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, 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!

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Draco of Athens v. the Tolpuddle Martyrs

Not Big Enough for modern teenagers
I escaped to Rome and met a daughter backpacking with two friends. Two out of three expressed surprise at the size of the Colosseum. They had expected it to be bigger. Too many digitally enhanced super-cities have beamed from their millennial screens.

Corbyn at 2016  Tolpuddle Festival
Rome jaunt means, sadly, that I'm missing the Sunday climax of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in Dorset, where Jeremy Corbyn is due to speak this afternoon. It celebrates the early days of British Trade Unionism when in 1834 farm workers in west Dorset faced punitive wage cuts and lawfully formed a trade union. 

The "Draco of Dorset"
Their deadly enemy was rich local landowner and magistrate James Frampton, who masterminded the ruling-class plot to smash the union. He framed them with a charge of taking an illegal oath of secrecy. This law was meant to apply to mutinies in the navy, not workers’ unions. But Frampton was a clever lawyer and on a mission.

The Edict Framing Union Members
Six Tolpuddle men were sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Tasmania.  One of them, George Loveless, later wrote a pamphlet in dazzling prose which remains one of the most important sources on the dire experience of deported felons in the colonies.  

Loveless' Pamphlet
The national outcry from other workers eventually meant that the Tolpuddle martyrs were pardoned. They returned to play a key role in the Chartist Movement. But I'm interested in the hatred between Loveless and Frampton. Loveless pamphlet says, ‘I shall not soon forget’ Frampton’s name.

George Loveless is depicted bottom
Frampton was popularly known as the ‘Draco of Dorset’, after the Athenian legislator of the 7th century BCE who had established laws punishing even minor offences with death. The working men knew Draco, whose laws were said to have been inscribed in human blood, through their reading of English translations of Plutarch’s Life of Solon. Solon repealed Draco’s laws and passed laws favourable to the poor.

The dastardly Draco of Dorset will have understood his nickname. As a wealthy young gentleman, Frampton studied Classics at Winchester and St John’s College, Cambridge, before going on the Grand Tour. Come to think of it, he will certainly have visited the Colosseum. 

A shame that his classical education led him to side forever with the Dracos and Domitians of antiquity rather than with Prometheus and Spartacus.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Mother-Daughter Separation Blues

Bacchae: Mum/Daughter-Free Tragedy
Some inspiring developments this week, but I’m feeling too dyspeptic to do them justice and am postponing that blog for a few days.  I’ve also seen three great shows, two of them classical. But I’ve just said goodbye to both teenagers, from neither of whom I’ve ever been parted for more than a week, as they go off to see the world this summer.

Donna says Good-Bye toSophie in Mama Mia
Mother-daughter separation anxiety has been exacerbated by the first anniversary of my mother’s death and the imminent marriage of my widowed father to an old friend of his. This plan was announced less than three months after mum’s funeral. The consequence has been that she visits me almost nightly in my dreams to complain she has been forgotten.

Show 1 was Mama Mia. I sobbed miserably through Slipping through my Fingers”, the big ABBA ballad as daughter leaves home

Show 2, Pericles Prince of Tyre, was even worse. This strange Shakespearean play is ultimately based, via an ancient prose novel found in many medieval Latin versions,** on Euripides’ lost tragedy Alcmaeon in Corinth. It features Pericles’ teenaged daughter being joyously reunited with her mother, long believed dead.

The new Cameron Mackintosh 
All this meant that Euripides’ bloodthirsty Bacchae in the gardens of New College, Oxford, came (to me at least) as light relief. It was produced by that great gardener and classicist Robin Lane Fox, now embarking on a new career as impresario, and beautifully directed by my friend Yana Sistovari.  As I said in my talk introducing the Thursday performance, this example of proto-Artaudian Theatre of Cruelty features psychosis, corpse dismemberment and infanticide. But there’s no mother-daughter bond in sight.

That was then: Heseltine in my Youth
Incidentally, the bacchants confirmed my hunch that Tories can’t understand democratic Athenian tragedy. Michael Heseltine was in the front row, but looked completely baffled throughout. People my age will remember him all too well (he was Deputy PM more than once): neither of my far-flung daughters is old enough to recognise his name.

** Apollonius Prince of Tyre, the Latin versions probably stemming from an original ancient Greek romance which drew on the plot of Euripides' tragedy. Coincidentally, Alcmaeon in Corinth was produced in the same group as Iphigenia in Aulis and Bacchae in 405 BCE, so the same actor who played the Prince of Tyre figure would have played Dionysus in Bacchae. 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

UFOs Ancient and (Relatively) Modern

World UFO day, ‘dedicated to the Existence of Unidentified Flying Objects’, is celebrated on July 2, the anniversary of the Roswell Incident. On July 2 1947, unidentifiable debris found by a rancher near Roswell, New Mexico, was diagnosed as the remains of an extra-terrestrial flying saucer. Thousands of people remain convinced that there was an alien landing which the Pentagon is covering up. 'Leaked' pictures of the aliens involved still circulate widely in the Internet.

My own childhood interest in UFOs was fostered by short film documentaries suggesting that various archaeological sites in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica served as landing and launch pads for extra-terrestrials. Once once I discovered Classics I started collecting references to unexplained objects from outer space recorded in ancient authors. Since the official website of World UFO Day ( ) politely requests that we spend the day  ‘talking with your friends about the possibility of UFOs or alien life’, here’s my contribution: my five favourite classical UFOs in ascending order.

Timoleon's Torch
1.   In  343 BCE, a giant torch was seen moving through the sky by the Greek general Timoleon, defender of the Greeks against the Carthaginians, and showed the route his fleet needed to take to Sicily. The historian Diodorus does not draw the obvious inference that these ETs responsible preferred the Greeks to the Carthagians.

2.   Cosmic ships were seen sailing across the Italian sky in 214 BCE when the Romans were feeling particularly frightened of—wait for it—the Carthaginians (Livy).

3.   Celestial chariots and armed phalanxes charged through the clouds during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE when the Romans defeated the Jews. Whose side were the ETs responsible for the UFOs on? (Josephus)

4.   An enormous 100-foot ‘beast’ which looked as though it was made of pottery,  emitted darts of fire and had a multioloured upper surface, in company with a Woman in White, was seen on the road between Rome and Capua in about 150 CE (Shepherd of Hermas). The ETs on this occasion were voting for Christianity.

Attempt at Reconstructing Flying Saucer Wine Jar
5.   But the winner for sheer spectacle, and apparent lack of partisan feeling amongst the ETs, is the flame-like wine-jars of silver hue which landed via a suddenly appearing split in the sky between the armies of Lucullus and Mithridates when the Pontic monarch was terrorising the Roman army in Phrygia in 74 BCE. Both armies saw it and its senders did not appear to take sides.

The Unidentified Flying Wine-Jar  wins because it is evidence that Extra-Terrestrials either drink wine or were dropping a hint that they would like to. Which is hardly surprising if you consider the alleged Roswell alien, who certainly looks in severe need of a drink.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

What did the Greeks do for Ezra Pound & Should we Care?

I spent half the week in Philadelphia giving a public lecture on that city’s most famous poet at the annual Ezra Pound International Conference. I never actually liked much of Pound’s poetry; his famous Cantos are crammed with allusions to other poets so dense that you need a literary encyclopedia to make sense of them.  And then there were his silly hairdos and the fascination with Fascism.

Questionnable Coiffure
But Pound did almost single-handedly free poetry from the rhetorical verbiage and conventional verse forms of the 19th century, stress the importance of crystalline imagery, and introduce the idea of verse libre and singable verse, verse cantabile. This makes an aural impact by careful handling of vowel sounds. He cannot be written out of the history of aesthetics however hard some, repelled by his politics, have tried.

Pound is Hellenic Maiden Second from Left
I argued that the primary reason he was able to invent a whole new kind of lyric song was his experience performing in the chorus of a Greek tragedy by Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris in 1903, at the age of 17. This meant learning off by heart nearly 300 lines of limpid lyric poetry which sounds, when sung or spoken out loud, very like much of Pound's most beautiful, melodic lines, e.g.  ‘Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes’, or ‘In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it.’

'ecstasies of emotion'
Pound as Hellenic Maiden made an impression which his friend William Carlos Williams regarded as hilarious, ‘in a togalike ensemble topped by a great blond wig at which he tore as he waved his arms about and heaved his massive breasts in ecstasies of emotion’. Hilda Doolittle, however (better known as the poet H.D.), developed a crush on cross-dressed Pound and thenceforward spent most of her life imitating or translating Euripides.

Poster advertising the  Play
I believe that the older Pound was in denial about the importance of Euripides to his own development because Euripides was associated, through his popular translator Gilbert Murray (co-founder of the League of Nations which became the UN), with the liberal and humanitarian causes which Pound came to despise. I also learned on Tuesday that Pound corresponded with fellow-Modernist-of-dodgy-politics T.S. Eliot in an excruciatingly racist parody of what they regarded as the diction of African American people (although they called them by another, less respectful name).

The Messenger spoke Greek skilfully & was talked about for years
Which all goes to show that the Classics lurk beneath stones where nobody has suspected them (like the form and sound of Modernist free verse) and do indeed belong to everyone. This includes august poetic types I personally would rather not hang out with, even at such a monumental performance of my very favourite Greek play.