Ancient and modern

Why are we no longer proud of work

More and more people are giving up work on the grounds of their mental-health problems, allowing them to live off state benefits. That raises the question:  is there something about the nature of work today that makes it seem so unrewarding? In the ancient world there was no welfare system. The educated, wealthy elite apart

Do the gods drive current affairs?

To judge from current events in the Middle East, the god of Israel appears to be battling the god of the Palestinians, even though they both seem to be the same god. But are they guiding events? And if not, why not? The Greek historian Thucydides (d. c. 400 bc) had no truck with the idea.

Is there any point to protests?

Street protests are all the rage at the moment. Among the crowds marching up and down in London, there are those holding up banners urging Palestinians to destroy Israel. When ancients protested, they did so to serve their own interests. Athenians did not need street protests. They invented democracy (508 bc), and all male citizens,

Is AI the Greeks’ answer to ‘automatos’? 

Elon Musk has predicted that AI will prevent anyone needing to work and will raise worldwide incomes at the same time. But will it rustle up a quick lamprey à la Bordelaise at a minute’s notice, to be washed down with a vintage Ch. Bruce Anderson? Greek comic poets had far more satisfying fantasies. Perhaps

What we could learn from the classical courts

This year, in its annual Supreme Court moot trial of a famous ancient figure, the charity Classics for All charged the consul Cicero with illegally ordering the execution of five traitors working with the failed politician Catiline to bring revolution to Rome (63 bc). In his history of that crisis, Sallust composed speeches for Julius

Homer’s take on theology

The Hamas charter does not mince its words: ‘The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there

The plight of Roman refugees

To protect Gazan civilians (used as shields by Hamas), Israel has told them to leave their homes. When in 665 bc Romans forced the people of ancient Alba Longa (from which Rome had been founded) to leave and move to Rome, the historian Livy sympathised with their civilians’ plight as legions arrived to demolish their

How the Romans would have solved HS2

After the scrapping of the HS2 link to Manchester, private investment may be needed to build the Old Oak Common to Euston section. Romans would have invited private investment and construction, the bill paid on completion. Wealthy Romans formed a legal association called a societas when putting their own money into personal ventures, e.g. slave-trading,

The key to peace of mind? Repressing your feelings

Scientists at Cambridge University have made the astonishing discovery that repressing your emotions might have something to be said for it. The ancients turned their analytical minds to that, and much else, long ago. In the 7th century bc the ancient Greeks invented natural philosophy, arguing about the physical world in rational terms, excluding gods.

Did cancel culture start with the Greeks?

Excited crowds of youth, encouraged by adults who should know better, take the view that opinions with which they disagree should not be debated but subject to control by the mob. In the ancient world we know of only a handful of examples. Socrates’s trial is the most famous: at a politically fraught time in

Would Cicero have sided with Oprah Winfrey?

It is apparently an increasingly popular idea that we can ‘cosmically attract’ success to ourselves. Many ancients, with their beliefs in divination and so on, might well have agreed. Not Cicero. He published his two-book De Divinatione in 44 bc, soon after the assassination of Julius Caesar. In it he takes on his brother Quintus,

Why the ancients would have baffled by obesity

The government is supplying the obese with a slimming drug Wegovy. But the ancient world was dominated by the emaciated, and the fat were extremely thin on the ground. They were therefore the subject of considerable interest. A degree of corpulence was the sign of a rich, healthy and prosperous man. But obesity turned one

Why all Roman roads really did lead to Rome

Whatever the problems involved in building, let alone finishing, HS2, it is hoped that it will replicate what was ultimately achieved – prosperity, intentionally or not – by the 53,000 miles of roads with which Rome covered its empire (and so successfully that prosperity is now found wherever networks of Roman roads were established across

Aristotle’s advice for Coutts

The American firm B Corp offers businesses the chance to win a ‘kitemark’ by a box-ticking process showing that they are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, and Coutts decided to go for it. Given how that turned out, one wonders how they reached that decision. Had they followed Aristotle’s advice

How to holiday like a Roman

For most people in the ancient world, holidays meant local public festivals – in Rome there were 135 a year – when politicians staged extravagant games and theatrical shows. But the elite mostly spent summers in their own or their friends’ villas, well away from the stench, heat and mosquitoes of Rome. We tend to

Roman politicians were the ultimate gossips

The ancients were as fascinated by rumour as, to judge by recent events in Russia and the BBC, we are. Homer called rumour ‘the messenger of Zeus’, with a fondness for racing through crowds. Virgil described it as a winged monster, with an unsleeping eye under every feather, a mouth and tongue never silent and

Ancient lessons in oracy

It is encouraging to see Sir Keir Starmer taking a leaf out of the ancients’ book by putting oracy (from Latin orator) on the curriculum. Indeed, on the ancient curriculum, there was little else of such importance. State education did not exist. It was an entirely private operation, designed to supply the elite with the

What would the Athenians have made of Daisy Goodwin?

Daisy Goodwin, a 61-year-old married novelist and TV producer, has alleged that ten years ago she was molested by Daniel Korski, and said she felt ‘entirely justified’ in describing the alleged incident a decade later. She claimed that other women had come forward with ‘very interesting stories’ on the topic. What would the Athenians have

Why Putin should watch his back

How secure is Vladimir Putin? His Presidential Security Service consists of 2,500 personnel, his Federal Protective Service of 50,000 troops and the National Guard, essentially his personal army, of 350,000. What could possibly go wrong? Roman emperors might have had a view. It was Augustus who invented the Praetorian Guard (27 bc), a personal, prestigious