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Palmyra and the disappearing past


The current situation in Syria is catastrophic on a humanitarian level and it’s almost impossible to imagine what it must be like for those living through it. It’s a part of the world that has had more than its fair share of death, destruction, regime change and false hope. Any student of the ancient, medieval or modern eras will be more than well aware of the tumultuous history of the region and the history of western intervention and exploitation; whether that be at the hand of empire building Romans, the opportunist potential dynasts of the Crusades or their more modern equivalents.

Somewhat ironically, it is the threat to the sites of these great moments from history that has struck a personal chord with me. The current situation in Palmyra is a case in point. As of twenty-four hours ago the ancient city was at risk of huge damage from air strikes as the government seek to regain the territory from ISIS. Even if that doesn’t happen the city is likely to be changed forever if ISIS continue their policy of destroying non-Muslim historical artifacts.

Palymra - under threat

A registered UNESCO world heritage site, Palmyra has been a centre of civilsation since around 7,500 BC. A fecund wadi, oasis in the middle of the Syrian desert, it was always destined to become a trading and meeting centre and that proved to be the case. By Roman times it was a semi-independent and fiercely neutral hub of near-eastern trade where the caravans, travelling  between the Mediterranean coast of Syria and the heart of the Parthian empire, met and struck details. Fairly obviously it also became a place of tremendous intrigue, the neutral territory between two great empires in the last days of the Roman Republic.

Shortly afterwards Palmyra became a part of the Roman Empire, added to the province of Syria under Tiberius and given the status of a full colonia by Hadrian on one of his many tours of the Empire a hundred years later. From this point onwards the city we now think of as ancient Palmyra was constructed; the immense temple of Bel, the Tetraplyon, grand piazzas and colonnades and all the other trappings of a wealthy near eastern city under Roman influence.

A centre for trade, Palmyra had been the entrepot for many of the luxuries that were sought after by the wealthy Roman elite. After colonisation it began to import more and more of these luxuries; statues from Greece, Chinese silks and the artists and sculptors required to decorate villas. It’s influence grew with its wealth and by the third century AD briefly held sway over a  large chunk of the Empire, under the influence of Septimius Odaenathus and his wife, the utterly remarkable Zenobia. Palmyra was never to reach quite such a level of influence again but emperors such as Diocletian and Justinian reinforced and rebuilt the city, recognising its importance as a strategic and financial centre. This influence continued into the Medieval period and after the city was captured by the Arabs in 634 and, over 600 years later, the Mamluks were responsible for the construction of the amazing castle which has featured in much of the news footage of recent events.

A rich and varied history that is writ large in the remains of the city, the remains that are now under threat of complete and total destruction.

I’ve never been to Palmyra, I’ve never been to Syria. It is unfortunate to have lived in an age where so much that remained of the eras that fascinate has either been lost to us or is on the verge of being so; the sites of Alexander’s travels through Afghanistan, the air raid damaged castle of Crak de Chevaliers, the ruins of Persepolis and, more recently, the partial destruction of Leptis Magna by ISIS. Of course, that’s just a personal list and one that reflects my own narrow range of historical interests. Lovers of other eras and, in particular, lovers of Arab culture have seen much, much more destroyed.

The Temple of Bel

You might argue that all of it is just a pile of old rubble and not worth a hill of beans in comparison with the dreadful human cost of the ongoing conflict. Unconfirmed reports suggest that ISIS were responsible for the murder of at least 250 people, including children, after taking Palmyra. Piles of old stones don’t initially seem very significant in comparison but their destruction is motivated by the same zealous hatred.

Palmyra, Petra, Leptis Magna, Carthage were all bucket list sites. Places that I always imagined that I might one day visit and walk in the footsteps of the people whose lives I have studied and been borderline obsessed with since the age of about 15. That might sound a little wishy washy and romantic and it probably is but even the visitor with the least interest in history is occasionally moved by the sense of being somewhere where “stuff has happened”, where one has those moments of a profound and almost indescribable connection with the past. It happened to me in Delphi, in Rome in and at many other incredible and fascinating sites. It seems increasingly likely that it might not happen to anybody at Palmyra ever again. That seems like a crime against humanity to me.

ISIS destruction


Playing the name game


The naming of things is always very important. Associations are easily made and difficult to shake off. Whilst historical revisionism is very popular it is always nearly impossible to completely rehabilitate a reputation or transform the view of a period. Hence, to most people the Dark Ages will always be backward looking and violent and Richard III will always be a child murdering hunchback.

One particularly effective way of historical labelling has always been the use of a cognomen. The original Latin term was used by the Romans to describe the third or “spare” name in a full Roman title. They were widely used because of the small number of praenomen or first names that were available. Initially the cognomen was used as a kind of nickname but as the names were passed down they became additional and hereditary family names in the way that many of us now have a “middle name”. For the rich and powerful, however, cognomen were used in a different way, to describe their achievements; such as Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus – Gnaeus Pompeius The Great.

So far so honorific, but as with everything else the idea of a cognomen was more often used, mostly retrospectively, to identify the perceived faults or character defects of a ruler. Charles “The Bald”, Charles “The Fat” and Pippin “The Hunchback” are three pertinent examples from the history of the Holy Roman Empire. A personal favourite has always been Fulk “The Black”, Count of Anjou (972-1040) who was so named because of his liking for robust and thoroughly executed revenge rather than because he was a particularly sharp dresser.

The history of the Ottoman Empire is full of such intimidating cognomen and perhaps none more so than Sultan Selim I, known to Western audiences as Selim “The Grim”. Selim is a fascinating example of just how the application of a cognomen can be a precursor to an interesting debate around a character and their true motives.

Selim I - Grim and bear it?

Selim I – Grim and bear it?

Emperor for just eight years (1512-1520) Selim was immensely succesful in terms of territorial expansion, he defeated the Mameluke sultanate and reclaimed Egypt for the Ottoman Empire. Following this success he also reclaimed the title of Caliph, unifying political and religious power under an Ottoman leader for the first time in a generation. At the time of his death he controlled an empire three times the size of the one that taken over in 1512.

Clearly a very succesful chap, Selim’s negative western cognomen stems from the way that he went about things. His accession was particularly bloody, even by the standards of the Ottoman Empire. Selim dethroned his father, Bayezid II, and had him immediately put to death. Any potential resistance or challenge to the new regime was quashed before it could be begin by the simultaneous execution of Selim’s three brothers  and all of his nephews. Whilst these actions were no more bloody or cynical than those of many a western Renaissance king the speed with which they were carried out,  and the fact that they were born of several years of previous civil strife when Bayezid II and fought against his own brothers,  helped contemporary western commentators to paint a picture of Selim as a representation of everything that was a threat to Christian Europe.

Selim’s military success also helped to reinforce this image. Alongside his successes in Egypt Selim also made great strides in bringing other areas such as Syria, Palestine and the Arabian peninsular back into full Ottoman control. It was during one of these campaigns in 1514 that perhaps the most infamous incident took place. Planning a huge troop movement into Iran, Selim was concerned that there was the distinct possibility of an uprising in the area of Rum in the province of Anatolia. In an attempt to stop this before it happened Selim sent his agents into Rum armed with a list of around 40,000 people, mostly Alevis, who were arrested and/or executed as a result of the fact that they were considered Qizilbash and potential opponents of the Sunni regime.

