Peter Jones

How to crack election jokes like a Greek

As the party of the lost and the party of the losers square up to each other, the next few weeks bid fair to raise tedium to an excruciating new level. Still, one can always rely on the c. 4,000 epigrams of the Greek Anthology (7th century bc – 6th century ad) to provide some

Olive oil was the key to Roman excellence

Owing to a rise in temperature in southern Europe and a reduction in rainfall, the production of olive oil this year may drop by nearly 40 per cent. For the Romans, who ensured that the olive spread all around the Mediterranean, it would have been disastrous. Olives were a food, and in its liquid form

Aristotle’s advice for young protestors

In his Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle (384-322 bc) sets about identifying the various headings under which you can be persuasive about any topic. One of the topics is the nature of the young, and as today’s students pick up their loud hailers to make demands about events more than 2,000 miles away in alien cultures

Were the Ancient Greeks shameless?

Last week Mary Wakefield discussed the virtues of her ‘Victorian’ education, designed to stiffen the upper lip of the young and to ensure they understood that they were in second place to their elders and betters. She avoided the word ‘guilt’ and its associations with ‘shame’, which were taken to be the aim of such

How to survive in the ancient world

A recent analysis has concluded that ‘British public opinion has got so used to things being bad/chaotic it’s hard to imagine anything else.’ But what ‘things’? Perhaps electioneering politics (always chaotic), but more likely the myriad social, legal and medical services the state claims to provide. No such services (let alone ‘rights’) were available in the ancient world. Family

What does the Olympic torch have to do with Hitler?

The original Olympic Games established a basic canon of seven games unchanged over some 900 years: foot, horse and chariot races, boxing, wrestling, pankration, and pentathlon. This year’s Olympics feature 42 games, adding for the first time ‘competitive breakdancing, an urban sport that originated in the hip-hop culture of 1970s block parties in the US’.

What was it like to be nouveau riche in Pompeii?

Frescoes are always the lead story in reports of the latest finds from Pompeii, but they are only a part of a much bigger picture. Before it was destroyed in ad 79 Pompeii had been a flourishing port town (the explosion of Vesuvius altered the whole landscape) with a population of around 11,000, offering trading

Were the Greeks right about justice?

The Sentencing Council, consisting of various legal authorities, has told judges and magistrates to consider, when sentencing the young, their ‘difficult and/or deprived backgrounds or personal circumstances’. To what end? To induct the young into proper moral behaviour, Aristotle thought that family discipline should go hand in hand with the community’s laws, customs and education.

What would the Romans think of assisted suicide? 

What a song and dance about the end of life! Historians assure us that, among human beings, there is a long, well-established tradition of dying and if, after a life well lived, one feels enough is enough, what on earth is the problem? Seneca, the philosopher and adviser to Nero, took a duly stoical approach:

Why Rome didn’t need the Garrick

What fun to mock the elite in the Garrick! But there were no Garricks in Rome: clubs were for those lower down the scale. They were called collegia and consisted of citizens, freedmen (ex-slaves) and in some cases slaves. All usually had some religious connection and were properly organised with presidents, treasurers and so on.

What the Greeks knew about unconscious bias

socrates: I was talking with some handsome young men in St Andrews University when the vice chancellor appeared, keen to discuss her new student ‘training module’. It would include ticking the statement: ‘Acknowledging your personal guilt is a useful start point in overcoming unconscious bias.’ socrates: I was talking with some handsome young men in

What would the Romans have made of the Budget?

Accounting systems have apparently existed since the Mesopotamian period (c. 5000 bc). But what about ‘budgets’? Early Romans had no such concept because, in the absence of a welfare state, self-reliance was the order of the day. They did however pay an annual tax, fixed by the Senate and collected locally, to refund (for days

Aristophanes would have had a field day with Greta Thunberg

Last week Athenian free speech was contrasted with a demand from some dons at Buckingham University to ban a ‘heterodox’ Social Science Centre questioning woke ‘culture’. The Centre should stage an Aristophanic comedy on the subject. In the 5th century bc Athens was a hotbed of controversial ideas being taught, for money, by people called

Did the Athenians come up with no-platforming?

Hardly a day goes by without another story of academics clamping down on free speech. Dons at Buckingham University are the latest to express outrage at a proposed ‘heterodox’ (i.e. not woke) social science centre. In democratic Athens (5th century bc), free speech in the citizens’ assembly and the courts was called isêgoria, meaning ‘equality

The Romans did politics properly

After 14 years in power, the Tory party still does not seem to know how to serve everyone’s interests, even its own. After 14 years out of power, the Labour party’s one consolation is that, for all Angela Rayner’s best efforts, it could hardly do worse. Might a new model for selecting MPs help? After

Have actors always been self-indulgent?

Golden Globes, Baftas, Emmies – here we go again with the annual rituals of self-worship to which actors are so addicted. The ancient Greeks are to blame: they staged plays in competition, with awards for best plays, producers and actors. Their worldwide luvvies’ Guild, formed in the 3rd century bc, was called ‘Artists of Dionysus’ –

It’s hard to improve on classical comedy

Ian Hislop’s genial radio series on the earliest English jokes got off to an odd start since the joke in question – Pope Gregory’s description of the Angli being more like Angeli – was a Latin one. Romans had much to say about humour, most of it cribbed from ancient Greeks. Cicero saw jokes as

How Cleon became a cautionary tale

Last week in a piece on populism, Pericles’ and Cleon’s methods of persuading the Athenian assembly to do their bidding were analysed: Pericles calm and persuasive, Cleon taking to court or viciously slandering his elite rivals for power. But Cleon did also have his moment of glory, in circumstances quite extraordinary even by the standards

What’s wrong with populism?

As elections approach and arguments become more strident, the term ‘populism’ becomes more and more thrown about, as if it is a bad thing, a form of demagoguery. But what populists do is to represent themselves as champions of ‘real’ people whose interests are completely ignored by the elite. What can be wrong with that?

Is government wise to follow the will of the people?

Given the failure of all political parties to deal with the Post Office’s wrongful conviction of so many postmasters, ITV’s re-enaction of the story has been a triumph for democracy (Greek demo-kratia ‘people-power’) in rousing the people to force parliament to act. But will justice be done by the popular demand that parliament overrides past