Ancient echo chambers

The good thing about social media, they say, is that it promotes dialogue and exchange. And there’s no better way to test views and ideas than through disputation and scrutiny. Except that social media, as you’re surely aware, doesn’t really do that. Instead, it sets up bastions of like-mindedness. Like-mindedness had been there long beforeContinue reading “Ancient echo chambers”

Historical blindness

This late-medieval Italian illustration of St Augustine writing at his desk highlights two of our many misconceptions about pre-modern cultures: that these cultures were wholly different from ours (this is the first step towards a second, which says that anything of value, we’ve come up with it); that artefacts from these cultures obey the rulesContinue reading “Historical blindness”

The longue durée

Ever since Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), the concept of the longue durée (long-term structures) has become one of the dominating concepts in the history of history, historiography, the study of how the past becomes history. According to the longue durée, the historical event fades in the faceContinue reading “The longue durée”

Poetry, wine and death

The link between poetry, love and death was well established in ancient times. Eros-thanatos is a recurrent theme of ancient lyric poetry. Wine, however, doesn’t usually come into the equation. The so-called sympotic poetry of the archaic age of Greek literature brings poetry in the midst of wine drinking parties or symposia (literally drinking-together), butContinue reading “Poetry, wine and death”

The neo-scroll turn

We are so surrounded by books that we forget how revolutionary the emergence of the codex – the bound book made up of stitched sheets stacked together and enclosed between a case – was to the cultures around the Mediterranean and beyond. The book as we know it. Writing predates the advent of the bookContinue reading “The neo-scroll turn”

Knocking at each other’s door

The ancient Greek and Roman poets would be thrilled to learn that one of the key motifs of their poetry has become routine these days. The world of lockdown is also one of paraclausithyron, the doleful cry of a lover standing at the beloved’s door, begging for entry and bewailing the exclusion. The ‘lament atContinue reading “Knocking at each other’s door”

An offence against language

It is one of history’s gravest ironies that in a medieval world sanctioned by the modern observer with illiteracy, ignorance and obscurantism, the 10th-century grammar teacher Gunzo of Novara should be censured by his contemporaries for a Latin mistake he inadvertently made. To be sure, criticising a 19th-century scholar for bad philology or a 21st-centuryContinue reading “An offence against language”

Palinodes or the courage to say ‘I was wrong’

Intellectual honesty is a virtue universally accepted, and any perceived departures from it are usually condemned. The ability to act on the available evidence and to speak one’s mind – truth and freedom –, are features of a healthy intellectual environment and the characteristics of an honest thinker. But often the evidence changes, the viewsContinue reading “Palinodes or the courage to say ‘I was wrong’”

The Romans always win until they don’t

One of the most fascinating inscriptions from ancient Rome is the so-called ‘Hisma inscription’. Written in Greek by someone named ‘Lauricius’ in probably the late 2nd century AD, it proclaims that: ‘The Romans always win’. The sandstone slab was found in South Jordan, in Roman Arabia, on the edge of the Empire. The Romans keptContinue reading “The Romans always win until they don’t”

A catalogue of Cassandras

Do you remember Cassandra, the prophetess of the ancient sad countenance who possessed the gift of true prophecy but could never be believed? She was reportedly murdered by Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra along with her husband, but the truth is that she’s still alive. The rumour has it that she married the boy who cried wolfContinue reading “A catalogue of Cassandras”