BL17 FINAL - Page 26



M
aybe it was Boris
Johnson’s ultimatum
after the summer
recess, when he urged
MPs to back him so that his EU
negotiators could work “without
that sword of Damocles over their
necks”. Maybe it was the Irish
Taoiseach’s comeback a week later,
when he claimed that Ireland
wanted to be Johnson’s “Athena”
– a reference to the Greek goddess
who intervened when the hero
Heracles had gone mad and
slaughtered his own children. Or
maybe it was Brexiteer members
of the European Research Group
finally getting journalists to adopt
their self-aggrandising nickname
and refer to them as “the Spartans”.
Whatever the trigger, this
autumn has been a revelation to
me. Because for the first time in
15 years, I don’t have to justify to
anyone why I studied Classics.
It wasn’t about reciting endless
grammar tables. The language isn’t
the point – it’s the key to unlocking
the secret diaries of ancient
Europe. And once you start down
that road, you find a few surprises.
Take democracy. Ancient
Greece is hailed as being the
“cradle of democracy”: a
civilisation that defied monarchic
rule in favour of liberal egality,
centuries ahead of its time. In fact,
democracy wasn’t a ‘Greek’
concept, but a specifically
Athenian one – it bewildered the
other ancient Hellenic cities. And
while Greek civilisation spanned
centuries, the Athenian democracy
experiment – in which only male
citizens over 20 could vote – lasted
barely 170 years. Its idea that every
voter got a say on every issue was
largely unworkable and open to
corruption. Remind you of much?
As it happens, the risk of
populist leaders bribing or
manipulating hapless citizens was
a constant cause of concern among
ancient writers, from Plato to
Aristophanes to Thucydides. The
same arguments – that people
didn’t know what they were voting
for – featured then as now.
Or take immigration. Rome was
an empire of immigrants, with a
Comment
Q UOD ERAT
DEMONSTRANDUM
With references and lessons from
antiquity infusing political life,
our Classics-educated writer is
proudly dusting off her old textbooks
R AC H E L
CUNLIFFE
Comment and
f e a t u r e s e d i t o r,
City AM
concerted effort to assimilate
foreigners – including several
famous emperors – under its
umbrella. Emperor Caracalla,
himself of Arab origin, even
decreed in 212AD that all free men
living within the empire were
automatically Roman citizens.
Then there was the sex. People
may think of the acceptance of
homosexuality as a modern
phenomenon, but it was common
for men to have relationships with
men in the ancient world. Plato
considered these far purer than
liaisons with women.
While I’ve forgotten much,
a few choice tidbits have stayed
with me. The word ‘fascism’
derives from ‘fasces’ – the bundle
of rods carried by officials to
26
BOISDALELIFE .COM
AUTUMN 2019
ISSUE 17
signify authority – which was also
a slang word for penis. My
dissertation on courtesans in Latin
poetry was technically
pornography (literally ‘writings
about prostitutes’). And I once
scandalised a prospective
boyfriend by informing him that
I had a problem with polyamory
– the word was half-Greek (‘poly’)
and half-Latin (‘amor’).
But there was always a serious
side to it, too. Classics, from the
first Latin verb table I ever glanced
at to earning a Masters for my work
on female sexual agency in elegiac
poetry, has shaped how I see the
world today – particularly when it
comes to the political upheavals
we are witnessing.
There is power in using Classics
as the basis of rhetoric and identity
– as Boris Johnson well knows. But
there is also power in knowing
how the ancient world fitted
together, and drawing a path from
the inconsistencies and arguments
of millennia ago with how society
views itself today.
So if Classics to you was dusty
books and boring teachers droning
on about ablative absolutes, let me
encourage you to start over. If you
want a crash course in how a
nation torn apart by bitter political
divisions forges a new foundation
myth for itself, go read Virgil’s
Aeneid. If you want to learn how a
fixation with ideology and inability
to compromise tears families and
societies apart, watch Sophocles’
Antigone. Wondering where Boris
learnt his rhetoric? Try just about
any speech by Cicero.
Oh, and the next time you’re
in Rome and walk past the
imposing Pantheon, note the giant
inscription that declares: “M
AGRIPPA L F COS TERTIVM
FECIT” – “Marcus Agrippa built
this”. He didn’t – it was built over
150 years after him by Hadrian,
who wanted to associate his
regime with the nostalgia for
Rome’s golden age.
If you think we have a problem
with fake news now, at least we’re
not etching it into our civic
buildings. I guess that’s what
you call progress.
M A RT IN KI N G DO M
TABLE TALK





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