A few days after the election, the New York Times published two maps based on county-level voting data. One map showed red America, counties that went for Donald Trump: an inland nation occupying most of the land area of the United States. The other map showed blue America: a scattered archipelago consisting of the coastal corridors and inland cities that voted for Hillary Clinton. I thought of Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War, and a couple of grocery stores.

The Peloponnesian War pitted two ancient Greek city-states, Athens and Sparta, each with its allies, in a war that lasted from 431 BC until Athens’ defeat in 404. Sparta was an inland power and depended on its unmatched hoplite soldiers and its power over the central Greek land mass. Athens controlled an empire of islands and relied on its navy and a steady stream of tribute from its allies. Because Thucydides, the historian of that war, wrote a classic study of geopolitical rivalry that is still studied at the United States Naval War College and elsewhere, it’s easy to think of Athens and Sparta as different nations, like the United States and China; in fact, two separate articles about China in the December 2016 issue of The Atlantic are far from the first to invoke the “Thucydides trap” to describe the way that a rising power inevitably comes into conflict with one that is already established.

Thucydides himself, though, makes it clear that understanding the war between Athens and Sparta meant understanding not only national interests and anxieties, but also different forms of a common Greek culture. Athenians and Spartans were both Greek: they spoke the same language, worshipped the same gods, shared a national literature and a foundational text, Homer, and met at common festivals. In the negotiations leading up to the war, Thucydides has a third party, a Corinthian ambassador, describe for the Spartans the ways in which their character and world view differ from the Athenians’. Those differences had as much to do with the war as Spartan anxieties about Athenian power or Athenian need for a maritime empire.

Thucydides makes me want to ask, are we one country? One polis, as the Greeks might have put it? One culture, as the Athenians and Spartans were? Trump voters are not Spartans, and Clinton supporters are a long way from being Athenians. As President Obama among others likes to remind us, we are all Americans, just as the Athenians and Spartans were all Hellenes. We speak versions of a common language and enjoy common festivals (thank you, Thanksgiving and Super Bowl Sunday). But in the 2016 election, Trump won 76 percent of the counties that have a Cracker Barrel and only 22 percent of those that have a Whole Foods. The gap in political views between organic shoppers and nostalgia seekers has grown steadily since 1992, according to Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, and it hit 54% this year.

That food fight may reflect a more significant statistic: as the Brookings Institution reported, the roughly 500 counties that Clinton won accounted for 64 percent of U.S. economic activity in 2015, while the more than 2,600 that Trump won accounted for only 36 percent. This disparity is only one example of fractures in a common culture that is beginning to divide along lines drawn by income, education, and zip code. At the end of the first book of his history, Thucydides reports a speech by Pericles to the Athenian people. The coming war, he explains, will be decided by money: the Athenians’ wealth, and the Spartans’ lack of it.

I don’t see war between the people of the coasts and the people of the mountains and plains in America’s future—but like Athens and Sparta, we are growing farther apart as our interests diverge, and our common civic culture is in danger. We can and should be a diverse nation in which many cultures co-exist, but ironically, diversity only works if people can talk with one another; if, that is, they have some overarching civic culture in common. Otherwise it’s divergence, not diversity. It is not enough to share the same Constitution and laws. It’s time to read the same books. The first book of Thucydides might be a place to start—it analyzes the way in which Athens and Sparta went from close allies joined in a common cause to open enemies in the space of fifty years. Maybe it’s also time to sit down for a meal catered jointly by Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel.

9/11 and 11/9


On September 11, 2001, after the second plane hit the towers, my school’s Director of Computer Operations walked down the hall and into my office. He has two degrees in classics, and so as we watched events unfold on my computer screen, we talked about Augustine’s City of God. Augustine wrote this immense treatise sometime after A.D. 410 because he wanted to understand what the sack of Rome by barbarians meant. Like Al Qaeda’s assault on New York, Alaric’s raid on Rome didn’t immediately destroy city or empire: the Visigoths broke things, took some stuff, and left after a few days. But when Augustine looked at the event through the lens of early Christianity, he saw that Rome, the city of man, was finished. It was time to think about the world in a different way.

On November 9, 2016, when it became clear that we had elected Donald Trump as the forty-fifth President of the United States, I picked up Aristotle’s Politics. Once again I wanted to know not what an ancient author had said on any particular topic—Aristotle’s opinions on some things, like slavery, fall somewhere between repugnant and obsolete—but how to think about and beyond Trump’s election. Aristotle discusses different kinds of government—monarchy, aristocracy, democracy—and the ways in which they change and decline. One thing he makes clear is that thinking about government means thinking about citizenship, and that thinking about citizenship means having an understanding of goodness: both what it is to be good at something, like being a citizen or a senator or a president, and what it means to be a good person.

