Omicron is the name chosen for the new variant of the COVID-19 virus, otherwise known as B.1.1.529. So far, we have seen Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron variants of the COVID-19 virus labelled as ‘variants of concern’. Let’s hope it stops there.

Why is the World Health Organisation using letters of the Greek alphabet to name COVID variants?  It seems they were looking for a neutral labelling system. They sought to avoid categorising variants according to place of origin because of the stigmatising effects.  They have settled on letters of the Greek alphabet as an easy and practical solution.

Not everyone is happy about this solution (it would seem) and not everyone finds the names easy to pronounce. As a language teacher, I would much rather if people learnt the Greek alphabet in full because a) they want to acquire another language and b) they are interested in ancient or modern Greek! It is regrettable that for some, these names will forever be associated with a life-threatening virus. At the same time, there is a very long association between ancient Greek language and medical terminology we still use today, such as ‘pneumonia’, ‘cardiac’ and ‘pleurisy’.

Ancient Greek is an Indo-European language, alongside English, Russian and most European languages. Greek has the longest recorded history of any Indo-European language: it stretches from the fourteenth century BC to the present day.

The Greek alphabet was adopted from the Phoenicians in the late 9th or early 8th century BCE.  Early Greek alphabets differed and it was not until the 4th century BC that the 24-letter East-Ionic alphabet became standard throughout most of the Greek world. The word ‘alphabet’ is derived from the first two letter-names of the Greek alphabet, that is, alpha and beta.

The ancient Greeks wrote only in capital letters, with no gaps between words and no punctuation. This is clearly evident from Greek inscriptions on ancient temples, monuments and vase paintings. Lower case forms of letters and punctuation were introduced in Byzantine and modern times. Thank goodness for that because READINGWORDSWITHOUTGAPSANDPUNCTUATIONISDIFFICULTANDREQUIRESAGREATDEALOFCONCENTRATION.

Omicron is the name applied to the 15th letter of the ancient Greek alphabet. In written form, it looks exactly like the English letter ‘o’.  There are two o-vowel sounds in Greek – omicron is the short ‘o’ vowel sound, and omega (the last letter of the Greek alphabet) is the long ‘o’ vowel sound.

The fascinating thing is that the letter omicron wasn’t called omicron by the ancient Greeks, it was actually known as ‘oo’ (οὖ), pronounced like the ‘oo’ in the English word ‘pool’ or the ‘ou’ in the French ‘rouge’.

It was the Byzantines who labelled this letter of the alphabet ‘omicron’ from two separate words: the letter ‘o’ and μικρόν which means ‘little’ (the origin of our word ‘micro’) so omicron actually means ‘little o’ to distinguish it from the ‘big o’ that is o-mega. Let’s just hope that we don’t get an omega variant!

The pronunciation of ancient Greek is a vexed topic. Ancient Greek had a pitch accent, not a stress accent, so the accent of a word or phrase involving raising (or lowering, or raising and lowering) the pitch of the voice where the accent fell. For example, the word ‘acropolis’, has a rising pitch accent on the first omicron and would have featured a rising pitch on the first omicron: ἀκρόπολις.

While it is possible to deduce how individual words might have sounded with a pitch accent, it is very difficult to recreate the pitch accent system in longer sentences (let alone in epic verse!). It must have been a very ‘musical’ sounding language, with distinct changes in pitch throughout.

That being said, there are small communities of Greeks living in north-eastern Turkey who speak a dialect that is said to be remarkably similar to ancient Greek. A linguist at Cambridge University, Dr Ioanna Sitaridou, is studying this surviving form of ancient Greek: see The Romeyka project (link below).

Omicron is also the 15th letter of the modern Greek alphabet and there is no reason to pronounce ‘omicron’ in a way that is different to the way modern Greek speakers pronounce it. There are many similarities between ancient and modern Greek (many more than between Latin and modern Italian). There is a great deal of shared vocabulary between the two even if the grammatical structures might be different. Words like μέλι (honey) and θεός (god) have remained unchanged between the earliest Greek of the 14th century BC and the modern Greek spoken today.

For more info on pronouncing ‘omicron’ see my ABC Radio interview below:


D. Mastronarde (1993) Introduction to Attic Greek, University of California Press, Berkeley.


According to the notable Sir Thomas More, 

‘utopia’ is like nowhere else before, 

since ‘ou’ means not and ‘topos’ place, 

utopia doesn’t exist in time or space. 

But Sir Thomas More’s use of Greek, 

is something about which I feel compelled to speak, 

because if one revisits the ancient Greek stage, 

one discovers what was called the ‘Golden Age’.  

Like many things Greek, this idea came 

from another place with a different name.  

The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, 

talks of a place that is utterly blessed, 

where death doesn’t exist, and peace abounds, 

where love and harmony are sure to be found, 

no sickness, no old age, no grief to bear, 

and honey sweet birdsong adrift in the air.  

The earliest Greek as far as we can see, 

was Hesiod of the eighth century BC, 

who in a long poem called Works and Days,  

named the gold, silver, bronze and iron age. 

The golden ones, says he, were close to divine, 

safe from work and hunger and the ravages of time, 

they feasted all day, praised the gods with a song, 

till they fell fast asleep, having done no one wrong.  

‘Golden’ for Hesiod stands for permanency, 

and like gold denotes highest quality. 

Changed into guardians, golden ones still exist, 

guiding the conscience of some in our midst.   

No prizes for guessing to which era we’re from, 

we are the race of iron — base, hard and strong, 

we have lost our connection with the divine, 

we toil, suffer and grieve, and argue all the time. 

Many centuries later, and another poet rode 

a similar horse, in his second Olympian Ode. 

His name was Pindar, in 476 BC, 

same theme but with a touch of added mystery.  

For Pindar talks not of a golden age lost, 

a race long forgotten at great moral cost, 

but an actual place that exists in the far west,  

a place known simply as the ‘Isles of the Blessed’.  

For Pindar, this place is paradise on earth, 

golden flowers and trees, good people and mirth, 

joyful and peaceful, a life without tears, 

a place ruled by Kronos without any fears. 

You get there by living three good lives, 

no lying, no cheating, no multiple wives! 

And if found exemplary the third time round,  

in that sun-kissed topos you are sure to be found.  

Alas after Pindar, Sparta and Athens did war, 

with horrors unlike anything seen before,  

society was crumbling, too many had died, 

plague sufferers especially lucky to survive. 

The golden age seemed lost in the ruin and rubble, 

until the comic poets emerged and fixed the muddle. 

They revived the golden age  – took it to an entirely new level 

and said everything in the spirit of Dionysian revel.  

So Cratinus laughs about life without slavery, 

when masters make their own dinner and tea, 

and since work in the golden age is forbidden, 

dinner conjures itself at a person’s biddin’. 

Tables self-set, wine jumps into the cup, 

beetroots and cakes simply offer themselves up, 

fish can’t be eaten until cooked on both sides, 

so it flips itself over and bastes its own behind!  

But the award for comedy goes to Telecleides, 

who made everyone howl and fall to their knees, 

claiming food in the golden age was to be found everywhere,  

with cakes and loaves flying through the air, 

and fighting one another to be first consumed, 

a perpetual feast must of course be presumed,   

food fried itself and soup rivers flowed,  

flying meat balls, rissoles, pasties and dough.  

