Why were the Greeks and Romans so prejudiced?

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Well, as we know, the Athenians of the 5th century BC espoused democratic principles that we are so indebted to in the modern West. And Cicero wrote such inspiring words on the creation of a republic that they were taken almost wholesale by the Founding Fathers of the USA.

Indeed, there were radicals both in Classical Greece and in the Roman Republic who wanted to shake the old established order and replace it with something revolutionary and different. Look at the reverence given to the poet Sappho – she was named the “tenth muse” by Plato (if indeed it was he who wrote that epigram in the Greek Anthology), and she wrote love poetry to other women. Stobaeus says that the politician Solon heard his nephew singing a song of Sappho and asked to be taught the song, “so that I may sing it and die”.
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Sappho’s poetry is beautiful, and that is clearly the main reason why it survives, and yet, her gender and sexuality might have put off the sexists and homophobes; but they both remain.

Plato himself says, in Republic Book V, that just as female watch-dogs do the same jobs and have the same training as male watch-dogs, so women ought to play the same roles in a perfect society as men. When Socrates’s interlocutor objects that the idea of women exercising naked in the exercise grounds causes hilarity, Socrates says that there was a time when even men exercising naked was seen as ridiculous [perhaps we have returned to that time now!]. Socrates then appears to be suggesting that just as the idea of insisting that bald men must be cobblers, and long-haired men can’t do the job, so with women and men, they ought to do the same jobs. Radical indeed.

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So we always knew, didn’t we, that the Greeks weren’t homophobic. After all, Plato and his ilk suggested that homosexual love was the only truly altruistic love, as it’s not entangled with the idea of procreation, and in loving one of the same gender, one can try to train him or her to be just like oneself (not sure that’s entirely healthy, or for that matter exactly what Plato meant, but still, you get the idea…) But it would seem that some of them were feminists. And yet, look at the Pnyx, and the thousands gathered making democratic decisions. Off they went home at the end of the debate to a house run by slaves. The Greeks kept slaves. In fact, surely the Romans were the worst of all – look at the exploits of Caligula and Nero, who treated other human beings like animals.

We shouldn’t judge the Romans by the standards of Caligula and Nero, of course. Seneca, a man who tried his best to tutor Nero, said these words, an imagined conversation in a letter to Lucilius:

“servi sunt.” immo homines. “servi sunt.” immo contubernales. “servi sunt.” immo humiles amici. “servi sunt.” immo conservi, si cogitaveris tantundem in utrosque licere fortunae.

“They are slaves.” No, they’re men. “They’re slaves.” No, companions. “They’re slaves.” No, just humble friends. “They’re slaves.” No, they’re fellow-slaves, if you consider that fortune has equal rights over both of us.

The Greeks and Romans, then: feminists, comfortable with all types of sexuality, champions of the rights of slaves, but… well, they were a bit racist weren’t they? Where does the word barbarian come from? Isn’t it the Greek pejorative term for someone who can’t speak Greek, and so spends every conversation going “BAR BAR BAR!”? In fact, this comes from early Mycenaean script “pa-pa-ro” and has an equivalent in Sanskrit, बर्बर (barbara-) meaning “stammering” or “curly-haired”. They didn’t like the foreigners, did they?

And yet, they wouldn’t be the only ones to be afraid of people coming from other lands. In fact, it might be understood that the Greeks were cautious of those (such as the Persians) coming from the East, as they were indeed aiming to take control of the Mediterranean. It takes a strong and historically rare sense of morality to see “the enemy” whose leaders are trying to invade your lands as human beings like you. A sense of linguistic superiority is surely not the worst thing in the world. After all, Ancient Greek was (and still is) an awesome language (if you’ve never learnt it, I recommend it. Just don’t be surprised when the rules don’t apply. Irregular verbs are the most common in Greek). Of course, a sense of linguistic superiority is now felt by some of the many English-speakers across the world, so pervasive is this language now.

