Category Archives: General

Greek and Roman grief: what it does(n’t do) for me.

In late April of this year my wife Katherine died after a long illness.  We in her family loved her so much and we are missing her terribly. She was an extraordinary and very lovely person.

This is why I haven’t posted a blog for a long time.

As I begin to contemplate returning to work in September, I thought I’d use the blog as a way of starting to write academic prose again.  But it doesn’t feel appropriate for the first thing I write after Katherine’s death to be just another blog post about ancient and modern political culture (etc.).

In the hope of writing something more fitting, I yesterday turned to ancient Greek and Roman texts which, in one way or another, deal with the themes of loss, mourning and grief.

First, I read some of Cicero’s letters to Atticus, which deal with the loss of his daughter Tullia, in 45 BCE.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt more sympathy for Cicero: he has to repeatedly defend his decision to deal with his grief by staying busy with his writing in the country, and out of the public eye.  The extent to which Cicero is clearly expected to control his grief and display his fortitude in public discloses the toxicity of male, elite Roman public culture at this time.  To be sure, Cicero is engaging in expedient self-fashioning in these letters. And his point that he doesn’t have any current public status or worth to console him seems plain weird to this modern reader – even if it is occasioned by Atticus’ ham-fisted attempts at consolation and ‘bucking-up’. But there’s a substrate of genuine pain seeping between the lines of Cicero’s letters about his daughter and her never-to-be-built public shrine.

Then I re-read Euripides’ tragedy Alcestis.  This is the text I want to focus on for the rest of this post.

Alcestis is about a wonderful, smart wife and mother (Alcestis) dying an untimely death and the consequences of that for her husband (Admetus) and children.  But if you Google this play, you’ll see that it’s one of those ancient dramas whose premise, plot and patriarchal assumptions render it very ‘unrelatable’ to many a modern reader.  And in any case – *spoiler alert* –  Alcestis gets brought back from the dead by the hero Heracles.

If only …

On the other hand, the scenes of the play which depict Alcestis’ final day and her last few exchanges with her husband and children do speak to the pathos and pain of losing a loved one in any era. Just one example: when Alcestis returns from his wife’s funeral to his palace, he dreads the emptiness it will disclose to him:

Whatever shall I do?

The emptiness indoors will drive me outside,

when I see my wife’s bed

and the chairs on which she used to sit unoccupied.

The ‘not-being-in-that-chair’ or the ‘not-being-on-that-side-of-the-bed’ which one contantly notices in the days and months after the loss of a loved one, and which can trigger deep emotions of sorrow and emptiness: this is very well observed.

Admetus’ initial pain and sense of loss must have resonated even more, and certainly more widely, with an original ancient audience for whom the untimely death of wives and mums was a much more common occurrence than it is for we lucky moderns who have access to the miracles of modern medicine and healthcare.  (That said, our current experience of a pandemic plague has surely led to more such deaths. And I’ve been surprised at how many friends and colleagues have revealed to me that they lost a wife, mum, dad, brother, or sister far too early in relation to late 20th century and early 21st century norms around life expectancy).

Another thing to bear in mind with Alcestis, and as several scholars have noted: it’s partly a play about the way in which expectations and norms around grief and mourning can clash with customary practices of hospitality.  Heracles arrives en route to another of his ‘labours’ at Admetus’ palace just after Alcestis’ funeral.  Admetus is wearing clothes of mourning, but he pretends that they have just had the funeral of another person, not his wife or a close relative, so that the hero can feel able to accept the king’s offer of bed and board.  Admetus later explains this pretence to the play’s bemused Chorus:

It would have been one more misfortune,

on top of those we already have,

for my household to gain a reputation

for turning away guest-friends.

And whenever I pay a visit to thirsty Argos,

I myself find him [i.e. Heracles] the best of hosts.

These strong norms around reciprocal hospitality and ‘guest-friendship’ are a product of an ancient society where long-distance travellers could be in a real bind if they found themselves turned away by a household.  Despite these norms, it’s clear that Heracles wouldn’t have stayed the night if he’d known that it was Alcestis who’d died.  And yet, Admetus feels that it’s better for his future standing, reputation and his own ‘being-in-the-social-world’ to put Heracles’ needs above his own raw grief.  And that prioritizing of hospitality pays off handsomely: Heracles gets Alcestis back from Hades when he learns the truth and wants to do something to make things right.

