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The Year of the Cuckoo
So we have reached the mid-way point of what has been a very odd year so far. If this time last year, someone had told me that we would be in the middle of a global pandemic during which protesters would be pulling down statues of Ulysses Grant as a symbol of racism, I would have suggested that this individual seriously consider recalibrating his medications. Yet here we are.

Oddly enough, social isolation has led to an increase in my social life rather than the other way around. This is because living half-way up a mountain in the middle of a boreal forest tends to limit one's contact with humanity in the first place. So this has always meant that I would be reliant on the internet for many of my social interactions. Thanks to lockdowns, suddenly many more of my friends and colleagues are spending time on Zoom, and now they have gotten the hang of it, many decide to give me a call.

During one of these conversations someone suggested that the world appears to have gone somewhat mad. On reflection though, we decided that the world has always been mad – it's just not mad in the way to which we have become accustomed. Consider, for example that a generation ago the United States and Soviet Union were seriously considering destroying the world over a dispute about which country had the better economic system. We've a long way to go before we're back at that level of insanity, though we seem to keep looking for new ways to get there.
Getting about
As followers of my Facebook page will know, when I'm not doing ancient history I like to spend my time in the great Canadian outdoors. For a start, there's an awful lot if it, and secondly, wandering about there is free, and free is important to a writer.

However, even outdoors I can't help thinking about ancient history, and yesterday while kayaking across a very scenic lake, my thoughts turned to transport. In winter, I like to snowshoe across mountainous terrain. It's fun, but certainly not easy or speedy. It does not help that one has to put a certain degree of forethought into not dying, and this takes physical form in packs containing torches, first-aid kits, blankets, fire-making materials, rope and about a dozen other things. Also, because getting across deep snow in very sub-zero temperatures needs specialized kit, while wandering around the wilderness is free, the snowshoes, snow suit, boots etc come to a very tidy sum.

Then there's summer kayaking, where my entire wardrobe from sandals to baseball cap costs less than one of my highly-specialized winter boots, and the kayak itself costs the same as one pair of snowshoes. (Ideally you need three pairs depending on the terrain and type of snow.) While we were gliding across the water all needed equipment was stashed about the kayak, and other equipment, such as a hammock can be towed behind in a smaller kayak – a huge improvement to humping the lot in backpacks.

In short, summer transport on water is more vastly efficient than land transport in winter, in terms of speed, carrying capacity, cost and comfort. No wonder then, that the Romans preferred to ship grain from Africa, even though the huge wheatfields of the Po valley lay just on the other side of the Apennines – geographically close, but in practical terms, almost out of reach.

Social Isolation
One question I'm asked these days is 'How did Romans shelter in place during an epidemic?' My answer is that they didn't, because they couldn't. Roman life was lived largely in public, with many of the functions that today we do at home happening elsewhere. Laundry was done by professionals, meals were largely take-out or tavern affairs, since the average Roman apartment was enough of a fire-trap already without adding wood-stoves to the mix. Toilets and baths were public affairs where a Roman could discuss the morning's gossip with the neighbours while taking his after-breakfast crap.

In other words, social isolation was impossible, because the average Roman was too integrated into his society. The same was true of most European homes for centuries. In fact I once used to live in a tiny one-bedroomed terrace house in Cambridge that was exactly six paces across (I measured it). It came as something of a surprise when a local historian told me that a family of fourteen had once lived there.

In other words, in ancient times, and in fact until a century ago, humans generally lived on top of each other with all the possibilities for infection which that entailed. The largely self-sufficient western household containing an average of 2.7 people is a new development which seems better placed to insulate humans from the effects of a virus than homes have been at any other time in history.
You'll never work alone
You might think that few people's lives would be less affected by a pandemic than a writer's – and to a large degree you would be right. After all, most of my normal working day is spent in isolation, reading recondite classical texts and then reporting my discoveries while sitting all alone at the keyboard. So under those circumstances, what difference does a 'stay at home' order make?

Well, it does make a difference, not because the lockdown affects me, but because it affects the people with whom I work. While my work can be done at home alone, a book is produced by more than one person. There's the publishers' committees that are currently not meeting to decide the viability of my latest book proposals. There's the housebound friends and colleagues whom I usually get to look up details which, even in the age of the internet, can only be found in specialist libraries - all of which are closed for the emergency. Finally there's the printers who are not printing my latest book, and the distributors who are having trouble getting it to the bookshops which are closed anyway.

So even if my weekly grocery shop did not nowadays more resemble a visit to a secure biowarfare facility, the pandemic would be affecting me. However, I'm well aware of how fortunate and privileged I am to be in my present line of work. While so many lives have been devastated, mine has been merely inconvenienced. Indeed, with lots of people stuck at home, sales of my books on Amazon have greatly increased.
The Plague Year

So another of the horsemen of the apocalypse is loose and galloping around the world. War and Famine have never gone away, but oftentimes they seemed far away from those of us fortunate enough to have comfortable homes in peaceful countries.

Plague is another story. With CORVID-19 plague has found away to get to us, and our friendly neighbourhoods and well-stocked supermarkets are no defence. It's a chilling glimpse into how terrifying plagues must have been in the ancient world, when people were faced with a devastating enemy that no army could repel or city walls keep out. And yet we have only a glimpse, because for all the panic and numerous tragedies it has caused, CORVID-19 is something of a pussycat compared to some of the plagues which racked ancient societies.

The most horrifying account of an ancient plague was written by a man who lived through it – the Athenian historian Thucydides. In his usual dispassionate manner Thucydides describes the symptoms of the illness, the effects on the victim, and the equally devastating effects on Athenian society.

"Men started to live from day to day, never knowing if they would see another … Anything that gratified a passing whim or brought pleasure was considered worth doing, or even honourable. No-one cared about the laws of gods or men, for they saw that those who worshipped the gods died in equal numbers to those who did not, and no man worried about the consequences of committing crimes because he expected to be dead long before the courts could pass judgement."
(Thuc. 2.53)

The causes of the Thucydides plague are uncertain, though some variant of typhoid seems the best bet. What is certain that it killed more than the 1-4% which seems the maximum casualty rate of the present about-to-be pandemic, and even the modern figures are bad enough.

We are often reminded of the fragility of modern civilization, but perhaps we can draw a certain strength from the fact that our forebears have been through a great deal worse - and survived. In fact, even with plague tearing the city apart, the Athenians did not even take time off in their long war against Sparta.


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