So there we go. What a fundamentally forward-thinking, feminist, right-on lot they were, the Greeks and Romans. Well, no, not quite.
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As Julia Annas said in her excellent article on Plato and Feminism, Plato was no feminist. If you’re aiming for a society without nuclear families, in order to destroy those family ties which blind people to moral actions, then you might as well have women doing the same roles as men (except for those who act as baby and milk machines for the good of the state!). The women who are not engaged in human-production will do jobs usually seen as men’s jobs (although women are, he says, generally weaker at everything than men – even women’s work such as boiling pots, watching pancakes and weaving). “the one sex is far surpassed by the other in everything, one may say.” This is a writer who uses the term “womanish” as a synonym for weak.

The likes of Seneca were in the minority, too, it seems. Plutarch describes the Elder Cato’s treatment of slaves “like beasts of burden, using them to the uttermost, and then, when they were old, driving them off and selling them, as the mark of a very mean nature, which recognizes no tie between man and man but that of necessity.” Cato wasn’t unusual in this, it seems. And laws passed on slavery through the Classical period simply altered slightly the way that they were freed, how you could murder them without prosecution, and such like.

Even homosexuality wasn’t really as accepted as people would have you believe. Aristophanes uses the term “wide-arsed” as an insult, and it’s clear that it’s ok to use effeminate men as if they were women, in a sexual sense, but not to be the man ‘playing the part of a woman’, so to speak. Many of the Greeks and Romans tried to write Sappho off as a woman pretending to be a man, training people in the art of male poetry. Others just refused to teach her poetry, and some tried bizarrely to suggest that the poems are not sexual, any more than Plato’s relationship with Alcibiades was sexual (and the term Platonic love still describes, surely erroneously, love that lacks a sexual element).

What is notable, it seems to me, is the extent to which we haven’t really changed as a human race. Those with different sexualities, genders, nationalities, beliefs have always existed, and always will. They will always interact with each other, and there will always be people suggesting that the best way is to see everybody as a human being with valid rights and opinions, no matter how different they are from you. Those people have over the years managed to alter stereotypes and sexist, homophobic and racist preconceptions in national and international debates, and there are governments and organisations who have seen fit to enshrine genuine equality and respect for others into their constitutions. But there are also those who fear these differences, and reject calls for mutual respect because it doesn’t fit in with the comfortable prejudices they have settled into.

Some resort to violence and threats, as Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez and others have discovered on Twitter, when their prejudices are challenged. But threatening sexual violence when you don’t agree is nothing new. I won’t quote the full text of Catullus’s poem 16 (this is a blog intended to be accessible to school students) but suffice it to say that it includes rape-threats and homophobic insults as shocking as some of those directed recently on Twitter, merely because the two critics had suggested that Catullus was sharing too much information.

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So really I think the questions ought to be: have we really moved on as a human race since the prejudices of Greece and Rome? And why are we just as prejudiced as the Greeks and Romans?

