Saturday, 23 October 2021

Remembering Who I am in Padua


After an unpleasant academic year 2020-2021, my sanity has finally been restored this week by my first ever visit to Padua (a solo journey I could not have contemplated even a few weeks ago). Its University, founded in 1222, is the fifth oldest in the world. My host was the wry Rocco Coronato, Professor of English, gifted at entitling publications (a recent article of his is ‘The Emergence of Priapism in Two Gentlemen of Verona’).

Elena Cornario Piscopia in the ermine of a Doctor of Philosophy

As Head of the PhD programme in Linguistic, Philological and Literary Sciences, Rocco invited me to address the doctoral students on the topic of women classical scholars in Italy. The lecture will be available online soon. The first woman ever to be awarded a doctorate was Elena Cornaro PIscopia as early as 1678—her topic was Aristotle. One of the most important papyrologists of all time was the inspirational Medea Norsa, who found and published Sappho fragment 2.

Medea Norsa, Papyrologist Extraordinary

Padua is forever engraved on a classicist’s heart as the city founded by Antenor, the Trojan counsellor who in the Iliad sensibly advises the Trojans to give Helen back to Menelaus immediately. But Antenor’s most famous exploit was founding Padua (Patavium), an act described by Venus to Jupiter in some of the most memorable lines of the Aeneid (1.242-9), when she is arguing that it is about time the other Trojan exile, Aeneas, is allowed to settle in Italy too.


The historian Livy was himself a Paduan, who retained an accent people laughed at all his life. He even opens his History of Rome with a resounding allusion to Aeneas and Antenor arriving from Troy and the foundation of Patavium ‘in the furthest regions of the Adriatic’. 

Livy has been given a monument in Antenor’s piazza, where an ancient sarcophagus said to contain  Antenor’s body was discovered in the thirteenth century and an imposing edifice built to house it. Sadly, carbon investigation reveals that the bones are not old enough for a Bronze Age hero and indeed one is a female femur.

Antenor's Tomb and Livy's Monument

Padua is famous as the setting of much of The Taming of the Shrew, but the show I went to see in the magnificent Teatro Verdi was Turandot. I made a mistake: I thought it was the Puccini opera, and so I would get to hear the football fan’s favourite aria Nessun Dorma. But it turned out to be the play, with minimal music. It didn’t matter, even though the acting was more declamatory than I’m used to and the plot of course preposterous.

I went back to the hotel to play every recording of Nessun Dorma I could find on Youtube (there are a lot; some are better than Pavarotti), while swigging Valpolicella and scoffing the local speciality, baccalĂ  alla vicentina (cod long basted in a milk and onion sauce, served with polenta). And I really thought seven months ago that I had forever lost my lust for life.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

On Being UnStoic in Zeno's Cypriot Birthplace


My Favourite Paphos Mosaic: Ikarios Invents Wine

Regular readers will know that I am neither temperamentally nor philosophically impressed by Stoicism. But I like to visit the home-towns of ancient Greek intellectuals, and so rounded up six wonderful days in Greece and Cyprus celebrating freedom by having a deeply unStoic time in Kition, Cyprus, where Zeno the great Stoic was born at some distance from Aphrodite's birthplace in the west of the island, because obviously a Stoic disapproves of this divinity.

Zeno, not my Type of Role Model

The day started with not going studiously round the ruins of ancient Kition, but waving at them from my wonderful hostess’ Magdalena Zira’s car (she is a former PhD student of mine and a theatre director). It is impossible not to laugh in this vehicle because an imperious lady living in the dashboard constantly gives orders in Japanese, and nobody on Cyprus knows how to shut her up.

Posh Customers Only: Magdalena & Me

First I went to swim on Larnaca beach, not to improve my capacity for self-control and resilience, but to enjoy gratuitous physical ecstasy. Then we went to a world-famous taverna run by Mr Militzis surrounded by fragrant flowers and drank his homemade wine BEFORE NOON. We ate far more than any Stoic would in a week because it was delicious. Moreover, British Airways, with whom we were returning later in the day, no longer think economy passengers have any physical requirements even on 5-hour flights.

