The ancients knew they couldn’t turn back time

The singer Cher, now 75, has announced that, because she refuses to appear old, she is not going to allow her hair to go grey. But the ancient view was that there was nothing inherently wrong with old age, as long as one prepared for it, accepted it and respected it for what it was, limitations and all. As Cicero pointed out, ‘each stage of life has its place in the nature of things, for harvesting in its time’. So, he went on, the child is weak, the young man self-assertive, becoming authoritative in his middle years and mature in old age. Each stage made different demands. Not to acknowledge

Cicero knew that we should study the past, not cancel it

Modern historians, excoriating the past evils of e.g. slavery and imperialism are taking the understanding of history back to its roots in the western world, when the past was used as a vehicle for moral lessons. Cicero said that study of the past ‘casts light on reality and is a guide to life (magistra vitae)’. Ancient historians lived up to this noble agenda. Livy (d. ad 17) said that history provided ‘examples of behaviour from which to choose what to imitate and avoid what is shameful’. The historian Tacitus (d. c. ad 120) said: ‘This I hold to be history’s highest function, to ensure that no worthy actions are passed

How to be ‘liberal’, according to the ancients

Certain parts of academia seem to wish to turn the study of classics away from a historical, language- and evidence-based discipline whose focus is understanding the ancient world on its own terms, in favour of preaching to students about the evils of ancient imperialism, slavery, racism, sexism, privilege, all keenly advocated by anyone who has ever taught it. There should be added to that list of shame the ancients’ hopelessly misguided views about what it meant to be ‘liberal’. Latin lîber meant ‘free’, and lîberalis meant ‘relating to the free, worthy of the free’; also ‘gentlemanly, ladylike’, by extension ‘magnanimous, obliging’ and so ‘munificent, generous’. Another crucial mark of the

What would BLM make of Cicero’s views on mutuality?

The Black Lives Matter website (different from the new Black Liberation Movement) mostly presents an image of an organisation of the clenched fist and permanent protest. Its work with the police is an important exception, but otherwise that rhetoric seems unlikely to create sympathy and understanding among white communities, especially when black successes — e.g. anti-racist protocols across all institutions — remain unacknowledged. The Roman statesman Cicero understood where such disharmony could lead. In 63 bc, Cicero was made consul to deal with his rival Catiline, who (Cicero claimed) was planning an armed insurrection and the economic reordering of the state. Under the banner of a ‘concord of the classes’

The ancients knew the value of the natural world

The ancients knew nothing about global warming, but they still reflected on the relationship between man and nature. In the absence of modern technology and with few sources of power (men, animals, wind and water), the ancients were limited in the use they could make of natural resources. Fire brought about the most radical change to nature’s offerings (cooking, pottery, smelting), with weaving, wood- and stone-working a close second. This could provide the farmer with all he needed, as Cato the Elder tells us: tunics, togas, blankets, shoes, iron tools, scythes, spades, mattocks, axes, carts, sledges, storage jars, pots, tiles, oil-mills, nails, buckets, oil-vessels, water-carriers, wine-urns, bronze vessels, etc. Cicero

Cicero would have been quick to end the lockdown

The Prime Minister recently quoted Cicero’s famous dictum salus populi suprema lex esto, translating it as ‘Let the health (salus) of the people be the supreme law’. No surprise there: he had just returned from his sick bed. But as he knows very well, that injunction was military: salus meant ‘security, safety’. The consuls must do whatever was needed to ensure the state’s survival. The state’s survival today is not a military but an economic issue. One interesting consequence is that it has become fashionable among the old to express a desire to help by being unlocked at once and so swept away by Covid-19. Then the young, most of