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: