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April 18, 2017

Odysseus and Aeneas: Precedents to Machiavelli’s Prince?

The renaissance work The Prince has been a source of fascination and controversy for centuries. Taking the form of a letter from Niccolo Machiavelli to his prince, it sculpts the ideal prince, through a description of how he must acquire a state, and crucially, how to retain it. The Prince has seemingly transformed the way that we view the values of our leaders, but were there precedents to the Machiavellian prince in classical epic? It is clear from references throughout his work that Machiavelli had read and was greatly influenced by Virgil’s Aeneid, and whilst he could not read Greek, he may well have read the Odyssey in translation. (Hulliung, 1983: 216; Rebhorn, 1988: 184) Thus, there are a wealth of references to the classical world in The Prince. I will focus on just one characteristic of the ideal prince, through Machiavelli’s analogy of the fox and the lion, and how Aeneas and Odysseus link to these character traits.

‘[The prince] must learn from the fox and the lion; because the lion is defenceless against traps and a fox is defenceless against wolves. Therefore one must be a fox in order to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves.’ (Machiavelli, The Prince: XVIII)

19th century statue of Niccolò Machiavelli at the Uffizi Gallery.

It would not be contentious to say that both Aeneas and Odysseus are able to act like the lion and frighten off their respective wolves at times. At the end of the Aeneid, Aeneas has to battle Turnus before he can establish his state in peace. ‘In burning rage, he buries his sword full into Turnus’ breast’ (Virgil, Aeneid: 12.950-951). For Odysseus, his wolves come in the form of the Suitors, whom he kills in a lengthy battle near the end of the epic (Homer, Odyssey: 22:1-329). Therefore, both Odysseus and Aeneas share the ability to act like a lion, just like Machiavelli’s ideal prince. In their determination to establish or retain their lands, they are willing to act violently when necessary, and in both of their cases, it proves to be an effective strategy. In this aspect, they were indeed precedents to the prince. The prince must combine Aeneas’ battle to acquire the state, and Odysseus’ fight to retain it in order to be successful.

However, it is in their willingness to act like a fox that differences emerge. Odysseus, conversely, is ‘known to all men for [his] stratagems.’ (Homer, Odyssey: 9.19-20). Odysseus’ shrewd use of trickery is vital to his characterisation. Odysseus’ stratagems even earn him the respect of Athena. ‘Cunning must he be, and stealthy, who would go beyond all kinds of guile, even if it were a god who met you… you are by far the best of all men in counsel and in speech’ (Homer, Odyssey: 13.291-298; Rebhorn, 1988: 185). The fact that Odysseus’ willingness to deceive is even respected by a goddess so connected with strategy shows how advantageous his use of trickery has been. Both Machiavelli’s prince and Odysseus are portrayed to have no qualms about using trickery to achieve their goals.

In contrast to Odysseus, Aeneas rejects the need to act like a fox. He avoids the use of trickery and deception throughout the epic. He has thus been described as surpassing Odysseus in virtue. (Rebhorn, 2010: 84). For example, when Aeneas is forced to admit to Dido that he is leaving Carthage, he speaks with clarity rather than inventing a cunning excuse. ‘I did not hope – think not that – to veil my flight in stealth. I never held out a bridegroom’s torch or entered such a compact.’ (Virgil, Aeneid: 4.337-339) Even though he waits until the last possible moment to admit the truth, there is some consolation in that he doesn’t resort to lying to her. Virgil portrays honesty as the best way to deal with a situation, even though it proved ultimately ineffective in this scene. Aeneas’ characterisation of upholding honesty and rejecting deception make him incompatible with the cunning and deceptive prince. Therefore, we can see that Odysseus is a far better example as a precedent for the prince’s deceptive tendencies compared to Aeneas.

We can see that there were certainly some clear similarities between Machiavelli’s ideal prince and the characters of epic. The recognition of the fact that it is sometimes necessary to act like a lion has precedent in both the Odyssey and Aeneid. And though Aeneas is too sensitive to dishonesty to learn from the fox, Odysseus is an effective forerunner for the prince in this respect. Thus, I would argue that there were indeed characters with the traits of the prince in antiquity long before Machiavelli put pen to paper.

However, despite their clear similarities, the heroes of epic and Machiavelli’s prince have had very different treatments in the eyes of history and culture. For example, in the classic British political television series, House of Cards, there is a key scene in which the wife of the decidedly Machiavellian main character is presented with a copy of The Prince, and it is described as ‘one of his particular favourites.’ Would this scene have had the same gravitas had she been given a copy of the story of another character equally prone to trickery and violence, The Odyssey?


