Every night, for many years, my daughter and I have done home-schooling lessons together; I write them during my three hours on the bus, and we go over them when I get home. She goes to a regular Catholic school in the village, but the lessons were meant to pass on the things I wish every child learnt, and that schools no longer teach, or never did.
Some nights we read ancient stories: Baucis and Philemon, Samson and the lion, Horatius on the bridge. Some nights we talked about ecology: what soil needs and where things hibernate, indicator species and seres, convergent evolution and niches. Some nights we talked about logic: attacking straw men and moving the goalposts, ad hominem and post hoc ergo propter hoc. Some nights we just talked, and I listened. Then we read books together, as we have every night since she was a toddler.
Now that she is an adolescent she has more schoolwork and hobbies, wants her own space, so we have been shedding layers of this ritual like snakeskin, leaving them behind as she grows. First she no longer wanted me to read to her, then she asked to no longer do the sing-a-longs of Irish folk music, and finally we cut the lessons down to week-ends. We have no plans to abandon them altogether, however, as there is much more to teach, and I’m adapting them to her new maturity.
And some nights I just quiz her on what she’s learned, and our conversations start meandering. The other night we started talking about the Trojan War.
The Iliad and the Odyssey, I said, took place in an Age of Heroes, with lots of little warring city-states that would fish, farm, trade, raid, and colonise all over the Mediterranean. Some of them lived in what we now call Greece, some on the other side of the Aegean Sea in what’s now Turkey, in a land they called Ilium around the city of Troy –
“So Troy was the city, and Ilium the state,” she said. “like Ireland and Dublin.”
Correct, I said – hence the war against Ilium was the Iliad. And the Phoenicians were a similarly seafaring people with colonies – in Tyre, the impregnable city Alexander the Great would later …
“Impregnate?” she asked. Well, you could put it that way, I said.
“That was the offshore island, wasn’t it?” she continued. “And he had his men build a peninsula?”
Yes, it’s still a peninsula to this day, I said. The Phoenicians also founded Carthage in North Africa – at the time of the Trojan War, was ruled by Queen Dido, the one who fell in love with Aeneas.
"Who set herself on fire," The Girl said. “That’s where Hannibal was from, right?”
Right, I said – about a thousand years after the era we’re talking about, he fought Rome and almost beat them. Latin for Phoenician is Punica, so they were the Punic Wars.
Around the time of the Trojan War, though, in this barbaric Dark Age for Greece, a lot of these city-states would band together in alliances and raid the wealthier empires to the east, and the Egyptians were called the Sea Peoples.
“They were vicious,” she said.
Yes, I said – they took down the Assyrian Empire, and they took down the Hittites.
“And you do not take down the high tights,” she said.
I know, right? I responded. Otherwise they’d all be like those baggy-pants teenagers today.
Who were the original Laconic people? I asked.
“SPARTANS!” she said, pumping a fist in the air. She likes Spartans.
Excellent, I said – why is it called being laconic?
“Because Sparta was in Laconia?”
Excellent, I told her. Can you give me some examples of what it means to be laconic?
"Sure, like that author who sent the telegram to his publisher, and it was just a question mark?"
Victor Hugo, I said. After he wrote Les Miserables, he went on holiday and didn’t want to write anything anymore, because he’d just written a book the size of the Bible. But he was curious how it was selling, so he sent a telegram to his publisher “?” The publisher responded “!”
Anything else? I asked. Any instances of the actual Laconians being Laconic?
“If,” she said.
Excellent, I said – to whom?
“Um… that I don’t know,” she admitted.
Phillip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great – before battle with the Spartans, he sent them a message saying that they should surrender, because if he won, he would not just burn their city, but take all their belongings, kill their families, and so on. They sent him back a one-word message – “if.”
“They did that a lot to the Persians,” she said.
That’s right – you know that before the battle of the Hot Gates – Thermopylae – the Persians sent a spy to check out the Spartan camp, and he returned saying that the Spartans were a bunch of nancies – they were all getting their hair trimmed and styled before battle. They didn’t realise that when a Spartan cut his hair, it meant he was preparing to die.
“If you’re going to die, you might as well look good,” she said.
Can you think of any other examples? I asked.
“Sure,” she said. “In that same battle, the Persians told the Spartans they would send so many arrows they would block out the sun. The Spartans said, ‘We will fight you in the shade.’”
And when the Persians ordered the Spartans to give up their arms, I told her, the Spartans said, ‘Come over here and take them.’
“You don’t mess with the Spartans,” she said, smiling.
After a while, our talked meandered over to Greek mythology, and The Girl asked, “One thing I wondered – was Narcissus the guy from Pygmalion?”
The George Bernard Shaw play or the legend? I asked – we had seen the play last year. The guy from the Pygmalion legend was Pygmalion – he fell in love with his statue.
“So Narcissus was the guy who was in love with himself?” she asked. That’s him, I said.
“How did Narcissus die?”
He wasted away into nothing staring at his own reflection, I said.
“Well, at least he died happy,” she said.
You’re good at finding the bright side, I responded.
“I would think that after starving for a while, when your face loses its colour and you can see the bones under the skin,” she asked. “wouldn’t you reach a point of negative feedback? Or you’d have to go away and nurse yourself back to health, and return to the reflection – it would be an endless loop, or until he naturally died.”
I think if you’re obsessed with yourself, you don’t care, I said. Love is blind.