Pleasure and pain


Sitting in prison, having just received a visit from his distraught wife and his little son, surrounded by a few devoted friends, and rubbing the painful mark that the chains have left upon one of his legs, a man remarks on the dualistic nature of pleasure and pain:

“What a strange thing, my friends, that seems to be which men call pleasure! How wonderfully it is related to that which seems to be its opposite, pain, in that they will not both come to a man at the same time, and yet if he pursues the one and captures it he is generally obliged to take the other also, as if the two were joined together in one head. And I think,” he said “if Aesop had thought of them, he would have made a fable telling how they were at war and god wished to reconcile them, and when he could not do that, he fastened their heads together, and for that reason, when one of them comes to anyone, the other follows after. Just so it seems that in my case, after pain was in my leg on account of the fetter, pleasure appears to have come following after.” (1)

Any man who has the strength of will to philosophize awaiting execution is no ordinary man. These are, of course, the words of Socrates. A profound observation presented not in the usual form of a statement, question or dialogue, but a simple Aesopic fable that captures a universal truth: pain and pleasure are conjoined and follow soon after one another.

Dualism was fundamental to ancient Greek thought, philosophy and language. Dualistic concepts such as Greek/barbarian, male/female, and freedom/slavery underpinned ancient Greek social definition and status; Greek philosophy is replete with discussions of dualistic concepts such as bad/good, form/material and body/soul; Greek expression is full of contrasts and opposing concepts and ideas (sooner/later, on the one hand/on the other hand, one/another).

What I like about Socrates’ story is that, just as in so many things in life, it takes a third party to intervene in the war between dualistic opposites (in this case, pleasure and pain) and to insist upon unity (in this case, the intervention of Zeus, by fastening their heads together).

But given Socrates’ instructive fable, why is it that when we are consumed by either pleasure or pain, we tend to forget the inevitable and imminent arrival of its opposite? And is there an exactly proportional relationship between the two phenomena (the bigger the pleasure, the bigger the pain that follows, and vice versa)? And is it possible for pain and pleasure to exactly coincide, or by definition, can they only ever follow, one after the other? Questions, and more questions. Socrates might have reflected further on these topics had he not been interrupted by his companion Cebes. And alas, we have no further musings on the subject, for we all know what happened to dear Socrates.

(1) Plato, Phaedo 60b-c;

Text available online at

(2) Header image: Eternal Love by Igor Mitoraj, sculptural exhibition at Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, 2011.

Image sourced from:




The pain of learning


Why does real learning necessarily involve a sort of painful process? Why doesn’t it come more easily, more naturally and more pleasurably? Is there some obstacle in our path, some resistance that has to be overcome or some illusion that we must get rid of before real learning can begin?

Socrates answers all of these questions in his famous ‘Allegory of the Cave’ (Plato, Republic, 7.514a).

He describes our situation of ignorance as one that has been well-established since childhood: we dwell in ignorance (a dark cave), we are unable to move beyond that position of ignorance (“legs and necks fettered…remain[ing] in the same spot”] and although the path to knowledge is open to us (“a long entrance open to the light”) we cannot take it. Why? Because we are hypnotised by shadows of images flickering on the walls of the cave and echoes of sounds heard in the cave (things we assume to be ‘real’ and ‘true’) and we take these to be ‘reality’ and cannot imagine that another reality exists. Is this situation our fault? No. It is simply what we have always known.

According to Socrates, the process of learning and change involves many stages: a release from old preconceptions and assumptions (freedom from the fetters); a sudden shock (sufficient to make one “stand up suddenly”); a changed viewpoint (turning one’s head around); a recognition of true knowledge (the “light”) and pain (“pain…because of the dazzle and glitter of the light”). To realise that one’s knowledge has been built on a false foundation necessarily involves pain and a feeling of being “at a loss”. Do we enjoy this realisation? No. Our first instinct is to run back into the cave with its flickering images, and to dispute the existence of any reality outside of the cave. How easy and comfortable it is to settle back into our original position and to forget.

We must be compelled, by someone else, to overcome our unwillingness to leave our subterranean home:

“[But if] someone should drag him thence by force up the ascent which is rough and steep, and not let him go before he had drawn him out into the light of the sun, do you not think that he would find it painful to be so haled along, and would chafe at it, and when he came out into the light, that his eyes would be filled with its beams so that he would not be able to see even one of the things that we call real?” (Plato, Republic, 7.515e-516a)

Adjustment to the light, says Socrates, takes time and involves a gradual heightening of awareness. First, our eyes must adjust to seeing shadows, then reflections, then the objects themselves, then the light of the heavens, the stars and the moon, and eventually, the light of the sun (Good) itself.

