Too much information…


Apparently we can’t concentrate. We are all suffering from information overload. We have lost the ability to discern high quality information from low quality information and we are no longer scrutinising the information that is being presented to us. What’s the solution? You could turn your phone off or…

You could study ancient languages! Nothing teaches you to concentrate more than studying a language, and this is especially true of ancient languages (which are all the more challenging because of the limitations on spoken discourse). Reading an ancient text brings together so many skills and abilities: a sound knowledge of underlying grammar; the ability to recognise the key components of a sentence and reorganise sentence structure; the skills to analyse forms of words and interpret their meaning; the ability to translate those words in a fluent, not frigid, style; and the attention needed to comprehend the context of that sentence, its sense and intention. All of this requires many years of training the brain, to concentrate, to focus, to remember and to be flexible.

Consistent, concerted effort on language tasks prepares us for analysing information. What does the text actually say? Who wrote it? When was it written? Who is the audience? Why was it written? Is there a difference between the stated and unstated purpose? Why does it say what it does in the way that it does? How does our translation differ from others? Is the information reliable, interesting or valuable in some way? Is it worth remembering and why? These analytical skills are crucial to the analysis of information in any context, ancient or modern.

I am also a firm believer in the importance of writing out texts and translations in longhand. As a teacher of ancient languages, I believe that handwriting improves our memory of the ‘shapes’ of words as well as our understanding of the text and ultimately, our translation. For a language like ancient Greek, which is based on an entirely different alphabet, these skills are essential (not to mention the absolute pleasure of writing out long passages of text in these ancient code-like forms).

Neuroscientists have found that learning handwriting is a key step in the cognitive development of children. Writing letters by hand apparently improves recognition and it improves spelling. Researchers have also found that university students who take lecture notes in longhand are better able to recall the lecture than those who type their notes on a laptop. The reason? Note taking on paper involves a “preliminary process of summarising and comprehension” while those working on a keyboard tend to miss this step and simply make a “literal transcript”.

It’s never too late to train one’s brain. In an age of longer life expectancy, with increased risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s, who wouldn’t want to reap the benefits of working out in a brain gym?

Links to articles:

‘Why do we fall for fake news? It’s because we can’t concentrate, study says’ by medical reporter Sophie Scott:

‘Handwriting vs typing: is the pen still mightier than the keyboard?’ by Anne Chemin:




The Age of Plastic?


There is an old Greek myth that describes how humanity has passed through a number of ‘ages’ or phases: the first was the golden age, followed by the ages of silver, bronze and iron. The myth is a metaphor for a gradual, successive decline in moral standards and quality of life. The question is, what age are we in now?

First, a summary of the different ages of mankind, from Hesiod’s 8th century BC poem Works and Days, starting with the golden age:

First of all [110] the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods [115] without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, [120] rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.

The ‘golden ones’ were covered by the earth but their spirits are said to remain on earth as guardians of men, roaming about, keeping watch on people’s conduct. After them came the race of silver:

It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit. [130] A child was brought up at his good mother’s side a hundred years, an utter simpleton, playing childishly in his own home. But when they were full grown and were come to the full measure of their prime, they lived only a little time and that in sorrow because of their foolishness, for they could not keep from sinning and [135] from wronging one another, nor would they serve the immortals, nor sacrifice on the holy altars of the blessed ones as it is right for men to do wherever they dwell. Then Zeus the son of Cronos was angry and put them away, because they would not give honor to the blessed gods who live on Olympus.

Next came the race of bronze men:

They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. [150] Their armor was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, [155] black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.

Zeus then made a fourth race, a god-like race of hero-men called the demi-gods. Some of these died in battles at Thebes, and others at Troy, and still others dwell at the far reaches of the earth in the isles of the blessed. Next came the race of iron:

For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. [180] And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth. The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. [185] Men will dishonor their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost of their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another’s city. [190] There will be no favor for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right, and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. [195] Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. [200] And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.

Given that Hesiod was writing in the eighth century BC, one wonders whether we are in an even more far gone age: the age of plastic perhaps, or the age of copper or fibre? And what defines our age: environmental destruction, social isolation, negativity, war and dislocation? Or, if one believes later authors such as Ovid (who wrote another version of the myth in his Metamorphoses in AD 1), have we passed beyond these phases and do we now live in a post-age era, defined by longer life expectancy, the miracles of technology, better and faster communication and the wonders of vitamin supplements!

Hesiod, author of Works and Days, from which this myth originates, was not feeling optimistic about life. He was in the midst of a family dispute with his brother Perses who had unfairly snatched the larger portion of the family inheritance. At the beginning of the work, Hesiod urges his brother to end the strife that is tearing them apart and to heed his cautionary words. It suits Hesiod’s purpose, in other words, to describe the moral decline that he sees as characteristic of his times.

On the other hand, this devolutionary model of mankind is not an uncommon theme in Greek myths (and fables) and it presents a rather interesting contrast to modern notions of man’s endless evolution, progress and development.

I wonder if Perses and Hesiod ever resolved their dispute? I wonder whether humanity is evolving or devolving? I wonder how you would define the current Age of Man? I suppose the answer to that question depends on the cup beside you and whether you see it as half full, or half empty.


Hesiod. Works and Days. Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.

Available at:

Header image:

Author’s private collection of photos.

The essence of a university


There are officially twelve days to go until I start my new academic post. I don’t have an office yet but my books, stationery and papers are packed: eight boxes of books, four boxes of papers, two boxes of stationery and a little coffee machine. Ironically, I may well be returning to an office I occupied back in 2009! I wonder how Aristotle felt when he returned to Athens to found his philosophical school after twelve years abroad. In the interim, he had spent three years conducting intensive scientific fieldwork in the coastal regions around Lesbos. He had also been at the Macedonian court tutoring the young Alexander the Great! The day of his return to Athens is a remarkable one that is retold in the ancient sources, but my favourite dramatic summary is by the historian Felix Grayeff:

Aristotle’s return to Athens in 335 after twelve years’ absence attracted a great deal of attention. He came with ample means; with books and teaching materials of all kinds, maps, models etc., and a staff of assistants, the most important of whom was Theophrastus. All this is reliably recorded; in addition it is related that personally too he was splendidly equipped, luxuriously attired, with gold rings on every finger; that he dined like a prince and was waited on by an unusually large number of slaves. Such accounts may of course be based on later gossip, of the kind directed against other school heads and philosophers. What is certain is that he did not return to Athens as a travelling Sophist, unsure of the future, but as a man appointed to his task by Alexander, then the ruler of Greece, soon to be master of the world. Consequently, everything he needed in Athens was readily placed at his disposal.(1)

I will be located in the AD Hope Building on the ANU campus. At present, it is surrounded by the dust and noise of construction as workmen desperately try to complete temporary cafes and shops in preparation for major demolition works in Union Court. The heart of the University is due for a complete overhaul in the next few years. Every time we lose more slices of beloved green space, tree-lined walks, gardens and fountains on the lovely ANU campus, my heart mourns but they have promised to replant the trees and landscape around the new buildings and the new Union Court will have a pool! The environs of Aristotle’s school were the essence of its identity:

Since Aristotle as a non-Athenian – a metic – was not permitted to own land, the Athenian government under Lycurgus acquired for him the site essential for his undertaking. He was assigned the grove consecrated to Apollo Lyceus, which probably lay to the north-east of the centre of Athens, between the mountain Lycabettus and the river Ilissus; a spot which Socrates himself had liked. In it stood shrines to Apollo and the Muses, and perhaps other smaller buildings or huts which could be used immediately; very soon, we hear, Lycurgus spent great sums on embellishing the shrines or temples and on having further buildings erected in the grove. A covered colonnade led to the temple of Apollo, or perhaps connected the temple with the shrine of the Muses; whether it had existed before or was only now built, is not known. This colonnade or walk (peripatos) gave the school its name; it seems it was here, at least at the beginning, that the pupils assembled and the teachers gave their lectures. Here they wandered to and fro; for this reason it was later said that Aristotle himself lectured and taught while walking up and down. (2)

There will be plenty of walking up and down while I teach Ancient Greek, but no covered colonnade! The main classroom has maps, a projector and an automated lecture recording system for those occasions when students can’t attend class! Just nearby is the stunning Classics Museum, as well as the Classics Centre and Library where students study and socialise. Back to Aristotle’s Peripatos/Lyceum:

Never before had there been an institution with studies on a comparable scale. Thus Cicero wrote (De Fin. V, III): ‘From the Peripatetics’ writings and teachings can be learned all liberal arts, history and style; indeed, so great is the variety of subjects treated by them that no one ventures to approach any significant matter without prior knowledge of their works.’ Rightly, therefore, one sees the Lyceum as the first university in the full, modern sense of the word, while this cannot be said of the two great schools which preceded the Peripatos, the Pythagorean and Platonic schools. Similarly, the library which Aristotle installed at the school was the first comprehensive collection of books in history, and later served as a model for the famous State libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum. (3)

Classics : the beating heart and essence of the modern University! It is interesting too that even among the early universities, there was a great deal of competition and comparison. The Stoic Zeno reluctantly admitted that the Peripatetics had more students but he added that his students were more harmonious! Meanwhile, the ANU has just been ranked Australia’s No. 1 and No. 22 in the world (QS World University Rankings 2016-17). But surely competition with others is less important than fostering the true spirit of common purpose, learning and enquiry:

The garden and the walk and all the dwellings next to the garden I give to those of my friends listed below who wish at any time to study and to philosophize together in them – since it is not possible for all men to be always in residence – on the condition that they neither alienate them nor anyone appropriate them for his own private use, but rather that they possess them in common, as if a shrine, and that in matters of mutual concern they use them in a familiar and friendly manner, just as is fitting and just. (4)

I am looking forward to joining my friends and colleagues in the Centre for Classical Studies, to philosophizing and working together in the spirit of Classics.

(1) F. Grayeff, Aristotle and His School, Duckworth, London, 1974, pp. 37-38.

(2) Grayeff, p.38.

(3) Grayeff, p. 39.

(4) Portion of Theophrastus’ will as recorded by Diogenes Laertius, The Lives of the Philosophers 5.52-53 in W. Fortenbaugh et. al., Theophrastus of Eresus: Sources for His Life, Writings, Thought and Influence, Brill, Leiden, 1992, fr. 1.

(5) Header image: an example of a covered colonnade, from the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos in Athens.

“Can I have your life?”


This question came completely out of the blue, with an extended hand reaching over our back fence and an eager face peering into our garden on a Sunday afternoon. How would you respond? We felt a mixture of embarrassment and well, let’s face it, suspicion. Not that we were doing anything particularly remarkable, just the usual weekend gardening!

But it got me thinking about how often we compare our lot with others. Some of us do it all the time, some of us do it some of the time, and some of us try very hard not to do it. The modern world doesn’t really help: a great deal of advertising is designed to provoke us to feel desire and envy. We are forever being encouraged to want more, expect more and buy more. Then there are all those hideous reality TV programs about wife swapping, home swapping, children swapping…

All of this is in stark contrast to widespread beliefs about the danger of looking at others (and being looked at) with envious eyes. The Ancient Greeks held a number of beliefs and superstitions about envy and the ‘evil eye’ and it was common to decorate drinking vessels and shields with the eye-motif (see the image of the eye-cup above). These beliefs are still held by modern Greeks who use μάτι (mati) to ward off the evil eye. My Greek mother-in-law assures me that there are a number of methods to remove the evil eye, called xematiasma (ξεμάτιασμα), involving special prayers and mysterious rituals involving clove buds.

Can we ever really know what someone else’s lot really entails? Would we really dare to swap lives without being sure of every detail?

As I raked up the last of the autumn leaves, these questions brought to mind the final words of Sophocles’ tragic play about King Oedipus. There was a time when Oedipus had it all: power, fame, glory, honour, wealth, love. And then he fell, far and fast, and it was the blinding light of self-knowledge that brought him down.

The last lines of the play are written more for us than for Oedipus:

Look ye, countrymen and Thebans, this is Oedipus the great,

He who knew the Sphinx’s riddle and was mightiest in our state.

Who of all our townsmen gazed not on his fame with envious eyes?

Now, in what a sea of troubles sunk and overwhelmed he lies!

Therefore wait to see life’s ending ere thou count one mortal blest;

Wait till free from pain and sorrow he has gained his final rest.(1)

Perhaps our neighbour had had a few Sunday afternoon beers and was just being friendly. But I might just hand a copy of this text over the back fence anyway.

