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December 15, 2017

Prudens Simplicitas: The Decline of Simplicitas

Simplicitas rudis ante fuit: nunc aurea Roma est

Et domiti magnas possidet orbis opes

(Ov. Ars 3, 113-4)

In Latin literature simplicitas was considered one of the most important features of elite Roman citizens. Romans were proud of their simplicitas (Lucr. 1, 548; 1, 574; 1, 609; 2, 157; Ov. ars. 3, 113; Val.Max 2, 5, 5; Plin. Nat. 35, 67).

Simplicitas, which appears for the first time in Lucretius may be translated as simplicity, or, in a moral sense, as frankness, innocence, and honesty. Ovid in Tristia 1, 5, 39-42 asserts that his simplicitas caused his exile:

Saepe fidem adversis etiam laudavit in armis,

Inque suis amat hanc Caesar, in hoste probat.

Causa mea est melior, qui non contraria fovi

Arma, sed hanc merui simplicitate fugam

Often faith even among his enemies in arms has been praised by Caesar; when it exists among his own, he loves it; in an enemy he approves it. My case is still more favourable since I did not nurse strife against him, but earned this exile by my simplicity.

The mistake(s) which led Augustus to exile Ovid has been endlessly discussed. Ovid often refers to it, but he is so vague that finding out the real cause is unrealistic.

In Ovid, as well as in the majority of Augustan poets, simplicitas has a negative and unforeseen outcome: it is responsible for his exile. In Horace (Sat. I, 3) simplicitas has a positive meaning only when it corresponds to the ideal of moderatio; Livy (40, 8, 2) admits that in his day only children could display sincerity.

Honesty and frankness make Ovid weak and exposed to the anger of Augustus. Despite Suetonius (Aug. 71, 1) once defining Augustus as simplex, Augustus did not appreciate this quality in the poet. Ovid is overly naïve and does not consider the effect of his disposition. In doing this, he is comparable with the female heroines of his myths. Despite her malignant attitude, Ovid defines Medea (alongside with Cidippe and Phillys) as simplex because she believes in Jason and subsequently loses everything.

Tacitus himself seems aware of the perils resulting from simplicitas (hist. 3, 86). Speaking of Galba, the historian describes the emperor as a man in possession of simplicitas et liberalitas, qualities which, Tacitus remarks, will prove the ruin of their possessor, if unchecked. Tacitus’ words here echo Seneca’s earlier advice: simplicitas is a double-edged sword.

In the preface to the fourth book of Naturales Quaestiones, Seneca identifies simplicitas as one of the strategies used by those who want to put on a pretense.

Seneca summarizes this ambivalence and develops the potential risks implicit in this concept: simplicitas is a weapon in the hand of adulators. In De Tranquillitate Animi (15, 1; 17, 2) the philosopher, aware of how difficult it is to find traces of simplicity, seems to miss the old simplicitas. The times are so degenerate as to be unable to find traces of simplicity. Ovid had already complained about the absence of simplicitas in Rome. According to Ovid (Ars 1, 237-242) what rare appearances of simplicity there were, were due to wine:

Vina parant animos faciuntque caloribus aptos:

Cura fugit multo diluiturque mero.

Tunc veniunt risus, tum pauper cornua sumit,

Tum dolor et curae rugaque frontis abit.

Tunc aperit mentes aevo rarissima nostro

Simplicitas, artes excutiente deo.

Wines give courage and make men apt for passion; care flees and is drowned in much wine. Then laughter comes, then even the poor find vigour, then sorrow and care and the wrinkles of the brow depart. Then simplicity, most rare in our age, lays bare the mind, when the god dispels all craftiness.


The idea that “in wine there is truth” is a topos, already observed in Plato (leg. I, 649 a-b) and recurs also in Horace (sat. I, 4; epist. 1, 18) and in Diodorus Siculus (XX, 63, 1) (Ferrero, 1979: 56).

However, in Seneca’s view, it would be anachronistic to reintroduce simplicity: the philosopher is conscious that simplicitas would be unsafe (parum tuta simplicitas) at the imperial court. In his writings simplicity is on the opposite pole to dishonesty: ideally, simplicitas must be preferred to simulatio, nevertheless at the imperial court it is better to put on an act than to be frank. In De Ira Seneca refers to the historical exempla of men who, refusing honesty (simplicitas), don a mask in order to be disingenuous, nevertheless the Stoic philosopher justifies them.

