Dramatis personae


Going to the theatre this weekend? What better way to escape the winter blues! If so, you might like to slip this very short guide to theatre etiquette into your back pocket. It is a little dated (by around 2,300 years) but it’s remarkably apt.

Don’t go to the theatre only when admission is free.

Don’t go to a performance again and again just to learn the songs.

Don’t take the cushions from your friend’s slave and spread them out on the theatre seat yourself.

Don’t stop others from enjoying the performance because of your constant chatter.

Don’t clap after others have stopped clapping or hiss the actors that others enjoy watching.

When the audience is silent, don’t sit back and burp just to make the other spectators turn around.

Don’t take interstate guests to the theatre but expect them to pay for the tickets. And don’t reuse those tickets the next day for your children.

Don’t fall asleep and be left behind alone in the theatre. (1)

It was terrific seeing an audience of students from English and Drama enjoying this material from the fourth century BC and seeing its continued relevance for modern times. In fact, the highlight of my working week was ‘teaching into’ two courses on comedy and drama run by the English program at the ANU. I was delighted to present a lecture on one of my favourite topics: ancient Greek drama. Collaborative teaching is inspiring and tremendously rewarding and I am grateful to my colleagues, Bec and Kate, for the opportunity.

  1. The guide to theatre etiquette (above) draws on excerpts from Theophrastus’ Characters, numbers 2, 7, 9, 11, 14, 27 and 30.
  2. Header image: Photo of Epidauros Theatre. Source: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/12/amazing-acoustics-epidaurus-theatre/

Surviving the plague


July in Canberra has seen a run of freezing cold nights (with temperatures dropping to minus 8 degrees) and mornings so thick with fog that I can’t even see the end of my street. In an effort to avoid incurring steep university parking fees I ride to work but, on one particularly cold (and wet) morning last week, the nasty wind chill got to me and before long I felt that awful ‘razor blade’ feeling in my throat. No amount of vitamin C tablets would be enough to avert it.

This week, I can hear the coughs of colleagues (and students) rattling up and down the corridors along with my own. I admit, it’s not ideal teaching (or studying) amidst a cloud of tissues, lozenges, antibiotics and hot drinks. But whenever I am feeling particularly sorry for myself for being brought down by the latest mutant germ, it cheers me up immensely to read Thucydides’ account of the plague of Athens. So here we go:

As a rule, however, there was no ostensible cause; but people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. [3] These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. [4] In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. [5] Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. [6] Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. [7] For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; [8] for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.(1)

I’m feeling better already. I only have 2% of the symptoms just described, so it mustn’t be the plague this time. I cannot imagine anything worse than suffering through the overcrowding in ancient Athens only to contract this hideous disease. Death must have been a welcome prospect just to avoid the excruciating symptoms. Remarkably though, Thucydides survived the plague (he was one of the lucky few). Right, time to cheer up, have another cup of tea folks, and Περαστικά everyone!

(‘Perastika’, Greek expression meaning ‘may it pass quickly’, or ‘get well soon’).

(1) Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 2.49 available online at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

Header image: Caduceus symbol from Ephesus, sourced from:


The odd couple: students and academics


It is the eve of a new university semester. Students are busy sourcing texts like honeybees; academics are hurriedly finishing their research and attending last-minute conferences before teaching commences; and administrators are quietly bracing themselves for a veritable tsunami of enquiries and course changes. There is just a moment to pause, reflect and draw together some light hearted ancient (and modern) reflections on teaching, students, and academia. What was it like for students and teachers at the ancient philosophical schools? The following sources refer to Aristotle’s philosophical school in Athens (known as the Peripatos or Lyceum) which was broadly analogous to the modern university.