So far, so grim. Yet within a few years of his death Selim’s son, Suleiman the Magnificent (that’s what I call a cognomen) was seeking to redeem his father’s reputation. In Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1923, Caroline Finkel describes how Selim’s reputation caused a problem for the image conscious Suleiman:

“Another of Suleyman’s concerns in creating the post of court historiographer was the rehabilitation of his father, whose reputation for ruthlessness did not fit the image of the ideal Muslim ruler, and to this end he commissioned a number of works specifically extolling Selim’s deeds; by the end of the century, Selim was duly accepted as a heroic rather than cruel figure.”

(Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1923, John Murray, 2006, p.147)

An extremely impressive bit of image management. Selim was, after all, the man after whom a popular Ottoman curse had been invented. “May you be a vizier of Selim’s” would apparently be uttered at enemies in reference to the frequency with which Selim had despatched his closest advisors and commanders. Nevertheless, Suleiman was very effective in his efforts at rehabilitation. Modern historians now regard Selim as the man who built the foundation for the spectacular success of the Ottoman empire under his son and later successors and his more questionable methods are often regarded as necessary evils. Even his cognomen is open to debate – the word Yavuz is considered by some to be more accurately translated as “steadfast” or “stern”- a rather different image than “grim” with its reaper associations. Historians now paint a picture of Selim as a tough man who made tough decisions and acted brutally but effectively, rather than somebody who killed and tortured for pleasure and indulgence like a cartoon oriental despot. This image is masterfully portrayed in an elegy from the time of Suleiman that Caroline Finkel quotes:

“His hand was a sabre; a dagger, his tongue; his finger an arrow; his arm, a spear bright.

In the shortest of time, many high deeds he wrought; encircle the world, did the shade of his might.” 

Selim is far from singular of course. Just about every strong leader in history could be analysed in such a way. One man’s “steadfast leader” is another’s “cruel dictator” and those views whilst seemingly polarizing can easily be jointly held. What is interesting about Selim is how his roughly contemporary cognomen stayed the same but had its meaning changed and moulded by a mixture of Ottoman image management and historical revisionism. It is a debate that still rages too. The third biggest bridge across the Bosphorus is known today as  the “Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge” – a name that the Alevi community in contemporary Turkey (the modern day relatives of the victims of 1514)  still lobby the Prime Minister to change to “The Third Bridge.”

I have never travelled across the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge. Would it be the “grim bridge” or the “steadfast bridge”? Something to ponder if I ever do.

Have a good week,


Grim or steadfast?

Grim or steadfast?

The Nearly Men


There has been a huge amount of press over the last few weeks about young Prince George as he makes his first appearances at official engagements, his life already mapped out ahead of him as heir and eventually king. All of this rather leaves old Harry in the shade – a far more interesting character in my view – but such is the way of things with monarchy. History is full of thwarted brothers, disinherited younger sons, third sons who took up holy orders – not to mention the daughters that never even got the chance to stake a claim for posterity – and other siblings, progeny and frustrated third cousins. I find some of these characters fascinating. Many of them made their presence felt through assassination or revolt – possibly the best example being the ancient Persian empire where family gatherings were very high risk encounters indeed and where having one’s relatives “offed” was pretty much the first thing on the to-do list once one had risen to pre-eminence.

That said, some of the more obscure and less dramatic stories are just as intriguing, if less spectacular. Take this man for example; born some time in the last quarter of the second century BC he was part of a noble Roman family and enjoyed a modestly succesful political career rising to the office of aedile in 90 BC.  After a succesful year as aedile he attempted to stand for election as consul in 88 BC missing out the traditional step of serving as a praetor first. The senate refused to accept his candidacy and he withdrew his request, in doing so becoming allied with his two biggest opponents. Within a year however he was dead, killed in the aftermath of Marius’ capture of Rome in the winter of 87/86 BC. He pretty much slips out of history at this point although he is fondly remembered for his skills as an orator and a wit in Cicero’s writings on oratory where he is included as a main character. So who was this fellow? Well, he was Gaius Iulius Caesar Strabo Vospicus – the elder brother of the great Julius Caesar’s father and apparently very much a role model for him.

The elder Gaius Iulius has very much been lost to history. He appears of course in biographies of Caesar and, briefly, in narrative histories of the late Republic but that’s about it. Something of a shame really as the fact that Caesar had an uncle who tried to break the rules to assume senior political office and was involved in civil unrest in Rome is a fact not without interest to anybody who wants to try and understand the psychology and motivations of the great man himself.

Of course it is no great surprise that the Iulia should have produced more than one senior politician, Caesar’s father had risen to high office and the Roman patrician system meant that the same small number of families dominated politics and warfare for generations, – certainly until the empire began to produce notable figures outside of Italy and men like Trajan and Hadrian made their mark in the second century AD – but what is interesting is that the less spectacularly succesful members of these families, who may well have been remembered in their day, are often almost completely lost to us now.

Another great example of this phenomenon is the family of Marcus Antonius Creticus; whilst he was the father of the famous triumvir Marcus Antoninus, he also had two other sons – Gaius and Lucius. Marcus was the eldest of the three and obviously the most famous but the others had their part to play in events. During their early years they seem to have spent just as much time carousing as their elder brother and joined him in many of his exploits. Anthony’s biographer Plutarch suggests that the three brothers engaged in a heady cocktail of wine, women and gambling although there was most probably an element of “song” involved too.

Lucius Antonius - Goes missing after 41 BC.

Lucius Antonius – Goes missing after 41 BC.

Unsurprisingly, both brothers were fully involved in the civil war, Caesar’s dictatorship and the fall out that followed. In the case of Gaius, he fought a battle against Pompey, was eventually elected as praetor of Macedonia but hunted down there after Caesar’s assassination and executed by Brutus. Lucius was the youngest of the three brothers and possibly the most interesting. He enjoyed a particularly active civil war and even ended up marching on Rome and serving as consul, before finally surrendering to Octavian in 41 BC. His reward for doing so was to be made governor of Spain the year afterwards and after that little is known of him. Despite being one of the last surviving figures of Anthony’s faction in the civil war he seems to have drifted out of history and we don’t know when or where he died. One of the few references to him comes in Cicero’s Phillipics (the speeches he composed in opposition to Marcus Antonius) where he gets a dreadful slagging along with the rest of the clan.

So here we have two individuals that were closely related to two of the greatest figures of their age and who took part in some of the most epochal events of the time but who have almost completely faded from popular history and only remain as footnotes to the careers of their more illustrious relations, mentioned in passing by Appian or as an adjunct to an anecdote in Suetonius’ biography of Augustus. Roman history is full of such characters, who  in their day wielded immense power and influence and even, like Lucius, had their faces on coins. It is interesting to reflect on those characters and stories that do endure, some caught in the slipstream of the superstars of their age, others who were only small but significant players in great events. Nobility and birth don’t seem to influence this and in some cases they even mitigate against posthumous fame and renown. Something perhaps for Prince Andrew and Prince Harry to ponder as they see the future king George presented at his christening…

…although hopefully not with the results of some of their late medieval and early modern predecessors!