Hugh Bowden’s Heffers Classics Forum talk on Alexander the Great

This is a transcript (though not perfect!) of Hugh Bowden’s great (very short) talk about Alexander the Great, from the Heffers Classics Forum 2014. Click on the book below to buy his excellent Very Short Introduction.
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I want to talk about war in Iraq, fighting in Syria, attempts to control Afghanistan, incursions into Pakistan and Iran, and I want to talk about them 2,340 years ago.
And the point I want to make about them is that 2,340 years ago, these events were very different from what they mean now.
And I want to make the point that it is a failure to understand that difference that has possibly left us in the condition we’re in now.
It’s a cliche to point to British involvement in Afghanistan, which has just this week come to an end, and say, “Afghanistan is ungovernable: Alexander the Great attempted to control it too.” It’s a great temptation to say, “These are ungovernable barbarian lands.” But actually, the world is rather different from that, or the world WAS rather different from that.
2,340 years ago, Afghanistan was part of a powerful empire that stretched from the Aegean to the Indus. It was a well-run empire; it was a powerful empire, and it was an incredibly wealthy empire. And into that land came Alexander the Great, and again, there’s a tendency to say, “Well, here is Western intervention in the East all those years ago!” or to say, “Here is Greece: a pupil of Aristotle coming to civilise the East!”
And that was said in the past. Nowadays we’re more likely to say, “Here is some Balkan warlord trying to impose his superficial ideas on an ancient and fading empire.” And this is equally unhelpful.
Alexander the Great came from the kingdom of Macedon that was created by the Persians. Just before 500BC, the Persian king Darius crossed into Europe and as part of his control of the area he created the Macedonian noblemen Amyntas as satrap of that area.
That kingdom continued, years afterwards, to look to the palaces, to the courts of the Persian East, as a source of an idea of how to rule.
Even Alexander’s father Philip looked to the East for a model for control.
And the reason this matters is because the campaigns of Alexander the Great are not the campaigns of West vs East. This is a battle between rival civilised orders who understood each other far better, perhaps, than more recent peoples who have intervened in engagements in the Middle East.
When Alexander invaded, he was seeking the kingship of Asia, a loose term but one that would have been understood by his contemporaries and would, in a different way, be understood by those who thought the Persians had taken over from the Babylonians and Assyrians.
So Alexander was not a Western interloper; he was someone who came to the East to claim a right he thought he had earned, but he came with an understanding of what he was doing.
When he reached Egypt, he went through the process that was required to recognise the Pharaoh.
When he went to Babylon, he took part in the Spring festival.
When he came to Susa, he was enthroned on the throne of the Persian king, wearing Persian dress.
He became part of the ruling elite of an empire that was now under Macedonian control.
Now, this is not a story that you may be familiar with. This is not the story that most histories of Alexander tell. Why am I trying to tell you a different story? Because it’s true. But why do we have such a false impression of Alexander is the Romans. It suited the Romans to present the Persians as the enemy, because to the East of the Euphrates was a territory they tried and failed, and tried again and failed again to take. For the Romans the lands to the East of the Euphrates were the lands of the barbarians. And it was the Romans who wrote most of what we read about Alexander today.
We rely on the Romans’ understanding of this world. They were a people skilled in warfare, skilled in conflict, and perhaps a little unwilling to understand, a little too ready to fight.
And it’s because Alexander became a hero, a model in different ways to different Romans, both positive and negative, that it became important to present Alexander as fighting a barbarian, non-Roman enemy.
And one of the things that we need to do, if we are to understand what has gone wrong now, is to recognise the misunderstandings of history, and try not to make the same mistake again and again.
The misunderstanding of history begins when we start to shape the past in the image of the present, and then say that we are shaping the present in the image of the past. The Romans started the process; it’s carrying on now: every time anyone crosses the Euphrates, any time anyone goes into Syria, or Iraq or Iran, or Afghanistan, it’s bound to end in conflict. But that isn’t the case, and Alexander, properly understood, seen through the eyes of his contemporaries, is a model for other ways of behaving.
Yes, he was a great general. Yes, he was engaged in a mission to gain control. But he was fighting on equal terms with the likes of Darius the Persian. He was going there understanding what he was doing.
War was endemic in the ancient world: pretty well endemic in the modern world. But conflict, if it comes without understanding, is not going to achieve anything.
I am not offering you Alexander as a model, but I am offering you the Alexander of history. The misunderstanding of Alexander is something that bedevils subsequent history and conflict.

Heffers Classics Forum 2014

Heffers Classics Forum, Saturday 1 November 2014

Here are my notes from the day, which was excellent.

