Sunday, 17 September 2017

Ancient Nomads, Modern Travellers

Siberian Scythians' Self-Portrait, c. 400 BCE
It has been Week of the Nomad. The new British Museum Scythians exhibition is revelatory. It reminded me of Tom Gunn’s immortal poem ‘Hedonism’:

   After the Scythians, how advance
      In the pursuit of happiness?
   They went around in leather pants,
    And every night smoked cannabis.

At the same time, Travellers have been encamped in two fields beside our home in Cambridgeshire. They have been polite and friendly. They are unobtrusive but have a laugh with me when our dog plays with theirs.

The prejudiced coverage in the local press has been shocking. So have the expressions of terror and outrage amongst my non-nomadic fellow villagers. Travellers have always faced harassment, and difficulty finding places to park caravans, but the drastic decrease in available Common Land over the last decades has made their situation much tougher. The pernicious Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 eroded the duties of local councils to furnish adequate sites for them and expanded police powers of summary eviction.

Spencer: Divisive and Unhelpful Remarks
Members of one Traveller family received sentences this week at Nottingham Crown Court for running a slavery racket in Lincolnshire. Their behaviour to the workers they abused  was appalling, and so was their defence claim that they were ‘only’ doing what other Travellers did all over the country.  But I could not believe the irresponsibility of Timothy Spencer QC when he said, on no evidence whatsoever, that he feared they were correct ‘that all Travellers had workers operating under similar conditions.’

There are at least 300,000 Travellers in Britain. As Bill Forrester of the National Association of Gypsy and Traveller Officers said in response to Spencer’s outburst, ‘the vast majority of them ‘are just as outraged by modern-day slavery as the vast majority of the non-Traveller communities.’ There are plenty of modern-day slaves exploited in Britain by people living in houses.

So why do Travellers of all origins—Roma, Irish, Eastern European—arouse such hostility? Ignorance of their way of life is one factor, but I believe another is unacknowledged envy. I suffer from no romantic illusions about Traveller lifestyles. Yet I do not think I am alone in feeling that the 60,000 years during which every Homo Sapiens wandered the planet in pursuit of food, eventually with portable tents and in company with herds of livestock and cooperative dogs, were in many ways preferable to the sedentary life of the modern city-dweller.


My Idea of a Good Time
The ancient Greeks saw nomadic peoples of Scythia, Libya and Ethiopia as utopian—more egalitarian, more virtuous and more just—than the agriculturalists and bricklayers of the great ‘civilisations’ of Sumer, Egypt and Iran. I know that I often long in the morning to emerge from my tent to watch the sun rise over a different valley from yesterday. I get depressed if I have no travel lined up in my diary for a month or two. We all need to acknowledge our Inner Hunter-Gatherer-Itinerant-Pastoralist and stop fanning the flames of prejudice like Judge Spencer did this week.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

A Serious Response to Rees-Mogg's views on Abortion

The Etonian MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who claims to have become a Tory at the age of five, and has burdened his own sixth child with the name ‘Sixtus’, told us this week that he is opposed to abortion. This means abortion at any point after conception and under all circumstances, including where a pregnancy is the result of rape.

Much as I disagree with him, I acknowledge that his views are internally consistent. I do not understand the idea that abortion should be illegal except when a woman has been raped, when she should be ‘allowed’ one. Either you think abortion is equivalent to the killing of a post-partum human or you don’t. If abortion is equivalent to murder, then it is indefensible under any circumstances.

The one position which is entirely inconsistent is to say that abortion is absolutely wrong ‘unless the woman was raped’. According to this view, child murder is fine if the woman did not want the sex. Such a view would clearly be motivated by a desire to control women’s sexual activity and punish them for having sex voluntarily.

But most Britons think abortion is not equivalent to the murder of a post-partum human, which means that other reasons for abortion may be valid. Under current UK law, there are several reasons why the two required doctors can ‘agree’ to ‘let’ a woman have an abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, and these do indeed rest on the premise that a woman’s mental and physical health is more important than the unborn potential human. Moreover, doctors may take financial and social factors into consideration.

The current law in the UK (excluding the antediluvian state of affairs in Northern Ireland) works well enough in practice. But it is surely wrong that abortion is still a crime unless signed off by those two doctors.  Along with the British Medical Association, I am convinced that it is a medical rather than a legal issue. We are currently in the situation where a woman who succeeds in taking an abortion pill without ‘permission’, however early in the pregnancy, is committing a crime for which, unbelievably, there is a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.


This needs to change. It would be a sign of a healthy democracy if all the journalists filling columns with responses to Sixtus’ dad could use those inches to discuss potential reforms to the Abortion Act 1967 instead. 

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Rhinoceros Persecution Ancient & Modern

John Hume, a disgrace to his species
The older I get, the more I am moved by the plight of other fauna on the planet in the face of human rapacity. One of the week's most disgusting news items was the inaugural online auction of rhinoceros horn, held by South African millionaire rhinoceros horn farmer John Hume.

Young Female Siberian Woolly Rhino
Who does not feel atavistic guilt and melancholy looking at the 39,00-year-old woolly rhinoceros found in eastern Siberia in May, one of the many species of megafauna exterminated by our hunter-gatherer ancestors? Only a few millennia later, some of them created thrilling portraits of some of her close relatives in Chauvet, southern France.

Chauvet cave animal paintings
The rhinoceros had lived alongside Neanderthal man in prehistoric Thessaly, but by the classical era the European rhino was long extinct. Aristotle had heard of them, probably through accounts sent by Alexander’s army in the east, and the occasional Egyptian-Greek amulet shaped like a rhinoceros has turned up. But the brutal exploitation of the rhinoceros can clearly be seen in ancient Rome, where it became the star of the amphitheatre.

Ptolemaic Rhino Amulet
The rhinoceros features in accounts of wicked Emperors’ depravity: Commodus liked to slaughter rhinoceroses personally, at no danger to himself. Caracalla revelled in rhinocericidal spectacles as well.  Domitian had been particularly keen, even stamping a rhinoceros on coins to remind his imperial subjects of the lavishness of the games he had provided.

Domitian's Rhinoceros coin boast
The poet Martial’s poems on Domitian’s rhinoceros fetish are heart-breaking. Since this magnificent beast is vegetarian, and temperamentally placid, it proved profoundly disappointing in the shows when animals were meant to tear each other apart to gratify the audience. So the rhino had to be tortured into losing its temper and attacking other animals. But then it could toss two oxen in the air,  terrorise a lion, or vanquish a great brown bear.


Mosaic at the Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily
The rhinoceros, all 3,800 lbs of it, can indeed charge an adversary at 30 mph. John Hume’s rhinoceroses can’t toss their assailants, of course, because he has removed and auctioned their horns. But I for one would not be sorry to see him face a herd of them, furious, in an arena. Perhaps a new form of the ancient venationes (hunting spectacles) could be invented specifically to punish humans convicted of cruelty to animals.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Spartacus in Haiti and Lancashire

23 August is the annual International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. UNESCO chose the date because it marks the beginnings of the momentous 1791 slave rebellion on St Domingue (Haiti). 

Black Spartacus
Enslaved Africans spread fire across a thousand plantations. In 1794 the French National Convention voted to abolish slavery throughout all territories of the French Republic. Although Napoleon later repealed this measure, the fact that it had been passed at all was instrumental in the eventual abolition of the European slave trade altogether.

The leader of the rebellion was Toussaint L'Ouverture, known as The Black Spartacus. He had been inspired by the portrait of the ancient rebel gladiator Spartacus in Plutarch’s Life of Crassus.  

L'Ouverture’s importance was brought to its widest English-speaking audience by a biography written by the Reverend John Relly Beard (1853), not coincidentally the Victorian most committed to bringing classical education at the highest level to all working people. A passionate Lancashire Unitarian minister, he was a crucial force behind the movement for popular education.

Beard also wrote the sections on Latin, Greek and English Literature for Cassell’s Popular Educator, Latin Made Easy (1848) Cassell’s Lessons in Greek

He proudly addressed this to ‘the uneducated’,  his stated purpose ‘to simplify the study of Greek so as to throw open to all who are earnest in the great work of self-culture. Nor need any industrious person of ordinary capacity despair of acquiring skill to read the New Testament; and if he pleases, and will persevere, he may go on to an intimate acquaintance with Xenophon, Demosthenes, Thucydides, Homer, and the other Greek classics'.


Book downloadable free on http://edithhall.co.uk/books 
An estimated 21 million people, shockingly, are slaves across the planet today, and 13,000 in Britain alone. You can find out more at the Global Slavery Index. Its famous-face patron is none other than gladiator-impersonator Russell Crowe.  