Have a good week,


P.S. I realise that the blog has been a bit “Romano-centric” recently but that is because I have had my head stuck in Suetonius. I will return to broader themes soon!

Sulla – Short term pain, long term gain?


One of the interesting things about the research that I have recently been doing on Suetonius, and the biography of emperors in general, is how few of them died through natural causes. If you extrapolate that idea out across the history of the ancient world it really is unusual to come across a great leader who didn’t either die at the hand of somebody else or whose passing merits a great deal of suspicion. A brief run through the first century of emperors reveals that it is only when you get to Vespasian that there isn’t some kind of whiff of assassination or conspiracy. Things aren’t much better in the century beforehand with the Roman Republic experiencing more than its fair share of political assassinations (Julius Caesar, Cicero), victims of civil war or battle (Pompey, Crassus) or simple cold-blooded murders and executions (Clodius and Catalina). Ancient Greece is no better either; you have Philip IV of Macedon (assassinated), his son Alexander (possibly the victim of a conspiracy in Babylon), Alcibiades (assassinated in Thrace – although he did have it coming) and even the great Mithridates VI of Pontus who allegedly asked his bodyguard to kill him before his revolting son, in every sense, managed the job himself.

Examples of great figures from the age who made it through to retirement are fairly singular and of those that did happen by far the most remarkable is the career of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla crossed my mind recently as I was trying to think of a good example of a fairly merciless leader and he was certainly that. All of which makes it all the more remarkable that he was able to die of natural causes.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla - Tough on enemies, tough on the causes of enemies.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla – Tough on enemies, tough on the causes of enemies.

Sulla was born in around 138 BC and he was part of the generation before Pompey and Julius Caesar. He was an aristocrat but he didn’t come from one of the biggest and most reputable patrician families – the Cornelli – although their fortunes had dwindled a little by this time. His biographers suggest that spent a rather dissolute youth frittering away substantial sums of money on wine, women and song an before inheriting a huge amount from his stepmother and using it to embark on a political career. He soon proved himself to be a capable leader and commander and enjoyed a great deal of success on campaigns in Africa and in the so-called Social War in Italy.

His great early success brought him into conflict with the other great figure of that age, Gaius Marius, as they competed to become the most influential man in Rome. The military career and attendant civil wars that followed could make up several books by themselves but safe to say that by 82 BC Sulla had become unchallenged as the most powerful man in Rome and probably the Mediterranean at that time. The Senate was entirely in thrall to him and named him as dictator, the rationale being that he would be able to make laws, settle the constitution and return Rome to some sense of normality after several years of damaging civil war. This appointment very much set the precedent for what would later happen with Julius Caesar and Augustus.

Despite all the military victories that had preceded it this next four year period of Sulla’s career is what came to define it and to cast him as a villain. After a civil war like that which had just occurred there would always be scores to settle and Sulla made absolutely sure that they were settled. A programme of mass executions was introduced to rid Rome of those that Sulla considered were her enemies. Over several months something close to 9,000 people were executed by Sulla. By any reasonable measure the vast majority can have had nothing to significantly connect them to organised resistance to his administration. The killings had another angle to them too – the confiscation of property. Known as proscriptions, the system involved naming people who were enemies of the state, having them killed or letting others kill them and then auctioning off their property for the financial gain of the state – i.e. Sulla and his retinue. The biographer Plutarch claims that around 1,500 people from the patrician and equestrian class were summarily executed, in many cases it would have been the size of their bank balance or country estate that was their crime rather than any perceived connection to Marius or Sulla’s other former opponents. One individual who was forced to flee because of such connections was Marius’ nephew, and son-in-law to another enemy called Cinna , the young Julius Caesar. Apparently letting him escape was one of Sulla’s only regrets. Our old friend Suetonius says as much in Caesar’s biography when he claims that Sulla commented on Caesar’s nascent ambition with the line that “In this Caesar there are many Mariuses.”

It must have been a terrible time in Rome. Anybody with any wealth whatsoever would have feared the knock at the door, or rather the crash as the door was kicked in, and there was no real logic or pattern to the proscriptions. Nobody could have felt safe. Eventually, and after several months of horror, they came to an end. What came next was almost even more staggering but for very different reasons. Sulla set about instigating a large number of political reforms in a very clear attempt to prevent the circumstances that he had exploited to become a dictator from ever occurring again. The reforms themselves are lengthy and complicated but basically boiled down to enlarging the senate – it needed it after he had a large percentage of the body executed – reinforcing the laws around the gaps that needed be in place between taking up elected office and making the cursus honorum, the traditional path through a career, a legal requirement rather than a precedent. In short, his reforms limited the opportunities for individuals to buck the system and tried to make sure that there were always enough senators to present a credible opposition to any powerful figure or faction.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly it shows a sense of realpolitik from Sulla that one wouldn’t normally associate with a figure of his type but also an attempt at long term planning that is quite singular for the time. I often spend these blogs pontificating about the short termism of the ancient and medieval figures that fascinate me and how their decisions were far too based on the here now, as if I would do any different – well, I probably wouldn’t have executed 9,000 people but you take my point! Sulla’s reforms show something very different and unusual going on. Short term thinking is a fairly logical and reasonable consequence of the kind of murderous dog-eat-dog world that these great figures from antiquity inhabited and many of them tried to put settlements in place to bring it to an end. Augustus is probably the most notable and succesful of these. Sulla, however, was a man right at the peak of his power and influence who decided that the job was done and that he would reform the system so that he could let Rome get back to governing itself through the senate and he could retire. Despite his cruelty, extravagance and indulgence Sulla was a traditionalist at heart and believed in the Republic. One can almost sense in his comments about Caesar that what he feared was not so much a future rival as a future threat to the security of the Republic.

Sadly for Sulla it didn’t work out. Within a decade of his death his laws had been repealed and a new generation of even more ambitious men were about to plunge the Republic into another internecine civil war. One could argue that despite his legal reforms Sulla’s career had actually had the opposite effect to that which he had intended and that his dictatorship showed men like Caesar and Pompey what could be achieved in a man ruthless and ambitious enough to see it through.

What of Sulla himself? Well, at the end of 81 BC he resigned from all his public offices, took a young wife and retired to write his memoirs at a coastal villa in Puteoli. He died three years later at the age 60, possibly of some kind of liver failure that was a result of many years of hard drinking. His memoirs are sadly lost to us now and hey would have made for great reading, but to return to the theme of this blog it is remarkable that he was ever able to get round to writing them. Sulla was a man who defined his age, won great military victories, committed appalling atrocities and made fundamental changes to the Roman political system, but aside from all of that, the fact that he went on to spend three years in retirement and died of natural causes is probably the most remarkable thing of all.

