Site Closed

Dear All,

This site is being wound up.  Friends of Classics has dissolved and become part of CLASSICS FOR ALL.

It has been great fun.  The original Friends of Classics site opened its door in October 2001 and ran continuously from then until now.

But no more.

Thanks for all your support across those years.




A&M: 23rd April 2016

The Treasury has announced that an EU exit ‘could leave households £4,300 a year worse off’. Since that only ‘could’ be the case, it could also not be the case, and given the accuracy of the Treasury’s prophecies for one year ahead, let alone 14, one wonders what odds the Treasury would offer on that outcome. The ancients had far better prophets.

One was the augur: he took the auspices to determine whether a course of action was wise or not (auis ‘bird’ + spicio ‘I observe’). Marking out an area of the sky, he watched for birds that flew into it. Those flying left to right were propitious, right to left unpropitious; eagles, vultures, and lammergeyers were especially good news.

The historian Livy made a character assert, ‘Who does not know that Rome was founded under auspices, and under auspices it conducts all its affairs, in war and in peace, at home and on the battlefield?’ And his history suggests an impressively accurate strike-rate from the professionals: after all, the Roman Empire did last for some 700 years.

Another was the haruspex, where haru– meant ‘guts’ (it is cognate with ‘hernia’). Whip a liver out of a sheep, and he would consult his liver chart to tell you whether the omens were good or bad.

Then there were the Sibylline books. The story was told that the Sibyl offered nine of them to Tarquinius Superbus (‘Arrogant’), the last king of Rome. He said the price was too high, but after she had burnt six of them he crumbled and paid the same price for the last three. Their contents were a closely guarded secret, and they were consulted only when disaster threatened, in order to avert it. Rumour has it that they found their way into Margaret Thatcher’s handbag, and she passed them on in sacred trust to the Mayor of London.

The fact is that the whole in-out debate is about the future, which no mere mortal can know. So: Treasury forecasts or Sibylline books? Given the age and track record of the Sibylline books, that’s where the clever money should go.

A&M: 9th April 2016

How Seneca got to sleep

Mental workouts and moral inventories

As if we did not have enough to cause us sleepless nights, the Royal Society for Public Health has demanded a ‘national sleep strategy’, presumably overseen by some sort of Czzzzar, to lay down, and one very much hopes rigorously enforce, strict guidelines on how long each of us should sleep. The ancients knew all about it.

The Greek doctor Hippocrates commented that while it was natural to be awake during the day and asleep at night, pain, distress, psychological problems, symptoms of some physical ailment, especially indigestion, or simply old age were the likely cause of insomnia.

For Galen, sleep and insomnia originated in the brain. The more active the brain during the day, the better the chance of a good night’s rest:  the brain needed sleep to recover. Ancient dream theory suggested that during the night the brain was trying to deal with the ‘residue’ of the day. The atomist poet Lucretius (1st century bc) not only argued that what gripped our waking hours also dominated our own and animals’ dreams (those twitching hunting dogs), but also described anxiety dreams (falling off cliffs) and wish-fulfilment dreams (causing nocturnal emissions), all likely to wake us up.

Inevitably, the philosopher Seneca had the answer, provided by his friend Sextius. It took the form of a nightly confessional, in which he pleaded his cause before his own tribunal (once his wife had learned of his habit and respected his silence with her own). Surveying the whole of his day, retracing all his words and deeds, he tells us he concealed nothing from himself and omitted nothing, as he subjected his soul to a rigorous cross-examination: ‘What bad habit have I cured today? What fault have I resisted? In what respect am I better?’ He delights in the ‘tranquil, deep and untroubled sleep’ that ensues after his soul has duly delivered its report.

One might not have thought that soul-searching was the best way to get to sleep, but then not many of us are multi-millionaire philosophers.


A&M: 2nd April 2016

Why does the Republican party loathe Donald Trump? Because Trump is the ultimate loose cannon, beholden to no one. And even worse, he is popular. What trumpery! Ancient Athenians would have loved him.

With no known political or military experience behind him, Cleon surged into the gap left by the death of Pericles in 429 BC, when Athens was locked in a difficult war against Sparta. The son of a rich tanner — certainly not ‘one of us’ — he presented himself as the warmongering, go-get-’em alternative to the cautious Pericles. Full of extravagant promises (including state handouts), he increased the tribute from Athens’ imperial possessions and worked up a strong following by his heated speeches in the rough and tumble of the democratic Assembly. It was this ‘brutal and insolent’ speaker, said the historian Plutarch, who introduced shouting and abuse and excessive gesturing, encouraging other speakers to behave equally irresponsibly. A contemporary of Cleon’s, the historian Thucydides, called him ‘violent’ but ‘very persuasive’.

All for punishing enemies to the limit, he once advocated slaughtering every male in Mytilene after it revolted from Athens in 428 BC. At first persuaded, the Assembly had second thoughts, and the slaughter was just averted. In 425 BC, when Athens had trapped some top Spartans on an island but could not get them off, Cleon boasted that he would, and in 20 days. When the Assembly told him to get on with it, he tried to back off, but the elected general Nicias invited the Assembly to appoint Cleon in his place: which it did, leaving Cleon no get-out and occasioning much laughter. Thucydides commented: ‘The more sensible Athenians welcomed this, since it would mean either the end of Cleon or the capture of the Spartans.’ And Cleon did it — in 20 days.

