On the Freedom to Travel and Unified Continents

I admit it. When it comes to politics I will always remain a dreamer. I put it down to the fact that I grew up so close to the Iron Curtain, and that 1989 was the most formative year of my life, certainly politically speaking. Everything seemed possible, borders opened, people seemed to understand each other better. Even the horrible consequences, such as the wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia, could never quite dampen my optimism  (I  recently wrote about this for the My EU Story Facebook page)

It may seem like a Brexiteer’s worst nightmare, but there was a time – after travelling to Syria and to Dura Europos on the Euphrates, which what was, for a time, the eastern border of the Roman Empire, and then visiting Hadrian’s Wall within just over a year (in 1994/5) – when I was wondering whether one day, we’d be able to have some kind of border-free union around the whole Mediterranean. I admit to that dream, although that might mean that you’ll never take me seriously again. I am not apologising for my 1989-inspired optimism. I’d love to have more of that still around, to be honest. Looking back at that now just shows how much the world and its outlook has changed since then, and not for the better (though perhaps for the more realistic).

A model for an expanded border-free zone? Rather unthinkable right now...

A model for an expanded border-free zone? Rather unthinkable right now…

My experience of seeing borders opened and travel made easier seems reflected in this passage from Aristeides’ Praise of Rome, written probably sometime after the middle of the second century AD:

Now it is indeed possible for Greek or non-Greek, with or without his belongings, to travel easily wherever he wants to go, just as if passing from fatherland to fatherland. The Kilikian Gates hold no terror, and neither does the narrow, sandy route to Egypt which runs through Arab country, nor inaccessible mountains, great stretches of river or savage barbarian tribes; but for security it suffices to be a Roman, or one of those under your [i.e. Roman] rule. Homer speaks of an ‘Earth common to all’, and you have made it come true. You have measured the whole inhabited world, you have spanned rivers with all kinds of bridges, and cut through mountains to make way for traffic. You have filled deserts with posting stations and you have made all areas accustomed to a settled and orderly way of life. Aristeides or. 26.100-1.

Of course, the similarity of sentiment is superficial, and the context is quite different. Aristides is talking about the danger of bandits, name-checking a few areas which had once been notorious. He was also a member of a very exclusive and often well-travelled provincial (and increasingly imperial) elite which was, by this point, certainly benefiting from the Empire, and this speech is written to flatter the imperial rulers (to the extreme, and to the point of tediousness, it has to be said).

These roads had been made peaceful by conquest – as Tacitus has it, Romans ‘make a desert and call it peace’. And Tacitus didn’t say this in his own voice: the famous quote is part of an (almost certainly invented) speech by Calgacus – a defiant (still) free Briton who can’t stomach the idea of being ruled by those continentals who have unified all of Europe. Here is a Roman historian painting the first Euro-Sceptic Brit, so to speak, and foreshadowing  Shakespeare’s notion of a glorious island fortress against a threat from the continent , and a long tradition of island mentality, also reflected in recent Brexit rhetoric.

To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence.
(read the speech here: Tacitus Agricola 30-32).

Tacitus, a Roman senator himself, was able to think about the Roman Empire from a different perspective, reminding us that this peace was enforced and bought with a high price by many of the subjected peoples. Thus we get the exploitation of provinces and the resulting hatred of tax collectors (usually local private contractors who did the dirty work), as seen in the Gospels, arbitrary harassment from Roman troops (e.g. in Lucian’s Ass story, at ch. 44, with a provincial who, unwisely, fights back), and, very differently in each province, questions of how the culture of the conquerors fitted in with local customs and ways of life.

At the same time, it has to be said, without over-romanticising, that such a long period of peace and relative prosperity for most regions around the Mediterranean, from the late first century to the late second, is still an astonishing historical anomaly. Some time after the conquest, many people in the conquered provinces probably could name something the Romans had done for them, even those who weren’t members of the extremely privileged, well-connected elite, such as Publius Aelius Aristeides (to give him his full three Roman citizen’s names).

In that post-1989 optimism I thought we’d easily beat that long period of peace, and without the nasty side of conquest and occupation, too. But it’s looking rather less likely now.

Still – every time I cross a border and notice the abandoned check points, I feel like celebrating, and composing an extravagant lengthy eulogy (though hopefully never one quite so tedious as Aristides’ offering to Rome).

I think we don’t celebrate abandoned border posts, achieved without conquest, near enough – but if you feel as I do, here is a glorious collection of pictures which do just that…

… and here is one of mine.

The drive-through border between Estonia and Latvia. Before 1989 an interior border between Soviet provinces which was almost impossible to cross.

The drive-through border between Estonia and Latvia. Before 1989 an interior border between Soviet provinces which was almost impossible to cross.



Posted in Current events, Europe, Roman Empire | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

What’s a person’s REAL name?

As Iceland is playing another game in the European championship we shall yet again see the international media struggle with Icelandic names. The typical newspaper article talks of say, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (Sigþórsson) or Aron Gunnarsson, and then just call them Sigthorsson and Gunnarsson in all following instances throughout the article. This is normal practice for people with first names and family names, but of course, that’s not quite how Icelandic names work.

