Author Archives: Jon Hesk

What Boris Johnson has(n’t) learned from the ancient Greeks. Part 1.

We have just a day and a few hours to go before the General Election.  It’s hard to overstate the significance of this ballot for the future direction of our union of countries.  The Conservative Party has a lead in the polls.  Its leader, and our current PM, is Boris Johnson.  In the light of Johnson’s classical training and his fondness for the ancient Greeks, he has done three things that interest me in this election campaign.  The first of them I will label avoidance of scrutiny and being called to account.

Johnson is the only main party leader who has not done an in-depth long-format interview with the BBC’s veteran political journalist Andrew Neil.  It seems that the BBC went ahead with this series of interviews because it understood that Johnson would indeed sit down with Neil for a televised grilling, just as the other leaders have now done.  But the BBC never managed to get Johnson to agree a time and date for the interview.  And with less than two days to go before the polls open, Johnson is saying that he will not do the interview before the General Election.  In response, Andrew Neil did an extraordinary piece to camera.  Neil highlighted the atypicality and political significance of Johnson’s refusal to sit down with him:

‘Leaders’ interviews have been a key part of the BBC’s prime-time election coverage for decades. We do them, on your behalf, to scrutinise and hold to account those who would govern us. That is democracy.’

Neil goes on to point out that Johnson can’t be legally compelled to submit to this kind of  scrutiny.  And it is perhaps a weakness of modern British democracy that government ministers can, if they wish, avoid awkward questioning and truly forensic scrutiny to a remarkable degree. Between election campaigns, we do at least now have the select committee system.  Since 2010 these committees have been given more teeth (in order to restore some balance to the  relationship between the executive and the House of Commons).  And of course, all ministers are required to answer for their actions and policies when Parliament is sitting.

But it is only really via the media scrutiny which accompanies elections that a politician’s overall character, career history and track-record can be called to account. These days, however, it is possible to hide from such scrutiny or else to distract the scrutineers with ‘dead cat’ strategies and ‘fake news’ about opponents.  An individual politician’s track record of dishonesty and incompetence is easily masked by the wider canvas of party-political struggle.  Admittedly, Johnson nearly found himself prosecuted on the charge of ‘misconduct in a public office’ earlier this year. (This was over his side-of-a-bus £350 million claim during the 2016 referendum).  I might have missed something but, as far as I can see, no elected official has been successfully prosecuted for this very old and vague common law offence on the grounds that they knowingly made false statements or broke pledges to their voters.

In Classical Athenian democracy, it wasn’t so easy to hide from scrutiny and accounting.   Every public official had to submit to an examination of his conduct in office at the end of his term.  This was called a euthunē: literally, it means ‘the action of setting straight’.

If the official had been responsible for managing public money he had to present his accounts to a board of ten logistai  (‘accountants’).  But in all cases, he had to gain approval for the way in which he’d used his powers to a board of ten euthunoi (‘straighreners’) appointed by the Council.  Any citizen could use this process to raise objections to the official’s conduct in office. It was up to the euthunoi whether the complaint was dismissed or passed on to the democracy’s courts.  In the fifth century BCE, it was not uncommon for fines to be issued when accounts were found wanting or complaints were upheld. In the fourth century BCE, the euthunē process was joined by another procedure called the eisangelia. This literally means ‘a laying of public information’ and, in cases when it was a public indictment used against public officials, it is often compared to the process of ‘impeachment’ in the United States of America.  An eisangelia could be brought against officials while they were still in office or even against prominent politicians who moved proposals in the Athenian assembly – remember that any citizen could author such proposals in Athens. You didn’t have to have been elected or appointed to do so.

Stele with a relief showing Democracy crowning Demos (the people of Athens), ca. 337 B.C. Athens, Agora Museum, I 6524.

In Athens, even powerful elected leaders (stratēgoi) such as Themistocles and Pericles only had a single-year term of office at a time (although, like our bloody Prime Ministers, they could go on getting re-elected!).  Alongside the less-used-than-you’d-think process of ‘ostracism’, this short term of office also created some level of accountability.

None of which is to say that Athenian democracy was free of lying and corruption on the part of its officials, elected leaders and self-appointed demagogues.  But its evolving procedures of ensuring close scrutiny and accountability are testament to the Athenians’ sensible understanding that ‘the people’ (the dēmos) can only maintain their ‘grip’ (kratia) on power if their officials and leaders are subject to credible and regular tests of their honesty and competence.  If politicians can now evade such tests from both our traditional and social media, then we might need to beef up our legal-constitutional mechanisms for ‘straightening’ the dodgy ones like Mr Johnson.

I do sometimes wonder whether Johnson is all too aware that we don’t have anything in place quite like the Athenians’ processes of euthunē and eisangelia.  Catching him in a revealing moment on the campaign trail and making sure it goes viral isn’t going to cut it, after all.

‘Working to Contract’ and some resources for Classical Drama.

Last Thursday, I  returned to work after 8 days of strike action in a multi-issue industrial dispute. This dispute is of critical significance for the future pay and conditions of all who work in UK Higher Education in general, and for the value of my pension in particular.   I am now ‘working to contract’ as part of the second phase the industrial action (also known as ASOS: ‘Action Short of a Strike’).  My union is called The University and College Union (UCU).

UCU members on strike over pay and pensions marched towards the Universities UK headquarters on 4 December. Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

University academics’ contracts are very vague – they do not stipulate maximum weekly working hours or say much about what work is ‘compulsory’, as opposed to ‘voluntary’.  On one reading of UCU’s guidelines, I should not even be writing blog posts.  ASOS means I am not to perform ‘additional voluntary duties, such as out of hours cover, or covering for colleagues (unless such cover is contractually required)’.  This and my next blog post might well be ‘an additional voluntary duty’: nobody in my university’s  management is going to tell me I’m in breach of contract if I don’t publish a blog post during the period of ASOS.  On the other hand, this blog is part of my general responsibility to do public engagement and outreach work (including the achievement of ‘impact’ as defined by the UK Research Excellence Framework – REF). That responsibility is also factored into my School’s current workload model.  Because I am doing a lot of work for one of our REF impact case studies, I get some other kinds of labour taken off me: a sure sign that the impact activity work is ‘core’ rather than ‘voluntary’.   Mind you, the REF case study is more to do with ancient drama than rhetoric or politics.  So, I’ve mentioned my work on ancient drama at the end of this post so that I can more securely class it as non-voluntary work.  If you follow up and read those links about drama, it will help to define my labour as purely ‘to contract’.  Thanks in advance.

Another problem with blogging while taking ASOS: it is hard to know what my maximum ‘to contract’  weekly hours should be.  Should I define my ‘to contract’ working hours as 36.25 per week? This is the figure for full-time employment quoted in my University’s policy documents, and yet it is a figure which it is hard for academics not to exceed by quite some way on a regular basis when they are working normally. Or should I go for 48 hours per week? This is the maximum number of hours per week stipulated in the Working Time Regulations 1998, and it is the ‘upper limit’ figure mentioned in UCU advice to their academic and academic-rated members about taking ASOS.

I am currently going for the 36.25 hours: that’s 7 hours and 15 minutes a day, from Monday to Friday.  This is on the grounds that roughly ‘one-third of a Mary Beard’ sounds about right for a UCU member who is not ‘a mug’ and yet is taking part in ASOS.  On either definition of ‘contracted hours’, though,  writing for this blog uses up some of those hours in such a way that arguably even more ‘compulsory’ and essential work I have on my plate will be delayed even further than it already is.  Oh well:  causing delay and disruption is the point of ASOS, actually.

I think there’s a strong moral argument for using up some of my 36.25 hours to talk about Boris Johnson, Andrew Neil and Athenian democracy in my next blog post, even if does stretch the ASOS guidelines in my case.  Extraordinary times do call for extraordinary measures.  And my goodness, we really are witnessing some unusual episodes of the historical drama that is British democracy.

Three cast members of our ‘Greek Drama in the Community’ Project’ experiment with masks in the opening Chorus. Photograph: Ralph Anderson

Talking of drama, and while you’re here, I post below those aforementioned links to various projects, papers and resources which I’ve authored or had a hand in.  If you find them useful, and (especially) if they change your understanding or the way you do things (e.g. in your work as an educator or a theatre practitioner or a learner) do drop me a line by email to tell me how.  I’d also be interested to hear about what sort of resources or information you’d like to see on this blog or via links from it.  My things are: Homer, Greek Tragedy and Comedy (and modern re-imaginings of them), Athenian democracy, Greek oratory and rhetoric.  I also like to work with contemporary play-makers, performers and theatre educators.

  • For a chapter-length introduction to the socio-political aspects of Greek and Roman Tragedy, see here [Jon Hesk ‘The Socio-political Dimension of Ancient Tragedy’, 2007, in The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre. McDonald, M. & Walton, J. M. (eds.). Cambridge University Press, p. 72-91.]
  • For a couple of ‘open access’ recorded lectures (voice and powerpoint) which introduce you to Aristophanes’ Birds see here.
  • For my lecture on ‘Morality, Politics and Religion in Euripidean Tragedy’ see this video and accompanying materials.
  • For my lecture and materials on ‘Politics and Gender Conflict in Greek Drama’, see here.
  • For some pdf resources for school teachers on Aristophanic Comedy see here: [the weird numbering of these resources is a reflection of the fact that there are more to come… eventually]
  • Videos, brochure and blog posts concerning ‘Greek Drama in the Community’, an exciting ‘devised play’ project which myself and Ralph Anderson did with a local youth theatre group and their inspirational teacher Stephen Jones.
  • My blog post/programme note on Zinnie Harris’ This Restless House: an amazing reworking of Aeschylus’ Oresteia  which was performed in Scotland in 2016 and 2017.


Boris Johnson and the seductive sophistry of slogans

Boris Johnson’s persona as ‘Classicist’ informs his public performances as our Prime Minister at almost every opportunity.  One day he’s over-simplifying Roman history to a captive audience of school kids.  The next, he’s warbling on about Prometheus to a bemused smattering of UN delegates.   None of this should lead anyone to think that the discipline of Classics is inherently Brexity or has some special affinity with the right-wing populism and nationalist ideologies he now unleashes on us all.*

But Johnson’s fondness for citing (and often distorting) Greco-Roman myth and history is a distraction.  It’s his appetite for divisive and inflammatory rhetorical slogans at a time of profound crisis which should be the current focus of our concern.

Have Johnson and his Thucydidophiliac spin doctor learned anything from the ancient Greeks about the power of words?  Can we blame the influence of the Greeks for the calculated sloganeering? ‘Get Brexit Done’ and ‘Surrender Act’ are clearly sequels to the highly duplicitous ‘Take Back Control’ of 2016.    The same goes for appeals to ‘what real people want’ with its pernicious implication that hundreds of MPs, the Supreme Court, and millions of voters are inauthentic citizens and traitors. Is this strategy to divide and incite us all on the one hand, while claiming to be a ‘One-nation Conservative’ on the other, something we can lay at the door of famous ancient writers and rhetoricians?

Well, classical Greek writers and orators absolutely understood that words have consequences.  For example, the fifth-century intellectual and teacher of rhetoric Gorgias wrote this:

‘Speech is a great potentate, who by means of the tiniest and most invisible body achieves the most godlike results. For it is able to dispel fear, to assuage grief, to inculcate joy, and to evoke pity’.

He goes on to illustrate this observation with reference to various kinds of public speech: performed poetry, religious songs, magical incantations, persuasive speech, and ‘compelling contests of words in which one speech captures the fancy of the crowd and having been composed artfully persuades everyone, though it is spoken falsely’.   He then argues that the ‘power of speech’ affects the soul in the same way that different drugs act upon the body:

‘some [i.e drugs] put an end to sickness, some to life.  So some speeches induce grief, some joy, some fear, some instil courage in the audience, and some drug and bewitch the soul with a  kind of pernicious persuasion.’

This is all in the service of a designedly entertaining display of Gorgias’ rhetorical firepower, taking the form of a speech defending the actions of Helen of Troy.  The bigger point he’s making is that whatever caused Helen to go with Paris to Troy, she’s not to blame.  And that would be true even if she was merely persuaded by Paris’ words.

Now, Gorgias is having some fun with his audience here, and it was very much in the interests of so-called sophists like him to represent their expertise in the brand new technology of rhetoric as all-conquering.   But the basic assumption that carefully ordered prose, song, poetry or chants can alter our emotions and (hence) actions is at the heart of ancient Greek culture. It goes right back to Homer.  Another sophist and speech-writer called Antiphon was said to have started his career by selling his services as a highly effective grief counsellor before he realized what lay at the root of his skills: the art of verbal persuasion.

We might think that there’s a world of difference between the sort of seductive speechifying which Gorgias taught and the Johnson-Cummings approach.  The latter is about the relentless repetition of brief phrases which resonate with existing passions or else are carefully designed to whip up negative feelings towards those deemed to be obstructing Brexit: ‘Take Back Control’; ‘Get Brexit Done’; ‘Surrender Act’; ‘Collaboration’; ‘Betrayal’.   But these are incantations designed to drug our souls, precisely in the manner which Gorgias describes. They are seductively simple soundbites; slogans which simplify and grossly misrepresent the truth of our predicament. Their primary aim is to secure popular support for a no-deal or any-deal Brexit on 31st October and to funnel votes for the Conservative Party at a date soon thereafter.  But they are bewitching some into issuing threats of violence against public figures.  The threats of murder and rape are on the increase.  An MP’s office has been attacked.

Words have consequences.

No less an orator than Demosthenes understood the power of rhetorical incantations.  In his many speeches aimed at changing Athenians’ attitude towards the threat of Philip of Macedon, he repeated the same language about the dangers of inaction and internal treachery. He used the same words again and again even as his wider arguments developed in response to Philip’s manoeuvres.

Bust of the Greek orator Demosthenes. Marble, Roman artwork, inspired from a bronze statue by Polyeuctos (ca. 280 BC). Found in Italy

Boris Johnson is no Demosthenes.  But he and his adviser need to see that their slogans are stirring dangerous emotions and actions which take us way beyond the realms of harmless and legitimate electoral-political discourse.

To donate to, or get involved in, the Jo Cox Foundation, go here.

* For the lack of fit between Johnson’s aspirations and the world of the Greeks whom he professes to admire, you can read this entertaining recent blog-post from Prof. Richard Seaford.    On Johnson’s mediocre grasp of classical antiquity, you can read this trenchant take-down from Prof. Edith Hall.  There also also a lot of insightful cross-platform commentary (e.g this) on Mr Johnson’s many flaws from Prof. Mary Beard.  On Dominic Cummings and Thucydides, see this by Prof. Neville Morley.




Brexit: does the answer lie with a modern version of ancient democracy?

Given the surprising twists and turns of contemporary politics in the UK and beyond, it would be foolish to make any predictions about what will happen next given this evening’s crucial vote on the government’s Withdrawal Agreement:  it was very heavily defeated.  All that is currently certain is that there will be a debate and vote of ‘no confidence’ in the government tomorrow.

Among the many surprising things about this current Brexit impasse is the fact that it has stimulated ‘mainstream’ calls by newspapers and public figures for a ‘citizen’s assembly’ to sort out the mess.  Even the Blur/Gorillaz singer-songwriter Damon Albarn (I am a fan) recently got on board with the citizen’s assembly campaign. (Gordon Brown and John Major are interested in a citizens’ assembly too: but they didn’t write the Parklife album).  I have fantasized to myself that Damon came across my previous post on how we might learn from fifth-century Classical Athens’ incredibly advanced system of citizen-led deliberative democracy.  Perhaps he will write a song about it!  Meanwhile, over in France, President Macron has launched a two-month “great national debate” in the hope that a massive consultative and deliberative exercise will answer the widespread public anger behind the rise of the gilets jaunes movement.  I have long been convinced of the need to integrate citizens’ assemblies into our ailing politics, and my 28 years of teaching and researching Athenian culture and democracy crucially inform that conviction. At the very moment I am typing this post, Labour MP Stella Creasy is on ‘BBC 5 Live’ advocating a ‘citizens’ panel’ and her interviewer is revealing his ignorance of what citizens’ assemblies actually are. He’s not alone in that, and this post is another attempt to correct  widespread ignorance and misunderstanding.

