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The Course Choice Rubicon

Updated: Apr 15, 2023

A wood-cut image of Julius Caesar and Socrates
From Caesar, Socrates, Jesus, Nero 1892, Félix Vallotton (1865 - 1925) Available:

What sort of monster sets homework for the last week of term anyway? That’s what I’m thinking as I trudge upstairs, my rucksack slung over one shoulder. We finished exams literally five days ago, we should be watching films in class, going for walks or kicking back in the sun doing crosswords with our iPods out and our headphones in. They don’t even do psychology where I’m going. Had the old bat wanted it for after the summer holidays, it wouldn’t have been a problem. I could have gone home and chucked the worksheet straight in the bin, but, no, we’ve got to start as we mean to go on. Even if you’re about to move to a new school 30 miles away.

So now I have two things to do tonight. I need to answer a bunch of questions on long-term memory for no good reason, and decide what my last subject choice is going to be at said new school next year.

“Not psychology,” I mutter as I cross the landing and open my bedroom door. I shut it behind me with a sigh and drop my bag at my feet. I’m about to go and flop face down on my bed but before I get as far as taking a single step, I jump out of my skin and let out a half-strangled yelp. There’s a man standing by my window with his back to me, gazing out across the hills and fidgeting with his shirt.

He’s wearing a suit.

“Who are you?” I ask, and he turns round. His face is lined, his hair receding and his collar is stuck up a little at the side where he was tugging at it, all of which makes him a completely imperfect stranger.

“You don’t recognise me,” he says with a despondency that says he’s disappointed but not surprised.

“No,” I say, “should I?”

“How about now?” he asks, turning his head to the side so that I’m now looking at him in profile. I raise an eyebrow while he poses for a penny that’s never going to drop. He closes his eyes and hangs his head with a sigh. “My name is Julius Caesar.”

“Oh!” I say, recognising the name. “I do know you!”

“Thank you,” Caesar says with a jerk of his hand.

“You were on a charades card I had once.” His hand freezes in mid-air and his look of smug satisfaction falters. “You were emperor of Rome. But what’re you-?”

“No!” he exclaims. “Why do you people all think that? I wasn’t nearly as blatant as to call myself emperor. I was far more discreet.”

“What were you then?” I ask. He sucks in a breath to draw himself to his full height.

“I was dictator perpetuo.”


“Dictator for life.”

I roll my eyes.

“Oh, yeah, really discreet.”

“How dare-?”

“Look, sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. All I want to know is what you’re doing in my room.”

Caesar opens his mouth to reply but just as he does, I’m forced to leap out of the way as the door bursts open behind me and in strides an old man with a shock of white hair and the biggest beard I’ve ever seen.

“I tell you what, Caesar,” he says in a booming voice, “if Archimedes had a tub like that, there’s no telling what he’d have come up with. And you should see the latrine facilities too – not a communal sponge in sight!” He chuckles and I realise I can hear the bathroom cistern filling with water.

“Wait, did you-?”

At the sound of my voice, the new arrival notices me for the first time.

“Ah, she’s here! See, Julius, I told you we wouldn’t have to wait long.”

“Sorry, who are you?” I ask, feeling increasingly agitated. The man looks at me in surprise.

“Who am-?”

“She didn’t even know who I was, Socrates, so you’ve got no chance.”

“It was quite funny actually,” says a voice from the corner and once again I’m startled because there’s a woman slouching in my armchair who’s apparently been there the whole time. “It would seem Rome did not live long in Britain’s memory,” she says with a smirk, twisting a lock of her hair round a tattooed finger.

“Nor did Britannia in mine,” Caesar says. He turns his back on her and walks over to my bookcase, stooping to read the spines. “Believe me, I couldn’t forget this fetid bog of a country fast enough.”

“Can someone please tell me what’s going on?” I say, raising my voice because I notice the woman’s grip tightening around the spear in her hand.

“Yes, of course,” says the old man. “Where are our manners? I’m Socrates, ancient Greek philosopher, this is Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, and, well, you’ve met Julius.”

“Yes, but what do you want?”

“There are no histories here, no epics, no treatises,” Caesar says with a sigh, still squinting at the novels lined up on my shelf. He straightens up and looks at me. “Do you know anything about the ancient past?”

“Yeah,” I say with force, “I’ve heard of you, I’ve been to Hadrian’s wall and I know your gods. We named the planets after them. There’s Mars, Venus, Mercury, Neptune with his big fork.”

“Trident!” Caesar practically yells. “It’s a trident,” he adds in a low hiss. “Honestly, girl, I’d have had you flogged for your ignorance.”

“Sounds about right,” Boudicca says from the corner and Caesar glowers at her but it’s Socrates who speaks next.

“Now, now, Julius, it isn’t the girl’s fault. Knowledge isn’t something with which we are born, rather it is gathered along the way, harvested like grapes from a vine.”

“Spoken like a true sage,” Caesar says through gritted teeth as he tries to loosen the yellow tie around his neck but only succeeds in tightening it further. “What’s the point of these things?” he snaps, spotting mine, “They’re insufferable.”

I ignore him and turn to Socrates.

“You still haven’t told me why you’re here, how you’re here. You’re all thousands of years old, aren’t you?”

“Don’t look it though, do we?” says Boudicca with a wink.

“We’re here to talk to you about your course choices. We hear you’re moving to a new school next term and wanted to know what classes you were thinking about signing up for.”

“Oh,” I say, wrong-footed, because that’s a curveball if ever I saw one, “well, so far I’ve got English, Maths, History,” I say with emphasis for Mr Caesar’s benefit, “and P.E. I’m not sure what my last one will be though. It’ll probably have to be Biology.”

Socrates crosses the room to where my course choice sheet is lying on my desk and beckons me over.

“Have you considered this?” he asks, pointing at a subject towards the top of the list.

“Classical Studies,” I read aloud. “No, what is it?”

“A remedy to your ignorance,” Caesar mutters from behind us.

“It sounds dry,” I say, frowning. “Is it literary fiction, like Austen and the Brontë sisters?”

“Give me strength,” says who else but Caesar.

“No, it’s about us, our world,” Socrates says, looking up at me with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s a study of the richest mosaic – the art and archaeology, languages, literature, history and culture of thousands of ancient years. It’s a story of poetry and progress, politics and peoples, the-”

“A story of bloodshed and oppression, more like. Let’s not get too romantic here, Socrates,” Boudicca interjects.

“Yes, granted it wasn’t all frescoes, friendship and well-functioning governments.”

“Tell me about it,” Caesar says darkly.

“But, in many ways, that makes learning about it all the more worthwhile. Antiquity is full of drama and intrigue, mystery and wonder, and classics as a subject has the power to enthrall and to challenge like no other.”

“That does sound pretty cool,” I say, thinking about the little statue of a Roman soldier I got in the gift shop on our primary school trip to Binchester fort. “It has to beat learning about mitochondria for the hundredth time, anyway.”

“Mito-what-ia?” says Caesar.

I look over my shoulder at him.

“See, it’s not just me who doesn’t know everything.”

“So will you consider it?” Socrates asks.

“Absolutely,” I say, “even if only to shut Moan-io Perpetuo up.”

“How dare-?”

“Fantastic!” Socrates exclaims, clapping his hands together. “Well, Julius, Boudicca, I think our work here is done.”

“I’m so pleased,” Caesar says drily.

“Let’s leave this young lady to it. There are still five more I want to visit before sundown.”

“I can hardly contain my enthusiasm,” says Caesar as he makes for the door. Boudicca hauls herself to her feet and stretches her arms above her head, the point of her spear straying dangerously close to my ceiling.

“Honestly, Socrates, you never learn, do you?” She looks across at me, “Executed for corrupting the youth and he’s still at it nearly two and a half thousand years later.”

“It wasn’t like that. I told you it wasn’t like that,” the philosopher says as Boudicca steps out onto the landing. He goes to follow but stops in his tracks with a hand on the doorknob and turns back. “Oh, I should warn you. The first text you’ll study is Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. It might be a bit of a shock.”

“Why’s that?” I ask but he’s already snapped the door shut behind him and by the time I cross the room to pull it open again, the three of them have vanished. I shake my head and let out a half-laugh. I close the door and go back to my desk to fire up my laptop but I’ve not even had chance to log on before I hear it click open once more. “What now?” I ask, twisting round in my chair. “Oh, it’s you,” I say because it’s not an ancient dictator, philosopher or warrior queen standing in the doorway, it’s my mam.

“Who did you think it was?” she asks with a frown.

“Never mind,” I say quickly, “What d’you want?”

“I was just wondering whether you’d decided on your last course yet. I’m planning to ring the school tomorrow to let them know.”

I smile at that.

“Yeah, I have actually. I want to do Classical Studies. I like the sound of it and it comes highly recommended.”

“Yeah, who by?” she asks and I pause for a moment.

“Oh, just some guy in a suit I met earlier today.”

Emily Small is a transcriptionist with a dream of one day typing dialogue more fantastical than the contents of HR meetings and clinical trials interviews for a living.

Last-minute exile: Emily Small

Hometown: Newton Aycliffe, County Durham

High School: Woodham CTC, Carmel College, Kinross High School & Carluke High School

Like Seneca, like Aristotle and like countless others from Classical history, you find yourself subject to an exile order, and must vacate the country tout-suite before some sort of sword-based injury befalls your neck!

You grab three records…

This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody) – Talking Heads

It’s a song that calls to mind sunny afternoons and fills me with an overwhelming sense of contentedness in an instant.

Calamity Song – The Decemberists

I like songs that tell stories and this one is apocalyptic.

Gin Soaked Boy – The Divine Comedy

It’s upbeat, jam-packed with wordplay and mentions Troy, what’s not to like?

…two books…

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness

It was so hard to choose just one of Patrick Ness’ novels but I’ve gone for the story that grabbed me as a 12 year old and, well, never let go.

1356 – Bernard Cornwell

What? I can enjoy less ancient historical fiction too.

…a Tupperware of your favourite food…

Halloumi pasta

The gods thought ambrosia was top tier but that’s only because they never tried this.

…and something else at random.

Tiny Towns

A cracker of a board game that you can actually play by yourself if need be so I’d be sorted if the exile turned out to be a lonely one.

Exile is going to suck, but at least you won’t have to put up with…

The incessant rain

I mean it makes sense to exile me to a country with more clement weather, right. Right?

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