Prior to being unStoic in Kition, where I enjoyed staying in a flat where the Communist Party of Cyprus used to have unofficial meetings, I fulfilled a lifetime ambition by visiting Paphos. Aphrodite's town, as my travelling companion daughter Sarah Poynder discovered to her joy, contains even more (deeply unStoic, pleasure-addicted) cats than mosaics or statues of Aphrodite. 

Aphrodite of Paphos obviously needs two different frocks

And we had arrived from the Peloponnese where I had talked, within 48 hours, to audiences at the inaugural Benaki festival, on both Homer and ancient democracy. Hanging out with my classical besties Nat Haynes and Bettany Hughes was a delight.

Advocacy for Aristophanes: Greatest Greek

On Saturday night there was a competition chaired by Nat in a splendid restaurant between spokespersons for The Greatest Greek. I am pleased to say that Aristophanes, advocated by me, saw off Judith Herrin’s Empress Eirene, Yannis Palaiologos’ Venizelos, Bettany’s Helen of Sparta/Troy and Tom Holland’s Alexander the Great. I simply asked whether the audience, if stranded together on a desert island, would rather have icons, unlimited sex, unlimited political ambition/power or laughter plus freedom of speech. I am glad to say that they voted the right way. And nobody nominated Zeno.

Sunday, 3 October 2021

Plutarch's Ten Top Tips for Freshers' Week

When Plutarch’s young friend Nicander started university, the writer sent him a treatise with advice on how to listen to lectures, De recta ratione audiendi. Much of it remains astonishingly relevant today for today’s students, even if I don’t like his first simile and, under no. 3, I think laughing and smiling are perfectly acceptable! 

  1. Don’t Go Mad Socially in Freshers’ Week 
Sudden absence of control from home unchains the impulses towards pleasure and the feelings of suspicion towards hard work. “And just as Herodotus says that women put off their modesty along with their undergarments, so some of our young men, as soon as they lay aside the garb of childhood, lay aside also their sense of modesty and fear, and become full of unruliness”.

  2. Don’t Be Late to Class 
“Some think it only right that the speaker shall come with his discourse carefully thought out and prepared, while they, without consideration or thought of their obligations, rush in and take their seats exactly as though they had come to dinner, to have a good time while others toil.

 3. Lecture-Hall Decorum 
Even with atrocious lecturers, it is imperative “to sit upright without any lounging or sprawling, to look directly at the speaker, to maintain a pose of active attention, and a sedateness of countenance free from any expression, not merely of arrogance or displeasure—not only frowning, a sour face, a roving glance, twisting the body about, and crossing the legs, are unbecoming, but even nodding, whispering to another, smiling, sleepy yawns, bowing down the head, and all like actions, are culpable and need to be carefully avoided”. 

4. Don’t Hold the Class Up 
Don’t be like the students who “hold back the speaker on every possible occasion by inane and superfluous questions, impeding the regular course of the lecture”. 

 5. Don’t Introduce Irrelevant Questions 
“Those persons who lead the speaker to digress to other topics, and interject questions, and raise new difficulties, are not pleasant or agreeable company at a lecture; if it is on ethical philosophy don’t ask about science, maths or logic”. 

 6. Don’t Demand Spoon-feeding 
Some students do no work themselves, “but they give trouble to the speaker by repeatedly asking questions about the same things, like unfledged nestlings always agape toward the mouth of another, and desirous of receiving everything ready prepared and pre-digested”. 

