Catching my Breath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.