10.00am – 11.00am: Philip Hardie, Jerry Toner, Tim Whitmarsh

Philip Hardie (Virgil and Christianity)
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Virgil’s poems became school texts during the Christian Era. Augustus, in the model of heroes like Hercules, was man made god. He was seen as the divine saviour to rescue the Romans from their inherited guilt. Aeneas can be compared to Moses, leading people to the promised land each of the two will never see.
Eclogue 4 (the ‘Messianic’ Eclogue): Constantine the Great claimed it’s about Christ in a speech to the Council of Nicaea in 325AD.
Aeneid Book 6: Anchises’ speech was taken by early Christians as anticipating Christian doctrines such as the Holy Ghost. Claudio in Measure for Measure makes a speech which picks up on these words of Anchises. In this book, the Sibyl leads Aeneas,just as Virgil leads Dante in Purgatorio.
The Aeneid is still very important: Heaney’s Seeing Things is framed by Virgil and Dante quotations
Revisionism of heroism is not solely confined to the Aeneid: it is part of a continuation of revision from the macho heroes of the Iliad to the wily hero of the Odyssey to the patient hero of the Aeneid
Virgil is seen as an ‘Adventist pagan’ by Hecker and then T.S.Eliot.

Jerry Toner (How to manage your slaves)
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Owning a slave was a bit like owning a fridge: ubiquitous and normal in the Roman world. It is interesting to consider these topics, as it brings home to us just how alien a society Rome would be to us. 1 in 8 people was a slave, but in Italy it was more like 20% and in Rome a third.
Hadrian poked a slave’s eye out for annoying him but apologised! There was a Council ‘flogging service’ for 4 sesterces! They provided their own hot pitch for torturing…! The treatment of slaves in law was awful: they had to be tortured to give evidence.
There’s a famous story of Augustus saving a boy from lampreys and smashing crystal cups. Later, the execution of slaves became illegal. It was an expensive investment. Buying a slave cost twice the price of feeding a family of four at subsistence level. Slave dealers were a bit like used car salesmen.
There was a need to incentivise slaves, by measures such as the promotion of ambitious slaves to slave managers. The Servile wars happened in 130-70BC when slave value was low and treatment bad. By the time of the Empire, the system was costly and self-perpetuating. There remained a very hard line on the situation of master-murder. There was a debate in the Senate about the law on executing all slaves if their master was murdered by one of them.
The Romans were quite generous at freeing their slaves: there is evidence that 30 was seen as a good age to free a slave. Their children got full citizen rights.
This was very different from the Greeks’ view of slaves as like barbarians. It’s interesting that the British and American slavery model followed the Greek model, not the Roman one.

Tim Whitmarsh (Battling the gods)
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The Book is due out in 2015: on atheism in the ancient world
There was nothing in ancient world to match the likes of Dawkins; the Greeks and Romans had many different gods, including nymphs, and also separate forms of standard gods for each locality (Pythian Apollo etc)
40% of Greece is mountainous. Thermopylae was a parable for how Greece operated geophysically. There was a thin coherence – no sense of one Greece. The Trojan war myth and Persian wars brought Greece together, but the Greek world was inherently fragmented. Your Apollo is in a sense next door city’s Apollo, but only in a sense. Emperor worship in Roman Empire centralised religion and paved the way for Christianisation and thence the Catholic Church.
The Greeks were originally pretty comfortable with the idea of atheism. There were myths about it, such as the Aeolids who denied the existence of the gods. Salmoneus called himself Zeus and his wife Hera, made thunder with pots and pans and lightning with a lit torch but then got zapped by Zeus!
Athens in 5th century was an imperial state, unlike anywhere else in Greece.
Protagoras, in ‘On the Gods’: “I cannot say whether they exist or not.”
There existed the idea of religion as human construct. Diopeithes passed a law banning impiety and particularly banning the claim that heavenly bodies are rock and not divine: Anaxagoras was prosecuted in 430, then Diagoras ‘the atheist’ and finally Socrates.
Epicureanism played with the idea of non-interactive gods: not quite atheist but materialistic. Scepticism argued that it’s impossible to make a philosophical judgment on anything. Clitomachus came up with the first genuine atheist philosophy in 2nd century.