As somebody who studies ancient Greece, I am always a bit chuffed to be reminded that there is one small island holding out where most people still have one personal name, followed by a patronymic (father’s name), ending in –son or –dottir. And while we take it in our stride that people just have one name when we talk of Socrates, Plato or Pericles, somehow everybody finds it hard when even trying to imagine the same for contemporary people who we watch playing football on TV.

Icelandic football players with father's names on the back of their shirts

Icelandic football players with patronymics on their shirts

Of course, the Icelanders aren’t helping, with their fathers’ names on their shirts as if they were normal surnames. Imagine that there had been a football match involving Greek philosophers, wouldn’t we find it odd to find ‘Sophroniskou’ on Socrates’ shirt, ‘Aristonos’ on Plato’s, and ‘Nicomachou’ instead of Aristoteles? And in Iceland, you would address people formally with their one personal name and, famously, the Icelandic phonebook (sample page here) also lists people by their main personal names (which look like ‘first names’ to us).


While in the 21st century, Icelandic names seem so unusual the media doesn’t know how to handle them (and Icelandic people themselves adapt them for the outside world), for long stretches of history the idea that a person had one personal name, distinguished by the name of their father, home town, profession, etc., was the normal practice for peoples speaking Indo-European languages (and many other people besides). Many of today’s surnames still reflect these habits in past centuries. In the ancient world, it seemed odd to the Greeks that the Romans had two or three names, including at least one all family members shared. Most Romans had a first name (praenomen), e.g. Gaius, a family name (nomen gentile), e.g. Julius, and most had a kind of additional nickname, which could be personal or run in the family (the cognomen), e.g. Caesar.

It is not clear how the Romans got to this state of affairs. In the region around Rome we find family names among (non-Indo-European) Etruscans and Latin-speakers as early as in the seventh century BC. Perhaps the Romans learned the custom from the Etruscans, or families were so important in their society that those names developed around social structures. At the end of antiquity, the custom disappeared again in western Europe, until it was invented again in medieval northern Italy, and then spread around the world (though this is not the only part of the world where patrilinear family names were used traditionally – e.g. in China).

When the Greeks first encountered the Romans, they certainly found Roman names puzzling. Plutarch reports a very learned (and wrongheaded) debate about which of those three names was the real name of a Roman.

Poseidonius thinks to confute those who hold that the third name is the Roman proper name, as, for instance, Camillus, Marcellus, or Cato; for if that were so, he says, then those with only two names would have had no proper name at all. But it escapes his notice that his own line of reasoning, if extended to women, robs them of their proper names; for no woman is given the first name, which Poseidonius thinks was the proper name among the Romans. Plutarch, Life of Marius 1.2.

In many cases, there was no good answer to this question. Today, we might think that on the whole, first names are our more personal name, while the surname is used in polite and formal contexts. But as far as we can tell, Roman usage was more complicated, and different choices of a ‘main name’ or different combinations of two out of the three could be used, depending on context, uniqueness of name, and various other factors. If you thought that first name terms are a minefield in the modern ‘Western’ World, think again.

For a while, Greeks really seem to have thought that the praenomen was the best way of translating Roman names into a Greek one-name mode, and some Greek historians (e.g. Polybios, who really should have known better, having lived in Rome for years in the 160s and 150s BC) stubbornly talk about Titus, Marcus or Quintus instead of giving full names. The problem is that most Romans shared about fifteen or so common first names, so this often leaves us guessing who might be meant, as if reports about current politics would all be written about David, George or Michael: most people involved are not quite uniquely called Boris or Theresa, and there are rather too many Jeremies. Thus, early Greek attempts to talk about Romans using just one name was definitely a more impractical misuse of a foreign naming system than modern newspapers’ use of Icelandic patronymics.

Bust of Plutarch

Possibly a portrait Plutarch (Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus), found at Delphi, where he was a priest.

And just as Icelandic footballers seem to be happy to adapt their names to more widely used naming conventions, in the end, Greeks came round to the Roman habits as well. As the Romans conquered the Greek-speaking East of the Mediterranean, influential Greeks were able to acquire Roman citizenship. This considerable privilege came with three Roman names, usually adopting the first two from the powerful Roman who had managed to give you citizen status. There were various ways of adapting Greek names, but the most common one was to take the first two names of the Roman benefactor, and use the traditional Greek personal name as the cognomen. Thus, Plutarchos son of (probably) Nikarchos, whom we have already seen engage in a discussion about what the ‘real’ name of a Roman might be, was himself Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, and his son Autoboulos Ploutarchou would have been Lucius Mestrius Autobulus: a Greek name for their Greek lives at home, and three Roman ones for the whole Empire.

Moving between different naming conventions may be tricky, but in the end, it’s possible to adapt names for different contexts, occasions and places.