(1) Sophocles, Oedipus the King (translated by F. Storr); full text available at:

(2) Header image:

Stemless Kylix: eye-cup (drinking cup): copy of an ancient Kylix made by Aristotelis Zissimos, Polytropon Art.

The music of love


Over the weekend you might have heard ABC Classic FM playing the Classic 100 – Music of Passion and Heartbreak featuring 100 favourite pieces of classical music on the theme of love. Interestingly, three of the pieces that made the top ten were based on love stories from the classical past: Henry Purcell’s ‘When I Am Laid in Earth’ from Dido and Aeneas; Aram Khachaturian’s Adagio of Spartacus; and Christoph Willibold Gluck’s ‘What shall I do without Eurydice’ from Orpheus and Eurydice. There is little doubt that ancient Greece and Rome have inspired composers to write some of the most adored love songs of all time.

For me, number nine (Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice) should have been number one (in place of Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers). How could two blokes singing whilst fishing trump one of the greatest love stories of all time?! I can’t think of a more romantic and tragic story than that of Orpheus and Eurydice.

According to Greek myth, Orpheus was a musician and poet of Thrace, the son of Apollo and Kalliope. He had a marvellous ability to soothe wild animals and nature with his divine music (which makes sense to me since classical music worked wonders on our children over the weekend!).

Orpheus fell madly in love with Eurydice but their marriage was doomed. Just after the marriage rites were completed, Eurydice died after being bitten on the heel by a serpent. The distraught Orpheus descends into Hades (the Underworld) to beg Hades and Persephone to reverse Eurydice’s death and release her spirit so they can enjoy their love. Orpheus’ music enchants the spirits of the Underworld, and for a moment, there is lovely music among the dead:

“So to the music of his strings he sang,

And all the bloodless spirits wept to hear;

And Tantalus forgot the fleeing water,

Ixion’s wheel was tranced; the Danaids

Laid down their urns; the vultures left their feast;

And Sisyphus sat rapt upon his stone.”

Persephone summons Eurydice’s spirit and makes Orpheus promise that he will not look at her until they have returned to the world above. So Orpheus and Eurydice climb the path back to sunlight together:

“The track climbed upwards, steep and indistinct,

Through the hushed silence and the murky gloom;

And now they neared the edge of the bright world,

And, fearing lest she faint, longing to look,

He turned his eyes – and straight she slipped away.

He stretched his arms to hold her – to be held –

And clasped, poor soul, naught but the yielding air.”

Eurydice suffers a double death. And poor Orpheus! Who could withstand losing one’s beloved twice over? Orpheus’ grief is unbearable. He begs to be allowed to cross the River Styx a second time but the ferryman refuses. Orpheus sits upon the river bank for seven days “unkempt and fasting, anguish, grief and tears his nourishment”. And he never loves again until his tragic death at the hands of a frenzied band of Thracian women.

Dear Orpheus, you remind us of the wonderful power of music to soothe our souls, and that no matter what our losses in love might be, your loss was doubly so.

Header image: Orpheus playing to the animals. Roman mosaic from Palermo,

Text quoted from: Ovid, Metamorphoses (transl. A.D. Meville), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Link to ABC Classic 100:

How to frighten an academic



How do you give an academic a heart attack? Tell them that the book that they are currently writing has already been advertised and can be pre-ordered on Amazon!

The modern academic publishing world is truly amazing. On the one hand, it can take extraordinary efforts to secure an academic publisher for a book that can take years to write; the book can be pre-ordered before it is even finished and may only be read by a small circle of classicists, scholars and other interested persons. On the other hand, a blog can be published on any topic at any time and within just seconds be disseminated to a global audience. Publishing, in the former sense, is long, difficult and hard work. Publishing, in the latter sense, is remarkably fast, simple and absolutely addictive. One wonders why more academics don’t do both?

By the way, here is a link to my forthcoming book on Amazon in case you want to pre-order it!



Bob Dylan as Odysseus


A colleague just sent me a link to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture in Literature (recorded on 4 June 2017) in which he discusses three of his favourite works of literature, one of which is Homer’s Odyssey (alongside Moby Dick and All Quiet on the Western Front).

It warms a classicist’s heart to hear the great works of classical literature being referred to, loved dearly, and valued highly. There is something mesmerising too in Dylan’s lilting American tones, his poetic expression, his fervour for folk modes of speech, and his love of emphasis on certain words and syllables.