Have a good week,


P.S. One other line on Sulla. According to Plutarch, Sulla was obsessed with the idea that he was lucky, to the extent that he adopted Felix as an agnomen and included it in the names of his children. His career doesn’t really seem to bear this out, unlike Julius Caesar who was incredibly lucky on numerous occasions, particularly in his campaigns in Gaul.  It would be an interesting topic to examine further. Who was the luckiest man in ancient Rome? One for the philosophers too.

Applying the right criteria?


Well, as I was saying before I went away…

It has been a while since my last blog post. There have been a variety of reasons for this but one of the more interesting is that I have been doing a bit of research on Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. Suetonius, as he is better to known to us, was the author of The Twelve Caesars, that great staple of those with a prurient interest in the doings of the Augustan and Flavian emperors and very much the basis for Robert Graves’ fantastic I Claudius and the ageless television adaptation that followed.

Suetonius’ greatest, but by no means only, work is a tremendous read and quite fairly judged not to be history but biography. The biographer himself is something of a mystery and we don’t really know very much about his life. The salient facts are these; he was born around AD 69 into the class of equites and his father was in the military, he had a brief legal career before joining the civil service under the emperor Hadrian, he travelled to Gaul and Britain with the emperor before being dismissed on his return – allegedly for being rude to the Empress Sabina – and he then started to write full-time probably dying around AD 140. This, other than the fact that he was quite pally with Pliny the Younger, is pretty much all we know.

Whilst Suetonius’ own biography is patchy and incomplete those that he wrote were very much the opposite. Following a regular pattern the biographies tend to start a summary of the ancestry of the subject before moving on to a brief account of their life before they ascended to the purple. The main body of the text is made up of a summary of their accomplishments and personal characteristics, mostly told through anecdotes, before Suetonius winds things up with an account of their death followed by observations of their physical appearance and personal idiosyncracies.

As accounts of an emperor’s career they follow a thematic rather than chronological course. This is one of the main frustrations with Suetonius for those looking for a pure historical narrative – you’re better off looking at Tacitus or Dio Cassius for an account of the major policy changes of AD 47 and who the consuls where that year – and the reason that his “lives” are treated as biography. Whilst that may be true it is rather unfair on Suetonius in one respect and that is that although he was not a critical historian in the true sense of the phrase he did attempt, occasionally rather successfully, to pass judgement on those whose lives he was chronicling. His assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the emperors of the first century AD are some of the most first hand that we have – Suetonius would have met at least three of the “twelve” – and very well researched through the access that Suetonius had to the imperial archives whilst working in the civil service.

It is this element of the biographies that I find most interesting. How did Suetonius go about putting together a criteria for judging the performance of an emperor? I remember at university I had to write an essay that asked for a similar critical assessment of the emperor of Augustus in comparison with his immediate successors and coming up with a criteria was quite a task. In our modern world where almost anything  from “The Songs of 1997” or “Great Movie Mistakes” to “Political Scandal” can be broken down into a “Top Five” or “100 Greatest” list making and judging are common place. It is rather different making similar, if weightier, assessments of the careers and impact of the men that led the Roman Empire. There are obvious places to start, things like military record, good succession planning (a big problem for most Julio Claudians), building works etc, but it is not easy to see how a relatively contemporary Roman figure would go about making judgements.

In the case of Suetonius the answer, at least in part, lies with something written by his great friend Pliny the Younger. Most Suetonius scholars now agree that a rather smarmy literary piece composed by Pliny in thanks to the emperor Trajan for making him a consul was hugely influential in the judgements that Suetonius made. Known as The Panegyric, Pliny’s piece lavishes praise on the incumbent emperor through the form a literary trope where he compares a good and a bad prince and what the attributes of each might be whilst making it fairly clearly that Trajan is very much in the former camp. To be fair to Pliny, something that comes hard given the amount of secondary school Latin lessons that were spent translating his letters to Atticus, Trajan is very much considered to be one of the finest and most succesful emperors during whose reign Rome was probably at its apogee. Nevertheless, it is the criteria that interests me rather than its relevance when assessing Trajan.

Trajan - A role model

Trajan – A role model

What Pliny essential does in his panegyric is list those aspects that an emperor might need to be considered competent in and makes mention of the fact that there had been no emperor in the past whose virtues had not been tarnished with vices. He also makes great play of the fact that Trajan had been initially reluctant to take power and, allegedly, only did so in order to lessen the likelihood of another civil war prompted by Praetorian Guard revolt. Having established the precedents for this assessment and Trajan’s suitability for the role of emperor, Pliny goes on to assess him against some of those criteria that I mentioned earlier such as his military record:

“During the preceding reign the barbarians had become insolent, and no longer struggled to gain their liberty, but fought to enslave us. But on your accession they were again inspired with fear and a willingness to obey your commands.”

Fairly obsequious stuff, but then it was meant to be and Pliny does actually have a point. Moreover, it is easy to see how influential this relatively slim text would have been on Suetonius. Not only was Pliny one his best friends but he had essentially done in micro form what Suetonius would later do in macro – assess an emperor against both a theoretical criteria and the performance of his most recent contemporaries. In both cases the wider picture, particularly the political and financial situation of the empire at the time, is placed to one side with the focus very much on the individual. As history writing it is a very old school technique but then again people who lived two thousand years ago were old school! I can pop into a bookshop and pick up a shelf full of modern commentaries on the big picture of the Roman Empire, but it is much more difficult to get a truly compelling insight into the psychology of the men who ruled it and that is something that Suetonius, based on Pliny’s criteria, goes some way towards giving me.

It is often difficult to get a true sense of the characters in the midst of the Roman Empire. One gets beguiled by classically posed statuary, a procession of bald middle-aged men in togas looking serious, statesman like and unknowable. Suetonius biographies cut through that in an instant. What better point to end on that this section from Suetonius’ biography of Otho, one of the usurpers who died during  AD 69, the year of the four emperors:

“Otho, who did not look or behave like a very courageous man, was of medium height, bow-legged, and with splay feet; but almost as fastidious about appearances as a woman. His entire body had been depilated, and a toupee covered his practically bald head, so well made and fitted that no one suspected its existence.”

Otho - Wig just about visible.

Otho – Wig just about visible.

A wonderfully pithy assessment.

Have a good week,


Strategy in action!


“Strategy” is an interesting word. It gets used a great deal these days, typically with regard to business and financial strategic planning but it is also commonplace in the world of sport and not just on the field –  I have just been reading an article about Manchester Utd’s “transfer strategy” for this summer. One of the elements of my job is a certain amount of “strategic planning” and it is an aspect that I find particularly engaging. Generally what it involves is a certain amount of speculation, based on intelligence gathered about a particular scenario, and then planning measures that will hopefully ensure a positive outcome. The dictionary definition is as follows:

Strategy (Noun):  1) A plan of action designed to achieve a major or overall aim 2) The art of planning and directing overall military operations and movements in a war or battle


That double meaning and the obvious connection with warfare is very much manifest in the way that strategy is used today. It is often used synonymously with “tactics” although I have always considered tactics to be rather more of the moment that the product of long term planning. To use a sporting analogy, tactics is when you make a change mid game to try an affect the result whereas strategy is the plan that you originally went into the game with. So far so semantic, but the derivation of “strategy” touches on something very interesting indeed.