An ancient solution in a modern setting: deliberative democracy

What is a ‘citizen’s assembly’? The basic idea is quite simple and really does have its roots in ancient Athens’ reliance on sortition (drawing lots) and deliberation. Ordinary citizens are selected via randomized and yet representative sampling to produce a ‘mini-public’ which, along similar lines to our criminal jury system, will then be paid to deliberate on thorny policy issues and derive preferences and recommendations.   Those outcomes are used by elected representatives and governments to shape policy.  They can also legitimize a difficult or controversial decision which breaks a parliamentary deadlock.  Citizen assemblies also work well for an impasse brought about by the short-term priorities of electoral politics and the sorts of gaps between perceived public opinion and actual views which can be created by bad polling, media bias or the influence of powerful special interests.  They can even be used to determine the subsequent process, options and wording in a local or national referendum.

Recent examples of citizens’ assemblies and ‘deliberative polling’ indicate that it can be a very effective way of securing controversial change for the better while also breaking down divisions and improving ordinary-voter understanding  (see good examples in in Texas and Ireland to name just two from many).  Even if you, the voter-citizen, weren’t yourself involved in one of these mini-publics, you will trust in, and learn from the process, just as you broadly trust a criminal jury to make the right decision in a case, and on your behalf. The point is that the citizen assembly contains people like you, and who are in your situation. Increasingly, this cannot be said of many of our elected representative bodies.

Now, you might be sceptical that an assembly full of ordinary folk would have the time, knowledge and expertise to deliberate effectively on complex and highly emotive questions such as Brexit.  But the point is that a carefully designed and impartially-run citizens’ assembly will go through a ‘learning phase’ where it hears evidence and arguments from experts, politicians and stakeholders on all sides of the question, with impartial organizers ensuring that this process is balanced.  When the decision-making starts, the deliberations are structured in such a way that the assembly members must consider trade-offs and dilemmas: if you decide the government should spend more income from taxation on social care, what are you going to cut to fund it? Or do you opt for higher taxes? Citizens’ assemblies thereby produce better informed decision-making and most of those who take part in them report great enjoyment and satisfaction with the process.  People who feel left out of politics and remote from the political process start to feel that they matter again: if you don’t get picked for an assembly – most won’t, and many wouldn’t want to be – you can at least see that someone like you has been involved.  And everyone is forced out of their ‘filter bubble’ to confront views and experiences which conflict with, or are different from, their own.

 The UK context

The UK is well behind the rest of the world on the use of citizens’ assemblies and similar forms of deliberative democracy. (In Canada, one in 67 families have been asked to participate in a deliberative-democratic exercise).   And when we do have a go in this country, the positive results are under-reported: few will know that a recent select committee report on the future of social care was crucially informed by a citizens’ assembly.  It is another little-known fact that after the Brexit referendum, in Autumn 2017, a 50-strong citizens’ assembly was convened to consider next steps. (It was funded by a variety of UK universities, funding bodies, research units and charities such as Involve, who specialize in running these things).   The outcome of this assembly’s deliberations was fascinating:

‘The majority of members of the Assembly wanted to pursue a close, bespoke relationship with the EU. This would take the form of an arrangement allowing the UK to conduct its own international trade policy while maintaining a frictionless UK/EU border and maintaining free movement of labour between the UK and the EU subject to various controls and other policy changes. If it proves impossible to negotiate a deal of this kind, most Assembly members preferred the UK to remain closely aligned to the EU rather than to cut loose. Crucially for the next stage of Brexit negotiations, members said the UK should stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union rather than leave the EU with no deal on future relations.’

Interestingly, of the assembly members who attended the final weekend of deliberations, 25 had voted Leave, while 22 voted Remain and three did not vote.

Potential problems

However, there are real dangers and problems with the idea of using a citizens’ assembly to sort out where we go next with the Brexit omnishambles.

First, there is the question of who decides the assembly’s powers and remit.  Should it consider the relevant evidence of the impact of ‘austerity’ policies and industrial decline on certain areas for example?  And given the argument that climate change would be better combatted by united action and research efforts multi-nation blocs such as the EU, should the assembly be hearing from Friends of the Earth and David Attenborough as well as Boris Johnson and Chukka Umunna?  Should it have power of final decision or merely provide evidence of preferences and ideas to help our executive and legislative branches agree a way through, safe in the knowledge that it’s aligned with a ‘mini-public who’ve been forced to wrestle with the complex trade-offs?  Once we’ve opened the ‘democratic deliberative’ toolbox for such an important question, where does that leave parliamentary democracy?  How do we articulate the relationship between citizens’ assemblies (one form of democracy) and parliament (another form and technically sovereign, according to our constitution)?

Second, there is the problem of securing politicians’ ‘buy in’: as Tim Hughes (Director of Involve) puts it: ‘the challenge to any citizens’ assembly in the current context would be what happens beyond its four walls. Would politicians be willing to cede their power? Would it be allowed space and time to do its work?  Would those who disagreed with its conclusions be prepared to accept them? Citizens’ assemblies do not bypass the need for political leadership and consensus – they just require a different type.  Are our politicians ready to show it?’

Third, even if there was ‘buy in’ on paper from the ‘powers that be’, what about the wider public?  In a  recent Talking Politics podcast , the current Director of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (Matthew Taylor) puts it well when he points out that citizen-led deliberative democracy is very far from being a ‘habit’ in this country.  Taylor rightly wants us to try it more and to learn about it until it becomes habitual. But he’s worried that a citizens’ assembly to sort out Brexit is a bad place to start: it will fall foul of a general and widespread lack of understanding about how (well) the process works.  My hero Damon Albarn fell victim to this on Twitter, apparently.

Finally, and despite ‘citizens’ assemblies’ being an older idea than the word demokratia itself, we are still in a ‘honeymoon period’ for this ‘new wave’ of ‘deliberative democracy’.  Social science has established a wealth of problems which can occur if group decision-making isn’t well designed: further polarization of views between two extremes and lack of consensus; ‘domination’ by a faction or those who are rhetorically adept; bias towards ‘common knowledge’; ‘motivated’ reasoning (where you select or create reasons to support your initial desires rather than being genuinely open to changing your preferences)… I could go on.   The flag-waver for deliberative democracy claims that these problems can be ‘designed out’ of citizens’ assemblies.  But it looks to me as if the evidence base for that being true just isn’t big enough yet.  In any case, and as an advocate of deliberative democracy myself, it would surely be unwise to just assume that all problems and threats have been neutralized by current ‘best practice’.  And we would do well not to over-promise on what citizens’ assemblies can deliver by way of ‘performance’ and solving problems of disengagement from, disillusionment with, and distrust of, our current forms of democratic politics.

The importance of Classical Athens

The example of Athenian democracy and its wider cultural context can really help with these problems, especially the achievement of wider public ‘buy in’ and what we can expect in terms of the capacity of citizens’ assemblies to do a better job of democracy than (say) the House of Commons.