Posted in Ancient Culture, and Rome, Current events, Greece | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Boris should have remembered the Ostracism of Hyperbolus

UK Politics is just too distracting these days. Today we arrived at a point where both main parties are in the middle of differently shambolic leadership contests. These last few crazy days have brought to mind quite a few ancient parallels (read this excellent post by Caitlin Harris, one of our MA students, on voters’ remorse).

And then this happened:  Michael Gove, formerly Brexit-campaign right-hand-man of Boris Johnson decided to run for the leadership himself, and may well have teamed up, in some way, with Theresa May (the other front-runner) to prevent Boris Johnson from gaining his long-held dream of becoming leader of the Conservative Party.

I think this is an apt moment to look back at the story of the ostracism of Hyperbolos.

The ancient Athenians had developed this wonderful method of getting rid of politicians who got too big for their boots (just how much would you wish for that option now?!), called Ostracism (after the ostraca, potsherds, used for voting). Plutarch gives a good summary of the procedure and some of the problems with it. Once a year, the assembly could vote on the question whether anybody might need to be removed (ostensibly for posing a danger of trying to become a tyrant). If the assembly decided that somebody should be removed, an ostracism was held: everybody could write the name of one politicians they wanted to get rid of on a potsherd and submit that as a voting slip. If more than 6000 were submitted, the politician with the most votes had to go into exile for ten years. Only one politician could be thrown out in any given year.

Potsherds (ostraca) with politicians' names, used in ancient Athenian ostracism votes.

Potsherds (ostraca) with politicians’ names, used in ancient Athenian ostracism votes.

This worked well for the Athenians from c. 487BC to 417BC. Quite a few people were ostracised. But the current farce in the Tory party reminds me most of the very last ostracism, held sometime between 417 and 415 BC. This was the ostracism of Hyperbolus.

At this time, Athenian politics was increasingly polarised by two ‘big beast’ politicians – Alcibiades and Nicias. Both made quite a mark on Athenian history in the following years. At this point, they were rivals, with Alcibiades pursuing an aggressive policy which would soon reignite war with Sparta, and Nicias as the advocate of the peace agreement Athens had concluded with Sparta in 421BC, the Peace of Nicias, which still bears his name.

Potsherd with the name of Hyperbolus, son of Antiphanes. Presumably one of the ballots which sent Hyperbolus into exile.

Potsherd with the name of Hyperbolus, son of Antiphanes. Presumably one of the ballots which sent Hyperbolus into exile.


Hyperbolus was probably himself a proponent of a more aggressive Athenian foreign policy at this time. In any case, he argued for an ostracism: his hope was presumably that one of the two most prominent politicians would have to go – either he would be rid of a rival on his own side, if Alcibiades was exiled, or the argument for peace would be seriously weakened, if Nicias had to go. This looks like a win-win situation for Hyperbolus (the whole story is in Plutarch, Nicias 11)

What really happened, however, was that this scheme did not go to plan. There was one thing both Alcibiades and Nicias could agree on, and that was that they needed to get rid of Hyperbolus (See Plutarch, Alcibiades 13.4). They campaigned together against their opponent, and Hyperbolus was ostracised as a result. One should also note, that even in exile, Athenian politics eventually caught up with him, and he was murdered when the shockwaves of an impending oligarchic coup in Athens reached Samos, where he had settled (reported by Thucydides 8.73 – who was not a fan -, see especially 8.73.3) .

I think that Boris Johnson might have done well remembering his Classics a bit better.

PS: isn’t Hyperbolus a brilliant name for a politician? The name is related to the word hyperbole, which now means exaggeration (and had similar meanings in ancient Greek as well). Hyperbolus’ parents, choosing the name, probably thought of the ‘good’ meanings of the ancient Greek word, literally ‘throwing beyond’, so somebody who excels or achieves beyond others. But in the context of the story, ‘overdoing it a bit’ seems a better association.

Posted in Current events, Democracy, Greece, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to make history historical…

Yesterday, an entirely farcical event took place on the Thames in London, as a stunt by the Brexit campaign, designed to highlight the concerns of fishermen, turned into a scuffle carried out with water hoses, sound systems and rude gestures. Soon, twitter and news sites referred to a ‘naval battle’.

Today, I came across this map.

Naval battle of the Thames. A skirmish in the great Brexit debate of 2016.

Naval battle of the Thames. A skirmish in the great Brexit debate of 2016.

It is entirely without source – a Google reverse image search reveals that somebody very cleverly photoshopped  new captions into this map of the battle of Lowestoft (1665), and did so while the event was still going on. But I could not find anybody who used the picture with reference to a source, so the wit who came up with this will have to remain unnamed.

What struck me about it is how historical this ridiculous event looks if you choose to present it in this manner. Does the presentation alone change the meaning of an event? Not on the first day, of course. Today the mismatch between what happened and the serious presentation makes this a brilliant joke. But what would it look like with a bit of distance? Can historians confer gravitas where none is deserved?

It also makes me realise how much I am used to seeing these maps. I ‘grew up’ as an ancient history student consulting the wonderful battle maps in Kromeyer & Veith’s atlas of ancient battle fields (1903-1931, marvel at it here), a work so legendary that as students, we all heard the story that one of the authors (Georg Veith) was beaten to death by shepherds on the site of the battle of Zela (67BC): surely the most historical of historians’ deaths  (Wikipedia knows the story, too).