First, a note about punctuality and dress code (note to self: don’t be late for class and wear jewellery!). Theophrastus, head of the Lyceum for thirty-six years, seems to have had a great sense of style:

“Theophrastus used to arrive punctually at the Peripatos, looking splendid and all decked out. Then, sitting down, he (used to) present his lecture, refraining from no movement nor any gesture.” (1)

Next, a note about the standard that was expected of students and the teaching methodology (note to self: we are gardeners, not teachers, planting seeds in the minds of our students and expecting abundant crops):

“Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle and Theophrastus, who did indeed preside over philosophy, appeared inclined to anger toward those who esteemed their studies lightly. They did not pour forth a fountain of words ungrudgingly, but set certain principles and seeds before their students and then indeed demanded back much more than what they put down.”(2)

Thirdly, a complaint about the difficulties of finding an audience who will a) listen and b) not ask too many questions (note to self: not to advertise my upcoming seminar too widely):

“Not only is it not easy to get a public assembly, but not even a small company of listeners such as one would like. Public readings lead to revisions. The present generation no longer tolerates the deferring of everything and lack of care.” (3)

Fourthly, a reference to students burning their lecture notes (after the exam, of course!):

“some people say that as [Metrocles] was burning up the lectures of Theophrastus, he chanted: ‘Hephaestus, come hither. Thetis now has need of you.’ “ (4)

NB: I never burnt any of my lecture notes from Classics (quite the opposite actually, I have hoarded them for seventeen years). I did however burn some of my notes from Law school (particularly Constitutional Law) and I am happy to report that they burned very nicely.

Last of all, but certainly not least, I just can’t help including  a very amusing character sketch of a philologist, written at the end of the nineteenth century by German classicists, mimicking the style of Theophrastus’ character sketches. Beware: don’t read this sketch while drinking hot coffee. It’s just too funny.

“The Philologist”

(1) Philology is to be sure an excess of desire for ancient writings and things. The philologist is one,
(2) who will overvalue and revere books and papyri and inscriptions and other such items simply because they are old. And he will be delighted when they are found not intact but rather corrupted by many mistakes and gaps, saying that the restoration and correction of such items is his most pleasant and worthwhile activity.
(3) And when ancient writings are discovered somewhere, if they are written on paper he will be pleased, if on parchment he will dance, if on papyrus he will shout aloud with joy, if on stone he will chant a song of victory, if on bronze he will make obeisance.
(4) And he will admire nothing produced by contemporary craftsmen, repeating always the following verse of Homer: “Such are men now,” but whenever he sees either one of those statues without a nose and mutilated and lacking extremities or a fragment of a worn out old pot picturing the rump of a young boy, he will leap up with pleasure and shout out: “This here, how excellent it is.”
(5) And he will spend more time in the libraries than at home and will have the bedroom, the den, the playroom full of books.
(6) And he will forbid the maid to clean and straighten up his desk.
(7) And meeting one of his many children while walking on the streets, he will not recognize him but will ask kindly: “Child, why do you cry? Your house and your parents where are they?”
(8) He is apt also to compel his children at five to learn epics by heart and his wife the Greek alphabet.
(9) And he will know the ancient laws of Greece and Rome more accurately than those of his own country.
(10) And he will put on old fashioned cloaks and will wear trousers shorter than his legs.
(11) And he will always teach something and will be angry at the individual who is not convinced.
(12) And he will fight continuously and terribly with his colleagues, insisting in a loud voice against the shouts of others that only what he himself said is correct.
(13) And he will use such expressions as: “I don’t believe” and “That’s illogical” and “The day before yesterday I clearly demonstrated the opposite” and “Haven’t you yet read what I recently wrote on these matters?”
(14) And he will go abroad especially to Athens and Rome and will praise the sky there and earth and sea and the men there and women and young girls. And constantly carrying pictures of all these things he will regard them with admiration. And purchasing spurious or base coins and sherds and pebbles and little oil-flasks and trash, he will spend his travel money without noticing it. And returning home he will promise his wife to take her with him in the future. (5)

Does this remind me, or you, of anyone? Paragraphs 5, 6 and 13 are just too close to the truth in my case! Oh dear. As George Eliot wrote in her Impressions of Theophrastus Such, “It is my habit to give an account to myself of the characters I meet with: can I give any true account of my own?”.

