James Davidson

James Davidson is professor of ancient history at the University of Warwick. His most recent book is The Greeks and Greek Love.

Theproblem presented by Troy: Myth and Reality at the British Museum is not so much the myth as the reality (until 8 March). Troy was a tiny city in what is now the northwestern corner of Turkey. In the course of the first millennium bc, its sparse population fell under the successive control of Lesbos, Athens, Persia, Alexander, Alexander’s successors and then Rome. Straddling these...

At the Ashmolean: Antinouses

James Davidson, 7 February 2019

In December​ 362 ce, Julian the Apostate wrote a short satire on the occasion of the Bacchanalia. It took the form of a commentary whispered to Bacchus by the old satyr Silenus as each former Caesar arrived at a banquet of the gods. After Augustus, Tiberius, Nero and Caesar himself, Hadrian appeared, ‘an austere-looking man with a long beard, an adept in all the arts … always...

New Man from Nowhere: Cicero

James Davidson, 4 February 2016

From​ any imaginable perspective the middle of the first century BC was an interesting time in Rome. More and more people and resources were coming more and more under the control of one single city, while that one single city was coming, not coincidentally, more and more under the control of fewer and fewer men. It is one of the great turning points in history, when you can hear the gears...

Laugh as long as you can: Roman Jokes

James Davidson, 16 July 2015

The oldest​ joke I know, the oldest joke that a real person quite probably told on a quite probably actual occasion, is one ascribed to Sophocles. Ion of Chios, a lesser poet, claimed he witnessed the great man at a symposium or drinking party in 440 BC when Sophocles was en route to assist with a campaign to crush a revolt on the nearby island of Samos. As the evening wore on Sophocles...

Big in Ephesus: The Olympians

James Davidson, 4 December 2014

When​ I imagine the Greek gods on Olympus I conjure up a lofty polished marble palace with colonnades and porticos open to the air, its Ionic and Corinthian capitals picked out in gold, rather like the Athenian Acropolis redecorated by Catherine the Great. Its dozen or so denizens pose listlessly in gaps between columns, dressed in fine white robes rather flimsier than the high altitude...

Half Snake, Half Panther: Nijinsky

James Davidson, 26 September 2013

His sister hadn’t seen him for seven years. She had been trapped in Kiev during the war that followed the Russian Revolution. Eventually, in 1921, she managed to escape with her elderly mother and two small children and made her way to Vienna: ‘When we entered his room Vaslav was sitting in an armchair; he did not get up to greet us. Mother rushed to embrace him, but Vaslav showed no emotional reaction on seeing his mother. He remained withdrawn into himself . . . Throughout our visit in his room he had an absent look, staring into space and not uttering a word.’

At the Royal Academy: ‘Bronze’

James Davidson, 11 October 2012

‘I’ve done it,’ Horace shouts at the end of his third book of Odes. ‘I’ve made a monument more lasting than bronze … Something that neither biting rain, nor an immeasurable succession of years could cause to crumble.’ Bronze has long been a byword for enduring monumentality, and some of the items on display in the Royal Academy’s exhibition

Flat-Nose, Stocky and Beautugly: Greek Names

James Davidson, 23 September 2010

In the early 1800s, nearly 25 per cent of all females in the United Kingdom were called Mary. If you add to these many Marys the crushing numbers of Elizabeths, Sarahs, Janes and variform Anns (Nancys, Nans and Hannahs), you would have the Christian names of something close to 80 per cent of the female population. There was a similar pattern with Johns. About one fifth of all males in the UK between 1800 and 1850 were christened John and the vast majority of the other men and boys around at the time were Joseph, James, Thomas or William. Around 1850, however, the repertoire of names in regular use began to increase rapidly. As Gothic-looking steeples rose around the country, so medieval-sounding names crowded around the font: Arthur, Walter, Harold and Neville, Ethel, Edith and Dorothy, soon to be supplemented by endless Geoffreys.

Plato Made It Up: Atlantis at Last!

