Saturday, 18 October 2014

Abducting Girls and Manuscripts

Both Hades and Persephone have enormous HANDS
So the stunning mosaic unearthed in the Macedonian tomb at Amphipolis shows Hermes escorting a chariot driven by Hades, who is abducting Persephone to the Underworld. This myth depresses me. However empowering the response of Persephone’s mother Demeter, who held the universe to ransom until she forced Hades and his brother Zeus to allow her yearly access to her daughter, this is fundamentally just another male-organised rape + forced marriage narrative. Persephone got the minor compensation of being made Underworld Queen, with a role in the judgement of the dead and the power to send ghosts on missions. But she never did get much say in her own destiny.

The story of Persephone (Roman Proserpina) helped the ancients to think about death. It was not a physical resurrection story like that at the heart of Christianity. But the Mysteries of Persephone and Demeter offered initiates hope of a blissful afterlife. Persephone may look understandably panicky on the mosaic, but the family of the deceased who commissioned it will have taken comfort from the image. They knew that she did become adjusted to her new ‘life’, retained ties with her mother, and could even visit the upper world from time to time.

Leighton's Pastel Persephone
Persephone's story was eerily reflected in the sensational adventures undergone by the oldest Greek version we can read, the exquisite Homeric Hymn to DemeterNo copy survived to the Renaissance. Or so it was thought until 1777, when the world was stunned by a discovery as exciting as that of the Amphipolis tomb. An ambitious German scholar of Greek named Christian Friedrich Matthaei, teaching in a Moscow school, mysteriously came into possession of some manuscripts. One, which he called the Codex Mosquensis ('Moscow Book', now in Leiden), contained the long-lost Hymn.

Matthaei’s ‘finds’ made his name and career. The Hymn was soon published in several languages, including English. It made the story one of the most popular themes in 19th-century literature and art including Frederic Leighton's famous 'Return of Persephone' (1891).

Holy Synod, Moscow: "Give us Back our Codex"?
But Matthaei’s story surely deserves a Name of the Rose­-style detective novel/movie. He may simply have stolen the codex from the library of the Holy Synod; he claimed, however, that it had been found neglected on the floor of a stable 'where, for many years, it had lain concealed among the chickens and pigs.' This would be appropriate enough in the case of agricultural goddesses to whom piglets were sacrificed, but it stretches credulity to breaking point. I would enjoy the controversy if the Holy Synod asked for it back one day.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Other Lord Elgin's Marbles

So the lawyer Amal Alamuddin is to advise Greek PM Antonis Samaras on recovering the Parthenon marbles. I am interested in the Earls of Elgin because they live in Broomhall House, Fife, Scotland, near my parents. Reclusive, reactionary, Etonian, a leading freemason—the current, ninety-year-old 11th Lord Elgin (aka Andrew Bruce) still has a few bits of the Parthenon secreted at Broomhall. I feel Alamuddin should know.

Andrew Bruce, the Current Lord Elgin (the one with a pink face)
It was Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl Elgin, who brought the marbles to Britain. He had a reasonable fortune from the labours of industrial workers on the Broomhall estates (in lime kilns, coal mines, iron foundries). But he was ambitious to become nationally famous. The plan to abduct half of the acropolis developed when he married the richest heiress in Scotland and felt financially equipped to turn his ancestral seat into the flashiest Greek revival building in existence.

Lime Kilns Owned by  7th Lord Elgin
Elgin wanted to house the marbles at Broomhall. He got several architects to draw up plans for turning it into a grand Caledonian Parthenon. He commissioned expensive Doric columns which never got installed; instead they grace Perth Sheriff Court. Tom Bruce’s wife left him, he ran out of money, and in 1816 persuaded the government to buy his loot.

Perth Sheriff Court's Doric Portico
Despite the gushings of every artist and culture-vulture in the land, there was substantial opposition to his £35,000 payout. Many Britons were outraged. Most of them did not have the vote, let alone a say in the Report of the Select Committee which recommended the purchase. There was a catastrophic harvest in 1816 and many were starving.  The radical Whig M.P. for Coventry, Peter Moore, said he would demand the money for his constituents, rather than give such a sum ‘to look at broken legs, arms, and shoulders.’ My favourite artistic response to the Elgin marbles is not by Keats or Canova, but this cartoon by George Cruikshank, The Elgin Marbles! or John Bull buying stones at the time his numerous family want bread.

Cruikshank depicts the Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Castlereagh, as a sinister salesman trying to entice John Bull, the archetypal sensible Briton, to buy some broken statues. Castlereagh says, ‘Here's a Bargain for you Johnny! Only £35,000!! I have bought them on purpose for you! Never think of Bread when you can have Stones so wonderous Cheap!!’  

