Ancient and modern

Biden should approach ageing like the Romans

Last week, Lionel Shriver wrote a characteristically sharp piece about the narcissism of the ageing Joe Biden, egged on by his wife, in standing again for the presidency of the United States. The Roman poet Lucretius (1st century bc) might well have offered a similar opinion, but he would have presented it as an example of

Our new MPs should read Cicero

It would make a pleasant change if every elected MP was to make it their ambition to be honestus, Latin for ‘honourable, moral, a person of integrity’. This brought a man high acclaim because by definition he would be useful, i.e. of benefit, to his country. So argued the statesman Cicero in his three-volume On

What British voters could learn from the Romans

When the forthcoming election result is announced, the triumphant party will presumably proclaim: ‘The British people have spoken!’ That will come as quite a surprise to the British people, because all they will have done is crossed a box approving a farrago of implausible policies or reforms in matters over which they have had no

Hunter Biden and the teaching of virtue

Joe Biden, President of the United States, may not have any criminal charges on his record, but his son Hunter does. When ancient Greeks discussed whether aretê (‘virtue, moral excellence, goodness, bravery’) could be taught, or not, such examples came into play. Plato discussed the problem in a dialogue in which Socrates raised the question

The Greeks were right: Trump shouldn’t live for revenge

Donald Trump’s book on business Think Big and Kick Ass makes taking personal revenge a very high priority. Given recent events in a US court, it will clearly be a priority if he wins the forthcoming election. For ancient Greeks, it was taken for granted that, if you were harmed by someone, it was your

How would Athenians have dealt with Donald Trump?

Has Humpty-Trumpty had a great fall, or a great bounce? That will depend on what the Great American Public thinks was at stake in his trial. It was ever thus in the democracy of ancient Athens. In the absence of a state prosecution service, all legal cases in ancient Athens were brought by individuals. But

How to crack election jokes like a Greek

As the party of the lost and the party of the losers square up to each other, the next few weeks bid fair to raise tedium to an excruciating new level. Still, one can always rely on the c. 4,000 epigrams of the Greek Anthology (7th century bc – 6th century ad) to provide some

Olive oil was the key to Roman excellence

Owing to a rise in temperature in southern Europe and a reduction in rainfall, the production of olive oil this year may drop by nearly 40 per cent. For the Romans, who ensured that the olive spread all around the Mediterranean, it would have been disastrous. Olives were a food, and in its liquid form

Aristotle’s advice for young protestors

In his Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle (384-322 bc) sets about identifying the various headings under which you can be persuasive about any topic. One of the topics is the nature of the young, and as today’s students pick up their loud hailers to make demands about events more than 2,000 miles away in alien cultures

Were the Ancient Greeks shameless?

Last week Mary Wakefield discussed the virtues of her ‘Victorian’ education, designed to stiffen the upper lip of the young and to ensure they understood that they were in second place to their elders and betters. She avoided the word ‘guilt’ and its associations with ‘shame’, which were taken to be the aim of such

How to survive in the ancient world

A recent analysis has concluded that ‘British public opinion has got so used to things being bad/chaotic it’s hard to imagine anything else.’ But what ‘things’? Perhaps electioneering politics (always chaotic), but more likely the myriad social, legal and medical services the state claims to provide. No such services (let alone ‘rights’) were available in the ancient world. Family

What does the Olympic torch have to do with Hitler?

The original Olympic Games established a basic canon of seven games unchanged over some 900 years: foot, horse and chariot races, boxing, wrestling, pankration, and pentathlon. This year’s Olympics feature 42 games, adding for the first time ‘competitive breakdancing, an urban sport that originated in the hip-hop culture of 1970s block parties in the US’.

What was it like to be nouveau riche in Pompeii?

Frescoes are always the lead story in reports of the latest finds from Pompeii, but they are only a part of a much bigger picture. Before it was destroyed in ad 79 Pompeii had been a flourishing port town (the explosion of Vesuvius altered the whole landscape) with a population of around 11,000, offering trading

Were the Greeks right about justice?

The Sentencing Council, consisting of various legal authorities, has told judges and magistrates to consider, when sentencing the young, their ‘difficult and/or deprived backgrounds or personal circumstances’. To what end? To induct the young into proper moral behaviour, Aristotle thought that family discipline should go hand in hand with the community’s laws, customs and education.

What would the Romans think of assisted suicide? 

What a song and dance about the end of life! Historians assure us that, among human beings, there is a long, well-established tradition of dying and if, after a life well lived, one feels enough is enough, what on earth is the problem? Seneca, the philosopher and adviser to Nero, took a duly stoical approach:

Why Rome didn’t need the Garrick

What fun to mock the elite in the Garrick! But there were no Garricks in Rome: clubs were for those lower down the scale. They were called collegia and consisted of citizens, freedmen (ex-slaves) and in some cases slaves. All usually had some religious connection and were properly organised with presidents, treasurers and so on.

What the Greeks knew about unconscious bias

socrates: I was talking with some handsome young men in St Andrews University when the vice chancellor appeared, keen to discuss her new student ‘training module’. It would include ticking the statement: ‘Acknowledging your personal guilt is a useful start point in overcoming unconscious bias.’ socrates: I was talking with some handsome young men in

What would the Romans have made of the Budget?

Accounting systems have apparently existed since the Mesopotamian period (c. 5000 bc). But what about ‘budgets’? Early Romans had no such concept because, in the absence of a welfare state, self-reliance was the order of the day. They did however pay an annual tax, fixed by the Senate and collected locally, to refund (for days

Aristophanes would have had a field day with Greta Thunberg

Last week Athenian free speech was contrasted with a demand from some dons at Buckingham University to ban a ‘heterodox’ Social Science Centre questioning woke ‘culture’. The Centre should stage an Aristophanic comedy on the subject. In the 5th century bc Athens was a hotbed of controversial ideas being taught, for money, by people called

Did the Athenians come up with no-platforming?

Hardly a day goes by without another story of academics clamping down on free speech. Dons at Buckingham University are the latest to express outrage at a proposed ‘heterodox’ (i.e. not woke) social science centre. In democratic Athens (5th century bc), free speech in the citizens’ assembly and the courts was called isêgoria, meaning ‘equality