11.30am – 12.30pm: Edith Hall, Harry Sidebottom, Natalie Haynes

Edith Hall (Two thousand years of Ancient Greeks)
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Clapping before anyone has spoken is very different from the convention in Ancient Greek theatre: X Factor was the closest to the ‘trial-by-clapping’ that was the Ancient Greek theatre! There were 33 words for deride or mock in Ancient Greek!
The relationship between Aristophanes, Cleon and the demos, as seen in the theatre, is fascinating.
There was no such thing as a coherent ‘Greece’, except perhaps the Macedonian Empire in the 4th century BC. The Greeks didn’t like living more than a day from the sea. If there is a Greece, it is the sea between the different states.
You can learn more about Greeks from Olbia (in Crimea). They created continuity by importing wine, and making currency in the shape of dolphins!
The 2,000 years of the title of the book is from 16th century BC Knossos (known from Linear B) to the 4th century BC. There is a clear continuity throughout this time. The Greeks had the diaspora that the Jews had, but also the boats!
The Greeks were sea-faring, stroppy, individualistic, nosey, open-minded, funny, rivalrous, talkative, and pleasure-seeking.

Harry Sidebottom (Unleash Hell? Modern thinking about ancient war)
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Most Classical art has some links to war – even Latin love poets, with their metaphors of the lover as soldier of war, and the beloved as a besieged city. Scholars writing about literature which contains warfare seemed to avoid the actual nitty gritty of fighting – it’s taken on by popular fiction and such like. But now every book on the subject has a chapter on the mechanics of combat. There has been a move (starting with John Keegan) from top-down to bottom-up analysis of the experience of war.
The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Battles is coming out next year.
The Ancient Greek novel, which flourished in the 1st – 3rd century AD, was set in mythological never-never land. The battle sequences in the surviving 5 novels are interesting: there are 15 of them, which is quite a lot! It’s a great source for the elite’s attitudes towards battle.
But the best battle stories are in Lucian, ‘A True Story’.

Natalie Haynes (The Amber Fury)
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The book is a modern day Greek tragedy.
The current BBC writing course starts with Aristotle’s Poetics; the Eastenders ‘Branning’ storyline (Max and Tanya) was originally supposed to be based on the Medea, but they couldn’t follow it through as Eastenders is a continuing drama, not a short tragedy!
Oedipus the King and the Mickey Rourke film Angel Heart follow exact same plot!
The Amber Fury is a very sad book.
Oedipus the King is all about free will and determinism.
Greek tragic heroes are distorted by extremism.

12.30pm – 1.45pm
Lunch
David Gwynn (Roman Republic)
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Hugh Bowden (Alexander)
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No notes from David Gwynn, but it was very good. Notes from Hugh Bowden are longer – I have posted them separately here.

1.45pm – 2.45pm
Balloon Debate
Peter Brown (Terence)
Lesley Brown (Aristotle)
Tim Whitmarsh (Tatius)
Hugh Bowden (Arrian)
David Gwynn (Cicero) won!

Again, no notes, but a very entertaining hour! I voted for Terence, but Cicero had a landslide victory!

3.15pm – 4.15pm: Adrian Goldsworthy, Michael Scott, Tom Holland

Adrian Goldsworthy (Augustus from revolutionary to Emperor)
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Augustus was the man who didn’t get a Shakespeare play! He died an old man, and was successful. It makes a poorer story for drama!
Without the succession from Julius Caesar to Augustus, the name Caesar would not be special. It is Augustus that makes Julius Caesar important.
When people do remember him, they often have problems liking him.
In 44BC, Augustus was just 18, when he claimed that Julius Caesar had adopted him as his heir. He then quickly raised an army. This was shocking: honour and power weren’t bequeathed in Rome: it just wasn’t done!
It was strange that he managed to live on for 44 years, given his ill health and political situation. It is often depicted as a military man outwitted by a politician (Antony vs Octavian), but it didn’t quite happen like that. Antony talked the talk but he was not a great military figure in truth
Augustus had a violent rise to power – the proscription list was brought back. The Republic was already dead by the time Augustus was born.
The early works of Virgil and Horace were not showing a lot of chumminess with Augustus: just calling for peace.
The writers of the period held Augustus to be particularly cruel as a youth: after all, he hadn’t had time to make enemies! He kept a tight rein on military power following Antony’s suicide: nobody else was permitted to raise an army.
In power, he stopped killing people, and gave the Roman world peace. Previously, it was difficult to pass laws, as you wouldn’t want to let your rival get the credit for a good law…
Cleopatra spent her life showing favour for Rome.
Augustus travelled almost as much as Hadrian, even into his early 70s. He gave the world peace, and ruled well for the common good, following decades of instability.