Primary sources

Homer, The Odyssey, trans. A.T. Murray, revised by G. E. Dimock (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard

University Press 1919)

Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. G. Bull (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1961)

Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, revised by G.P Goold (Cambridge, M.A.:

Harvard University Press 2001)

Secondary reading

Hulliung, M. (1983) Citizen Machiavelli (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press)

Rebhorn, W.A. (1988) Foxes and Lions: Machiavelli’s Confidence Men (Ithaca / London:

Cornell University Press)

Rebhorn, W.A. (2010) ‘Machiavelli’s Prince in the Epic Tradition’, in The Cambridge

Companion to Machiavelli, ed. J.M. Najemy (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press)

Matthew Smith is a second-year student of Classical Civilisation. Aside from his longstanding love of the Odyssey and Aeneid, he is also interested in Roman architecture and culture, and is gradually exploring the remains of Roman Britain. Email:

March 15, 2017

Welfare, Disability, and the Athenian Judiciary

The UK government spends roughly £13billion a year on Disability Living Allowances and Personal Independence Payments. ( 2017) These payments, claimed by over 3.5 million people, are intended to cover the extra costs incurred from living with impairments, irrespective of the claimant’s financial status.

However, the government believe that this system is being abused by fake or exaggerated claims. In a recent statement, George Freeman, the head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, emphasised that the payments are only intended for the “really disabled” not, as he put it, those who are “taking pills at home, suffering from anxiety.” ( 2017) Such claimants, Freeman suggested, should no longer qualify for financial assistance. These unfortunately phrased comments have since been widely condemned. Freeman stands accused of trivialising the debilitating effects of mental illness by insinuating that those who experience it are not really experiencing a disability at all but are instead abusing a system which is intended only to care for the ‘most’ impaired.

These comments are the result of an announcement that the government are planning a £3billion funding cut to the disability welfare system. As such, deciding as a society what is, and more importantly what is not, a disablement deserving of our government’s continued financial assistance appears to be an immediately pressing concern.

However, financial assistance for the impaired was not always decided upon in such medically categorising terms. The judicial system of the Athenian court, for example, took a different approach, one which should perhaps be considered again today. A law court speech from the 5th Century BCE clearly demonstrates this system but first, an ambiguity in its translation needs to be corrected. This speech, entitled “On the Refusal of a Pension”, (Rose: 2017) hinges on the following statement:

“φησὶ γὰρ ὁ κατήγορος οὐ δικαίως με λαμβάνειν τὸ παρὰ τῆς πόλεως ἀργύριον: καὶ γὰρ τῷ σώματι δύνασθαι καὶ οὐκ εἶναι τῶν ἀδυνάτων…” (Lysias 24: 4 Trans. W. R. M. Lamb: 1930)

“My accuser says that I have no right to receive my civil pension, because I am able-bodied and not classed as disabled…”

From this common translation, the approach of the Athenian court does initially appear to be identical to that of modern day. The prosecution seems to be accusing the unnamed defendant of not being ‘disabled enough’ to justify financial benefits, just as George Freeman was asserting. However, this translation of the term άδυνάτος, although widely accepted, is in fact inherently misleading. The term has here been translated as ‘disabled’ yet, objectively speaking, the term simply means to be unable to do something; to be weak, poor, or powerless. None of these definitions are, necessarily, exclusively concerned with a person’s physical inability.

By translating the term άδυνάτος as ‘disabled’ then, the modern translation focuses purely on the physical interpretation of the word, implying that physical inability was the condition for financial assistance. However, this is not the case. Unlike our modern disability welfare system, which provides benefits on the basis of need regardless of financial earnings, the Athenian judiciary required the receiver of a pension to be financially incapacitated as a result of physical inability. With this is mind, when the prosecution suggests that the unnamed defendant is considered able rather than άδυνάτος, they mean he is able, rather than unable, to function and support himself. It is his ability to support himself which, the prosecution argue, ought to preclude him from seeking financial support, regardless of his physical status.

Indeed, every argument that the defendant is forced to refute is based not on his physical ability but on his supposed financial ability. For instance, the primary accusation is that the defendant engages in a trade (τέχνην ἐπίστασθαι). The prosecution are not arguing that an impaired man would not be able to engage in a trade, but that by engaging in a trade, the man would earn a living that outstripped his need for state aid. In a similar vein, the second accusation is that he rides a horse (ἵππους ἀναβαίνω). Again, what seems to be at issue here is not that an impaired man would not be able to ride a horse but that a poor man would not be able to afford one. (Rose: 2003 pp. 95-100)

Perhaps however, the most telling indicator that this is an argument of proving financial rather than physical need, is that the defendant spends none of his speech elaborating on his physical condition. (Amundsen: 1977) In fact, beyond the knowledge that he uses two sticks to get around, we have no idea what his physical impairment may have been. If this had been a case which rested on the defendant needing to prove his disability, it would be expected that the defendant would attempt to garner pity from the judiciary by elaborating on his physical ailments and how they manifest themselves. However, this is conspicuously lacking within the defendant’s arguments. What this case helps to prove is that

in ancient Athens, the validation of inability lay not in the physical impairment but in the financial consequences that this impairment may have incurred.

In contrast to the Athenian courts then, the question our current government is wrestling with is this: Who, based solely on the severity of their physical need, is most deserving of financial assistance?

The Athenians, on the other hand, would likely have advocated a different question: Who, based upon the severity of their fiscal need due to physical impairment, is most deserving of financial assistance?

Perhaps, in the face of a struggling welfare system, this is a better question to be asking ourselves today.


