Sunday, 28 June 2020

Ancient Theatre for the 21st Century: E-Books for All


The lockdown has made many of us experiment with new ways of accessing information and scholarship. I recommend these new multimedia ebooks, which are completely free to the public, created by my colleagues of nearly 25 years at the Oxford Archive of Performances of Greek & Roman Drama. I co-founded it in 1996 with Oliver Taplin, and remain Consultant Director, these days by ZOOM rather than the dreaded X5 Cambridge-Oxford bus.

They are the brainchild of Fiona Macintosh, Claire Kenward and Tom Wrobel. They offer a magical way to start exploring the wonderful world of ancient drama. The first one is devoted to Euripides’ Medea and is packed with materials from the APGRD's research and collections---illustrations, photographs, video and audio clips and compelling interviews with creative practitioners and academics. They tell the story of this seminal play onstage and onscreen, in dance, drama, and opera, across the globe from antiquity to the present day. There are stunning new visuals by Thom Cushieri as well.

The second play to get this lavish treatment is Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. The first instalment, Beginnings & Whose Play? can be downloaded from Apple Books at https://apple.co/2WrZcYa. An EPUB version for android and PC will follow. So will the other two instalments,  including ‘Endings’, in which one of the interviews is with yours truly. I discuss the uniquely tense and terrifying closure of the play when Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, after seeing off a violent protest from the citizens of Argos, formally inaugurate their joint tyranny.

I can’t recommend these materials enough. I was involved heavily in the creation of the APGRD’s materials on both plays, and can vouch for their vividness and the fascination of the stories they tell. Anybody out there thinking of studying, performing or watching Greek tragedy should enjoy them—they are funded by taxpayers’ money via the Arts & Humanities Research Council and so are rightfully the intellectual property of every single one of us. -

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Update from One Classicist's Lockdown


Blogging has not come naturally over the last few weeks. I’m not cracking many jokes and those I do are so saturnine as to be in bad taste, e.g. talking about the death+incest count in Oedipus' family on twitter on UN International Day of Families. I'm writing this more for myself so I can later remember May 2020 than in the expectation anyone else would be interested.

There have been severe downs. My siblings and I got our ailing father safely into a (mercifully still!) Covid-free nursing home just in time before lockdown. But my husband’s stepmother of 60 years died in Guernsey and it is wretched that he has been unable to be with his 95-year-old bereaved father.

R.I.P. Best Kitten Ever
Our youngest child, who had returned to university in January after depressing health issues forced a deferral, can’t now go for the year abroad in Japan she was so excited about. Her kitten, the adorable Captain Pugwash, got killed by a car speeding through our estate. At least we could all attend his funeral. Now top management at my employer is sending out universal emails about imminent pay cuts and retirement packages. But others have it SO MUCH WORSE.

My Brilliant PhD
Aristotle’s ethics have been a support in all this. Opportunities to follow his basic recommendations that we nurture our primary relationships, constantly review our life’s trajectory, and cultivate constructive uses of leisure, are all facilitated by lockdown. I have been reminded why I like my gutsy close family so much. I’ve realised that I’m quite proud of two of the things I’ve done and identified some more I want to do, especially in the area of free public education. I’ve added several new skills/items to my cooking repertoire including lactose-free chocolate cake and home-made pizza dough.

My Favourite Picture of Aesop
There has been some excitement. My former PhD student, the remarkable Oliver Baldwin, who despite looking like a large Viking is effectively Spanish, has won 1st prize from the Association of Hispanists of Britain and Ireland for his outstanding dissertation on Seneca in the Second Spanish republic. 

I’ve finished my 31st (I think) book, on the poet Tony Harrison’s radical classicism. I’ve had some lovely face time with close friends and realised that some estrangements have been petty and fixed them. I’ve been interviewed by my friend the the wondrous Natalie Haynes on ancient heroines (first instalment tomorrow, on Helen of Troy, BBC Radio 4 at 1630). I recorded a radio programme on Aesop with esteemed colleagues Vaios Liapis (Cyprus) and Dan-el Padilla Peralta (Princeton) which will be broadcast on BBC World Service on 28th May. 

One of the Two Work Things I'm Proud Of
I’m also about to record a Start the Week on my new book with Henry Stead, A People’s History of Classics, to be broadcast on 25th May. I wrote a Gresham Lecture on Hippocrates and ancient Greek medicine to be live-streamed at 1300 on May 28th if I can manage to stop my hair looking like an electrocuted bobcat and my husband and I can stop giggling while recording it in front of the dog. I've enjoyed doing new podcasts on Disney's Hercules and on Virtue Ethics. 

With Nat Haynes pre-social distancing
But what worries me is my shrinking horizons. Reading international news makes me go boss-eyed. I don’t seem to have opinions on important issues any more. I don’t enjoy shouting at Tories on the TV and just turn it off. I keep losing my phone without ever taking it out of the house and finding it in strange places like  my underwear drawer. I have begun to get obsessive when I can't find dried mushrooms in the local supermarket. I have wept because I couldn't get the microwave to work and because I heard a melodious songbird. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. 

As I read this I can barely recognise myself. When on earth did I become so earnest, narrow, inward, self-centred and self-pre-occupied? I've never used such a dense cluster of first-person singular pronouns in my life. Let’s hope we all get let out soon or I  fear I’ll forget what I’m on the planet for, at least other than making home-made pasta.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

When it's a 1960s Sunday Every Day

John Everett Millais "My First Sermon"
We're fortunate that we have no small children at home, that everyone has their own space/loo, that we have a garden, pets and access to countryside. I simply could not have coped with this situation when our children, one of whom possesses legendary restlessness and curiosity, were of primary-school age. 

Even a weekend was a challenge, and that was in those far-off days when cafes, National Trust properties, swimming pools, swings-and-slides and cinemas were open and friends were visitable. I am lost in admiration for everyone facing round-the-clock childcare for an uncertain period stretching way into the future.

But to be honest I am mentally in far more pain than I would have anticipated after just a week of semi-confinement. It’s not that these days I go out that much when I’m not commuting to work. It seems that what my psyche can’t cope with is simply that there’s nowhere to go because everything is shut.

After drinking far too much wine last night and vivid flashback dreams I had a realisation. It’s like the dreaded Sundays of my 1960s childhood EVERY SINGLE DAY. Outings were out of the question, except for compulsory church services where I had to sit in a pew being told I was a sinner while my brothers sang in the choir. Girls were not allowed because our voices were deemed impure.

It used to be hard to revive memories of a world where all cafes, pubs, restaurants, shops, museums and theatres were closed all day. I can’t remember whether cinemas were, but my Sabbatarian father would not have let us go to one anyway. He genuinely believed (and still believes, for all I know, but I can’t ask him because his nursing home’s under lockdown) that Sundays should be reserved for Communing With God. I was even rebuked once for baking a cake, but won the battle over watching TV by bloody-minded attrition.

The good bit was that we were allowed a boiled egg for breakfast and a glass of orange squash at lunch. These were out of the question the other six days a week. But I remember a particular sinking feeling every Saturday evening as Sunday approached, and often burst into tears when I woke up on a Sunday morning facing only boredom (God sadly didn’t choose to communicate with me personally) and a long sermon  by a patriarch opposed to the ordination of women.


John Everett Millais, "My Second Sermon"
Now I’ve diagnosed my mental malaise, which is caused by memories of a world before the Equal Pay Act 1970, let alone the Sunday Trading Act 1994, I hope to be able to cure it. I need to get researching and writing something obsessively and lock up the wine in the garage. And thank my lucky stars that my children are adult and safe. I can also drink as much orange squash as I like, and eat a boiled egg every single day that one can be sourced from our local Morrison’s. Freedom is always relative.




Sunday, 23 February 2020

Plea to Priti Patel to Deport the Parthenon Sculptures


Deport these Unskilled Ancient Athenians Immediately!
It’s rumoured that what are wrongly known as the Elgin Marbles may feature in EU/UK post-Brexit trade deals. More to the point, Priti Patel’s new immigration bill would disqualify almost all the Greeks portrayed on the temples of the Athenian Acropolis from working in Britain.

Patel: Can't Define "Unskilled" 
Given the new determination to deport even long-term resident foreigners from Our Glorious Isles, every Athenian, hero, and divinity may soon find themselves sent packing on dawn flights from Heathrow detention centres.

The professions portrayed on the Parthenon are these: warrior (with a specialism in combat with centaurs), cavalry officer, groom, chariot-driver, cow-herd, porter (mostly female: carrying incense burners, jugs, clothes), priest, being divine, hair-dresser (Iris), bride (Hera), metalworker (Hephaestus), metereologist/cosmic supremo (Zeus).

Walnut Carrying Not A Skill
According to the official Shortage Occupation List, only Hephaestus and Zeus might squeeze in as a Mechanical Engineer (code 2122) or High Integrity Pipe Welder (5215) and Hydrogeologist (2113) respectively.  The poor lonely Caryatid from the Erechtheion, who is carrying a basket of walnuts on her head, would not get a look in.