This all seems a world away from modern norms and expectations.  Thank goodness I don’t feel obligated to play host at the moment, unless I really want to.

But this aspect of the play isn’t wholly irrelevant to my current experience either.  I really don’t like to appear rude in any circumstances. And I’m normally quite gregarious and hostly.  And yet my own and my family’s grief have meant that sometimes we want to see people and sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes we want to share our memories of Katherine and sometimes we just want to be on our own with them. Very often, as the novelist Julian Barnes put it in a BBC interview about his own experience of losing his wife, ‘you just don’t know what you want’.  That makes it hard to make plans around offering or accepting hospitality.

On the other hand, the great kindness, concern, and generosity shown to me and my family from all quarters in response to our loss surely demand reciprocity and recognition of some kind, at some point. People who are grieving can’t opt out of the necessary reciprocal work which constitutes their community and social networks forever. Indeed, it wouldn’t be in their own best long-term interests to do so.  Alcestis explores the importance of such reciprocal obligations at the same time as it acknowledges the difficulty of negotiating your way through them them in times of mourning.

As for its specific depictions of, and observations about, the death and loss of a loved one, the Alcestis is at times a very weird read for someone in my position. Some parts of the text seem deeply insensitive and alien. In the aftermath of his wife’s funeral, for example, Admetus argues that she’s actually better off than he is:

I regard my wife’s lot as happier than my own,

despite appearances. She will never again be touched by pain,

and she has left behind all the tribulations of life in glory,

whereas I, who should not be alive and have escaped my fate,

will live a miserable life.  I see this now.

Now, the idea that the dead are at peace and no longer suffering is a familiar theme of consolation in both ancient and modern cultures.  It’s especially apposite when the person who died was ill and/or in some pain before they died.   Both here and elsewhere in the play, there’s a further point adumbrated which most of us can ‘get’: when people of good character and deeds die, the memory and ‘glory’ of who they were, how great they were, and what good things they did, lives on through the memorializing words and work of the living.

But the claim that Alcestis’ ‘lot’ (at the point that she is thought to have died forever) is better than Admetus’ is one which serves to remind me that the ‘thought world’  of ancient Greek texts and culture is often very different to that of ours (or to mine, at least).  Even as an exaggerated ‘in the moment’ expression of one’s grief, it seems beyond the pale to me for Admetus to suggest that he’s worse off than his dead wife.! This would remain true even without the specific plot point that his wife Alcestis has agreed to die in place of Admetus –  an arrangement made possible by Apollo which Admetus now bitterly regrets going along with.  The advantages of cheating his fated death turn out to be illusory.

The idea that the dead are better off than the living loved ones they leave behind coheres with another thought which Admetus comes out with elsewhere in the play, and which grieving characters and Choruses often express in Greek tragedies: namely that it would have been better never to have even met and married the husband or wife who you’ve just lost in the first place.  Mothers and fathers in Greek tragedy sometimes wish they’d never given birth to the child they are now mourning the death of.  And it’s a thought which goes back to Homer’s Iliad: when she learns that husband Hector has been killed by Achilles, Andromache explictly says that she wishes that she’d never even been born.

These thoughts are perhaps understandable as articulations of the extreme pain of grief: it’s so unbearable that you wish for another possible world in which the conditions of the possibility of the relationship you’ve now lost were never even met in the first place.  And it would be wrong of me to claim that this kind of thinking is alien to modern experience just because it’s alien to me.  After all it’s right there in one of the most famous modern popular songs of all time: ‘I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all’, sings the late, great Freddie Mercury on Queen’s classic hit, Bohemian Rhapsody.  But my version of this ‘wishing things were otherwise’ is crucially (if boringly) different.  Never at any point do I, or did I,  wish I’d never met and married my wife. What I wish is that she hadn’t fallen ill and died.

So, it seems so shocking to me, right now, to hear a Greek epic or tragic character or chorus wish that they had never married the dead spouse or had the dead son or daughter.  How could one want to erase one’s timeline with the person one loved and whom one now misses so much?  Surely the present pain is an indicator of what was precious about that timeline, and what it has provided in the way of past happiness and future happiness (via children, memories, achievements etc.)?

