Saturday, 22 April 2017

Ancient Scientific Research

Yesterday I participated in the Brisbane March for Science (#MarchforScience). As an historian who researches ancient medicine, I didn't feel completely out of place. I turned up with a sign "Even Nero Supported Scientific Research". Most people smirked, but only one person asked me "Really?"
Nero was described by Suetonius as not only using poison, but provided the woman, Lucusta, from whom he'd acquired poison with which he killed Brittanicus with a full pardon, large estates, and sent her students (Life of Nero 33.3). Lucusta was being paid to teach toxicology to students; a job we see in various universities today, though it usually seeks a different outcome.
I chose Nero because everyone knows him. One of the police officers who was helping the march along asked me "who's Nero?" I prepared to go completely crazy when he said "just kidding!" There are better examples of toxicological research. Most famously, Mithridates of Pontus was best known for his toxicological research, trying to find ways to both protect himself from poisons or poison himself (I've written about this elsewhere). Cleopatra was also well known for her toxicological research. Although it is a later source, Plutarch (Life of Antony, 71) even provides descriptions of her use of prisoners sentenced to death to conduct human experiments to determine which poisons worked best.
I went to a lecture a couple of years back in which a Medievalist stated that science experimentations did not occur until the 11th century, yet this does not reflect the language of ancient medical texts. Medical writers would describe treatments as "those which I have tried by experimentation."* Phrases occasionally used include "Some say to do [this], but I have never tried it myself."* Looking at Galen's lists of compound drugs, he often states whose recipe it is, thus providing us with ancient examples of citations in relation to medical research.*
Yes, science experiments were conducted in antiquity. Yes, people were paid to teach a variety of sciences in antiquity. Yes, scholars provided citations to other scientists in antiquity. Even ancient scientific writings formed the basis of many modern sciences. Ancient history has a roll in modern science, and this ancient historian attended yesterday. I certainly hope there were more.
*Yes, I should provide proper citations for these, but to quote a sign photographed and posted on Twitter yesterday: "I should be writing" something other than this blog.

I just found a picture of me online.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Treating Joint Disease in the Roman World

Something strange happened while I was working on writing up research on how Latin sources treated joint complaints:  I realised that I had everything in my house to formulate not just one treatment, but three variations of it. 
Pliny the Elder (24.72.116) wrote:
Bruised holly leaves with added salt are beneficial for afflictions of the joints... 
Possibly two or three centuries later (we can't date the work for sure but it is often dated to the fourth century) an anonymous author whose work is referred to as the Medicina Plinii prescribed (3.1.3) a similar treatment:
Holly ground with added salt and oil is beneficial for the same thing [joint disease].
This use of holly as a treatment was popular with ancient Latin medical authors, because a third medical author who probably dates to the fifth century, Marcellus Empiricus, provides another prescription (34.64):
Holly, rubbed down and applied with frankincense, salt, and oil relieves joints.
The sources made no references to amounts, so I made it up as I went along.  Now I must say, the holly used is most likely the incorrect type as it as grown in Australia and randomly found in my brother's yard (thanks Justin) and brought home by my mother (thanks Mum).  When I first wrote up this research I was curious about the ongoing changes over time and thought the addition of oil would aid its application.  Therefore, this not-at-all-scientific experiment was to compare between the three prescriptions to see what difference the development brought about.

Pliny's mix of holly and salt was very dry and doesn't adhere to the skin very well at all.  I also think it stinks, even though my family didn't think it was that bad.

Holly and Salt. Ground and applied
The Medicina Plinii preparation adhered to the skin better with a small amount of olive oil added.  When I first considered the difference between Pliny and the Medicina Plinii, I thought that oil would make the preparation adhere better, and my presumption was correct.  It still stinks though.

Comparison of the Holly and Salt to the Holly, Salt and Oil.  Application of Holly, Salt, and Oil.
 Marcellus' addition of frankincense renders some notable changes.  The middle picture shows the oiliness of the preparation before I even added the oil.  I added the same amount of oil to both the Medicina Plinii and Marcellus' preparation.  Yes, frankincense is a dried resin, but when pounded in a mortar and pestle, it releases a considerable amount of oil.  The other major difference was the smell.  The smell of this preparation is far, far nicer than that of the holly without the frankincense.  It also adheres to the skin a little better too.  Marcellus often claims to have used what he wrote about, so I wonder if he had a client who complained about the smell.  That said, frankincense was often included in medical preparations, so he might have thought it would provide other advantages instead or as well.

Left: Holly, Salt, and Frankincense before pounding. Middle: Holly, Salt, and Frankincense pounded; Right:  application after oil was added to the preparation.
As I have typed this blog, all of Pliny's preparation has fallen off my thumb, most of the Medicina Plinii preparation has fallen off, but Marcellus' is still adhering very well.

Left:  Salt and Holly; Middle:  Salt, Holly, and Oil; Right: Salt, Holly, Frankincense, and Oil.
While I had thought about how the addition of oil would improve the manner it adhered to the skin proved to be correct, but I hadn't imagined what difference the frankincense would make.  As for the effectiveness of this as a treatment... I am extremely sceptical of all home remedies. 
The joints on my left hand (which are the worst joints I applied this to) did start aching as I typed this blog, but this does not mean that this is an ineffectual treatment, and one person messing around in her kitchen not even measuring ingredients properly make no pretence at being a scientific study.  My arthritis is described as spondyloarthritis and is a genetic form within the rheumatic diseases, and my sources state that this is for joint disease without any further definitions.  For all I know, this could help people with osteoarthritis, and as I stated at the beginning, this is likely the wrong form of holly.
In any case, it has been fun to look at how over a period of perhaps five centuries, the treatment of joint diseases evolved and developed in my own kitchen. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Corporatisation of stories and the fandoms of antiquity

I read an essay today discussing how modern fandoms are now broken because the wall between creator and audience has been worn away by social media.
Fandom is Broken: Controversies and entitlement shine a light on a deeply troubling side of fandom. By Devin Faraci.
There is so much to enjoy in this essay and is well worth reading. It addresses issues in today's society regarding our interaction with stories, addressing phenomenon such as fan fiction, audience expectations and "ownership" of stories, and the reception of characters over time, such as the selling of rights and how comics have been taken over by new writers. If you have any interest in the analysis of modern pop culture it is well worth a read.
I love to reflect on the cultural aspects of antiquity as the pop culture of its time, so when I read Devin's statement:
"fandom has been pressuring creators at least since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sent Sherlock Holmes over the side of Reichenbach Falls, and who knows how audience reactions helped mold the telling of ancient Greek myths. "
I immediately returned to the idea that the playwrights and mythographers of ancient Greece and Rome were writing fan fiction. It is a fun way to look at the past, but the discussion about how stories today are "corporatised" seems to fit better. Homer is dead, but the Trojan cycle was (and is) constantly reimagined for new audiences. We only have hints about how the audience responded to the changes introduced by the new authors; the few claims regarding which plays won at festivals, or reports of booing in the theatre. By comparison, all you need to do today is log into social media to see the howls of disgust or plaudits for the latest movie, TV show, or comic.
This "corporatisation" has had a huge impact on how the audience views their relationship with stories today. As Devin puts it:
"The corporatized nature of the stories we consume has led fans - already having a hard time understanding the idea of an artist's vision - to assume almost total ownership of the stuff they love. And I use that word ownership in a very specific sense - these people see themselves as consumers as much as they see themselves as fans."
This idea of consumption has made me reconsider the evidence for pop culture in antiquity. What if we were to look at the material relating to mythology from antiquity through the fandom lens?
Mythological stories feature on pots, in wall decoration choices, in homewares. Visit any museum featuring a collection from the classical world and you will constantly see references to Greek myths. We often see this material as a reflection of the importance of these stories as religion, but often the images featured don't reflect religious practice.
But by looking at this material through the lens of fandom, we see consumption.
Why did someone choose that pot? Why that lamp? Why that wall decoration? This associated story had to mean something to consumer.
We live in a "post geek closet world" (as Jim Butcher puts it) and "geeks" no longer have to justify their consumerist decisions. Entire companies have evolved to reap the benefits of this market. When we impose this concept back on antiquity, we no longer need to address the difference between religion as practiced and mythology as presented in material culture. In fact, Pompeii starts looking like an entire community was ordering in bulk from the ancient equivalent of ThinkGeek.
Some people might consider this a poor methodology with which to view the past, but I would like you to consider this comparison. The modern pop culture consumerist can recognise an entire back story in one symbol. Batman's black bat on yellow, Captain America's shield, the various house emblems from Game of Thrones. Compare these Zeus' eagle, Hera's peacock, Athena's owl. There are a lot of correlations between the consumerist past and the consumerist present. Perhaps we need to consider that "pop culture" is not that new a phenomenon, and start reimagining the past a little more in the image of today.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Comedy Debates, Student Body Timidity and My Three Point Plan to Thwart It