James Davidson, 19 June 2008

Of all the many disappointments of 1977, the ITV series Man from Atlantis has to be one of the greatest. The title suggested a programme that would have something to do with the lost underwater kingdom described in great detail by Plato in the Timaeus and Critias. But the reality was Patrick Duffy with webbed hands and fluorescent green contact lenses, painfully painted on. Sole survivor of Atlantis, he used his special powers, notably the ability to survive high atmospheric pressure, to foil the evil plans of an evil-looking villain with an evil-looking beard and an evil-sounding German name: Schubert.

No Beast More Refined: How Good Was Nureyev?

James Davidson, 29 November 2007

The trial of Rudolf Nureyev, traitor number 50,888, took place in absentia and behind closed doors, in Leningrad on 2 April 1962. If convicted under article N64 Nureyev faced the death penalty. Five witnesses were interviewed in a small room overlooking the Fontanka Canal. The witnesses included Vitaly Strizhevsky, the KGB’s man in the Kirov, Georgi Korkin, the Kirov’s director,...

Zeus Be Nice Now: Ancient Cults

James Davidson, 19 July 2007

In Sparta they sacrificed puppies for Ares. In Colophon the goddess Hecate got a little black dog, while it was inferred that Helios, the sun god, would rather the animals killed in his honour were white. Once a year on Mykonos, a sheep and ten lambs were offered to the river Achelous: the sheep and two of the lambs were sacrificed at the altar, the other eight lambs in the river. In Paestum, Hera, goddess of marriage, was offered uxorious geese. Visitors to the shrine of Persuasion (Peitho) on the island of Thasos in the northern Aegean were advised that it was forbidden to offer the goddess a goat or a pig. But pigs were the preferred offerings to Demeter and her daughter Persephone; all around the classical Mediterranean, archaeologists have come to realise that a layer of pork chops means they have stumbled on a sanctuary of the goddesses of agriculture.

For students of the human sciences, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins is, with Clifford Geertz, one of the few Americans who has achieved the status of a name to conjure with alongside the French maîtres à penser, particularly when the conversation turns to the topics of ‘Big Men’ (power-brokers who aren’t chiefs, masters of the games of speech and generosity),...

At the entrance to the British Museum’s Persian exhibition, Forgotten Empire (on until 8 January), the King of Many Peoples looms high on a rectangular relief. He dwarfs the attendant who reaches up from behind to shade his big imperial head, ready with a towel to dab away the imperial sweat. His Highness (probably Xerxes) sits rod-spined on a high-backed throne, sceptre in one hand,...

“What needs to be confronted is not so much the juxtaposition of intra-sex with inter-sex pairings but the imposition of the homophobic (properly speaking) notion that the one is an imposture – a threatening parody – of the other, Black Odile distracting the Prince from White Odette, a ‘pretended family relationship’ in the words of Section 28, which undermines the authentic coinage. In case that seems like homophobophobia on my part, let us remember what Norman Stone foresaw for Denmark when it legalised gay marriage in 1989: ‘Its population will consist of golden oldies watching porn videos. The only people to get married will be the gays, and the only people to have children will be the Kurdish immigrants.’ No wonder American voters were so worried about gay marriage. The Kurds are coming! Remember the Danes!”

I told you so! oracles

James Davidson, 2 December 2004

“The daemons of the monotheisms are essentially self-less. They have more authority than mere ‘messengers’, but a marginal kind of autonomy. Above all, they have no long-term relationships, no contract, no covenant, no faith. They are metaphysical butterflies, essentially promiscuous. They are not localised receivers and bestowers of gifts with continuing personalities and some discretion, but rather slavish or whorish, amenable to bribes, able to be booked for specific tasks, obedient to the secret commands of witches, priests, Beelzeboul, Jesus the Anointed or God, rather like wayward employees of a big corporation who have momentarily forgotten who really pays their wages.”

“Sometimes it seems that new conquests were undertaken merely so the king could look behind him at the colourful host of different kinds of soldier he was able to command, or so that his peoples could see themselves, as one more people was added to the collection . . . The king was ‘King of the countries containing all races’ or King of the peoples of many origins’, or just ‘King of Kings’. Too much Persianising of the provinces might seem to lessen an empire so conceived.”

Bonkers about Boys: Alexander the Great

James Davidson, 1 November 2001

For those suffering from millennial panic about the current state of history – all those Postmodernists on the non-fiction bestseller lists, all those fact-deniers occupying important professorial chairs, all those poor students who know what Marie Antoinette had for breakfast but not how she died – classics departments all over the country are offering courses of therapy: Alexander the Great.

Diary: Face to Face with Merce Cunningham

James Davidson, 2 November 2000

Very occasionally, something like once every other year, a stranger, over-impressed by the way I’m standing, will say something like ‘you’re a dancer aren’t you’ and I will be enormously pleased. Any real chance of being a dancer was probably squashed for ever when I was ten and an audition with a proper ballet school in Manchester was cancelled in mysterious...

Too Young: Lord Alfred Douglas

James Davidson, 21 September 2000

What is interesting about Bosie is that he was such a thoroughly bad character. It only adds to the fascination that this bundle of malice, treachery, deceit, hypocrisy and vanity was wrapped up in such attractive features. Wilde compared him to a pet lion-cub wreaking havoc on reaching actual size, but he was less impressive and more sinister than that, a King Charles spaniel of vicious temperament, a cute Walt Disney rattlesnake, or a beautiful child vampire. He was hardly an angel in the 1890s, but he truly blossomed after Oscar’s death, when he converted to heterosexuality and the Catholic Church. Wilde called him a ‘monster’ and ‘evil’, and he seems to have devoted the long remainder of his life to proving Wilde wise as well as witty.‘

A vision of hell awaited visitors to the pavilion built by the Cnidians at Delphi, as terrifying as any Christian apocalypse, albeit less violent and more intellectually stimulating. One part of Polygnotus’ enormous frieze depicting Odysseus’ visit to the Underworld showed Tantalus still hoping that this time he might actually manage to put his lips around the fruit that weighed down the branch above him. Elsewhere, tricky Sisyphus, while rolling his rock uphill, was thinking up new ways of making sure that this time it wouldn’t roll back down again, so he could turn his tricky mind to other things. Less famous characters were absorbed in their own games of endurance. Ocnus endlessly plaits a rope whose other end is eaten by a donkey. Just above Tantalus, a man and some women are filling a huge container with drips from broken vessels, not noticing that the container itself is full of holes.

Are you a Christian? Do you believe? Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem, thanks to a Roman census, on a day corresponding to 25 December, at the end of a year corresponding to 1 BC, that all those fireworks, a few weeks ago, were marking his 2000th birthday in a meaningful way, that his mother was a virgin, that he rode into Jerusalem on an ass? Well, I am afraid all of that is almost certainly not true. These are late inventions, designed to fit what Old Testament prophets said, prophets imperfectly translated from Hebrew into Greek. The Gospels are outrageously inconsistent about the nativity. Jesus was probably born in Nazareth. There was indeed a census, but in the year 6 of Our Lord, and in the province of Syria, not Galilee. Herod was already dead by then. He died ten years earlier, four years Before Christ. There was a Pontius Pilate. He was in office from 26-36. Jesus might have been only 20 when he died – you can hang on to the crucifixion – or turning 40. Take your pick. OK, there may have been a donkey, but that just means the story was not a fiction but a drama enacted according to the script the prophets had written; and his mother was a married woman not a parthenos – a married parthenos is a contradiction in terms. What’s more, she produced several sons. One of them presided over the Jesus movement for thirty years after his brother’s death. He was a pious Jew. So was Jesus. His teaching, whatever it was, wasn’t meant for you.

An Easy Lay: Greek tragedy

James Davidson, 30 September 1999

A great deal is lost in the translation of any play from the theatre to the page, but to restore what is missing from the mere words of Euripides’ Medea, to rise from the soft paperbacked volume you might buy in any good bookshop and finish in an hour to the experience of an Athenian watching the play’s first performance in Athens in the Theatre of Dionysus in late March 2430 years ago, demands an imaginative effort much greater than would be required if you had plumped for a Pinter or an Ibsen or a David Hare.

I am sitting in the front row of a café on the harbour drinking a beer and eating an octopus. It’s late in the afternoon and there’s an air of expectation. Three women in slacks, fifty or sixty years old, are clutching their cameras, sitting next to me. I wonder if these are the friends of the woman who cleans the apartment for us, the ones she said she’d send here. I can’t remember if we got here early to get good seats or if we left the beach to save our skins and happened to be here by accident. It’s quite possible we’ve been sitting here for hours, reading.

Some Evil Thing

James Davidson, 18 February 1999

Marina Warner’s No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock is an impossible book. It circles around monsters and the frightening of children, but it also has chapters on the heavenly host, bananas and birdsong. Its material includes nursery tales, Greek myth, Shakespeare and Keats, autobiography, film and pop culture. It draws on the work of entomologists, etymologists, musicologists and historians. It is neither comprehensive, congruous nor conclusive. It is, on the other hand, fascinating, clever and original.

Some classicists were, I suspect, completely unaware that the author of The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy had written anything at all on the Greeks, and many (myself included) knew not much more than that. In the unlikely event that an allusion to his work is used to ambush you at a conference or a seminar, look nonplussed, mutter a sentence or two from which only the words ‘bourgeois individualism’, ‘Curiosity Shop’ and ‘Spirit of the Age!’ can be clearly heard and move on to the next question. In the unlikely event that the questioner asks you to speak up, simply repeat the procedure, adding the words ‘Swiss’ and ‘dilettante’; perhaps, if you are feeling energetic, quoting Braudel’s description of his work as ‘aérienne’ and ‘suspendue’.‘

‘If you saw him naked, you would forget about his face,’ Chaerephon mutters in Socrates’ ear. His cousin Charmides had entered the gymnasium, his beauty causing turmoil and consternation. Socrates astonished even himself: he was used to finding young men attractive, but Charmides was something else. Even the youngest boys in the room turned to stare, gazing at him ‘as if he were a statue’.‘

Tuscanini: olives

James Davidson, 16 April 1998

At a party once in Highbury I opened a door, stepping into what I thought might be a bathroom and found myself in an olive grove. Two other guests had found it before me. The smoke from their cigarettes hung around the branches, like an emanation from the leaves. I would have liked to spend some time there, but it was clear I had interrupted a private conversation and the roof was small; a minute or two was the most I could manage of casual lingering. I said something about how warm it was and went back inside.

Himbo: Apollonios Rhodios

James Davidson, 5 March 1998

The story of Jason sounds like an over-excited pitch to a Hollywood producer, a tale full of sex and violence with a doomed romance at its heart and plenty of opportunity for exotic locations and special FX. A wicked usurper sends his nephew to Colchis on the far side of the Black Sea, a mysterious kingdom in the former Soviet Union famous for its pheasants and autumn crocus. His mission impossible is to steal a golden fleece from under the watchful gaze of a giant snake. He gathers together a band of useful heroes to help him and invents the boat, even persuading Hercules to come aboard the newfangled contraption. Their route is full of hazards: six-armed giants, deadly feather-shooting birds, rocks that crash like cymbals, and women – the man-starved women of Lemnos who milk the Argonauts for sperm like lily-sucking bees, and the water-nymphs who like the look of Hylas, Hercules’ boyfriend, and reach out from beyond his reflection to make sure he is never seen again. By the time they get to Colchis, the Argonauts are in need of a bit of luck, and luckily the King’s daughter, Medea, forms an unsuitable attachment with Jason, betraying her father and her fatherland for the sake of a crush. Jason and his crew are pursued all the way up the Danube and into the Adriatic, but Medea comes to the rescue again, at last finding a use for Apsyrtus, the baby brother with whom she embarked just in case. By the time the Colchians have picked up his pieces, the Argonauts are well away.’

Like a Meteorite

James Davidson, 31 July 1997

Two thousand seven hundred and thirty years ago, somewhere on the west coast of Turkey, not far perhaps from Izmir, you are attending a feast. Although some of your neighbours are still noisily tucking in, the entertainment is due to begin. You have been looking forward to this. Your host claims to have secured the talents of the best singer in the world. Your cousin heard him in Chios three years ago and has been talking of nothing else ever since. The word is that for tonight, and the next few nights, he will be telling the tale of Troy. To fill so many evenings he will have to start right at the beginning, with another banquet, the nuptial feast of Peleus and Thetis. He will give lavish descriptions of all the wedding presents sent by the gods, a flattering or ironic commentary on the current festivities, but at some point in his song, a golden apple will appear on one of the tables, delivered by an uninvited guest. Athena will fight for it with Hera and Aphrodite, and before too long Paris, their adjudicator, will be seducing Helen and Agamemnon will be sacrificing his daughter to secure a favourable wind for Troy. There will follow long accounts of battles and heroic deeds, perhaps something on the untimely death of Thetis’ son, Achilles, Odysseus’ victory in the dispute over his arms, and the madness and suicide of Telamonian Ajax, the embittered loser. The bard will doubtless finish in the middle of next week, with the Wooden Horse and graphic descriptions of pillage and mayhem when the proud city falls. You are especially looking forward to the bit where Cassandra gets raped by the lesser Ajax at the altar of Athena and the other bit where Pyrrhus, son of Thetis’ son, flings little Astyanax, scion of Hector’s house, like a gammadion from the top of the city walls.

Stomach-Churning

James Davidson, 23 January 1997

Summer 165 AD. I dreamed of Athena with her aegis, in the form of the statue in Athens made by Phidias, and just as massive and beautiful. The aegis, moreover, was giving off a perfume, as sweet as could be, a perfume like wax … It immediately occurred to me to have an enema of Attic honey.

Chaotic to the Core

James Davidson, 6 June 1996

In all of ancient literature there’s nothing quite like the Satyricon, a fragmentary autobiography of one Encolpius, who appears and disappears according to the hazards of textual survival. On our first sighting he’s making a speech about the decadence of modern education, then he’s somewhere else and a cloak has been stolen; more interference, another error, a randy priestess intent on revenge: ‘Both of us swore by all the religion in us that so dreadful a secret would die with us.’ We’ve lost it again, then light at the end of the tunnel: a game of catch, a long, late afternoon in a town near Naples, the dinner-party of Trimalchio, rich and technicoloured, darkness descends, a dreadful night, boyfriend goes off with best friend, a lecture in a gallery of paintings, boyfriend’s back, now they’re on a ship, so is a sworn enemy, a storm, a wreck, a city in Southern Italy, legacy-hunters, imposture, impotence, a priestess of Priapus, a cannibalistic will, an ending: ‘And when Numantia fell to Scipio, mothers were found cradling in their arms the half-eaten bodies of their own children.’

Brother-Making

James Davidson, 8 February 1996

The ancients were fond of their tropes of impossibility – of rivers flowing backwards and cattle grazing at sea, fish feeding on dry land, gay men getting married:

Cures for Impotence

James Davidson, 19 October 1995

An unusual feature of the topography of ancient Athens was the strange half-statues, which the Athenians called Hermeses and we call herms: a representation of the god of travel, trickery and luck, abbreviated to a pillar, a head and a penis. They were to be seen all over the city, on street-corners, at cross-roads, by doors and gates, and midway on roads from the country into town, providing points of reference in a city with few street-names and little interest in town-planning. On the eve of ventures or on receipt of gains, Hermes attracted ‘pleases’ and ‘thank-yous’ in the form of cakes and flowers, his penis conveniently erect for hanging gifts on. In 415, however, during preparations for a great voyage of conquest into the western Mediterranean, the Athenians woke up to discover their lucky herms vandalised: disfigured and (perhaps) unmembered. Panicked and outraged, they set up an inquisition to find the culprits. Informers were forthcoming and a list of ‘Hermokopidai’ was drawn up, the majority of whom did not hang around long enough to test the equity of Athenian justice but abandoned their property to the public auctioneers, who catalogued it carefully and inscribed it on stone for the benefit of posterity. The expedition itself went ahead as planned. It was a disaster.

It’s Only Fashion

James Davidson, 24 November 1994

The newspapers covering the trial in 1895 found it difficult to put the hideous words into print. Most hoped that those who needed to know would know enough already. Others assumed that a lacuna would be explicit of indecency: ‘“Oscar Wilde posing as —”’ was how the Marquess’s offending calling-card appeared in the Evening Standard. Lord Queensberry’s ‘Somdomite’ was displaying his characteristic ineffability by causing the tongue to stumble and producing gaps in public discourse.

Stage Emperor

James Davidson, 28 April 1994

When Vespasian had put an end at last to the eighteen months of confusion and war that followed the death of Nero, he immediately set about undoing the reign of his predecessor, in an effort to wipe out its traces. The Senate had already voted a damnatio memoriae, demanding the erasure of all mention of Nero’s name from inscriptions throughout the Empire. His few achievements and many projects, some of them well on the way to completion, were promptly cancelled. His magnificent but still unfinished palace, known as the House of Gold, was dismantled, and the spaces it had occupied were turned over to the people. The artificial lake of its landscape garden was drained and work started on the first stage of a monument to the new dynasty, the huge Flavian amphitheatre. The Colossus of Nero, a gigantic portrait statue which had stood 120 feet high in the palace’s vestibule, was cleansed of the tyrant’s offending features, and carried upright through the city to stand at the eponymous arena’s side. Those same features remained on coins already in circulation, of course, but, according to the philosopher Epictetus, they were avoided wherever possible; in fact, if someone noticed Nero’s head among coins offered in payment he would shout out: ‘Take it away! It’s decayed and rotten! It’s not acceptable!’

To the crows!

James Davidson, 27 January 1994

A student of Classical literature who first learnt his principal parts and ablatives absolute in the classrooms of an undistinguished grammar school in London in the late Twenties finds himself over sixty years later an American citizen, described by Robert Fagles as ‘arguably the finest Classicist of our day’, by Peter Green as one his nation ‘ought to bronze’, and by Jasper Griffin as a man ‘one would like to have as a friend’. In his long career he has written on many subjects: scholarly articles on the heroes of Attic drama in its golden age, unsentimental reminiscences of the Spanish Civil War, accounts of sabotage behind the lines in Occupied France, and English poetry. Invited to deliver the Jefferson Lecture in Washington DC, he chose to speak about something of more immediate concern – campus politics. Taking as his title ‘The Oldest Dead White European Males’, Bernard Knox addressed the impact made on a conservative discipline of new methods and concerns: the anthropology-influenced work of the Paris circle of Pierre Vidal-Naquet and J.-P. Vernant, ‘militant feminists’ and political correctness.’

Letter
Oh dear. ‘Easily misled’ and ‘sadly deficient’ in representation of data, Brian Bosworth (Letters, 3 January) says of me. I see now that a footnote hailing a singular and most important ‘discovery’ referred to the scholarly consensus, over the ‘last two centuries’, ‘that there is a common tradition’, ‘plausibly ascribed to Cleitarchus...
Letter

Poissonerie

18 September 1997

I feel I must take issue in the strongest possible terms with Peter Parsons’s view (LRB, 18 September) that the Greek obsession with fish is a mirage created by the peculiar obsessions of the anthologist Athenaeus writing at the beginning of the third century CE: ‘How would British society look if its historians focused on an anthology of literary references to cod and caviare?’ The...
Letter

Drooping

6 June 1996

Daniel Kinney and Bracht Branham (Letters, 18 July) are worried that when, in the course of a generally favourable comparison, I noted that P.G. Walsh’s translation of Petronius’ Satyricon ‘hugs the Latin more closely’ I was casting aspersions on the accuracy of their own version. It would be nice to keep both the spirit and the letter of a translated text (and every other level...
Letter

Bugger the reader

19 October 1995

I am relieved that an authority on ancient sexual images like Robert Sutton and an expert on sexual graffiti like David Bain have between them been able to come up with only such meagre and familiar evidence for the connection between power and penetration in classical Athens (Letters, 14 December 1995). The well-known vase that is supposed to commemorate the victory at the river Eurymedon in southern...

No one reading James Davidson’s enormous and impassioned book, which barely acknowledges the existence, much less the vast numerical superiority, of Greek heterosexual society, would get...

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Eels Tomorrow, but Sprats Today

Peter Parsons, 18 September 1997

‘He made money by selling his country; he went around spending it on prostitutes and fish.’ So Demosthenes vilified a political opponent, as publicly corrupt and privately depraved....

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