But one does have to reflect that in ancient Greek culture, and especially for ancient Greek women, the loss of their relative could be much more radically life-changing for the grieving survivor than it is for we moderns in liberal and relatively affluent situations. If you are dependent on a spouse or a grown-up child for your own economic well-being, personal safety, and social inclusion, then it becomes more understandable that their death might make you wish you could erase your current timeline altogether.




From Damon to Dominic: my top five nerdy ‘chief advisers’ in Athenian democracy. Number 1: Mnesiphilus.

When Dominic Cummings walked theatrically out of the front door of Number 10 eleven days ago, a new kind of political adviser had been given his marching orders. Cummings wasn’t simply a ‘spin doctor’ in the mould of Blair’s Alistair Campbell or Thatcher’s Bernard Ingham. Nor was he a West-Wing style ‘chief of staff’.  It’s true that Cummings shares bits of DNA with various wonk-cum-guru precursors: Labour’s Andrew Adonis; the Conservatives’ Steve Hilton; various luminaries of the Behavioural Insights Team (aka the ‘Nudge Unit’)  originally set up by David Cameron.  But Dominic took the idea that policy advice and his own ideological aspirations should be grounded in ‘data’, ‘behavioural science’ and the possibilities of new technology to a whole new level.

Dominic Cummings leaves Downing Street on 13th November 2020. Image: Sky News.

Boris Johnson seems to have been very reliant on Dom’s advice, ideas and vision.  But it’s hard to know the true nature and extent of his influence over the PM and the rest of government.  It suits critics and opposition parties to exaggerate the power wielded by unelected advisers, especially when they ‘become the story’ in the way that Dominic did. The Barnard Castle debacle does suggest his indispensability at that stage of the Covid crisis.  But Cummings’ controversial presence at the heart of government was undoubtedly useful as ‘political cover’ at times.  He drew a lot of fire away from the PM and his ministers.

Classical Athenian politicians also had egg-headed advisers.  And it looks as if the ancients were no less fascinated (and distracted) by their influence than we are with our own government’s special advisers and spin doctors.  Historical sources often mention them in the context of a ‘game-changing’ decision or policy which they brought about.  So, in the next few posts, I am going to bring you my 5 top-level nerdy political advisers to Athenian democratic politicians, complete with notes of caution about whether we should believe all that we read about them. They are arranged chronologically: it’s not really a ‘top 5’ ranking to be honest. And a list focused more generally on ancient ‘wise advisers’ would have different names on it.  So please don’t  @ me with ‘wot no Solon?’ etc.

1. Mnesiphilus (pronounced ‘Mness ee fill us’: if you’re on a Christmas Zoom party with your mates, it’s time to ease up on the Prosecco if you can’t say this name one syllable at a time).

A painting of the Battle of Salamis by artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1804–1874). Date: 1862. Oil on canvas, approx. 5 × 9m. Munich, Maximilianeum Collection.

Just before the battle of Salamis (480 BCE), this chap advised the great Athenian political leader and general Themistocles to assert his influence with the allies in order to prevent their planned retreat to the Isthmus. Or so says Herodotus (8.57). Having laid out the tactical reasons why Salamis is a good place to stay to engage the Persian fleet, Mnesiphilus spells out the situation with Cummingsian bluntness: ‘this is a stupid plan, which will spell the destruction of Greece.’ He tells Themistocles that he has to ‘find a way to reverse the decision – to persuade Eurybiades to change his mind and stay here’. Eurybiades was the Spartan commander of the fleet of the Greek confederation.  Themistocles immediately takes Mnesiphilus’ advice without even replying to him. Thanks to a combination of his own rhetorical skill – he threatens to withdraw the Athenian fleet from the confederation if the withdrawal plan continues –  and Eurybiades’ fear of having to face the enemy without the Athenians – the Greeks all stay at Salamis and win their famous victory.

Later writers represented Mnesiphilus as a teacher of practical wisdom in the tradition of Solon and as an adviser and friend of Themistocles (Plutarch Themistocles 2.6; Moralia 795c). 12 pot sherds with his name on them show that in 487/6 BCE Mnesiphilus was nominated to be ostracised [link] from the city.  Whether this means he was politically active or was just regarded with suspicion because of his connections with Themistocles is impossible to say.