If there was a thinker who took it more seriously,  

it was Plato of course, in the fifth century BC.  

Plato talks of the golden age of Kronos, 

when all men were good, and Kronos was the boss.  

Men sprang from the earth, and food did too, 

as far as cultivation, there was nothing to do,  

no need for clothes, for bed or a couch, 

the weather was always perfect for a slouch.   

Enter Socrates: did they make use of their time? 

Did the ‘golden’ philosophise or waste it in rhyme?  

Did they learn wisdom from conversing with creatures? 

And make good use of opportunities to read works like Nietzsche’s?  

If they did this, then their happiness was, 

a thousand fold greater than ours because 

we can’t talk to animals and that is a pity, 

since animals have great wisdom to offer a city.  

The weird thing about Kronos’ people is this: 

no sex, no procreation, not even a kiss. 

Since these people sprang fully grown from the earth,  

there was nothing equivalent to conventional birth, 

weirder still, this race didn’t shrivel and grow old, 

but grew backwards to infancy, so we are told, 

and finally they just went back into the ground, 

like bulbs returning to an earthen mound! 

But we can’t end it there, with our dear old friend Plato, 

there is one more to mention – one you probably won’t know, 

his name was Babrius, second century AD, 

strange name you might think (blame his family tree).  

He says the golden ones were a race of the just,  

they did only good. No deception! No lust! 

Good for them was a consistently made choice,  

and the stones, trees and animals also had voice! 

The pine-tree spoke, as did the leaves of the laurel,  

nice things only – nothing harmful, no quarrels.  

Fish also could speak and sparrows too,  

living in harmony everyone knew what to do,  

earth gave up its goods both heartily and easily,  

and mortals and gods lived side by side in society.  

Just imagine that! Having a meal with a god, 

then turning and chatting with your ever faithful dog.  

My point is this – I’ve gone on long enough.  

I don’t mean to be rude, or flippant or rough, 

It’s just that well, I know I’ve got cheek, 

but I just cannot help questioning Sir Thomas More’s Greek. 

‘Utopia’ for the Greeks was both a time and a place, 

not a nothing , an impossibility or a ‘not-place’, 

it was an ideal, a concept, an important idea, 

a notion about which we should have no fear. 

We too need a golden age, a land far beyond, 

we need poets, imagination, wine and good song, 

we need to dream, to imagine, to think and consider, 

we need to laugh, philosophise and cook our own dinner! 

We need to reflect on how life could be good, 

(somewhere we can do without Coles for our food). 

We need to think about turning a new page 

and for Hesiod’s sake, call it the new Golden Age!  

Header image:

Author’s note: This poem was originally submitted to Issue 73 of Griffith Review entitled ‘Hey, Utopia!’. Unfortunately, the aim of publishing a piece in that literary magazine proved to be an unattainable ideal!

Gym versus gymnasium

One of the (few) positives to emerge from last year has been the prioritisation of health and wellbeing. Social media is awash with advertising for gym memberships, activewear and protein supplements. Happily, many people have found new ways to incorporate exercise into their daily and weekly routines. Like many others, I have adopted a ‘health first’ policy and taken up running. As a classicist though, I can’t help wondering what an ancient Athenian would make of the modern gym scene? Lycra-clad bodies doing reps on machines in an indoor warehouse, rap music thumping over the loudspeakers, gym rats taking selfies and girls chatting while running on treadmills. An ancient Athenian would be quite perplexed…

Why are we exercising indoors for a start? In ancient Greece, gymnasia were simply outdoor spaces, often situated near a grove of trees and a religious sanctuary or shrine. It never would have occurred to an ancient Greek to exercise in an enclosed building. The closest to that was the courtyard of a building with a covered colonnade (xystos). No fluorescent lighting, air conditioning or carpet – just the hot sun, fresh air and a patch of dusty ground.  The facilities were very basic. If you were lucky, there might be a fountain nearby or basins for washing. Gymnasia were often situated close to outdoor stadiums and running tracks. Sometimes, the buildings near the gym functioned as schools, with classrooms and teaching spaces. This is how gymnasia became associated with early universities such as Plato’s Academy (a view of the site of the Academy can be seen below):

Why do we have to pay to enter this space? The notion of paying to attend a privately-owned gym would seem very peculiar. In ancient Greece, the gymnasium was a public space that was provided, owned, and looked after by the city. It was primarily used as a space to train hoplites (the heavily armed foot soldiers that formed the backbone of the Greek armies). As this military service was part of one’s civic duty anyway, the notion of paying for training would have seemed very odd. The gymnasium was also a training ground for male athletes who sought to compete in the athletic competitions at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Corinth. These competitions were only open to Greek citizens and were part of one’s engagement with civic, cultural and religious life. An athlete might pay his trainer a tuition fee, but he would not pay to enter the gymnasium. Here is a brief account of a trainer named Melesias who was once a great athlete himself:

If I have, in my song, exalted the glory of Melesias for his training of beardless youths, let envy not strike me with a rough stone. For I will tell how he himself won the same grace at Nemea, and later, among men, in the battle of the pancratium. To teach is easier for one who has knowledge himself. And it is foolish not to learn in advance; for the minds of those with no experience are insubstantial. 

Pindar, Olympian Ode 8, 54-62

How is that women are allowed to train alongside men in the modern gym? The concept of men and women exercising together would be viewed as deeply shocking. In ancient Greece, gymnasia were only frequented by young men, typically aged between 18 and 20, and their older male trainers and teachers. Young women of that age were expected to be at home, caring for their young children and running their households.  It would have been considered highly improper for a respectable young woman to go near a gym and, in all likelihood, she would have been forbidden from entering the space. Even at the Olympic games, married women were forbidden from watching the men’s athletic competitions.  When young, unmarried women did compete in athletic activities (at Olympia, for example), it was in a separate competition (called the Heraea, named after the goddess Hera) and involving one short foot race. Here is an account of that event:

Every fourth year there is woven for Hera a robe by the Sixteen women, and the same also hold games called Heraea. The games consist of foot-races for maidens. These are not all of the same age. The first to run are the youngest; after them come the next in age, and the last to run are the oldest of the maidens. They run in the following way: their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast. These too have the Olympic stadium reserved for their games, but the course of the stadium is shortened for them by about one-sixth of its length. To the winning maidens they give crowns of olive and a portion of the cow sacrificed to Hera. They may also dedicate statues with their names inscribed upon them. Those who administer to the Sixteen are, like the presidents of the games, married women.