Matthew Taylor is right to say that we need to create a deliberative-democratic ‘habit’ among citizens.  But the question is how to do that?  Lots of laudable initiatives are under way.  But Athenian democracy only created, maintained and developed further its deliberative democratic ‘habit’ by embedding public participation and citizen responsibility at the very deepest levels of its cultural life and social organization.  Thus, younger citizens would have witnessed and participated in local councils before becoming eligible for the ‘lot’ to become members of the deliberative steering council (the Boulē).  Members of that Council were always drawn from different regions of Attica and mixed together via the tribal system: each tribe contained people from all over the place.  But ‘tribes’ also participated in lavish choral competitions against each other at the Dionysian festivals, and in athletic contests at various festivals.  Thousands of citizens sat and watched plays and ceremonies, just as thousands participated in their main democratic assembly.  Juries in certain criminal cases could be in the hundreds.  The choruses of plays and the processions at festivals also relied on participation by many ordinary citizens. Citizens alsso came together at countless important religious and civic ceremonies.  Some slaves performed important ‘civil service’ functions but most planning and decision-making by boards and committees (e.g. for organizing warship building or running a festival) were populated by ordinary citizens. Some were appointed by lot, and the ‘generals’ (like Pericles and Themistocles) were elected for a yearly term of office. Other officials or experts seem to have been delegated authority by the Council.  So, citizen participation in deliberation and decision (or witnessing it first hand) were built into a citizen’s life experience from an early age.  It was even there in the shape and size of many the buildings which you can still see when you visit Athens and it’s there too in the excavated remains of different theatres and meeting-places across the demes of Attica. The Athenians deliberately designed their theatres, assembly spaces, courtrooms and council-buildings so that citizen-participants were visible to each other: a good way to facilitate debate and inclusiveness.  It is certainly there in the many Athenian assembly decrees which survive. They usually begin with the formula ‘resolved by the Council (Boulē) and the people (dēmos)’.

So, we need to find our analogues to this structural and cultural underpinning to Athens’ democracy.  Matthew Taylor has spoken of deliberative democracy’s ‘aesthetics’: there’s something beautiful about citizens from all walks of life coming together in a well-designed assembly process to listen, learn and deliberate slowly towards a set of proposals – even when the result may be a range of opposed options rather than consensus. But I’d suggest that we need to build the beauty of deliberation into all aspects of our culture: into our primary and secondary school activities and curricular, into radical forms of theatrical, cinematic and other forms of participation and much more besides.

What about ‘expectations’ and ‘problems’? Athenian democracy achieved a great deal and Attica was arguably more prosperous than other states with different constitutional and cultural arrangements precisely because it was a deliberative democracy.  But, of course, it relied on slave labour, and didn’t allow women to participate in political decision-making at all.  It also built a ruthless and rapacious empire during the fifth century.  And beyond, that, the Athenian ‘council and the people’ made some disastrous errors of judgement:  the Sicilian expedition and perhaps the whole Peloponnesian War itself.  They even allowed themselves to be taken over by two oligarchic coups and ultimately failed to resist the rise of Macedonian power.  Despite making many good adjustments to the ‘design’ of their democracy in the light of bad outcomes, the Athenians couldn’t always get things right.

By looking at all this in detail, and at what contemporary Athenian writers. playwrights and orators said about it, we can learn a lot for our own coming ‘deliberative turn’.  I also believe that ancient philosophical thinkers such as Aristotle also developed further some important ideas which had their roots in Athens’ deliberative culture.  For me, a crucial lesson from these ideas is that a good deliberative culture stems, not just from excellent ‘institutional design’ but also from individuals‘ cultivation of good skills in practical reasoning and ‘deliberative’ and ‘intellectual’  virtues (e.g. evidence-based reasoning, listening to different views, perspective-taking, trying to be more objective, systematic thinking about options).  Watch this space for more…

Aeschylus Transposed: This Restless House

Around this time last year I was asked by the award-winning playwright, director and screenwriter Zinnie Harris to write a programme note for the Edinburgh International Festival revival of the acclaimed ORESTEIA: THIS RESTLESS HOUSE. The trilogy was written by Zinnie and directed by Dominic Hill, artistic director of the Citizens Theatre.  (The trilogy was originally a Citizens Theatre production in 2016, and the revival was again the Citizens production in association with the National Theatre of Scotland).

 At the time I wrote this note, I had chatted to Zinnie and read the published script. But I hadn’t seen the the trilogy as performed in its first run at the Citizens in Glasgow or even seen any rehearsals for the revival.  It was an interesting experience to only first see the production during the Edinburgh run, and after this note had been published in a programme which everyone around me was reading!  The note doesn’t really do justice to the vitality, inventiveness and tonal variety of Hill’s production and the incredible work of the cast, musicians and crew, But I hope to put that right in some future writing on this amazing reimagining of Aeschylus’ revenge drama.  For a pdf of the original programme note reproduced below, but with more high quality pictures see here.

You do not  need to know anything about The Oresteia to understand and enjoy Zinnie Harris’ stunning reinvention of Aeschylus’ blood-soaked trilogy.   (‘Enjoy’ is the right word: Aristotle writes of the ‘pleasure which comes from pity and fear’ when we experience the work of a good tragedian). But by sketching just a few of the many points of connection and contrast between The Oresteia and This Restless House, we can gain a deeper appreciation of the latter’s extraordinary richness and originality.

Even a brief ‘compare and contrast’ exercise such as this must first confront the nuanced and complex relationship which Harris’ modern trilogy forges with its ancient model.  On the one hand, she departs from the trajectory, tone and focus of The Oresteia in a number of important respects.  Such fundamental changes in plot, structure, characterization and setting give This Restless House its contemporary sensibility.  They make it boldly innovative, dramatically gripping and deeply affecting too.  On the other hand, to concentrate solely on these ‘grand departures’ from The Oresteia would be a gross simplification of the way in which Harris actually works her magic.  For at another level, This Restless House constantly returns to Aeschylus’ original text via a wealth of creative echoes, transpositions and reframings.

This is even true of Harris’ final play, Electra and Her Shadow, where the setting of a modern psychiatric hospital and the focus on Electra take us a good distance away from its Aeschylean counterpart, The Kindly Ones. We may not be in ancient Delphi or Athens any more, and there is no chorus of Furies baying for Orestes’ blood;  but Clytemnestra’s ghost will still appear, and her killer will still experience the terror of being the prey of hunters who may never relent.  There is also a trial scene, though Harris’ deft rearrangements of its personnel and outcome hint at the moral inadequacy and gender bias of Athena’s casting vote in Aeschylus’ play. More important, the modern version of the trial facilitates a heart-breaking sequence wherein victims, perpetrators and perpetrators-turned-victims are able to meet again.  It is a poignant scene of partly restored intimacy and improved understanding between members of a family who now seem all too ordinary and familiar.

This is very different to the ending of The Kindly Ones: here, the family’s terrible suffering is left to one side as the trial becomes a foundational, celebratory moment, both for the Athenian democratic state and the institution of the rule of law. In 462 BC, only four years before The Oresteia was performed in Athens, a politician named Ephialtes had managed to strip the age-old Areopagus council of its aristocratic character and influence, thereby removing the last barrier to the establishment of a genuinely radical democracy for the city – albeit a ‘radical democracy’ that had no place for women and saw nothing wrong with slavery. However, the Areopagus council retained its traditional role as a court dealing with homicide cases and religious crimes. In The Kindly Ones this is the purely juridical institution which Athena invents in order to hear Orestes’ case.  Aeschylus’ staging of a historic shift from ‘do-it-yourself’ retaliatory justice to a jury system also entails that the fearsome Furies be welcomed into Athena’s city.  These ancient, once-reviled enemies of the Olympian gods will now be venerated as friendly deities;  and although they will no longer have the power to terrorize murderers, they are to remain potent symbols of the importance of familial and civic harmony.

Harris rightly avoids such grand political symbolism in Electra and Her Shadow.  For all its recent capacity for delivering surprises and disquiet, democracy is not a new and risky venture for a modern audience.  And we no longer expect that either democracy or the rule of law will put an end to reprisal killings or family murders.  In any case, Harris is more interested in what drives people to kill another human being and the very different ways in which they deal with what they have done.  To this end, she reconfigures the significance of the Furies’ transformation.  Always terrified by unnamed and unseen ‘things out there’, Clytemnestra and Electra are told that it is better to ‘invite them in, give them tea’: ‘They are only scary if you run from them. If you ask them in they sit down like friends. There is nothing to fear.’

This Restless House raises the question of whether such unseen terrors are external forces of punishment or internal projections of guilt and insanity.  There are visible hauntings too. Aeschylus only conjures up a vivid image of the young Iphigenia in a choral account of her horrific sacrifice at hands of her father, Agamemnon.  But in Harris’ Agamemnon Returns, the Chorus’s greatly expanded and more dramatized version is the cue for Iphigenia’s ghost to appear on stage.  Clytemnestra interprets this apparition as a demand for retribution against her returning husband.  But is Iphigenia’s wraith really ‘out there’? By contrast, Aeschylus leaves us in little doubt that the dreams, omens and oracles which have commanded Agamemnon and Orestes to slaughter their own kin are manifestations of real divine plans and powers.