Unsurprisingly the word is derived from an ancient Greek term – strategia. This word referred to both the office of a troop leader (strategoi) as well as the skills that were required to be demonstrated, the art of generalship if you like. Most ancient greek cities and institutions referred to their generals or commanders as strategoi,  but in Classical Athens the term had a very specific meaning. Athens was of course a democracy – although just how democratic your experience of it would have been differed wildly depending on who you were – and therefore its public officials were elected. From around 501 BC a new policy was introduced whereby ten strategoi were elected on an annual basis, one from each of the city phyle, the  “tribes” that corresponded with particular areas of the city.

Thus the Athenian strategoi were elected politicians who served the demos (people). It is worth considering the potential clashes that this inevitably threw up. Even in a participative democracy like Athens political chicanery was everything. In order to get elected to any post a succesful candidate would require political nous, financial backing and the common touch. Nothing particularly unusual there but the difference with the strategoi was that not only did they have to decide on military strategy for Athens, they had to take an active part in prosecuting it as it wasn’t automatically the case that those with the political savvy to get elected actually possessed the military expertise required to carry out the more active part of the role. There are several examples where the political clout of a strategos won him the support that he needed to get his military project authorised but he then struggled to realise the objective.

Thucydides - A good eye for a strategos

Thucydides – A good eye for a strategos

One of the most famous examples of this is the Athenian demagogue Cleon. Much mocked by the satirical playwright Aristophanes, Cleon was one of the most influential political figures of his day. A true demagogue (peoples leader) who made use of his eloquence, gift for public speaking and rabble rousing skills to bend the assembly to his will. As a strategos his record was something of a mixed bag with two succesful campaigns balanced against a horrendous reverse on Stagira and the Amphipolis campaign during which he met his end. Cleon was active during the Peloponnesian War that dominated the end of the fifth century BC and for which we have the excellent source material of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. He is remarkably even handed about Cleon refusing to openly criticise him at any point for either his ambition or his failure (aside from reporting that he fled at one point). In many ways Cleon is merely the most famous example of a particular breed that were well suited to the role of strategos and it is only really posterity, influenced by the hostile satire of Aristophanes, that encourages a negative portrayal of the man. Thucydides opening comment at the beginning of his section on the Amphipolis campaign is quite telling in this regard:

“Cleon got his way with the Athenians and, after the armistice, sailed out against the towns in the Thracian area. He had with him 1,200 hopilites and 300 cavalry from Athens, a still larger force from the allies, and 30 ships.”

(Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.1, trans. Warner, Penguin, p.348)

Thucydides emphasises the personal nature of the strategic move that Cleon was making. Something that he had needed to lobby for personal support in order to get approval for and then take to sea himself in order to prosecute. The personal responsibility inherent in the role of the strategos is very obvious and was why so many – who didn’t die on the battlefield – paid the price of exile or execution when their strategic moves failed.  These men were true strategists who lived and died by the strategic decisions that they took and the skill with which they were able to implement them. Very often their responsibilities went far beyond their principal objective as military campaigns took new and different turns. The Athenians would occasionally anticipate this and vote the particular strategos concerned additional extra powers that allowed them to take big decisions without referring back to the assembly. The title for this was strategos autokrator – a truly magnificent job role to have on your business card!

The word strategos took on added and different meanings as time rumbled on. During the Hellenistic age it became used a word to describe a regional military official who had added administrative responsibilities and by the time of the Roman empire it was synonymous with the Roman title of praetor which was effectively that of a provincial governor. Now in 2013 we make use of the word “strategist” to describe anybody who takes even a marginally thoughtful approach to any aspect of life. Celebrities have “PR strategists”, contestants on Deal or No Deal are routinely asked by the ever more creepy Noel Edmonds what their “strategy” for the game was (open the box with the most money in perhaps?) and the word has become a little devalued in comparison to its original meaning. After all, this is what happened to Cleon when things went wrong:

“The Athenian right put up more of a resistance. Cleon himself had no intention of standing his ground: he immediately took to flight and was overtaken and killed by a Myrcinian peltast.”

(Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.10, trans. Warner, Penguin, p.354)

So, whilst I very much enjoy the strategic aspects of my job I won’t be going over the top with that. Strategic planning is all well and good but I have no great desire for the full role of a strategos!

Have a good week,


Blog Extras!

– We are off to Amsterdam next week. On my return expect lots of blogging about the (finally!) reopened Rijksmuseum and other topics of great pith and moment!

Better late than Nerva!


It has been difficult to think about anything other than the test match at Trent Bridge over the last couple of days. As I write this, England need to take one more wicket in order to go one up in the series against Australia. Much of the joy of the experience for me has been listening to the wonderful Test Match Special team on BBC radio. A fabulous collection of senior gentleman whose wit, experience, knowledge and warmth add so much to my summers and, during winter tours, to those dark morning journeys to work in January.It is quite unusual in our youth obsessed culture to find such a bastion of broadcasting that actually celebrates the longevity of its key participants. The encyclopaedic knowledge of the team – especially the now sadly departed Bill Frindall and Christopher Martin-Jenkins – obviously appeals to the historian in me and brings a huge amount to their commentary on the present; like a cricketing version of Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome!

Well, to the names of Agnew, Boycott, Marks, Maxwell and the magnificent Henry Blofeld, we can add one other; Marcus Cocceius Nerva. Rather like Test Match Special, the higher echelons of ancient Roman politics was an arena that valued experience and wisdom and just occasionally, usually when the Empire was in crisis, the senate would turn to its most experienced delegates to turn things round. By far the best example of this happened in AD 96.

In that year the incumbent emperor was the reviled and immensely paranoid Domitian. His reign had begun well in its early years but had quickly descended into a virtual police state with Rome rife with informers and proscriptions and executions becoming daily events. Several plots were hatched to get rid of him but all of them failed until he was finally stabbed to death by a group of four conspirators led by a palace steward called Stephanus. Similarly to other such assassinations however the aftermath didn’t go quite as well as the act. Whilst Domitian had been got rid of it emerged that there wasn’t really a clear plan for what to do next.  Whilst the senate were overjoyed at the assassination the army, who Domitian had continually paid well for support, were less happy and there were mutterings of revolt and potential civil war. A firm hand was needed on the tiller and it wasn’t a particularly attractive gig. The conspirators approached several potential candidates and were knocked back, for once the post of emperor was being seen for the poisoned chalice that it could sometimes be. Eventually they managed to convince somebody to take on the job; the vastly experienced 61 year old Marcus Cocceius Nerva.

Nerva - Just a good old boy.

Nerva – Just a good old boy.

