perhaps, to see where they might go next. She, the daughter, is now the lead figure in their relationship.

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Oedipus and Antigone by Christian Wilhelm Eckersberg

In this quite different painting of Oedipus and Antigone from 1812, Eckersberg presents a more doting and concerned Antigone and a more elderly Oedipus who is visibly more frail. This Oedipus nonetheless shoulders the burden of carrying some heavy clothing on his back, while Antigone walks more freely, albeit while expending energy tending to her father. I love the bright colours in this scene, but also the way Eckersberg manages to capture the melancholy of both characters and the tenderness between them. On they go, in sadness, across the bridge.

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Charles Francois Jalabert, Oedipus and Antigone (1843)

My final Oedipus and Antigone conjures an altogether different impression. Here, in Jalabert’s painting, they walk together through the crowded and chaotic city streets. Antigone leans in toward Oedipus, as if for protection, while towering Oedipus stands strong and tall over the other figures they pass by. His dominant physique suggests his regal credentials and yet, of course, he is now blind and dependent on his daughter. Others – presumably aware that he is a cursed figure – pull away from him in seeming disgust, or, in the case of the woman depicted in the bottom right of the painting, stare at him forbiddingly while pointing toward him. This is a sobering reminder of how Oedipus, once the hero of his city, is now an outcast.

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Blind Oedipus commending his children to the gods, by Benigne Gagneraux (1784)

Gagneraux here presents another scene from Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus, mourned by his distraught children, seems on the brink of death here. A number of others – a soldier, a beggar woman, a mother and child – loiter around the edges of the family, perhaps in sympathy, perhaps in confusion. We see the city once more in the background, and the artist conveys with clarity how deeply loved Oedipus is by his family members.

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Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust, Oedipus at Colonus (1788)

Another French neoclassical painting with some very clear stylistic similarities to Gagneraux, Giroust’s Oedipus at Colonus depicts a similar scene of mourning. This time only Oedipus’ son Polynices and his daughters Ismene and Antigone attend to him in his distress, while he sits outside what looks like a temple. Polynices wants Oedipus to return to Thebes: he needs help to defeat his vengeful brother Eteocles, who has seized control of the city since his father’s departure. (Tragedy, alas, will mar the fortunes of both brothers, and indeed both sisters: it is not just Oedipus who will suffer).

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Max Ernst, Oedipus Rex (1922)

From French neoclassicism, I turn now to this quite different piece by the surrealist Max Ernst, which was composed at a time when the work of Sigmund Freud (featuring the Oedipus complex) had caused the Oedipus story to be viewed in new and different light. An extended reading of what might be going on in the painting is offered here. Simpleton that I am, I find it baffling.

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Salvador Dali, Oedipus Complex (1930)

Continuing the Freudian (and surrealist) theme, here is Dali’s Oedipus Complex. This painting seems to be not so much about Sophocles’ Oedipus as it is about Freud. As with so many of Dali’s paintings, it’s difficult to figure out what is going on and I would be lying if I said I found it one of his most captivating pieces. I am tempted to speculate, though, that the large yellow object depicted at the top of the painting could be a depiction of the human brain, with holes signifying areas of unconsciousness. But I shouldn’t speculate, as I’m probably wrong.

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Linda Mota, Oedipus Rex

Linda Mota’s terrifying contemporary piece marks a renewed focus on Sophocles’ Oedipus himself, here depicted in frightening agony. Blood streams down his face and his facial features are distorted, in a way that reminds me of the facial disfigurement experienced by the central protagonist of the film Vanilla Sky. This Oedipus seems almost trapped within the painting itself, stuck there in agony.

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Alicia Besada, Oedipus

Finally, Alicia Besada’s recent Oedipus evokes the pity of Sophocles’ character. He cowers, shielding himself from the light, apparently naked. I particularly like the funky elements in his skin tone here, but also the way Besada offers a vision which is somewhat redolent of older depictions of Sophocles’ hero, which capture his sadness, desolation and misfortune.

So that’s it: my (very) brief and incomplete survey of Oedipus in art. Perhaps I should just add that I’m certainly no art historian – but I guess that will be obvious to anyone who has read this far.