Archive for the 'Greece' Category

Julian in Nicomedia

March 4 2011

“Things impolitic and dangerous:
praise for Greek ideals,
supernatural magic, visits to pagan temples.
Enthusiasm for the ancient gods.
Frequent talks with Chrysanthios.
Speculation with Maximus, the astute philosopher.
And look what’s happened. Gallos is extremely worried.
Konstantios has become suspicious.
Julian’s advisors weren’t at all prudent.
The matter, says Mardonios, has gone too far,
the talk it has aroused must be stopped at all cost. —
So Julian goes to the church at Nicomedia,
a lector again, and there
with deep reverence he reads out loud
passages from the Holy Scriptures,
and everyone marvels at his Christian piety.”


Julian in Nicomedia, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

Chrysanthius and Maximus were neoplatonist philosophers. Gallus was Julian’s half-brother; Constantius II was Julian’s cousin and predecessor as Emperor and finally co-Emperor with him before Julian succeeded outright. Mardonius, a Gothic eunuch, was Julian’s tutor in Nicomedia.

Constantius II, bust from Syria, Museum of Archaeology, University of Pennsylvania; Wikimedia Commons

Oecumenical empires

March 3 2011

After an oecumenical empire has gone into decline to the point of becoming practically impotent, its fainéant emperors still continue for generations and centuries to be the indispensable founts of legitimization for the usurpers who have carved out successor-states at their expense. An act of investiture at the hands of the legitimate emperor is required in order to secure the subjects’ acquiescence in the usurper’s rule; and this apparent formality is a matter of such practical importance that the most hard-headed usurpers take the greatest pains to obtain it, and make the greatest parade of it thereafter. An Odovacer, a Theodoric, and a Clovis ruled stolen western provinces of the Roman Empire as vicegerents of the Roman Imperial Government surviving at Constantinople; the Hindu Marāthās and the Christian British East India Company ruled in India as vicegerents of fainéant Muslim “Great Moguls” at Delhi; and most of the Christian successor-states of the Ottoman Empire were content to start life as autonomous principalities under the Padishah’s suzerainty before venturing to claim sovereign independence for themselves.

Moreover, even after a moribund oecumenical empire has at last received its long delayed coup de grâce, there may be attempts, and even repeated attempts, to resuscitate it. Classical examples of such renaissances are the resuscitation of the Ts’in and Han Empire in China by the Sui and T’ang dynasties; the resuscitation of the Roman Empire in Orthodox Christendom, first as the Byzantine Empire and then as “Moscow the Third Rome”; the three avatars of the Roman Empire in Western Christendom that were conjured up successively by Charlemagne, by Otto I, and by the Hapsburgs; and the Ottoman Empire’s attempt, from the end of the eighteenth century of the Christian Era onwards, to revive its drooping prestige by posing as an avatar of the Arab Caliphate.

An oecumenical empire’s hold over its worshippers’ hearts is […] both strong and well deserved; and yet even an oecumenical empire is an unsatisfying object of worship, whether it offers itself for adoration in an institution or in a person. The institutional representation of the idol will be too remote, impersonal, and aloof to win sufficient affection, while the personal incarnation of it will be too familiar and unworthy to inspire sufficient respect.

The impersonalness of an oecumenical empire as an institution makes itself felt in the remoteness of its metropolis from the daily life of the great majority of its subjects. Now that Rome’s citizens are deployed as far afield as Cadiz, Bayrut, and Cologne, and now that Rome has no need to call them to arms for her defence against neighbouring rival Powers, Dea Roma can no longer inspire, even in their hearts, the same love and devotion as when every Roman citizen lived and worked within a day’s march of the Capitol and might be called upon, in any campaigning season, to fight for Rome against Clusium or Samnium. A fortiori, a subject of the Roman Empire who is a citizen of Sparta or Athens, or some other once sovereign independent city-state of glorious as well as shameful memory, will not be able to worship Dea Roma with anything like the conviction and enthusiasm with which he has once worshipped Athana [or Athena] Chalcioecus [in Sparta] or Athene Polias [in, inter alia, Athens, Argos, Sparta, Gortyn, Lindos, Larisa]. The thrill which he then felt can be recaptured by a Modern Western pilgrim when he stands on the acropolis of Athens at the spot where Pheidias’ statue of the Attic Athene once stood, and stares at the peak of Aegina and the pinnacle of Acrocorinthus a stone’s throw away, just across the Saronic Gulf. As he gazes, the figures of a Corinthian Poseidon and an Aeginetan Athana Aphaia rise up, before his inward eye, to bid defiance to the queen of Athens. The parochial goddess was a very present help against her rival over there, before Dea Roma’s long arm put them both down from their seats. Dea Roma, the ubiquitous policewoman, cannot mean anything like as much as this to her Athenian clients, even when they have eventually been granted Roman citizenship, or even when the value of Rome’s service to their Hellenic Civilization has been brought home to them in the third century of the Christian Era by a recurrence of the danger of social collapse.

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Alexander, Gama, Columbus

February 26 2011

Objectively, Alexander’s march from the Hellespont to the Hydaspes [Jhelum River in the Punjab] is comparable in scale with da Gama’s voyage from Lisbon to India and with Columbus’s from Palos [Andalusia] to the New World; subjectively, the post-Alexandrine Hellenes took the reception of an Attic version of Hellenism in Macedonia, and the Atticized Macedonians’ conquest of the Achaemenian Empire, as marking the beginning of a new era in Hellenic history as definitely as the Western peoples of the Atlantic seaboard of Europe felt their own Modern Age to be marked off from its “medieval” predecessor by their reception of Italian culture and their conquest of the Ocean […].

It’s either Gama or Vasco da Gama in Portuguese, and should be in English. The Spanish composer referred to by his surname only is Falla, not de Falla. In German it’s Humboldt, not von Humboldt. The rules in French are here, Italian here.

A Study of History, Vol VIII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

The pull of the east

February 14 2011

At the turn of the third and fourth centuries of the Christian Era the transfer of the principal capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople or to some maritime city in that neighbourhood was, in fact, inevitable. But it is remarkable to find evidence that, more than three hundred years earlier, when Rome was towering at the zenith of her power under the auspices of Julius Caesar and Augustus, the Romans were already anxiously foreboding a shift in the seat of the imperial government, and were expecting that the Roman dictator with whom the decision of Rome’s destinies now lay would choose his new site in that very region – on or near the shores of the waterway between the Aegean and the Black Sea – which did in fact eventually attract the choice of Diocletian and Constantine.

One of the causes of the unpopularity that gave Julius Caesar’s enemies at Rome their opportunity for compassing his death was said to have been a rumour that he was proposing “to migrate to Alexandria [Troas] [brackets in original] or Ilium and at the same time to transfer thither the empire’s resources after exhausting Italy by levies of man-power and leaving friends of his own as his agents for administering the city of Rome”. [Footnote: Or “the cities of Italy” if the correct reading is not “Urbis” but “urbium”. This passage occurs in Suetonius Tranquillus, C.: The Lives of the Caesars, “Divus Iulius”, chap. 79.] This anecdote might have been discounted as an echo of a malicious propaganda campaign were it not for a revelation of the same anxiety in a celebrated passage in one of Horace’s odes. [Footnote: Horace: Carmina, Book III, Ode iii, ll. 57-72.] The Augustan poet must have written these lines not many years after the Battle of Actium had disposed of the Egyptian Alexandria’s attempt to challenge, with Roman arms, Rome’s title to be the imperial capital of a politically unified Hellenic World. At that moment Rome stood in solitary omnipotence without any rival to dispute her primacy; and Augustus, who had at last succeeded in winning the support of a consensus Italiae by defeating Mark Antony’s attempt to transfer the seat of government of the Mediterranean World to the Levant, could not readily be suspected, without substantial evidence, of planning to make on his own initiative a move which had proved a fatal false step for his rival and a damaging insinuation against his predecessor. One of the fundamental principles of Augustus’s policy was to steer clear of his adoptive father’s fate by eschewing provocatively revolutionary acts and pursuing Caesarean aims by Fabian tactics. Yet it is plain that Horace, writing when and as he did, believed a transfer of the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to some site on the Asiatic shore of the Hellespont to be both a serious possibility and a dangerous subject. Horace tactfully misrepresents a cold-blooded “geopolitical” calculation as a pious tribute to the legendary derivation of Rome from Troy, and, after cautiously expressing his disapproval in the form of a mythological conceit, he precipitately breaks off with an apology for trespassing on high matters of state in a mere poet’s jeu d’esprit.

In the political geography of the Roman Empire, Troy or Alexandria Troas were the equivalents in Augustus’s day of Nicomedia or Byzantium in Diocletian’s and Constantine’s; and the whimsical prophecy, put by Horace into the goddess Juno’s mouth, that, if Troy were to be refounded by the Romans, she would infallibly be recaptured by the Greeks, did in fact come true of Byzantium after her refoundation as a New Rome by Constantine. Though the Latin-speaking Dardanian founder of Constantinople and his successors down to his Latin-speaking fellow countryman Justinian were resolved to make and keep their new Rome a Latin-speaking city, the Greek language had captured the New Rome by the close of the sixth century of the Christian Era, as it had captured the Old Rome in Juvenal’s time, some four hundred years earlier; and at Constantinople, with its Greek-speaking hinterland, the Latin language had no chance of repeating the victorious counter-attack by which at Rome it eventually overwhelmed what had never been more than a Greek-speaking enclave in an elsewhere Latin-speaking Italy.

He has said that Rome was a predominantly Greek-speaking city in the generation of Juvenal and for some time afterwards. Was this true even among uneducated people?

“Elsewhere Latin-speaking Italy”: surely that did not include the south.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Roman Europe to Roman Asia

February 13 2011

Before the addition to the Roman Empire of [Gallia Comata and the Danubian provinces], the main route from the European to the Asiatic territories of the Empire had run from Rome via the Via Appia to Brundisium, had crossed the mouth of the Adriatic by a sea-passage to Dyrrhachium or Apollonia, and had then followed the Via Egnatia, via Thessalonica and Lysimacheia, to the Hellespont [Dardanelles]. By Diocletian’s day the corresponding main route had come to be an unbroken overland highway running from Lyons via Milan and Aquileia (or even north of the Alps, from Trier via Augsburg and Vienna) to Belgrade, and thence south-eastwards, up the valley of the Morava and down the valley of the Maritsa, to the Bosphorus. As late as the year A.D. 360, when the Rhine-Danube limes had long since been submerged and when Swabia was in the hands of the independent and aggressive barbarian confederacy of the Alemanni, the Emperor Julian took the route north of the Alps in his march upon Constantinople from Northern Gaul. Yet, although by Constantine’s day the Bosphorus had thus supplanted the Hellespont in the role of affording the most convenient passage across the narrow seas between Roman Europe and Roman Asia, Constantine is said to have started to build his new imperial capital on a site commanding the Asiatic shore of the Hellespont, at a point between Alexandria Troas and Ilium [south of the Dardanelles], before arriving at his eventual decision in favour of a site commanding the European shore of the Bosphorus (see Zosimus: Historiae, Book II, chap. xxx, §§ 2-3).

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

Priest at the Serapeion

January 11 2011

“My kind old father
whose love for me has always stayed the same –
I mourn my kind old father
who died two days ago, just before dawn.

Christ Jesus, I try each day
in my every thought, word, and deed
to keep the commandments
of your most holy Church; and I abhor
all who deny you. But now I mourn:
I grieve, O Christ, for my father
even though he was – terrible as it is to say it –
priest at that cursed Serapeion.”


Priest at the Serapeion, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

Serapis was invented during the third century BC by Ptolemy I and was a version of the Egyptian god Osiris-Apis. He was shown as Greek with Egyptian trappings and combined iconography from various cults to do with abundance and resurrection. His worship was not confined to Egypt. There is a Serapeum at Hadrian’s Villa. The poem refers to the Serapeion in Alexandria, which was destroyed by a mob led by the Patriarch Theophilus in 389. The official abolition of paganism by Theodosius followed in 391.

As often with Cavafy, there is an extra force in the final line.