One could write a whole book about the way in which Harris places Clytemnestra and Electra at the centre of her trilogy.  We only see Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra making statements for public consumption: even when she pleads with her son not to kill her, a Chorus of female servants looks on.  And in his first play, she reveals that her husband was doomed even before he set foot back in Argos.  By contrast, Harris allows Clytemnestra and Agamemnon to be reunited in private. It soon becomes clear that the king’s death is no foregone conclusion.   Harris offers a compassionate, raw and plausibly complex portrait of a woman who is profoundly damaged by loss and is struggling to understand what she feels about the terrible thing that her husband has done.

But again, these departures from Aeschylus’ approach are modulated with material which takes us back to specific details in the ancient text.  Thus Harris re-stages Aeschylus’ famous scene where the Queen asks Agamemnon to celebrate his triumphant return by walking into the palace on a large, expensive and delicate purple cloth. Agamemnon initially refuses to trample on such finery: ‘this cloth is for gods’.  But in both plays, Clytemnestra persuades him: ‘we want to honour you like a god’.  In Aeschylus, however, the meaning and purpose of the scene remains mysterious. Is it a demonstration of Clytemnestra’s powers of persuasion? Is it a sign of the king’s vanity and hubris?  In Agamemnon Returns, Harris cleverly reframes the scene so that it also becomes a crucial test of Agamemnon’s sincerity.

Harris’s Agamemnon is also a more complex and sympathetic figure. In Aeschylus we hear much about the king but see little of him in person: he is on stage only for one eighth of the trilogy’s first play.  And when he does finally arrive home, he barely acknowledges Clytemnestra’s account of the mental anguish which she endured in his absence.   Harris’s Agamemnon is more needy and solicitous towards his wife: ‘everything will be on your terms, we will go as slow as you like’.    And where the Aeschylean king never openly speaks of Iphigenia’s slaughter, the modern Agamemnon is granted the opportunity to show us that he is genuinely tortured with grief and remorse.   At the same time, however, Harris returns to Aeschylus’ subtle hints that perhaps he did still have a choice.  As the modern Clytemnestra puts it: ‘that’s the difference between us. I would have gone against the gods.’

Because of Euripides’ overstated reputation for ‘social realism’, it is often forgotten that Aeschylus gives some brief but beautifully-drawn roles to the ordinary folk who work for the royal house of Argos.  The trilogy starts with a servant sitting on the palace roof.  This ‘Watchman’ is on the lookout for the beacon fire which will signal victory in the Greeks’ decade-long campaign to defeat Troy and return Helen to her husband.  He begins to complain about the discomforts of his nightly vigil. He mutters darkly about ‘the misfortune’ of a house being badly ‘managed’; he is under orders from a woman whose heart ‘plans like a man’s’.  But then, all of a sudden, he spots the yearned-for flames in the distance.  He shouts down to Clytemnestra’s bedchamber.  If this really is the signal for Agamemnon’s victory and homecoming, he’ll be overjoyed to clasp his beloved master’s hand.  ‘As for the rest’, he continues, ‘I keep silent: a great ox is treading on my tongue – but the house itself, if it got a voice, would speak very plainly.  I talk willingly to those who know, and for those who do not know, I choose to forget’.  With these deeply unsettling words, and after only forty lines of verse, The Watchman’s one and only appearance is over.

The Watchman also appears in Harris’s first play Agamemnon Returns, but he has become a much more significant and substantial character than his Aeschylean model.  Indeed, where The Oresteia ultimately gives pride of place to its aristocrats and gods, Harris invents a number of ‘rude mechanicals’ who help to propel This Restless House away from the Aeschylean template and into some fresh and exciting territory.  At the opening of The Bough Breaks, for example, we meet the ‘Butcher’.  This palace retainer has earned the trust of Agamemnon’s daughter Electra; on the night of her father’s death, he put the little girl to bed and washed the blood from the flagstones.   Or so she has been told.  When Electra’s brother Orestes returns to avenge his father’s death, he questions that version of events.    Why did their mother need a butcher when her victims were already dead?  The true character and conduct of an apparently ancillary figure becomes an issue of central importance in Orestes’ campaign to loosen his sister’s current attachments.  You should also keep a close eye on Harris’s Chorus of infirm old down-and-outs.  They are repulsive outcasts (like Aeschylus’ Furies) and seemingly impotent (like the Elders of Agamemnon); so why have they been put in charge of that sacred and expensive purple cloth?

I could write much more about the ways in which This Restless House simultaneously takes us away from, and brings us back towards, its main source text.  But, of course, its freshness, vitality and power are constituted by much more than these dynamics of departure and return.  With respect to literary resonances beyond Aeschylus, I have already hinted at its Shakespearean elements: festivities which mask a darker purpose; maddening hauntings from the dead; the perspective of servants and retainers.  The buzzing flies which are taken as signs of guilt and pollution by some, whilst being dismissed with the swat of hand by others, put me in mind of Sartre’s Les Mouches, itself an existentialist response to ‘the Electra plays’ of the Greeks.  And the central confrontations between Agamemnon and his Queen sent me back to Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, a disturbing ‘prequel’ to Aeschylus’ trilogy, in which we see the seeds of Harris’s psychological realism.

All of the above contributes to one’s sense that This Restless House is a ‘modern classic’.  We haven’t seen anything like this before, and it could not have been written by anyone else.  Yet, like all great tragedy, Harris’s distinctive vision is formed through a clever and creative dialogue with established texts, traditions and tropes of the genre.

© Jon Hesk

Jon Hesk is Senior Lecturer in Greek and Classical Studies at the University of St Andrews

For more on his work with contemporary theatre practitioners and educators see this post.


‘Troy: Fall of a City’: why we should give it a chance (part 1)

Troy: Fall of a City. Photograph: Graham Bartholomew/BBC/Wild Mercury Productions

I watch very few television programmes about ancient Greek and Roman history, literature and culture:  when your day job is teaching and researching classics, these shows can be a bit of a ‘busman’s holiday’:  I either know the material already, or (more often)  I’ve become so specialized and limited in my expertise that huge swathes of ancient culture and history have become ‘news just in’.  It’s not great to feel that you ought start taking notes at 9pm on a Friday night! Then there’s one’s insecurities to manage.  If my week’s teaching has been a bit flat or difficult (Homeric dialect, anyone?), the last thing I want to see is Beard, Hughes, Hall, Cartledge or Scott doing a  great job of making the ancient world irresistibly fascinating and accessible.  Finally, there’s the ‘i’ word: we academics are now required by the government to make our research and expertise ‘impactful’ upon wider society and culture, and each department is regularly evaluated on how well it is going about this.  That makes it even less relaxing to watch other people popularizing your subject to massive audiences with skill and verve.

But with film and television drama, it’s a different matter. Troy (Wolfgang Petersen’s quasi-Iliad for the big screen); Atlantis (BBC1’s now-defunct Greek mythology mash-up); Plebs (ITV 2’s Up Pompeii! for post-Millennials): I have sought them out and enjoyed them all.  And I have not been very worried about real or alleged liberties taken in terms of historical ‘accuracy’ or ‘faithfulness to the original’.  After all, most ancient myths exist in several different versions.  In the case of Greek epic and drama, ancient authors themselves often changed existing elements of a story or made new stuff up in their re-tellings.  Whoever Homer was  –  or ‘whatever’ if you think the Iliad and Odyssey were almost entirely shaped by centuries of oral song tradition rather than one master poet  – it’s clear that both epics contain elements which were invented or adapted to suit these particular versions of two specific slices of a much longer story.  So, I rather like the idea that film and television are enriching and adding to an existing store of many different ‘takes’ and emphases.

Of course, some changes from familiar ancient material can seem a step too far. When Petersen didn’t have any gods appearing in Troy –  Julie Christie’s Thetis was an exception  – a lot of film critics and classicists got very unhappy.  (The film is hated by many people I know, and it does have flaws,  but I’m rather fond of it as a creditable attempt to make sense of Homeric-heroic ‘values’ such as kleos (fame and reputation after death) and timē (honour, status) for a mainstream audience.)