Once more this year I participated in the Classics and Ancient History Society's Great Debate, and for the first time ever found myself supporting Greece arguing the question "Who did more for us? Greece or Rome?" My blog is named after a line from Monty Python's The Life of Brian, so arguing a question influenced by this film seemed a good fit. I was asked to discuss infrastructure, which is difficult when competing against Rome, so I formulated the argument that Rome had no originality and were dependent on the Greeks for their infrastructure. This then led me to modern ideas of intellectual property and the bullying which often accompanies its theft, and then I landed in the idea which I've discussed before, the similarities between the actions of the Romans and that of Islamic State militants. 
I ought to have kept this idea to myself in hindsight, rather than sharing it with others, because the society's executive heard about it and were concerned. They didn't know the details of what I was going to say and they requested the opportunity to review my speech to check it was appropriate for the audience. I was astounded, angry and hurt. But more than anything I was upset that students felt that what was said should conform to some mystical set of standards. I couldn't understand why these students were so timid. 
After some messaging, I hoped I calmed the executive's nerves regarding who would be responsible for the content of my speech (me) and that we would go ahead as normal without any vetting, but I continued to be concerned by what this timidness meant for the future of the discipline of history.
After discussing the issue, a friend's comment drew my attention to what has potentially led to a growing lack of radical thought among university students: the Internet.
Coincidentally, the Internet was part of the framework for my speech. Yes, we live in a world where our mistakes can be broadcast globally for all to see. And yes, this does influence the behaviour. I know it influences my own, so I hereby apologise to the executive for criticising their caution. In the words of Bertrand Russel, "the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."
However, rather than merely bemoan this growing timidity within the student body, I thought I should try provide some simple tools to encourage students to be more brave when it comes to scholarship. Audacity is essential for all academic growth. If we continue to think about things in the same way, nothing will change. So here's my three point plan to help students push against the status quo:
1. Is my argument supported by the available data? In the case of ancient history, is there supporting ancient source or archaeological material?
2. Am I convinced that my argument is valid on the basis of that data? Do you believe your ancient sources, and why?
3. Am I willing to stand up and own my argument? Number three is the hardest checkpoint to cross off, but it is the most rewarding.
I know this plan seems obvious, but a timid scholar is sometimes bound by the way other scholars view the material. Yes, you need to aknowledge modern scholarship, but we need to be willing to look beyond it. I once got a high achievement for paper which argued Nero was a good emperor because I followed this plan. If you have closely looked at your sources and you are convinced that your argument is valid you should take ownership of it. 
While there are plenty of books and articles written by scholars whose views are now accepted by the academic community, each one of these arguments started out as someone looking at the data in a new way, convincing themselves that their argument was valid, and then arguing to convince others. I would love nothing better than to see students confident in their research and brave enough to challenge the current thinking relating to how we see the past. Oh, and not be scared by the idea of comparing the Romans to Islamic State. Next time I won't share any of my controversial ideas with anyone and save everyone the worry.
Oh, and here's my text as written for the debate. I didn't get to include every part, and the comparison between Edison and the Romans fell flatter than a steamrolled pancake. Oh well, comedy is a hard business, and sometimes you have to take the failures.

This year’s debate has been inspired by the Life of Brian’s question:  What have the Romans ever done for us?  And the answer they supply mostly relates to infrastructure, the topic which I’m discussing ... in support of Greece.

