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2017-11-04
The Villa Economy
Last week I was complaining that my favourite soap bars were late in arriving from England. The local supermarket stocks few brands, and most too scented for my liking - the rest is that new-fangled liquid soap. A friend commented that instead of importing the stuff at huge expense (for a writer, almost any expense is a huge expense) I should talk to a particular individual at the farmer's market and get soap made to my personal specifications.

It turns out that soap is not really that hard to make. All you basically need is lye, oil or fat, and patience. (You can't make soap overnight. Like beer, it needs to mature for a fortnight or two before it is usable.) But home-made soap, like home-brewed beer, firewood and moose-meat sausages, is one of those commodities one can exchange with the neighbours for other goods and services. My own speciality is bread – I aim to make friends and influence people with fresh-baked sourdough loaves.

It's rather intriguing. A century ago, this small mountain town was frontier territory. Goods had to be brought in upriver and by mule train, so what could be made locally was made locally, and some of those skills have never died out. Being a historian, I immediately thought of Roman villas in places such as Britain, where the weaving, barrel-making and ironwork (hello, Messers Weaver, Cooper and Smith) and every other necessity of 5th century life happened within a mile or two of the central villa. Every villa was a self-sufficient economic island. It's surprisingly liberating to find that elements of that still exist here today.
 
2017-10-04
Someone is going to call this 'hate speech'
Aristotle was a racist. Plato was a totalitarian. Socrates was sexist. Each of them, and almost every member of Roman and Greek society was a stalwart supporter of the 'white cisheteropatriarchy'. (A social order which favours white males who identify with their birth sex and make love to the opposite sex.)

Is this a reason to stop teaching classical history? For a small but extremely noisy minority of university students the answer seems to be 'yes'. One has to feel – for example – for Ms Valdiva; an assistant professor at Reed University in the USA. She is of mixed-race and describes her orientation as 'queer'. Yet she has abandoned lecturing on Sappho, because of opposition from students who condemn her as a 'race traitor' for doing so. Promoting the poetry of the woman who put the 'L' in LBGTQ is 'anti-black' according to these radicals.

An article in the September 7th Economist Magazine has this quote from Ms Valdiva. ''I’m at a loss as to how to begin to address it, especially since many of these students don’t believe in historicity or objective facts' (they denounce the latter as being a tool of the white cisheteropatriarchy).'

Okaaay. Let's take a step back here. Firstly, campus radicals have never been known their level-headed common sense, and newspaper reports tend toward the sensational. It may all be a storm in a teacup. If we are going to get outraged, perhaps we should direct some at the university authorities who have allowed such an atmosphere of intimidation and censorship to develop on their watch.

Secondly I'm all for a debate on the role of the classical cisheteropatriarchy (what a great portmanteau word!) in modern society. The opinions of ancient philosophers and how they have affected the development of modern western attitudes deserve a rigorous and critical examination. Let us by all means question whether dead white European males deserve the respect that historians give them, and ask if they were as important as previously believed. Yes, let us see if other voices have been excluded from the conversation, and by all means let us see what other races and religions have brought to the development of western civilization. (That they have developed other civilizations should go without saying.)

But to flatly reject facts, not because you can disprove them, but because you dislike them, and to shout down anything that you disagree with by lumping it under one of a dozen derogatory labels– well, there are other groups that do that - and none of them support a liberal democracy.
 
2017-09-04
A matter of perspective
There's an apocryphal story about researchers in Beijing University who discovered a way to predict earthquakes.

To test their device, they rushed to a tectonically active area in the remote Himalayas.

Sure enough, as soon as they had set up their equipment they found that a powerful quake was due. Realizing that a large village nearby would be flattened by the quake, the researchers sent an urgent warning. Consequently, despite massive damage, not a single life was lost.

As the villagers returned and started to stoically rebuild their lives, the scientists detected strong aftershocks on the way. Again warned in time, the villagers escaped without a scratch. Then they killed the scientists and smashed their equipment.