This allegory applies to all forms of learning and education for all forms of learning are difficult. But Socrates had his eye on self-knowledge and knowledge of the Good above all other things and this learning he regarded as the most difficult (and precious) of all.

This allegory does not have to be read, as some would have it, as a sad reflection on the human condition, man’s hopelessness and ignorance, and his unwillingness to change. Amongst other things, it teaches us about the constant presence of Good; the very real possibility of a transition from ignorance to knowledge; recognition of the pain of realisation; acknowledgment of the realities of fear and struggle and internal resistance; our need for help from others; and the happiness that comes with achieving real learning.

Text available from:

Header image:

Gold stater of Rhodes (c.125-88BC): radiate head of Helios (reverse side has rose with bud on right, grain stalk on left, above moneyer’s signature ANTAIOY).

Image sourced from

G325 An Exceptionally Rare Greek Gold Stater of Rhodes (Islands off Caria), of Extreme Rarity as Compared to the Prolific Minting of Silver and Bronze at Rhodes




The Daily Odyssey


“Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now

in the waves and wars. Add this to the total –

bring the trial on!” (Homer, Odyssey, 5.244-48)

I wake to the sound of Odysseus’ words ringing in my ears. Arise! March on! There is more labour to come and there is nothing to be done but to take the load upon one’s back. A job to get to, a book to write, a house to clean, children to raise – bring the trial on!

The journey always has its perils. Instead of a vast and perilous wine-dark sea we have bad drivers, endless traffic, red-light runners and roadwork monsters. Once we enter our workplace, quiet and dark like a cave, it is as if we are about to be swallowed up by a giant of some kind, for we know not when we might escape, or whether we will ever escape at all. It looks innocent enough, but the challenges are lurking, like Scylla and Charybdis and the clashing rocks.

Some days are like Circe herself: outwardly charming to begin with but with a hidden intent to bring out our beastly side. The trick is to follow the god’s advice and stay immune. Some days are like Calypso: we lose ourselves in her sweet deceptions and when we return to look at the clock, we find, to our horror, that we have just lost ten years in what seemed like minutes. Some days are like a journey to the Underworld: a virtually impossible test of bravery, strength and endurance, punctuated by an unexpected phonecall from our mother.

Then there are the Sirens: self-doubts, worries and old wounds from the past that haunt us and seek to distract us from the task ahead. We must fill our ears with wax and row with all our might.

And of course our colleagues: well-meaning and brave companions who are committed to accompanying us until journey’s end but not always the best at following instructions. For instructions equivalent to “do not open this bag” and “do not eat this cattle” can be seen in virtually every workplace fridge and they are hardly every followed.

Battling with the ‘gods’ takes all our strength and forbearance. Do not anger Poseidon or you will be tossed upon the stormy sea like worthless driftwood; beware Zeus and his thunderbolt that screams “You’re fired!”; pay heed to Athena the wise, grey-eyed goddess with her quiet perceptiveness and good humour.

Now, it’s 5pm. Expect to feel a little washed up and washed out, as if you had just been stripped bare and spat out by the sea and left upon a rocky beach. The palace of Ithaca is in sight but, you can’t go home yet for there are problems. Big problems. Last-minute tasks, lined up like eager suitors, are determined to stop you from getting home. Calm and cunning is required. Disguise yourself like a beggar, trust hardly anyone at all, and plan carefully. Your final effort to push through these obstacles must be calm, considered and merciless.

At the door of your home, there is one final test for the day, this time with loved ones. You have been through a great deal, but you must prove yourself to those who know and love you best. The routine questions “how are you?” and “how was your day?” are really not that different from those that passed between Odysseus and Penelope: “are you still the person I fell in love with?” and “do you remember what we have built together?”. The answer is, and must be, emphatically: Yes! Home at last.


Header Image: Red-figured stamnos (jar) showing Odysseus and the Sirens


If I had a dollar…


“If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me ‘Why are you studying Classics?’ I would be a wealthy woman.” This remark came from one of my students as we had a discussion after class about her career plans and aspirations. Her frustration was so evident, as was her deep enthusiasm for Classics and her steadfast determination to pursue a career in teaching and academia. How does one reconcile what one is passionate about with the oft-held view that what one studies at university should be practical and vocational?

This was a timely remark given that we were just about to have our university Open Day and all of the Classics staff (including myself) were rostered on over Saturday to ‘sell’ our discipline to prospective students. To my delight, we did not have to sell it: the enthusiasm of the school students who approached our stall on Open Day was clear and obvious. Conversations invariably started with “I am studying Classics/Ancient History/Latin and Greek and I really love it”. I have to raise my glass at this point to all of the high school history and language teachers who share their passion for the ancient world; the parents who still diligently read the Greek myths to their children as bedtime stories; and all the relatives and family friends who fill young minds with the great stories, ideas, and teachings from the ancient world. Clearly, the flame of Classics is alive and burning. The problem is how to make sure that the flame is not snuffed out by the increasing emphasis on more vocational, skills-based degrees, whatever they may be.

There are, in fact, quite a few arguments in favour of choosing Classics over other subjects but these arguments vary in their persuasive force.

Argument 1: Study what you enjoy!

Study what you enjoy and what you are interested in and if Classics is one of those things, so be it. With statistics showing a downward slide in university degree completion rates, it seems logical for students to enrol in a degree that they are enthusiastic about. (1) If students follow their interests and passions, they are simply more likely to complete their degree.

Yes, but what about my job prospects after university?

Argument 2: Studying Classics gives you skills!

This is not just empty rhetoric. The skills acquired from a good grounding in Classical subjects can be enumerated and they are real, valuable and widely applicable. They include the ability to think critically; the ability to analyze sources and distinguish fact from opinion; the ability to concentrate and apply one’s knowledge to complex problems and find solutions to those problems; the development of high-level oral and written communication skills; the ability to argue persuasively and present ideas and concepts clearly and succinctly, the list goes on and on…

Yes, but surely those skills aren’t exclusive to Classics?

Argument 3: Classics is the foundation of Western civilization!

The civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome are the foundations of modern literature, culture and politics! Democracy, philosophy, tragedy, it all starts with Classics. If we understand the foundations of Greek and Roman society, we gain a better understanding of the contemporary world. Arguably, we can’t understand our contemporary world without making reference to the classical past! (2)

Yes, but this argument is well-known and obvious. What else can you offer?

Well, here’s another argument. It’s the most persuasive one, in my view.

Argument 4: Can you say in full and complete honesty that you ‘know yourself’? In order to know anything, surely one must start with ‘knowing oneself’? Surely you feel compelled to ‘know yourself’, given that this thing called ‘yourself’ is such a complex and wondrous thing? If so, then the study of Classics is for you.

This argument stems from two simple Greek words emblazoned on the temple of Apollo at Delphi: ‘Know thyself’ (γνῶθι σεαυτόν). (3) This was a command, not a wish, or a suggestion. Socrates refused to rest from his questioning and probing (of himself and others) until he satisfied this demand. And the study of Classics is a gradual progression towards the fulfillment of this simple command, to ‘know thyself’.

If, at the end of a Classics degree, a student can say the following:

“I have journeyed to distant lands, and times and places,

I have risen to the greatest heights of ancient civilization and conquered the world,

I have met kings and queens, generals, heroes, priestesses, slaves, courtesans, wives, poets, philosophers, fools, seers, citizens, foreigners, market traders and fish sellers,

I have walked among the ruins of ancient civilizations, marveled at their grandeur and achievement, and contemplated their fall and the inevitable passing of my own civilization,

I have filled my eyes with masterful works of art and wondered at the pursuit of beauty and the perfect form,

I have fought in battles with the heroes of the great epics and witnessed the glory, despair, tragedy and human suffering of war,

I have heard stories of the gods, worshipped the gods, challenged the gods and suffered the consequences,

I have journeyed, explored, and lost my way, and fought to find my way back home again to my beloved family,

I have participated in all the myriad forms of human emotion from pride to piety, from wrath to revenge, from love to hate,

I have conversed with some of the greatest of human minds, heard their words, challenged their arguments and ideas, and concluded that I too know nothing,

I have heard stirring words, passionate words, persuasive words, harsh words, words of praise and blame, warning and exhortation,

I have laughed and rollicked, and revelled, and mocked and poured scorn on public figures and intellectuals all in the name of comedy,

I have lived among cultures with practices and beliefs utterly strange but yet so familiar in their thoughts and feelings,

I will never be alone again, for the ancient people I have met represent so much of human thought and experience that they will be constant companions and reference points for me for the rest of my life,

I have begun to understand the full breadth and depth of human experience in all of its myriad forms, and so, I have begun to know myself.”

then it’s not a bad choice of degree, I say.