D. W Amundsen (1977) ‘The Physician as an Expert in Athenian Law’ in the
Bulletin of the History of Medicine. v. 51. no. 2. pp. 202-213

Lysias Lysias Translated by W. R. M. Lamb (1930) Loeb Classical Library 244. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)

M. Rose (2003) The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece (London: University of Michigan Press)

M. Rose ‘Ability and Disability in Athenian Oratory’ in C. Laes (2017) Disability in Antiquity (London: Routledge)

Annie Sharples is a first year PhD candidate in the department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Her research interest is the study of impairment and disability within Ancient Greek culture and society. Annie is currently investigating the language of disability and how it has been used, or more often misused, within modern discussions and translations of ancient texts. Her wider academic interests include the unideal body within Greek art, aging within Greek society, and the relationship between ancient medicine and the gods.


February 15, 2017

Messages in Saffron: A case study of colour and epithet in Greek literature

Of the many epithets prevalent in Homer’s Iliad, krokopeplos is used consistently and exclusively to describe the dawn goddess, Eos. This is not particularly surprising as krokos was a dyestuff made from saffron, which produced a bright golden yellow not unlike a dawning sun that might deepen to a dark but vibrant orange (reminiscent perhaps of sunset), depending on the method of dyeing. These golden yellow colours have been associated with Eos from a very early origin; there is linguistic evidence that the Greek goddess Eos was an incarnation of a very old Indo-European goddess-type (Bremmer & Erskine, 2010: pp2-3). Etymologically, she is connected with *Haéusos, a proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn, who is the ancestor of the Sanskrit Ushas, Old Indian Usas and Proto Germanic Austro, all of whom also hold associations with a golden yellow colour – in fact, *Haéusos, who is also the ancestor of the Roman Aurora, is the etymological root of the latin aurum, which of course, also means gold.

Clearly then, a connection between this goddess and the saffron-yellow colour is one of some considerable heritage. However, while the epithet krokopeplos appears consistently across the Iliad, it is absent in its entirety from the Odyssey. In its place, Eos is described as chrusothronos, an epithet traditionally translated as golden-throned.

Typically, the use of chrusos in literature is used to describe the metal gold itself, rather than objects of a similar colour, which appears to tie with the translation of this term as a throne fashioned of gold. However, Scheid and Svenbro argue convincingly that chrusothronos is in fact mistranslated, and forms an alternative iteration of krokopeplos. In an examination of the use of thronos, they suggest that this is not the masculine form meaning ‘throne’, but the feminine, throna (Scheid & Svenbro, 1996: pp53-6). This, according to Kleitarchos in the scholia of Theocritus (2.59), has the meaning ‘woven designs’ or ‘flowered clothes’, and Hesychius also defines throna as ‘woven designs of varied colours’. This interpretation is far more suitable for the poikilethronos which is described of Aphrodite in Sappho’s first Ode, where a ‘richly worked throne’ transforms into ‘robed in a cloak with rich floral designs’ (Sappho, frag 1.1; Wagner-Hasel (2002): pp23). This robe is described in the Cypria, where the Graces and the Seasons are described creating a robe decorated and dyed ‘with the flowers of spring’. Notably, one of these flowers was the crocus (from which saffron is derived)(Athenaeus, 15.682e-f, Cypria 4; Scheid & Svenbro, 1996: pp57).

The same argument applies to the epithet chrusothronos, where we might now understand the term to refer to ‘a robe of golden flowers,’ or to condense the phrase further, dyed with them. The goddess Eos, is described as chrusothronos throughout the Odyssey in the same patterns as she appeared with krokopeplos in the Iliad, for example as Athena prompts Odysseus to wake and speak with his wife Penelope:

αὐτίκ᾽ ἀπ᾽ Ὠκεανοῦ χρυσόθρονον ἠριγένειαν

ὦρσεν, ἵν᾽ ἀνθρώποισι φόως φέροι:

… straightway she roused from Oceanus [golden-throned/golden-robed] Dawn to bring light to men; (Homer, Odyssey 23.347)

This demonstrates a clear interchangeability between these two terms, chrusothronos and krokopeplos.

With this exchange in mind, we might turn to re-examine other uses of chrusothronos. Elsewhere in both Greek literature and material culture, there is a deliberate and almost exclusive use of this colour in association with women, particularly those who are associated with fertility and life, as is the case with Eos (Barber, 1992: pp116). Another goddess who is given the appellation chrusothronos is Hera, who is described at the end of book one climbing into her marriage bed with Zeus:

ἔνθα καθεῦδ᾽ ἀναβάς, παρὰ δὲ χρυσόθρονος Ἥρη.

Going up to the bed he slept, Hera of the [golden throne/golden robe] beside him.

(Iliad 1.611)

Naturally, Hera is one of the prime Olympian candidates for the association between the colour gold and femininity, because her domain as goddess encompassed the protection of women during the wedding, and then also her subsequent role as wife. It should also be noted that krokos coloured materials were commonly used as part of the bridal ensemble. We can see this colour association used in action in Pindar’s first Nemean Ode, when Hera expresses her dominance as the legitimate wife of Zeus, over Alcmena:

ὡς οὐ λαθὼν χρυσόθρονον
Ἥραν κροκωτὸν σπάργανον ἐγκατέβα:

ἐκ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἄτλατον δέος
πλᾶξε γυναῖκας, ὅσαι τύχον Ἀλκμήνας ἀρήγοισαι λέχει:
καὶ γὰρ αὐτά, ποσσὶν ἄπεπλος ὀρούσαισ᾽ ἀπὸ στρωμνᾶς, ὅμως ἄμυνεν ὕβριν κνωδάλων.