We’d be right to question the historical veracity of Mnesiphilus’ epoch-making intervention over Salamis. In Herodotus, this is his only appearance and mention.  And it may be that this story comes from a ‘fake news’ source hostile to Themistocles: if Mnesiphilus was known to be one of Themistocles’ close advisers, this story was a good way of detracting from Themistocles’ alleged self-generated cleverness and cunning. Furthermore, Mnesiphilus’ language (‘stupid planning’: aboulia) taps into one of the big narrative themes of classical Greek history writing: the importance of good decision-making and practical planning (euboulia) in political and military affairs and the difficulty of achieving them.

On the other hand, you could argue that this story actually makes Themistocles look good. Unlike certain Homeric forebears (Agamemnon, Hector…) and the autocratic Persian king Xerxes in Herodotus’ own narrative, Themistocles actually listens to good expert counsel and saves Greece as a result.

But it’s perhaps less important to worry about whether this episode really happened or not than it is to reflect on what signals it might have sent to its first Athenian readers at the other end of the fifth century BCE.  One of the positive aspects of Athens’ direct democracy when it worked well was that its citizens had good mechanisms for listening to, and acting upon, the advice of other citizens with authentic relevant experience, expertise and practical wisdom. But one of its negative aspects was the ease with which that sort of advice could be drowned out by rhetorically beguiling and stirring arguments in favour of a much more stupid and ill-informed course of action.

Our feelings about the likes of Dominic Cummings shouldn’t lead us to think that all unelected experts and advisers are a bad thing for democratic governance and good planning.

Nerd number 2 will be a clever bloke who advised Pericles called Damon!  Bet you can’t wait…

‘Optimism bias’, the Coronavirus and Greek tragedy

All over the world, certain political leaders were too slow to act in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Some of them have been lifting their ‘lockdowns’ too quickly.  The reasons for this are multiple and yet variable according to each country concerned: complacency; incompetence; stupidity; understandably sketchy scientific data and limited evidence; bad luck; legitimate worries about the impact on the economy, jobs, education and people’s overall wellbeing; electoral-political priorities; not being Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel, or Tsai Ing-wen.

But in some cases, those leaders of places which have done, or are doing, badly also seem to have convinced themselves that their country would fare better than others.  The psychological tendency to ‘hope for the best’ rather than ‘plan for the worst’ is very human and understandable.  As individuals, as a community or as a nation, we can be overconfident about our prospects despite plenty of evidence that real trouble lies ahead.  Cognitive scientists call this ‘optimism bias’.  Their experiments and observations document a tendency to underestimate the costs and durations of projects, to ‘focus on the causal role of skill and neglect the role of luck’ and to ‘focus on what we know and neglect what we do not know’ (Kahneman, 2011, p. 259).* Optimism bias often leads to the underestimation of risks when decision-taking.  Occasionally, such errors of calculation can nevertheless result in beneficial innovations and successes. But they can also cause projects and policies to fail disastrously, take too long or cost too much.

The ancient Greeks understood the psychological and ideological value of positive thinking about future risks and opportunities.  But they also knew the importance being realistic.  The ancient Greek word for ‘hope’ is elpis but it is often best rendered as ‘expectation’: one can have elpis of good outcomes but also elpis of bad ones. In the famous myth of Pandora as told by Hesiod, she opened a jar left in her care containing sickness, death and many other unspecified evils which were then released into the world. Though she was quick to close the container, only one thing was left behind inside: elpis. The symbolism and meaning of this are not clear. Scholars continue to debate the problem.  But on any interpretation, the myth illustrates the Greeks’ sense that the managing of expectations was a really significant part of what it meant to be human.

As for ‘optimism bias’, well, in their own way, the ancient Greeks already knew about this tendency too, and they used the format of mass entertainment to discuss it.  In Euripides’ tragedy The Suppliant Women, a play performed before and audience of thousands of citizens of Athens’ democracy, there is a debate between Theseus, the mythical king of Athens, and a Theban herald who has come to tell him that the tyrant of Thebes, Creon, will not give back the unburied bodies of the Argives’ dead, following a battle between Argos and Thebes. (Theseus has intervened on behalf of Argos’ grieving mothers and their king).  The herald warns Theseus against proposing war against Thebes to the people of Athens (476–91, trans. James Morwood):

Take thought, and do not, in your rage at my
words on the grounds that you have a free city,
make a puffed-up answer, when you have less to be confident about.
For we should not trust in the hope (elpis) which has engaged many cities
in conflict, urging their passions to excess.
For whenever war comes to be voted on by the people,
no-one any longer reckons on his own death
but assumes that this disaster will come to someone else.
If death were before the eyes when the vote is cast,
Greece would never be suffering destruction in its madness for war.