Pausanias, 5.16.2-3

One of the most famous footraces from ancient Greek literature is described by Homer in the epic story of the Trojan War, the Iliad. It is a race between the Greek heroes Ajax, Odysseus and Archilochus:

Achilles pointed out the post…They toed the line –

and broke flat out from the start and Ajax shot ahead

with quick Odysseus coming right behind him, close

as the weaver’s rod to a well-sashed woman’s breast

when she deftly pulls it toward her, shooting the spool

across the warp, still closer, pressing her breast –

so close Odysseus sprinted, hot on Ajax’s heels,

feet hitting his tracks before the dust could settle

and quick Odysseus panting, breathing down his neck,

always forcing the pace and all the Argives shouting,

cheering him on as he strained for triumph, sprinting on

and fast in the homestretch, spurting toward the goal

Odysseus prayed in his heart to blazing-eyed Athena,

“Hear me, Goddess, help me – hurry, urge me on!”*

Homer, Iliad 23. 740ff, transl. by Fagles

Why do we wear clothes while exercising? An ancient Greek ‘bro’ would be utterly perplexed by our choice of clothing, let alone the fact that we wear clothes at all. The word ‘gymnasium’ comes from ‘gymnos’ in Greek meaning ‘naked’. As is well-known, male athletes trained and competed in the nude or, at most, wearing a loincloth. Anyone who has worn sweaty Lycra would agree that running naked would be preferable! Athletes also smeared their bodies with olive oil, which kept off the dust and had the added advantage of moisturising the skin. There was specific clothing and gear required for other activities such as boxing and chariot-racing of course but, for the other athletic activities, such as long-jump, discus and javelin, there seems no reason to assume that male athletes wore anything at all. As Thucydides says:

They also set the example of contending naked, publicly stripping and anointing themselves with oil in their gymnastic exercises. Formerly, even in the Olympic contests, the athletes who contended wore belts across their middles; and it is but a few years since that the practice ceased. 

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.6.5

There is one aspect of gym life that has not changed and that is admiration for the athletic male form. Nowadays, we talk about guys being ‘ripped’, ‘jacked’, ‘shredded’ or ‘swole’. The same admiration for the toned male athlete existed in ancient Greece. Young male athletes were an object of admiration and sexual desire (for men and women). We can see this not only in the written sources but in the many vase paintings that depict handsome male athletes. No wonder then that married women weren’t allowed to watch the male athletic games and no wonder that gymnasia became synonymous with targeting of potential lovers by Athenian men. One fellow, named Callias, had his eye on Autolycus, a particularly handsome and accomplished athlete:

It was on the occasion of the horse-races at the greater Panathenaic games; Callias, Hipponicus’ son, was enamoured, as it happened, of the boy Autolycus, and in honour of his victory in the pancratium had brought him to see the spectacle. When the racing was over, Callias proceeded on his way to his house in the Peiraeus with Autolycus and the boy’s father; Niceratus also was in his company.

Xenophon, Symposium, 1.2

Maybe Autolycus looked something like this:

Nowadays we talk about our PB (personal best). We are encouraged to ‘run our own race’ and achieve our personal fitness goals. In ancient Greek society, this too would have been viewed as rather odd. An ancient Greek bro was not interested in improving his PB in an individual sense but in smashing the competition. Competition was everything. The word ‘athletics’ is derived from ‘athlos’ meaning ‘conflict, struggle’. Athletics was unashamedly about being better than everyone else and winning the prize (an olive or laurel wreath, an amphora of olive oil, monetary prizes or special distinctions). To lose was a source of great shame and could induce depression or mental illness. Pindar puts it nicely in his first Olympian Ode, dedicated to Hieron of Syracuse for winning a horse race in 476 B.C.:

Water is best, and gold, like a blazing fire in the night, stands out supreme of all lordly wealth. But if, my heart, you wish to sing of contests, look no further for any star warmer than the sun, shining by day through the lonely sky, and let us not proclaim any contest greater than Olympia. 

As for music, the modern gym revs us up with rap, hip hop, 80’s remixes… an ancient Greek bro would prefer a couple of lively tunes on the cithara or aulos, if anything. In fact, I have not found much evidence that Greek athletes trained to music. Most likely in the ancient gymnasium, there was just the usual chorus of grunting, puffing, shouting, exclamations of pain (oimoi and aiai), orders to stop or to help, and words of encouragement. That being said, musical contests did form part of the athletic games so there was some cross-over between the two activities.

Last but not least, there was the post-workout meal. Whether you are a burger and fries, protein shake, or large skinny vanilla latte kind of gym shark, nothing beats the ancient Greek athlete’s diet: 9 kilograms of meat, 9 kilograms of bread, and 8 litres of wine per day. This diet of protein, carbohydrates and alcohol was the preferred diet of Milo of Croton, a multi-award winning wrestler of the 6th century BC. According to Hippocrates (De Prisca medicina, 4):

those who devote themselves to gymnastics and training, are always making some new discovery… by eating and drinking certain things, they are improved and grow stronger than they were.

Some things haven’t changed. Protein shake anyone?


Translations of ancient texts are from Perseus Greek/Latin Texts Online (unless stated otherwise)

Images from the Met Museum collection (unless stated otherwise)

Facts and figures from the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome

Gym slang for newbies:

*Who won the foot race? Odysseus of course (with Athena’s help) and much to Ajax’s chagrin

What to look for in a leader

It is a tense time as the world awaits the outcome of the US election. It is also an opportune moment to reflect on models of leadership, both past and present. In this blog, I offer some thoughts on excellent leadership by drawing on an unexpected source: an account of an expedition into Persia by a Greek army in the fourth century BC.

Imagine for a moment that you are a Greek mercenary, paid to fight in a foreign war at the edge of the known world. You find yourself standing on a dusty plain in Babylonia, at the point at which the river Euphrates meets the river Tigris.  A messenger on horseback thunders towards you: he shouts that the Persian King is approaching with his army. Along with the other Greek hoplites, you scramble to put on your breastplate and greaves, to take up your sword and javelin, and to find your place in the formation. In the heat of early afternoon, a dust cloud appears in the distance: ‘like a white cloud, and after some time a sort of blackness extending a long way over the plain…suddenly, there were flashes of bronze, and the spear points and the enemy formations became visible’.  When the watchword is given, you shout the war cry and advance toward the Persian forces at a run. To scare the horses, you clash your shield and spear together. The Persian army, even before they are within the range of the arrows, wavers and runs away. You pursue them and fight a second battle until the sun goes down. At the other end of the battle line, your leader and sponsor has been killed, struck in the eye with a javelin.

Your former leader was named Cyrus. He was said to be notable for the following qualities. As a child, he was the best behaved of all his contemporaries and more willing than others to listen to his elders. As a leader, ‘he attached the utmost importance to keeping his word’ so that his followers had a deep sense of trust and confidence in him. He richly rewarded those who behaved according to his standards, which inspired others to follow him, and those who proved to be competent were rewarded with greater responsibility.

Following the death of Cyrus, you find yourself stranded in the middle of enemy territory. Your camp has been plundered and you have to slaughter baggage animals for food, boiling the meat on makeshift fires made from wooden arrows and wicker shields abandoned by the enemy. The mood of your fellow hoplites is low. You cannot cross the river without boats, you have no supplies, and you cannot return the way you came because this would mean seventeen days of marching through the desert without food. You are at least a thousand miles from Greece, with no guide to show you the way. To make matters worse, the generals who were sent to negotiate with the enemy have been beheaded.

For some, moments of helplessness induce great despair and despondency; for others, these moments incite action and initiative. It only takes one person to see what is needed in a situation and to find a way to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. That individual was Xenophon. Xenophon was encouraged by a friend to join the expedition; he never intended to become a general or to lead an army of 10,000 men back to Greece but once he found himself in a position of leadership, he stepped up to the role.