Bull, in patched clothes, is surrounded by his emaciated children. Mrs. Bull’s baby is sucking a meatless bone. Other children shout ‘Don't buy them Daddy! we don't want Stones. Give us Bread! Give us Bread! Give us Bread!’

Broomhall; still houses some bits of the acropolis
Perhaps Alamuddin could supplement the Greek government’s case with the claim that the purchase of the marbles, authorised by a non-democratic government, was itself invalid?  I like the idea of Alamuddin and Samaras in a musical set at Broomhall, just west of the Forth Road Bridge, with a transhistorical backing chorus of contemporary Greeks and hungry Georgian Britons. Their first song should be this brilliant passage of Childe Harold by another, very different British aristocrat with a Scottish house, Lord Byron (2:12)

Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorr’d!

Friday, 3 October 2014

Funny Females Ancient and Modern

Aphrodite Practises Stand-Up Routine
‘A woman that always laughs is everybody’s wife’. So claims a Chinese proverb. Medieval German conduct books equated a laughing woman’s mouth with the opening of her other orifice. The Greek goddess whose epithet was ‘laughter-loving’ was of course Aphrodite, in charge of all things erotic.  

Surely it is the groundless drawing of an inevitable connection between female laughter and female sexual accessibility which has meant funny women have had and are still given such a hard time?

Gloomy Thalia
What we need is a new symbol of the funny woman. Those grim statues of Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, are enough to depress anyone. There were comic actresses in late antiquity but the roles they performed all directed the jokes against women—as ugly, old, drunk, lewd, or cruel.

Myth offers one ancient Greek stand-up comedian, Iambe (pronounced I-am-bee). She gave her name to the metre, the iambic, in which mocking poems were composed. Her jokes cheered up the goddess Demeter enough, when her daughter Persephone had been abducted, to get back on her celestial bike and demand that the male gods do a deal. But Iambe, sadly, seems to have kept her jokes for female-only contexts and was not allowed to perform in the company of men.

Laugh-a-Minute Spartans
The ancient Greek god of laughter, GELŌS, or RISUS in Latin, was worshipped by the militaristic Spartans, famous for their gallows humour. But Gelōs/Risus was  male.  Another city in central Greece held a festival for him which I intend to revive when we have found a female comedy-hero to add to his cult. It was described by the man-turned-into-an-ass in Apuleius’ Golden Ass:

‘Of the thousands of people milling about, there was not a single one who was not splitting his sides with laughter… Some cackled in paroxysms of mirth, others pressed their hands to their stomachs to relieve the pain. In one way or another the entire audience was overcome with hilarity.’ 

Ball with favourite co-star Vivian Vance
I want to be there! And at the festival we could celebrate as demigod the first and greatest funny woman to achieve global fame, Lucille Ball, reruns of whose uplifting 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy are still playing. If you are feeling blue, enjoy the comic masterclass constituted by the final sequence of Lucy Wants a Career, in which she tries to film a TV advert for a breakfast cereal called Wakey Flakies after taking a sleeping pill.

Both Lucille and the character she played were attractive, monogamous, maternal and absolutely hilarious. She could do physical comedy better than Buster Keaton and verbal repartee like the Marx brothers. This week I was lucky enough to tell her story, along with her now nonagenarian friend Carole Cook and the broadcaster Matthew Parris, on the BBC Radio 4 Great Lives series. You can hear it until Tuesday here. And in Lucille’s honour I’m definitively rewriting that Chinese proverb: ‘A woman who always laughs is the woman everyone wants as a wife.’

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Should Anonymous Peer Review be Abolished?

The Welcoming Rio Classics Dept.   
Mid-week consisted of a mad dash to Rio de Janeiro to an enormous congress on disputes and face-offs in antiquity. It seemed an unlikely topic for the most well-balanced bunch of people I have encountered for ages:  Laughing over Dinner in Antiquity would have been a more apt theme. Not that I didn’t get challenged by a couple of shrewd critics after my lecture. But I love this part of my job—open disagreement, expressed with civility, between people brave enough to attach their identities to their views.

Anonymous Peer Reviewers
Academia’s Sacred Cow is Anonymous Peer Review, or secret reports/ references read behind closed doors. This creaky system means academics are all repeatedly stabbed in the back by masked assassins when their article is rejected by a journal, or their grant/promotion application rubbished. The result is completely unnecessary paranoia and toxic bad feeling when they speculate (often incorrectly) on the identity of the incognito saboteur. In a small subject like Classics it also means that you have inevitably been covertly coshed by a close colleague, a former lover, or someone envious of you.

Prof. Paul Cartledge
My belief that APR is damaging and obsolete was reinforced at the second conference of the week, a celebration of my role model and hero Paul Cartledge, retiring Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge. His successor Tim Whitmarsh gave a dazzling keynote, on an ancient Greek called Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who even 2,000 years ago knew all about Peer Review (although this was NOT what Prof. Whitmarsh was arguing--what follows is my personal response). Dionysius described the five types of professional opponents who  criticised his work:

1) Inveterate nit-pickers.
2) People ignorant of the material under discussion.
3) People whose criticisms depended on unverified rumour and assumptions.
4)  Malicious personal enemies who want to damage him.
5) People in an opposing ideological camp who will automatically oppose everything he says.

Anonymous Peer Reviewers who today sabotage other academics’ work fall into precisely Dionysius’ categories. I would add only one further: the egomaniac who complains the author hasn’t cited their own scholarship, however irrelevant.

I NEVER write a review or reference I would not be happy to see made public with my name on the bottom. I just don’t see that anonymity is helpful. Why not stick papers, CVs etc. up freely online and invite (non-anonymised) comments? If people are ashamed to have their views made public, in what universe is it professional to express them? My other great discovery this week, for my Classics & Class project, has been Mary Bridges Adams, a working-class classicist turned activist who in July 1915 complained about a critic who signed himself simply N.D. and constantly attacked her in print. She wrote in the Cotton Factory Times,

Let me beg of my opponents to reveal their identity. I hope N.D. will set the others an example, and let me know precisely who he is. Being a Welsh-woman I do not shrink from a fight, but I like to see ‘my foe-man’s face.’ 

I suspect Bridges Adams got the last phrase from the Iliad, where warriors with integrity like Achilles would not dream of attacking someone like a coward, anonymously, and there is a special term for proper, non-anonymised combat. And although I am not Welsh I couldn’t agree with her more. 

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Scottish Colossus of Roads


Alex Salmond’s best line in the Independence campaign was to remind those who questioned the Scots’ competence to run an economy that Adam Smith, 'Father of Modern Economics' and author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), was born in Fife. Other influential Scots could be produced as evidence of that nation’s historic contribution in any field of endeavour.

Take the Colossus of Roads. This was the unofficial title bestowed on John Loudon McAdam, who dominated the world of road technology in the late 18th and 19th centuries and is here caricatured in a famous print by Henry Heath. Heath drew both on his viewers’ stereotypes of Scots and on their knowledge of the lost colossal statue of the Sun which the Sun-worshipping Rhodians of the third century BC erected in their harbour to celebrate the defence of their island from Macedonian strongmen.

'Colossus of Rhodes' by Maerten van Heemskerck (1570)
The reason why the road you walk/drive/cycle/sit in a bus on is neither a Pleistocene mud-bath in winter nor a dust-bowl in summer, as in the two roads leading to the left and right of the cartoon, is McAdam. His innovation was to use several layers of very small stones, bound with a cementing agent, to form a crust; provided the road was built above the water table, it did not need to be raised above the pre-existing path nor be given a steep camber.

Road Obsessive
McAdam was born 258 years ago today in an Ayrshire castle. He was incredibly famous and his name became synonymous with inventions of any kind. He was also a monomaniacal obsessive, who spent his entire life and his personal fortune developing his revolutionary technology.  In 1827 his efforts and expenditure paid off: he was appointed General Surveyor of Roads and given a government pay-out of £10,000. The 1827 cartoon here, through the word ‘mock’ and the money-bags he clutches, implies that the expenses he claimed were not entirely legitimate.

Worked literally to death
The cartoon's pictured windmill, ‘Breakstone Mill’, is comically threatening to raise his kilt. Beneath him sit two poor labourers, for the small size of the stones McAdam roads used (they had to be small enough to fit in the worker's mouth) had exponentially increased the work required. Road-making swiftly became associated with the legal sentence of Hard Labour. Henry Wallis’ tragic Stonebreaker (1857)in Birmingham City Art Gallery, was sometimes entitled ‘Helotage’, thus comparing the tragic road-labourer to a helot, an abused slave in ancient Sparta. McAdam used his brain and fortune well, but that did not prevent technological progress in the industrial revolution from coming at a terrible human price. 

Saturday, 13 September 2014


"Who am I? Why am I here?"

 This week has brought a flood of enquiries about caryatids resulting from the photos from the tomb near Amphipolis. What are caryatids and why should the relatives of a rich dead Macedonian choose caryatids to hold up a lintel on the tomb?

Persian Bull
Figures of animals and humans had been used earlier by Egyptian and Persian architects to support imperial roofs. I personally would rather have a bull on my tomb, please, like this one from Darius' building project at Susa, than a caryatid. When Persian art used human figures to do load-bearing work, they were people who had been subjected to the Persian empire. 

Down-at-heel Caryatids at home in Karyes 
Caryatids take their name from the town of Karyai (now Karyes), in the central Peloponnese, which featured a sanctuary and famous statue of Artemis. Karyai means Nuts, or sometimes specifically walnuts or hazelnuts. A Karyatis (plural Karyatides) means 'maiden dancing the nut-tree dance' or a 'nut-tree priestess'.  They did a special dance for Artemis with baskets of nuts on their heads, which may have given an architect the idea to put roofs on their heads instead. But you can dance with a basket on your head. A temple roof is a different matter.

The Roman architect Vitruvius said the origin of the caryatids was much more tragic. The people of Karyai had treacherously sided with the Persians when they invaded. So after the war the other Greeks punished them by executing the men and enslaving the women. The Women of Karyai are not dancing maidens but matrons, he says, doomed to perpetual labour and unfreedom.

Artemis is often associated with death rites and mysteries, which might illuminate her priestesses' presence in funerary art. The most famous caryatids are those in the porch of the Athenian Erectheion, the shrine housing the dead hero-king Erechtheus (five are in Athens; one stands in lonely isolation from her sisters far away in the British Museum). They have inspired countless imitations and adaptations the world over from ancient times, often rather uncomfortably expressing pride in imperialist ventures.

Hans Walther's sad Caryatids, Oppressed by Capital, in Erfurt
My own favourite are the saddest of all.  Their hunched bodies support the entire weight of the capital accumulated in the Savings Bank in Erfurt, central Germany. They are the work of the sculptor Hans Walther, in the idiom of the ‘New Objectivity’ or ‘New Resignation’ (Neue Sachlichkeit) which had been developed in the Weimar Republic: Erfurt is only a few kilometres from Weimar itself. One well-fed capitalist on the left feeds himself from his well-loaded plate, while the other worker–women and men, young and old, are dejected, worn down, and hungry.

So are the new Amphipolis caryatids joyous maidens performing a dance in celebration of the nut harvest, enslaved traitors of their nation, symbols of Macedonian imperialism, ostentation and greed, or simply conventional stone guardians of the dead available for commission in any ancient funeral parlour?  This is what makes antiquity fun: it's up to each one of us to decide.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Woman-Hating Ranters Ancient & Modern

On the London train to run a conference on an ancient poet called Palladas, whose witty epigrams include several bitching about women, I chose an empty seating area for ten. I needed to finish my paper. At the next station I was joined by six raucous men returning from a stag night. 

They kept up a stream of misogynist ranting for an hour. In ancient Greece there was a genre of invective listing alleged female vices, a genre which I mistakenly believed had become obsolete. The most famous example, by Semonides, compares women with animals. It begins with the pig-woman, “a hairy sow, whose house is like a rolling heap of filth; she lies around, unwashed, on the shit-pile, growing fat.” Semonides advocates violence against the talkative dog-woman and the dense ass-woman who enjoys food.

My Fellow Passengers 
My fellow passengers had revived this ancient genre. They went through the Sun, Metro, and other journals, criticising every pictured woman, from teenagers opening exam results to the Home Secretary. Each was labelled a slag, a dog, a bushpig [this one was new on me], a hottie, gagging for it, or a ballbreaker. A vote was taken on whether each woman deserved the honour of “a good seeing to.”  

Semonides of Amorgos
I am not easily shocked. I ignored them and continued to write my comments on Palladas’ 1600-year-old epigram, “A woman is only good on two occasions: dead or in bed”.  But it became apparent that George, the most hungover stag, was Greek. He earned derision from the stags for saying he had to go home and take turns looking after his three-year old daughter before rejoining the testosteronefest in a Fulham pub. Who, they asked scoffingly, "wore the trousers" in George’s house?

I asked George, in Greek, if he would like either his mother or his daughter to hear him in conversation with his friends. He blushed deeply and told them to cool it. They did not stop, but George did, and looked embarrassed for the rest of the journey.

So what had happened here? Perhaps I am a humourless party-pooper. Perhaps some men just assume it is acceptable to talk like that in public or in front of females. Or is that since I am too old to be in the category of meriting “a good seeing-to”, I am effectively invisible? Or were the stags actually trying to provoke me into a reaction? If so, did they want to be told off by a middle-aged lady—perhaps spanked?—or get into a wrangle?  

Being outnumbered one/six may have played a part in the chemistry of the situation. Certainly, once I established an individual relationship with one of them in a language the others couldn’t understand, so they couldn’t collectively combat me, he instantly reverted from Palaeolithic Man to a reasonable modern human.

A Symposium: arena for misogynist ranting
Long ago, when I briefly worked in Cardiff docks managing thirty-six tug-boat crewmen, I persuaded them to take down the topless “page 3” pictures festooning the office by putting photos of naked men on another wall. They said it was disgusting. Women could, I suppose, fight back by forming vigilante groups who roam public transport cackling noisily about all the men in the newspapers. When I retire, I may form a granny-gang to do so. If anyone would like to join me, get in touch in about 2026.