The herald’s vivid point is that citizens of Greek cities would not so readily vote for a war if they had death before their eyes and did not entertain the over-confident expectation that someone else, and not they themselves, would die in that war. This very closely matches some of the alleged symptoms of what we now call ‘groupthink’: for example, its tendency to create illusions of invulnerability which in turn encourage excessive risk-taking. But it especially brings out that aspect of optimism bias wherein decision-makers neglect the operations of chance and ‘unknowns’ in their calculations of risk.

In Suppliant Women, Theseus does lead his Athenians into battle with the Thebans and he successfully retrieves the unburied bodies whilst refraining from sacking Thebes once that objective is secured.  But the play’s early scenes also explore the gung-ho optimism which influenced Argos’ king to agree to an attack on Thebes, despite the warnings of oracles and prophets.  And it’s fascinating that the audience of this play – full of Athenian men who themselves regularly debated and voted on whether or not to go to war  – are confronted with the role that ‘optimism bias’ might be playing in their own life-and-death deliberations.

Tragedy here seems to be offering food for thought for a society which often promoted a ‘hope for the best’ meme as a key component in its civic ideology military courage and manliness.  Here is the orator and politician Demosthenes describing the Athenian troops who fought in battles to support the Thebans and Corinthians in the 390s BCE (On the Crown 97, trans. adapted from Stephen Usher’s):

They were willing to expose themselves to the dangers for the sake of their good name and honour; and their decision was right and noble! […]  It is the duty of the brave men to engage in every noble enterprise that comes their way, with good hope (agathē elpis) as their shield, and to bear with noble heart whatever outcome the god imposes.

One of my hopes is that our own playwrights and screenwriters are soon able to take a leaf out of Euripides’ book when they come to tell the story of this pandemic.   They need to explore and expose the biases, wrong assumptions and dangerous habits of thought which have led to unnecessary deaths and suffering.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but tragic storytelling helps us to appreciate how error-prone we are and where the points of failure have occurred.  Without that appreciation, we’ll find it hard to do any better next time.**

*Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. London and New York: Penguin.

** You can read more on Euripides’ (and Thucydides’) exploration of what cognitive and behavioural scientists call ‘biases’ and ‘heuristics’ in my open access article here.

Dom and Boris have forgotten their ancient history (again!)

As I write we are into our sixth day of … well, I’m not quite sure what to call it.  ‘Domgate’?  ‘The Great Barnard Castle Eye-Test Scandal’?  ‘From “Odyssean project”  to “Achilles’ heel”in 260 miles’?   You can choose one of the above or make up your own.

I have written before about the way in which lawcourt trials from ancient democratic Athens resonate with some very recent examples of  hubris on the part of certain powerful, wealthy and famous public figures.  But this latest example is in a league of its own.  And one thing’s for sure: although Dominic Cummings got a First in Ancient and Modern History from Oxford, and Boris Johnson has a 2.1 in Classics from the same university, neither of them seems to have learned a key lesson which the texts of Athenian forensic oratory repeatedly convey to anyone who is in the business of ensuring that rules created to ensure public security and safety in times of crisis are successfully adhered to.

Let’s look at Lysias’ speech 14 as just one example. This is a prosecution speech written for a client in a case brought by a team of Athenian citizens against Alcibiades the younger (son of the famous Alcibiades), probably in 395 BC.  Alcibiades stood accused of dereliction of military duty, a very serious offence in an ancient city-state which had no professional standing army. In classical Greece, free adult citizens were required to answer the call to fight in defence of their city, because they were the only ones who enjoyed the full rights and privileges which came with their citizen status.  If you refused to serve, you could be prosecuted (this was called astrateia). And once you were in a battle, you knew you could be prosecuted for lipotaxion (‘leaving the ranks’) if you decided to retreat without being ordered to do so.