The first challenge was to mobilise the utterly despondent Greek army. Xenophon achieves this by means of persuasive speechmaking. He reminds the Greeks of their bravery in battle and belittles the cowardice of the Persian army. He argues that the Greeks have the gods on their side and that the situation is by no means as hopeless as it looks. He orders the newly appointed generals to honour their higher pay rate, to set an example of bravery, and to work harder than the common soldier. He commands the soldiers to obey their generals in the long march ahead; warning that the enemy will take advantage of any signs of disobedience or lack of discipline. Finally, he sets out the practical measures to be taken: the Greeks must set fire to the wagons and tents, rid themselves of all inessential equipment, and prepare themselves for the long march back through Media and Armenia to the coast of the Black Sea.

A leader must exemplify the very qualities he or she admires and expects from others. Xenophon set a good example to his men. When the army spends a freezing night in the snow in Armenia, Xenophon is the first to wake and to start chopping wood for a fire. When a foot-soldier complains that Xenophon is riding his horse up a steep hill, Xenophon dismounts and offers him the horse, and offers to carry the man’s shield along with his own. When the hoplites are set to fight a battle with a local tribe, Xenophon dismounts from his horse, urges them on, and fights alongside them as a means of inspiring and motivating the forces. Shame can be a strong motivator, and to see one’s leader working harder than everyone else, or putting oneself at greater risk, can certainly induce a feeling of shame.

A good leader looks out for his people. Xenophon goes to great lengths to ensure that rations are equally distributed, from the first man in the line to the last. He does not allow the sick or dying to be abandoned but ensures that they are carried, cared for, and protected. When he finds some of the men exhausted and starving, he uses every possible argument to encourage them to keep marching, only turning to anger as a last resort. In return for his care and concern, Xenophon expects discipline and good order and, for the most part, this discipline is maintained.

A good leader is constantly planning, strategising and changing tactics to suit the situation. At various times, Xenophon deployed quite creative and radical tactics to defeat an enemy: marching in more flexible formations, rearranging the position and deployment of armed contingents; using arrows as javelins; fighting and marching at night; using sound to alarm the enemy; and utilising a variety of fear tactics.

A good leader shows leniency when leniency is called for, and discipline when discipline is called for. Xenophon protects those who seek protection, including women, friendly villagers and guides. Those who threaten the welfare of the army or think only of themselves are duly punished. When he himself is unduly criticised for meting out punishment, Xenophon is unrelenting in his self-defence and counter-criticism and ensures that the full facts of the matter are known.

Last, but not least, a leader must show respect toward a higher principle or deity. A leader who believes that he is supreme cannot relate to, or have empathy for, the ordinary person. Worse still, a refusal to acknowledge something higher than oneself can breed insufferable arrogance. Xenophon was an extremely pious individual. He consulted the gods prior to embarking on the expedition, he consulted the gods for guidance many times throughout the expedition, and he expressed thanks to the gods every year of his life after he safely returned from the expedition.

The climax of this story is the well-known scene in which the Greeks survive the march and finally catch site of the Black Sea coast from a hill. The entire army shouts with joy, ‘The sea! The sea!’. But Xenophon is not the first to announce this good news. Xenophon is one of the last to reach the hill, since he has been marching with the rearguard, fighting constant attacks from enemies. When he hears the men shouting, he assumes that they are being attacked at the front and he rushes to help. Upon reaching the top of the hill, he realises why the men are shouting as ‘the soldiers, with tears in their eyes, embraced each other and their captains and generals.’

If you have never read Xenophon’s account of the Persian Expedition, I recommend it to you. It is an inspirational story and a true story. As for its lessons on leadership and the importance of positivity, I leave the last words to Xenophon:

“without leaders nothing fine or useful can be accomplished in any field, to put it broadly, and certainly not in warfare. For discipline, it seems, keeps men in safety, while the lack of it has destroyed many people before now…when you have appointed all the leaders that are necessary…you should gather together the rest of the soldiers also and try to encourage them…if we can turn the current of their minds, so that they shall be thinking not merely of what they are to suffer, but likewise of what they are going to do, they will be far more cheerful.”


Xenophon, The Persian Expedition (transl. by R. Warner), Penguin 1951.

Header image:

Bronze helmet of Corinthian type:

Hey sister! Sisterhood in Greek myth

Hello readers! My name is Kendra Leonard. I’m a poet, librettist and music scholar currently living in Houston, Texas. I’m delighted to contribute to Aesop’s Fox, a blog that has challenged me to think about the ways I understand language and Classical thought.


The Greek myths have always fascinated me, especially myths about Medusa. In my first published poem, I imagined Medusa defeating Perseus in battle, gaining immortality and becoming a college professor. More recently, I have written a novella about Medusa entitled Protectress (forthcoming in 2021 from Unsolicited Press). The research for this work involved a fantastic journey through myth and proto-myth, family trees and alternate tellings. The meaning of Medusa’s name (‘protectress’ or ‘guardian’) became a central theme of the book, while her sister Stheno means ‘fierce’ and Euryale ‘far-roaming’.

In writing about the Gorgons—perhaps the most famous siblings of Greek mythology—I explored connections between sisters. I considered how the sisters might have interacted with one another and what kinds of relationships they may have had. In his Theogony, Hesiod (fl. 750 BCE) writes:

To Phorkys Keto bore the fair-cheeked Graiai,

gray from birth, who are given this name

both by the immortal gods and by men who tread the earth,

well-robed Pemphredo and saffron-cloaked Enyo;

then the Gorgons, who dwell beyond glorious Okeanos

at earth’s end, toward night, by the clear-voiced Hesperides,

Sthenno, Euryale, and ill-fated Medousa

(trans. A. Athanassakis)

In Hesiod’s version of the myth, the Gorgons seem to live together. What would that be like? Did they have a roster for cleaning the house and making meals? I think of my own sisters: sharing houses, cooperating and communicating honestly. I imagine the sisters enjoying a hot drink together: Stheno asking Medusa about her plans for the day, Euryale telling them about a dream she had, and Medusa saying she’d found a new path for running. I think of how Stheno and Euryale must have taken care of Medusa after she had been raped by Poseidon and given snakes for hair by Athena: did they carry her home, bathe her wounds, hold her tight? I imagine that they did:

Euryale bathes her sister,

her eyes,

her bruises,

all over her arms and legs,

and abdomen,

and then each

minute, coiled, delicate, transparent

baby snake.

They emerge from  Medusa’s scalp


they have no eyes themselves.

They seek not to bite or crush

but relish the touch of

the cool skins of one another

and the heat of their—what?

carrier? mother? bearer?—



What about the Gorgon’s other sisters? We know from Hesiod that the Graiai lived together and shared one eye and one tooth. But did they know their younger sisters, the Gorgons? Did they sing cradle songs to them, the forever aged rocking the newborn Gorgons? When Perseus stole their eye and forced them to reveal how to kill their sister Medusa, did they alert her? The name Pemphredo (Πεμφρηδώ) means ‘alarm’; Enyo (Ἐνυώ) means ‘horror’, and Deino (Δεινώ) means ‘dread’. I imagine them making a sisterly visit to the Gorgons to warn them of Perseus’ impending arrival. They become part of the Gorgons’ plan to fool the warrior:

He’ll use your head as a weapon,

Stheno tells Medusa.