…he did not escape the notice of [gold-throned/golden robed] Hera when he was placed in his saffron swaddling-clothes

Unbearable fear
struck the women who were then helping Alcmena at her bedside; for she herself leapt to her feet from her bed, unrobed as she was, and tried to ward off the violent attack of the monsters. (Pindar, Nemean 1.37-50)

This passage describes the myth of Hercules strangling the serpents sent by Hera upon her discovery of his birth. What is significant for us is that Hera is described as chrusothronos, or golden-robed, as she takes note of the baby, who is the product of her husband’s infidelity. Alcmena, in turn, is transfixed with fear, and is described as apeplos – she is therefore without the requisite golden robe which in this situation denotes legitimacy as a wife of Zeus (Scheid & Svenbro, 1996: pp73). By the presence of the golden-coloured robe, therefore, we see a clear divide between the official bride and the mistress. Interestingly, the baby Hercules is swaddled in saffron clothes, both because he is here only a baby and therefore a symbol of the procreation of women, but also because he is Alcmena’s only claim to a union with Zeus.

In this example, we have explored how the colourful epithets applied to characters in even the most canonical literature can enhance our understanding of the messages being communicated through the text itself. Our golden-yellow saffron, then, can provide for us a deeper view of the way in which these epithets could carry meaning from colour associations established within ancient Greek culture.


Barber, E.J. (1992) ‘The Peplos of Athena’ in Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens, edited by J. Neils; Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Bremmer, J.N. & Erskine, A. eds. (2010) The Gods of Ancient Greece: Identities and Transformations; Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Scheid, J. & Svenbro, J. (1996) The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric, translated by C. Volk; Harvard University Press, Massachusetts.

Wagner-Hasel, B. (2002) ‘The Graces and Colour Weaving’ in Women’s Dress in the Ancient Greek World, ed. Llewellyn-Jones, L.; Duckworth, London.

Vicky Jewell is a third-year PhD student in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick, supervised by Dr Zahra Newby and Dr Michael Scott. Her research explores communication through colour in Ancient Greek literature and material culture. Please contact with any questions at:

January 16, 2017

Deep Thinking: The EdStone and Beyond

The UK Labour Party’s 2015 general election campaign-pledges were set in stone quite literally by party leader Ed Miliband. Yet the purported permanence afforded these pledges by their inscription on stone transmuted into ridicule, as national news media consumed the monument – the EdStone, as it came to be known – for what it seemed to represent (vanity; hypocrisy; presentational gaffe; popular cynicism about politicians) rather than what it appeared to intend (earnest – if hopelessly vague – policy).

Ed Miliband unveiling the

Doesn’t the EdStone, in context, seem uncannily Classical? The attitudes of Classical texts to the memorializing powers of material culture, from Homer, through Simonides, Pindar, Herodotus, and beyond, reveal the aesthetic and politicized controversies of mortal claims to permanence.

The opening of Homer’s Iliad 12 takes seeming pleasure in Poseidon’s destruction of the Greeks’ wall, doomed not to outlast the memorializing power of the heroic song that creates but then destroys that condemned construction.

Simonides attacks the earlier Kleoboulos of Lindos for foolishly proclaiming the permanence of stone in a poem (581 PMG).

Pindar seemed to eschew the inferior memorializing powers of statuary:

“I am no sculptor, one to fashion stationary statues that stand on their same base. No, on board every ship and in every boat, sweet song, go forth … and spread the news…” (Nemean 5.1–3)

Classical examples also remind us that inscribed stone monuments (stelai, the EdStone’s ancient Greek equivalent) served a range of functions. Stelai could list achievements (Olympic victory-lists survive in the material record but are also alluded to as early as Pindar and as late as Pausanias), set out the laws of states, and document their ambitions (for instance, the Athenian Tribute Lists). But they also recorded deaths, as grave-markers.

Might we (rather smugly) suggest, then, that ancient Greece supports a cynical reception of the EdStone as political epitaph? Or (even more smugly), that Miliband should have known better than to reach out to a symbol whose resonances he would be unlikely to control: the frailties of an overreaching policy-wonk?

Perhaps. But maybe not quite so fast. One lesson is that non-inscribed texts seem to hanker after the materiality and the potential permanence of stone – literary texts seem to protest too much, don’t they? For Classicists, such hankering forms the basis of debate concerning the interdependence of art and text across the ancient world. The flaws of the EdStone might also symbolize a journalistic nostalgia for the simpler political world of 2015.

Moreover, what of the literary contexts of these ancient moments of transformation from material culture into text? And what is at stake in even feeling a sense of a connection across time between things ancient and modern?