In 2012 there was a French TV serial about L'Ouverture, sadly unavailable with English subtitles. Surely it’s time for a major-budget blockbuster movie, with Crowe as Napoleon.  David Oyelowo, the best Prometheus in Aeschylus I’ve ever seen (see pic), is an obvious candidate for L'Ouverture.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Some Classical and presidential Left-Handers

August 13th is the 28th International Left-Handers’ Day.  The usual journalistic response is to point out the disproportionate number of US Presidents who have been left-handed, including Thomas Jefferson, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  Few of those succeeded, within 8 months in office, in threatening us with nuclear war and Nazi rallies, so perhaps the Americans’ great mistake last November was to elect a right-hander.

For light relief let’s look at some of the rare indications of left-handers in antiquity. A papyrus in Göttingen contains a letter written by the clearly left-handed  Aurelius Victor, a post office accountant in Oxyrhynchus. The experts can tell this from the contorted way he pens his lambdas.  A vase in the Louvre depicts FOUR mysteriously left-handed lyre-players. This could at a pinch be an artist’s mistake, but I like to think that the artist was left-handed and paying himself a secret compliment.

Left-handedness is often thought to be correlated with high IQ. Aristotle is sometimes said to have been left-handed simply because he was fascinated by the natural differences between left- and right-handed children. Plato said that we are all by nature ambidextrous, but that through ‘the folly of nurses and mothers’ we lose power in one hand: this causes problems in warfare if anyone ends up left-handed. If you think about the hoplite phalanx you can see what he means, so I’m intrigued to find a left-handed hoplite lion on a lovely Greek gemstone in the BM.  Shield on right paw and sword held in left.

A left-handed gladiator, however, was at an advantage if fighting a right-hander, because his opponent might have had little opportunity to train against left-handers. The Emperor Commodus (the one in the movie Gladiator) liked to boast about his left-handed gladiatorial prowess.   Albanus, the figure on the right in this graffito from Pompeii, is a left-hander fighting the right-handed Severus, and the abbreviation SC. after his name represents SCAEVA, ‘left-hander’.
Assyrian kings liked to be portrayed fighting from chariots, but in only one such portrait, a wall-painting from Til-Barsip near Aleppo in Syria, is a left-handed king portrayed. He holds the bow in his right hand, and his sword is sheathed on his right. He is probably the obsessive astrologer Esarhaddon, who reigned from  681 – 669 BCE.
The most famous ancient left-hander was Gaius Mucius, a Roman citizen who volunteered to assassinate the hostile Etruscan king Lars Porsena in 508 BCE. He was not very bright and accidentally killed the wrong man. He was captured. To show how brave Romans were, he shoved his right hand into a sacrificial fire and did not cry out. Porsena was impressed, freed him and sued for peace with Rome.  So our newly one-handed hero was given the honorary cognomen Scaevola or ‘Left-Handed’.
President Garfield brushing up his classical languages
But I can’t finish without pointing out that one ambidextrous U.S. president, Andrew Garfield, could simultaneously write the same sentence in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other. This was impressive because he had risen from abject poverty.  It sadly did not prevent him serving for less than a year; he was assassinated in the September of 1881 only months after entering office.
A pity. Those were the days when U.S. presidents still said things like ‘Next in importance  to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained’. How Times Have Changed.  


Saturday, 29 July 2017

How Virgil Framed Dido



It’s been Phoenician-Carthaginian Week for me, culminating last night at the Proms in a BBC debate on ancient mariners with archaeologist Sir Barry Cunliffe.  Earlier I had talked about Carthage, the mesmerising lost civilisation centred in Tunisia, to the cast of the upcoming Royal Shakespeare Company production of Marlowe’s Dido Queen of Carthage, starring the charismatic Chipo Chung.

‘Everyone knows’ that Dido was a Lebanese refugee whose project of founding Carthage (the name means New Town) was jeopardised when she fell for the visiting Trojan Aeneas. She was abandoned by him and committed suicide. Virgil says so in his Aeneid, after all.

Dido costume for Victorian Fancy Dress Party
But Virgil cynically framed Dido. He imposed parallels between the Roman conquest of Carthage and Augustus’ victory over Cleopatra at Actium. The Carthaginians themselves told a different tale. Their Dido, whom they knew as Elissa, was a she-hero who led compatriots to freedom and sacrificed herself for them. No opportunistic Trojan beau in sight.

Dido/Elissa’s original tale, preserved in authors including the Sicilian historian Timaeus, goes like this:

King Mutto of Tyre had a son Pygmalion and a daughter Elissa to whom he bequeathed joint rule of his realm. Pygmalion wanted to be sole tyrant. Coveting the gold in the temple, he killed Elissa’s husband, the high priest. Elissa outwitted her brother by pretending to put the gold into bags which were emptied into the sea (they actually contained sand), made off in a ship with the money and half the Phoenician Senate, picked up some wives for them in Cyprus, and arrived in North Africa.