Serapeion: Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340

Ptolemy I failed, like Ikhnaton before him, to make an artificial religion produce the result that was his objective. This Macedonian Greek founder of an Egyptian successor-state of the Achaemenian Empire wanted to create a bond of feeling between the intrusive Greek and the indigenous Egyptian element in the population of his usurped dominions. [Footnote: This is the motive for the establishment of the cult of Osiris that has been attributed to Ptolemy by most Modern Western students of his policy, but there are some dissentient opinions (see Nilsson, M.P., Geschichte der Griechischen Religion, vol. ii (Munich 1950, Beck), p. 148).] He sought to achieve this politically desirable effect by Hellenizing the Egyptian god Osiris-Apis, in whose temple at Memphis, the ancient national capital of Egypt, the successive bull-incarnations of Apis were buried. This Memphite Egyptian god was given a new temple in Rhacôtis, the Egyptian quarter of Ptolemy’s new Greek capital Alexandria, and here he was installed under the name Serapis, in a Hellenized visual form in which he would be an acceptable object of worship for Greeks both in Ptolemy’s dominions and beyond them. Since, by Ptolemy’s day, the Greeks were beginning to be addicted to the religiosity to which the Egyptians had long since succumbed, this new Hellenic version of an old Egyptian cult did duly strike root. But, if this successful religious innovation of Ptolemy’s was really inspired by the ulterior political purpose of promoting a rapprochement between Greeks and Egyptians, then his policy was a failure. The old Egyptian cult of a Memphite Osiris-Apis and the new Greek cult of an Alexandrian Serapis lived on side by side for centuries without ever coalescing; so that the naturalization of an Egyptian god in the Hellenic World did nothing to bring together this common god’s respective Greek and Egyptian worshippers.

The Serapeion at Pozzuoli, near Naples (Naples was mainly Greek-speaking)

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Robert Markus

January 10 2011

Historian of late antiquity. Guardian.

The flowers of Africa

The inheritors of the Ottoman Empire

November 24 2010

Though the discomfiture by British arms of a moribund Mughal Empire’s local viceroy in Bengal might do little to upset Islamic complacency, and might be regarded in the West mainly as an incident in a struggle over India between Great Britain and France, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by Russia in the Great Russo-Turkish War of A.D. 1768-74 was taken everywhere as a portent; and, when in A.D. 1798 the French descended upon the Ottoman dominion of Egypt, and overcame all resistance there with ease, as a step towards reopening in India a contest with their British rivals which had been decided there against France in the Seven Years’ War, even shrewd observers took it for granted that they would live to see the Ottoman Empire partitioned between France, Russia, Great Britain, and the Danubian Hapsburg Monarchy. Yet this expectation, natural though it was at the time, was not fulfilled in the event; for the only parts of the Ottoman Empire, within its frontiers of A.D. 1768, which were in the possession of any of those foreign Powers in A.D. 1952 were the territories adjoining the north and east coasts of the Black Sea, from Bessarabia to Batum inclusive, which had fallen to Russia; Cyprus, which had fallen to Great Britain; and Tunisia and Algeria, which had fallen to France. As for the Danubian Hapsburg Monarchy, which had held Bosnia-Herzegovina from A.D. 1878 to A.D. 1918 and the sanjāq of Novipazār from A.D. 1879 to A.D. 1908, she had voluntarily evacuated Novipazār and had lost Bosnia-Herzegovina in the act of losing her own existence. [Footnote: The occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in and after A.D. 1878, and annexation of this occupied Ottoman territory in A.D. 1908, had, indeed, been nails driven into the Hapsburg Monarchy’s coffin by its own statesmen’s hands, since these Hapsburg acts of aggression against a moribund Ottoman Empire had had the effect of bringing the Monarchy into a head-on collision with a youthful Serb nationalism.] The lion’s share of the Ottoman Empire of A.D. 1768, from Bosnia to the Yaman and from Tripolitania [footnote: A “Libya” consisting of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fazzān, which had been conquered from the Ottoman Empire by Italy in A.D. 1911-12, and from Italy by Great Britain in the general war of A.D. 1939-45, had attained independence on the 24th December, 1951.] to Moldavia inclusive, had passed into the hands, not of alien Great Powers, but of Orthodox Christian and Muslim successor-states, of which the largest in area – apart from a mostly arid Sa‘ūdī Arabia – was a Turkish Republic stretching from Adrianople to Mount Ararat.

A Study of History, Vol VIII, OUP, 1954


November 23 2010

The sublimity of Leonidas’ and his three hundred fellow Lacedaemonians’ personal self-sacrifice in their forlorn hope at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. was more than offset, in Sparta’s moral account with Hellas, by the political selfishness and strategic fatuousness of the Lacedaemonian Government’s contemporary public policy. A Power which in the crisis of 490 B.C., had ignominiously failed to put in an appearance on the battlefield of Marathon until after the Achaemenian expeditionary force had been repulsed by the Athenians and Plataeans single-handed, ran true to form in the greater crisis of 480 B.C., when Sparta refused to stake the whole of her magnificent infantry on trying to hold the pass of Tempe, or even the pass of Thermopylae, in concert with Athens’ magnificent navy. The example shown to Hellas at Thermopylae by Leonidas and his token force was the soldiers’ deed and not their Government’s. While Leonidas and his companions were sacrificing their lives, the Lacedaemonian Government’s one idea was to look after the parochial interests of Laconia and her Peloponnesian neighbours by fortifying the Isthmus of Corinth; and, in compromising their country’s honour by staking her existence on this poor-spirited plan, they do not appear to have reflected that, in thus abandoning Attica as well as the central and northern sections of Continental European Greece, they were virtually inviting the Athenians to capitulate to the invader and were thereby doing their worst to deprive themselves of the assistance of the Athenian Navy, without which the Peloponnese would have been indefensible. If, after the Persians’ break-through at Thermopylae, the Athenians had shown the same uninspired common sense as was shown by the Thebans, the Athenian Navy would either have gone out of action or would have changed sides, and in either of these events the Peloponnesians’ Isthmian wall would have been outflanked by the naval operations of an irresistibly superior enemy sea-power without any need for the land-troops of the Achaemenian expeditionary force to attempt to storm the Isthmus by a frontal attack. The situation was saved for the Peloponnese, as well as for Hellas as a whole, by the Athenians’ decision, in this supreme emergency, to emulate the heroism of a Spartan Leonidas whose own Government had failed to catch the hero’s inspiration. By summoning up the fortitude to keep the sea after the enemy’s occupation of their country and devastation of their city, the Athenians won for Hellas her decisive naval victory at Salamis.

Even after Athens had thus saved the Peloponnese at Salamis in 480 B.C., the Lacedaemonian Government managed nevertheless to come within an ace of losing the war for Hellas after all in 479 B.C. by threatening to “miss the bus” for Plataea as they had previously “missed the bus” for Marathon; and, in the event, the Hellenic victory at Plataea, like the Hellenic feat of arms at Thermopylae, was a soldiers’ battle and not an achievement of generalship or statesmanship, as far as the Lacedaemonians were concerned. Moreover, the Lacedaemonian soldier’s magnificent faithfulness to his traditional standards of military honour and prowess was offset after the Battle of Plataea, once again, by disgraceful conduct in high places. The Lacedaemonian Government’s cowardice after Thermopylae was eclipsed after Plataea by the treachery of the Lacedaemonian commander under whose official auspices the victory had been won. When it came, in the next phase of the war, to carrying the hostilities into Achaemenian territory for the purpose of liberating those Hellenic communities that had been under Achaemenian rule before 480 B.C., the Spartan Regent Pausanias demonstrated his own imperviousness to the inspiration of his uncle King Leonidas by surrendering unconditionally to the temptation of allowing himself to be dazzled by a signally defeated Achaemenian Imperial Majesty’s tinsel sheen of pomp and circumstance. In the act of disgracing himself by losing his head and becoming a renegade, Pausanias lost for his country the leadership in the war for the liberation of the Asiatic Hellenes from an Achaemenian yoke.

Typical Victorian language! The contrast between good soldiers and blinkered generals may have had a contemporary resonance. Pausanias was a traitor.

Melvyn Bragg’s 2004 discussion (45 minutes) with Tom Holland, author of Persian Fire; Simon Goldhill, Professor of Greek Literature and Culture, King’s College, Cambridge; and Edith Hall, Leverhulme Professor of Greek Cultural History, University of Durham and author of Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy.

Themistocles (Wikipedia).

David, Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814), Louvre

A Study of History, Vol VIII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

Sculptor of Tyana

November 13 2010

“As you’ll have heard, I’m no beginner.
I’ve handled a lot of stone in my time,
and in my own country, Tyana, I’m pretty well known.
Actually, senators here have also commissioned
a number of statues from me.

Let me show you
a few of them. Notice this Rhea:
reverential, all fortitude, very old.
Notice Pompey. And Marius here,
and Paulus Aemilius, and Scipio Africanus.
The likeness as close as I could make it.
And Patroklos (I still have to touch him up a bit).
Near those pieces of yellowish marble there
stands Kaisarion.

And for some time now I’ve been busy
working on a Poseidon. I’m studying
his horses in particular: how to shape them exactly.
They have to be made so light
that it’s clear their bodies, their legs,
are not touching the earth but galloping over water.

But here’s my favorite work,
wrought with the utmost care and feeling.
This one – it was a summer day, very hot,
and my mind rose to ideal things –
this one came to me in a vision, this young Hermes.”


Sculptor of Tyana, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

Line 6 is indented in the original and the translation. Tyana is in Cappadocia.

The Paropanisadae

November 2 2010

Maps of Central Asia

Transoxiana and Bactria

The Old World’s eastern roundabout

The Paropanisus or Paropamisus range is a name for the western Hindu Kush. Paropanisadae or Paropamisadae can refer both to the region and its inhabitants.

I was standing on a terrace at Istâlif [about 18 miles northwest of Kabul], looking out northeastwards over the Koh-i-Daman plain. The northern horizon was barred by the snow-crowned wall of the Hindu Kush – not quite so lofty here, perhaps, as farther east above Nuristan [Afghan province in the southern Hindu Kush bordering Pakistan], yet lofty enough to be an obstacle even for an eagle, if the range’s ancient name is something more than a poetic hyperbole. The graecised version of this ancient name is Paropanisus, and the original word is said to mean, in the Iranian language of the Avesta [ancient Zoroastrian texts], a mountain loftier than the ceiling of even an eagle’s flight. There it now was, the Paropanisus, barring the horizon from east to west. And down here, in the middle distance, this isolated miniature mountain, rising abruptly out of the Koh-i-Daman plain, gives me the bearings of the invisible point where the Ghorband and Panjshir rivers meet. Either river leads up to [flows down from] a pass, practicable for men and donkeys, over the eagle-baffling Paropanisus. So the point where the two rivers meet was always supremely important until the recent rise to prominence of the city of Kabul deflected the lines of communication from their natural courses.

For at least fourteen hundred years running from the sixth century B.C., the strategic and political centre of this part of the world was not Kabul; it was a pair of cities bestriding the confluence of the Ghorband and Panjshir rivers just to the north-west of that miniature mountain down there in the plain. Darius calls this pair of cities Kapisha-Kanish. Today, the deserted site is known as Begrám [or Bagram, about 40 miles north of Kabul; the Greeks called it Alexandria of the Caucasus, ie of the Hindu Kush]. The double city attained its political zenith in the first and second centuries of the Christian Era, when it was one of the capitals of an empire stretching from the Oxus to the Jumna. The builders of this empire were the Kushans, ex-nomadic immigrants from Central Asia. Under the aegis of the Kushan Empire, Buddhism made its passage of the Paropanisus in the course of its long roundabout trek from India through Central Asia to China. But the imperial Kushans were heirs of imperial Greeks. And, as I stood on that terrace at Istâlif and feasted my eyes on that magnificent landscape of plain and mountain, my mind was running on the exploits of Alexander and Demetrius and Hermaeus [one of the last Greek rulers in the Paropamisadae].

When the Greeks reached the land of the Paropanisadae after crossing South-West Asia from the Dardanelles, they felt at home again here for the first time. This mountain-girt plain reminded them of their own Eordaea or Thessaly, and the vineyards convinced them that their own god Dionysus must have forestalled Alexander’s conquests. This land of the Paropanisadae must be Dionysus’s legendary land of Nysa. The god had made it his own; and his latter-day Greek worshippers joyfully took their cue from him. Alexander planted a Greek colony at Begrám, and, in the first century of the Christian Era, a Greek prince, Hermaeus, was still ruling here after Greek rule had evaporated everywhere else. Hermaeus is said to have fraternised with the Kushans from the other side of the mountain-wall. No doubt, his power was a puny one compared to theirs. But he did still hold the key to the passage from Central Asia to India, so his good will still had an appreciable value for his Kushan heirs. The Kushans, like the Romans, were Philhellenes; and on the banks of the Jumna and the Oxus, as well as round the shores of the Mediterranean, Greek culture, fostered by a non-Greek but Philhellene regime, long survived the extinction of Greek rule.