The Greek historian Herodotus may guide us. Herodotus’ most well-known transmutation of the fame of physical monumentality into textual significance is the story of Cleobis and Biton in Histories book 1. The intellectual curiosity of his writing also resonates for the complex relation between enquiry as thirst for knowledge (the diagnostics involved in ‘wanting to get to the bottom’ of an issue – the contemporary EdStone helping us to think we ‘know’ classical Greek politics and aesthetics better?) and enquiry as thinking about the emotional and intellectual investments involved in the histories of that process of ‘wanting to know’. The story of Cleobis and Biton also stages the political issue of speaking to power.

The story gains its force as part of the advice given by the Athenian sage, ‘wise adviser’, and statesman Solon to Croesus, King of Lydia. The otherwise unknown Cleobis and Biton are an example of ultimate happiness provided by Solon to answer Croesus’ narcissistic quest for flattery (Herodotus 1.30–4). Cleobis’ and Biton’s fame relies, for Solon, on their memorialization in the material form of statues at Delphi. But Herodotus’ animation of their fame is a story with a point, a lesson for Croesus, and for us too. Solon’s feint when confronted by Croesus’ overbearing personality is part of a broader strategy. “Look to the end, no matter what it is you are considering”, says Solon to Croesus. “Man is entirely a creature of chance”. Happiness and good fortune are much too powerful concepts to be corralled by the rich and famous for particular moments in time. The ‘long view’ is essential.

One insight of Herodotus’ Histories – one that Classics can hope to project anew – is that self-awareness of our own complex temporalities comes with a double mandate. We should be humble in our assumptions about the knowledge we have acquired from the past – as opposed to the arrogant appropriation of alleged Classical certainties for (for example) political grandstanding, educational policy, or other social and cultural interventions (such as the immediate diagnosis of the EdStone’s failings through Classical paradigms, for instance). And we should feed off Herodotus’ magnanimity, in the world-creating potential of literary texts, shaping futures through their inquisitive power to inspire.

We respond creatively, not abandoning ourselves to the past as a dead end sought out in shameless acts of atavistic intellectual recidivism. Herodotus’ own sense of the importance of the past – in which materialist metaphor plays a prominent role – is shaped by facing up to impending vicissitudes:

“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents intellectual enquiry as exposé, so that human events may not become faded through time, and great and wondrous works … may not become inglorious…” (Book 1 preface).

Herodotus encourages us to look into the future, creatively to plot our paths into it, and so to shape it. We are enjoined, subtly and wryly, to use his exemplary source-gathering and source-questioning skills as a trusty companion (and despite contemporary deprecation of ‘experts’) in the face of, and handhold against, perceived existential threats: the rise of ‘fake news’ and the nefarious political sway of individuals whose significance cannot possibly be permanent come immediately to mind (cf. Dewald, 1987: 169–70). Never has Herodotus seemed more of our time, and more worth living with.

Further Reading:

Butler, S. (ed.) (2016) Deep Classics: Rethinking Classical Reception (London).

Dewald, C. (1987) ‘Narrative surface and authorial voice in Herodotus’ Histories’, Arethusa 20: 141–70.

Fearn, D. W. (2013) ‘Kleos v stone? Lyric poetry and contexts for memorialization’ in P. Liddel and P. Low (eds.) Inscriptions and their Uses in Greek and Latin Literature (Oxford) 231–53.

Fearn, D. W. (forthcoming 2017) Pindar’s Eyes: Visual and Material Culture in Epinician Poetry (Oxford).

Grethlein, J. (2008) ‘Memory and material objects in the Iliad and Odyssey’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 128: 27–51.

Immerwahr, H. R. (1960) ‘Ergon: history as a monument in Herodotus and Thucydides’, American Journal of Philology 81: 261–90.

Munson, R. V. (2001) Telling Wonders: Ethnographic and Political Discourse in the Work of Herodotus
(Ann Arbor).

Pelling, C. B. R. (2006) ‘Educating Croesus: talking and learning in Herodotus’ Lydian logos’, Classical Antiquity 25: 141–77.

David Fearn is Associate Professor in Greek Literature at the University of Warwick. Email:

December 15, 2016

Plato on Boaty McBoatface

The Boaty McBoatface controversy, although seemingly innocuous, made conspicuous a concept that would become the subject of greater concern to Western consciousness throughout the course of 2016: democracy.

On 17th March 2016, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) launched its ‘Name Our Ship’ campaign, which hosted votes for suggested names for a newly planned research vessel. This campaign was particularly democratic insofar as any candidate could be submitted and put to vote. This resulted in some rather charming entries, such as ‘RSS Jules Verne’ (3 votes), but it also encouraged the whimsy of the masses and gave rise to ‘RSS Boaty McBoatface’ (124,109 votes) – by far the most popular suggestion.

One month later, after an unprecedented blast of PR exposure for the NERC, the decision was made and we can expect the RSS David Attenborough (11,023 votes) to be operational by 2019. The decision to overrule the public vote sparked minor outrage, with some labelling it an affront to democracy. One commentator went so far as to claim that "the people should get what the people want" despite admitting that the popular choice was "a bad idea, voted for by idiots" (Heritage, 2016).

This article raises some interesting philosophical questions – namely: if we are to understand democracy as 'the (majority of) people getting what the (majority of) people want,' should no further qualifications be added to this principle in order to make it more nuanced, more precise? Should there not be some kind of caveat with respect to people's capacity to recognise what's in their best interests? To put it simply: what is the significance of the relation between education, freedom and democracy?