Nat Haynes reads amongst Pheidias' sculptures
But if we apply some other criteria implicit in the Points-Based eligibility system, even Zeus and Hephaestus would be deported. Although they may have experience of their jobs ‘at appropriate skill level’ (20 points) and certainly have the equivalent of a ‘PhD in subject relevant to the job’ (10 points), they do not speak English, which is mandatory. English was not invented until 1500 years after the Acropolis buildings were completed.

Classical Athens has dominated my week.* Yesterday I was involved in an astonishing feminist rendition of all the women’s voices in my friend Natalie Haynes’ novel A Thousand Ships across three galleries at the British Museum, two of the directors being former PhD students of mine, Magdalena Zira and Helen Eastman.

With Lucy Bilson and Kitty Cooke. Photo by Sarah Poynder
In an unconnected event, just two minutes after the applause died down in the packed Parthenon Gallery, I pointed out that the exquisite sculptures should, in my view, as a member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, be reunited in Athens with the rest of the Gesamtkunstwerk that is the Parthenon. I was aided by  Marlen Taffarello Godwin from the Committee and two wonderful UCL classics undergraduates, Lucy Bilson and Kitty Cooke.

Calliope: Not Applying to Work in UK
My own role in A Thousand Ships had been Calliope, Muse of Epic, and it occurs to me that she, however, just might be eligible to work in Britain. She certainly has more than a PhD-equivalent in Ancient Greek Literature, having authored much of it herself by inspiring mortal bards. And she clearly speaks English beautifully, having inspired Nat’s eloquent novel.

Duveen Roof Disgrace
But Calliope told me yesterday that she would never consider leaving her gorgeous homeland for the dingy Duveen gallery with its leaking roof. And once Britons have Done the Right Thing, as cogently argued by my fellow KCL Professor and BCRPM member John Tasioulas in the Telegraph this week, and returned the sculptures like the international grown-ups we want to be seen as, she won’t even be missing her abducted compatriots any more.



On Friday I helped my esteemed Exeter colleague Neville Morley by appearing on a panel after a dramatic experiment with the Athenians’ dialogue with the Melians, as reported by Thucydides. The show brought to stage life in the Diorama Theatre an event just 15 years after the completion of the Parthenon.


Saturday, 8 February 2020

Poussin's Disabled Divinities: Orion and the Rising Sun

I’m writing up an article for a volume edited by my wonderful KCL colleague, Dr Ellen Adams, entitled The Forgotten Other: Disability Studies and the Classical Body. A myth hardly anyone has ever paid attention to, besides the French painter Nicolas Poussin, is my theme.

 It tells a heart-warming story about the cooperation between three disabled ancient divinities: the blind Orion, the dwarf Cedalion, and the lame Hephaestus. Orion receives advice about the way to find and face the rising sun, and thus be healed, from Hephaestus on the island of Lemnos. The blinded giant is guided by Cedalion, tiny enough to perch easily on his shoulders. Diana, Orion’s erstwhile enemy, looks on impassively.



Poussin painted the superb landscape (now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York), for his Parisian patron Michel Passart, in 1658. He was then succumbing to the acute tremors—perhaps caused by Parkinson’s disease—that were cruelly to sabotage his ability to control his brush-strokes. I like to think that the emotional power of the picture partly stems from his identification with these physically challenged classical deities.
Poussin found the story in Natalis Comes’ 1567 compendium of mythology and in the ancient satirist Lucian, who described an ancient painting in his The Hall as follows: ‘Orion, who is blind, is carrying Cedalion. Cedalion is showing him the way to the sunlight. The rising sun is healing the blindness of Orion, and Hephaestus views the incident from Lemnos’.






The only other painter to have been drawn to this theme may have been George Frederic Watts, but I can find no trace of his 1895 ‘Orion’. Poussin’s painting has had many admirers. Joshua Reynolds once owned it, and the essayist William Hazlitt wrote a panegyric on it:

Dwarf, perhaps Cedalion, looks after Hephaestus' wine
He stalks along, a giant upon earth, and reels and falters in his gait, as if just awakened out of sleep, or uncertain of his way;—you see his blindness, though his back is turned. Mists rise around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dank and fresh with dews, the 'gray dawn and the Pleiades before him dance,' and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean. Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done. 

Thetis requests arms for Achilles from Hephaestus
Of these disabled gods, although I have written a study of Hephaestus’ lameness,* it is Cedalion I find most fascinating. His rare appearances in ancient art and literature usually depict him assisting Hephaestus in his smithy. He is probably the dwarf beneath Hephaestus’ donkey during drunken processions. The most beautiful example is a Pompeii mural, where he wears the freedman’s cap.

Lemnos was associated with certain medical practices and healing cults in antiquity, and the myth of the three friends who met there—disabled in different ways but mutually supporting one another—may reflect some aspect of the reality of the lives of disabled individuals in antiquity. But even if it is entirely fictional, it offers a picture unique in classical sources of the mutual affection and cooperation that is possible between people dealing with different physical disadvantages. 

Cedalion, master metal-worker
Physical disability was routinely mocked in the ancient world, but this story offers a fascinating exception. The Classics never cease to surprise.



*Happy to send a pdf to anyone who writes to my email consisting of my two names split by a full stop @kcl.ac.uk.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

What did the Scots the Romans Met Really Look Like?



On Burns’ Night UCL’s Dr Tom Mackenzie and I decided to evade currently thorny issues around European/ British/ Scottish/Northern Irish/ Irish identity by buying lots of haggis/single malt whisky and holding (we believe) the first ever conference on Calgacus. According to Tacitus, he was the Scottish equivalent of Boudicca. He gave a rousing speech about not giving in to imperialists (translation below) before dying in battle fighting Tacitus' father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. 

Loincloth only on Minton Tile.

One famous phrase, ‘they make a desert and call it peace’ (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant, Tacitus, Agricola 30.6) has entered modern languages as a proverb. My class-conscious Glaswegian mother used to say that posh people ‘make a dessert and call it pudding’.


Tall Brunette for William Hole
Calgacus has served many purposes across the political spectrum subsequently, as well has lending his name to a brand of American beer. But what did he actually look like?

This depends on whether you want him to be a Pict (body-painted 'indigenous' lowland Celt linguistically close to the Welsh, Cornish and Breton) or a Gael (an 'immigrant' western Celt linguistically close to the Irish). This  issue gets complicated when it comes to Celtic versus Rangers football face-offs, as you can imagine.

Connolly gives Tacitus some Welly
My Glaswegian mother also told me she could easily tell Picts from Celts because Picts were/are short, round, brown-haired and hazel-eyed (like her) whereas Gaels were/are tall, bony, red-haired and blue-eyed. But since Tacitus doesn’t tell us what Calgacus looked like, and made him speak perfect Latin, we are left none the wiser.

So here are some uniformly guesswork-based attempts to visualise him. Minton’s late Victorian tile, like most of the 18th-century engravings, was monochrome so unhelpful. Striking hat but definitely brown-haired in William Hole’s 1898 frieze in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which I reproduced on the conference cake. Ambiguous russet hair but Pictish body-paint in Ian Turner’s lovely graphic design. When Billy Connolly performed the speech for a documentary he simply wore his own clothes but put a dead cat on a shield.
Ian Turner-Fine Illustrator


The prize must go to the living, breathing Calgacus whom our esteemed conference speaker Dr Filomena Gianotti met during the Edinburgh Festival (Italians seem besotted with Calgacus—another terrific paper was given by Dr Beppe Pezzini). His war paint is anachronistically inspired by the Scottish flag, and he wears ship's rigging and lots of fake fur.

Sadly, his hair is grey and he’s neither tall nor short, so we still don’t know whether he is a Pict or Gael. His speech in Tacitus still suggests that he wouldn’t be too cut up about leaving the EU either. But the whole point of the conference was to forget about that altogether.

Calgacus’ Speech
"Whenever I consider the origin of this war and the necessities of our position, I have a sure confidence that this day, and this union of yours, will be the beginning of freedom to the whole of Britain. To all of us slavery is a thing unknown; there are no lands beyond us, and even the sea is not safe, menaced as we are by a Roman fleet. And thus in war and battle, in which the brave find glory, even the coward will find safety. Former contests, in which, with varying fortune, the Romans were resisted, still left in us a last hope of succour, inasmuch as being the most renowned nation of Britain, dwelling in the very heart of the country, and out of sight of the shores of the conquered, we could keep even our eyes unpolluted by the contagion of slavery. To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain's glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.
"Nature has willed that every man's children and kindred should be his dearest objects. Yet these are torn from us by conscriptions to be slaves elsewhere. Our wives and our sisters, even though they may escape violation from the enemy, are dishonoured under the names of friendship and hospitality. Our goods and fortunes they collect for their tribute, our harvests for their granaries. Our very hands and bodies, under the lash and in the midst of insult, are worn down by the toil of clearing forests and morasses. Creatures born to slavery are sold once for all, and are, moreover, fed by their masters; but Britain is daily purchasing, is daily feeding, her own enslaved people. And as in a household the last comer among the slaves is always the butt of his companions, so we in a world long used to slavery, as the newest and the most contemptible, are marked out for destruction. We have neither fruitful plains, nor mines, nor harbours, for the working of which we may be spared. Valour, too, and high spirit in subjects, are offensive to rulers; besides, remoteness and seclusion, while they give safety, provoke suspicion. Since then you cannot hope for quarter, take courage, I beseech you, whether it be safety or renown that you hold most precious. Under a woman's leadership the Brigantes were able to burn a colony, to storm a camp, and had not success ended in supineness, might have thrown off the yoke. Let us, then, a fresh and unconquered people, never likely to abuse our freedom, show forthwith at the very first onset what heroes Caledonia has in reserve.
"Do you suppose that the Romans will be as brave in war as they are licentious in peace? To our strifes and discords they owe their fame, and they turn the errors of an enemy to the renown of their own army, an army which, composed as it is of every variety of nations, is held together by success and will be broken up by disaster. These Gauls and Germans, and, I blush to say, these numerous Britons, who, though they lend their lives to support a stranger's rule, have been its enemies longer than its subjects, you cannot imagine to be bound by fidelity and affection. Fear and terror there certainly are, feeble bonds of attachment; remove them, and those who have ceased to fear will begin to hate. All the incentives to victory are on our side. The Romans have no wives to kindle their courage; no parents to taunt them with flight; many have either no country or one far away. Few in number, dismayed by their ignorance, looking around upon a sky, a sea, and forests which are all unfamiliar to them; hemmed in, as it were, and enmeshed, the gods have delivered them into our hands. Be not frightened by idle display, by the glitter of gold and of silver, which can neither protect nor wound. In the very ranks of the enemy we shall find our own forces. Britons will acknowledge their own cause; Gauls will remember past freedom; the other Germans will abandon them, as but lately did the Usipii. Behind them there is nothing to dread. The forts are ungarrisoned; the colonies in the hands of aged men; what with disloyal subjects and oppressive rulers, the towns are ill-affected and rife with discord. On the one side you have a general and an army; on the other, tribute, the mines, and all the other penalties of an enslaved people. Whether you endure these for ever, or instantly avenge them, this field is to decide. Think, therefore, as you advance to battle, at once of your ancestors and of your posterity."

Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb.



Saturday, 30 November 2019

How To Virtue-Signal Like a Roman

This week in the peerless Aeon magazine there is a fine philosophical essay by Neil Levy on Virtue Signalling. This form of behaviour, in its true form, consists of one individual rebuking another for not being virtuous enough in choice of language, often online. The objective is to display the rebuker’s superior virtue.

Helmeted VIRTUS of Aquillius
Virtue Signals are usually distinguishable from genuine moral interventions springing from altruistic motives. But it would be helpful to have a meme, or a costume to wear, when we’re Virtue Signalling ourselves. I’ve gone to the original and literal Virtue Signals in ancient Rome to find examples.

Mn. Aquillius in 65 BCE issued a coin celebrating his ancestor’s imperial savagery in Sicily which claimed it was due to his VIRTUS. She is helpfully name-labelled but identifiable from her ringlets and elaborate helmet with an olive sprig. Olive was PR-speak for a statesman’s Achievement-of-Peace-through-Brutal-Suppression-of-Opposition, which in the game of Roman spin could also be abbreviated to VIRTUS.
Septimius Severus' VIRTUS

Sometimes Virtue waves an olive twig. She sometimes holds a statuette of another personification, Victory. She often brandishes a spear and leans on a shield. But her most distinctive accoutrement is a parazonium or long, phallic triangular dagger, held at waist level.

Trajan's VIRTUS plus parazonium
Sometimes she puts her foot on her helmet or sits on a cuirass. Philip I went furthest and simply has her as world-conqueror, one foot on a globe, her spear pointing downwards because His Virtue Has Triumphed Everywhere.

Caracalla Poses as the Goddess VIRTUS 
Fortunately, given the touchiness of the topic of gender identity today, Virtus (although grammatically feminine) looks like a male Roman soldier, while sometimes revealing one breast in Amazonian manner. But Virtus can be as masculine as Mars or an Emperor himself. The humourless and amoral Caracalla began by putting a girlish Virtus in ankle boots on the obverse of his portrait coins but later cut to the chase and simply posed as Virtue himself.

So it’s up to you—your VIRTUS could be conveyed to your Twitter followers in an instant with a snapshot of one of these images. If they don’t get the hint, then simply build a temple to Virtus, as M. Claudius Marcellus did in 222 BCE when a battle wasn’t going well. Or, like Augustus, get the Senate to award you a shield screaming to your public that you are endowed with VIRTUE as well as CLEMENCY, JUSTICE and PIETY. They added his right to put an oak wreath over his front door. That should quickly close all opposition down.