JTodd Armstrong in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), directed by Don Chaffey. © Columbia Pictures Corporation

But what exactly are we unhappy about when film and TV make such changes?  Petersen’s Greeks and Trojans still worship the gods and worry about what they are up to, just as in Homer.  And the Iliad’s many divine quarrels and political manoeuverings on Olympus wouldn’t have been best served by the sort of ‘dry ice and wafty white robes’ nonsense which we find in Clash of the Titans (1981).  In any case, ‘departures’ from ‘the original’ don’t always make the story less engaging or worthwhile.  The most iconic scene of the  Jason and the Argonauts (1963) comes when Jason and his men find themselves fighting an army of stop-motion skeletons. In Apollonius’ epic The Argonautica these ‘sown men’ aren’t skeletons and Jason makes them fight amongst themselves until they destroy each other.  If director Don Chaffey and effects animator Ray Harryhausen had stuck more closely to what’s in the ancient sources, that film would be much the poorer for it.

Perhaps we are worried that children and adults who are unfamiliar with Greek myths as preserved in Greco-Roman literature will end up with a false impression of what is (and what isn’t) in Homer, Pindar, Greek tragedy and the rest.  Even worse, we think that they will say ‘I’ve seen Troy so I don’t need to know about the Iliad’.  Well, that’s a risk with any decision to bring great stories and literature to the screen.  But just as HBO’s Game of Thrones  seems to have led more people to read the books on which it is based, and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings created even bigger sales for Tolkein’s novels, some half-good telly or cinema ‘based on Homer’ has a good chance of sending its fans towards the actual epics themselves. The Iliad and Odyssey are well worth reading in a good translation, not least because they are highly vivid, dramatic and cinematic – and yet they ‘visualize’ thought, feeling, atmosphere and action in ways which neither big nor small screen finds it easy to capture with the same intensity.

BBC 1’s latest Saturday-night drama is called Troy: Fall of a City.  It opening captions tell us that it is ‘based on Homer and the Greek myths’.  The first episode went out last weekend and reactions have been mixed, to say the least.  It’s neither easy nor fair to judge something after just one episode.  But I thought it was very enjoyable – best watched with a glass of wine or two, perhaps.  In my next post, I’ll offer some some first thoughts and observations on it from a classicist’s perspective.  There will be **SPOILERS**.

If you are interested in classical story-telling and you are in or near St Andrews on Saturday 3rd March come to see TV and Radio’s Bettany Hughes give a free public lecture on the subject. Details of the time and venue of her talk and the ‘Advocating Classical Education’ project are  here

How some Athenian-style democracy might save our future.

UK voters are still deeply divided over the Brexit referendum and its aftermath; as are the US electorate with respect to the 2016 Presidential race and Trump’s presidency. In both countries, millions of people have felt frustrated and disillusioned with the usual workings of democratic politics. The outcomes of these two votes have led many to question whether ‘the people’ can be trusted with such important decisions. In a recent survey, only 25% of Brits and Americans who were born in the 1980s agreed that it is ‘essential’ to live in a democracy!

Weariness with democracy is nothing new but I agree with Edith Hall’s recent post on the importance of resisting it.  It is very worrying that political historians and theorists are starting to talk as if democracy’s stealthy demise is inevitable.  We should perhaps remember Winston Churchill’s (borrowed) observation that ‘democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’. Oligarchies, dictatorships and ‘managed’ forms of so-called democracy destroy the rule of law, freedom of expression and the dignity of their people. By definition, they deny their citizens a proper say in how they are governed. We ought, then, to ask how we can make democracy work better for people, rather than flirting with the possibility of non-democratic systems or pseudo-democracies captured by ‘elites’ or ‘strong men’.

It’s the taking part that counts

Many voters in 2016 complained that politicians and successive governments had been ignoring them for years. People felt powerless, and were understandably receptive to the idea that they had been ‘left behind’ by an ‘elite’. But what might a time-travelling classical Athenian say? Probably that these disaffected voters really are powerless. Unlike our system today, Athenian democracy actually was a government by the people (dēmos). They did not rely, as we do, on an elite group of politicians and officials to do the work of governing on their behalf.

The 500-strong Athenian Council (Boulē) was a key element in this more empowered and participatory system. It met almost daily and was responsible for the ordinary running of the city’s affairs. But it was also divided up into ten groups of 50 Councillors. We shall return to the question of how these representatives were chosen below. What is important to note here is that each of these smaller groups took turns to maintain a twenty-four hour presence at the heart of the city. As such, they were ready to take immediate decisions in the event of emergencies or on the arrival of important news. The Council also prepared the agenda of business for Athens’ very large people’s assembly (the Ecclēsia), where Councillors presided over the conduct of debates and voting.

Whatever the Ecclēsia decided by a majority vote became the sovereign will of the people. That decision was then passed back to the Council for implementation. A surviving assembly decree of 325/4 BC reveals that this aspect of the Councillors’ job was both complex and crucial. The decree authorises the creation of a new Athenian naval station overseas. And it calls on the Council to coordinate with twelve different officers and committees to make this happen. Councillors had final responsibility for ensuring that the ships, equipment and men needed were delivered and dispatched in a timely and efficient manner.

The Pnyx was where the Athenian assembly met. This picture details archaeological remains of the speaker’s plaftorm (Bema) of Pnyx III (a rebuild around 345-335 BC). The Bema was carved right out of the bedrock. View from the northwest.

This may sound like the sort of work which could only be done by career politicians or professional administrators. And Athenian Councillors were indeed paid for their trouble; they could also be officially honoured by the Ecclēsia for doing good work. But, remarkably, a new Boulē was appointed every year via the random selection of male citizens over the age of thirty. Most of these citizens would have been ordinary farmers, craftsmen or businessmen. And they could only serve on the Council for a maximum of two years in their entire lives. This means that, in any given year, thousands of older citizens were able to draw on their previous valuable experience of governing on the Council when considering proposals put to the big sovereign assembly.

What if an adult citizen never got to sit on the Council or was not yet old enough to do so? Well, he could still attend the Ecclēsia – the big sovereign assembly mentioned above. At least 6000 citizens had to turn up for this assembly to go ahead, and, in the fourth century, it met 40 times a year. Of course, wealthy ‘elite’ politicians such as Pericles and Demosthenes influenced such meetings with their proposals and speeches. But less articulate and powerful Athenians were still crucial actors in the process because of their vote and the noise they could make throughout the debates. An Athenian who attended only a few of these meetings each year was still likely to be feeling a lot more included and ‘empowered’ than most UK or US citizens do.

Past and Present

Modern democracies have much greater populations of eligible voters than classical Athens did: tens of millions rather than tens of thousands. Despite this, some political thinkers have recently proposed that we can and should replace our elected parliaments with paid legislative bodies which would be appointed through randomised selection of ordinary citizens – either on a voluntary basis, by compulsory service, or a mixture of the two. Others argue that it just would not be practical for us to copy the highly intensive and inclusive Athenian system of participation. Alongside the problem of getting so many people involved, modern law-making and government seem too complex and time-consuming given the competing demands of work and family life in the 21st century.  Perhaps we really do need professional politicians, administrators and experts to do it all for us.

On the other hand, several recent and encouraging experiments suggest that we could mix some Athenian-style democracy into our ‘representative’ systems. For example, ‘citizen juries’ have been promoted and run in both the USA and Germany, where a panel of local residents is randomly selected to hear evidence from experts and advocates about a particular issue (e.g. business proposals which might help the local economy and yet adversely affect the environment). These juries then deliberate and agree certain recommendations, which can either be implemented straight away or else used by elected politicians to guide their final decision-making. Citizen juries encourage well-informed deliberations and decisions. They can reflect the voice of a whole community rather than particular factions or interests. And they give some direct power, governmental experience and responsibility back to ordinary voters. This is all very much in line with classical Athenian principles.

The problem of homophily

Another problem with our modern democratic culture is that everyone is in a bubble of sorts, or ‘homophily’ (i.e. ‘love of the same’) – as sociologists prefer to call it. People tend to seek similarities in their friends, marriages, workplaces and neighbourhoods. We may consequently live and work in an environment where we rarely discuss current affairs with people who either disagree with us, or whose lives, backgrounds and cultures are very different to our own. And so, we may not hear about certain views and experiences which could change or deepen our current view of a political question.

We may also miss out on crucial knowledge and evidence which are not available within our bubble because of the way social media operates. Networks like Facebook and Twitter, for example, lock users into personalised loops, each with its own feed of news and political inclinations. Thus, algorithms filter sources of information and topics to reflect the clicks, ‘likes’ and shares of our friendship group. Unless our friends have very divergent views and life experiences, everyone starts to see the same material and to post similar reactions. This, in turn, creates an ‘echo chamber’ in which the information you already know and the opinions you already agree with get repeated and amplified. Alternative views and new information which might challenge your opinions disappear from view; echo chambers also make it more likely that ‘fake news’ will be believed and shared.  The extent to which hostile actors have so far managed to subvert democracy by feeding these echo chambers with false and divisive information is hard to gauge, but there’s little doubt that they are trying.

Bursting the Bubble

Bubbles and echo chambers are making our own democratic societies more divided than is healthy. The more that we only hear the side we agree with, the more convinced we become of our own rightness (and the other side’s wrongness). Compromise, consensus and mutual persuasion become impossible.

From one perspective, classical Athenian democracy was itself an exclusive bubble.  If you were a child, woman, slave or resident foreigner of non-Athenian parentage, then you could not participate in any of its decision-making bodies. Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata jokingly hints that the Athenians might make better decisions about the war with Sparta if only they listened to the perspective and advice of their mothers, wives and sisters.

But the Athenian system was at least designed to prevent division and ‘echo chamber’ effects among the male citizens who were eligible to participate.  For example, each of the ten groups of 50 which made up the Boulē represented a different Athenian tribe. And the membership of each tribe was deliberately designed to contain communities from the three different regions of Athens’ territory: inland, coast and city. So the Council forced citizens to meet, mingle and ‘do’ democracy with strangers who lived miles away from them. Even if you did know some men in your own group of 50, you were unlikely to know many of the other 450. Thus citizens of different ages, walks of life and regions were compelled to share diverse expertise and information and to work together to solve problems. The Boulē was the ultimate anti-bubble.

From echo chambers to debating chambers

But the larger Ecclēsia too was good for making sure that the dēmos got to hear opposing arguments and shared new information. Ordinary citizens had time to reflect on what they were hearing, to change their minds or suggest improvements. Inscriptions make clear that it was not just the well-off and well-known politicians who got up to move important amendments to key proposals. Indeed the system encouraged and allowed the mass of ordinary citizens to alter or reject what was put before them.  Thucydides even records one occasion where the Ecclēsia voted to kill the entire male population of the rebellious city of Mytilene, but then had a second meeting at which it narrowly changed its mind the next day.

As student councils or debating clubs can tell us, face-to-face discussion is often more reasonable and useful than what you can achieve online. Debating together in an officially recognised body also reminds us of our common goals, over and above what divides us. But we cannot stop the rise of all the news, political activity and opinion-forming which takes place online; in other words, we should embrace and learn to utilise online tools effectively to filter out the bubbles and encourage a meaningful dialogue between diverse groups. In the last interview of his Presidency, Barack Obama even expressed the hope that ‘we can create a virtual public square that feels better for people’. He argued that it is by public consensus, rather than deep division that democracies solve political problems. Maybe it is time for us all to create a massive online Ecclēsia.

This is a very slightly adapted version of an article published in Issue 74 of Omnibus Magazine (September 2017).  This magazine is published by the UK Classical Association and aimed at secondary schools. Thanks to the editor Kathryn Tempest for making me aware of ‘homophily’ as a sociological category.

Sadly, though, far too few British children are educated about the ancient Greeks and Romans at secondary level.  If you agree that more secondary school pupils should have the chance to learn about Greek and Roman culture and politics as a means of informing their future lives and responsibilities as democratic citizens, then please get involved in the new UK-wide ACE project (Advocating Classical Education). 

For more on Athenian democracy as a positive model for improving the sharing of information, expertise and promoting the dignity, interests and goals of all, see the following:

J. Ober (2008) Democracy and Knowledge. Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (Princeton University Press).

D. Van Reybrouck (2013) Against Elections. The Case for Democracy. (Bodley Head)

Community theatre: the example of classical Athens

The Athenians valued the performance of drama, as a mass art form and communal experience.  They invested heavily in it too. This post is about how these facts about Greek theatre can inspire young performers to think about, and argue for, the real value of what they love doing.

Three members of cast experiment with masks in the opening chorus. Photograph: Ralph Anderson

The youth theatre group I’m working with are passionate about acting and performing.  And although I need to work on conveying this in front of the project’s Handycam, I am equally passionate about researching and teaching Greek drama. But I have no prior experience of how to make this expertise meaningful within a context of community-based theatre education and practice.  So the project is as much about what Stephen and the group can teach me as it is about what I can bring to them.

I learned my first important and surprising lesson in my initial meeting with the group back in September 2016.  (This was before we had even fully decided on the project’s goals).  The group’s manager and teacher, Stephen Jones, knows a good deal about Greek theatre, having studied it (among other things) at university.  But the group itself only knew a few bits and pieces. So, I had come prepared to give them an overview of the context and conventions of Greek drama and I’d also got some answers to questions which they’d sent to me in advance:  why did the Greeks not have female actors and chorus-members? How was gender depicted on stage?  How were masks used? How did gods appear? Why was violence generally kept off stage in Greek tragedy?

These were all good questions and I did my best to answer them.  But it was during the initial overview that things took a surprising turn. I was explaining that Greek drama was central to the Athenian religious festival calendar; that it was a mass art form watched and enjoyed by thousands of citizens; that the Athenians put huge amounts of resource and organizational effort into putting on these plays; that great prestige and honour attached to those wealthy citizens who funded a winning chorus; that the choruses were trained-up ‘amateur’ citizens and that many audience members had experience of being in the plays themselves; that theatre was clearly integral to the culture and values of the Athenian citizen-state (the polis).  I paused for breath and fumbled with my laptop to find some suitable images.  Stephen jumped in and asked the group what they thought about everything I’d said so far. How did it compare with their experience and understanding of what theatre is now?

Stephen Jones of Byre Youth Theatre in discussion with members of the cast. Photograph: Ralph Anderson

The group had many diverse and differing opinions but they were all vehemently agreed that theatre just isn’t valued by their own society in the way that it was for the ancient Athenians.  They didn’t see modern theatre as a mass art form and they were largely sceptical about my counter-argument that popular drama is still valued as a cultural and communal experience (thanks to cinema, television and online streaming services). For all that films and TV series can say something important and complex about our society, politics and values, they said, the fragmentation of audiences and the sheer quantity and variability of content meant that they weren’t anything like the communal experience of an Athenian dramatic festival.  And they argued that this communal experience had value in and of itself.

This wasn’t just a detached, purely intellectual or academic debate for the group. Their view that live theatre is not a popular art form and is not properly valued was a matter of deep regret and intense personal feeling for them.  The sociology of Athenian drama had offered them a means of discussing how marginalized and undervalued they felt as young people with a real commitment to drama.  It wasn’t that they were idealizing classical Athens and its tragedies and comedies, either. They knew about its use of slavery and its exclusions and restrictions on women and foreigners.  Their point was that this society produced great theatre through a commitment and appreciation which was both deeply held and genuinely ‘community-wide’.  The fact that the Athenians were prepared to spend so much time and money on communal religious festivals and theatrical art highlighted the comparatively diminished status of the performing arts and ‘community theatre’ in the UK today.