Wikipedia* in particular tends to have very beautiful battle maps like this (cf. the battle of Lowestoft, see above). They are usually accurate enough as well: forgive me if I resort to stereotypes for a moment, but the Wikipedia editors’ demographic skews heavily towards people who might be fans of battles while also taking details very seriously.  Such maps confer a certain authority – not least because like all maps, they fudge uncertainties, and  they really do make it a lot easier to explain what happend in a battle.

I use such maps for teaching, too, for example this one of the battle of Salamis, a version of which turns up in somewhere in my lecture slides.

Battle of Salamis - map courtesy of Wikipedia

Battle of Salamis – map courtesy of Wikipedia

Of course, nobody would doubt that the battle of Salamis was a proper battle. But what about other events? Does it matter if you start calling an event a battle, start writing the battle account, and ultimately, perhaps, draw the  map, too?

How often did my ancient sources make that choice… or not?

I am looking at you, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon…

*in a blog post full of Wikipedia links I have to declare my hand. Of course, as academics, we have to keep telling students over and over that you can’t reference Wikipedia in an academic context (and you really can’t). But of course I use it, and I bet most of my colleagues do, too. Just not as actual historical evidence or proper scholarly argument – because it isn’t.




Posted in Critical Thinking, Current events, Exploring the Past, History, Inventing the Past, Remembering the Past | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Why we should all get our roofs from Sparta*

Work on my Peloponnesian League book is finally starting to happen, so it’s time to dust off the blog again. I hope odd little things like today’s discovery will go here.

At the moment I am working on what might be the trickiest bit: figuring out what may have happened in the sixth and seventh century that made Greek cities start collaborating in the Peloponnese. There is hardly any written evidence, so it’s all about piecing things together from whatever is available.

This is how I came to spend a few hours today on roof tiles, specifically roof tiles from the ancient sanctuary in Olympia. Whether they really tell us anything about politics in the sixth century Peloponnese is something I have  yet to decide. But here is today’s chance find:

The oldest temple of Olympia is the Heraion, built around 600 BC – stone base, mudbrick walls, wooden columns and a nice terracotta roof in a Laconian style – the kind of roof they also used for temples in Sparta at the time.

Heraion at Olympia

Temple of Hera (Heraion) at Olympia – look closely: the three standing columns are all a bit different.

This building went through a few changes over time. As the wooden columns were rotting away, they were replaced, one by one – starting in the sixth century, just decades after the temple was built, until, in the second century AD, only one wooden column was left, and duly reported in Pausanias’ Guide to Greece (5.16.1). Pausanias, however, reports a much more intriguing story about the temple.

I must not omit the story told by Aristarchus, the guide to the sights at Olympia. He said that in his day the roof of the Heraeum had fallen into decay. When the Eleans were repairing it, the corpse of a foot-soldier with wounds was discovered between the roof supporting the tiles and the ornamented ceiling. This soldier took part in the battle in the Altis between the Eleans and the Lacedaemonians (Paus. 5.20.4).

I’d like to think that this was somebody Pausanias actually met, rather than an older guide book, so nobody ever even looked inside the ancient roof between c.400BC,when the battle took place, and sometime in the second century AD, over 500 years later.

But there is more about that roof: many tiles and roof decorations were excavated in the sanctuary. Looking at this material, the experts** conclude that apart from a few repairs, the original roof, with the original roof tiles, stayed on that building until c. AD300. That roof lasted 900 years and survived several earthquakes, while underneath it the temple was more or less rebuilt in a different material.

So, who wouldn’t want to hire a Spartan* roofer?

Leonides selling roofs

Irresistible (thanks to Rob Marshall)

*Laconia really. Or perhaps a Laconian-style roof made in Elis. No way of knowing.
** Joachim Heiden, who studied every single roof tile found in the sanctuary (how?!) concluded this based on the material.   [Heiden, J. (1995), Die Tondächer von Olympia, Olympische Forschungen 24 (Walter de Gruyter: Berlin, New York), 68].

Posted in Archaeology, Greece, History, Peloponnese | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On Pledges Carved in Stone

Ed Miliband and his inscription

Milistele unveiled

Yesterday, just four days before the election, the Leader of the UK Labour Party, Ed Miliband, unveiled an eight-foot limestone slab, carved with his six main election promises.  Reviews were mixed, but it was a delight to all  who regularly get to look at ancient inscriptions: political texts in stone have become so rare!  Enough to bring me back to blogging after a long hiatus.

The media faced quite a dilemma: They weren’t actually sure what to call such an object.

Most went for ‘stone monument’, but some plumped for tablet (way too big for that!), monolith (technically correct), obelisk (wrong shape), plinth (no, a plinth is a base for something) or tomb stone (ominous!). Even the term ‘statue’ was used (it’s definitely not a statue!). And there is the inevitable hashtag #edstone.