As Clever as she Was Brave: Dido Maximises her Land Grab
From the locals she bought as much land ‘as could be covered with an oxhide’.  Cleverly, she cut the leather into narrow strips and marked out an enormous perimeter. 

Unfortunately, a neighbouring Libyan leader named Hiarbas sought her hand in marriage. Under pressure from her own people to accept, she chose to kill herself so that they would not become subject to him as their queen’s husband and patriarch. With this self-sacrifice she secured the fierce autonomy of the Carthage of magnificent generals Hamilcar and Hannibal for many centuries to come.

The Great City which Dido Founded
I love Marlowe. This production comes highly recommended. It has an outstanding director in Kimberley Sykes, a charming, plausible, Scottish Aeneas in Sandy Grierson and a moving, empathetic Daniel York as Iarbas. But it’s high time a 21st-century playwright dramatized the Carthaginians’ indigenous story of their exemplary Founding Mother. The Romans need to butt out at last from Dido’s inspiring quest epic.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

A Year of Campaigning for Classics Education Begins!

Devoted Current &Would-be Teachers of Class. Civ. at Cambridge 7 July
The last three weeks consisted of serious and exciting work on the project that will occupy much of the next year of my life—advocating the teaching of Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in secondary education nationwide (ACE). I have always been puzzled why teachers in universities have not involved themselves more in the entirety of British Education. In Classics, which has been struggling to survive outside the private sector (where only 7% of our teenagers study), support of the fun and heroic teachers out there at the coalface is a matter of urgency.

So I was delighted that the Arts & Humanities Research Council have had the foresight to make me a Leadership Fellow to campaign to get Classical Civilisation GCSEs and A-Levels into as many state schools as possible, and to fund my inspirational colleague on this initiative, Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson. The award of this grant is the first serious sign that Britons at the highest level care about Classical Civilisation qualifications, historically and ludicrously seen as the poor relation of the Latin and Greek languages.

Arlene at Milton Keynes 17 July
In most parts of the UK Classical Civilisation (or alternatively Ancient History) can be introduced wherever there is a teacher, qualified in any subject, keen and permitted to do so. At ACE we are working with people who currently teach English, Drama, History, Languages, Philosophy & Religion, Sport, Business Studies and Physics. Money is available from educational charities to support the costs of introducing it (further information available on our website).

ACE teachers at KCL launch on 1 July
We have 16 partner institutions across the nation, from Belfast and Glasgow to Swansea, Exeter and Kent, ready and able to support YOU. We will be holding public events in all of them (for dates, times and venues see our website http://aceclassics.org.uk/), with star speakers including some of our patrons, illustrious classicists Mary Beard, Charlotte Higgins, Bettany Hughes, Paul Cartledge, Michael Scott and Natalie Haynes.

We are campaigning to get Classical Civilisation recognised on the English Baccalaureate as of equivalent value to e.g. Ancient History and Geography. This objective is a no-brainer. There will be a large press coverage beginning in September. Arlene and I are writing a book about the history of the subject since its inception in the 1950s and the manifold transferable skills and cultural literacies it bestows. The book will provide an instrument for informing policy-makers, teachers, students, parents and employers about this wonderful subject. It will be available free online.

If you want to help, please turn up to our events, join our Facebook Group, follow us on Twitter at @ClassCivAncHist, lobby your MP (a draft letter for this purpose will soon be available on the website), and above all fill in the questionnaire by pressing the big green button on our website

We need to hear from as many people as possible, ever educated at secondary level in Britain, about what Classics they did or did not get access to, and how they feel about it. The book will only be as good as the crowd-sourced information that goes into it. It is your chance to help us write educational history and affect education's future.


After the massive response to my article in the Guardian about People's Classics two years ago, I decided to run ACE because Aristotle says that a mistake of omission—not doing something worthwhile that lies within your power—is as blameworthy as one of commission. In her moving book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, the end-of-life nurse Bronnie Ware says that people regret failure to do things far more than things they have done. 
Talking at the Cotswold School in Bourton-on-the-Water

Giving all British teenagers access to the life-changing opportunity to study some of the most momentous intellectual revolutions in the history of homo sapiens between 1000 BCE and 400 CE does lie within our collective power. Nothing Ventured Nothing Gained! Please help!