Dylan describes the Odyssey as a “great book, whose themes have worked its (sic) way into the ballads of a lot of songwriters”. But the highpoint for me is when Dylan, after describing just some of the many adventures and misadventures of Odysseus, says “In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you…you too have rambled this country all around. And you’ve also felt that ill wind, that one that blows you no good”.

Surprising then that when Dylan later poses the question “what does it all mean?” he offers no firm answer. “They can mean a lot of different things”, he says. I think he hinted at the answer in comparing his own journey with that of Odysseus. Surely these great works of literature are about us, about our nature, about the journey of life, about our failings and our potential. This is the core of the humanities and the core of our humanity. Sure Bob, I don’t worry about what it all means, but it sure does interest me.




Link to speech:

Header image: Odysseus consulting the shade of Tiresias.

The troll of ancient Greece: Momus


Criticising, nit-picking, fault finding, disapproving, censuring, blaming and attacking: all synonyms for an utterly human pastime and one that, if we are honest, most of us engage in at some level every day. Many centuries ago, the ancient Greeks were well acquainted with this tendency in human psychology transforming the concept into a personified abstraction named Momus, the Fault Finder. So who was Momus and what motivated him? When is fault finding warranted and unwarranted? And what is the remedy?

According to ancient Greek mythology, Momus was a son of Nyx (Night). The name ‘Momus’ comes from the Greek noun μῶμος meaning ‘blame’ or ‘censure’. He was born alongside other unappealing second-generation offspring of Night including Moros (Doom), Thanatos (Death), Geras (Old Age) and Eris (Strife). Given Momus’ mythic genealogy, there is little doubt that he was viewed as a distinctly negative and undesirable trait in personified form.

Momus is notorious in mythology for criticising the gods of Olympus (never a good idea). Here is the famous fable that illustrates this point:

Zeus, Prometheus, Athena and Momus

Zeus had created a bull, Prometheus a man, and Athena a house, and they selected Momus as a judge of their handiwork. Momus was jealous of their creations and began by saying that Zeus had made a mistake in not putting a bull’s eyes on the ends of his horns so that he could see where he was striking, and he said that Prometheus was wrong in not hanging man’s heart on the outside so that scoundrels could be detected and so that it would be evident what everyone had on his mind. Finally, he said that Athena should have put wheels on her house so that a man could easily move if he had a bad neighbour. Zeus lost his temper with Momus over this spitefulness and threw him out of Olympus. (2)

This short and amusing fable speaks volumes about fault finding and its motivations. Zeus, Prometheus and Athena were all master craftsmen; they knew that their creations were astonishing and they duly expected Momus to be at a loss for words, hence choosing him as judge. But Momus, true to his nature, finds something to pick on. The problem is less with the criticisms per se (even though they are niggardly). Rather, it is the motivation behind each criticism that is wrong: to seek to bring others down out of jealousy or spitefulness.

In ancient Greek mythology, there was only one entity that Momus could not find fault with: Aphrodite (the goddess of love). Since he could not find fault with her personally, he criticised her sandal instead (for squeaking as she walked!). (3) So Momus’ great nemesis seems to be Love herself. As for us in our everyday lives, can we truly love another and blame or censure him/her at the same time? The two actions seem to me to be diametrically opposed.

There is another remedy for all of this constant fault-finding, and it can be found in the following fable:

The Two Bags

Prometheus, after he had fashioned men, hung two bags from their necks, one filled with other men’s faults and one with their own. The one which contained the faults of others he put in front and hung the second one behind. The result has been that ever since men have been able to discern other men’s faults immediately but can’t foresee their own. (4)


If we could see our own bag of faults, it would be so much harder for us to criticise others. And how often do we criticise others and then fall into a hole ourselves? Mind you, the two bags of faults in the illustration above are the same size and evenly balanced (i.e. our faults are equal in number to those we see in others). Now that’s a thought.

(1) Header image: detail of Momus’ mask, painting by Hippolyte Berteaux, Teatro Graslin, Nantes, France.

(2) Lloyd D. Daly, Aesop Without Morals, Thomas Yoseloff, New York, 1961, p136.

(3) Aelius Aristides, Orationes, 28.136.

(4) Lloyd D. Daly, Aesop Without Morals, Thomas Yoseloff, New York, 1961, p204.