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‘Sex and the City: Plato on Philosopher-Queens in the Republic and Laws’ Megan Bowler

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As the first instalment of the CANI Outreach Webinar Series, we are proud to present Megan Bowler’s talk on ‘Sex and the City: Plato on Philosopher-Queens in the Republic and Laws’.Megan Bowler is a final year undergraduate student at Oriel College, Oxford, with her reserach focus being on ideal cities in Plato’s ‘Republic’ and ‘Laws’ and how Plato deals with questions of feasibility and purpose.

You can follow her @meganlbowler

Abstract

In the Republic, Plato insists through the character of Socrates that the ideal city will be ruled by female as well as male guardians. Plato’s extension of eligibility for political roles to women in the ‘Kallipolis’ stems from his commitment in this work to literalise the conclusions, however outlandish, of principles reached via philosophical discussion. Annas rightly argues, though, that Plato’s line of argument here is not comparable to those made by modern liberal feminism, being a result of his commitment to efficiency rather than concern for notions of ‘rights’ or ‘equality’. Further, as Vlastos suggests, these philosopher-queens appear to be treated as ‘brilliant exceptions’ rather than assumed to take on political roles on a basis of equal representation.

Annas continues to argue that there is a sense in which Plato even gives credence to the inevitable objections of his contemporaries when this policy is discussed in the Republic. However, I will counterargue that Plato is using some argumentative strategies in this section to encourage the more critical reader to consider the even more radical conclusion that female inferiority is an artificial societal constraint rather than one with rational basis in nature. Further, the fact he treats this policy with a degree of seriousness, desirable to approximate where possible in reality rather than solely a provocative ideal, is corroborated by his continued commitment to this policy in principle in the later Laws. Overall, the impression is that Plato does advocate in earnest that, in the event that a woman has the qualities needed for political life, her involvement should be permissible or else the city is wasting its talents – but he does not anticipate that this would be the norm, or argue that there are specific benefits to having women in office beyond this logic of efficiency.

In discussing the above points, I will consider this topic in view of the wider context of what Plato was arguably setting out to achieve in imagining ideal but unfeasible cities in the Republic and Laws and how the two works differ, and in terms of how Socrates’ progressive attitudes towards women may have influenced Plato’s approach. The topic also demands recognition of the historical context – what roles and opportunities did women have in contemporary Greek cities, and how did contemporary conceptions of ‘political roles’ differ from ours? I will also consider the question from the perspective of why it might or should/should not matter whether we think of Plato as a proto-feminist, engaging with wider issues in classical scholarship and the kind of pitfalls we might encounter if we inevitably bring our modern preoccupations and perhaps biases into the process of interpreting the ancient texts we read.

Cla…Cla…Claudius the Scholar

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When faced with the notion of a scholarly Roman emperor, you would be forgiven for immediately thinking of the great philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius or if you are a late antiquarian, perhaps Julian the Apostate or even the ‘Byzantine’ Constantine VII. Few would immediately think of the bumbling stutterer, Claudius, played so effectively by Derek Jacobi in the tremendous I, Claudius. But if you have had the privilege of watching that excellent show recently, you might remember that even in that fictionalised drama of Julio-Claudian Rome, Claudius is depicted as being a writer.

This seems even stranger when his mother, Antonia, is recorded referring to Claudius as ‘stultus’ and ‘μωρός’ (Suetonius, Cla. 3.2). However, rather than meaning ‘stupid’, both of Antonia’s insults translate better as ‘foolish.’ This would suggest that she was speaking more of Claudius’ silly actions, seeing him as an embarrassment rather than suggesting that he was cognitively impaired. Certainly, “it takes intellect to write history, however bad” (Levick (1990), 15), and Claudius’ history was good enough in places to be used by Pliny the Elder and Tacitus as a source of information (Pliny, NH VII.35; Syme (1958), 703-710; Townsend (1962), who has Aufidius Bassus as an intermediary source; De Vivo (1980), 68 n.196).

But while Claudius’ various health issues do not seem to have affected his cognitive abilities, in the period before his accession that he displayed “a notably intellectual turn of mind hardly mattered” (Holland (2016), 185). His various twitches, limp and poor speech saw him banned from public appearances on the agreement of Augustus, Livia and Tiberius (Levick (1990), 11).