No one now believes that Hermaeus lived in the first century CE. He died c 80-70 BC.

Musing on the terrace at Istâlif, I thought of Alexander crossing the Hindu Kush from the Koh-i-Daman plain to invade Bactria from the south. I thought of Demetrius, the later Greek king of Bactria, crossing the same mountain-wall from north to south, a century and a half later, on his way to invade India. Demetrius and his successors carried Greek arms and Greek coinages into India farther afield, and with more lasting effects, than Alexander in his ephemeral raid into the western fringe of the huge Sub-continent. The lovely coins of the Bactrian Greek conquerors of India and the Hellenising art of the Bactrian Greeks’ Kushan successors testify to the vitality of Greek culture in this far-away land of the Paropanisadae and in the still more remote land of Gandhara, where the Kabul River loses itself in the mightier Indus. For fifty years past, I had been studying this chapter of the World’s history in books and on maps. Here, at Istâlif, I had been able to take it all in at a glance; and that one glance had told me more than my fifty-years’ book-work had. has images which might remind you of the Greek landscape.

Bagram relief, c 100 AD, National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul

There is something oddly Indian in this image of the rear of the V&A’s plaster copy of Donatello’s David, the first freestanding nude sculpture made in the West since antiquity. (What a revolutionary work, for a man born in the fourteenth century.) The buttocks remind one of Indian sculpted breasts. The akimbo arm, tilting hips, legs look Indian. Of course there was no Indian influence on Italian sculpture, but a Greco-Buddhist art was exported to China and beyond. Is it stretching things too far to imagine a Hellenic influence on a non-Greco-Buddhist “Hindu” sculpture?

Between Oxus and Jumna, OUP, 1961

Then and now

August 1 2010

The revelation of Thucydides

I expected to be a Greek and Roman historian spending all my time and energy on Greek and Roman history. My first job was at Oxford where I was a so-called ancient history don – and I started by absorbing as much knowledge of my subject as I could. And when I had taken my degree I began to absorb what I hadn’t studied as an undergraduate. I was teaching Greek and Roman history when the First World War broke out and it suddenly struck me, teaching people from Thucydides, that Thucydides had already anticipated our experiences, namely the outbreak of a great war, which he immediately saw as a turning point in the history of his civilization. We were just coming to that point, which meant that although Thucydides was centuries back in chronological time, measured by the experience of human affairs and destiny he had already experienced what I was just reaching, and this made me see that one could put Greek and Roman history side by side with modern Western history and compare them right outside the chronological framework. This rather sudden flash of insight made me realize that I must organize my study of history – not just amass more and more shapeless information – and that I must organize it on comparative lines. Next, I found that comparing Greek and Roman history with only modern Western history wouldn’t do – I must compare all the histories of all civilizations and obtain enough information about each of them to make a reasonable comparative study of the gamut of them. The patterns and regularities which you find in my Study emerged empirically from these comparisons.

A pose of empiricism

Toynbee on Toynbee, A Conversation between Arnold J Toynbee and GR Urban, New York, OUP, 1974

Recorded for the 1972-73 programmes of Radio Free Europe.

Frankish tortoise, Visigothic and Arab hares

July 22 2010

The organized and purposeful military campaigns of the Muslim Arabs were very different from the half automatic and barely conscious pressure of their ancestors against the yielding desert-frontier of a decaying Seleucid Empire in the second and the last century B.C. They are more comparable to the momentary Arab occupation of the Syrian, Egyptian, and Anatolian territories of the Roman Empire under Palmyrene leadership in the third century of the Christian Era. But they utterly surpassed both these anticipatory reconnaissances in the potency of their driving-force. [Footnote: This immense superiority, in potency, of the third of the three Arab offensives against the Hellenic World was almost certainly due to the most conspicuous of its distinctive features: that is to say, to the fact of its having been launched under the auspices of Islam. […]] While the Arab encroachments in the last two centuries B.C. had got no farther than the line of the Lebanon and the Orontes, [footnote: See Jones, A. H. M.: The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces (Oxford 1937, Clarendon Press), pp. 255-6.] and the momentary Palmyrene conquests in the third century of the Christian Era had come to a halt at the banks of the Nile and of the Black Sea Straits, the Muslim Arab conquerors penetrated as far as their Palmyrene predecessors towards the north-west, while on the south-west they left them far behind. In Asia Minor the Constantinopolitan Government succeeded – at the price of abandoning its commitments and cutting its losses on all other fronts – in pushing the Muslim Arabs back from the line of the Straits to the line of the Taurus and holding them there at the cost of grievously overstraining and fatally deforming the nascent body social of Orthodox Christendom. In Africa, however, the wave of Muslim Arab conquest swept on from the Nile to the Atlantic – meeting and overpowering and, carrying along with it the lesser wave of Berber aggression which was at that time breaking, likewise for the third time, upon the remnant of the African domain which Rome had inherited from Carthage.

Justinian had expelled the Vandals from the Maghreb.

The two earlier waves of Berber aggression had been, first, the Numidian intervention in the Second Punic, or Hannibalic, War and the Numidian King Jugurtha’s war with Rome (these are taken together) during the Hellenic “Time of Troubles” and, second, renewed pressure during the shorter crisis of the middle of the third century CE.

At the Straits of Gibraltar the united Arab and Berber wings of the Afrasian Nomad forces collided with the epigoni of the Visigoths, who had settled down in the Iberian Peninsula at the end of a Völkerwanderung which had carried them across the whole breadth of the Roman Empire from a starting-point on the Great Western Bay of the Eurasian Steppe. When these Gothic pupils of the Eurasian Nomads now encountered the Afrasian Nomad invaders of the Roman Empire at a point on the Empire’s extreme western verge which was almost equally remote from the original mustering-grounds of both the rival war-bands, it was the Afrasian Nomadism that was victorious; [footnote: The victory of the Afrasian Nomads over the Visigothic representatives of the Eurasian Nomadism at Xeres [modern Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia], on the Iberian threshold of Europe, in A.D. 711, has the same piquancy as the victory of the Indian over the African elephants at Raphia, on the Egyptian threshold of Africa, in 217 B.C.] for the united Arab-Berber forces were not flung back from the Straits of Gibraltar by Roderick in A.D. 711 as the Arabs were flung back from the Bosphorus by Constantine IV in A.D. 677 and again in A.D. 718 by Leo Syrus. Scattering the Goths like chaff, the Arabs and Berbers pressed on across the Pyrenees and reached the banks of the Rhône and the Loire before they collided with the Franks and fared as ill at their hands in A.D. 732 on the road to Tours as the ancestors of the Arabs’ discomfited Gothic adversaries had fared at the same Frankish hands at Vouillé in A.D. 507. It was characteristic of the heavy-footed gait of the sedentary North European barbarians that, at dates which were two hundred and twenty-five years apart, they should win their successive victories over their mobile rivals from the Ukraine and the Hijāz on battlefields that were something less than twenty miles distant from one another as the crow flies. [Footnote: The battle between the Austrasians and the Arabs which is traditionally known by the name of Tours seems actually to have been fought in the neighbourhood of Old Poictiers [sic], in the angle between the rivers Elain and Vienne.] Charles Martel allowed the Arabs to come that much nearer to the home territory of the Frankish Power in the basins of the Seine and the Rhine [footnote: Charles Martel’s sluggishness in marching to the help of the Aquitanians in A.D. 732 may be compared with the sluggishness of the Spartans in coming to the Athenians’ aid in 490 B.C. and again in 479 B.C.] than Clovis had allowed the Visigoths to advance in the same direction before marching out to defeat them; but the event was the same. At Tours in A.D. 732, as at Vouillé in A.D. 507, the immovable Franks remained masters of the field.

These Frankish victories over Goths and Arabs were a double triumph for the tortoise who had been content to crawl from the Rhine to the Loire during the time that it had taken one hare to sprint from the Ukraine, and another to sprint from the Hijāz, to the tortoise’s doorstep in Aquitaine. In this contest between the barbarians for the division of the Hellenic dominant minority’s territorial spoils the race was certainly not to the swift, though the battle may have been to the strong. [Footnote: Ecclesiastes ix. 11.] But this revelation of the relative strengths of the rival barbarian war-bands is not the main interest of the two battles in which they tried conclusions with one another. The outstanding historical event to which the battles of Vouillé and Tours bear witness is not the discomfiture of the Goths and the Arabs by the Frank, but the collapse of the resistance of the Roman Power which had been the common arch-adversary of all the three combatants. By the time when, in the heart of the Orbis Romanus, the war-bands from beyond one of the four anti-barbarian frontiers encountered and defeated – on derelict Roman ground – the war-bands from beyond each of the other three frontiers, it was manifest that the third of the three attempts of the external proletariat to take the Hellenic universal state by storm had been completely and definitively successful.

The four frontiers are defined in an earlier passage as

the front against the sedentary barbarians of Continental Europe from the North Sea coast to Transylvania; the front against the Eurasian Nomads (and the Nomadicized sedentary intruders upon the Nomads’ ranges) in the Lower Danubian bay and the Middle Danubian enclave of the Great Eurasian Steppe; the front against the barbarians in the interior of North West Africa (Nomads on the Sahara and highlanders in the Atlas); and the front against the Arabs beyond the desert-coast of Syria who constituted the Asiatic wing of the Afrasian Nomad forces.

The two earlier attempts to take the universal state had been, first, the series of attacks – by Sarmatians, Arabs, Numidians, Cimbri, Teutones, Suevi – in the last two centuries BC during the Hellenic “Time of Troubles” (he treats this as a single crisis) and, second, the attacks – by Goths, Arabs, Berbers, Franks, Alemanni – of the crisis of the middle of the third century CE.

Perhaps one could quibble with this by pointing out that, according to Toynbee’s own system, the first attempt was an attack on the society before it had had a universal state (the Roman Empire) imposed on it.

In the third attempt

the action opened on the Eurasian front, where the eruption of the Hun Nomads blew the nomadicized [lower case this time] Goths right off the Steppe into the far interior of the Roman body politic – as rocks and trees are uprooted and hurled through the air by an exploding shell. From the end of the fourth century to the end of the sixth the pressure continued to be heavier on this front than on any other, as the ebb of the Hun wave was followed by the onrush of the Avar wave, and the vacuum left by the violent propulsion of the Goths was filled by the gentle infiltration of the Slavs. It was only in the seventh century, when the onslaughts of pagan Huns and Avars were outmatched by the demoniac outbreak of the Muslim Arabs, that the main pressure shifted from the Eurasian front to the Arabian.

Charles de Steuben, Bataille de Poitiers en Octobre 732, Musée du Château de Versailles, Wikimedia Commons

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939

Trevor-Roper, Gibbon and Toynbee 3

July 15 2010

Trevor-Roper, Gibbon and Toynbee

Trevor-Roper, Gibbon and Toynbee 2

What does David Womersley, quoted in the first of those posts, mean by saying that, according to Trevor-Roper, Gibbon’s withdrawal from Oxford put him outside the “historical guild”? What historical guild? There was no guild of historians in the eighteenth century to be outside. We know that Trevor-Roper had a low opinion of the intellects of the narrow professional historians of the Oxford of his own day: “Manchester mice”. An unattractive low opinion, one might say. Like despising one’s servants. He must have rejoiced that the world of his hero Gibbon did not contain them or similar professionals. But that does not mean that Gibbon stood outside a “historical guild”, it means that there was no guild.

And Gibbon was neither a bishop nor a pile of relics, so what does Womersley mean by writing of his “translation” to Lausanne?


June 11 2010

The measure of the hostility which is evoked by alien authors of universal states – a hostility which is evidently only exacerbated, instead of being mitigated, by the passage of Time – is given by the uniformly fanatical êthos of the thoroughbred indigenous régimes which sometimes succeed in bringing such alien universal states to a premature end. This touch of fanaticism is shared by the Ming, who expelled the Mongols from China between A.D. 1351 and A.D. 1368, with the Marāthās who were the executors of the Hindu Society’s revenge upon the Mughals in the eighteenth century; and we can detect the same temper, not only in the anti-British revolutionary movement in twentieth-century Bengal, but also in the successive Babylonian revolts against Darius the Great and Xerxes, and in the Moreot Greek revolt against Ottoman rule in A.D. 1821.

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939

Byzantine Constantinople

June 8 2010

Wikimedia Commons map. (It shows the quarters belonging to the repubbliche marinare – Venice, Amalfi, Pisa, Genoa – in the old city in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but not the Genoese colony in Galata (1261-1453) or earlier Jewish, Genoese, Venetian and perhaps other settlements on the Galata side.)

The Hellenist lobby

June 2 2010

Jacket blurb of Richard Clogg, Politics and the Academy, Arnold Toynbee and the Koraes Chair, Routledge, 2004. Buy here.

“During the First World War King’s College of the University of London became a leading centre for the study of Russia and Eastern Europe. Its principal, Ronald Burrows, a committed philhellene and devoted admirer of the Greek prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos, had a particular interest in the promotion of Byzantine and Modern Greek studies. It was Burrows’ enthusiasm, supported by Venizelos, that led to the establishment in 1919 of the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature. The endowment for the chair was raised by a group of wealthy Anglo-Greeks, while the Greek government provided an annual subsidy. The 29-year-old historian Arnold Toynbee was chosen as the first incumbent of the chair.

“In 1921 Toynbee, on leave of absence, covered the Greek-Turkish war in Asia Minor for the Manchester Guardian and reported on the atrocities committed by Greek troops. On his return he wrote The Western Question in Greece and Turkey, which appeared in the summer of 1922 shortly before the rout of the Greek forces by the Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). Toynbee’s writings and his growing sympathy for the Turkish cause enraged the Greek donors of the chair who, grouped in a Subscribers’ Committee, put strong pressure on the college and university authorities. Toynbee also came under fire from an influential group of colleagues. The cumulative furore forced Toynbee to resign from the chair in 1924 at the end of his first five-year term.

“Now the papers of the major protagonists have enabled a detailed reconstruction to be made of the interaction of international and academic politics. The controversy has some contemporary relevance as it touches on fundamental questions of academic freedom and on the problems inherent in the reliance of academic institutions on outside sources of funding.”

Toynbee, apparently, had not known of the existence of the Subscribers’ Committee when he took the chair. Modern parallel: denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, at DePaul University, Chicago, in 2007. Did Toynbee’s views on Israel eventually marginalise him in the US? When did the lobby tighten its grip?

The fifth chapter in McNeill’s biography is about Toynbee’s changing views of near-eastern politics and how events there in the ’20s confirmed him in positions he had taken in the Foreign Office towards the end of the First World War; and about his changing ideas on history before and during the King’s years, and how they were leading him towards the Study. It is hard not to feel some sympathy with the Greeks in the row in which it all culminated. Were they being so unreasonable?

Ancient Greece in the King’s entrance hall (Sophocles by Constantin Dausch, a copy of a Roman copy, the Lateran Sophocles at the Vatican; Sappho by Ferdinand Seeboeck, original; both commissioned by Frida Mond, wife of Ludwig, and passing to King’s on her death in 1923)


Trevor-Roper, Gibbon and Toynbee 2

May 24 2010

Trevor-Roper, Gibbon and Toynbee

By way of a parergon to the last post, there’s a sting in the tail of Toynbee’s expression of thanks to Gibbon in the Acknowledgements and Thanks section of the Study. Of the dozens acknowledged, Marcus Aurelius is mentioned first, Toynbee’s mother second, Gibbon third.

To Edward Gibbon, for showing me, by Example, what an Historian could do

Edward Gibbon, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, has always been my cynosure; and I have come to appreciate the greatness of his intellectual powers as I have come to realize that he did almost all that he did do by sheer intellectual prowess, in despite of the handicap imposed on his imagination by the narrowness of his sympathies with the human objects of his historical studies.

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

Trevor-Roper, Gibbon and Toynbee

May 23 2010

Hugh Trevor-Roper was one of the twentieth century’s best writers of English, directly comparable to Waugh (who wrote a Decline and Fall). His medium was the essay. David Womersley (professional page) asks in Standpoint:

“Who was the greatest English historian of the mid-20th century? Was it that flamboyant ancestor of our current rash of teledons, A. J. P. Taylor? That severe technician, Lewis Namier? That progenitor of endless dullness, E. P. Thompson? Confronted by such contenders, judgment is baffled. However, if you narrow the question to ‘who was the greatest historical stylist’, there is no competition. Hugh Trevor-Roper suddenly emerges at the head of the field. How did he do it? It’s clear that Trevor-Roper’s élan as an historian was partly derived from his great 18th-century counterpart on whom he wrote so often and so well, Edward Gibbon. But why did Trevor-Roper make such a close study of this great predecessor? What sustenance did he draw from him?”

I’m presenting Womersley’s main points here in something different from their original sequence. Closing a quotation mark shows a break. He says that there were two Gibbons for Trevor-Roper: “[…] a companionable Gibbon – a source of stylistic solace and inspiration, a brilliant scourge with which to lash the grey specialists who were polluting the groves of Clio, particularly in Oxford. But he also admired a more remote Gibbon – the man who stood alone and unchallenged on the summit of European historiography.”

“That Neapolitan martyr to papal oppression [Womersley’s “thats”, illes, seem an imitation of Trevor-Roper], Giannone, had led Gibbon towards an awareness that the subject of the decline and fall of the Roman empire was the greatest historical problem thrown up by the Enlightenment, because of the challenge it seemed to pose to the Enlightenment’s darling doctrine of progress.” Gibbon placed the historical effects of religion at the heart of his answer (“I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion”); Pietro Giannone had been excommunicated for writing about the malign influence of the Church in his Storia civile del regno di Napoli (1723).

Trevor-Roper discussed Gibbon in a series of essays, articles and lectures. “And he lent his weight and authority to the re-publication of Gibbon’s own writings – the reprint of A Vindication in 1961; the abridgements [two different ones?] of the Decline and Fall for which he wrote introductions in 1963 and 1970; and, as an appropriate coping-stone, his substantial introduction to the six-volume complete Decline and Fall published by Everyman in 1993.”

“[…] there was a core of a few details of the historian’s biography, and a few – indeed, surprisingly few – passages of the Decline and Fall, to which Trevor-Roper returned time and again. What constituted this core?

“First, Trevor-Roper would lay heavy emphasis on the importance of Gibbon’s removal from Oxford after converting to Catholicism, and his consequent translation to Lausanne, which his father had imposed on him so that he might become again a compliant Protestant [which he did]. From this episode, Trevor-Roper drew two consequences. The first, and less important, was that the débâcle of Gibbon’s time at Oxford and his withdrawal from the University had put the pre-eminent historian outside the ‘historical guild’. […]

“The second, and more significant, consequence of the move to Lausanne was that it liberated Gibbon’s mind and made him ‘intellectually not an Englishman at all’. This un-English dimension was important to Trevor-Roper’s view of Gibbon, not simply because he took pleasure in the smiting of all parochialisms, but because it corroborated his interpretation of the Decline and Fall as a European work which merely happened to be written in English. He liked to remind his audiences and his readers of the fact that Gibbon had originally intended to write his history in French, before being dissuaded from doing so by David Hume.”

“Montesquieu had released Gibbon from the pulverising Pyrrhonism of Bayle and Voltaire [on matters of dogma], had [furthermore] oriented his stance on matters of religion away from sterile questions of doctrinal truth or falsehood, and had encouraged him to view religion through the lens of social function.

“Trevor-Roper [underlined] the Decline and Fall’s commitment to the view that civilisation was safe and human progress could not be undone because Western Europe was not vulnerable to calamitous change in the manner of the Roman Empire. This interpretation of the Decline and Fall as at root an anti-imperial work which described and celebrated how the 18th-century European republic of Christian monarchies had taken wing from the ashes of despotic antiquity has much to be said for it. Trevor-Roper was fond of […] drawing attention to Gibbon’s […] hatred of ‘immobilisation’, his commitment to ‘the free circulation of goods and ideas’, and his preference for open, rather than closed societies – characteristics illustrated typically by a contrast drawn with Voltaire, by Gibbon’s censure of monasticism in the Decline and Fall, and by his insistence to Lord Sheffield that his library should be broken up and sold after his death, on the grounds that he was ‘a friend to the circulation of property of every kind’.” Circulation of information, openness. In what way does any of this present a contrast with Voltaire?

“A different passage of the Decline and Fall was repeatedly used to show that, notwithstanding the hysterical response to the notorious ‘two chapters’ [15 and 16, which contained some of his most critical remarks about religion], which concluded the first volume of the Decline and Fall, when he contemplated religion Gibbon was indeed a follower of Montesquieu, rather than a disciple of Voltaire. […] The passage to which he gravitated was the final section of chapter 54, perhaps the most brilliant chapter in the entire history, which traces the fortunes of the obscure Byzantine sect of the Paulicians, before broadening to offer in little more than 1,000 words an extraordinary account of the progress of Christianity in Europe since the Reformation. Trevor-Roper particularly relished Gibbon’s challenge to the Reformers’ self-image as the liberators of the minds of men from the spurious doctrines of Roman Catholicism, notably transubstantiation.

“For, as Gibbon had acutely noted:

‘ … the loss of one mystery was amply compensated by the stupendous doctrines of original sin, redemption, faith, grace, and predestination, which have been strained from the epistles of St Paul. These subtle questions had most assuredly been prepared by the fathers and schoolmen; but the final improvement and popular use may be attributed to the first reformers, who enforced them as the absolute and essential terms of salvation. Hitherto the weight of supernatural belief inclines against the Protestants; and many a sober Christian would rather admit that a wafer is God, than that God is a cruel and capricious tyrant.’”

But “Gibbon’s criterion [in preferring one form of religion to another] is always social or humanitarian or intellectual: it is never doctrinal.”

“Some of the more memorable sallies in his reviews of publications on Gibbon were dictated by his disdain for those he saw as the myrmidons of Gibbonian scholarship, and their depraved appetite for the dust of textual minutiae […].”

“Trevor-Roper often reflected with deep satisfaction on the fact that Gibbon had been no professional historian, but had pursued his researches and composed his unrivalled narrative unsupported by any institution and in the character of a private scholar. Gibbon’s estrangement from the ‘historical guild’ made him, too, a foe of those ‘solemn professionals’ against whom Trevor-Roper himself, throughout his career, waged implacable war. Gibbon was thus an important early member of that informal and engaging party with which Trevor-Roper always associated himself – the party of ‘the laity and the gaiety’.”

Womersley tells us that in a notebook entry dated May 1944, and headed “The Solution”, he confided: “To write a book that someone, one day, will mention in the same breath as Gibbon – this is my fond ambition.” It never happened. Trevor-Roper wrote important books, but no magnum opus.

“When Hume had said of his own day that ‘this is the historical age’, he had seen that the advanced social thought of the time had thrown up problems that demanded the arbitration of the historian, and of the historian alone. Well might Trevor-Roper wryly agree that Gibbon had drawn a high prize in the lottery of life. He had been a supremely gifted historian whose powers were at their peak when history, of all the intellectual disciplines, had the most important work to do.

“But the second half of the 20th century was not such a time. Whatever the modern equivalent was to the Enlightenment problem of progress, it was unlikely to be answered by a book on the English Civil War, no matter how accomplished. Indeed, whatever it was, it was very possibly not a problem for historians at all. Perhaps it was a problem for physicists, or biologists. The moment of history’s intellectual hegemony had passed, perhaps never to return. Truly to emulate Gibbon was now impossible, and those who attempted it, such as Toynbee, succeeded in producing only gassy, shapeless, unhistorical monsters, as Trevor-Roper himself had reported in a letter to Berenson, in which superficial amusement at Toynbee’s folly was chilled by an undercurrent of dismay at its significance for the writing of history.

“Trevor-Roper was too wise to fall into the gulf of uncritical complacency into which Toynbee had rushed headlong. But the price of such wisdom was to suffer a version of the last pain which Tertullian had devised for the damned – the pain of seeing, but not sharing, the pleasures of the historians’ Paradise. It was for this reason that the greatest English historian of the 20th century was most at home in the form of the essay.”


Was that such an exile? Trevor-Roper has often appeared here, since he made himself the English arch-critic of Toynbee.

Something swaggering was trapped in that prose’s perfection. His dislike of Toynbee’s work was visceral and expressed in mockery. Yet Toynbee resembled Gibbon in some ways. He deserted Oxford just as Gibbon did (and as Trevor-Roper, in his letters to Berenson, always pretended that he wanted to), stood outside what Womersley calls the “historical guild”, and smote parochialisms. But Trevor-Roper admires Gibbon’s cosmopolitanism and has contempt for Toynbee’s globalism.

Toynbee would have “lashed the grey specialists” if lashing had been his way. Specialisation was necessary, but it should not be exclusive. He produced some monumental volumes of specialised straight history. Trevor-Roper dreamed of producing a Great Work comparable with Gibbon. Toynbee wrote (letter to his mother, June 30 1907, quoted in McNeill): “It would be a splendid task to carry on Herodotus’s story [of the wars between Europe and the East] … but it would be too vast.” And (less modestly, and mocked by Trevor-Roper): “As for Ambition with a great screaming A, I have got it pretty strong. I want to be a great gigantic historian – not for fame but because there is lots of work in the world to be done, and I am greedy for as big a share of it as I can get. … I am going to research and become a vast historical Gelehrte” (letter to RS Darbishire, January 30 1910, quoted in McNeill).

For Toynbee, as for Trevor-Roper, “there was a core of a few details of the historian’s biography, and a few […] passages of the Decline and Fall, to which [he] returned time and again”. Toynbee would return to the passage about the Antonines in chapter 3, always as a foil for his own idée fixe about the Hellenic civilisation having broken down five centuries earlier. And he would remind us how unprepared Gibbon was for the events of the French revolution, which ended the spell of low ideological temperature of the age between the Wars of Religion and the Wars of Nationality and shattered his illusion of a “Western Europe […] not vulnerable to calamitous change”, just as the events of 1914 would shatter Toynbee’s.

Toynbee seemed to be treating the Enlightenment as a mere interval or episode. He was not only a deluded schematiser and purveyor of a “philosophy of mish-mash”; he seemed to be hankering after a religiously-guided world which had held sway before the idolatrous worship of “parochial states” had set humanity on the road to 1914. Religion was being dragged out again after it had been put in its place.

Trevor-Roper cannot find it in him to praise the majesty or sincerity of Toynbee’s effort, but he need not have felt “an undercurrent of dismay at [Toynbee’s work’s] significance for the writing of history”, since Toynbee had no direct imitators.

In the inaugural lecture for the Greek-funded Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine Language, Literature and History at King’s College in the University of London, which Toynbee occupied from 1919 to 1924, Johannes Gennadius, a figure in the Greek diaspora in London, defended the historic greatness of Byzantium against the sneers of Gibbon which, he believed, still distorted English understanding of Greek history. And, absurd though it sounds when modern Greeks say they invented democracy, the idea of successive ancient, medieval and modern Greeces was one which Toynbee examined in his essay in The Balkans, a book with several contributors, OUP, 1915, and in his final, posthumous The Greeks and Their Heritages, OUP, 1981.

I will summarise Toynbee’s rather equivocal view of Gibbon when I have looked at all his passages on him. Trevor-Roper’s writings about Toynbee are listed here. I think he says only one nice thing about Toynbee. In the 1989 piece he writes: “He was very learned.”

See Duncan Fallowell’s Telegraph review of Trevor-Roper’s correspondence with Berenson.

Namier was not always severe. His essays on eastern Europe in Looking East are lively, and one can see his influence on his protegé Taylor. He was a friend of Toynbee.

Adam Sisman’s biography of Trevor-Roper will be published on July 8.

The last battle

May 22 2010

(XENOPHON OF ATHENS (ca. 430-354 B.C.): A History of Hellenic Affairs, Oxford text, ed. by E.C. Marchant: Book II. chapter 23-4)

At Athens the disaster [footnote: The battle of Aegospotami, in the Dardanelles, in which the last Athenian fleet had been annihilated by the Peloponnesians in 405 B.C. [ED.]] was announced by the arrival of the Paralus, [footnote: The Paralus and the Salaminia were the two fastest sailers in the Athenian Navy, and were employed to carry dispatches. [ED.]] and a wail spread from the Peiraeus through the Long Walls into the city, as the news passed from mouth to mouth. That night no one slept. Besides mourning for the dead, they mourned far more bitterly for themselves, for they expected to suffer the fate which they had inflicted on the Melians (who were colonists of the Lacedaemonians) when they had besieged and captured their town [416 BC], and upon the Histiaeans, the Scionians, the Toronians, the Aeginetans and many other Hellenic peoples. Next morning they held an assembly, in which it was decided to block up all the harbours except one, to clear the fortifications for action, to dispose troops to man them, and to put the city into a thorough state of defence for the eventuality of a siege.

The Spartan admiral was Lysander, the Athenian Conon. The Aegospotami (Goat Streams) was a stream issuing into the Hellespont (Dardanelles) in the Thracian Chersonese. The Long Walls connected Athens to its ports at Piraeus and Phalerum. The siege followed; Athens surrendered in 404.

Introduction and translations, Greek Historical Thought from Homer to the Age of Heraclius, with two pieces newly translated by Gilbert Murray, Dent, 1924 (taken from an American edition; spelling anglicised)

Christianity and the western barbarians

May 20 2010

The East German barbarians who overran the western provinces of the Roman Empire in the fifth century had been converted in the previous century to the Arian version of Christianity, which had been favoured by the Emperor Constantius II (imperabat A.D. 337- 61). The Burgundians were not converted to the Roman Christianity of their Roman subjects till the second quarter of the sixth century, the Visigoths not till A.D. 589, the Lombards only in the course of the first half of the seventh century. (The Vandal and Ostrogoth Arian Christian conquerors of Roman territory had been exterminated by Justinian.) The only German barbarians settled on ex-Roman territory who were converted to Roman Christianity from paganism direct were those West Germans – Franks and English – who had been still pagans when they had arrived. The English pagan barbarian invaders of Britain had insulated both the surviving Christians in western Britain and the newly converted Irish from the Roman See; these Far Western Christians’ rite, in consequence, had not kept in step with the changes in the Roman rite, and their allegiance to the Roman See had become dubious. In the seventh century, Rome had to contend with Iona for the allegiance of the English Kingdom of Northumbria. In A.D. 664, at the Synod of Whitby, Rome won this battle; Iona itself submitted to Rome in A.D. 716, and the Picts, Irish, Welsh, and Bretons also accepted the Roman method of fixing the date of Easter and the Roman form of tonsure in the course of the eighth century. At the conversion of the still pagan German peoples beyond the Rhine (Alemanni, Bavarians, Thuringians, Frisians, Saxons) there was no question of their adopting any form of Christianity other than the Roman.

The Romano-British St Patrick (c 387-493), among others, converted the Irish; the Irish St Columba (521-97), who founded the monastery on Iona, and his followers, converted the Scots and Northumbrian English; Gregory the Great’s Roman emissary Augustine of Canterbury (first third of sixth century-604) converted the rest of the English.

The English themselves sent missions to convert the pagans in the Netherlands and Germany. The Irish St Columbanus (540-615) had founded monasteries at Fontaines and Luxeuil (France) and Bobbio (Italy).

Iona Abbey, Wikimedia Commons

Constantine Porphyrogenitus and His World, OUP, 1973 (footnote)

Mandarin against Greek

May 4 2010

When Hastings Banda founded Kamuzu Academy (which I visited several years ago) in the Malawian countryside (1981), he made Latin and Greek compulsory at all levels. They are still compulsory up to O-Level. But from the 2010-11 academic year, Mandarin Chinese will be compulsory in the first year (age 11).

Banda had intended the school to support the four best students from every district of Malawi, however poor. It now takes mainly fee-payers.

I don’t know whether Mandarin will displace Latin or Greek in the first year, but the expectation is that it will become compulsory for older pupils and will displace them. Can that happen in defiance of Banda’s wishes? Yes. Malawi switched its allegiance from Taiwan to mainland China at the beginning of 2008.

Yamoussoukro and Kamuzu

Kamuzu Academy, Mtunthama

Volney and Cyprian

May 2 2010

The genius of Volney had casually exploded the eighteenth-century doctrine of the natural goodness and automatic improvement of Human Nature by testifying that “la source de ses calamités … réside dans l’homme même; il la porte dans son cœur”. [Footnote: Volney, C. F.: “Les Ruines” in Œuvres Complètes (Paris 1876, Didot), pp. 12-13.]


Volney’s intuition […] is anticipated in a passage of Saint Cyprian, in which the African Father applies the same truth to the entire field of social life. [Footnote: The two passages are also analogous inasmuch as they both fly in the face of the prevailing philosophy of the day. Volney’s intuition, as we have observed, gives the lie to the fundamental doctrine of eighteenth-century Western philosophy, while the passage here quoted from Cyprian contradicts another passage from Cyprian’s own pen which occurs in the same tract Ad Demetrianum. In this other passage [quoted here] Cyprian advocates the view that the Hellenic Society of the age is suffering from an automatic process of senile decay. A judicious admirer of Cyprian will not attempt to explain this manifest contradiction away. He will be content to observe that in chapter 3 of the tract the author is simply reproducing one of the commonplaces of Hellenic philosophy, while in chapter 10 he is expounding a Christian doctrine which has become a living part of Cyprian’s own thought.]

“You complain of the aggression of foreign enemies; yet, if the foreign enemy were to cease from troubling, would Roman really be able to live at peace with Roman (esse pax inter ipsas togas possit)? If the external danger of invasion by armed barbarians were to be stamped out, should we not be exposed to a fiercer and a heavier civil bombardment, on the home front, in the shape of calumnies and injuries inflicted by the powerful upon their weaker fellow citizens? You complain of crop-failures and famine; yet the greatest famines are made not by drought but by rapacity, and the most flagrant distress springs from profiteering and price-raising in the corn-trade. You complain that the clouds do not disgorge their rain in the sky, and you ignore the barns that fail to disgorge their grain on terra firma. You complain of the fall in production, and ignore the failure to distribute what is actually produced to those who are in need of it. You denounce plague and pestilence, while really the effect of these scourges is to bring to light, or bring to a head, the crimes of human beings: the callousness that shows no pity for the sick, and the covetousness and rapine that are in full cry after the property of the dead.” [Footnote: Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus: Ad Demetrianum, chap. 10.]

In this passage a man of penetrating insight and deep feeling, who was an heir to the tradition of the Hellenic culture before he became a convert to Christianity, has given the true explanation of the breakdown which had cut the growth of the Hellenic Civilization short some six or seven hundred years before, and which had brought the broken-down society to all but the last stage of its decline and fall in Cyprian’s own day. The Hellenic Civilization had broken down because, in the internal economy of this society in its growth stage, at some point something had gone wrong with that interaction between individuals through which the growth of every growing civilization is achieved.

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, was martyred in 258 under Valerian. Demetrianus was an African proconsul who had blamed the state of the world on the Christians.

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939


May 1 2010

Wikipedia list. Covers the world, but incomplete.

In the age of water-transport, the key pieces of the land-surface of the Oikoumenê were those that offered portages from one sea or from one navigable river to another. Egypt itself was a portage area, since the Nile debouches into the Mediterranean, and, from the Nile to the Red Sea coast, there is a short portage from the easternmost arm of the Delta to Suez via the Wadi Tumilat, and another via the Wadi Hammamat from Coptos, in Upper Egypt, to El Qusayr (Leukos Limen).

These portages are the points where the Delta/Nile is closest to the Gulf of Suez/Red Sea. The second of them is a little north of Luxor. The Wadis are dry river beds that are flooded during rain.

Indeed, the portage across the Isthmus of Suez between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean is part of a wider portage area that includes Egypt to the west and Iraq to the east. In this area the Mediterranean, which is a backwater of the Atlantic Ocean, and the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, which are backwaters of the Indian Ocean, are separated from each other by the narrowest extent of intervening dry land, and the passage from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea via the Nile is duplicated by the passage to the Persian Gulf via the Euphrates.

If you look at a map, it’s obvious that the key city in the Mediterranean-Euphrates portage is Aleppo.

Two other portages have been of outstanding historical importance: the portage between the rivers debouching into the Baltic and those debouching into the Caspian and the Black Sea, and the portage across the North China plain between the lower courses of the Yangtse, the Hwai, the Yellow River, and the Pei Ho – a portage that has been turned into a waterway by the digging of the Grand Canal. However, the Chinese and Russian portages are on the fringe of the Old-World Oikoumenê; they are surpassed in historical importance by the central portage between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

In the seventh century BC, the Corinthian tyrant Periander built the Diolkos, a paved track which allowed boats to be carried across the Isthmus of Corinth between the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf.

He had thought of building a canal. So did the Diadoch Demetrius (336–283 BC). So, according to Suetonius, did Julius Caesar and Nero. Nero actually began work, breaking the ground with a pickaxe himself and removing the first basket-load of soil. Six thousand Jewish prisoners of war started digging. The work stopped when Nero died. The modern Corinth Canal was built between 1881 and ’93.

The Diolkos

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

The Libri Karolini

April 25 2010

In the Libri Karolini composed in Charlemagne’s name by his ecclesiastical advisers in A.D. 790, the Fathers of the Second Nicene Council were taken to task on the ground that they had taken it upon themselves to declare the cult of images to be obligatory under pain of anathema, whereas, according to the iconodule Greek theologians’ Frankish critics, the correct view was that the exhibition of pictures in churches was neither obligatory nor unlawful. Thereafter, at the council of Frankish bishops held at Frankfurt in A.D. 794, the acts of the Second Nicene Council were formally condemned on the false assumption (due apparently to a mistranslation) that the Fathers had awarded the same honours to the images as to the Holy Trinity (see Hodgkin, Th.: Italy and her Invaders, vol. viii, Book IX: The Frankish Empire (Oxford 1899, Clarendon Press), pp. 17-18).

This unfriendly reaction in Frankland to the Second Nicene Council’s decisions was, no doubt, to some extent the reflection of a cultural antipathy between Western and Orthodox Christendom and a political rivalry between the Carolingian and the East Roman Power. In the intercourse between the two churches it was a cardinal principle of policy on either side that the other party must never be admitted to be in the right; and the position taken up by Frankish theologians in the Libri Karolini was nicely calculated to put Greek iconodules and Greek iconoclasts equally in the wrong. It is suggested by Hodgkin, ibid., that Charlemagne’s hostility to the full-blooded Christian Iconodulia of the Nicene Fathers may also have been partly inspired by his own personal experience in wrestling with the pagan idolatry of Saxon barbarians whom he was finding it difficult to subdue and convert. Though there seems to be no positive evidence to corroborate this conjecture, it is supported by an analogy between Charlemagne’s experience and Muhammad’s; for Muhammad’s uncompromising Iconophobia was undoubtedly a reaction to the stubbornness of the Quraysh in clinging to their pagan worship of the idols in the Ka‘bah. Yet, when all due allowance has been made for local and temporary considerations of a religious order, as well as for non-religious considerations of a cultural and political order, which may have played some part in inclining the Frankish Church to react unfavourably to the Second Nicene Council’s Iconophilism, a recollection of the instances, noticed […] above, of iconophobe feeling in Gaul as early as the sixth century of the Christian Era may lead us to look for the main cause of the manifestations of Iconophobia in Frankland in A.D. 790 and 794 beyond the horizon of current affairs, in an original and abiding Judaic element in Christianity. We must not leave out of our reckoning here the gadfly ghost of a Judaic Aniconism.

The author of the books was probably Theodulf of Orléans. He is also remembered for the the private oratory built for his villa at Germigny-des-Prés, which contains the most complete surviving Carolingian mosaic (c 806, but over-restored in the 1860s).

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

In the Evening

April 20 2010

“It wouldn’t have lasted long anyway –
the experience of years makes that clear.
Even so, Fate did put an end to it a bit abruptly.
It was soon over, that wonderful life.
Yet how strong the scents were,
what a magnificent bed we lay in,
what pleasure we gave our bodies.

An echo from my days given to sensuality,
an echo from those days came back to me,
something of the fire of the young life we shared:
I picked up a letter again,
and I read it over and over till the light faded away.

Then, sad, I went out on to the balcony,
went out to change my thoughts at least by seeing
something of this city I love,
a little movement in the street and the shops.”


In the Evening, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

Elegy for Young Lovers

April 18 2010

Fiona Shaw on the first of Hans Werner Henze’s AudenKallman collaborations (1961). The second was The Bassarids (1965).

Auden and Kallman had previously worked on The Rake’s Progress. I’ll be away, Eyjafjallajökull permitting, as I was with Phaedra.

English National Opera, Young Vic, London, April 24-May 8. Synopsis.

Greek cities in Asia

March 31 2010

“The basis of the Seleucid settlement was the military colony and not the Greek city, the polis. The first two kings [Seleucus I Nicator and Antiochus I Soter] did not … fill Asia with Greek cities directly”; at the same time “the aim of every military colony was to become a full polis … ; there was a steady upward growth of the colony into the polis, and it was this which, before the end of the second century B.C., had filled Asia with ‘Greek’ cities.” – Tarn, W. W.: The Greeks in Bactria and India (Cambridge 1938, University Press), pp. 6 and 9.


“The only places which were founded directly as poleis from the start were some, probably the majority, of those which bore the four Seleucid dynastic names: Antioch, Seleuceia, Apamea, Laodicea.” – Tarn, op. cit., p. 12.


In the Seleucid Empire the obverse of the eponymous cities’ (and other royal foundations’) loyalty to the Crown was the Crown’s tact in dealing with the cities. “Though in theory the Seleucids were autocrats, they could not afford to ride roughshod over the Greeks, and the popularity of the dynasty shows that they did not do so” (Tarn, op. cit., p. 26). “The new cities were not, of course, sovereign states. But neither were they municipalities of the Empire, as they were to be of the Roman Empire; they were a sort of half-way house” (Tarn, op. cit., p. 24).

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939 (footnotes)

Historical novels: Mary Renault

March 25 2010

Film about Renault produced by Colin Cameron. BBC4, April 18 2006. First of seven clips.

Her Greek novels

The Last of the Wine 1956 (Athens during the Peloponnesian War; the narrator is a pupil of Socrates)

The King Must Die 1958 (the mythical Theseus up to his father’s death)

The Bull from the Sea 1962 (the remainder of Theseus’s life)

The Mask of Apollo 1966 (an actor at the time of Plato and Dionysius the Younger; Alexander appears briefly near the end)

Fire from Heaven 1969 (Alexander the Great from the age of four up to his father’s death)

The Persian Boy 1972 (Alexander after the conquest of Persia, from Bagoas’s perspective)

The Praise Singer 1978 (Simonides of Ceos)

Funeral Games 1981 (Alexander’s successors)

The Persian stimulus 2

March 24 2010

The Persian stimulus

The pre-eminence of Athenian vitality in [the] outburst of Hellenic life which followed the repulse of Xerxes’ onslaught is comparable with the rejuvenation of France after the War of 1914-18 [this was published in 1934; the passage follows a discussion of France and Germany]; for Athens on that occasion, like France on this, bore the brunt of the stimulating blow. While the fertile fields of Boeotia were saved from devastation by the treachery of their owners to the Hellenic cause, and the fertile fields of Lacedaemon by the presence and the prowess of the Athenian fleet at Salamis, the poor land of Attica was devastated systematically by the invaders in two successive seasons. Indeed, Attica suffered more in 480-479 B.C. than France in A.D. 1914-18; for the Germans only succeeded in occupying a fraction, albeit an especially valuable fraction, of the French national territory, whereas the Persians occupied and devastated the whole of Attica, including Athens itself and the Acropolis and the temple of Athene, on the summit of the rock, which was the Attic holy of holies. The whole population of Attica – men, women, and children – had to evacuate the country and cross the sea to the Peloponnese as refugees; and it was in this situation that the Athenian fleet fought and won the Battle of Salamis, within sight of the victors’ abandoned fields and ruined homes and altars. It is no wonder that a blow which aroused this indomitable spirit in the Athenian people should have been the prelude to achievements which are perhaps unique in the history of Mankind for their brilliance and multitude and variety. In the material reconstruction of Attica, the new equipment of the farmsteads surpassed the old as conspicuously as the new equipment of the French factories has surpassed the plant destroyed by German shell-fire. Half a century later, this new apparatus of agriculture in Attica was still so far superior to anything that was to be found in other parts of Hellas that when Athens – betrayed into folly by excess of good fortune – at last conjured up against herself an overwhelming counter-coalition of other Powers, the Boeotian contingent in the Allied and Associated Armies found it worth while to carry off the woodwork of the Attic farm-buildings bodily across the mountains. [Footnote] Yet, in the reconstruction of Attica, this imposing re-equipment of the farmsteads was nothing accounted of. The work which was regarded as truly symbolic of the country’s glorious resurrection was the rebuilding of the temples; and in this work Periclean Athens displayed a vitality far superior to that of post-war France. When the French recovered the battered shell of Rheims Cathedral, they performed a pious restoration of each shattered stone and splintered statue. When the Athenians found the Hekatompedon burnt down to the foundations, they let the foundations lie and proceeded, on a new site, to create the Parthenon.

[Footnote: This fact [the carrying-off of Athenian farm buildings by the Thebans] is recorded in the fragment of a history of Hellenic affairs, of unknown authorship, which has come to light on the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus. The relevant passage runs as follows:

“Thebes had enjoyed a great increase in general prosperity as an immediate result of the outbreak of the Atheno-Peloponnesian War … she prospered still more after the joint Thebano-Lacedaemonian occupation of Decelea. While the occupation lasted, the Thebans bought up cheap the slaves and other prize of war; and the fact that they were the Athenians’ next-door neighbours enabled them to transport to the Thebaid all the capital equipment of Attica, including the very timber and tiling of the buildings. At that time the Attic countryside was more lavishly equipped than any other in Hellas. It had suffered very little in the previous Lacedaemonian invasions, and an immense amount of skill and labour had been invested in it by the Athenians. …” (Hellenica Oxyrhynchia (Oxford 1909, University Press), xii. 3-4.)]

A Study of History, Vol II, OUP, 1934

Sons and fathers

March 23 2010

An intuition that Christianity [threatened] the stability of the Roman Empire does not, perhaps, account for the original persecution of Christianity by Nero, since Nero was manifestly seeking a scapegoat for personal odium incurred through personal misconduct. But it does account for the subsequent retention of this proscription on the statute book, through the reigns of “the virtuous emperors” from Nerva to Marcus inclusive, until its repeal in A.D. 313 by Constantine I and Licinius in Constantine’s Edict of Milan. The Roman authorities would have felt that they had been justified in acting on their intuition regarding Christianity if they had been acquainted with two passages in the Christian Church’s scriptures – Matt. x. 34-7 and Luke xii. 49-53 – in which the Founder of the Church is represented as saying that He has come to bring, not peace and unity, but strife and discord.

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

“I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.”

King James Version.

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Oc, si, oïl

March 16 2010

… and the origin of oui

Nam alii oc, alii si, alii vero dicunt oil” (“some say oc, others si, others oïl”): Dante in De vulgari eloquentia.

He thus classified the Romance languages into oc (southern France), si (Italy and Iberia) and oïl groups (northern France, southern Belgium).

The Latin hoc, this, led to oc.

Sic, thus, became si.

Hoc ille, from, for example, hoc ille fecit, this he did, was also a form of assent. Thus o il or oïl, thence oui.

Dante’s decision to compose the Divina Commedia [c 1309–20] in stanzas of rhyming lines of Tuscan [si] verse instead of in Latin hexameters has been momentous for the subsequent inspiration of poetry in all the vernacular languages of the Western World. Dante was conscious that, in using the vernacular, he was following a lead given by earlier Transalpine [ie French, for example troubadour] poets; but, for a Tuscan, it was a greater feat to liberate himself from the spell of the Latin language and literature than it had been for poets whose mother-tongues were the Langue d’Oc and the Langue d’Oil – not to speak of poets whose mother-tongues were, not Romance, but Teutonic. The medieval Italians might have remained prisoners of their ancestral Latin language. They might have compromised by writing serious Latin poetry in the metres and style of the contemporary popular poetry in the vernacular. Some exquisite Latin poetry of this genre was, in fact, written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In liberating themselves from a linguistic servitude to the Graeco-Roman past, the medieval Italians were more successful than their Greek contemporaries […].

The French si is used in the same way as the Latinism sic in English.

Another name for the Langue d’Oc is Occitan. It used to be called Lemosin or Provençal. Nowadays, Lemosin and Provençal mean specific varieties, whereas Occitan is used for the language as a whole. Many non-specialists continue to refer to the language as Provençal.

Catalan is related to it.

Occitania, as the whole area in which Occitan was spoken, is thus a larger area than the individual modern regions of (for example) Languedoc-Roussillon, Limousin or Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

Modern Italian is in part a literary derivative from Tuscan, forged by Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Ariosto and Guicciardini; but Tuscan was one of many Romance dialects in Italy.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous


March 11 2010

The motif [of Withdrawal-and-Return] presents itself conspicuously in the case of one minority of a natural order which always exists of necessity in every society: the minority consisting of those male members of any given society who, at any given moment, are in course of passing out of boyhood into manhood through the metamorphosis of puberty. The withdrawal of the boys from the common life of Society on the eve of puberty in order that they may return as men when they are ripe for marriage is a social movement which is not only common in the life of primitive societies, but is also traceable in the lives of societies that are in process of civilization – sometimes as a theme of Mythology and sometimes as a custom that lingers on in practice in some by-way of practical life. The temporary segregation of the boys of a primitive society during their years of puberty is a commonplace of Anthropology [Footnote: For a survey of the prevalence of this institution in the lives of extant primitive societies, see Schurz, H.: Altersklassen und Männerbünde (Berlin 1902, Reimer).] The reflexion of this custom in Mythology is illustrated by the Hellenic myth of the Centaur Cheiron’s school of heroes in the wilderness of Mount Pelion. Its survival as a “going concern”, into the history of a civilization is illustrated by the Spartan institution of the so-called “Lycurgean Agôgê” and by the English institution of the so-called “Public Schools”. [Footnote: […] It is to be noted that while the English boy who is segregated from his family on the eve of puberty by being sent to a “public school” does return to ordinary life upon reaching manhood, the Spartiate never returns, after his entry into the Agôgê at the age of seven, until he is superannuated from military service at the age of sixty.]

Degas’ Young Spartans Exercising (1860) at the National Gallery reminds us that there was not always total segregation of adolescent boys. Plutarch writes in his life of Lycurgus that girls were encouraged to exercise, dance and sing naked in front of the young men in order to encourage them to marry, and to humiliate them and criticise those who were weak.

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934

Sir Kenneth Dover

March 10 2010

Greek scholar.



The Horses of Achilles

March 4 2010

“When they saw Patroklos dead
–  so brave and strong, so young –
the horses of Achilles began to weep;
their immortal nature was upset deeply
by this work of death they had to look at.
They reared their heads, tossed their long manes,
beat the ground with their hooves, and mourned
Patroklos, seeing him lifeless, destroyed,
now mere flesh only, his spirit gone,
defenceless, without breath,
turned back from life to the great Nothingness.

Zeus saw the tears of those immortal horses and felt sorry.]
‘At the wedding of Peleus,’ he said,
‘I should not have acted so thoughtlessly.
Better if we hadn’t given you as a gift,
my unhappy horses. What business did you have down there,]
among pathetic human beings, the toys of fate.
You are free of death, you will not get old,
yet ephemeral disasters torment you.
Men have caught you up in their misery.’
But it was for the eternal disaster of death
that those two gallant horses shed their tears.”


Achilles binding the arm of Patroclus after he was wounded by an arrow, kylix from the Etruscan city of Vulci, c 500 BC, Pergamon Museum, Berlin; the incident is not in the Iliad

Peleus married the sea-nymph Thetis and fathered Achilles by her. As a wedding present, Zeus’s brother Poseidon gave Peleus two immortal horses, Balius and Xanthus, whose father, according to one tradition, was Zeus.

The wedding feast was the beginning of the quarrel that led to the Judgment of Paris and to the Trojan War.

The Horses of Achilles, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at I have anglicised the spelling of defenseless.

Victorian Hellenism 2

March 1 2010

Victorian Hellenism

Victorians and post-Victorians were always talking about vital, stimulating, diverse Europe and static Asia. In the previous post I quoted an opinion that the Victorian view of Hellenistic culture was sometimes coloured by racism.

There was generalised prejudice against Asian Hellenes, no doubt, but what specific culturally-Greek philosophers, artists or institutions in the Hellenistic era were denigrated or not given their due?

The simple passage below is not especially condescending.

Greek culture before this contact with the Middle East had covered a period of about eight centuries. It had developed maritime city states around and in the Aegean. It had spread round the Mediterranean and had begun the process of penetration which Alexander was to carry to its farthest limits. This penetration had been going on for two or three centuries before the critical contact with the Persian Empire. At Marathon and at Salamis the Hellenic world had repulsed this attempt at unity by the Middle East acting westward. Their success on this occasion was the greatest event in the building-up of their national self-consciousness. Then came the failure of their own internal efforts at unity, the Athenian Empire baulked by Sparta in the Peloponnesian war. The catastrophe of 431 B.C. was followed by a century of woe. The internecine struggles of the city states left the way open for the Macedonian conquerors, Philip and Alexander, who put themselves at the head of the Hellenic world. The conquering house then led the Greek advance on its crusade to the Middle East.

What do we know of the Middle East before its contact with Alexander’s advance? and in what state was it prepared to meet it? Our knowledge here, though less intimate, is far more extensive; it reaches from the fourth millennium to the fourth century B.C., i.e. for more than four times as long as our knowledge of the Greek world. And the civilization itself was of much longer date than the Greek. These eastern civilizations had conquered and occupied the great river-basins in the earlier part of their long evolution. This had been accomplished by the beginning of the second millennium B.C. In this phase the Egyptian and the Mesopotamian basins were separate unities. In the second millennium, and for a period of more than a thousand years after, these two unities had come into contact with disastrous shocks. The Assyrian wars were the culmination. The Greeks could look on, tertii gaudentes. In the interval that passed before Alexander’s advance the Persians had succeeded easily in uniting the Middle East, but the Greeks, as yet unable to permeate Asia Minor themselves, resisted the Persian fusion. The Middle East lay torpid, awaiting the Greek expansion as Persia decayed.

Let it be noted that at the time of the Greek expansion under Alexander both the attacking and the attacked were past their zenith. But the Greeks, though they had just experienced their first grave catastrophe in the Peloponnesian war, were still full of energy and initiative. The war had not destroyed the national vigour which produced a Thucydides and a Plato. The training in warfare prepared Philip and Alexander for their work. On the other hand the civilization of the Middle East was passive and inert. It seemed bound to run out to the end of the course set by an earlier initiative, unless deflected by an outside force. It had been rising for two millennia and had then passed through more than one thousand years of catastrophe and conflict. It now lay ready for attack and absorption by the more vigorous Greeks; and Greek civilization was to recover itself by assimilating this fresh material, and to move forward again with renewed strength.

There were many factors in the situation, for and against successful fusion. It was a favourable factor that the oriental had an older religious experience than the Greek. In the East was wisdom born of sorrow. Hebrew prophets had been expressing in the eighth and seventh centuries what Greeks began to feel in the fifth and fourth. This is the source and explanation of that long religious penetration proceeding from the East to Greece, the cults of Cybele and Isis, and the later religion of Mithra and of Hermes. Christianity itself shows abundant traces of the communion of the Greek mind with the East. Another favourable factor was the superiority and vigour of the city state contrasted with the mass society and centralized organization of the Oriental powers. Antioch and the cities founded by Seleucus and his house bear witness to the vitality of this development. They contain the agora, the theatre of the old Greek world, they nourished schools of rhetoric and philosophy which had continued life down to the advent of Islam.

But there were other feelings and forces which made against fusion.

There is a certain natural antipathy between Greek and Oriental, a different outlook, a different rhythm of life. How the Persians felt about one aspect of Greek life was pointedly expressed by Cyrus to the Spartan herald who brought him the warning and defiance from their city. Never yet, he said, did he fear men such as these, who had a place appointed in the midst of their city where they gathered together and deceived one another by false oaths. “These words Cyrus threw out scornfully with reference to the Hellenes in general, because they got for themselves markets and practised buying and selling there; for the Persians themselves are not wont to use markets, nor have they any market place at all” (Herodotus i. 153). The absence of the “agora”, the talking-shop, the Parliament of the West, is a significant mark of the old theocratic order. These free-speaking, free-thinking Greeks had lost most of that old religious prejudice which led the Egyptians (Herodotus ii. 39) to cast into the river the head of their sacrificial beast like a scapegoat with its imprecations. If, we are told, they found a Hellene at hand they would sell it to him and despised him into the bargain. And was not the “Abomination of Desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not”, only an altar of Zeus Ouranios?

But the Greeks also had feelings which made against fusion. They were intensely attached to their ancient homes, and this home-sickness showed itself even in the lives of the most distinguished and successful members of the Seleucid house. Seleucus himself was on his way back from Asia to his old Macedonian home when he met his death by the hand of Ptolemy Ceraunus. Antiochus Epiphanes preferred to build temples at Athens rather than at his own city of Antioch. All through, in fact, Hellenistic politics continued to cluster round the homeland of Greece.

With FS Marvin, Alexander and Hellenism, in The Evolution of World-Peace, Essays Arranged and Edited by F. S. Marvin, OUP, 1921

Alexandrian autonomy

February 24 2010

There is some evidence to show that, as a result of her annexation to the Roman Empire after the Battle of Actium, Alexandria lost, not only her perhaps rather nebulous primacy among the cities of the Hellenic World, but also some of the solid substance of her municipal self-government (see Jones, A. H. M.: The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces (Oxford 1937, Clarendon Press), pp. 311-12). It must be added that, according to the same authority (pp. 304 and 471), the Romans were only carrying farther a process of Gleichschaltung which the Ptolemies had already begun. A civic council of Alexandria seems to have existed under the earlier Ptolemies, but to have been abolished by the later Ptolemies before the Roman conquest. No doubt the “totalitarian” structure of the Ptolemaic state and the “servile” character of native Egyptian social life under the Ptolemaic régime […] made an unpropitious environment for Hellenic political institutions.

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

Victorian Hellenism

February 23 2010

Stephen Marsh emails me on a Victorian view of the Hellenistic period, referring to a recent post, which links back to some earlier ones.

“Herewith a well-known piece of evidence clearly against AT’s somewhat blithe acceptance of the standard textbook view of Hellenistic philosophy as a retreat into the self, caused by the decline/suppression of the polis. I give it in both Latin and English. The Latin may be slightly adapted, as I have reproduced it from a school textbook: the English is my own.

“Cicero, De finibus bonorum et malorum, Bk III.

‘Mundum autem censent regi numine deorum, eumque esse quasi communem urbem et civitatem hominum et deorum, et unumquemque nostrum eius mundi esse partem; ex quo illud natura consequi, ut communem utilitatem nostrae anteponamus. Ut enim leges omnium salutem singulorum salutem anteponunt, sic vir bonus et sapiens et legibus parens et civilis officii non ignarus utilitati omnium plus quam suae consulit. Nec magis culpant Stoici proditorem patriae quam eum qui communem utilitatem propter suam deserit. Ex quo fit ut eum laudemus qui mortem obeat pro re publica, quod decet cariorem nobis esse patriam quam nos ipsos.

‘Praeterea quod nemo in summa solitudine vitam agere vult ne cum singulari quidem voluptatum abundantia, facile intelligitur nos ad naturalem communitatem esse natos.’

“‘They (the Stoics) think that the world is governed by the power of the gods, and that it is, as it were, a city and community shared by gods and men, and that each and every one of us is a part of this world; from this, it follows naturally that we should promote the common good in preference to our own. For, just as the law places the welfare of all above the welfare of individuals, so a man who is good, ethically aware, respectful of the law, and conscious of his duty as a citizen, is more mindful of the common good than of his own. In just the same way, the Stoics hold a man who betrays his country equally guilty with someone who abandons the common good to pursue his own advantage. It is for this reason that we praise the man who gives up his life for his country, because our country should be dearer to us than we are to ourselves.

‘Moreover, no-one wants to spend his life in complete isolation from his fellows, even if he could experience all possible pleasures by doing so: thus, it is easy to realise that we have been destined by Nature for the communal form of life she has prepared for us.’

“Why did AT allow himself to be seduced by what I call the ‘standard textbook view’ when there exists substantial evidence against it? I can only speculate as follows.

1)  The writing of the so-called ‘history of ideas’ is often corrupted by the notion that one must be able to trace a discernible pattern in the ideas whose history one claims to be writing, and this pattern must match in some way the development of the states/societies in which those ideas were produced.

2)  In Victorian Hellenism there was an idée reçue, or better an idée fixe, that Greek civilisation reached its apogee in the 5th century BC, in the polis of Athens. The values and ideals of this culture are to be found described in lapidary form by Thucydides in the ‘Funeral Speech’ he attributes to Pericles in Bk II of his History.

3)  It follows that the relationship between Classical and Hellenistic Greek culture is one of ‘perfection’ and ‘decadence’. (As far as I know, AT did not embrace the racism and homophobia often associated with this view.)”


Racism and homophobia? I could understand the first in this context, not the second.

“The racism implicit in Victorian Hellenism derives from the idea that large numbers of people were Greek by culture but not by race in the Hellenistic world (‘of course these people didn’t really understand true Hellenism’).

“The homophobia derives from the Victorian view that homosexuality was on the increase in the transition from Classical to Hellenistic Greece (or, in its more refined version, Greek bisexual culture was moving from Aphrodite Urania to Aphrodite Pandemos), so the virility and martial spirit of even the ethnically-Greek peoples was weakened (‘no wonder the Romans had no difficulty in conquering these degenerates’).”

See pre-Victorian Gibbon on effeminate Asians. A retreat into the self could, I suppose, have co-existed with what Cicero is saying here. A tendency is one direction doesn’t preclude a tendency in another. I don’t know about 1) in this case, but I’m sure Toynbee inherited part of that historical view. He certainly had the idée fixe about the fifth century as a turning-point.

On the other hand, he contributes to a book intended to form an historical background to the foundation of the League of Nations (The Evolution of World-Peace, Essays Arranged and Edited by F. S. Marvin, OUP, 1921) in which his essay, Alexander and Hellenism, written with Marvin, looks at “the greatest definite effort at world-incorporation made by the Greeks” and how it broke down. It shows some of the old Victorian view, but also a post-1918 hankering for “world-unity”. Alexander’s work is a warning to “would-be conquerors of the world in a superior spirit”. The other contributors are Paul Vinogradoff, HWC Davis, GN Clark, GP Gooch, CR Beazley, Frederick Whelen, HG Wells and Eileen Power.

The essays were based on lectures given at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, founded by George Cadbury in Birmingham. It’s not clear whether Toynbee or Marvin gave the one on Alexander. It reads like Toynbee. One, by Gilbert Murray, “on the mandatory system under the Peace Treaty”, is not printed.

Rebuilding Rhodes

February 12 2010

The Marshall Plan was perhaps not quite unprecedented. There was a classical precedent in a post-Alexandrine chapter of Hellenic history that had seen the states of the Hellenic World of the day vie with one another in the generosity of their gifts to the city-state of Rhodes after Rhodes had been smitten by an earthquake in 227 B.C. [Footnote: See Polybius: Oecumenical History, Book V, chaps. 88-90 […].] This, however, had been a case of many countries contributing towards the relief of one country, whereas the Marshall Plan was a case of one country offering help to all the rest, and making this offer at a time when the donor was already the strongest single Power in the World of the day.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Union and uniates

January 15 2010

At the Council of Florence (A.D. 1438-9), which had been convened with the objects of negotiating a union between the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Roman See, a statesmanlike distinction was boldly drawn by the Western ecclesiastical negotiators. They required, as the conditions for union, an agreement in doctrine with the Western Church and an acceptance of the Roman See’s ecclesiastical supremacy; and they insisted on these two conditions being complied with. But at the same time they showed themselves ready to allow to Eastern Orthodox churches that did agree with these conditions wide liberty in the field of rites. They were to be free, for instance, to retain their own traditional liturgies in their own liturgical languages, and their own traditional customs and practices as, for example, the custom that parish priests should be married men. This discriminatory policy did not attain its immediate purpose. At the time, the Eastern Orthodox peoples repudiated the signatures of their representatives, and the Greek people opted for political subjection to the Ottoman Empire as, in their eyes, a lesser evil than ecclesiastical submission to the Roman See. But this immediate rebuff did not move the Vatican to revoke the terms for union that it had offered in A.D. 1438-9; and, in the course of the five centuries that have passed since that date, the result of this enlightened liberality has been the reconciliation with Rome of a number of uniate churches recruited not only from Eastern Orthodox Christendom but from the Monothelete and Monophysite and Nestorian communions too.

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

The city and the pillar

January 14 2010

… or The descent of Daniel

The harmony which Frazer denies [harmony between the service of God and the service of Man] is exemplified in practice in the lives of the Christian anchorites – a Saint Antony in his desert in Egypt or a Saint Symeon on his pillar in Syria – in an age when the Roman Empire, and the Hellenic Society embodied in it, were approaching their final dissolution. It is manifest that, in insulating themselves physically from their fellow men, these saints were entering into a far more active relation with a far wider circle than any that would have centred round them if they had remained “in the World” and had spent their lives in some secular occupation. They swayed the world from their retreats to greater effect than the Emperor in the city or than the master of the soldiers in the cantonment, because their personal pursuit of holiness through seeking communion with God was a form of social action that moved their fellow men more powerfully than any secular social service on the military or the political plane. The anchorites were recognized by their contemporaries to be pursuing the highest social aim on behalf of all Mankind with complete single-mindedness and disinterestedness; and this spectacle of their self-realization through self-surrender struck their contemporaries’ imaginations and touched their hearts and thereby played its part in the forging of a social bond of a spiritual order which held firm when Society dissolved on the political and economic levels.

Until recently it was considered to be beneficial to society for certain people to sit alone in rooms studying Latin and Greek texts.

Stylite comes from the ecclesiastical Greek stulitēs, from stulos, pillar. Stylites would sit for years on the tops of pillars in contemplation and prayer. St Simeon Stylites (c 390-459) lived near Aleppo, St Daniel (c 409-93) at Anaplus on the west side of the Bosphorus, St Simeon the Younger (521-97) near Antioch, St Alypius (522-640, dying apparently at the age of 118) in Paphlagonia. There are later examples in the Orthodox world, including in Russia.

“It has sometimes been said that the ascetic ideal of the East Roman was a barren withdrawal from the world of his day; the biography of John the Almsgiver [footnote (I presume Toynbee): John the Almsgiver [not a stylite] was Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria from A.D. 611 to A.D. 619. During these years Syria was under Persian military occupation while Egypt was still in Roman hands, and the Patriarch had to cope with an influx of Syrian refugees.] may suggest why it was that the Byzantine in his hour of need turned instinctively for aid and comfort to the ascete in the full assurance of his sympathy and succour. … One of the outstanding features of early Byzantine asceticism is its passion for social justice and its championship of the poor and oppressed.” [Footnote: Dawes, E., and Baynes, N. H.: Three Byzantine Saints (Oxford 1948, Blackwell), pp. 198 and 197.]

The anchorites’ concern and travail for the welfare of their fellow men would still have been recognized without question by their contemporaries if the anchorites themselves had never departed from their chosen and approved way of performing the opus Dei. But there were occasions on which the anchorites showed their love for Man and their humility towards God by breaking the regime of insulation that they had imposed on themselves and returning to the World to intervene in a secular crisis.

Thus [footnote: An English translation of the original Greek text narrating the following story will be found in Dawes and Baynes, op. cit., pp. 49-59. The anonymous author was one of the Saint’s personal attendants.] in A.D. 475-6 Saint Daniel the Stylite, at the instance of the emissaries of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, consented to descend from his pillar at Anaplus, up the Bosphorus, in order to save Orthodoxy from the Monophysite proclivities of the usurping Emperor Basiliscus. [Footnote: Monophysitism versus Orthodoxy was a secular as well as a religious issue at this date, since Monophysitism was becoming the theological expression of the resurgent national consciousness of the non-Hellenic peoples of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire – particularly the Copts, Syrians, and Armenians – as against the [Chalcedonian] Orthodoxy of the “Melchite” Greek-speaking supporters of the Roman Imperial régime […].] The mere news of the holy man’s epiphany in the cathedral church of the Apostles in the Imperial City frightened the Emperor into evacuating his own capital and retreating to the imperial palace at the seventh milestone. It was indeed a crushing indictment of his conduct of public affairs that the report of his people’s affliction should have moved the saint to re-emerge from a physical isolation in which, by that time, he had been living already for twenty-four years [footnote: For the first nine years of these twenty-four, Saint Daniel had immured himself in an ex-pagan temple; for the last fifteen he had marooned himself on the top of a pillar.] and which was to have lasted unbroken till his death. Working spiritual acts of psychical and physical healing on his way, Saint Daniel led the clergy and people of Constantinople to beard the truant prince in his suburban asylum; and, when the guards refused the crowd admission to the imperial presence, the saint directed the people to follow him in the scriptural symbolic act of shaking the dust of the palace precincts off their garments [there are references in both Testaments to the gesture of shaking dust off garments or feet] – which they did with such a thunderous reverberation that most of the guards on duty were moved to desert their imperial master and follow in the stylite’s train. In vain the Emperor sent messages after the departing saint to beg him to return to the Hebdomon [the suburb to which he had retreated]; in vain he returned to Constantinople himself and besought Daniel to visit him in his palace there. In the end the Emperor was constrained to present himself before the Saint in the Cathedral and prostrate himself at his feet; and a public profession of Orthodoxy was the price that he eventually had to pay in order to save his throne by setting Daniel at liberty to resume his station on his pillar-top.

This was the sole occasion on which Saint Daniel issued from his physical seclusion during a period of forty-two years (A.D. 451-93) which saw the Roman Empire founder in the West while in the East it escaped shipwreck under the spiritual pilotage of the stylite’s “distant control”.

“For three and thirty years [in total] (A.D. 460-93) he stood for varying periods on the three columns. … During these he was deemed worthy to receive ‘the prize of his high calling’; [footnote (Toynbee or Dawes and Baynes?): Phil. iii. 14.] he blessed all men, he prayed on behalf of all, he counselled all not to be covetous, he instructed all in the things necessary to salvation, he showed hospitality to all [on the top of the column?], yet he possessed nothing on Earth beyond the confines of the spot on which the enclosure and religious houses had been built.” [Footnote: Dawes and Baynes, op. cit., pp. 70-71.]

On the face of it, Saint Daniel’s return to the World in order to rescue his fellow men from political oppression is the same story as the return of Purun Baghat [footnote: Kipling, Rudyard: “The Miracle of Purun Baghat” in The Second Jungle Book […].] to give warning, to the village below this Hindu hermit’s cave, of an impending landslide that would otherwise have engulfed the villagers unawares. The point is, indeed, the same in the legend of the Christian saint and in the Western storyteller’s version of a Hindu theme. The historic Christian and the imaginary Hindu hermit each rises to his highest spiritual flight by breaking away, for the love of God and Man, from a settled course of physical withdrawal from the World along which he had been seeking spiritual perfection. Yet, though both responded in the same way to the same illumination, there is a difference between their spiritual histories in the crucial point of the relation of the new light that had dawned on them to their previous spiritual outlook. The Christian saint had been led into his physical retreat from the World by the same love of God and Man that eventually moved him to descend from his pillar, whereas the Hindu sage, when he yielded to the impulse of love and pity that sent his feet hastening down the mountainside from the cave to the village, was not fulfilling his philosophy but was flying in its face – and who can say whether he would have brought himself to make this sacrifice “in real life”, if he had been an historical character authentically brought up in a philosophical tradition inherited by Hinduism from a Primitive Buddhist School, instead of having been created, as he was, by the imagination of a Western man of letters brought up in the religious tradition of Christianity?

The truth is that Frazer’s strictures, which miss their mark when he directs them against the saints, find a legitimate target in the philosophers, be they of the Indic or of the Hellenic school, who cultivate a detachment in which the withdrawal leads to no return. The Hinayanian, Stoic, and Epicurean ideal of the sage goes astray through casting Man for a superhuman role of godlike self-sufficiency and thereby condemning the adept to seek a way out of an impossible position by restricting himself to a sub-human performance. This philosophy attempts to make of Man, not a saint inspired by God’s grace, but a very god in himself; and, since this is too heavy a burden for a human soul to bear, the philosopher cannot make even a pretence of carrying it off unless he lightens his self-imposed load by casting out his God-given feelings of love and pity for the rest of God’s creatures.

Stephen Marsh, I suspect, would disagree with what seems to be the thrust of the last section as it concerns the detachment of the Greeks, having written in response to something here, and believing Toynbee to be anyway out of his depth in matters of philosophy: “Stoicism contains a great deal of ethical concern about the world outside the self including the claim that the world is the polis of good men” and “the ideal of euergetism [helping a community through patronage] makes even Epicureans like Diogenes of Oenanda concerned with promoting a good, ie happy, life for their fellow citizens”.

For similarly brilliant references to Kipling, see Mowgli’s finger and Gallicus Tumultus.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954


January 3 2010

John Mark Ainsley on Hans Werner Henze’s opera Phaedra, which gets its first English performance at the Barbican in London on January 17. Ainsley will sing Hippolytus.

Ainsley has fallen under Henze’s spell. So has Ian Bostridge. So have I. The illness that interrupted the composition of Phaedra in late 2005 and sent Henze into a quasi-coma was mysterious. I suppose it was a response to the ordeal of composing an opera at that age, and a rite of passage to a few final creative years. Henze referred to a heart attack which he suffered in the ’70s as an “industrial accident”.

Andrew Clark began this article in the FT on December 7 2005 with the words “As Hans Werner Henze lies dying at his home near Rome”.

Here is a Guardian piece about the forthcoming Henze weekend at the Barbican, which ends with Phaedra. Service says that Schoenberg is “Henze’s great composing hero”. Where does he get that from?

I won’t be here for Phaedra, but hope to see Elegy for Young Lovers at the Young Vic in April.