Now, Alcibiades hadn’t deserted the front line in the heat of battle.  Rather, the formal charge was that he was called up to serve as a hoplite (heavy-armed infantry) but had dodged that official draft by blithely joining the cavalry instead, and without observing a strict requirement that all prospective cavalry officers first pass through a public scrutiny procedure.  Now, there are a few things that you need to know here: cavalrymen came from the wealthiest class of Athenian citizens; the cavalry class were often under suspicion of having colluded in the short-lived but bloody oligarchic coup of 404/3 BC; and ‘hoplite phalanx’ warfare was seen as much more cool and ‘down with the people’ than fighting on horseback. ‘Cavalry class’ citizens would sometimes make it clear in court cases that they had on occasion served with the lower-class heavy hoplite infantry, because that kind of fighting was seen as much more dangerous, altruistic and courageous than charging around on a horse with your posh mates. (This was a bit of an exaggeration: cavalrymen did get killed too, and their actions were sometimes crucial to military success).

But if it sounds to us as if Alcibiades had done something that was not that bad – to have bent the rules a little rather than engaging in outright draft-dodging – think again, and read this extract from Lysias’ prosecution speech:

You should bear in mind that if everybody is allowed to do whatever he likes, there will be no point in having laws, or meeting as an Asssembly, or electing generals.  I am surprised, gentlemen of the jury, that anybody thinks it right to convict someone assigned to the front line who retreats to the second line under enemy attack, but to pardon a person assigned to the hoplites who is found in the cavalry.  In my opinion, gentlemen, you are judging cases not simply on account of individual defendants but so as to encourage improvement among those whose discipline is poor.  If you punish those who are unknown, none of the others will behave better, because nobody will hear about the offences you have condemned; but if you punish the most prominent among the criminals, everybody will know, and as a result, the citizens will heed this example and become better. (Trans. Stephen Todd)

This is the first part of the lesson which Dom and Boris seem not to have got, and it comes up again and again in different Athenian trial speeches: rules are rules and noone can be seen to be exempt – especially if they are known to everyone in the country. If well-known, prominent rule-breakers are not punished, then everyone will see this.  Others who are disposed towards similar rule-breaking behaviour will think that the city’s threats of legal sanction are not credible.  But if well-known rule-breakers are punished, then the threat of legal enforcement is credible.  That, in turn, encourages discipline in the relevant area of activity.

But Lysias’ speaker hasn’t finished.  He goes on to talk about the hoplites who did obey the call to go into the draft in question, and addresses the mass jury as if some of them were part of it:

Bear in mind, gentlemen of the jury, that some of the soldiers were sick, and others lacked the necessities of life. The former would gladly have remained and been treated in their communities, the latter would gladly have returned home to look after their affairs, others would gladly have fought as light-armed troops, and others would gladly have faced danger among the cavalry.  Nevertheless, you did not dare to abandon the ranks or choose what you pleased. Instead, you feared the laws of the city much more than the danger of facing the enemy. Now you must remember this and cast your vote and make clear to everybody that those Athenians who are unwilling to fight the enemy will suffer very severely at your hands.

Here we can see some of the same reasoning which underpins the public anger being felt right now in the UK against Cummings and Johnson: in our case, lots of citizens had good reasons to break the ‘lockdown’ and thereby improve their own and their families’ physical, emotional and material wellbeing. But they stood their ground for the sake of the wider safety of the community and for the collective good of the country.  And they obeyed rules designed to encourage such behaviour and assist in its enforcement.

But the point here – and it is also made in other public speeches from Athens’ democratic lawcourts – is not just that Alcibiades has shown contempt and disregard for the sacrifice and public spiritedness displayed the men who did not shirk hoplite service.  More importantly, the relevant democratic authority – here embodied by a citizen jury  – must publicly punish anyone who has been found to have needlessly flouted a rule which enshrines a collective commitment to make sacrifices for the public good in a crisis.  Because when legal sanctions against such selfish behaviour lose their credibility, there is  a risk that individuals will no longer trust that their fellow-citizens really do have a firm commitment to make sacrifices for the greater good of the community.  And once that trust crumbles, people may well start reasoning that the sacrifice is pointless.

Johnson seems not to realize that in our attenuated and increasingly out-of-date version of democracy, he is the relevant authority with the power to shore up our commitment to the greater good. And he can only exercise that power by punishing Cummings very publicly.  By defending his senior adviser’s rule-breaking, Boris has effectively decided to undermine his own government’s strategy and messaging.

Luckily for all of us,  you don’t need to study Classics or have read some Lysias to understand this rather basic lesson.  I’m pretty sure that most of the UK dēmos gets it, and that they will stay more disciplined than their elected and unelected overlords for as long as is necessary.










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