Since there is no proper technical term for this kind of monument in English, let’s use the Greek term, as experts do when they talk about ancient inscriptions. This is definitely a stele (pronounced STEE-lee, plural stelae – STEE-lie) – a flat slab of stone, usually with carved decorations and/or letters on it.  I propose to call the object #milistele. It’s got a certain ring to it, doesn’t it – and perhaps the fact that we don’t have a modern word for it shows how outlandish this object really is in the context of a British general election.

But what’s more, this is as good a time as any to think about those letters carved in stone. What does such a stele actually tell us?

In many cultures, an inscription is a sign of power and wealth: rulers set up monuments with inscriptions, and wealthy people invest in lasting tomb monuments recording their names (and, in the case of the Romans, lengthy CVs).

The Decree of Aristotle

But in ancient Athens, inscriptions were indeed a sign of democratic accountability: important decisions of the democratic assembly were inscribed and set up in the city, as were the city’s laws, to make it possible for all to check those texts and to observe whether officials and citizens stuck to these decisions. So in this respect, Miliband’s pledge stele is not so far off the mark, although he really should set it up in a public space, not behind the walls of Number 10 (if he ever gets there, and if planning laws don’t get in the way).  The stone’s size reminds me less of the decrees of the Athenian assembly (which were usually smaller), but of the massive towering stelae listing the tribute pressed from Athens’ ‘subject-allies’, a sign of imperialist pride rather than humble accountability.

But there is one inscription which, I think, provides a particularly apt comparison for Miliband’s promise in stone: it is the Decree of Aristotle (merely a namesake of the philosopher, no connection), issued in 378/7 BC.

This document was issued by the Athenian assembly at a time when Athens was desperate to gain allies again, despite the memories of a few decades earlier, when the city had turned from an ally to a rather heavy-handed hegemonic power. The Aristotle decree is the prospectus of a new interstate collaboration – a kind of leaflet in stone – guaranteeing a very different regime, particularly with a promise that no tribute would be charged and that the allies’ status as independent states would be respected. More details and a translated text can be found here.

City names on the decree

A few of the city names on the Aristotle Decree

This stone also shows what may have happened with promises carved in stone:  perhaps it was not all that hard impossible to change one’s mind even after the text was inscribed. A drawing of the text with details highlighted is here. Large images of the inscription are available at Oxford’s Centre of Ancient  Documents website.

The stele used to record Aristotle’s decree was designed for additions to begin with, since the names of the new member states were inscribed at different times and by different hands – presumably as they decided to join in the years following the issue of the decree. Did Miliband leave space for additional pledges?

But the text itself was also changed. Just look at this part of the stone:

Erased text on the decree of Aristotle

You can see that a part of the text was erased: remains of letters are still visible at the bottom of the erasure. Experts have managed to guess what is missing  (read text with restored passage): the Athenians originally promised to make sure that the new alliance adhered to a peace treaty concluded with some forceful prompting from the Persian king: but at some point, the Athenians clearly changed their mind on this matter. One of the names of the member states on the side of the stone was also erased. So, if the Milistele really ends up in Number 10, watch out for people arriving with chisels and leaving erased pledges in their wake.

Another way of changing one’s mind is re-interpretation. The Athenians’ cast-iron promise not to charge tribute (phoros) was kept. However, they asked for ‘contributions’  (syntaxeis) instead.

Finally, looking at the state of the stone, the stele may have been smashed in the end – perhaps when the Athenians were finally forced to dissolve the league (probably by the Macedonians in 338BC). This is how decisions carved in stone could be dissolved: smash the stele and the text on it is null and void.

But there are various things that can happen to a stele once its text is no longer relevant, and Ed Miliband should give some thought to the afterlife of his stone monument, too. What happens to it if he never gets to install it in Number 10, or, if he does become Prime Minister, once his term of office is over?

Many ancient inscriptions were re-used. A nicely flat stone can be very useful in walls, as thresholds or lintels, and as paving slabs.

Ephesus: reused inscriptions. Left: inscription of all the victories of an athlete (framed in wreaths) built into a wall. Right: tomb inscription cut to size in the floor of the basilica of St Mary

Perhaps the Milistele will find such a use eventually. Re-used inscriptions are often better preserved because they are protected from the weather and further destruction: six pledges for May 2015 preserved for posterity. What will future archaeologists say?

But Ed Miliband should probably be very careful to dispose of his inscription very safely – because sometimes posterity plays games with such texts, and subverts their original meaning.

Here is an example from the Cathedral at Pisa:

these few letters, reading IMP(erator) CAESAR, neatly cut out of a monumental Roman inscription, have been set into the wall upside down, carefully at a level where you simply cannot miss them. It is set in a wall of stone quarried for the purpose: this one block was not used because it happened to lie around. I am not entirely sure what exactly this meant in medieval Pisa – but perhaps one might guess at a not-so-subtle verdict on the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire who were still using those titles, or perhaps it is a comment on Christianity overcoming ancient Roman secular power.