'But why?' asked an anthropologist sent from Beijing to investigate. 'Did they offend your customs, your Gods?'

'No', the villagers replied. 'They were just evil men. They had a machine that caused earthquakes.'

And that's the problem we have as historians. We assume that our Greeks and Romans and Gauls are approaching issues from approximately the same direction as ourselves, while in fact their mindset might be completely different.

We can't understand ancient history without understanding the minds of the men and women who made it. And that, I respectfully submit, is impossible. But that's the fun part of it. We still have to try.
 
2017-08-04
Calling children names
Recently I was discussing the Roman name 'Postumus', made famous by such persons as Agrippa Postumus, the son of Augustus' henchman. As the name says, Postumus was the last son of Agrippa, being born after his father's death.

The connection with the word 'posthumous' is clear – but wrong. The name 'Postumus' actually comes from an older, originally Etruscan, word meaning 'last'. Thus a son born after his father's death is certainly the last son of that father, but so also might be a son born to the deceased wife of a father who did not intend to remarry. (Many Roman women died in childbirth). Or perhaps the parents were unanimous that their current child would be the last – that would make him 'Postumus; but possessed of living parents.

The connection with the word 'posthumous' confuses not only unwary modern historians – it also confused Romans. In his text 'On the Latin Language' the scholar Varro makes explicitly the statement – 'A child is called Manius if he is born in the morning (manes), Lucius if he was born at dawn (from Lucis – 'of the light') and Postumus if he was born after the death of his father.'

Though Varro was originally wrong, he eventually became right, because other Romans made the same assumption as did Varro. Therefore a father who called his son 'Postumus' would have to spend the rest of his (or his son's) life explaining that he was still alive. It was easier to call the boy Marcus. However, if dad really was dead, then Postumus was a good name, so that seems to be how the name came to be used.

The same sort of thing happens these days. Originally a girl was called 'Natalie' if she was born on Christmas day - on the Nativity of Christ. These days the name can be given to girls born at any time of year, which is a pity, because I always liked that sly old joke 'I know a girl called Natalie – she was born on September 25th'.
 
2017-07-04
Ancient Voices
My recent book on Sparta - 'Rise of a Warrior Nation' – order your copy today! - contained several pages worth of Plutarch's text. A fellow writer, a modern historian who spends an inordinate amount of time getting permission to use material which he has quoted, remarked enviously that it is just as well Plutarch can't sue.

I replied that if he did, he could start with Shakespeare who lifted 'Antony and Cleopatra' - at times almost verbatim - from Plutarch's Life of Antony. But there is a wider issue here. When I'm quoting, I'm translating, and translating is also interpreting. It's not copying but a creative act. Gone are the days when a writer on the classics could just dump a paragraph of the original Greek onto a page in the confident expectation that his readers would simply switch languages and keep going.

So to tell a modern reader what an ancient Greek had to say, I have to wrap a wet towel around my head (Plutarch is tough, but Thucydides is a beast) and climb into the text. Previous translations, if they exist, are a help, but they are often wildly subjective, sometimes wrong, and they often use archaic English as well.

As an example, once when reading Thucydides in translation, I found text referring to warships 'sunk' in battle. Yet triremes don't sink – which is why no-one has ever found a wrecked one. They are made of wood and buoyancy-positive. Even with a dirty great hole in the bottom, a trireme would keep floating, though in a somewhat water-logged condition. And in the original text, that's what Thucydides says – he uses a word meaning somewhere between 'waterlogged' and 'swamped' - but not 'sunk'.

In other words, a writer on ancient history might not need permission to quote his sources, but he does have a duty to convey their words as accurately as possible, both in mood and in meaning.

I'm more than happy to quote ancient authors when I can, at and length. My first writing job was as a journalist, and I was taught that whenever possible I should allow those who are involved in a story to tell it in their own words. My job is to put those words in context so that everyone is clear what is going on.
 

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