I’m mostly a Roman historian, so why?

Because when it comes to infrastructure, the only thing the Romans have done is provided an example of complete disregard for intellectual property and bullying.  They inform us that yes, you can conquer anything through plagiarism and destruction!  Ask yourself, do you want this example?

We live in a digital world and we know how terrible these things are.  Hell if the Romans were around today their digital footprint would be equal parts internet troll, Buzzfeed content and Islamic State’s You Tube videos.  

The internet is the perfect lens through which to view this matter.  I imagine most of you are familiar with the online argument that Thomas Edison was a great bullying “douchebag” to quote the Oatmeal, who ripped off everyone else’s ideas.  The Romans were the Thomas Edison of the ancient world with the Greeks playing the role of Nikola Tesla, with an Etruscan support act.

Now consider Monty Python’s list:  Medicine, public health, and education in the Roman world were all Greek.  Need a doctor – he was Greek.  Want higher education – you travel to Athens or Alexandria, or if you are that nonconformist Tiberius, you go to Rhodes to avoid the ancient version of the paparazzi and learn– in Greek.

Consider the water related elements:  the technology for which was based principally on the arch – an Etruscan, not Roman, invention.

In addition to arches, an aqueduct required it builders to be able to complete complicated mathematics to work out gradients so the water would run downhill over long distances. And we don’t see any mathematical treatises written in Latin. Why, because the brainiacs who worked this stuff out were Greek. Look at any Maths textbook:  how often are the fancy formulae featuring the Greek alphabet?  Personally I'm still traumatised by the sigma in high school statistics.

Sure, we are mostly Arts students here, but once again, the Romans were reliant on the Greeks! Hell, Roman soldiers were so stupid they killed Archimedes at Syracuse despite being expressly told not to.  Why were they told to keep him alive? So they could rip off his intellectual property!

Seriously, the Romans had no original ideas.  Put Roman culture through TurnItIn and they’d be thrown out of uni for plagiarism.  If it were a song, every other Mediterranean culture would have a better case than the Marvin Gaye estate had against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams.

Romans couldn’t even plan a city without the assistance of the Greeks.  I love it when you go to a town and you can figure out where you are going because everything is laid out in a grid pattern.  You don’t get lost and you can get to places easily.  Who created this system? The Greeks. Without the Greeks providing this excellent example, you have cities laid out like annoying Delphin housing estates like Forest Lake and North Lakes that are a rabbit warren which make no logical sense – much like the Subura – the oldest part of Rome. Sure the Romans finally got the idea that it was safer to use a grid city layout, but we know where they got it from.

Romans keep getting credit for everyone else’s work because they have no original ideas.  They have no original ideas because they are better at destroying other people’s infrastructure than originally creating it

Hell, they enjoyed destruction so much that in 146 BC they decided to flatten, not one, but two foreign cities – Carthage and the ancient Greek city of Corinth. And unlike Islamic State, they didn’t have the assistance of a bulldozer.  But then, what do you truly expect from a people who responded to a simple fight for freedom by crucifying six thousand (6000) individuals along the Appian Way.  Seriously, if the Romans had a You Tube channel only the wardrobe would distinguish it from that of IS.

Now I’ve finally mentioned the elephant in the room – a Roman road; that wonderful achievement which allowed the scourge of Roman intellectual property theft and IS inspiring acts to spread.  However, how ingenious was this network really?

According to a study in the 2015 Journal of Archaeological Science:  Reports, the network is on a par with those created by Plasmodium polycephalum, a single celled amoeba more commonly known as slime mould.

So please, give a hand to the Romans:  the Islamic State inspiring, single celled Thomas Edison slime of the ancient world, and consider what was truly theirs to give us.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Ancient Anaesthetics

Have you ever noticed how every time you go into hospital for surgery the doctor always points out that one of the possible outcomes is death? They always point it out and then get you to sign the forms so they have proof that you were indeed aware that there was a chance that you might go to sleep and never wake up.
This is not a modern phenomenon.
There are limited examples of drug use in antiquity to enable surgery, but the clearest example was provided by the first century AD herbalist, Dioscorides:
     "... some say that [this kind of mandrake] puts one to sleep when as little as a drachma is consumed in a drink, or when eaten in a barley-cake, or when eaten in [any] prepared food.  The individual falls asleep in whatever position he might have been in, when he ate it, and then feels nothing for three or four hours from the time it was given to him. Physicians about to perform surgery or apply cautery use this also."
          De Materia Medica, IV.75.7, trans. John Scarborough, "Mandrake in Ancient Surgery," p. 4 (find it on
Theophrastus, the third century BC philosopher, mentions that mandrake is good for sleeplessness (Inquiry into Plants, 9.9.1), but Pliny the Elder ( first century AD) provides more details of its dangerous nature:
     "The mere smell brings heaviness of the head and ... those who in ignorance smell too much are struck dumb, while too copious a draught even brings death. When the mandrake is used in a sleeping draught the quantity administered should be proportioned to the strength of the patient, a moderate dose being a cyathus. It is also taken in drink for snake bite, and before surgical operations and punctures to produce anaesthesia. For this purpose some find it enough to put themselves to sleep by the smell.
          Pliny, Natural History, 25.94.150.
While Pliny and Dioscorides discuss the use of anaesthetics in relation to surgery, the Roman doctor Celsus (who similarly lived in the first century AD) does not mention any use of anaesthetics in his book on surgery (Book 7 of De Medicina). This us not to say Celsus didn't use drugs in his practice of medicine. Celsus not only refers to compounds which treat pain, but which also acted as soporifics, for example:
     "Pills are also numerous, and are made for various purposes. Those which relieve pain through sleep are called anodynes; unless there is overwhelming necessity, it is improper to use them; for they are composed of medicaments which are very active and alien to the stomach. There is one, however, which actually promotes digestion; it is composed of poppy-tears [opium] and galbanum, 4 grams each, myrrh, castory, and pepper, 8 grams each... Another, worse for the stomach, but more soporific, consists of mandrake 1 gram, celery-seed and hyoscyamus seed, 16 grams each, which are rubbed up after soaking in wine."
          Celsus, De Medicina, 5.25.
Poppy and opium [referred to as poppy-juice or poppy-tears] were common ingredients in Celsus, yet Theophrastus does not mention once the soporific effect of the opium poppy in his small discussions of it (1.12.2 and 9.15.1). Dioscorides goes into more details about poppies, including a discussion of the generation of opium (De Materia Medica, 4.65), as does Pliny (Natural History 20.76.198-9). 
Dioscorides and Pliny appear to use some of the same sources. Dioscorides (4.64) wrote:
     "Erasistratus says that Diogoras disallows the use of it [poppy] for those who are sick with ear sores or eye sores, because it is a duller of the sight and a causer of sleep."
Pliny states (20.76.200):
     "Diogoras and Erasistratus have utterly condemned it as a fatal drug, forbidding its use moreover, in injections on the ground that it is injurious to eyesight."
As for the deadly nature of poppies, Pliny (20.76.199) says:
     " is not only a soporific, but if too large a dose be swallowed, the sleep ends even in death."
He even goes on to mention how opium was used by the father of a praetorian man to euthanise himself. By comparison, Dioscorides (4.65) writes that too much poppy too often "hurts (making men lethargic) and it kills."
While I am sure that I won't be fed mandrake tomorrow, an anaesthetist has told me he would prefer to give me an epidural rather than a general anaesthetic. I would prefer to hear the mandrake's scream* and die, rather than hear my own bones sawn in preparation for a total knee replacement. That said, I hope that the form I signed saying "Yes, I am recognisant of the fact that I could die" is unnecessary.

*I had thought that the belief that mandrake's scream folklore originated in antiquity, but have discovered that it was actually medieval.  If you would like to know more about its development because you are a Harry Potter fan, check out this link:

Monday, 15 December 2014

A Question of Faith and Ancient Curse Tablets

We live in a world with a large array of attitudes towards faith.  From a complete absence of faith to strong devoutness to religious fundamentalism:  faith is taking a prominent role in today's society.  The role of religion and faith in contemporary society is sometimes very confusing.  The association between religious faith and political aims is extremely apparent, not just in the Middle East, but also in western countries.  In the case of Australia, we need look no further than the current federal parliament. 

I find the issue of faith and politics interesting owing to the manner in which studies into Roman religion and politics are most often approached currently.  It annoys me how our studies often create a false hiatus between the religion of the Roman republic/Augustan principate and the imperial period, especially in relation to the religious elements of Roman festivals.  There seems to be this prevailing idea that because of the political nature of Roman public entertainment there cannot be a religious element to it based on faith.  Surely our current political environment should open our eyes to how this is not such an alien concept.

But the range of human faith was made more apparent to me recently as I was preparing a workshop on ancient curse tablets (defixiones).  As a part of the workshop I had participants make their own curse tablet to get a first-hand feel for this act of faith from the ancient world.  I couldn't allow participants to inscribe lead owing to occupational health and safety regulations, but I did use lead personally at home in order to show participants what these tablets might have looked like new, and how easy it was to prepare them. 

Inscribed Lead Curse Tablet

As an agnostic with pagan religious tendencies, the thought struck me as I engraved my lead tablet "What if I were to succeed in cursing someone by doing this?"  I had no real faith or belief, but the question was still there in the back of my mind.  In the end, I did not actually fold and nail an inscribed lead tablet; and neither did I deposit it.  I had made it for illustrative purposes, not religious purposes.  I also did not perform any ritual while inscribing the lead as suggested by the Greek Magical Papyri.

At my first workshop, a participant refused to write a curse because he did not think it was a good thing to do.  Instead he wrote a blessing.  This person identifies himself as an atheist.  In my second workshop, another participant who identifies as an atheist stopped and said "I know this is silly, but what if I were to actually curse someone by doing this?"  I reassured him that I did not think this was a silly question. 

Despite the fact that these participants were using an aluminium foil laminate instead of lead, and despite not ritually depositing the tablet, and despite not self-identifying as religious, two people in separate groups questioned whether or not this ritual act might influence our world.  The question, that I too had pondered. 

We live in a world where we question the appropriate role of faith in society as a whole, but like the Roman world (and other historical societies), faith continues to influence us.  While I am sure that there are atheists who would scoff at questioning whether the act of inscribing metal might as affect the world, faith can still wriggle its way into the minds of some.  Is it any surprise then that it will influence those who are open about their religiosity and faith?  And why on earth do scholars secularise the religious ritual elements of public entertainment during the Roman imperial period?

Despite what we might wish, human beings as a whole are not rational, and as a direct result our societies aren't rational either.  I'd like to say that I have faith that this might change - but that would be a little too facetious.

If you would like to know more about ancient curse tablets, you can find a summation of my research on  As for how easy it is to work with lead so long as you don't mind risking exposure to a potentially dangerous heavy metal, please view these two clips:


Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Memory Lane - the influence of personal experience and societal change.

As many members of The University of Queensland's Classics and Ancient History Society have seen, I have been spending a lot of time digging through old notes and memories to post interesting ancient facts on their Facebook page to amuse people during the exam period. My personal trip down memory lane stirred up the memory of a humorous item which had been photocopied from the Wall Street Journal involving classicists in the United States, the Unabomber and the FBI.

This single photocopied page was passed around staff and students (postgrad and undergrad) within the then Classics and Ancient History Department, chortled over and discussed. In a discipline that always felt under attack, we were both happy to see classics mentioned in a business journal, but then felt the dismay that we as a community were being laughed at by people in the business world. I decided to find that long lost article the other day. I couldn't remember what year it was published, what it was entitled, or even the names of the classicists involved. All I could remember was some classics academic said they had called the FBI to suggest that another classicist was the terrorist known as the "Unabomber". For readers who don't know what I'm referring to, here's the Wikipedia article. I knew it predated September 11, because as a community we still felt it was okay to laugh at the concept of accusing an innocent party of being a terrorist.

A little online research (i.e. typing Unabomber, classics, FBI, and Wall Street Journal into Google) didn't get me to the article I had read so many years before; instead Google books had thrown open to me a page from Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath and Bruce S. Thornton's Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age, 2001 (but with a 2014 eBook edition).  You can read the Bryn Mawr Classical Review article here.  It was a follow up to their highly contentious Who Killed Homer, the book which sparked much of this fight which was published in 1998. From here I got the date 1999 and I found through the Library databases the text to that Wall Street Journal article: J. Bottom, "Taste -- It's War! --- You thought the Balkans were bad; Look at these classics professors," Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition, 28 May, 1999, p. W 11. I'd love to post the entirety of the text, but unfortunately it is illegal. So I reread the article, now as someone who has completed her PhD, attended a number of conferences in various countries, and gotten into an occasional academic stoush, rather than the undergrad in her last year of her BA.

Fifteen years made a great deal of a difference to my reaction to this story. My first reaction was one of deep discomfort and embarrassment. The idea that classicists were being viewed by the wider audience in this way made me squirm. Were we all seen to be like this to readers of the a Wall Street Journal? Were the opportunities of classics graduates being adversely affected by this article? I certainly hope not. This is one example of the classicist community, not a reflection of the whole. Whereas before I laughed myself silly and drew further attention to this article among my peers, I am writing this now with my conscience divided between "This is an interesting facet in the history of classicism" and "Don't draw further attention to this embarrassing facet of the history of classicism!" The historian in me is winning this argument. My reaction to this article is also tinged by having met Judith Hallett (I think!). I have a vague memory of meeting this academic who claimed to have called the FBI, and my immediate reaction was in recognising her name was "She didn't seem that nasty." From my personal 5-10 minutes of interaction she seemed nice and supportive of young, up-and-coming academics.

The article then went on to cite segments of the email discussion, referred to various swipes the combatants had taken at each other in various articles, and book reviews. I'm sure if Bonfire of the Humanities had been published at the time of this article, it's closing chapter which was devoted to the analysis of this claim to have called the FBI, would have been cited. The closing paragraph still makes me feel anger that these people had brought my discipline of classics and ancient history into such disrepute, and there was no body like cricket's ICC to publicly rebuke them:
It's wrong for him to write about her book, you see, because she once called the FBI and compared him to a multiple murderer. There. That's the way for scholars to answer a brutal review of their latest book. That's the way to defend, once and for all, the high-minded, classical profession of Greek and Latin.
Apart from these reactions, what I noticed more about this was the nature of communication at the time. The claim that Hallett had called the FBI was posted on an email forum. This term meant nothing to me in 1999. I had a University issued email address which I never checked at the time. I didn't own a computer. The computers made available by the student union were limited in number, and old tubes which showed green text on a black screen (think the opening credits to The Matrix). We still enrolled in classes by filling out paperwork, literally. The idea of communicating as a member of a group on a computer was completely foreign to me. We live now in a society saturated in social media where we share articles online, but at this time it was a photocopy left on a table in a tea room where staff and students socialised on a daily basis. Although I post frequently online within the UQ classics student's community, I miss the days where socialising was more interpersonal than Internet.

The article even included the link where all these emails were publicly available so all its readers could go and laugh at the classicists, like digitally throwing peanuts at monkeys at the zoo. I checked to see if it's still available. It doesn't appear to be, at least not on that link. These kinds of lists still exist in classics community, and occasionally something is discussed which incites the ire of the group, but I know of no other case quite like this one. I think that today we are more aware of the impact of what we place online; we know that everything can be seen and judged. The circumstances surrounding publication of the emails of Prof. Barry Spurr was a timely reminder that even what we write in emails requires circumspection. And in this post September 11 world, I think that everyone needs to consider the real world consequences of suggesting someone is a terrorist.

I had fun looking at my old notes to find interesting facts. I rechecked my sources, looking at them once again with a decade's more research experience. But in looking back on that article I realised how much my personal experiences had changed my response to it, how much society had changed since its publication, and how much technology had changed the way we communicate. When looking at historical material from any age, even recently published history books, I think we should also consider how these elements might have influenced an author's body of work throughout their life. Despite what people in business, or any other community for that matter, might think, we do not study, write or argue in a vacuum.
One of my favourite posts from the series of facts.  You can't avoid classics even in your maths classes.