An even more worrying cautious tale can be found here, where the strategic removal of a few letters has turned Mussolini into an ass.

And this kind of mockery, set in stone, too,  lasts a lot longer than a few jokes in yesterday’s papers … or even this blog post.

(Addition, 9th May 2015: here is an excellent post from Peter Kruschwitz, suggesting a whole range of recycling options for inscriptions)



Image sources:

  1. Miliband:  Independent
  2. Decree of Aristotle: http://drc.ohiolink.edu/handle/2374.OX/186435
  3. Letters of names: cropped from detail picture at target=”_blank”>csad.ox.ac.uk
  4. Erasure: cropped from detail picture at csad.ox.ac.uk
  5. Ephesos pictures:  (c) A. Rupp, 2012.  (with thanks to Kaja Harter-Uibopuu.
  6. Pisa: my own photograph.


Posted in Archaeology, Current events, Political Parties, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Call the Royal Baby Mohammed – here is why:

As everybody is still speculating about the names for the royal baby, there are two distinct approaches: one is to find the name that would seem silliest with the royal number I behind it, and the other is to speculate, on the basis of family tradition and genealogy, what the name might really be in the end.

This post goes for neither of these options: I look at the genealogy, and the resulting suggestion is certainly not silly, but quite impossible. But why should it be? Throughout history, ‘East’ and ‘West’ have been much more connected than many would like them to be. But this is something we really should remember.

Thus, if the Royal family really values genealogy, and wants to choose the name of their most illustrious ancestor, they should probably go for Mohammed. Let me explain why:

There is indeed a pretty good chance, as far as certainty ever can go with genealogies going back that far, that Queen Elizabeth II is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. The connection is via Edward IV and the royal house of Castile, who in turn were related to the Muslim rulers of Seville, and they had a claim to being descendants of the Prophet. Since Burke’s Peerage seems to have accepted it, it’s good enough for me.*

How much chance is there that this is correct? Descent from the Prophet was soon important in early Islamic politics, and is likely to have been recorded or remembered in detail early on; as the number of people with the highly prestigious claim to descent from the Prophet himself grew, it is more difficult to tell how well this would have been policed, and how easy it would have been for high-ranking families to invent such a connection. One thing is clear, however: during what we would call the Middle Ages, much of the Muslim world almost certainly had better standards of record keeping than any part of Europe.

If you try to define how European aristocracy defines the importance of ancestry, you’ll find that both an early date and historical impact or fame are crucial factors. Hardly any European aristocratic family can point to securely documented ancestors before the eighth century, yet the Windsor family can point to a famous ancestor in the seventh century. Moreover, it is difficult to point to any other of their ancestors (try it!) who has had more impact on the world, and who is considered important by more people around the world than the Prophet Mohammed.

Thus, the choice is obvious, isn’t it?

Call him Mohammed!

What would the world say?


* I have not found a direct link to the original letter written by the then editor of Burke’s Peerage to Margaret Thatcher on the issue in 1986, but here is a blog post which quotes the press release about it.


Posted in Current events, Exploring the Past, Inventing the Past, Life in the UK, Memory, Remembering the Past | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I am back!

Wipes away the cobwebs…
I have been absent for a long time. There are reasons, and I hope to blog about that sometime in the future. In short, I haven’t been very well, but I hope things are getting better now.
It’s a topical post which got me to come back….

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Critical Reading, Online Scare Stories – and the Death Star

Yesterday, a petition from avaaz started going round the internet. It spread very rapidly, through twitter and Facebook. Many generally thoughtful, concerned people passed it on, some with words of anger or concern, urging others to sign the petition as well. This kind of thing happens every day, and I keep wondering whether anybody ever actually looks at this kind of thing properly.

I do sign online petitions sometimes, so I looked at this most recent one, too. But my only reaction was: don’t people actually READ this stuff before they sign and inflict in on their friends and aquaintances?

If you teach Classical texts or history, one skill you really want to teach your students is critical reading: scrutinising a text and trying to read beyond the superficial message it contains, to comprehend subtleties, ways of making you react in a certain way. In a world which is full of advertising, this skill is more important than ever before.  I really despair when I see that it is so terribly hard to make it a habit. Responsible citizenship and effective protest require critical scrutiny of communication, otherwise it’s easy to create outrage and exploit people’s perfectly well-intentioned anger (read an excellent discussion of a recent example which circulated in the UK)
Let’s look at the scare story in question, which is here (link may change one the specified time is up).

Here is the ‘information’ provided as per 13th September 2012:


3 Days to Stop the Corporate Death Star

‘Corporate death star’?! Really? – This wouldn’t be taken seriously in another medium, but it’s a pretty effective way of appealing to a specific readership for whom ‘corporate’ is going to sound suspicious from the start. We might also conjecture that the target audience will be found particularly in a certain age range – people  for whom the term ‘Death Star’ will be most effective in conjuring up the most effectively scary images. Many of these might be  well-meaning people who used to be activists back at school or university, and who might be worrying now that  they aren’t doing enough. Clicktivism is a comfortable solution: little time and effort, high good conscience factor. Find the right language to make the right demographic angry and click before they check the detals, and you’ll get a good turnout.