All this is pure Trump. No wonder the Republican inner ring are terrified of him. Good heavens, he might even be a success! That would never do.

Ancient scrolls give up their secrets

Metallic ink was used to inscribe scrolls regarded as an archaeological wonder, according to scientists.
The discovery pushes back the date for the first use of metallic ink by several centuries.
The Herculaneum scrolls were buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79 and are charred and fragile.
Previous efforts to read them, over many centuries, has damaged or destroyed some of the scrolls.
The task of reading the surviving scrolls has fallen to scientists using technology such as the European synchrotron, which produces X-rays 100 billion times brighter than the X-rays used in hospitals.
Last year, physicists used the 3D X-ray imaging technique to decipher writing in the scrolls.
Now they have gleaned that the papyrus contains high levels of lead, which they say could only have come from its intentional use in the ink.
“We found some metal – some lead – in the ink, which is supposed to come four centuries after,” said Dr Emmanuel Brun of the European Synchrotron in Grenoble, France.
“The common belief is that the Romans introduced metal in the ink in the fourth century.”
Until now, it was thought that the ink used for the manuscripts was carbon-based.
The work, which appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, will help further investigations of the scrolls using synchrotron light.
“The discovery is interesting for the historical aspects but also for us for the papyrus scroll imaging,” Dr Brun said.
“The different phases of the present study on the ink will allow us to optimise the next experiments on the reading of the invisible text within papyri. ”
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the resort town of Herculaneum in ash along with its larger neighbour, Pompeii.
A library of about 2,000 scrolls was excavated from one of its villas in the 18th century, of which about 600 remain unopened.
Most are philosophical works in Greek, but other works include a comedy in Latin.
Commenting on the study, Dirk Obbink, Professor of Papyrology and Greek Literature, said: “These are startling findings, if confirmed, charting the wave of the future.
“Until now, I hadn’t expected to be able to read any of these scrolls from the inside, without damage to them, in my own lifetime. But now I do.”

A&M: 26th March 2016

Cicero could have told you all about the MPs’ standards committeeHow the ancients dealt with the age-old question of ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’

As Sir Kevin Barron, chair of the MPs’ ‘Standards’ committee, steps down so that his own MP-packed body can adjudicate an allegation against him, the ‘Standards’ commissioner Kathryn Hudson says that some MPs are breaking rules because ‘they do not agree with them’. Are MPs simply not interested in their reputation?

Oligarchs at all levels know how to look after themselves (apparently no complaint against Ofsted has ever been upheld). However committed ancient Romans were to the rule of law, it was a commonplace that to reach the top of the greasy pole, one needed to make three fortunes: one to get there, one to fight subsequent charges of corruption and one to support you in exile after you were found out. Cicero began his prosecution against the corrupt provincial governor Verres by saying that the word on the street was that no one with influence (i.e. money) would ever be found guilty in a court controlled by fellow senators; he knew what he was up against when he argued that true glory depended on the identification of one’s personal interests with the state’s. The historian Tacitus brilliantly pointed out that when the state was at its most corrupt, laws were most numerous.
Perhaps the only culture in which one’s chances of getting away with it were least likely was that of classical Athens, where the citizen body, whether in Assembly or law-court, was sovereign and therefore the final arbiter over any such charges. All officials were constantly subject to public scrutiny and at the end of their term of office their record was assessed. Punishments ranged from fines through exile to death. No House of Lords for them.
While MPs remain accountable only to themselves, the problem will persist. As for their ‘reputation’, the word derives from the Latin reputatio, ‘a consideration to be taken into account when drawing up a financial statement’.
Hard not to laugh, eh?

A&M: 19th March 2016

There were no safe spaces at the dawn of democracy

The culture of ancient Athens relied on rigorous separation of action and debate

Brilliant Oxford undergraduates argue that it is right to prevent us saying things they object to, because speech they do not like is the equivalent of actions they do not like. They had better not read classics, then. There is no safe space there.

Greeks made a clear distinction between logos (‘account, reckoning, explanation, story, reason, debate, speech’, cf. ‘logic’ and all those ‘-ologies’) and ergon (‘work, deed, action’). For a Greek, to reject logos was to reject the expression of thought; and so to close down any possibility of people giving an account or reason for why they were thinking and acting as they did; and therefore to prevent any way of combating them — except, of course, by force.

So striking at logos struck at the very heart of the political process. One of the consequences of the invention of democracy by Athenians in the late 6th century BC was that issues of importance to the community were settled not by conflict, but by debate. Democracy, in other words, was the way of determining outcomes peacefully, by logos. Preventing people speaking was to use force to close off argument. Reject logos and you destroyed democracy.

Likewise, when it came to action (ergon), the 5th-century BC statesman Pericles thought that one of the main strengths of Athenians was their willingness to debate before they acted. ‘We have the ability to judge or plan rightly in our affairs, because we do not think logos is an obstacle to ergon; no, it is rather the failure to use logos to foresee outcomes, before ergon has to be taken. We also combine resolve with our calculations (logismos) about the ergon in hand; for others, their ignorance produces recklessness, while logismos produces only dithering.’

On which note, a little resolve combined with logismos would be welcome from our spineless universities. It is sweet of the young to tell us what we can and cannot say, but most of us would prefer the law to make that decision, and if persuasion fails, for universities to invoke it.