He won’t get it, she replies, hoarse-voiced

but resolute.

And so in an all-nighter

to dwarf every all-nighter since,

the sisters put their healing arts

to devious ends.

Stheno makes a mask

of her sister’s lovely face,

while Euryale draws forth from the

sea a slithering of serpents

full of toxins.

The Graeae, themselves full of wrath

at the arrogant Perseus for stealing their eye,

make a special sisterly visit,

applying the attributes of their names

to the head:

alarm, horror, dread.

Later in the novella, other sister-groups visit the Gorgons, including the Hesperides. In myth, the Hesperides always seem to act as one, singing, as Euripides describes, or collectively guarding the golden apples. As with the Gorgons, there is little said about their sisterly relationships. I decided to model them upon my own nieces. My nieces are good at taking charge of situations, making people feel at ease, turning conflict into common sense solutions and laughing. In turn, I make Arethusa cook dinner using the light and heat from her own hands, Aegle pulls in more guests from her enormous contact list, and Erytheia hands out gifts, happily chirping about each one. When Aegle tries to give a speech, Erytheia interrupts and Aegle continues, since she is accustomed to her sister’s interjections.

Sisters are everywhere in the myths, but rarely do we think about them as sisters—what they share and don’t share, how their parentages define them, and what stories were told and lost about their sisterhoods. The beauty of fiction based on myth is that, drawing on names and places and ancient text, we can make new stories, and give sisters their due.


You can find more of my work at, follow me on Twitter at @K_Leonard_PhD, and read my poem “Professor Medusa” at





Lost without words

Apart from wreaking havoc across the globe, the COVID-19 crisis has spawned a host of new jargon, from expressions such as ‘social distancing’, ‘herd immunity’ and ‘flattening the curve’ to ‘PPE’ (Personal Protective Equipment), and ‘The Great Lockdown’. At the same time, a lot of the vocabulary that we have been using to describe our current situation has much older roots, in ancient Greek and Latin. A closer look reveals that we would be lost for words without these two ancient, yet remarkably enduring, languages.

Let’s start with the most obvious term. Long before the World Health Organisation (WHO) labelled this virus COVID-19, we knew it simply as ‘coronavirus’. Corona is Latin for a ‘wreath’ or ‘crown’ while virus means ‘poison’ or ‘venom’. When viewed under a microscope, this virus appears to have a corona, like the glowing, gaseous corona that surrounds the sun, hence ‘coronavirus’.

On 11 March the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a ‘pandemic’. This word comes from the Greek pan– meaning ‘all’ and demos meaning ‘people’. The word pandemic denotes a disease that is prevalent worldwide, whereas an epidemic, from the Greek epi– meaning ‘upon’ and demos meaning ‘people’, denotes a disease that affects mainly one community.

In response to the pandemic, we have witnessed ‘chaos’ and ‘panic’ buying. ‘Chaos’ is a peculiarly appropriate term for the scenes that took place in supermarkets worldwide with frantic shoppers, empty shelves and desperation to provide for one’s most basic needs. The term comes from the Greek khaos meaning a ‘vast empty chasm’ or ‘void’. It also refers to the primordial state of the universe. ‘Panic’ comes from the Greek panikos meaning ‘of or belonging to Pan’. Pan was the Greek god of shepherds, hunters and wild places. With the torso of a man, and the horns, legs and tail of a goat, Pan inspires terror and panic in those who encounter him. I am pretty certain that I saw Pan standing in the toilet paper aisle of my local supermarket a few weeks ago.

As rates of ‘transmission’ have increased, we have been warned to ‘isolate’ and to socially ‘distance’ ourselves from others. ‘Transmission’ comes from the Latin trans- meaning ‘across’ and mittere meaning ‘send’, so it is no wonder that we are being careful about what we send (and receive). ‘Isolated’ comes from the Italian isolato, which comes from Late Latin insulatus meaning ‘made into an island’, which comes from the Latin insula meaning ‘island’. ‘Distant’ comes from the Latin dis– meaning ‘apart’ and stare is to ‘stand’. To stand apart and create an island around oneself is a pretty neat summary of the Australian Government’s advised response to COVID-19.

As we now know, COVID-19 can cause ‘pneumonia’, a type of lung inflammation, so named from the Greek pneumon meaning ‘lung’. For some, this condition is ‘fatal’, from the Latin fatum, meaning ‘that which has been spoken, declared, predicted’. Others seem relatively ‘immune’ to the full implications of COVID-19. Paradoxically, the word ‘immune’ comes from the Latin in- meaning ‘not’ and munis ‘ready for service’.

Meanwhile, the desperate search for a ‘vaccine’ continues. If you tried to explain this to a citizen of ancient Rome, he would be a bit perplexed because vacca is the Latin word for ‘cow’ and vaccinus means ‘of or from cows’. He might scratch his head and hand you a cup of milk or a nice piece of farm cheese. It turns out that scientists in the late 18th century used the cowpox virus to treat smallpox, hence the term ‘vaccine’ from the Latin vaccinus.

As The Great Lockdown came into effect and national economies slow, it is hard not to view the situation as a ‘catastrophe’, from the Greek kata– meaning ‘down’ and strophe meaning ‘turning’. This year is being labelled a ‘disaster’, meaning (literally) a year ‘without a star to guide us’ from the Latin dis-, a prefix that expresses negation, and astrum meaning ‘star’.

Even in these unprecedented and difficult times, there is hope. Unexpectedly, this is reflected in the very terminology being used to describe it. The word ‘crisis’ comes from the Greek krisis meaning ‘decision’. This period is not only a turning point in history – it is also a time to make (good) decisions. Similarly, the word ‘cataclysm’ comes from the Greek kata- ‘down’ and kluzein ‘to wash’, hence kataklusmos ‘deluge or flood’. Floodwaters recede, deluges pass and the sun will reappear. We are going to get through this. Even the term ‘apocalypse’ isn’t quite as bad as it seems because it comes from the Greek apo– meaning ‘un’ and kaluptein meaning ‘cover’, so apokaluptein is ‘to uncover, reveal’. It remains to be seen what this situation will reveal about humanity: perhaps new and stronger bonds between individuals, communities and nations, perhaps a new commitment to the planet we live on, perhaps some revision of our values and priorities. For every act of selfishness we have seen or heard about, there have also been acts of kindness: a testament to the good in humanity.

Times like these prompt us to ask ‘what does it all mean?’ I may not have the answer to that question, but I am pretty certain that it all means something in Latin or Greek.


Header image: The Hippocratic Oath in Greek and Latin published in Apud Andreae Wecheli heredes (Frankfurt, 1595) (Source: Wikimedia Commons).



What use is Classics?

Just a few months ago, we were sheltering inside our home waiting for toxic smoke to clear from the air and the threat of bushfires to pass. Now, we find ourselves sheltering inside our home watching the Covid-19 crisis spread its shadow across the globe. It has been a frenetic and worrying time: pulling the children out of school, setting up home offices, packing up workplace offices, watching the supermarket shelves empty, learning how to teach, work and study remotely.

As I sit down with a cup of tea to take a breath and read the latest tweets, I see the headline “Classics Will Not Save Us” (1). In the author’s own words, she writes about “the (limited) role of the Classics during this time, the instructive incomparability of the coronavirus, and the legacy of the East-West binary”. I read the attached article with interest. Judging by the comments on Twitter, the article has been welcomed. But Yung In Chae’s article raises more questions for me than it answers.

The main question being: what use is Classics in times like these?

I am reminded of a little story from long ago. A famous professor attends an important public meeting and is asked to interpret an omen. The professor is stumped and cannot think of an appropriate interpretation. He goes home, waits for nightfall, goes out into his garden and prepares a noose from which to hang himself. His slave intercepts him and berates him with the following words:

“Master, where is your philosophy? Where is your pride in your education? Where is your teaching about self-control? Have you become so slack-hearted and irresponsible that you rush toward death, ready to forsake all the pleasures of life by hanging yourself? Stop and think about it, master?” (2)

The point is that like the professor in the story, classicists (like everyone else) have found themselves suddenly in a crisis (and one for which our education gave us no explicit preparation). Nonetheless, we have a responsibility not to fall prey to the automatic reactions that this sort of crisis can provoke (and has provoked in many): the crippling despair, the supreme selfishness, the panic buying, the total loss of self-control, the slack-heartedness and unwillingness to take responsibility. We have to, as the slave in the story reminds us, draw upon and live by the precepts of the classical philosophies and teachings and precepts that we have spent so many years studying and writing about. Now is the time to stop and think, to be moderate, to not let fear dominate our rationality and our actions. We must put all of our self-knowledge into play and be the best we can be even as this crisis unfolds. Where our training and critical faculties fail us, we must be honest, and either adopt a policy of good sense or defer to the better judgement of others.

My second point is that we are not just ‘classicists’ – we belong to the wider discipline of the humanities. The Latin word humanitas is the key to unlocking an entire thought-world referring to ‘the qualities, feelings, and inclinations of mankind.'(2) If we are representatives of ‘humanitas’, as our professional titles attest, then we have a responsibility to strive to exemplify the best of humanity even amidst this crisis. How can we incorporate humane and gentle conduct towards others (humanity, philanthropy, gentleness, kindness, politeness) in all our dealings, whether with checkout assistants, work colleagues, call centre workers, schoolteachers, family members or those in profound need? Secondly, how can we demonstrate ‘mental cultivation befitting a person (liberal education, good breeding, elegance of manners or language, refinement)’? We must continue to teach, and model best teaching practice, to share our knowledge with others and keep learning.

I understand that it is incredibly irritating when classicists point out ‘banal equivalencies’ between this Covid-19 crisis and plagues of ancient times. But the comparison need not be banal. Death and plague were real, lived experiences for people in the classical world as much as this virus is a real, lived experience for people today. The peoples of ancient Greece and Rome were so intimately familiar with grief, loss and suffering that they have bequeathed to us some of the most poignant, touching and supremely beautiful testimonies of that grief, not only in their literature but in their art and sculpture.


Marble grave stele of a little girl 

I have contemplated this funerary stele many times and it never fails to affect me. This depiction of a lost daughter is so sweet, and tender, and so utterly moving that it seems criminal to deny the experience of grief and loss lived by her parents and the commonalities between that grief and the grief of any parent, of any period in time, anywhere, for any reason.

Lastly, I want to add a word or two about unity (instead of disunity). One of the many extraordinary things about this crisis is the way in which this hideous virus is transcending boundaries. It pays little attention to the differences between East or West, young or old, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, first world or third world. Its primary motivation is simply to spread as far and wide as possible. The only way we will beat this virus is to look past divisions (especially artificial ones) and draw upon our common humanity – love and care for one another, consideration and thoughtfulness, watchfulness and mindfulness.

The last word goes to one of the great Classics – which turns out to be right on point:

“Come, save us all,

save all that is polluted by this death.

We look to you. To help his fellow-men

with all his power is man’s most noble work.”

Sophocles, King Oedipus (5)


Perhaps Classics does have some help to offer after all.

Stay safe and well everyone – best wishes to all.

Aesop’s fox.


(1) Yung In Chae, ‘Classics Will not Save us’, E(i)ditorial March 2020:

(2) Ch. 81-86, The Life of Aesop (transl. by L. M Wills in The Quest of the Historical Gospel, Routledge, 1997).



(5) E. F. Watling (transl.), Sophocles: The Theban Plays, Penguin, London, 1953.





Reading the signs


Can you see any bird?

By Phoebus, no! and yet I am straining my eyesight to scan the sky. 

Aristophanes, Birds, 263-4

Ordinarily, our garden in Canberra is a veritable aviary. The early mornings are filled with a chorus of tweeting and cooing as fairy wrens, blackbirds and crested pigeons send their notes into the sweet morning air. Depending on the season, we are accustomed to seeing flocks of cockatoos, parrots and rosellas, squawking and streaking across a clear blue sky. In the evening, the magpies always take a stately walk across our lawns until the currawongs swoop in for a last minute meal. One Saturday morning, we watched a young kookaburra feeding on lawn grubs and swinging on our swing! We still talk about the night we saw a majestic and rare powerful owl in our back garden.

I am not a trained ornithologist but I am a friend of birds – birds delight me and remind me that although we humans think we are so clever, we remain chained to the earth. As the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes says, birds are so much closer to the heavens than we are. They have a better perspective than we do and they have extraordinary memories and powers of intelligence:

Weak mortals, chained to the earth, creatures of clay as frail as the foliage of the woods, you unfortunate race, whose life is but darkness, as unreal as a shadow, the illusion of a dream, hearken to us, who are immortal beings, ethereal, ever young and occupied with eternal thoughts, for we shall teach you about all celestial matters; [690] you shall know thoroughly what is the nature of the birds, what the origin of the gods, of the rivers, of Erebus, and Chaos; thanks to us, even Prodicus will envy you your knowledge.

Aristophanes, Birds 685-90


Today is the second day of hazardous and toxic air in Canberra. The air quality rating is 3045 – a rating of 200 is deemed to be hazardous. We have been told to remain indoors with doors and windows closed, not to venture outside and to purify our own air with whatever means are available. I haven’t been outside today, nor have my children. I can’t imagine how choking the air must be for those that have to be outside.

When I woke at 5am this morning, the sky was blood red. As the sun rose, it shifted to orange, golden, and then a dusky, murky grey. The sunlight was being filtered through a thick layer of smoke. It was eerily quiet. No cheerful bird song, no flocks winging their way across the sky. Just an empty and desolate grey outside.

The smoke has blown into Canberra from the fires raging on the South Coast. This stretch of coast was beautiful and it is home to so many kind and gentle souls. That stretch of coast was also my childhood playground in summers long ago and a favourite spot for our recent family holidays. I know each beach like the back of my hand. Settlements have now been burnt to the ground, from north to south, east to west, right up to the low scrubby plants that dot the sand dunes. Some of the smoke has also come in from our beloved snowfields in the other direction, ordinarily a place of relief from the Summer heat, they too are burning as I write. Birds and animals are dying all around us in their thousands. Evacuees are huddling in Canberra, anxiously awaiting news about their homes and properties.


For centuries, the ancient Greeks interpreted bird signs as omens of good fortune or misfortune. Zeus is depicted with the eagle, a symbol of his power and authority; Athena with the owl, a symbol of wisdom and insight. Ancient Greek people would consult bird omens before making any important decision – only if the omens were favourable would they proceed. The ancient reliance on augury is well represented in some of the oldest Greek texts we have:

Happy and fortunate the man who knows all these things and goes about his work without offending the immortals, interpreting bird signs rightly and avoiding transgressions. 

Hesiod, Works and Days 822–28

A bird had appeared to them as they were eager to advance, a high-flying eagle, skirting the army on the left, holding in its talons a monstrous blood-red snake, alive and still writhing. Nor had the snake given up the fight, but it twisted back on itself and struck the eagle gripping it on the breast by the neck; and the eagle in sharp pain dropped it to the ground, so that it fell among the throng, while with a loud cry he soared away on the currents of air. The Trojans shuddered when they saw the gleaming snake lying among them, a portent from almighty Zeus.

Homer, Iliad XII 200–08


In January 2020, the bird omens, if you choose to read them as such, are not good. The bushfire crisis has caused immeasurable devastation to humans, wildlife, property, infrastructure and land. We will be living with the consequences for a long time to come.

I recently read a blog post from a survivor on the South Coast. Taking a walk along a desolate and ash-strewn beach, he counted dozens of dead birds before turning back in despair and horror. These birds had tried to escape the flames and smoke of the burning forest, only to be caught in turbulent air currents out at sea, thrust down into ashen waters and washed up on a deserted shoreline.

The common Australian magpie, an icon of Australia, has learnt to mimic the sound of a fire engine siren. Whilst some are amazed at the magpie’s intelligent mimicry, others (including myself) are horrified by it. How many sirens does a bird need to hear before it forsakes its own natural birdsong?

As birds drop dead out of the sky, giant man-made bird-like machines are being sent into the sky to dump water on fires, drop off satellite phones and supplies, evacuate people from remote areas, and monitor fire conditions. This is the best we can do – trying to navigate the smoke-filled skies ourselves in efforts to save whoever and whatever we can.

In my own backyard, we keep the children’s wheelbarrow filled with water for the few birds that are still with us. The bird visitors look exhausted and desperate. A honeyeater sits with its beak open, wings spread, panting as it tries to shelter from the 44 degree heat; skylarks flutter down briefly and then disappear again; a noisy myna bird is unusually quiet; and an ominous black crow dives through the smoke to steal a drink.

There is no subtlety in the signs that are appearing before our eyes. This country is genuinely in crisis. If this is a sign of things to come, it is a portent of disaster. Time will tell if our so-called leaders are intelligent enough to read the signs and to change accordingly or whether, as Aristophanes says, we all prove to be “creatures of clay as frail as the foliage of the woods”.

Help for Fire Service:

Help for Wildlife:


1. Australia fires create plume of smoke (

2. A Roman relief depicting the eagle of Zeus abducting Ganymede (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Resilience and Greek myth

27.122.18 (view 1)

The stories, myths and fables of ancient Greece are a living tradition, continually being retold, adapted and renewed.

In the podcast that follows, I discuss what ancient Greek myths reveal about the concept of resilience. I explore the endurance of human suffering in Euripides’ Herakles, a mother’s adaptation to grief and loss in the myth of Demeter and Persephone, and Prometheus’ defiance in the face of physical torture.

Although these stories are dramatised and involve semi-divine or divine characters, they remain deeply relevant to human experience: the Greek gods and demigods were anthropomorphic deities after all, and they exhibit human traits in an amplified form. In these ancient Greek myths, we find powerful and poignant illustrations of suffering and resilience.

There is a lot of discussion these days about the need to cultivate resilience, in our children, in our outlook on life, in our workplaces and in our communities. But what exactly is resilience?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.” It is not the same as being impervious to stress. It is the capacity to recover and adapt following a stressful event.

Resilience research indicates that each of us has the ability to build and cultivate resilience by means of particular behaviours, thoughts and actions, such as the following:

  • making realistic plans and carrying them out;
  • drawing on support from close relationships and a social network;
  • maintaining positive self-regard and self-confidence;
  • utilising communication skills and problem-solving abilities;
  • cultivating a sense of hopefulness and meaningfulness in life.

In the Greek myths I have chosen, we can find illustrations of these resilience-building sorts of behaviours, thoughts and actions.

Herakles engages in a process of self-discovery through suffering – fully coming to terms with his human side and recognising his vulnerability to forces beyond his control. Herakles finds a way to ‘endure life’ with the help of his close friend Theseus, who in turn, enables him to take decisive action in the present and to look to the future with hope.

Demeter never gives up on the hope of being reunited with her abducted daughter and eventually that hope is realised. Demeter also embarks on a spiritual path, finding meaning and purpose in life and establishing her cult known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Ultimately, she learns to accept change and the inevitable cycle of decay and renewal as emblematised by the cycle of the seasons.

Prometheus, despite being subjected to physical torment, remains defiant and committed to his actions in helping humanity. He refuses to surrender his sense of self-worth, and in this sense, he remains intellectually and emotionally free despite his physical bondage.

These myths are powerful examples of resilience-building in action. Furthermore, these myths evince a sophisticated understanding of human nature and point to some fascinating parallels with modern resilience research. The fact that these stories are set in a mythic context does not make them any less relevant to our daily lives. In fact, they are tremendously moving and inspirational.

Here’s the podcast (with thanks to Evana Ho and the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences):


Header image: Marble Head of Herakles, 1st century AD


American Psychological Association:


Flying fox


Aesop’s Fox, suffering from an acute attack of ‘flying shame’, asks the thorny question: “What is the future of conference travel in academia? Can we really afford it, financially, environmentally and personally?” Then she turns to Aristotle for help… 

1. It’s (a) flying shame

In a world that is now defined by high levels of internet connectivity, and a university sector that is often characterised by little or no travel funding, I can’t help wondering about the long-term viability of conference travel in academia. Does it make sense for an academic to travel to the other side of the world to deliver a forty minute paper to an audience of fifty, or a twenty minute paper to an audience of fifteen, in a conference that might last only three, four or five days?

Let’s consider the financial cost involved in a fourteen day trip to attend two conferences on two separate continents. If you are flying out from Australia, as I must, the airfare alone is very likely to exceed allocated travel funds (if your University bestows them), which leaves a gaping great hole as far as accommodation costs and conference registration fees are concerned. I am fortunate to have a supportive university and the opportunity to apply for extra funding if needed but, if that were not the case, I would be looking at some pretty hefty outlays before the trip and a relatively small refund come tax time. Despite reduced travel distances, it is much worse for my European colleagues who advise me that they get no conference travel funding from their institutions at all and have to scrounge together the costs of attending just one conference a year from meagre (often sessional) salaries.