It seems that Nerva hadn’t been a party to the assassination plot. Whilst he was a man of great experience he had been the equivalent of a back bencher for many years with no experience as a provincial governor and only two terms as consul, once under Vespasian in AD 71 and again during Domitian’s reign in AD 90. Indeed, Nerva had actually been part of a group of senators that suppressed the conspiracy against Nero that was led by Calpurnius Piso in AD 65. It would be easy to cast him as some kind of keeper of the sacred flame who only had the interests of the empire at heart but nobody who had managed to live through the reigns of Claudius, Nero, the civil war and stay on side with Domitian could have been a shining light of altruism. More likely, Nerva was an immensely canny political operator, skilled in the intrigues of court and, to paraphrase Kenny Rogers, “knew when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, knew when to walk away and knew when to run.”

All this native cunning and experience would be just what was required. Something of a middle way needed to be trodden. Whilst the upper classes had actively despised Domitian – the senate famous issued as damnatio memoriae against him – it was important not to go to far in righting the wrongs of the previous regime or else Rome would descend into a whole new blood bath. Instead, Nerva took a policy approach of  openness and moderation – like an ancient Roman glasnost and perestroika – political prisoners were released, exiles recalled, confiscated property returned and the clamour for a purge of Domitian’s cronies resisted. The coinage that he issued was emblematic of this and resisted the usual propaganda of conquest and demi god status in favour of slogans like “salvation”, “justice” and “equity”.

Nerva's coinage - Spreading the message.

Nerva’s coinage – Spreading the message.

Of course, in one sense it is comparatively easy to follow a paranoid despot and seem quite liberal and benevolent in comparison but Nerva did make a particularly good job of it. His longevity in the senate and long experience of government meant that he knew what was needed to secure the future of the Empire and quickly set about doing it. He restored the granaries in the city and built new ones, began resettlement programmes moving poorer citizens to tracts of unused farmland around Italy and, some historians argue, began an alimentary scheme to provide for poor children – he also quickly paid off the army to nip any thoughts of revolt in the bud. 

All this had to be done quickly though as the one thing that Nerva didn’t have was time. He was sixty-one years old and in failing health. Within a year of taking power it was clear that he was ill and confidence in him began to drain away. Rumours of new plots and conspiracies emerged and he was forced into executing the men who had killed Domitian in order to stave off a revolt by the Praetorian Guard. In October 97 he formally adopted the governor of Upper Germany, Marcus Ulpius Traianus (known to all as Trajan). Ostensibly this was to provide for a succession as Nerva was childless but Trajan soon became the partner of his labours. Popular with the military Trajan soon became the public figurehead of the regime, allowing Nerva to slip quietly into the background. Eventually he slipped away for good, dying on the 28th January AD 98 a little under two years after he had taken power.

It was the end to a fascinating chapter in Roman history. The brief reign of a man who Pliny argues quickly regretted his decision to take power. Whether that is true or not Nerva did the job that needed to be done. He took over at a critical moment, steadied the ship and recognised when it was time to hand it on to a popular energetic successor. Many historians argue that the years immediately following these events where when th Roman Empire was at its height, reaching its zenith as Hadrian succeeded Trajan. It is in no way overstating the case to argue that Nerva’s twenty month reign was crucial in creating the platform for this expansion and success. All of which brings us back to the theme of the value of wisdom and experience. As I write England are still struggling to take that last wicket and Australia are showing signs of pulling off a remarkable victory. Alistair Cook could do much worse than seeking some advice from messers Boycott, Blofeld and Agnew!

Have a good week,


Blog Extras!

– A word in tribute to Alan Whicker who died this week. He seems like a figure from another age now with his smart blazer, military moustache and air of the first class departure lounge. In many ways his well made travelogue shows seems as much a part of the seventies as Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter in adverts for Martini but he was also a fearless and effective interviewer. Take a look on You Tube at some of the amazing clips that are there. He seemingly interviewed everyone who was anyone between 1960-1990 and often asked the questions that many of his peers would shrink from. Anybody who had the cojones to say to Papa Doc Duvalier “But Papa Doc, don’t YOU torture people?” deserves our respect. RIP Alan. 



Tight but loose – the unforced accomplishment of Baldassare Castiglione


I have recently been thinking quite a lot about the Renaissance. Partly this is down to reading Tim Parks’ excellent book about the Medici that I mentioned on the last blog, but I have also developed a burgeoning interest in the condottieri – those mercenary captains who served the Italian city states for money and frequently changed sides – and the lives and careers that they had.

Not that one really needs prompting to become fascinated by the Renaissance. It is a fabulous period to examine and for somebody like me, with a pronounced interest in the ancient world, it is constantly full of references and reflections on the earlier past. The clashes and contradictions – commerce and art, Catholicism and humanism, elegance and warfare – are endlessly fascinating but just occasionally you come across a character that managed to bridge all of them like a true personification of their age. Baldassare Castiglione is just such a character.

Baldassare Castiglione by  Raphael.

Baldassare Castiglione by Raphael.

The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance describes Castiglione as “Diplomat and author of ill cortegiano (The Courtier)” before going on to give a lengthy description of his life. To me that seems far too concise a description of the man. If anybody truly fulfills the often used epithet of a “Renaissance Man” then it was Castiglione. Born in Casatico in 1478 he came from relatively minor aristocratic stock but following an education at the court of the Duke of Milan he became a trusted diplomat, security advisor and political envoy to the great men of Mantua, Urbino and Hapsburg Spain. It was an impressive public career but just one of the many strings to his bow. He was also an accomplished poet (like Lorenzo il magnifico Medici) publishing verse in both Latin and Italian, a sportsman and dancer and also apparently a half decent painter. More than all of these achievements, or perhaps due to them, he is remembered most for one thing, a book that he wrote describing life at court and advising young men on how to make the greatest impression upon their betters and succeed in public life. It is known in English as The Book of the Courtier.

“Now your request is that I should describe what, in my view, is the form of courtiership most appropriate for a gentleman living at the Courts of princes, by which he will have the knowledge and ability to serve them in every reasonable thing, winning their favour and the praise of others. In short, you want to know what kind of man must be one who deserves the name of a perfect courtier and has no shortcomings whatsoever.”

(Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. George Bull, Penguin, 1967)

Castiglione certainly lives up to his promise. Over the course of a narrative woven around four imaginary conversations that take place on successive evenings he describes just those qualities and skills that are required peppering his narrative with references to many of the great men of his own time and the classical antecedents that he most admires whilst delivering the whole package in a form that apes the famous dialogues of Plato. Impressive stuff from the old show off. The book is packed with fascinating detail about courtly life during Renaissance from how to succeed in impressing the ladies, to the correct use of humour and skill in painting. It truly is a unique work and one that is absolutely essential to anybody who wishes to gain a true understanding of the aristocratic renaissance mind.

The central principle of Castiglione’s work is a concept that he refers to as sprezzatura; essentially the act of looking brilliant without trying too hard, or unforced accomplishment if you prefer. Work had enough to gain skill, Castiglione argues, and you will be able to perform any task or endeavour without appearing to try at all. It is a lovely conceit and one that had a great deal of impact, the evidence of which is still with us.

I first came across Castiglione when I was studying baroque portraiture during my MA. I was lucky enough to be taught by David Davies, an expert of the Hapsburg court and its painters who wore great learning and erudition incredibly lightly – the epitome of sprezzatura you might say. Close study of the paintings that men like Titian, Velazquez and El Greco produced at the Hapsburg court shows a real commonality in their approach to depicting these powerful and influential rulers. Take the picture below by Antonis Mor (c.1517-77) a Netherlandish painter at work in the Hapsburg court. It is a portrait of Philip II of Spain from around the middle of the sixteenth century. The king presents a serious and determined figure, clearly ready for action but also composed and in control. At a moments notice, the painting suggests, Philip is ready to take action but only when he deems it necessary and not for show. Like some kind of late Renaissance Batman, he is capable of action on the spur of the moment but equally in control of the power that he possesses; “tight but loose”, if you will.

Phillip II by Antonis Mor - Tight but loose.

Phillip II by Antonis Mor – Tight but loose.

Of course, the suggestion of a capability of violence and the likelihood of directing it at those that displeased you was not the only aspect to sprezzatura but it is interesting to reflect on the idea that despite the tremendous erudition and capability in the arts that Castiglione is keen to develop in his ideal courtier there is nothing fey about him. That’s exactly what I meant when I suggested that Castiglione brings together the nearly always conflicting ideas of Renaissance metaphysics. Those concepts and values that seem to massively contradict with and undermine each other when thought of as bare ideas, find some harmony in the form of the courtier that Castiglione promotes; a man who is a devout Christian but whose knowledge of the pagan mysteries is deep and profound, a lover of art and a skilled poet who could beat the merda out of you if you insulted his honour. Trying to make sense of the maelstrom of conflicting ideas and metaphysical contradictions that is the Renaissance world is rather like trying build flat pack furniture using the instructions for a washing machine – very difficult and probably pointless. Castiglione, like all true humanists of this era suggests that we should embrace these differences and conflicts and proslethyse the best of them, what could honour God more greatly, humanists argued, than celebrating the greatest ideas and achievements that his creation had produced?

Remove the religious references and that is quite a “modern” view. A kind of intellectual and aesthetic multiculturalism that has nothing to do with people but everything to do with their artistic and intellectual achievements. It is also the objective view of a skilled politician, a man who knows when to speak and when to hold back, when to give voice to ideas and when to let others to have ideas for him. Castiglione was just such a man, a consummate politician and diplomat who not only survived the snake pit of Italian Renaissance politics but thrived within it. If that suggests calculation and mendacity that it was meant to. Such things were as valuable to the courtier as elegance in public speaking or on the dance floor and were also required to appear as effortless.

Castiglione himself eventually graduated to the Hapsburg court, dying in Toledo in 1529 and the relatively young age of 51. On his death he was described by the Hapsburg emperor Charles V as “one of the world’s finest gentlemen.” It is difficult to think of an epithet that he would have been happier with.

Have a good week,


Blog extras!

– If you want a really good modern day example of sprezzatura watch the way that Daniel Craig walks when he is playing James Bond. I’m not sure that he is big fan of Castiglione but one imagines that Philip II of Spain probably walked a bit like that.

– The section of humour in Castiglione is particularly good. There is a whole series of stories devoted to instructing the courtier on how to use humour correctly, including the suggestion to avoid too many puns and the use of cruel jokes:

“However, there are many different kinds of pun; and so one must be cautious in their use, hunting carefully for the right words, and avoiding those that cause the joke to fall flat and seem too laboured..”

Regular readers may well conclude that I should read Castiglione a little more closely and put some of the words into practice!

– By far my favourite of the Hapsburg era portraits is the one below by El Greco. Known as El Caballero it has a presence about it that many contemporaries lack. Greco’s almost translucent style lends itself to this portrait. The sword and the expensive but not flashy clothes suggest the station of the man and his importance, whilst he hand on his chest suggests his devotion and duty, but aside from that there is something interesting and inscrutable about his face. Is he a hero or a villain, a true knight or a rogue? The way that Greco has painted him leaves it up to us to decide.


Running backwards in time


After another lengthy break Historygeek returns!

One of the things that I have been doing since the last post has been getting back into running again. It is something that I have always done periodically and one of those things that you can pick up again when so inspired. I remember a PE teacher at school once telling me that everybody can run. I’m not sure that I agree with that – unless he was referring to circumstances like being attacked by a bear or trying to catch a train – but it is certainly the case that running has, throughout history, been something people have done for exercise.

One of the most famous runners in history of course is Pheidippides. It is one of history’s great urban myths that the Greek runner Pheidippides was responsible for the creation of the term “marathon” when he allegedly ran from the said battlefield back to Athens to inform the city that they had beaten the Persians, only to expire from exhaustion after pronouncing the single word “nike”  (victory). This isn’t true. Pheidippides was actually the fellow who ran Athens to Sparta to inform the Spartans that the Persians had arrived. That was a hell of a run – some 150 miles – across very broken country and was all in vain as the Spartans were celebrating a religious festival and were unable to come to the Athenian’s aid. All’s well that ends well however .

The ancient Greeks loved athletics, that is well known, and I have no intention of banging on about the Olympic games etc. Safe to say that athletics was so popular because it was, in essence, training for war and the very martial events that were held are perfect evidence of this. Far more interesting to me is the celebration of running and athletic victory that you find within ancient Greek culture. When I was at university I was lucky enough to be taught by Stephen Instone, an amazing classical scholar and a lovely chap who tragically passed away well before his time. Stephen had a love of running as well as ancient Greece and he combined the two through studying the work of the poet Pindar.

Pindar was born around 518 BC in a place called Cynoscephalae in the central Greek region of Boeotia. From an early age he was celebrated as an outstanding poet and his reputation saw him commissioned by the great and the good of ancient Greece to celebrate the athletic victories of their friends and family. A performance poet in every sense. By his mid forties his fame had spread across the Mediterranean and he travelled to Sicily where he received a number of commissions from the leading figures of the island. His surviving poems are grouped together by the name of the athletic games at which the subject victory was won; therefore they are known as Olympian, Nemean, Pythian etc. Probably around a quarter of what he produced is still extant.

Pindar: A serious looking fellow.

Pindar: A serious looking fellow.

Pindar is still considered to be the greatest lyric poet of his age. His whilst his subject was the athletic victories of his patrons his modus operandi was to explore these victories through comparisons with the great acts of the heroes of Greek mythology, typically picking a myth that included the relevant city and characters associated with it. It was a good technique and a profitable one, Pindar was born into an aristocratic family but became significantly more wealthy through his work. Patrons were hugely flattered by his imaginative descriptions and comparisons.

Here is a good example, Olympian XIII was written for a man called Xenophon from the city of Corinth. He had twice won the foot race at the Olympic games following the tradition of his father who had also previously been a winner:

“Three times an Olympic victor, is the house I shall praise

Gentle to townsmen, of service to strangers

I shall come to know fortunate Corinth 

Poseidon’s porch on the Isthmus

Glorious in its young men.”