While he may have been largely sidelined politically by his family, Claudius did still receive a proper Roman education, becoming a keen student of the disciplinae liberales (Suetonius, Cla. 30) – literature, rhetoric, music, mathematics and law.

Claudius would show that he was well-versed in Greek and may have visited there in 10-11 (Suetonius, Cla. 25.5); he also showed some interest in listening to poetry and could (mis-)quote Homer. He also showed some education in philosophy, but along with poetry and drama, he showed little active interest in it.

His famous speech before the Senate in favour of allowing Gauls to join its ranks, with its long historical introduction, demonstrated a knowledge of Cicero’s Pro Balbo and the speech of Canuleius in favour of marriage between plebeians and patricians in Livy’s Book VI, although the speech does suggest that Claudius had not firmly grasped rhetoric.

This speech may also have suggested that Claudius could overcome his speech impediments to some extent. That said, Seneca (Apol. 4.3, 5; followed by Suetonius, Cla. 16; Dio LX.17) frequently wrote of Claudius’ poor speaking voice, referring to him sounding like a sea creature: “you couldn’t even tell what language he was speaking” (Levick (1990), 14, who suggests that his poor speech could have been a side effect of teaching himself to write with his opposite hand due to cerebral palsy. Such ‘denying’ of the dominant hand could have impaired his speech, with King George VI being perhaps the most famous example of this.)

Being banned from public appearances will have allowed Claudius to focus on his academic endeavours and he took full advantage, writing copiously throughout his life. The historian Livy seems to have been employed as something of a tutor for Claudius. While Livy probably died in AD12/17, he reputedly encouraged Claudius to take up writing history (Suetonius, Cla. 41.1). Claudius was also encouraged by the secretary/tutor Sulpicius Flavus, who was “evidently a man well-known in his day” (Levick (1990), 18-19).

In terms of his historical style, he might have had some appreciation for Thucydides and Sallust, not just because of their writing but also perhaps they shared having had a public career only to be excluded before they started on their history.

This interest in history saw Claudius devote his time to several extensive works. Writing in Greek, he composed a 20-book history of the Etruscans – Tyrrhenica (Suetonius, Cla. 42.2), as well as an Etruscan dictionary, and an 8-book history of Carthaginians – Carchedonica – before his accession. Writing an Etruscan history and dictionary may demonstrate some influence from his marriages on chosen subject matter. His first wife had Etruscan connections and his son was betrothed to a daughter of Sejanus, an Etruscan noble from Volsinii. He could also have been bolstering the Etruscan origins of the Claudii in Sabine territory. Furthermore, his Carthaginian history may also reflect how Etruscan families of the early first century AD were developing an interest in Carthage, with the name Hamilcar appearing.

It could also be that Claudius was encouraged to take on other subjects like the Carthaginians and Etruscans due to the subject he initially looked to write about almost having drastic personal consequences: a Roman history in Latin of at least 43 books, which survived down to Suetonius’ time, on events from the murder of Julius Caesar to the death of Augustus in AD14. Covering such a period will have seen Claudius confronted with quite a few controversial episodes, about which “no one could ever give an accurate or frank account of what had really happened” (Suetonius, Cla. 41.2) without risking significant consequences.

Initially, this does not seem to have perturbed Claudius (Suetonius, Cla. 41.1). He probably looked at the immediate aftermath of Caesar’s assassination, only for there to be a significant gap after 43BC. This would likely be because Claudius had begun this history at a time when Augustus was still alive and the likes of Livia and Antonia urged him to overlook the events surrounding the Second Triumvirate, which did not present the princeps in the best light. Claudius would surely have found it difficult to portray Marcus Antonius in a sufficiently negative light, considering he was his grandfather.

While Claudius wrote throughout his life and worked on this history for years – even “indefinitely” (Levick (1990), 19), it was during Tiberius’ reign that he was at his most prolific; however, at this time, it had become impolitic to comment on Republican Rome. This will have furthered the ‘encouragement’ Claudius received to not include certain aspects of Augustus’ career in his Roman history and to perhaps look at more obscure, antiquarian subjects in order to save him and/or the Julio-Claudian dynasty of some embarrassment (Levick (1990), 19).

Claudius certainly did not hold back when it came to describing his imperial predecessors once he came to the throne – speaking of Tiberius’ “obstinate retirement” on the Tabula Clesiana, an inscription from AD46 granting citizenship on the people of the Anauni, Sinduni and Tullianses in the Alps; a bronze plate found near Cles in Trentino, Italy in 1869. In Josephus, AJ 19, a Claudian edict speaks of the “madness and lack of understanding” of Caligula. Claudius’ reading of history may have helped to inform some of his decisions, such as sparing Caratacus’ life (Holland (2016), 341).

It was not just more obscure non-Roman histories that Claudius diversified into. Perhaps enhanced by his speech impediment, he also had an interest in language. He wrote a monograph encouraging the expansion of the Latin alphabet with three new letters and changes to general literacy rules.

His new letters were a ‘inverted digamma,’ which was to stand in for the ‘w’ sound of v/u between vowels; a western version of the Greek psi to be used for b/s and p/s and “a rough breathing half-H or more plausibly a fifth century BC Boeotian vowel character, for ỹ, the Greek upsilon, as in the name Nymphius, in Latin a sound between ‘e’ and ‘i’ has given rise to modern controversy.” (Levick (1990), 19)

Claudius’ linguistic choices show streaks of rationalisation and antiquarianism, with a preference for – ai – over – ae – as in ‘Caiser’ over ‘Caesar’ and his attempt to revive the old rule of placing dots between words, as Latin at this time was written with no spaces.

Following in the footsteps of his ancestor, Appius Claudius Caecus (who was thought to have used the censorship to introduce the letter ‘r’), Claudius used his role as censor in 47CE to introduce these changes, but while Suetonius and Tacitus saw them in inscriptions, books and official records and the latter may have used some of Claudius’ linguistic research, none of Claudius’ changes outlasted him.

Unfortunately, along with his linguistic changes, none of Claudius’ works survive beyond references in other sources. Some are only known from their existence, rather than any of its contents. He is known to have held a Greek comedy in Naples and published a translation of Aratus’ Phaenomena, but it is unknown if these were his own compositions or his dead brother Germanicus.

Demonstrating his own interest in gambling, he wrote a treatise on dice games. He also brought together a gazetteer on exotic flora and fauna and compiled writings about floods in Mesopotamia. In spite of the potential embarrassment and the impolitic of commenting on the Republic, he wrote and published a defense of Cicero against the charges of Asinius Gallus. Claudius also produced an 8-volume autobiography, which even Suetonius described as lacking taste (Suetonius, Cla. 41).

Like Tiberius, Claudius showed some interest in medicine, but unlike Tiberius, he did not fear doctors. He took them with him on his travels not just for his own health but to spread their knowledge for the benefits of others. To that end, he also proposed edicts championing yew as a treatment for snake-bite and the salutary effect of breaking wind. Claudius also carried out correspondence with a Scenite Arab sheikh over the benefits of vulture’s liver as a cure for epilepsy: “boiled in its own blood with honey and taken over a period of three weeks… or of the heart of the same, dried and given in water” (Levick (1990), 20; John Lydus, de mens. 4.104)

Not only did Claudius write about various subjects, he also befriended other scholars throughout his life and once he was in power, he did not forget their friendship and support. Three such scholars were promoted to high office during his reign (Levick (1990), 19 n.20; Rawson (1984), 93, 303; cf. Syme (1957)).

Whether he was purely an antiquarian or housed some revolutionary ideas in his works (Levick (1978)) and despite little to none of his work surviving, the seemingly bumbling stutterer Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus should be remembered as a scholarly emperor.

Bibliography

Heurgon, J. ‘La vocation etruscologique de l’Empereur Claude,’ CRA I (1953), 92-99

Holland, T. Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar. London (2016)

Levick, B.M. ‘Claudius: Antiquarian or Revolutionary?,’ American Journal of Philology 99 (1978), 79-105.

Levick, B.M. Claudius. New Haven (1990).

Momigliano, A. Claudius: the Emperor and His Achievement. Cambridge (1934) (Hogarth, W.D. translation)

Osgood, J. Claudius Caesar: Image and Power in the Early Roman Empire. Cambridge (2010)

Rawson, E. Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic. London (1984)

Ryan, F.X. ‘Some Observations on the Censorship of Claudius and Vitellius, AD 47-48,’ American Journal of Philology 114 (1993), 611-618

Syme, R. ‘The origin of the Veranii,’ CQ 7 (1957), 123-125

Syme, R. Tacitus. 2 vols. Oxford (1958)

Townsend, G.B. ‘Claudius and the digressions in Tacitus,’ RM 105 (1962), 358-368