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

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.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Troy in Nicosia:The Women's War

History was made on Sunday 17 November 2019 in Nicosia, Cyprus. The story of the fall of Troy was heard in the National Theatre entirely in the voices of women. The ten-hour staged reading of a Greek translation of Natalie Haynes’ powerful novel A Thousand Ships, translated, directed and stage-managed by an all-female team, led by my own former PhD student Magdalena Zira and Athenetta Kasiou, was sold out. Women claimed this ancient story decisively for themselves.

Over the centuries, many women have been involved with translating, adapting and performing Homer’s Odyssey, regarded as somehow lighter, less profound and more domestically focussed than the Iliad. A very few brave women have discussed, translated and adapted the Iliad, despite its heavy emphasis on testosterone-driven conflict. A friend and former student of mine named Lynn Kozak performed the entire Iliad in a Montreal bar while pregnant.

But Sunday’s collective act of taking all power over the Troy narrative away from a male bardic narrator and his dominantly male agents/speakers was breathtakingly radical. Haynes’ novel scours other ancient sources to fill out her beautifully drawn female characters.

We hear the Muse’s frustration with Homer’s androcentric focus. We hear from women who were killed before and during the war (Iphigenia, Polyxena, Creusa). We hear from women whose entire families were butchered yet who must cope with being sexually coerced by the conquerors. We hear from the Amazon Penthesilea, the nymph Oenone, the goddess Gaia, several widows, bereaved mothers, and Penelope, stranded in Ithaca for twenty years with a child, an ageing father-in-law, and a hundred unwanted male squatters.

The effect, when delivered by expert women actors (the standout was Nede Antoniades’ blistering, witty Penelope), was that of a grand tragic oratorio. It retained all the stately grandeur and heartrending humanity of Homer’s poem, but opened up a whole world of female suffering (and child suffering), courage and resilience. This made the ghastly consequences of the Trojan War seem even more universally significant.

The emotional electricity in the beautifully restored old auditorium was palpable. The event was epic in every sense of the term. I was thrilled to be present and so high by the conclusion that I sang Flower of Scotland rather too loudly with some victorious Scottish football fans (female of course) in a taverna later. Because The Night, like Homeric Epic, belongs to Women too.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

10 Tips for Aspiring Academics Learned Since 1989

The night the Berlin Wall came down the astonishing scenes on TV inspired me to make two life-changing decisions. I left my first husband and resolved to get a permanent position in academia come what may. It was highly competitive then and still is. These are the ten commandments I would have inscribed on a tablet to give to my younger self.

1. No sex with other academics or students, ever. My first husband (marriage lasted two years) was an academic. My second one (together 28 years) isn’t. 

2. Get money in. It is amazing (if cynicism-inducing) how powerful people start treating you with respect when you’ve got outside funding.

3. Never resort to flattery. About 50% of academics are too smart to believe smarm and will not be able to trust you if you manifest it. You will also despise yourself.

4. When in doubt crack an inclusive joke. Humour is a political instrument.

Team Morale is Indispensable
5. While mental illness should not be concealed, spreading gloom is unprofessional. Get medical help if necessary and become a conscious booster of morale and esprit de corps.

6. Don’t give up. One of my two referees had died and the other had decided I was the Red Peril incarnate. Prof. Paul Cartledge, whom I’d never met, read my doctorate after I wrote to him to explain my predicament. He saved my career.

7. Don’t do nasty reviews. For some reason young classicists think they need to establish a reputation for cleverness by demolishing colleagues’ publications. Killing the Father/Mother, let alone brothers and sisters, is tacky. Hold your fire for when it actually matters.

8. Have a point of view (I’ve taught many reputedly ‘brilliant’ undergraduates who found they had absolutely nothing to say as postgraduate researchers). Otherwise change career.

9. Get impervious to envious haters. I’m still working on this since unearned hatred is very hard to cope with. But the academic community is disproportionately blighted by narcissism, rivalry and the envy + grudge + Schadenfreude uniquely encapsulated in the single Greek concept of phthonos (φθόνος). If your intentions are philanthropic, any malicious criticism of you is motivated by envy or simple joy in destroying others. Rise above.

Aristotle's Lyceum.. The first true university

10. Remember what a university is for! Real universities, in the tradition of Aristotle's Lyceum, are noble institutions dedicated to widening intellectual horizons in all disciplines, preserving our collective records and memories as a human race and enhancing the life of the community. This vision keeps me going when I’m treated as an ‘intellectual product’ conveyor-belt worker by profit-driven managements of commercialised quondam-universities.

Many of these apply to lots of other jobs, as well. Good luck!

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Slave Revolts and Civic Honours in Sicily

You have nothing to lose
The first individual name classicists can attach to the leader of a slave revolt is not Spartacus but ENNUS or EUNUS, a Syrian slave who led an uprising in central Sicily between 135 and 132 BCE.  On Friday I fulfilled a 39-year ambition to see his imposing statue in the mountain-top fortress town of Enna, which his slave army stormed before making him their king. 
but your chains

Enna Station Kitten, called Enna?
I accidentally failed to get off at the right train station (this happens often) with my daughter Georgia (but the hour spent waiting for a taxi up the precipitous mountain was enlivened by the most beautiful station kitten). So we’d seen rather more than was necessary of the vast agricultural plains between Enna and Catania, where the Roman arable, vine and olive agro-businesses put thousands of chained slaves to work. Even in October it is hot enough to see why Ennus’ life in captivity would have been unendurable.

With Mayor Orlando and Fellow Palermitana Ece Temelkuran
I’m in Sicily because I was invited to talk to the Palermo Festival of Migrant Literature, and to be made an Honorary Citizen of Palermo alongside an infinitely more significant and famous woman, the Turkish Human Rights and Kurd expert Ece Temelkuran. I had been bemused by the invitation to the festival and the award until I was inducted as a full Palermitana by the Mayor, Leoluca Orlando. But he told me that he had personally given his authorisation, having read the Italian translations of my books Introducing the Ancient Greeks and Aristotle’s Way. 

Having Orlando as a reader is indescribably flattering. He is a titanic and heroic figure in Italian politics (as Charlotte Higgins eloquently documented a few years ago), having for decades led the successful struggle against the Mafia in Palermo, at personal risk to his life. Today he stands up against Matteo Salvini’s right-wing nationalism to declare that Palermo will always welcome migrants, from Africa and everywhere else.

He is convinced that he is descended from an ancient Phoenician, is fascinated by Sicily’s classical past, and once studied for a PhD in Gadamer’s philosophy in Germany. He reads everything he can lay his hands on. He said he liked my portrait of seagoing Greeks intermarrying with other peoples across the entire Mediterranean and Black Sea worlds, and the idea that Aristotle can offer us a secular ethical system to transcend divisions maintained by religious dogma.

Levantine Europa with Greek Bull and Mare Nostrum Dolphin
It seems appropriate that the ceremony took place in a museum which holds one of the most beautiful archaic images of the Mediterranean collective project: an archaic relief sculpture of Europa (from the temple at Selinunte), the Levantine princess who took a ride on the Zeus-bull over the dolphin-rich waters of the wine-dark sea and symbolises the endlessly fruitful consequences of migration across the Mediterranean in all directions over millennia. 

Doric Temple of Selinunte
Being told that I have the right to reside in Palermo in perpetuity has come as a delightful surprise, even though jokes about "only cities notorious for crime" liking me are now a staple amongst my friends. But given the increasingly xenophobic and immigrant-hostile antics of many of my fellow Britons, I just might stay here and enjoy the ‘freedom of the city’ instead. To be continued.
Sign Me Up for a Migrant-Friendly Mediterranean City

Sunday, 6 October 2019

When Karl met Lucius Annaeus: Seneca & Marx in Vienna

Claudia Bosse

I was set an essay this week by Claudia Bosse, a brilliant Vienna-based theatre director with whom I worked a decade ago on Aeschylus’ Persians in Braunschweig, the city that gave A. Hitler German citizenship. Now she’s put on an astonishing production of Seneca’s Thyestes, which I attended with Vienna Latin Professor/Brexit victim Professor Peter Kruschwitz. But I felt like an undergraduate again because she has integrated a recital from Karl Marx’s Grundrisse, and asked me to make sense of the connection.

With (Former) Reading Uni Latin Professor
Although Marx was classically educated at Trier Gymnasium and Bonn University, and he mentions practically every Greek and Latin author somewhere, Senecan tragedy (as far as I know) never features. 19th-century Germans all believed A.W. Schlegel, a specialist in ancient drama, who thought Seneca’s tragedy was an abomination--unperformable, tasteless bombast with zero dramatic, poetical or moral value. Schlegel should have seen Bosse’s production.

5-Stong Chorus, also takes roles of Thyestes, Atreus, Fury, Tantalus, Messenger
Marx did engage with Senecan philosophy. His doctoral dissertation was on the Epicureans, but he had intended to write a post-doc thesis, a Habilitation, which discussed Stoicism as well. He did not like Stoicism for the same reasons I don’t: he thought it under-estimated the power of human agency and over-estimated Fate; he also (like Hegel) thought Stoicism heralded the dominant, subjective, individuated ruling-class male ‘I’ of western identity which alienates humans from one another.

Marx loved theatre, constantly quoting Shakespeare (especially the pound-of-flesh scene in Merchant of Venice and Timon’s realisation that money corrupts) and near-obsessing on Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. And he frequently uses the classical metaphor of cannibalism, on which theme Seneca’s Thyestes is one long variation.

His inaugural speech to the historic First International (1864) at Long Acre discussed the campaign of British workers to restrict the hours of labour, a campaign which had been bitterly opposed by industrial capitalists: they, ‘vampire-like, could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood, too.’ Industrial Kapital devours the bodies of workers, even child labourers, draining them of their life blood in order to perpetuate its dysfunctional production and consumption.     
Prometheus/Marx being tortured by Capitalist Censorship
Marx was intimate with the legend of the family of Tantalus, who cannibalised his son Pelops, whose grandson Thyestes ate his own children, and whose great-grandson Agamemnon sacrificed his girl-child. Marx once wrote that the hordes of British soldiers dying in the Crimea were suffering all the pains of Tantalus without his guilt. On another occasion, when deriding the supposed reforms of bourgeois liberals, he wrote that Lord John Russell, ‘when he amused the House with a Reform Bill which he knew would prove another Iphigenia, to be sacrificed by himself, another Agamemnon, for the benefit of another Trojan War. He performed the sacrifice indeed in true melodramatic style, his eyes filled with tears’

Most importantly, Marx understood the ancient dramatists’ fascination with ignorance in connection with atrocity (Thyestes does not know what he’s eating any more than Oedipus knows whom he’s marrying) as expressing the idea of false consciousness. We all suffer delusions about the economic system we live under. They enable us to tolerate the atrocities it entails. 

Claudia's 2008 Persians with mass chorus of local citizens
So I ended my essay with one of my favourite sentences in world literature. In Rheinische Zeitung Marx wrote, ‘Ignorance is a demon which will, we fear, be responsible for many a tragedy yet; the greatest Greek dramatists were right when they depicted it, in the terrible dramas that deal with the royal families of Mycenae and Thebes, as tragic fate’.  This is a significant reason, I believe, why ancient tragedy still resonates so much today, as the Vienna performance emphatically shows.