(1) Athenaeus, The Sophists at Dinner 1.38 21A-B.

(2) Michael Psellus, Oration 24.14-18.

(3) Theophrastus, letter to Phanias, recorded in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, 5. 37.

(4) Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, 6.95.

(5) W. W. Fortenbaugh, ‘The Thirty-First Character Sketch’, Classical World Vol. 71, No. 5 (Feb., 1978) pp. 333-339.

Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4348884?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Header image: The School of Athens by Raphael, (1509-1511), Fresco, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosopher

The female classicist


I am grateful to Australasian Women in Ancient World Studies (AWAWS) for bringing to my attention a recent article entitled “Found in translation: how women are making the classics their own”. The article was written by Emily Wilson and posted on the Guardian website on 7 July this year (see link below). I thought it would be useful to write a comment on this article, as a female classicist on the ground, as it were.

First and foremost, I welcome Wilson’s celebration of female scholars and translators in the field of Classics. Wilson remarks that in the past, “the study of ancient Greece and Rome was largely the domain of elite white men and their bored sons” and that, in present times, “the legacy of male domination is still with us – inside the discipline of classics itself and in how non-specialist general readers gain access to the history and literature of the ancient world.”

Wilson’s remedy is to point to a smattering of translations of classical works by European women from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She then jumps ahead several centuries to list a growing number of women who are not affiliated with institutions and have been publishing translations of Greek and Latin texts in the last two decades. Wilson applies a number of descriptive terms to these translations : from “wonderfully original”, to “innovative” and “stylish”.

As Wilson anticipates in her article, one is right to query whether the gender of a translator makes a real difference to the translation. In my view, a translation should be judged solely on its accuracy and its literary merits, not on the gender of its translator. It should not be derided simply because it was written by an ‘elite white man’, nor applauded because it was written by a ‘woman at leisure’. This is why, I think, Wilson reluctantly has to admit that “[n]ot all female translators would describe themselves as feminists and many female classical translators…do not see gender as a central element in their work.” I belong to the latter category.

In fact, I think that translations of ancient texts can provide a wonderful opportunity to apply objective standards of merit. A good translation is simply that, regardless of the gender of the translator, and classical scholars and teachers know a decent translation when they see it, be they male or female or other. Nor should a translator set about altering the translation of an ancient text in an effort to apply twenty-first century notions of gender. We have to deal with the text before us, even if the values reflected in it are not our own, and not from our times.

I really don’t know what Wilson is on about when she says: “the position of being a woman translating one of these dead, white men creates a strange and potentially productive sense of intimate alienation”. Apart from being utterly confused by Wilson’s oxymoronic phrase ‘intimate alienation’, I simply disagree. I am currently spending my time translating Theophrastus’ Characters (an ancient Greek text which, by the way, was written by an elite male philosopher of the fourth century who pokes fun at the elite white men who surround him). I am enjoying this work tremendously. I feel a great intellectual companionship with the author and a profound sense of shared humanity, values and social outlook. Gender is irrelevant to this intellectual affinity that transcends time and space.

Thankfully, Wilson is on much firmer ground in her lengthy and very positive review of Yopie Prins’ new book entitled “Ladies’ Greek: Victorian Translations of tragedy”. This book sounds like it might be worth reading as “a study of late 19th– and early 20th-century female translators of ancient Greek tragedy.”

Wilson ends her long article with a plea that “more British and American women – including people who are neither “ladies” nor white – will begin to translate Greek and Roman texts into English.” Fair enough, but it’s a pity that Wilson fails to address her plea to Australasian classicists as well. It seems that we don’t exist in Wilson’s view. In fact, her entire article is focussed only on classicists from Europe and America. Wilson: there are many fine female classicists in Australasia too and many of us, believe it or not, are working diligently and productively on ancient Greek and Latin texts and translations. As female classicists, we might be able to dislodge the inherent gender bias in Classics, but what do we do about your geographical bias?