The environmental costs are real too. I was recently told about a site called ‘ShamePlane’ which helpfully informs me that every time I fly from Canberra to the United States, I am responsible for the loss of 7.8 square metres of Arctic Ice, and every time I fly from Canberra to London, 0.6 square metres of Arctic Ice (clearly, I should be prioritising Europe!). Not to mention all the plastic waste I accumulated as a passenger on those flights, all the aeroplane food I wasted (because it was mostly inedible), all the water bottles I emptied, all the transport services I used at my final destination, all the water I wasted having longer than usual showers at the hotel: the list goes on…

Then there is the personal cost. Like so many other early career academics around the globe, I finished a hectic semester of teaching, immediately started exam marking and then succumbed to illness (in this case a very bad bout of Influenza A). I had a week to nurse my family back to reasonable health, finish writing two conference papers and get myself travel ready. It wasn’t ideal. I seriously considered cancelling my travel plans. My husband looked at with me concern and trepidation as I wheeled my bags to the door. When I flew out, I was not contagious but still heavily congested. If I took a bad turn or contracted another illness, I would be on the other side of the world, alone and very ill indeed. It was a risk. As for the home front, the costs there should not be overlooked either: two young children left missing mummy, a husband left with all the household responsibilities whilst trying to manage his own tight work deadlines, and then there is just the simple and awful reality of being apart.

Some academics have said to me that it is simply absurd to travel so far to attend a short conference. Others have told me to go on as many trips as possible!

So what are the alternatives? Option 1. I have seen conference papers delivered by Skype but there is something terribly off-putting about them. Rather than listening to a flesh and blood speaker, we end up ‘watching’ a grainy image of a speaker (usually the speaker’s forehead, or a very tired looking speaker because of the time difference), reading a paper to a screen for forty minutes. Nothing could be less ‘real’ or captivating.

Option 2. I could have emailed my conference paper to a trusted colleague and asked them to read it aloud to the conference delegates on my behalf. I have heard this done once and, to be honest, it too was awful. Even a trusted colleague cannot be expected to have practised the paper, or to know the topic intimately, or to do full justice to the paper in delivering it. At best, it will be a fairly bland recital of someone else’s words (and let’s be honest, it is a pretty big ask of a trusted colleague).

Option 3. Another option is simply to preference local conferences. This is difficult to do if you happen to work in a specialised field (as most of us do) and most of your colleagues work on other continents. The chances of developing international networks are reduced and opportunities to ‘tap into’ current developments in global scholarship are lost.

Option 4. No travel at all. Not really an option – conference attendance is still a major part of the peer feedback process as well as evaluation of academic performance.

Given the expectations of my line of work, I’m left suffering from an acute sense of ‘flying shame’. Consciousness of my enormous carbon footprint is gnawing away at me and there are too many competing professional obligations to warrant giving up conference travel altogether. What to do? Aristotle to the rescue…

2. Aristotle on shame

Anyone needing an antidote to ‘flying shame’ simply needs to read a good dose of Book 4 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In that book, Aristotle expresses the (rather surprising) view that shame is NOT a virtue:

The feeling of shame is not suitable to every age, but only to the young. We think it proper for the young to feel shame, because as they live by feeling they often err, and shame may keep them in check; and we praise young people when they are ashamed, though no one would praise an older man for being shamefaced, since we think he ought not to do anything of which he need be ashamed.

For indeed the virtuous man does not feel shame, if shame is the feeling caused by base actions; since one ought not to do base actions (the distinction between acts really shameful and those reputed to be so is immaterial, since one ought not to do either), and so one never ought to feel shame.

Shame is a mark of a base man, and springs from a character capable of doing a shameful act. And it is absurd that, because a man is of such a nature that he is ashamed if he does a shameful act, he should therefore think himself virtuous, since actions to cause shame must be voluntary, but a virtuous man will never voluntarily do a base action.

It’s a rather messy and puzzling passage in some respects and probably not Aristotle at his most lucid. He seems to be saying that 1) shame is a good and proper feeling in a young person, 2) shame is not a virtue because it is more of a fleeting feeling than a state of being, 3) that the virtuous need not feel ashamed about anything because they never do anything wrong anyway and 4) that it is rather absurd for the base man to feel ashamed because that would suggest that he imagines himself to be virtuous, which is clearly not the case.

If Aristotle is right and shame is just a fleeting feeling, rather than a virtue as such, I’m sure I’ll get over it pretty quickly. Given my age (by ancient world standards) it is remarkable that I can still feel shame and, to put it bluntly, Aristotle seems to be saying that shame doesn’t really do anyone much good if they are not good to begin with. So am I off the hook? Not quite. Reading Aristotle’s words in context, it may be more accurate to say (as Raymond suggests) that shame, even as a feeling, still holds an important place for Aristotle but (like everything else for Aristotle in the realm of ethics) it must be felt in the right way, at the right times, about the right things, and to the right extent.

3. Restoring the balance

To restore balance to my intense feelings of ‘flight shame’, it remains to consider the positives and benefits of academic travel.

On the up side, I can honestly say that the conference travel I have done has been a) as economical and efficient as possible and b) enormously beneficial for me professionally. The feedback from peers has often been incredibly insightful and helpful to the development of my ideas and approaches. Many of the most interesting and important discussions have taken place outside of the seminar rooms: in the corridors, at morning teas and lunches, and at conference events. Connections with other scholars have led to joint projects and joint publications. The personal and professional connections I have made with colleagues overseas will, I hope, last a lifetime and continue to be highly productive, collaborative and positive. In my experience, there really is no replacement for face-to-face contact and this is something the digital age has, I think, proven rather than disproven.

There is a lot of talk these days about ‘connection’. But what does it really mean? To me, it’s about getting a feel for other people’s warmth and openness, their willingness to discuss different ideas and approaches, their playfulness and creativity, their professional courtesy and consideration of others. If I find people with these qualities and attributes, I know immediately that I can work with them, through the rigorous process of collaborating, publishing, even co-authoring, across countries and continents. Happily, I have found such people – but I would never have been sure of these connections if we hadn’t met eye to eye (or as the Europeans say, ‘shared food together’).

That being said, I am very conscious about the costs of my travel. If I can do it more efficiently I will. I fly economy. If I can recycle or minimise waste, I try to do so. When overseas, I try to use public transport as much as possible and prefer to walk or ride a bicycle rather than use taxis or buses. I will never use all fifteen towels (!) provided by the hotel, I eat local food (often vegetarian) and try to buy locally made products as gifts.

I know in my heart that these small measures are not going to restore that block of Arctic ice but every little bit helps, right? My family life has benefited from me returning with renewed health, vigour, inspiration and stimulation. And I haven’t stopped trying to be environmentally aware just because I have returned home. As part of my efforts to offset the costs, I am obliged to do a lot more walking, riding, recycling, double-sided printing, eating local and eating vegetarian if I am going to ‘pay’ for my academic travel. As for the flying shame, I may not shake it off entirely, and in a way, it is reassuring to know that I am still capable of feeling shame (maybe I’m not that old after all!). I can only hope that I fulfil Aristotle’s expectations of feeling shame in the right way, at the right time, about the right things, and to the right extent.


The University of Coimbra


Text extracted and adapted from Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (transl. H. Rackham) available online at:

Article by C. Raymond, ‘Shame and Virtue in Aristotle’: