Westminster School Election Dinner – the home of new Latin poetry

Westminster School is one of the last places in the country to preserve many of the customs from the time when Latin was the lingua franca of English education. Prayers are still said in Latin every Wednesday, Queen’s Scholars are admitted to the foundation in a Latin ceremony, and the tradition of performing Latin comedies by Terence of Plautus is still sporadically maintained. One of the most extraordinary and creative survivals is that of the annual Election Dinner, which was held last night.

Westminster is part of the same foundation as Christ Church Oxford and Trinity College Cambridge. Traditionally, there would be an annual visitation from the heads of these colleges to Westminster to choose scholars to proceed to these institutions, a process known as the Election. After the academic formalities of the Election, the visitors from Oxford and Cambridge would be given a grand feast – the Election Dinner – at which they would be entertained not by speeches Latin and Greek Epigrams as well as songs. The writing and improvisation of Latin and Greek epigrams formed a major part of the Classical education of the Renaissance, and proficiency in this field was considered a sine qua non for anyone aspiring to higher study.

Although the Election itself ceased at the beginning of the 20th century, the custom of the Election Dinner has been maintained; it reaches back, only interrupted by the two World Wars, to the Elizabethan refoundation of the School in 1560. The tradition of writing new Latin epigrams is also continued; the Election Dinner is perhaps the leading public forum for new Latin poetry anywhere in England, and perhaps the world. Departing members of staff are honoured with three verses of Horatian-style alcaics if they served more than seven years, and are included in an elegiac medley if they were at the school for less than that time. Current affairs are then satirised in elegiac couplets after the style of Martial, and then translated into English epigrams or songs.

One object of the epigram is to pun an English phrase into the Latin like a cryptic crossword readthrough, so that both the Latin substance and the English pun both reflect the matter in hand. One of my own contributions to the evening was this epigram on the recent horsemeat scandal, rendered into English by a song to the tune of The Roast Beef of Old England

Latin epigram

si findas, hospes, iam cultro suavia crusta,

   invenias Phrygium, nobile munus, equum.


Reading through one finds the pun – “Findus horse pies, yum”

Translation: If you were now, guest, to cut open the tasty pies with your knife, you would find – an excellent gift – a Trojan Horse.


English song (to the tune of The Roast Beef of Old England…)

When mighty roast beef was the Englishman’s food,

Our meatballs were honest, our burgers were true,

But now in lasagne you’ll find Shergar stewed…

And oh, the roast beef of old England

Is now for the most part horse.


When Findus and Asda have their wicked way,

We’ll feast not on fillet, but dapple and grey,

And in Bolognese a knackered old bay…

And oh, the roast beef of old England

Is now for the most part horse.


And next year at Aintree around Becher’s Brook

Instead of the punters a covey of cooks

Boiling the gee-gees up into French soup…

And oh, the roast beef of old England

Is now for the most part horse.

Plutocratisation – getting priced out of ancient Rome

Simon Kuper wrote a melancholy piece in the latest Weekend FT on a subject which weighs upon every thinking urbanite – the vertiginous climb in house prices in the world’s great capitals, making it virtually impossible for anyone outside the ‘one per cent’ to live in them. The cities underwent gentrification in the 1980s, and now, in Kuper’s excellent coinage, they are seeing ‘plutocratisation’. Anyone not lucky enough to inherit city property or be a part of the corporate sector marathon is forced to the margins. Those who dedicate their time to the ‘counter, original, spare, strange’ are denied the oxygen of creative association and like-minded society, since they compelled to abandon urban life for the relative isolation of the suburbs. Bye-bye Bohemia, in other words.

Kuper makes one point that should be extended. He writes that ‘there’s an iron law of 21-st century life: when something is desirable, the “one per cent” grabs it.’ This might well be a law for the present day, but it was certainly the rule for ancient Rome. The Roman Republic offers an example of the exact same phenomenon of plutocratisation, but with a interesting twist and a frightening conclusion. It was the countryside, not the city, which suffered the attentions of the ‘one per cent’.

Rome, at its birth, was a nation of farmers. Its historians and poets look back to a golden age – which in all likelihood was mostly a reality – when the Roman citizens were a sturdy, property-owning yeomanry. They came into the city only to transact business and go to market, but their real life was farming. It was here, in the rigours of practical rustic life on their smallholdings, that they learned the virtues which made Rome great. Horace, writing at the end of the first century BC, looks back over 200 years to the time of the Punic Wars, and declares that the Romans who beat Hannibal were “the manly offspring of peasant soldiers, who had been taught to turn the sod with the Sabellian mattock; on the instructions of their stern mother, they learned to cut and carry firewood, when the sun was lengthening the shadows on the hillside, lifting the yoke from weary oxen…” (Horace, Odes 3.6).

The virtue of such a civic order, so the Roman historians thought (for example see Appian, The Civil Wars 1.1.7ff) was its stability. The citizens learned martial strength from their work on the land, and to despise luxury and vanity, and the desire for excess. Hence, there was a unity amongst the citizen body through a rough equality of wealth. The produce of the farms would maintain the soldiers and their families even whilst the soldiers were on campaign, and the possession of land gave the citizen class a stake in society, something very specific for which to fight.

Yet, the manly offspring of peasant soldiers were too successful for their own good. The many campaigns fought by Rome as the Empire expanded meant that the soldiers were too often absent from their smallholdings to cultivate them properly. Many fell into disuse, and others were ravaged by attacks on Italy, particularly those of Hannibal. Roman success in warfare also brought into Italy vast hordes of cheap slaves. With such conditions, from the middle of the third century BC wealthier Romans began to buy up the countryside and to cultivate it with gangs of slaves. For the original small-holders, who could scarcely compete with slave labour, there was the additional problem that newly-captured territories began to send tributes of grain to Rome, which were distributed for free to the poor dwellers in the city itself. Through the second century BC the process continued, with the result that the countryside was plutocratised, and the ordinary middle-class Roman citizens were forced from their small farms into city slums.

The outcome, in brief, is something that should give the contemporary world pause. In the city, thousands of unemployed people with nothing to sell but their votes and political support, happily bought off with free food and public entertainments (this is the origin of Juvenal’s ‘bread and circuses’); in the wider world, legions of soldiers with no homes to come back to an no income to support them on demobilisation looking to their generals to find them cash and a pension; in government, a wealthy minority looking to cling on to their property, uninterested in helping the dispossessed masses.

If one can trace the start of the civil war in Rome to one point, which left hundreds of thousands dead, wracked the politics of the empire with ambitious demagogues like Sulla and Caesar struggling for power, and led to the collapse of the old republican constitution and the rise of autocratic emperors, it was to an attempt in 133 BC by a more forward-thinking aristocrat, Tiberius Gracchus, to redistribute the land held by the Roman ‘one per cent’. For his pains, Tiberius Gracchus was murdered, and blood began to flow freely in the forum. One wonders, after the Roman example, what would happen in our own world should some Gracchus come forward to reform the iniquities of our plutocratised age.


Think Latin AS levels are racy? Forget Ovid, look at Pre-U Tacitus

The Daily Mail and the Times earlier this week expressed surprise and shock that pupils sitting AS level exams were asked to comment on a passage of Ovid’s Amores (3.14), which include a depiction of lovers in embrace (‘Talk lovingly. Say all sorts of naughty things, and let the bed creak and groan as you writhe with pleasure.’ [tr. J. Lewis May]).

They were even able to find a Professor – of physics – from Cambridge to condemn the inclusion of the text in the exam syllabus. “Professor John Ellis,” writes The Mail,” a reader in  physics at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, and fellow at Gonville and  Caius College, said the exam board was not in their ‘right minds’ to  include the passage for children as young as 16…” He told the Times: ‘How would a school react  to such material distributed on their premises? ‘Many teachers would have glossed over this extract, assuming no one in their right minds would set it in an exam.’”

As helpful as it is to have Professor Ellis’ tips on how to choose Classical texts for the classroom and the treatment of them in lessons, I am more relieved that no-one has told him, the Times or the Mail about the syllabus of this year’s Pre-U Latin exam (the new alternative to the A Level). The prose paper looks at Tacitus Annals 14 and 15, which describe the reign of the Emperor Nero. A few choice incidents from the set text include:

- The seduction of Nero by his mother, Agrippina – she presented herself to her son seductively attired, as he was half-drunk at lunchtime, smothering him in kisses and caresses (14.2)

- The murder of Agrippina by Nero’s agents, described in violent detail, including her being stabbed and beaten about the head, with Nero then praising the beauty of her body after death (14.8-9)

- A rampant orgy carried out for the benefit of the emperor on Agrippa’s lake – vessels clad in gold and ivory sailed around the lake, where booths were set up with noble women forced to pole-dance (the Roman equivalent) and act as prostitutes, whilst Nero himself underwent a same-sex wedding with a Greek freedman, named Pythagoras (15.37)

- Graphic scenes of enforced suicide, including the philosopher Seneca opening his veins (15.64) and the freedwoman Epicharis hanging herself with her bra after being broken on the rack (15.57)

After the violence and corruption of Tacitus, one should be pleased that students have the opportunity to read some good and wholesome Ovid. You can read more about Books 14 and 15 of Tacitus at this introduction on my website here.

Discovered? The site of one Alexander the Great’s Central Asian Massacres…

Reading the first volume of Christoph Baumer’s excellent new History of Central Asia, I was excited to see a recent development in an ancient mystery: the question of Alexander the Great’s massacre of the Branchidae.

The story is one of the most unpleasant deeds in Alexander’s conquest of Central Asia. Its beginning lies, however, many generations beforehand. The clan of the Branchidae were the keepers of an ancient shrine of Apollo at Didyma. Located on the south-eastern coast of Asia Minor, it was on the territory of the trading city of Miletus. In 493 BC, when Darius was embarking on his conquest of the Greeks, the Branchidae willingly gave up the temple to the Persian King, who desecrated and burnt it. In return for their compliance, and to prevent them from any attack by their fellow Greeks, the Branchidae were safely resettled in a new town somewhere beyond the Oxus, in the far territory of the Persian Empire.

When Alexander was making his conquest of the Persian Empire in 334 BC, he visited the ruins of the shrine and had it reconsecrated. Then, four years later, when he had marched into Central Asia and crossed the River Oxus, he was astonished to find the distant city where the Branchidae had been settled. For their part, they were delighted to see him. Although they now spoke the local languages as well as Greek, they maintained their ancient Greek customs, and they thought that they would be protected on account of their Greek identity. Yet, some of Alexander’s troops from Miletus were not so sanguine. Some, but by no means all, remembered the betrayal, and wished to take revenge. Since the Milesians were dissenting amongst themselves, Alexander ordered them to desist, and said that he would treat them has he himself saw fit.

The historian Quintus Curtius Rufus continues the story:

“The next day, having met the Branchidae, he ordered them to go with him, and when they had reached the city, he himself entered the gate with a light-armed company. The phalanx was ordered to surround the walls, and, when a signal was given, to plunder the city – a hideout for traitors – and to slaughter them to the last man. The inhabitants were unarmed, and everywhere there was butchery; neither their common language, nor prayers, nor olive branches held out to the attackers were able to prevent the cruelty. At length, so that the walls could be pulled down, their foundations were undermined, so that no even the slightest trace of the city would remain. Moreover, their woods and their sacred groves were not only cut down, but also utterly uprooted, so that, nothing but a vast and sterile desert wilderness would be left behind.”

This deed has been a constant source of horror. Even in the ancient world, it caused unease. Curtius himself said: “If this revenge had been brought against the original authors of the betrayal, it would have been just, and not at all cruel; now, however, people who had never even seen Miletus, were now being compelled to pay for the sins of their forebears.” W.W. Tarn, one of the 20th century’s great admirers of Alexander, tried to argue that the massacre never took place.

However, according to Baumer, a site fitting the description of the Branchidae’s settlement has now been located. The ruins of a fort, Talashkan I, are in the correct position, between the city of Termez on the Oxus and the “Iron Gates” Mountain Passes. A round settlement, with 15 defensive towers, it was built at the start of the 5th century BC, and during the time of Alexander’s conquest burnt down and completely destroyed. It deserves further investigation, but perhaps the site of one of Alexander’s worst crimes has just been found.

Horsemeat scandal – an 18th century version

The continuing scandal about horsemeat being sold as beef is nothing new. Whilst working on an article for BBC History, I came across this passage in Voyages and Travels through the Russian Empire, Tartary and Part of the Kingdom of Persia, published by John Cook in 1778, which throws a wonderful light on the modern reaction to the problem. John Cook was a doctor, and for many years worked for the Imperial Russian Government, attached to the Admiralty in the frontier city of Astrakhan. Amongst his many observations about what one could eat there – Antelope, for example, was plentiful but rather too rich to eat more than twice a year – he made the following observation about wild horses:

“…There are wild horses in Astrachan as I was informed, but I never saw any of them alove, they are run down and hunted like other wild animals, and it is said, they are excellent food, which I believe to be true. I have eaten what was called wild horse, but it was much preferable to any beef.

“At an entertainment, my wife being with child, Mr Thomson, our landlord acquainted me, that there was to be a dish of horse-steaks, and desired I should acquaint Mrs Cook, lest, if she got notice afterwards, it might prove of bad consequence to her: I did so, she did not eat, but I did, our company numbered nine, and except Mrs Cook, every one ate plentifully, and declared they never had eaten so good beef in England, for they imagined it was beef. One Mrs Bell, who loved what was good very well, declared that she never had eaten such beef in Northumberland, where she was born, but after she was informed that it was horse flesh, she soon turned such, and threw it up; but I imagine this proceeded neither from the bad quality of her constitution, but truly from the quantity she had eaten, which was not the most moderate”. (vol 1 p. 318-9)

What extremist preacher Anjem Choudary got from the Ancient Greeks…

It was reported earlier this week that the extremist preacher, Anjem Choudary, was secretly filmed calling for his followers to live off welfare payments to finance their pursuit of “jihad”. Revered Islamic figures, he is reported as saying, had worked only for a couple of days in the year, being occupied with “jihad and things like that.” It was normal, he claimed, for believers to take money from non-believers, and that they should take a “Jihad-seekers’ allowance” off the British state.

Mr Choudary has railed against “Democracy, freedom, secularism, the parliament, all the MPs and the Presidents” as being ideas manufactured by the “unbelievers” or “kufrs”, and fit only for destruction. Yet, for all his disgust at “un-Islamic” concepts, I rather fear that many of his ideas are in fact inherited from the Ancient Greeks.

In this case, it is his attitude towards work, wealth and poverty. Austin and Vidal-Naquet put the matter succinctly in their Economic History of Ancient Greece. First, in general amongst the Greeks there was no dignity attached to labour. Second, there was a different attitude towards the relationship between work and wealth. In our society, one may be regarded as wealthy if one has more than is necessary to live decently, even if one is compelled to work for this status. Amongst the Ancient Greeks, this was different. “A Greek was wealthy if he could live without having to work, poor if he did not have enough to live on without working.” Thus, one might be affluent, but if one had to work for it, then that was not wealth, but poverty.

Choudary ridicules the daily life of the UK working population: “You find people are busy working the whole of their life. They wake up at 7 o’clock. They go to work at 9 o’clock. They work for eight, nine hours a day. They come home at 7 o’clock, watch EastEnders, sleep, and they do that for 40 years of their life. That is called slavery.” Yet, if an Ancient Greek could be telepored to present-day London, he would undoubtedly say exactly the same. He would go on to reckon Choudary, who receives £25,000 a year in benefits without working, as amongst the wealthy.

If Mr Choudary could be teleported back to 5th century Athens, he would find it surprisingly congenial. The wine-drinking and polytheism might rankle (though by the 5th century the intellectuals thought of the Greek pantheon as a manifestation of a single divine power), but the confinement of women to the house and the monopoly of men over the public sphere would certainly tickle his fancy. And if he were lucky enough to sneak in at the back when Socrates was discussing his ideal of the state (a dialogue immortalised in Plato’s Republic), then he would hear a vision of an anti-democratic totalitarian state ruled by mullah-like philosopher kings where music and theatre were banned. Perhaps Mr Choudary is in fact wearing his huge and unkempt beard as a tribute to Socrates and Plato.

New poems on teaching 2… sonnet

This was commissioned by my old housemaster at Wellington, James Breen, for whom I earlier wrote a Sonnet on Cricket. I hope no-one minds Dionysus cut with Christ.

Sonnet on Teaching

Should all my worldly knowledge fall away,                                                                   And what I preach from books become a blank,                                                            That I could no more tell great Caesar’s sway,                                                               Or Virgil’s Muse, or how Achilles sank                                                                             In wrath dishonoured at Briseis’ loss,
I keep the teacher’s flame if I can make                                                                       One sense the rack when dead a seed across                                                             The bound of earth strikes out and rears to take                                                           New life from out the rot, or else spark off                                                                     The dance that Dionysus beat before
The gates of Thebes, where Bacchants cut among                                                      The beasts beneath a double sun, the rough                                                                And rocky crags spewed wine with endless store,                                                        And hulking mountains sprang to hear the sacred song.


New poems on teaching 1… Clerihew

Some correspondence with one of my old teachers observing that, despite the many holidays with with the profession is blessed, we seem to have so little time, prompted a new Latin verse on the subject, translated into English with a clerihew:

quare mihi, quaeris, semper tot festa magistro?                                                            tunc labor immanis conficiendus erit.

And in English as a Clerihew:

How can we dusty spoiled beaks                                                                                 Take off from school for up to twenty weeks?                                                                 It’s hardly games, I say, or sand or sun:                                                                        We might just hope to get our admin done.