Link to article:


Header image:

Kristin Scott Thomas in Sophocles’ Electra. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/07/women-classics-translation-female-scholars-translators#img-1




Timeless parenting advice


There are few things more heart stopping than watching your three-year old child run straight towards a road. Thankfully, there were no cars – this time. What does a parent/academic do in the face of such recklessness? She consults a parenting book of course! My parenting bible reassures me that this total disregard for safety is completely normal for a toddler. Even worse, it confirms my worst fears and repeated experiences: toddlers, it says, have little understanding of cause and effect, limited vision, limited concentration, an inability to think ahead and intense curiosity! (1)

Once I had caught up to my daughter,  firmly grabbed her little hand and told her sternly to “Stay with us!” it occurred to me that nothing has really changed since the time of Daedelus and his little son Icarus. Daedelus was a master craftsman, the architect of the infamous labyrinth that kept the monstrous Minotaur within its walls. He was in exile on the island of Crete under the rule of King Minos and he was desperate to escape. He reasoned that if he could not escape by and or sea, he would escape by air. By carefully arranging feathers and binding them with thread and wax, he crafted a set of wings for himself and his son. Meanwhile, Icarus was playing in the workshop:

“His son, Icarus, stood next to him, and, not realising that he was handling things that would endanger him, caught laughingly at the down that blew in the passing breeze, and softened the yellow bees’-wax with his thumb, and, in his play, hindered his father’s marvellous work.” (2)

Once Daedelus finished, he fitted the wings to his own back and tested them. Hovering in the air, he gave these words of instruction before fitting the wings to his son:

‘Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes. And I order you not to aim towards Bootes, the Herdsman, or Helice, the Great Bear, or towards the drawn sword of Orion: take the course I show you!’

With his old cheeks wet with tears and his fatherly hands trembling, he fitted the wings to his son and they took flight together. Daedelus called out instructions to his son and looked back anxiously to check on his progress. Soon enough, Icarus’ confidence grew, and we all know what happens next:

“the boy began to delight in his daring flight, and abandoning his guide, drawn by desire for the heavens, soared higher. His nearness to the devouring sun softened the fragrant wax that held the wings: and the wax melted: he flailed with bare arms, but losing his oar-like wings, could not ride the air. Even as his mouth was crying his father’s name, it vanished into the dark blue sea, the Icarian Sea, called after him.” 

Tragedy. Grief. Despair. Daedelus cursed his clever inventions and buried his son in a land forever to be named Icaria.

There is so much in this ancient story, especially for us modern parents: the utter innocence of children and their inability to anticipate danger; the tender care with which parents issue instructions and warn of dangers; the quickly growing confidence of a child and the risks they are prepared to take. Daedelus, who was unmatched as an inventor, was undone by his own little child. Oh, ancient tale, I hear your warning and promise to heed it.

  1. Robin Barker, The Mighty Toddler, Macmillan, Sydney 2009, p. 301.
  2. Text of myth from:

Ovid, Metamorphoses (transl. A. S. Kline) Book 8, lines 183-235, available online at: http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph8.htm#482327661

  1. Header image:

The Fall of Icarus. Fresco from Pompeii, The House of the Priest Amandus. 40-79AD.

Source: http://www.ksbuelach.ch/fach/as/gallerie/myth/daedalus/01.htm

*Many artworks both ancient and modern depict Icarus as a young man, aged 13 or 14 perhaps. Based on my own experience, and my reading of the texts, I’m quite sure that Icarus must have been no more than three years old at the time of the accident! That being said, it is entirely possible that I will publish this same blog again when my children are in their early teens.

Comic relief


Spending years at home with my children, I grew accustomed to hearing their bubbling laughter every day. Now, having returned to full-time work, I can see how enormously important it is to introduce comedy into the workplace. It can brighten a dull day, breathe new life into our working relationships and renew our energy to work. Starting a new job this week has involved considerable adjustment on the home front, a mountain of administration, attending induction sessions, teaching preparation and madly trying to finish a book chapter before the university semester commences. It’s time for some comic relief! Here are three ancient Greek fables that always make me laugh:


Hermes wanted to know how much people valued him, so he assumed a human form and went into a sculptor’s workshop. He saw there a statue of Zeus and he asked how much it cost. The man said that it cost a drachma. Hermes smiled, and asked how much the statue of Hera would be. The man named a still higher price. When Hermes saw a statue of himself, he expected that he would be reckoned at an even higher price, since he delivered the messages of the gods and brought profit to mankind. But when he asked how much the statue of Hermes would cost, the sculptor replied, ‘If you buy those other two, I’ll throw this one in for free!’


There was a woman who had a middle-aged man as her lover and although she was no spring chicken herself, she concealed her age with exquisite grace. There was also a beautiful young girl who had caught the man’s fancy. Both women wanted to seem a suitable partner for him, so they began plucking out his hair in turn. The man imagined that his looks were being improved by their attentions but in the end he went bald, since the young girl plucked out every one of his gray hairs, while the older woman plucked out all the black ones.


There was once a doctor who knew nothing about medicine. So when everyone was telling a certain sick man, ‘Don’t give up, you will get well; your illness is the sort that lasts for a while, but then you will feel better,’ this doctor marched in and declared, ‘I’m not going to play games with you or tell you lies: you need to take care of all your affairs because you are going to die. You cannot expect to live past tomorrow.’ Having said this, the doctor did not even bother to come back again. After a while the patient recovered from his illness and ventured out of doors, although he was still quite pale and not yet steady on his feet. When the doctor ran into the patient, he greeted him, and asked him how all the people down in Hades were doing. The patient said, ‘They are taking it easy, drinking the waters of Lethe. But Persephone and the mighty god Pluto were just now threatening terrible things against all the doctors, since they keep the sick people from dying. Every single doctor was denounced, and they were ready to put you at the top of the list. This scared me, so I immediately stepped forward and grasped their royal sceptres as I solemnly swore that since you are not really a doctor at all, the accusation was ridiculous!’

Now that we have had some comic relief, it’s time to consider what exactly comedy gives us relief from. In the Poetics, Aristotle described tragedy as ‘bringing to an end’ the emotions of pity and fear and he called this process ‘cathartic’ (1). Does comedy also bring to an end certain emotions and if so what are these emotions? On this topic, Aristotle is less forthcoming. There is a curious little work attributed to Aristotle with a hideous title (the Tractatus Coislinianus) that offers the following: “[c]omedy is an imitation of an action that is absurd and lacking in grandeur…through pleasure and laughter achieving the purgation of the like emotions” (2). Mmm, not exactly satisfactory is it? The observation that comedy targets the absurd and mundane is fair enough. But is Aristotle really suggesting that comedy frees us from pleasure and laughter because those emotions and reactions are undesirable? Surely not.

When I think about my favourite comedians and comediennes, I can see how they tap into everyday situations that usually provoke feelings of annoyance, anger, indignation, irritation and/or contempt. Comedy reveals the absurdity of these situations and redefines them within new parameters. Through the act of laughing, I am purged of these negative emotions as part of a cathartic process. There is no greater relief from negativity than having a good laugh (well, actually, that’s not true, there are other great forms of relief!). It is simply impossible to feel annoyed and amused at the same time. I think comic catharsis is a real phenomenon but the definition we have been given is inadequate. However it is defined, I am certainly grateful for it at the end of a long working week.

Fables (no. 562, 584 and 587) sourced from:



  1. Aristotle, Poetics, 1449b24-28. See the mention of catharsis also in Aristotle’s Politics 8.7.1341b32.
  2. Tractatus Coislinianus, IV.

Further reading:

  1. R. Janko, Aristotle on Comedy, Duckworth, London, 1984,
  2. L. Cooper, An Aristotelian Theory of Comedy, Kraus Reprint Co. New York, 1969.

Header image:

Terracotta figurine of a comic actor with tympanos: Greek, 375-350 BCE
Paris, Louvre Museum.

Source: http://www.vroma.org/images/mcmanus_images/index4.html


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.