Aristotle’s idea made me look at the election of 2016 in a different way. Maybe what we had seen was not a failure of politics—a matter of clueless media, FBI meddling, or midnight messages on Twitter, of getting out the vote or suppressing it—but a failure of goodness, and of education for goodness. Perhaps we, no matter who we voted for, hadn’t been very good at being citizens: at understanding each other, at looking beyond our own interests or identity, and at thinking critically and acting morally. Perhaps our educational system had failed to encourage us to do these things. Whether we voted for Clinton or Trump, we got the President that we deserve, because the candidates’ flaws and failings, their self-absorption and appeals to identity politics, are ours.

In 2001 my colleague and I weren’t much interested in Augustine’s specific ideas or his Christian analysis. We wanted to know how to think about an event like 9/11. In 2016, Aristotle’s Politics helped me think about another turning point. Americans in all periods of our history and on all sides of the political divide, from Jefferson and Adams to Noam Chomsky, who once called Aristotle “that dangerous radical,” have done the same for a long time. Perhaps a place to start in reviving what Cornel West has called “democratic soulcraft” is with continuing that long conversation that we Americans have had with Greece and Rome.

–Lee T. Pearcy



On September 1, Classicizing Philadelphia welcomed a new director, Professor Bret Mulligan of Haverford College.  Bret describes himself as “an accidental classicist,” but if so, it was a happy accident.  His research concentrates on Late Antiquity, which is itself a culture of reception, and he has an ongoing interest in American classical reception and in digital humanities.  I am delighted to be able to hand Classicizing Philadelphia over to him.  He is the right person to take this project to the next level.

Classicizing Philadelphia began in December, 2009, when I took part in a Sawyer Seminar at Northwestern University and met the conference’s organizer, Prof. Kathryn Bosher.  Kate and her husband, the urbanist Dale Winling, had conceived the idea for a digital humanities project, Classicizing ChicagoClassicizing Philadelphia began officially with a conversation in Kate’s apartment in the next year, when she and Dale were on research leaves in Philadelphia.  It seems fitting to mark the end of my directorship by remembering Kate.  She died far too young, in 2013, just a year after she visited Bryn Mawr to meet with the Classicizing Philadelphia planning team.  I have thought of her often as I have worked on this project.

There is so much yet to do to document, study, and continue Philadelphia’s long conversation with Greece and Rome.  Just today (September 3) the Philadelphia Museum opens a new exhibit on the classicizing furniture designed by Benjamin Latrobe for the Philadelphia merchant William Wain and his wife, Mary.  The Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic, Inga Saffron, writes about Philadelphia’s classically inspired Art Deco post office buildings.  And controversy continues over the proposed demolition of more of Philadelphia’s architectural heritage on Jewelers’ Row.  Bret Mulligan assumes the leadership of Classicizing Philadelphia at an exciting moment in our city’s long dialogue with classical antiquity.  I wish him and the project every success.

Lee T. Pearcy

The painting almost makes you want to look away, and you can see some visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art doing just that; others stare, giggle, or frown.  A cascade of naked children pours down a mountain stream.  At first you think they might be playing, but then you notice that none of them seems to be making eye contact, and that their staring eyes, most of which are blue, seem to be looking into some other world.  That is Léon Frédéric’s “The Source of Life.”  I’m not the only one to have found it a little disturbing.

Léon Frédéric, "The Source of Life"

Léon Frédéric, “The Source of Life”

Frédéric (1856–1940) was a Belgian Symbolist painter who studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and in Italy, where he learned to admire Renaissance painting.  It’s not unreasonable to suspect that somewhere behind this odd painting lies a classical model—but what on earth could it be?  Where could that carpet of creepy children come from?


Titian, “Offering to Venus”

One possibility is that at some point Frédéric encountered Titian’s “Offering to Venus.”  In that painting, executed about 1518, Titian (ca. 1490–1576) showed Cupids or Erotes (the word just means “Loves”) reveling in front of their divine mother or patroness, the goddess Venus.  There is the same receding procession of children, although these, being divine, have wings.  The cupids play, but there is the same lack of eye contact.  The naked children recede into the background, just as in Frédéric’s painting.  In the foreground of Titian’s painting, one cupid turns away, left arm raised, as another, to his right, moves away.  In the foreground of Frédéric’s painting, two children echo that movement.

There are, to be sure, some missing bits.  Fréderéic’s painting lacks the dominating figure of Venus and her two worshipers, who enter Titian’s painting from stage left.  But the resemblance is still there all the same.  Frédéric may have imitated the Renaissance painter.  But can we trace the image back even farther?  is there a classical precedent?

Frederic source detailTitian certainly drew on the Imagines attributed to Lucius Flavius Philostratus (ca. 170–250).  (The work may be by his son-in-law, also called Philostratus, but that possibility needn’t trouble us here.)  The Imagines is an exercise in what ancient rhetoricians called ecphrasis, vivid description of a work of art.  Imagines 1.6 describes a painting of Cupids or Erotes playing and gathering apples.  A translation is here.1024px-Ofrenda_a_Venus detail









Most art historians would accept, I think, the link between Titian and Philostratus, but the link between Frédéric and Titian is harder to argue, at least for me.  Probably because of my history-centered training in classical philology, I’d feel better if I could point to some evidence that Frédéric could have seen or known Titian’s painting, which is now at the Prado in Madrid.  Many students of classical reception, though, do not feel the need of that kind of external evidence.  For them, asking for proof of reception is the narrowest kind of historical positivism and turns the study of classical reception into an old-fashioned search for influences.  When “may have known” is as close as we can get, it’s close enough, especially when the resemblances between a later work and its classical forebear are strong enough to be persuasive.  Are they in this case?


Students at Yale want John C. Calhoun’s name removed from one of their residential colleges, and at Princeton protesters demand that Woodrow Wilson’s name be taken off many of the university’s memorials.  Even Bryn Mawr has not been immune to this latest wave of intolerance for our forebears, although students here must have had to search a bit before they discovered that M. Carey Thomas was no better than anyone else in her time and demanded that her name be removed from the college’s Thomas Great Hall.  (In any case, this being Bryn Mawr, the students promptly apologized and submitted a revised and more reasonable set of demands.) In a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Education, James Livingston makes a good case against the kind of moralistic presentism that underlies these demands to repress the past.

Comments on the Chronicle post, however, rightly point out that Livingston elides an important distinction.  There’s a difference between studying the past and memorializing the past—between trying to understand John C. Calhoun’s support for slavery and states’ rights and putting up a statue of John C. Calhoun.  In the absence of any other context, a statue or other memorial constitutes an implied endorsement of the person commemorated.

The Romans understood this distinction very well.  Their history is full of examples of damnatio memoriae, the practice of erasing portraits, cutting names out of inscriptions, melting down statues, and retooling coins.  The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has a good example: a marble block with an inscription to Domitian on one side and a carved relief on the other.  After Domitian’s death the Roman senate decreed damnatio memoriae, the inscription was chiseled off, and the block was reused as part of a monument to the emperor Trajan.  The emperor Caracalla reigned as co-emperor with his younger brother Geta from A.D. 209 until 211, when he murdered Geta and ordered his portraits erased and his name obliterated from inscriptions.

Both these examples illustrate two important characteristics of damnatio memoriae.  First, Only the powerful can perpretate it.  The senate could condemn Domitian’s memory because they had the power to do so (and because the new dynasty didn’t object); Caracalla could blot out visual reminders of his brother because . . . well, because he was the emperor.  Second, it is seldom successful.  Damnatio memoriae doesn’t correct the record of history.  It exacts posthumous vengeance or covers up guilt.   We can read about Domitian and Geta because Romans like Tacitus or Cassius Dio commemorated them in their histories.  More recent examples, from Stalin’s elimination of the purged Lavrentiy Beria from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia to Penn State’s removal of convicted pederast Jerry Sandusky from a campus mural, suggest the same two-fold dynamic: powerful interests insist on the removal of a disgraced person’s name and image in an attempt to blot him from memory.  Removal makes the person memorable.

What, then, of those students at Yale and Princeton?  Can what they are doing be called classical damnatio memoriae as well as moralistic presentism?  The students themselves are not powerful, but by the very fact of being at places like Princeton or Yale they belong to a privileged class, and their demands express an influential strand of ideology in universities.  And they are unlikely to succeed in removing all evidence of the forebears they hope to condemn.  If they gain their demands, though, they will certainly make themselves and their allies feel better, until the long swing of history arcs back, and they appear as much part of their time and place as Caracalla, Calhoun, or M. Carey Thomas.

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