This philosophical concern is over 2000 years old, taking up a significant proportion of Plato's famous political treatise, the Republic. In this work, Plato argues that the education of its citizens is the bedrock of the ideal polis – the maximally just city-state. That is, proper education is the vital ingredient that, once established, would be sufficiently conducive to the propagation of the ideal polis:

And surely, once our city gets a good start, it will go on growing in a cycle. Good education and upbringing, when they are preserved, produce good natures, and useful natures, who are in turn well educated, grow up even better than their predecessors, both in their offspring and in other respects, just like other animals. (Rep, IV, 424a-b)

This is because, according to Plato, if people are properly educated they become good and reasonable. As such, they will therefore be able to recognise the constituent requirements for the ideal polis and organise themselves into these structures and modes of living of their own volition:

...the final outcome of education, I suppose we'd say, is a single newly finished person, who is either good or the opposite. (Rep, IV, 425c)

...for if by being well educated they become reasonable men, they will easily see these things for themselves. (Rep, IV, 423e)

We can clearly see that, for Plato, education is of vital significance for the successful operation of the ideal political system. Moreover, once this significance is recognised, it becomes immediately apparent that education bears an essential relation to the second of our concerns: freedom. That is, on the Platonic account, proper education entails a greater degree of freedom for those who receive it. This is because those who are properly educated warrant no governmental interference insofar as they can and do identify and conform to the optimum conditions of life. As Plato says:

It isn't appropriate to dictate to men who are fine and good. (Rep, IV, 425d)

As such, it could be suggested that the Platonic political setup endows people with a greater degree of individual liberty and representation than that of modern day democracies. That is, although Plato's political vision is technically not a democracy, the only role played by its ruling class of 'philosopher kings' (Rep, V, 473c-d) is that of installing and safeguarding this initial requirement of education. Once this is in effect, the people effectively govern themselves.

Alas, Plato's ultimate vision is not democratic, but how might his strict commitment to education play out in democratic scenarios? And to what extent is his urgent emphasis on education compatible with modern democracy?

In the case of Boaty McBoatface, the Platonic model would have ensured that 'RSS David Attenborough' (assuming this was the most suitable choice) would have been selected by the majority – in fact, it would have been selected by everyone.

As mentioned above, this example might appear trivial, but it does have implications for the more serious political controversies of 2016. Problems highlighted during the post-mortem of the European Referendum, such as widespread misrepresentation, might not have occurred if the stress Plato placed on education was in effect today. People would have simply rationally and independently identified the correct resolution without recourse to the vying campaigns of conflicting governing bodies. Moreover, for Plato, there would have been no conflicting alternatives, as reason would have guided everyone to the same conclusion.

Plato's strict emphasis on education evidently alleviates some contemporary problems. It does, however, rest on an underlying presupposition: the suggestion that there is such a thing as the correct resolution. Plato subscribes to this view because he claims values to be objective features of reality. Unfortunately, this metaethical position is not immediately compatible with our modern scientific worldview. Does this mean we have to abandon any attempts to incorporate a potentially freedom-enhancing way of thinking into contemporary political thought? Or is there a way of accounting for Plato's commitment to education without recourse to a problematic metaphysical worldview? The answer to this question, I suggest, will determine the applicability of Plato's theories to the political landscape of today.


Primary Sources

Plato, Republic. Trans. G. M. A. Grube, revised by C. D. C. Reeve. In "Plato: Complete Works". Edited by John M. Cooper. (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company 1997).

Secondary Sources

Heritage, S. (2016, April 19). "Boaty McBoatface: Tyrants have crushed the people's will". URL: Accessed: 13 December 2016.


National Environment Research Council. URL: Accessed 13 December 2016.

George Webster is a graduate of the University of Warwick, having completed the MA in Continental Philosophy in October 2015. He is currently applying for funding in order to further his research into accounts of metaphysical immanence, such as those found in Spinoza, Hegel, Heidegger and Deleuze. He is interested in how systems of value issue from such accounts, as well as how they explain subjectivity and the distinctly ethical character of human being. Email:

November 15, 2016

Right Back Atcha: καί σύ Inscriptions and ‘Apotropaic’ Text

Apotropaic art, symbols or objects are those which have - or are reputed to have - the power of averting evil influence or ill luck. Many images and inscriptions from the Greek and Roman worlds are believed to have served an apotropaic function. The Greek phrase “καί σύ”, usually inscribed ‘KAICY’, is one such example. Literally translated “and you”, debate continues to persist as to how this type of inscription was meant to be ‘read’. Warner Slane and Dickie, amongst others, stress the apparent hostility of these inscriptions, taking καί σύ to be symbolic of apotropaic phallic aggression (1993: 492; see also Trentin 2015: 51-72 and Clarke 2007: 65).

For instance, in the House of the Evil Eye at Antioch, a mosaic in the vestibule depicts the Evil Eye being attacked by a raven, trident, sword, scorpion, serpent, dog, centipede, and a panther [Fig. 1] (Levi 1947: 33-4). To the left of this montage, an ithyphallic dwarf walks away from the Eye, his oversized phallus curving backwards toward it in a gesture of phallic assault. ‘KAICY’ is inscribed above his head. In this instance, image and inscription clearly work together: the καί σύ projects the violence enacted upon the Eye towards the viewer – “σύ” - warning them that such punishments will also be exacted upon them.