Michael Scott (Delphi. Centre of the Ancient World)
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The location of Delphi is Not an easy landscape to build in, due to the forces of nature. The story of Delphi raises three questions:
1. What is ancient history?
Delphi encapsulates the problem, or rather opportunity. One early story of its rise as a site for an oracle was in the Homeric hymn to Apollo: Apollo wanted it to be there.
Then in Alcaeus, Apollo was reluctant to have a no oracle at Delphi, but Zeus wanted to force Apollo to found an oracular sanctuary there.
Aeschylus and Euripides both came up with different versions!
According to Diodorus Siculus, it’s all about goats!The goats kept falling in the hole…
In Strabo’s version, Zeus’s eagles were released from ends of earth, and came to Delphi as the centre of the earth.
History is a constant rearticulation of the past.
2. What are sanctuaries and religious spaces for in the ancient world?
In Delphi, there is not just the temple of Apollo, but a sanctuary crammed full of stuff. A theatre and athletic stadium were also present, on a par with the Olympics.
These were not just places to pray, but also to act in celebration of gods and human achievement. It was also seen as important to make things to put in places everyone will go past regularly, shouting about your island or town by using special marble and rich and expensive stuff!
The Spartans put a monument three times the size of the Athenian one right next to it! Delphi became the place you have to go to free a slave: you had to sell the slave to the god.
-3. What does the ancient world mean to us today?
In the 1890s, Western European countries spent a lot of money excavating Delphi. Why? Because the love of Greece in 19th century was very new: ideas of democracy and liberty were becoming very important: we choose our ancestors.
International cooperation enabled the excavation of Delphi, a continuing mission to bring people who are otherwise divided together. In terms of getting on with each other, we’re doing just about as well as we always have done!!

Tom Holland (Herodotus)
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Herodotus never knew when to stop! At first, the Persian wars seem like The Lord of the Rings, only true! Rather than tales of daring do, you get a strange tale of a king who wanted to share the excitement of his wife with his bodyguard, then a weird story of a rock star being taken away by a dolphin… What is this all about?! The whole of first half of Herodotus is a series of digressions!
Finally, in the second half, it does get on to Thermopylae, Plataea etc! Everything that is stirring about 300 is what they have got from Herodotus.
But Herodotus was not a tub-thumping chauvinist. He was fascinated by other cultures. He is the author for our own multicultural society: the story of Cambyses is an example of this. He sees it from the Persian side, and finishes with the words “Custom is the king of all”
Herodotus portrays Darius and Xerxes in a positive light (Xerxes is very different from the character in 300!)
Describing him as the first historian is absolutely inadequate. This is the birth of non-fiction, making sense of the world as it is rather than how it should be. This is where Google and Wikipedia begin.

4.45pm – 5.50pm: Averil Cameron, David Stuttard, Chris Pelling & Maria Wyke

Averil Cameron (Why Europe needs Byzantium)
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The Byzantines always called themselves Romans. Byzantine is a derogatory term used in the modern period. Byzantium is missing in histories of Europe and in the general consciousness. This is 1100 years of history which needs to be brought back! Its influence affected a huge span of different countries.
There are ‘two exits from Classical antiquity’: the Christian Western European story, and also the exit through the Islamic world.mTranslating some religious texts into the vernacular was something quite special.
Vladimir Putin takes his name from Vladimir I, prince of Kiev, who was converted in Byzantium. The first Russian Kingdom was at Kiev. Crimea was even more central, and was part of Byzantine involvement. Putin has made documentaries portraying Russia as the heir of Byzantium.
Byzantium fell in 1204 to the Crusaders before it fell to the Ottomans. Byzantium is part of the development of history across Europe and the Middle East: Byzantium was right in the middle.