(1) ABC news article on rising numbers of unfinished uni degrees:

(2) Why every state school should teach classics:

(3) Why study the classics:

(4) Header image sourced from:

Capturing time

Turin, Museum of Antiquities. Kairos. Marble bas-relief. Roman c

Time eludes us. We never have enough of it when we need it. Good times with dear ones pass quickly. Dull times pass slowly. A day rushes by in a flurry of activity, an hour is lost on a hopeless task, a sweet moment, like a kiss, lingers and then melts away. What is this slippery thing we call ‘time’?

The ancient Greeks had two quite different concepts of time: chronos (χρόνος), referring to a period, season or space of time; and kairos (καιρός) referring to the right time for action, the critical moment. Chronos is linear and can be measured, in days, months and years. Kairos, however, is an altogether different concept. It refers to recognition of the significance of the present moment.

In Greek mythology, Chronos is described as great, crafty and cunning. He was one of the Titans, the earliest generation of Greek gods and one of the twelve children of Heaven and Earth. He is a portrayed as a destructive force and his power is characterized by violence and the violation of proper order and hierarchy. Initially, he had no consideration, obeyed no rules, and was seemingly wild and uncontrollable.

Chronos is said to have ambushed his father (Heaven) as he lay with his mother (Earth) and castrated him using a sickle with jagged teeth. He then took his father’s place as ruler of the cosmos and married his own sister, Rhea. Interestingly, ‘Rhea’ means ‘flow’ or ‘ease’, a gentler concept of time passing, often linked with the female menstrual cycle and with motherhood. But even after marrying Rhea, Chronos’ nature did not change.

In an effort to protect himself from being usurped, Chronos swallowed each of his children as Rhea gave birth to them:

These great Cronos swallowed as each [460] came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, [465] strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus. Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea. (1)

Rhea sought help from her parents and they devised a plan, as retribution for Chronos’ violence toward his father, and for swallowing his children. Rhea gave birth to Zeus in a secret place on the island of Crete and, with the help of her mother, Zeus was hidden away.  A stone wrapped in swaddling clothes was presented to Chronos and Chronos duly swallowed the stone:

Then he took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! he knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled, [490] and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honors, himself to reign over the deathless gods. (2)

Zeus grew up and gained strength. With the help of the other Olympians, he waged a ten year war against his father Chronos and the other Titans, eventually defeating them and driving them into Tartarus. Zeus (representing law, order and proper hierarchy) eventually brought Chronos under control; the era of chronos without logos had passed, and chronological time began.

In Greek mythology, Kairos is a completely different figure to Chronos. Lysippos is said to have made a bronze statue of Kairos in the fourth century BCE. Unfortunately, the statue has not survived, but we do have a marble relief that is said to be a copy of Lysippos’ work (see header image above).

Kairos is depicted as a youthful, athletic figure with wings on his back and feet. He is balancing on a stick, whilst holding a sharp blade in his right hand and a set of scales. There is tension, concentration and complete focus in the moment. In ancient Greek history, the ‘kairos’ refers to the turning point in the battle, the moment at which the outcome will be decided. In literature and drama, the ‘kairos’ is the critical moment for the protagonist, the point in time at which his choice of action will determine his fate.

In the third century BCE, the poet Posidippos composed the following epigram to accompany Lysippos’ statue:

“Who are you? Kairos, subduer of all.

Why do you stand on tip-toe? I run quickly.

And why you have wings on both your feet? I am as swift as wind.

Why do you hold a razor in your right hand? As proof to men that I am sharper than any sharp edge.

Why does your hair grow over your face? For one who encounters me to grasp.

And why, in Heaven’s name, is the back of your head bald? For once my winged feet pass by, even if desiring to, no one can grasp me from behind.

Why did the artist fashion you? For your sake, stranger, and he set me up in the porch as a lesson.” (Anth. Pal. 16.275.7).

I am coming around to the view that kairos, the critical moment, is more important than chronos. I think my children have taught me this. I used to be beholden only to the concept of linear time, particularly, the past and the future. Little children live only in the present moment. They are wonderfully free of the burden of chronological time. They seize kairos by the hair and they don’t let him go.

The two Greek concepts of time illustrate to me that I will never have any control over chronos, but with kairos I have a chance. If one is present now, in this moment, and awake to what is required in this moment, then one has a chance to realize something, to bring something about, at this critical juncture between linear time and opportunity.

(1) and (2): Hesiod, Theogony available online at

Header image:


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:

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:

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:

Header image: The School of Athens by Raphael, (1509-1511), Fresco, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. Source:

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.





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:

  1. Header image:

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


*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.