Before that meeting, I had a rather prosaic reason for giving the title of ‘Ancient drama in the community’ to my overarching project.  If the mission was to bring my department’s research and expertise in Greek and Roman drama out of the academy and into the wider world, this title seemed like a simple and effective description of that goal.  What I now realize is that the socio-political centrality and cultural embeddedness of Greek drama – aspects of which are key to my own and colleagues’ research – are themselves important and salient items of evidence to bring into public debates about the social role and value of live theatre.  The city of Athens and the surrounding demes of Attica developed a form of ‘community theatre’ which genuinely brought the mass of citizens – the dēmos – together to participate in it.  This didn’t just produce all those great plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes.  It forged a strong sense of communality and community by focusing citizens’ minds on shared values, tastes, priorities and commitments.

‘We welcome spirits to the light!’ Greek Drama in the Community.

We welcome spirits to the light!

We welcome spirits wrong or right.

We dig down deep inside the earth

And drag up something to judge its worth.

We chant and shout and screech and scream.

But we do not appear as we first may seem.

Where do you think these lines of choral chanting come from? A Penguin translation of Aeschylus or Euripides, perhaps? Or one of the many versions and reworkings of Greek tragedy which have been produced by various celebrated poets and playwrights of the 20th and 21st century?

Well, you’d be forgiven for either of these guesses.  But they’re actually taken from the very start of an original play being written and devised by members of the Byre Youth Theatre Adult Collaborative Performance Group.

Since last summer, I have been working with this group of performers, which currently comprises four young people aged 17 and above. They all live locally in North-East Fife; some are studying for formal qualifications in theatre and performance in nearby schools or colleges.  The group meets every Thursday evening in the school term.  It’s managed and taught by theatre practitioner Stephen Jones of Byre Youth Theatre Ltd, a non-profit organization providing exciting opportunities and training in drama and song to children and young people. The organization has close links to the recently re-opened Byre Theatre in St Andrews.

This collaboration between Byre Youth Theatre and the School of Classics has now developed into a special project called ‘Greek Drama in the Community.  Working with the Byre Youth Theatre towards a devised performance’.  Designed by Stephen Jones, myself and my colleague Dr Ralph Anderson, it is funded by the University of St Andrews’ Knowledge Exchange and Impact Fund.  Its main aim is to explore how the content, context and conventions of ancient Greek tragedy might be used to inform and inspire the group’s work.  And we hope that our experiences and documented findings will prove useful for anyone contemplating similar ventures.

But this isn’t a project about ‘putting on a Greek play’ or the slavish and systematic application of ancient Greek theatrical practice.  Instead, we’re using Greek tragedy as a focus for discussion and thought, as a stimulus for the group’s own creative endeavours and as fresh resource for their development as performers.  So yes, I’ve talked to them about masks and the role of the Chorus in Greek drama.  And both Stephen and his choreograper have helped the group to incorporate some use of masks and a powerful choral presence into their devised play.  But such ancient conventions are only to be used if they genuinely serve the performers’ own vision and decision-making for the original play which they are devising.

‘Orestes Pursued by the Furies’ (John Singer Sargent, 1921)

On the other hand, Stephen and I have wanted to show the performers that Greek drama can improve their understanding of theatre’s history and its social, political and cultural potential for the ‘here and now’.  And we discovered that my own academic expertise in Greek tragedy could be tapped by the group as a creative resource.  For example, their devised play does contain several elements and themes which are recognizably Aeschylean, and which we discussed: those opening chants draw on the ‘necromantic’ choral hymn of Persians and the ‘chthonic’ powers invoked through song in The Oresteia.  And the play’s moral dimensions have certainly gained more texture and complexity after discussions with the group about Euripides’ Medea and Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. This is the great thing about Greek tragedy: whatever you’re trying to say or create, it’s good to think with.

So, we’re not too worried about how far the final product conforms to academic definitions of Greek tragedy in aesthetic and formal terms.  The most important thing is for the group to use the ancient material as an intellectual and creative tool, and have fun doing so, in order to produce a performance which speaks to a contemporary audience and which is genuinely theirs.

That choral chant really makes for impressive reading, doesn’t it? But this is as nothing compared to the amazing experience I had when I saw it performed for the first time in a rehearsal last Thursday. Two group members acted it out for me in their role as Fury-like banshees.   As their chants and movements build in intensity and coordination, they summon up the spirit of a deceased politician.  He must stand trial for alleged crimes committed while he was still alive.

The trial takes place in a realm which is intermediate between that of the living and the dead; something akin to the Tibetan Buddhist state known as ‘Bardo’.  The case against the politician is developed through the testimony of three characters: his wife, a colleague and a political opponent. The allegations are serious: in a post-apocalyptic world experiencing severe shortages of water, the politician has caused even more suffering for his community. But is he really to blame? Can he defend himself successfully? And what will happen to his spirit if the Banshees convict him?

Even I don’t know the answer to all these questions: the play itself is still being shaped and I don’t get to be at all the rehearsals.  But I can’t wait to find out what happens in the end!

Alliteration alert!

‘Coalition of chaos’.

‘Strong and stable leadership’.

These two phrases are key slogans or ‘soundbites’ in the Conservatives’ 2017 general election campaign.  They deploy ‘alliteration’, a rhetorical ‘figure of sound’ which Cicero loved to use (although he also disapproved of an excessive reliance on it).  Alliteration is implicitly recognized for its rhetorical power as far back as the 5th century BCE Greek sophist Gorgias.  An ancient Greek word for it is paroemion, although this label seems not to have been coined until the 1500s.  Alliteratio as an actual rhetorical term also seems to derive from the rhetorical handbooks of the early modern period.  [On both these points I confess to limited research and am happy to be corrected].

Alliteration gets defined in different ways these days. Some restrict it to the frequent repetition of initial consonants in close proximity to each other.  Others define it more broadly as ‘repetition in the initial sounds of words that can produce echoes of phonetic similarity throughout a text’ (Fahnestock 2011).  I quite like this one from the Silva Rhetoricae website: ‘Repetition of the same letter or sound within nearby words. Most often, repeated initial consonants’.

Historians and psychologists of political rhetoric talk a lot about the way in which 20th and 21st century communications have fundamentally changed the nature of political persuasion and communication by comparison with the days of Gorgias, Aristotle and Cicero. But alliteration is one device which is particularly suited to the era of ‘soundbites’ and Twitter.  It seems to be more popular than ever with politicians and spin doctors.

In a book by a very experienced political speechwriter called Winning Minds. Secrets From the Language of Leadership, we get some sense of why ‘alliterative pairs’ like ‘Strong and Stable Leadership’ or ‘Coalition of Chaos’ and are so effective: ‘they reinforce a sense of balance’ (Lancaster 2015).  Balanced and ordered phrasing, argues Lancaster, is something which audiences warm to at a neurological level, regardless of whether it maps on to anything meaningful or true.   But alliterative phrases also create powerful impressions and associations.  Jeanne Fahnestock offers examples of ‘alliterative triplets’ where ‘the repeated opening consonant helps the rhetor produce the impression of a coherent set’.  She cites Lyndon Johnson: ‘So I want to talk to you today about three places where we begin to build the Great Society—in our cities, in our countryside, and in our classrooms’.  In the case of ‘coalition of chaos’, it is pretty obvious what ‘coherent set’ of associations the Prime Minister is aiming to produce.

Another reason why slogans and soundbites so often deploy alliteration is that they are much more memorable than those which do not.  Alliteration has been proven to work very well in aiding memory and the recall of information in educational contexts.   When it comes to political messaging, then, short alliterative phrases can be the best way to get the electorate to both understand and remember what you stand for, not to mention how you want them to think about your opponents.

Soundbites and sloganeering are often decried as symptomatic of an era in which political debate and democratic discourse have become debased and hollowed out.  The leader of the Labour Party is  explicitly rejecting ‘the stuff of soundbites’ in this campaign. This is part of his own rhetorical claim to authenticity and to stand for a new kind of politics.  But there are real risks to this strategy given the nature of modern media communications and the power of the most memorable and quotable slogans to set the terms of an electoral agenda – and to do so in favour of the party that comes up with them.


Jeanne Fahnestock Rhetorical style: the Uses of Language in Persuasion (Oxford and New York 2011)

Simon Lancaster Winning Minds. Secrets from the Language of Leadership  (New York 2015)