(Pindar, Olympian XIII, trans. C.M. Bowra, Penguin, 1969)

A pretty standard beginning there. Pindar goes on to praise the city of Corinth for producing fine upstanding young men and women and for upholding the true aristocratic values of peace and justice. What then follows is a catalogue of Xenophon’s miraculous athletic endeavours – and to be fair they are fairly impressive – and a survey of various myths that seem to make for some nice parallels; Jason and Medea get a mention, as do Bellerophon and Pegasus. The later is a particularly good case in point; as any fan of “Clash of the Titans” will know the winged horse Pegasus was traditionally associated with Perseus, but he was also associated with Bellerophon (very much the forgotten man of Greek mythology) and aided him in his quests fighting the Amazons amongst others. Pegasus was also traditionally the symbol of Corinth and featured on coinage produced by the city so this is a particularly good example of Pindar weaving in some local connections.

Bellerophon: Being all heroic.

Bellerophon: Being all heroic.

Just in case our friend Xenophon was getting to big-headed with it all Pindar also includes a rather nice warning against the perils of hubris. Whilst discussing Bellerophon and Pegasus he makes the following closing comment:

“On his doom I shall keep silence

But the horse is kept on Olympos

In the stables of Zeus as of old.”

(Pindar, Olympian XIII, trans. C.M. Bowra, Penguin, 1969)

A rather nice reference this. According to legend, Bellerophon had met his end attempting to reach Olympus by flying as high as possible when he was thrown by Pegasus and fell back to earth. Despite his many victories Pindar gives Xenophon an oblique warning about literally keeping his feet on the ground.

I have always had a liking for these poems. On the one hand I enjoy their blatant toadying to their patron,  a conceit similar to that of a Renaissance artist making the faces of various biblical and mythological characters resemble those of his rich patron’s family. Much more diverting, however, is the wonderfully elegiac quality present in some of his poems. There is something wonderful in a poet from 2,500 years ago writing about the age of myth as if it were as distant from him then as he is from us now, yet at the same time – through his use of local associations – making the stories vital, real and relevant to his audience and patrons. Take these few lines from Pythian X where Pindar tells the story of the Hyperboreans, a mythical people who lived far to the north and existed in a state of permanent blissful happiness.

I’ll leave the last words on this blog to Pindar:

“And the Muse never leaves that land,

For this is their life:

Everywhere the girls are dancing,

And the sound of the harps is loud, 

And the noise of the flutes.

They bind their hair with bay leaves of gold,

They feast and are glad,

And sickness never, nor cursed old age

Touches their holy bodies.”

(Pindar, Pythian X, trans. C.M. Bowra, Penguin, 1969)

Have a good week,


Blog extras!

– I have recently been reading Tim Parks’ excellent “Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics & Art in 15th Century Florence”. As the title suggests, it is a study of how the Medicis used their money to build their power base. It is a great read and makes good work of simplifying the often complex financial transactions that took place and the various theological compromises that had to be made for them to be legal. That said, it also contains some sharply observed character portraits. This pithy description of Lorenzo il Magnifico is one of my favourites:

“In 1492, aged forty-three, unable due to the gout, to visit his portly mistress, Lorenzo finally succumbs to a variety of ailments.”

Good stuff and as good a reason as any to keep on running!

93 not out!


It was my Nan’s birthday yesterday and she is 93 years old. I was going to write about something else this week but ever since popping round to see Nan yesterday afternoon I can’t quite get my head around the passage of so many years. Of course, in the grand scheme of things 93 years isn’t such a long time. Given that I spend the majority of my time with my head stuck in the Roman Empire or pondering ancient Greek issues it is a drop in the ocean really; but when you stop to think about the whole span of those 93 years and the events that have transpired it really is quite a remarkable period of time.

Nan was born in 1920, this was two years after the end of the First World War which at the time was regarded as the war that would end all wars. Germany was defeated and about to enjoy the remarkable Weimar years, Russia was in the initial stages of the new Bolshevik era and the Wall Street crash was nearly a decade away. A thirty-one year old Adolf Hitler was in Munich and had just got himself chosen as the leader of the German Workers Party. Three years later he would go on to lead the famous Beer Hall Putsch that landed him in prison. Eleven years Hitler’s senior, Joseph Vissarionovich wasn’t yet known as “Stalin”. In 1920 was engaged in the Russian war with Poland and about to have a major falling out with Leon Trotsky after failing to reinforce him at the Battle of Warsaw. On the other side of the conflict was the 46-year-old Winston Churchill who had been instrumental in sending troops to support the Polish invasion of the Ukraine that had begun the conflict. The following year he would become secretary of state for the colonies.

If those few things don’t make it feel like a different era then consider the fact that the previous year had seen PG Wodehouse publish a collection of short stories about a then unknown man about town and his manservant called “My Man Jeeves”; similarly, in 1920 it would be a further five years before F Scott Fitzgerald produced “The Great Gatsby” and a full sixteen years before JRR Tolkien published a fantasy story that he had written for his own children – “The Hobbit”.A fairly subjective list of my own favourites there but one that illustrates a completely different world to that we live in now. A time where both “Gatsby” and the “The Hobbit” are much loved and debated classics that are being turned into huge movies costing millions of pounds and filmed in 3D.

David Lloyd George: Call me Dave.

David Lloyd George: Call me Dave.

Some other numbers – take the prime ministers that have served during my nan’s lifetime. Starting with David Lloyd George (who had already been in power for four years) and ending with our current “Dave”. In between these two sixteen different individuals have held the office of prime minister, some of them on several occasions – indeed, Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald where virtually playing tennis with it during nan’s childhood. On the other side of the pond Woodrow Wilson was in the Oval Office in 1920 and sixteen men have followed him in the intervening years.

Casting your mind forward yields equally staggering results. It would be another 19 years before the start of the Second World War, 36 years before the Suez Crisis,  43 years before the Beatles had their first hit and 49 years before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Margaret Thatcher – a woman who my Nan and I still argue about now – was born five years after her and didn’t take power until Nan was 59. What all this adds up to I am not entirely sure. It does cause me to reflect on the 37 years that I have enjoyed to date and to wonder which events during the period will be considered mist significant in the years to come. The collapse of the Soviet Regime and the fall of the Berlin Wall? The release from prison of Nelson Mandela? The invention of the internet? The global economic meltdown of 2008? The beginning of the sbhistorygeek blog in 2012? Who can tell.

I suppose the one thing that definitely stands out is the pace of change. Some great historical figures have lived to great ages but the change within their lifetime would have been nothing like as significant. For example, the Greek dramatist Sophocles reputedly lived into his nineties. He would certainly have lived through some amazing times – the wars with Persia, the construction of the Parthenon, the Peloponnesian War – but the world that he left can’t have been that much different to the world into which he was born.


The period between 1920 and 2013, on the other hand, has seen incredible developments and change. In 1920 the top grossing film in America was called “Way Out East”. It was a silent romantic drama starring Lilian Gish and took around $5 million at the box office – a staggering sum at the time. In 2012 the number one was “Avengers Assemble” a two and half hour 3D high definition action adventure that took nearly $625 million.It really was a different world, for example, in 1920 Britain was led by increasingly marginalised and unpopular man called David….

Have a good week,


93 not out!

93 not out!

– I was going to write about gardens this week – yes, gardens. The weather is foul however so I will return to the topic when I feel more like going out into mine!