Also note that it was 4 days yesterday, so somebody is carefully counting down: urgency is one of the simplest marketing tricks in the book, and if you don’t have time, you might just click before you think.

Is that too cynical for you? I happen to think that this kind of clicktivism is a cynical business exploiting people’s good intentions. But let’s look at the ‘information’ provided to explian the context of this particular petition.

Details are leaking of a top-secret, global corporate power grab of breathtaking scope — attacking everything from a free Internet to health and environmental regulations, and we have just 4 days to stop it.

Question: Just how top-secret is this ‘powergrab of breathtaking scope’ (and what does that man anyway, once we get around the hyperbole)?
Answer: so secret that if we were actually told that the dastardly plot in question is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (the term is mentioned in the actual petition, but not in the explanatory text), a bit of googling will get you a lot of information from a mix of sources (friendly and hostile). Claiming that something is so very ‘secret’ is, however, a good excuse for not providing any evidence   (see the Australian Government’s take on the agreement here).

What conspiracy theorists often forget is that top secret plots, especially if they are world wide and involve governments are VERY difficult to sustain. Actually, scratch that and make it ‘impossible’ rather than ‘very difficult’. And do they ever wonder why they are reading, on the web of ll places, about a lot that’s allegedly so secret?

Leaders of the 9 states involved in the TPPA

Picture of the leaders of a top secret global plot of nine states, as available on the Australian government website

And how global is this dastardly plot? It’s nine countries: The United States, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.
How many of those who signed the petition bothered to check what it was about?

 Big business has a new plan to fatten their pockets: a giant global pact, with an international tribunal to enforce it, that is kept top secret for years (even from our lawmakers!) and then brought down like a Death Star on our democracies.

More emotional buzz words. How exactly would a giant global pact  with a tribunal to enforce it be kept top secret? Even if ‘global’ actually means nine countries, that’s pretty difficult, when you have democracies like Australia involved. And how can states actually engage in these negotiations, let alone signing a treaty, if it is being kept secret (drumroll) even from our lawmakers?!

Yoda and Luke Skywalker

'An Avaaz petition create you must, young Jedi'

And do we really want to trust somebody whose best shot at a scary metaphor is ‘Death Star’? Wouldn’t that suggest to you that they might not be entirely in touch with the reality of  events in a real world? Perhaps they see themselves as jedi knights with shining sabers, saving the universe from a dark shadowy empire. Well. If that’s he case, let me break it to you, Luke Skywalker, an avaaz petition isn’t going to do it.

 Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Walmart and almost 600 other corporate lobbyists are all in on the final draft — including limits on smoking laws, affordable medicines and free speech on the Net.

More language designed to make you nod along in disgust and distrust. The language and choice of examples suggests that this was created in the febrile political atmosphere of the States, where evidence counts little in political discourse these days, and many people are willing to believe the worst of anybody they consider ‘not us’. Shouldn’t we ask whether a multilateral trade agreement can actually do all this, and how?

The latest round of negotiations ends in just 4 days — but outcries in each of our countries could shake the confidence of negotiators and scuttle the talks forever. Let’s get to a million against the global corporate takeover. Sign the petition on the right. Avaaz will project our petition counter on the walls of the conference so negotiators can see the opposition to their plan exploding in real time.

Surely, by now the choice of words has made us suspicious? … ‘outcries’… ‘scuttle (sic) the talks forever’  … ‘global corporate takeover’. Well, apparently not …. the signature counter keeps ticking over mightily fast – over 200 000 in less than 24 hours. How many of these actually checked the details?

This makes me sad, it really does. Trade agreements are a very tricky matter. They can do enormous damage, and some have in the past. Mostly they do damage to poor states, and I think that people, particularly in the affected countries, should engage with the process, and ask some serious questions (it can be done a lot better, e.g. here http://tppinfo.org/, a random example I found through a simple web search). It seems true that preliminary negotiation positions (and a text, if one exists) haven’t been released. I should wonder, therefore, why so many people seem to know what’s going to be in it. I wish they did release a text or basic principles: it’s so easy to fill a vacuum with vague, meaningless scaremongering.

People are cynical these days – and rightly so. But I always find it worrying that people who are sensibly skeptical of the traditional channels of political discourse drop any form of suspicion and cynicism when they come across somebody who claims to fight ‘vested interests’, ‘stand up for the exploited majority’, etc., without any evidence or credentials. It’s important to do stand up to vested interests, and it can be done well (the Occupy movement comes to mind, and note their insistence on lectures and open discussion forums in many of their camps). We need to keep our wits about us.

Masses falling for emotive language instead of thinking for themselves are never an edifying spectacle, even if they don’t all stand in one large square cheering political oratory.