Martial (epigr. 10, 47) identifies a series of specific features that make life happy: amongst them, he includes the ability to purposefully adopt simplicitas (prudens simplicitas).

Simplicitas went from being one of the most well-respected hallmarks of the ancient Romans to a sign of questionable moral character; a good quality which came to imply pernicious consequences. Due to this, if people still possessed a natural predisposition to simplicitas, they had to be able to moderate it. In the Roman Empire simplicity was allowed only if checked.

Select Bibliography:

Barchiesi, A. The prince and the poet: Ovid and Augustan Discourse (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London, 1997)

Ferrero, A.M. Simplicitas in Cicerone (AAT, 110, 1976b: 53-69)

Ferrero, A.M. Il concetto di simplicitas negli autori augustei (BStudLat 9, 1979: 52-59)

Ferrero, A.M. La simplicitas nell'età Giulio-Claudia (AAT 114, 1980: 127-154)

Rudich, V. Political Dissidence under Nero: The Price of Dissimulation (London, 1993)

Rudich, V. Dissidence and Literature under Nero: The Price of Rhetoricization (London, 1997)

Roller, M.B. Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome (Princeton-Oxford, 2001)

Currently, Martina is a PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick sponsored by the Wolfson Association. Her project investigates the discourse of flattery in Seneca’s philosophical texts, and analyses the extent to which Seneca developed a theory of adulation. More broadly, her interests within Classics focus on the Latin literature of the first century A.D. Along with Seneca, she works on Petronius and Lucan. She has a strong research interest in the connection between literature and history in Imperial Literature.Email:

July 17, 2017

Tortoises and Fish–Scales: A Chinese Legend of Rome

A section of the Chien Hanshu by the Chinese historian Ban Gu has provoked much discussion. It describes the defence of the city of Li-jien, before it fell:

… more than a hundred foot-soldiers, lined up on either side of the gate in a formation as close as scales of a fish, were practising military drill (Gu: 259).

When translating this section for The History of the Han, Professor Homer Dubs translated the words yü-lin-jen as “fish-scale formation”. According to Dubs, a yü-lin-jen would be an unfamiliar battle formation to the Chinese, and he claimed it was the Roman formation testudo. He claimed the city defenders learned this as former Roman legionaries, who had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Carrhae (Dubs 1957: 140-146). Today, most agree when Visetti calls the theory “a legend” (Visetti 2010). However, it still captures the imagination of people today, leading to a rejection of other theories that these Romans were there for other reasons, such as trade (Spencer 2007). This “legend” is most influential on those who claim their ancestry from these soldiers in the modern village of Zhelaizhai.

Ancestors are important in modern China, because it is believed they directly affect the living. (Wood 2016; Hessler 2006: 85; Hessler 2010). Zhelaizhai villagers intently started to consider their Roman ancestors after China opened to the West (Spencer 2007). A shared ancestry establishes individual and collective identity in Zhelaizhai. By accepting Dubs’ theory, the community romanticised their ancestors as heroes who protected the traditional social organization of Li-jien (Hsu 1971; 19). They did not seek their own fortunes like a merchant would (Min 2014; 94). This positive perception ties the community together. On an individual level those who look the most like the Romans have an easier time finding work in the tourist trade (Yong 2011), demonstrating the belief that worshipping the ancestors brings good fortune.

Their supposed Roman heritage distinguishes the people of Zhelaizhai from the Han majority and other minority groups in modern China by explaining why they look a certain way (Hessler 2006: 34, 208). One tells how possible European ancestry explains his daughter’s patch of blonde hair, “Before we were told about the Romans, we had no idea about this. We are poor and have no family temple, so we don’t know about our ancestors” (Spencer 2007). Some people adopted a name reflecting their believed Roman heritage; one villager who did this is named Luo Ying, which means “Roman hero” (Yong 2011).

Their possible heritage opens doors for Western contact that many towns in the interior of China do not have. A villager by the name of Cai Junnian who has green eyes and a hooked nose, got fame because of his Eastern and Western looks. He appeared in numerous newspaper articles and documentaries, and visited the Italian consul in Shanghai on invitation (China Daily 2010). The legend fascinates Westerners and caused interest in travel to the village. Locals who look European use their looks to build this interest by dressing as Romans and acting like soldiers near a reconstructed Roman pavilion (Yong 2011; Yuanyuan 2015).

It does not matter if Roman soldiers actually came to China, the possibility is captivating enough to continue interest in Dubs’ theory. In other places in China, they are used as tools for fostering Western ties and advertising products by romanticising the West. In Zhelaizhai the link is more than social status, it composes their identity and influences their lives by providing explanations as to their uniqueness from the general image of the Chinese. Dubs’ theory may be incorrect but it has a major impact on the residents of parts of modern China.


Primary Sources

Gu, Ban Ch’ien Han-shu, trans. J.J.L. Duyvendak (Leiden: Brill: 1939) from ‘An Illustrated Battle-Account in the History of the Former Han Dynasty’ in T’oung Pao 34:249-264.

Secondary Sources

Dubs, H. H. (1957) ‘A Roman City in Ancient China’, Greece & Rome 4:139-148.

Hessler, P. (2006) Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China (New York: Harper Perennial).

Hsu, F.L.K. (1971) Under the Ancestors’ Shadow: Kinship, Personality, and Social Mobility in China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press)

Min, T. (2014) ‘The Chinese origin of Physiocratic economics’, in The History of Ancient Chinese Economic Thought ed C. Lin, T. Peach, and W. Fang (New York: Routledge) 82 -97.

Internet Sources

China Daily, News Article: ‘Hunt for Roman legion reaches China’ -- (20 Nov 2010). Accessed 5th June 2015.

G. Visetti (2010) ‘Quei legionary romani che abitavano in Cina’. Available at: (Accessed: 28 June 2017)

N. Squires (2010) ‘Chinese Villagers’ descended from Roman soldiers’. Available at: (Accessed: 21 May 2017)

P. Hessler, (2010) ‘Restless Spirits’, Available at: (Accessed: 29 June 2017)

R. Spencer (2007) ‘DNA tests for China’s legionary lore’. Available at: (Accessed: 5 June 2015)

W. Yuanyuan (2015) ‘Top 5 Distinctive Ancient Villages in China (II)’, Available at: (Accessed: 26 June 2017)

Y. Yong (2011) ‘Lost Roman Legion in China’, Available at: (Accessed: 21 May 2017)

Media Wood, Michael Wood: The Story of China: Ancestors: Documentary (2016; London: BBC).

Katrina Anderson is a former student who studied for the Master's in Ancient Visual and Material Culture of Ancient Rome at Warwick University. She is now living in China teaching English. Her interests are in Classical Art History and its reception.

June 15, 2017

Female Sexuality: the ‘Problem’ that Spans Millennia and the Myth of Social Progress.

This blog will examine The Bacchae by Euripides in 405 BCE to illustrate the position of female sexual agency in ancient Greece. Using sociological analysis, the significance of this text in relation to contemporary society will be demonstrated by comparing ancient Greek beliefs to the ideology of ‘purity’ culture; a movement largely endorsed in conservative Christian movements in the US. This is from the perspective of demonstrating the similarities between both an ancient society and a contemporary society in terms of the inadequacies when dealing with victims of sexual violence.

In The Bacchae, Pentheus expresses his disgust with female participation in a ‘new’ religion spearheaded by Bacchus (Dionysus):

...I learned

Of fresh evils throughout the city,

That the women have left our homes

For counterfeit Bacchic revels (215-218)

...They pretend

To be maenads performing sacrifices,

But follow Aphrodite before Bacchus. (223-225)

The emotive use of kaka, "evils" when referring to women participating in Bacchic revels such as drinking, dancing, and promiscuity illustrate Pentheus’ feelings towards the worship of Bacchus. Bacchic revelry is discussed throughout the text and implies that female sexuality may run rampant if left unrestrained. Pentheus is also critical of the suggestion that these behaviours are a consequence of worshipping Bacchus. Rather, Pentheus considers Aphrodite a euphemism for engaging in socially unacceptable sexual behaviour due to an uncontrollable desire for sex. When Aphrodite is used sardonically, it condemns whilst simultaneously denies female sexual agency through continual references to external behavioural influences, to which it can be inferred that women’s sexuality is always controlled and exercised by another, rather than her own agency. Resistance against female sexuality may be considered by many to be an archaic preoccupation and not an issue in contemporary, post-feminist, western societies. Yet growing support for a ‘purity’ culture echo many of the arguments put forth in ancient Greek texts and should be analysed when attempting to understand contemporary arguments. More worrying is the implication of female sexuality within fears for moral decline.

‘Purity’ culture is an ideological movement heavily influenced by conservative Christian teachings and is widely endorsed in the US with growing support (Moslener, 2015). Beliefs are based on the premise that a girl should remain ‘pure’ and offer her virginity as a gift to her husband upon marriage. Organised events such as ‘Purity balls’ celebrate the valuableness of virginity and emphasise the economic and moral worth of women for marriage in those terms. As such, a woman’s moral centre resides in her sexual purity - to be penetrated is to be devalued. Female sexuality as a metaphor for morality thus becomes implicated in debates concerning moral decline.

Tiresias responds in a way that may appear to defend female agency:

But where chastity is in her nature,

You may rely on it. For a modest woman

Will not be corrupted by Bacchic rites. (316-318)

Upon closer inspection, phrases like ‘modest woman,’ (317) and ‘chastity is in her nature’ (316) are duplicitous in their insinuations in that women who are overtly sexual are therefore not feminine or female, even. Bacchic rites, including drinking and sexual behaviour, are implied as corrupt when the expectation of the ancient Greek woman (and in modern conservative Christian contexts) is to be pure. Consequently, this renders women into one of two camps - modest, chaste, and good versus vulgar, promiscuous, and evil. Furthermore, not only is immodesty therefore ‘evil’, it is considered an inversion of the very values according to which society operates. Hence, these ‘evil women’ pose a threat to the very axioms upon which cultures are built.

Of greater concern is the link between female sexual purity and sexual violence. Since value is placed on virginity, and devaluation equated with sexual activity, where does this leave rape victims? The cultural emphasis on sexual purity may result in rape victims feeling too ashamed to report victimisation for fear of ostracism from a community like the purity culture, or worse, being considered as partially to blame for their rape (Valenti, 2009). Placing ‘chaste’ women on a pedestal above the immorality of women following Bacchus is comparable to women in the ‘purity’ movement and the immorality of women who engage in sexual activity before marriage. A dichotomous view such as this may make invisible victims of sexual violence (Kerr et al, 2004; Brown & Walklate, 2012). For example, Pentheus argued that all women may be considered sexually rampant if given the opportunity and this remains a common myth disputed in contemporary feminist research into the disbelief of rape victims and accusations of false rape claims based upon a victim’s clothing, behaviour, sexual history, and religious beliefs (Kelly et al, 2005; Rape Crisis, 2013).

The continuing relevance of ancient Greek perceptions of female sexuality within contemporary society demonstrate that despite various social movements, legislative changes that support social progress, and the impact of feminism, female sexuality remains a contentious issue. This brief examination of an ancient text in relation to a contemporary social movement demonstrates a far cry from social progress. The dichotomisation of women as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in an attempt to control female sexuality continues to be prevalent in contemporary and historical accounts and must be considered critically in order to adequately protect victims of sexual violence in modern society.


Brown, J. & Walklate, S. (2012) Handbook on Sexual Violence. Routledge.

Kelly, L., Lovett, J. & Regan, L. (2005) "A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases." Home Office Research Study 293. London: Home Office.

Kerr, J., Sprenger, E. & Symington, A. (2004) The Future of Women’s Rights: Global Visions and Strategies. Zed Books.

Moslener, S. (2015) Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and the American Adolescence. Oxford University Press.

Rape Crisis (2013) ‘CPS confirms false rape allegations are very rare’. Available at: (Accessed: 30 May 2017).

Valenti, J. (2009) The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Hachette UK.

Georgina Riggs holds a Master’s degree in Criminology from the University of Leicester and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Warwick. She is currently working on applications to study a PhD in Criminology. In particular, she is developing a research proposal to study sexual violence in higher education using a multi-sectoral approach in the context of post-feminist and neoliberalist ideological positions. More broadly, her interests within the social sciences stem from a social constructionist approach and range from the relationship between gender, politics, sexuality, and the law. Email:

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.


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:

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