David Stuttard (A History of Ancient Greece in Fifty Lives)
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The lives in the book stretch from 730BC, and the Iliad and Odyssey, until 146BC and the sack of Corinth, and from Spain in the west to India in the East.
It all starts with mythology: men fighting creatures and each other. Aristocratic families in antiquity traced their families back to the mythological past.
Achilles is offered kleos aphthiton (unwithering fame) and aien aristeuein (always to be best) or to live a long life. He goes for the former: identity is really important to him. Odysseus on the other hand just wants to get home and live a long life and be with his family: he claims all sorts of identities, just to get home: a Cretan, for example, and ‘Nobody’.
Odysseus’s epithet ‘polumetis’ could also be applied to Gorgias (485-380).
Socrates accepted his fate, and was as combative as any Homeric hero.
Milo of Croton, the wrestler, won 6 times at Olympia: he defended his city with a garland and lion skin, the embodiment of Heracles. He supposedly had 20lbs of red meat and 2 gallons of wine a day!
Pythagoras believed in metempsychosis – he claimed to have fought at Troy in a previous life.
There was only competition between Thucydides and Herodotus because the stakes were so low!
Sappho rejected Homeric ideals in favour of ‘the one you desire’
Alexander traced his bloodline to Achilles: he emulated Achilles by fastening his enemy’s body to his chariot,mand dragged it around walls of Gaza.
Alexander also claimed to be related to Zeus, Heracles and Dionysus!
Polybius watched with Scipio as Carthage was consumed in flames, and Scipio quoted Homer: “The day will come when Troy will fall…” (referring to Greece)
If only the Greeks had remembered the line of Achilles, “I would rather be a serf in the land of the living than a king over the land of the dead.”

Chris Pelling & Maria Wyke (Twelve Classical Voices. Ancient Ideas for Modern Times)
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The book originally comes from a Radio 3 series which was nominated for awards. They are a sort of conversation.
You find something new every time you go back to someone like Herodotus. It gives you opportunities to think about our relationships with the Classical world.
Studying Caesar in Latin draws you in and makes you commit to his view of the world. Writing matters, and is interventionist. There is a purity of form but darkness of content in Caesar.
There is so little voice and role in politics for women in ancient world: yet Tacitus is full of imperial prostitution, and, in a sense, women were a route to thinking about how politics had gone wrong.
The book makes many links between Greek and Roman, prose and verse authors.
The suffering of Homer’s texts is often seen through the women.
What can you get out of Thucydides? Hard-edged realism? Well in Thucydides people talk about morality quite a lot. It is not difficult to apply the understanding of the Sicilian expedition to modern day wars!
The Romans always seem a bit mucky by comparison with the Greeks!
The Aeneid confronts the regime in which it’s written in equivocal ways: the Empire, and triumphant Augustus, but also darkness, suffering, the death of young, the tears…
These texts have been relevant at many different times in different ways: how are they so relevant to so many different times?
Horace is still relevant today because of his profound thoughts of friendship and ageing. There is no spring to follow winter in human lives: this is a very profound thought. The consequence of this is the need to savour each day.
Literature and poetry will outlive human lives. There is a link here to Achilles’s two fates: he knows what will follow. This is very different from lives of real life soldiers, and yet Homer becomes an interesting way for First World War soldiers to think about the war.
Other figures not yet mentioned include Sappho (a new poem appeared just before this book went to press, so it was possible to discuss it in the book). Lucian is tremendously funny to read.