I don’t know about everybody else, but my signature is dearly bought, and I am not about to fall for empty words designed to make me angry and fearful, stirring (if clunky) prose making we want to be part of something greater. I don’t care whether it was done with good intentions, or just to prove to some geeks that five hundred thousand signatures can be got in a few days. Even if the cause seems good, it’s worth watching out for the signs of manipulation, especially if they are aimed to stroke our consciences and tap into our preconceived opinions: if it’s too easy to agree it’s worth checking whether grand rhetoric or pithy polemic hides a lack of substance or evidence.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Politics, Protest | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Welsh Higher Education Madness

During the last few days universities have been concentrating on Clearing, the process whereby students can find places in university courses in the days after they receive their A-level results, and change their plans if their A-levels are significantly different from predicted grades. The two weeks after results are published are also the period when universities find out whether they have been able to hit their admission targets, and since funding is increasingly determined by student numbers, it’s a nerve-racking time, when those academics and administrators who handle admissions frequently get visits from colleagues with the question ‘how are the numbers?’

This year, there has been a drop in applications throughout the UK – this was to be expected, since last year’s eighteen-year-olds applied in record numbers to escape the higher fees which are kicking in this year. However, compared to two years ago, the drop is not so dramatic (some say the figures are up since 2010, but the only set of figures I found, from January, had them only slightly down). But while this drop in numbers has been observed everywhere, the Welsh government is responsible for a policy which can’t cope with such a (predictable) development.

In Wales we are therefore faced with a situation where lower numbers are likely to exacerbate a situation which is already dire, as even a part of the opposition in Cardiff has now finally realised. It is well known that the Welsh government decided, a few months before the Welsh elections in May 2011, that students living in Wales would not have to pay more than the current fees (c. £3500), even if they went to an English university. As it turns out, this scheme will only work if we attract a significant number of English students (24 000 at last calculation, see previous link) who pay the full £9000 fees, and, quite predictably, we are unlikely to meet the necessary target under the current circumstances.

The result will be a wider opening of a funding gap which has been developing for over a decade now, and this is well documented by the government’s own higher education funding body, HEFCW (e.g. here, for 2007). Yet, the responsible Welsh Government Minister, Leighton Andrews, continues to refer to it as ‘the so-called funding gap’, even when challenged with the facts (e.g. here, @ 4:40 pm).

The Learned Society of Wales has tried to make the minister and the government see sense, but the correspondence, as published on their website, suggests that he minister prefers to stick to distorted figures and half-truths which conceal (albeit only very superficially) the shambles over which he has been presiding. It’s worth a look: read it and despair…

Just one paragraph of Andrews’s letter of 14th June shows how disingenuous (or willfully ignorant?) his approach is, even when he is not talking to voters who might not be so clear about the facts, but replying to somebody who clearly knows more about Welsh universities than anybody in the current Welsh government does.

…I hope that you now welcome our recent announcements on what I regard as the most equitable student finance system we’ve ever created in Wales. At the same time, the level of public funding for the Welsh HE sector (through HEFCW) will be higher than that available to English institutions. Our proposals are far more generous over forthcoming years [than] that are predicted for England, where teaching budgets are expected to fall significantly. These changes effectively abolish the so-called Funding Gap.

I have argued elsewhere on this blog why the new fees system in Wales is anything but equitable, and will particularly disadvantage Welsh youngsters from poorer backgrounds who aspire to go to university.

But let us look at the rest of this statement, claiming that state funding in Wales will be higher than in England. This is correct, but it doesn’t mean that Welsh universities will get more money than those in England. Whatever one thinks of the new fees regime in England, one ought to stick to the facts, and fact is that most of the teaching grant has been withdrawn and replaced by income from higher fees. In Wales, the fees haven’t been raised, and so the grant remains, which is why it is, and has to be, higher than in England. However, what Leighton Andrews isn’t saying is that Wales can’t afford a teaching grant high enough to make up for the significant shortfall. Only a significant influx of full-fee paying students from England could do that, and at last count, English teenagers haven’t been willing to help out Leighton Andrews in sufficient numbers. Not many people (apart from Leighton Andrews, perhaps) will be surprised.

Of course, he seems to think that this isn’t a problem, since he is sure that universities are so wasteful and inefficient that there is a lot of room for more savings – but unless he has some special Welsh fairy dust to allow universities to provide teaching and research a lot more cheaply than universities anywhere else in the UK, this looks like wishful thinking at best (see Sir John Cadogan’s letter of 8th July in the correspondence also linked above for a thorough refutation of Andrews’s arguments). There is no such thing as a cheap higher education sector. The most likely outcome, in spite of valiant efforts on the part of Welsh universities to improve quality and output with inadequate funds, is that more Welsh students will want to go to the better funded English universities, taking ever more HE funding with them, while fewer English students will be ready to provide development aid for Wales by paying full fees on courses in a cut-price environment.

Somebody stop this madness. Please.


PS: Swansea Classics, Ancient History & Egyptology have yet again managed to admit more students than (optimistically) predicted, and in spite of the circumstances described in this post, our students tend to be very happy with my department, both in History and in Classics. I am very proud that we are able to achieve this – I just wish the government would appreicate our work and understand that it doesn’t come cheap!

Posted in Education, Universities, Welsh Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment