Multitasking with Caesar

A new study on multitasking has just called into question the effectiveness of those who practise it. According to the study, people multitask not because they are good at it but because they have poor concentration spans and cannot concentrate on the work in hand. Those who are most likely to multitask well, it seems, are unlikely to do so, since they are the most adept at focusing on individual pieces of work. The research, conducted by the University of Utah, noted with particular alarm that “people who talk on cell phones while driving tend to be the people least able to multitask well”.

The exception to prove this rule, from the Classical world at least, is Julius Caesar. Not only was he multitalented – soldier, strategist, author, orator, raconteur, politician, seducer (of both sexes), connoisseur of the arts, dandy and pubic hair depilation fanatic – but he was the finest multitasker of the age. A host of accounts describe his prodigious talent for doing several things at once. It is not just on a broad level that he had this ability, for example writing two books on the theory of grammar, a narrative on the subject of travel, and a collection of witticisms whilst out on campaign. It was in the field of day-to-day life that he was a master of this skill. Pliny the Elder records that he was able to read, write and dictate letters all at the same moment as listening to suitors begging for favour. He had an entourage of four clerks, to each of whom he could dictate four different letters at the same time, and sometimes this number rose as high as seven. If modern multitaskers using mobile phones whilst driving worry the researchers from the University of Utah, who knows what they would have thought of Caesar who, not having the benefit of a Blackberry, would dictate letters on horseback to two slaves who rode either side of him.

It should be realised that multitasking was a necessary part of Caesar’s grip on power. Much of his auctoritas came not just from his fortune, but from the web of favours and influence he diligently maintained amongst thousands of Romans. Social networking, in other words, was fundamental to Caesar’s success, and multitasking was the only way to maintain personal touch with the vast numbers of people tied to him by obligation. Had Caesar been with us today, a few of those clerks would likely have been made redundant, and Facebook made to take up the slack.



Teachers: control your students… with Roman imperium

Reviewing Karl Galinsky’s excellent new book on the Emperor Augustus for the JACT Journal, I was highly tickled by a story he quoted about Augustus’ stepson, Tiberius. Tiberius was always treated as a second-class member of the imperial family by Augustus, although he showed perfect competence in all of the military or political undertakings he was given to perform. Augustus hoped for one of his blood descendants ultimately to assume his mantle, and it was only the failure of all viable members of his line which allowed Tiberius to succeed Augustus as Emperor.

Tiberius’ treatment led him to be famously sullen in demeanour. In 6 BC, wearied at Augustus’ disregard for his long and successful service and feeling threatened by his blood descendants, he suddenly announced that he was giving up his work in Rome, and going to study philosophy on the Greek island of Rhodes.

When he got there, he assumed the garb of a Greek private citizen, and spent his days in the seminar room. He had not technically resigned any of his grand offices of state; he merely chose not to exercise them. However, there was one occasion which proved an exception. One day, when Tiberius was joining in the argument between two philosophers in a seminar, another student turned on Tiberius and started to lambast him in a thoroughly immoderate fashion. Tiberius was irked by this behaviour, and decided not to put up with it. He went back to his house, exchanged his shabby Greek outfit for the robes of a Roman magistrate, and returned to the classroom with a large crowd of lictors – the official attendants of Roman grandees, who carry large bundles of rods to signify the magisterial power. Back in the garb of his old authority, he had the wearisome and disruptive student arrested, bundled out of the classroom, taken to court – over which Tiberius himself presided – and then sent to jail. If only modern schoolmasters could be endowed with Roman imperium like Tiberius…

Afghanistan Revealed… e-book out on Amazon

Congratulations to Caroline Richards and Jules Stewart on accomplishing the publication of Afghanistan Revealed, a new e-book designed to introduce the long-term history, cultural and political background of Afghanistan. Contributors include Ahmed Rashid, Clare Lockhart of the Institute of State effectiveness, and David Loyn of the BBC; I myself contributed a chapter on Afghan history.

The book was launched last Friday at RUSI in a gathering addressed by General Sir David Richards, Chief of the Defence Staff, and the veteran BBC correspondent Sandy Gall. The proceeds of the work go to support the excellent Afghan Appeal Fund which helps to establish schools in Afghanistan. An interview with Caroline Richards, the charity’s founder, and more about the book is in this article in the Telegraph. The book is published by Crux Publishing.

Depardieu and Socrates: example to an exile…

It is unfortunate that Gérard Depardieu, who has just accepted Russian citizenship to escape France’s new 75% tax rate for high earners, does not seem to have starred in any films about ancient Greece. Had he a slightly greater acquaintance with ancient literature (aside from his work in the Asterix movies) he might have taken into account the example of a character who was offered exile when the state became oppressive: Socrates.

Socrates stood to loose rather more at the hand of the state than Depardieu. When Athens, Socrates’ home city, had been defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War at the end of the 5th century, it underwent a violent bout of political conflict. Socrates, who was thought by many to be a critic of democracy and a Spartan sympathiser, was caught in the crossfire, and sentenced to death on trumped-up charges.

Whilst Socrates was spending a protracted period on death row, a number of his friends attempted to persuade him to escape. However, they met with a blunt refusal. The principal reason was that his flight would be an injustice to the state. He was around 70 years old at the time of his sentence. He had been given ample time over the span of his life to acquaint himself with the ways, laws and customs of Athens, and he himself had been nourished and had benefited from his relationship to the city. If he had not liked the ways of the city, he had ample opportunity to depart when the going was good. If he left now when things had turned against him, he would be doing the city a wrong, and make himself ridiculous. As he himself says in the Crito (translated here by Jowett):

“Then will they not say: “You, Socrates, are breaking the covenants and agreements which you made with us at your leisure, not in any haste or under any compulsion or deception, but having had seventy years to think of them, during which time you were at liberty to leave the city, if we were not to your mind, or if our covenants appeared to you to be unfair. You had your choice, and might have gone either to Lacedaemon or Crete, which you often praise for their good government, or to some other Hellenic or foreign State. Whereas you, above all other Athenians, seemed to be so fond of the State, or, in other words, of us her laws (for who would like a State that has no laws?), that you never stirred out of her: the halt, the blind, the maimed, were not more stationary in her than you were. And now you run away and forsake your agreements. Not so, Socrates, if you will take our advice; do not make yourself ridiculous by escaping out of the city.”

Socrates’ principled stand and refusal to abandon Athens in the face of death gave him an immortal name. Can Depardieu, who is looking at moving with his wealth to a Russian province, Mordovia, famous for its gulags, aspire to the same? Had he followed the example of Socrates and drained the hemlock cup of 75% tax, he might be more certain now of the praise of history in times to come.