 7.  Be a Good Listener Don’t Interrupt 
Avoid being like “those who instantly interrupt with contradictions, neither hearing nor being heard, but talking while others talk, behaving in an unseemly manner...forward and contentious”. “Guard against proposing many problems or proposing them often. For this is the mark of a man who is taking occasion to show himself off. But to listen good-naturedly when another advances them, marks the considerate gentleman and the scholar. An offensive and tiresome listener is the man who is not to be touched or moved by anything that is said, full of festering presumption and ingrained self-assertion, as though convinced that he could say something better than what is being said, who neither moves his brow nor utters a single word to bear witness that he is glad to listen, but by means of silence and an affected gravity and pose, seeks to gain a reputation for poise and profundity”. 

 8. Don’t Condemn or Acclaim Teachers too fast
For you too are capable of “poverty of thought, emptiness of phrase, an offensive bearing, fluttering excitement combined with a vulgar delight at commendation”. But don’t be a sycophant because you will get “no benefit from the lecture because it has been made full of confusion and fluttering excitement by your continual applause” and you will be regarded as either “a dissembler, a flatterer, or a boor”. 

 9. Ignore Peer Pressure and Make Up Your Own Mind 
Do not distract yourself by turning to look at “the other persons present to see whether they are showing any pleasure or admiration”. Just as when a person leaves the hairdresser “he stands by the mirror and feels his head, examining the cut of his hair and the difference made by its trimming”, you should evaluate the lecture afterwards independently. 

 10. Learn to Take Criticism Constructively 
“Admonitions and rebukes must be listened to neither with stolid indifference nor with unseemly emotion”. Do not laugh at the criticism, “nor listen unmoved, grinning, dissembling in the face of it all”. On the other hand, don’t be demolished by it, “running away if you ever hear a single word directed against you”, because shame has no place in education. “Indeed, even if the reproof seems to be given unjustly, it is an admirable thing to endure it with continued patience while the man is speaking”, but go to him privately afterwards to discuss the matter and ask him to keep his severity “for some real misconduct”. 

I recognise all the types of student Plutarch describes here: I also recognise his less edifying teachers. Here’s to a lovely, civil, constructive and happy new term in lecture halls across the land!

Saturday, 11 September 2021

On Feeling Like Ronaldo


Ancient allegations that for selfish reasons I move between jobs too often have recently resurfaced. This blog is designed to put the record straight.

I left my first permanent job at the University of Reading (1990-1995) after being turned down for promotion. I gather I was a victim of a pre-existing feud between two senior males, my Head of Department and a Professor of English who claimed that I was incapable of an international reputation. I would still be there if I had been promoted.

I left my permanent job at Oxford in 2001 because I could not get the Classics Faculty (then Lit. Hum.) to understand that with two children under two I could not sustain the workload they proposed for me, especially since I had just got in for them a huge research grant  that urgently needed administering. Changes in legislation subsequently would have made my life as new working mother at Oxford possible, since my own college, Somerville, was fantastically supportive. I would still be at Oxford if the current maternity rights legislation had been passed, or if the Faculty could have evinced any sympathy whatsoever during the first two years of our children’s lives.

I left the job I absolutely loved at Durham in 2006 because sadly the university did not match the substantial pay rise and wonderful interdepartmental contract, centered on research and with complete exemption from administration, I competed for and won at Royal Holloway University of London. As breadwinner and full-time working parent this was inviting.

I left Royal Holloway University of London in 2012 because the new Principal had tried to shut the Classics Department and I was exhausted after a long (and successful) campaign to stop him. I did not find the macho new management 'culture' congenial. I don’t think it was too fond of me either. I sensed my future there was in jeopardy, otherwise I would still be at RHUL.

On December 31st 2021 I am leaving King’s College London, at which until less than a year ago I absolutely loved working, to return to my favourite ever job (Durham). The writer Colin Teevan once flatteringly said I was the Thierry Henry of Classics because I 'gunned it into goal from the Left'. But now I feel like (a far less talented) Ronaldo.

Ronaldo returns to his northern English spiritual home

I am extremely excited about my homecoming story and will soon have more to say about why Arts and Humanities at this northern university is so outstanding.

Thierry Henry 'guns it into goal from the Left'.

Monday, 30 August 2021

The Weirdest Royal Wedding: Antiochus and Stratonice


It is Jacques-Louis David’s birthday. He is all too familiar amongst classicists because his paintings ‘The Sabine Women’, ‘The Death of Socrates’, ‘Leonidas at Thermopylae’ and ‘The Oath of the Horatii’, with their pallid, depilated ancient heroes, adorn the covers of far too many books.

But the David work I most love to hate is his ‘Antiochus I and Stratonice’, mainly because it portrays the anecdote I most love to hate in all Plutarch.

Stratonice was married off at 17 years old to Seleucus, who was 25 years her senior.  They had one child, Phlia. But then Antiochus, Seleucus’ son by a previous wife, fell gravely ill. The famous doctor Erasistratus, said to be the grandson of Aristotle, no less, was summoned.

Erasistratus was an expert in anatomy and physiology, which he had gruesomely studied by practising vivisections on criminals. He detected that Antiochus’ symptoms were heightened whenever his stepmother entered his chamber. 

The symptoms were a faltering voice, burning blush, languid eye, sudden sweats, a tumultuous pulse, swooning and deathly pallor. Erasistratus knew, with his customary scientific rigour, that these were symptoms of erotic fixation. Sappho's poetry was on the syllabus at medical school. In a famous poem  she had described how she felt watching the woman she loved talking to a man.

Fortunately for Antiochus, his father let him marry Stratonice. Their sex life was active, since they had five children. This story has everything: royalty, fabulous wealth, sex, parental self-sacrifice, a poem by Sappho, quasi-incest, a detective strand and a celebrity physician.

David was far from the only painter attracted to this story, but he outdid all others in the blinding whiteness and Aryan appearance of his ancient Macedonians and Seleucids. I am particularly fond of the version by Benjamin West, who painted the doctor Erasistratus, in lovely tan and green scrubs, looking as though he was suffering from an apoplexy himself. 

The story also reminds me of Sophocles’ Jocasta, married to both Laius and Oedipus. She ended up dead and disgraced, as did Phaedra in Euripides’ Hippolytus. In a world where women were routinely married off to men old enough to be their father, there must have been many erotic entanglements between young wives and their coeval stepchildren; but poor Phaedra couldn’t just demand that Theseus divorce her and let her get off with the much younger man.

Plutarch doesn’t tell us, of course, how Stratonice felt about being passed around the family like a piece of meat, nor the psychological impact of the transfer on her first daughter, Phlia. Stratonice’s first son by Antiochus certainly grew up disaffected and was executed for rebellion. As George Eliot put it in Romola, ‘Our deeds are like children that are born to us; they live and act apart from our own will. Nay, children may be strangled, but deeds never: they have an indestructible life both in and out of our consciousness’. Bank holiday tip: don’t go falling for your parent’s spouse.

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Tories, Tyrants & Tall Poppies


In this week’s incoherent speech ‘explaining’ his ‘levelling up policy', delivered at a West Midlands battery factory where he had apparently inserted some of the goods into his frontal lobes, Boris Johnson attempted to drown his lack of a plan in a tsunami of metaphors: jam-spreading, robbery, rings of steel, building a wall of vaccine against waves of virus, throwing things to the wind, getting up a tail wind, playing around the football goal’s mouth, strenghthening sinews, and—best of all—'the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce—the ketchup of catch-up’.

But one of these vertiginous images involved one his flashiest classical references: ‘We don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies; we don’t think you can make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer’. We can’t possibly tax the rich any more, after all. Perish the thought.

This reference puts Johnson into dodgy company. Thrasybulus, tyrant of Miletus, sent a message to the even bloodthirstier Periander, tyrant of Corinth,  to teach him how to hold onto power. He took Periander’s herald to a field, and cut off all the tallest ears of wheat, which Periander rightly understood as an instruction to slaughter all the most powerful individuals in his country (Herodotus 5.92). Aristotle tells the same story, but put the tyrants’ names the other way round (Pol. 3.1284a).

Tarquinius Superbus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema,

Specifically Tall Poppy Discourse was used by the nonpareil Roman despots, the Tarquins. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus lopped all the tallest poppies in his garden to indicate to his equally nasty rapist son Sextus (NB Jacob Rees-Mogg seems to have remembered this when he baptised a son ‘Sixtus’) that he should execute the leading men of Gabii (Livy 1.54).

Everyday Life in the Tarquin Family

I accept that Boris says that the Tories DON’T want to cut off the heads of the Tall Poppies of London and Middle England. The problem is, he hasn’t said how he’s otherwise going to increase the height of the Short Poppies of the North, let alone its dandelions and daisies. Metaphorical Bulimia is not an Economic Policy.

6-foot Poppies of Guernsey This Morning

But his choice of allusion seems to me to offer interesting material to a psychoanalyst thinking about Projection. BTW I’m weekending in the Channel Islands (to visit my ageing father-in-law for the first time since he buried his wife all alone under Lockdown 1). These are floating tax avoidance sanctuaries. I’ve noticed that the poppies are tall indeed.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Memories of Talking Medea with Helen McCrory


In early 2014 I went downstairs to reception and saw a tiny figure, in a hat worthy of the Peaky Blinders, sunglasses, loose trousers and enveloping anorak. She recognised me, I assumed from my website, waved and smiled. We went up to my office. That was the first of several sessions, for me enthralling, in which we discussed Euripides’ Medea in remarkable detail. Helen McCrory put an incredible amount of intellect and hard work into that staggering, prize-winning performance. 

She was interested in the research I’d done into criminal psychology and the profiles of women who kill their children. Certain patterns recur in these tragic cases. The women are often of high intelligence and well educated; this crime is by no means confined to the poor and deprived.

They usually have evinced violence at some point in their lives, are often migrants in new communities they perceive as hostile, and have been abandoned or humiliated by the father of their children. Above all they are completely isolated, with no sympathetic adults—extended family or close friends—to support them. Euripides’ Medea ticks every one of these boxes. Helen was fascinated, and it helped her understand the desperation that lies behind the witchcraft scene.

 The lines we dwelt on longest were Medea’s famous paradoxical statement that she knows that what she is going to do is wrong, but that her thumos (heart, anger, passion) has conquered her deliberated decisions. Could Medea have had a reduced sentence on the ground of provocation? Temporary insanity?


Then she introduced me to her Jason, the great Danny Sapani. We had a long session on how to portray their relationship. The crucial question here is always whether to present the sexual attraction as reciprocally very much alive or not. If you watch the production you can tell which way they jumped.


I do not remotely claim to have influenced the production substantially. My former colleague Dr Lucy Jackson was NT classical consultant, and the direction by Carrie Cracknell was stellar. Nor do I claim to have been close friends with Helen. She occasionally called me. She always named me with gratitude which I really didn’t deserve when when she was interviewed about her performance, for example in the Telegraph in August 2019 by Gavandra Hodge 

But we had an instant and joyous bond. She was the most wonderful person, with an ethically principled presence to match her beauty, brains and overwhelming charisma. We had both embarked on motherhood late, had been made deliriously happy by it, and shared a saturnine sense of humour.  

She called me eight days before she died to say good-bye. Her last words to me were, ‘thank you, soul sister’. It would be wholly inappropriate to divulge more, except I asked her to keep the great theatre in the sky ready and waiting for me to help plan her performance of Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra in Agamemnon. She accepted with alacrity. Tears in my eyes as I finish now.


I subsequently interviewed Helen at the Archive of Performances of Greek & Roman Drama; the recording is here.

Articles on Medea in which I discuss the issues in the play explored here are available to download free from my website at