Fig. 1.: Roman mosaic from Antiochia, House of the Evil Eye. Hatay Arkeoloji Müzesi, Antakya, Inv.-Nr. 1024.

However it is still possible to detect, in even the most violent of examples, that καί σύ inscriptions are characteristically ‘double-sided’ and not solely intent on the infliction of injury. The aggressive character of such inscriptions has perhaps been over-stated: their language is inherently conditional and open-ended, and therefore cannot only denote hostility. The Antioch mosaic undeniably wields violence as its primary weapon in the fight against ill-will, but the accompanying inscription installs the tableau with a precondition. Crucially, the use of “καί” presents this violent imagery as a retaliation, not an instigation; that is, it is designed to be read as being in return for something committed against the household – albeit pre-emptively – and if nothing is indeed committed, then this imagery becomes non-operational. In this way, the καί σύ inscription ensures that the aggressive visual imagery only be ‘activated’ if the viewer actually qualifies as ‘evil’.

Therefore the ‘correct’ reading of a καί σύ inscription intrinsically hinges on the input of the viewer. This fundamental dynamic of reciprocity is exemplified by a pair of marble panels from Delos. They bear reliefs of two phallic monsters, with phalluses for heads, threatening each other (Warner Slane & Dickie 1993: 492). Below the two monsters on one panel are inscribed the words “τουτο εμοι|και τουτο σοι”, and on the other “τουτο σοι|και τουτο εμοι” (“That which is done to me, is also done to you” and “That which is done to you, is also done to me”). Each phallic creature declares to the other that for every hit he receives, his opponent will receive the same. But the language leaves it unclear as to who the instigator and retaliator are in this situation; one phallus-creature cannot take action without the other, thus rendering a humorous stalemate. Perhaps this matching-pair of inscriptions is a direct, tongue-in-cheek reference to the prolific “καί σύ” (either they deliberately expand upon the widespread phrase or we could in fact consider καί σύ to be an abbreviation of this longer inscription) for they neatly convey the inextricable relationship such texts are intended to have with their reader and enactor.

Given this patent equilibrium, we can further assert that καί σύ inscriptions were also used to transmit good fortune as well as bad. Not only did they withhold aggression for the correct recipient, they in fact reflected whatever came their way. This is verified by the fact that “καί σύ” also appears alongside more beneficent imagery - yet the auspicious capacity of these inscriptions has long been overlooked. In the vestibule mosaic at the House of Dionysus in Nea Paphos, the words “ΧΑΙΡΕΙ” and “ΚΑΙCΥ” are inscribed in tabula ansata (a "Christmas cracker" shape) either side of a depiction of the four seasons (Kondoleon 1995: 85). The mosaic’s scheme accentuates the threshold in a typical manner - “ΧΑΙΡΕΙ” unambiguously greets the entrant - but the καί σύ here explicitly accompanies imagery evocative of bountifulness, and thus it is these beneficial implications toward σύ, the viewer. It is clearly meant to be read in direct conjunction with “ΧΑΙΡΕΙ”, the two inscriptions ‘bookending’ the visual ensemble. Therefore, the καί σύ inscription still interjects at the moment of threshold transition in the same way as the Antioch mosaic, but does so by projecting positive themes rather than aggressive ones. Equally, however, we should assume it implicit that the reader who entered this house with bad intentions would, conversely, have had a suitably violent response intended for them, facilitated by the duality of a καί σύ.

This pervasive inscription is comprised of only two short words, yet yields surprising polysemy. The open-ended nature of the language of these inscriptions - inherently bilateral but also inherently conditional - generated a relationship with the viewer that was intrinsically oscillating and irreconcilable, neither able to confirm its own status without that of the other. These inscriptions were indispensable in directing the ‘correct’ reading of the visual imagery they accompanied, and capable of turning such images on their head entirely. Thus the study of apotropaic inscriptions is extremely pertinent to the wider discussion of the meaning and perception of text in classical society; the inscriptions examined here possess palpable multivalence and even magical qualities, transcending the limitations of that which was simply just ‘written’.


Clarke, John R. (2007) Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.- A.D. 250 University of California Press.
Kondoleon, Christine (1995) Domestic and Divine: Roman Mosaics in the House of Dionysus Cornell University Press: London.
Levi, Doro (1947) Antioch Mosaic Pavements (Vol.1) Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Trentin, Lisa (2015) The Hunchback in Hellenistic and Roman Art Bloomsbury: London.
Warner Slane, Kathleen & Dickie, M. W. (1993) ‘A Knidian Phallic vase from Corinth’ pp. 483-505 in Hesperia: Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens Vol.62, No.4 (Oct-Dec 1993).

Kathryn Thompson is a second year PhD student, supervised by Prof. Alison Cooley. She is investigating the concept of 'apotropaic' art and symbolism in the Greek and Roman worlds. Currently Kathryn is conducting a re-evaluation of this terminology itself, by considering the extent to which the 'apotropaic' can be considered an invention of late eighteenth and nineteenth century anthropological discourse.

October 17, 2016

Trump, Hesiod and the Truth

Trump, Hesiod and the Truth

One of the most discussed topics of late is the American Presidential Election. However, the majority of the press has not focussed on the policies of the two candidates, but rather everything else that the candidates have said. Indeed, Secretary Clinton has at times stated outright during the presidential debates that statements made by Mr Trump are simply untrue. Truth in politics is of course a tricky subject, especially when both major parties claim to be able to achieve the same result with opposing ideas. Secretary Clinton has found such political mileage in calling out Mr Trump on his supposed lies, that she is using her website to “fact-check” his statements during the debates.

But what has this got to do with Classical texts? Truth is a central theme within much world literature but it was of particular interest in the earliest Greek literature we have, especially Hesiod’s Theogony. The story of how the gods and goddesses were born and found their places in the world and spheres of influence is fundamentally political: amongst other things it is a narrative of succession, leadership, and governance. This narrative begins with the shepherd Hesiod being approached by the Muses, goddesses of the arts, while he tended his flocks on Mount Helicon. The Muses speak to Hesiod and say,

ποιμένες ἄγραυλοι, κάκ᾽ ἐλέγχεα, γαστέρες οἶον,
ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα,
ἴδμεν δ᾽, εὖτ᾽ ἐθέλωμεν, ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαι. (Hesiod, Theogony, 26-8)

Traditionally, this passage has been translated as follows:

Field-dwelling shepherds, ignoble disgraces, mere bellies: we know how to say many false things similar to genuine ones, but we know, when we wish, how to proclaim true things. (trans. Most, 2014)

However this does not do the Muses justice, for it simplifies their statement, making them sound like they are deceptive, dishonest goddesses. This translation is due to a lack of appreciation for the use of the word ὁμοῖος (translated as “similar to”) in the epic diction of Hesiod and Homer. This is a point first highlighted by Leclerc (1993: 212-6) and its results explored and expanded in an article by Heiden (2007). Heiden argues that the root hom- means “same” and the suffix –oios denotes “a certain quality or property”. Thus there is no sense of resemblance, but rather an equivalency in regard to a certain quality (2007: 155). The phrase ψεύδεαἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα means “lies which are of the same sort as truth”. This seemingly paradoxical statement may in fact pose great significance for Hesiod’s work, especially when seen within the context of a Muse Invocation scene. Minchin argues that Muse Invocations in Homer are meta-narrational devices that are used to temporarily postpone the narrative to make some explicit comment on the work as a whole (1995:28). Within the Theogony, the author uses the Muses’ self-imposition on the shepherd to kick off the narrative with a contextualisation of the following poem within a realm of paradoxical and ambivalent meanings that can exist simultaneously with one another (see the episode of Pandora, described as a kalon kakon, or “beautiful evil”, line 585).

Thus Hesiod the author wishes his audience to be aware of these issues, particularly surrounding Truth, which the Muses directly address in lines 27 and 28. One way in which we can make sense of this statement is to consider how lies are effective. Lies can become truth and reality, not just when they are believed to be true, but also when they have an effect on the listener, even when known to be false. A lie does not have to be believed for it to have an effect on the listener, much like in Odyssey, 19.203 when the disguised Odysseus lies to his wife about the demise of her husband (Heiden, 2007: 166): “and as she listened her tears flowed and her face melted” (trans. Murray, 2014). Furthermore, lies are effective as they can call upon truths, such as memories and experiences to give them power, as Odysseus calls upon his wife’s memories of him (Heiden, 2007: 168). Thus the power of a lie resides within the recipient of the lie. It is up to he or she who listens to lies to empower them with belief, unquestioning acceptance, or even an emotional response.

So we now return to politics: regardless of whether the statements made by Donald Trump are true or not, they are effective. They act like the Muses’ truth-equivalents which can be known to be untrue, yet still have real-world effects and act like truths by evoking emotional responses. Even if the voters do not necessarily believe some of the statements that he makes, they may be affected by them, they may evoke an emotional response and thus on some level are felt to be true. This means that lies are not only a powerful political tool, but also put more pressure on the electorate and their reactions to them. It is the People, the percipients of lies, who decide their effectiveness. Power to the People.


Primary sources:

Homer, Odyssey, trans. A.T.Murray (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2014).

Hesiod, Theogony, trans. G.W. Most (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2006).

Secondary sources:

Heiden, B. (2007) “The Muses Uncanny Lies: Hesiod, “Theogony” 27 and Its Translators” in American Journal of Philology, Vol. 128, No.2, pp.153-175.

Leclerc, M.-C.(1993) La Parole chez Hésiode (Paris: Les Belles Lettres).

Minchin, E. (1995) “The Poet Appeals to His Muse: Homeric Invocations in the Context of Epic Performance” in The Classical Journal, Vol.91, No.1, pp.25-33.

Nick Brown is a PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. His research looks into the ways in which early Greek sculptures and their inscriptions interact with one another. In particular, he is investigating the significance of the body of the sculpture being the site of inscription. More broadly, his interests within Classics focus on the theme of art and text from Greek pottery to ekphrastic literature.

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