Friday, 31 May 2013

The Other Ruler of Syria

Bring Back Hellenised Syrian Multiculturalism!

As this week the world watched  Bashar al-Assad dig his country into an ever deeper hole, I found myself celebrating a more appealing ruler of Syria on BBC Radio 4’s academic chat-show In Our Time. But we ran out of time, so please excuse me if I add the two points I really wanted to make.

Zenobia, who led the attempt of Syria to get the eastern part of the Roman Empire to break away between 267 and 272 AD, was a model of intercultural tolerance. She was herself probably of mixed Arab and Macedonian ancestry, but her city worshipped hybrid gods from west and east and at her court she welcomed thinkers from every intellectual tradition. 
More appealing than Al-Assad?
She protected Paul of Samosata, a working-class boy who had grown up to be an independent-minded Christian bishop (he heretically thought Jesus was mortal). She learned rhetoric from Cassius Longinus of Emesa (Homs), a brilliant Platonist, lover of liberty, and possibly the Jewish author of the dissertation On the Sublime still fundamental to literary criticism. She certainly helped some other Jews get asylum.

In European art and literature, Zenobia has predictably been reduced to an erotic figure over whose affections Persian and Roman male rulers struggled. The fact that one ancient source said she was led in chains through the streets of Rome by the Emperor Aurelian got the neoclassical and Victorian imagination over-heated. But to many Arabs, especially women, she is a heroine—a pre-Islamic role model who rode camels, read philosophy and ran an empire as well as being a good mother.  There is a charming Lebanese musical about Zenobia on youtube.

Mustafa Tlass
I am a bit disconcerted to find that my admiration for Zenobia is even shared by the Syrian former Defence Minister and deputy Prime Minister, General Mustafa Tlass, a tycoon who wrote a biography about her as national heroine in 2000. That was before al-Assad booted him out and he went to live in Paris. Who says ancient history doesn’t meet the modern world?

Speaking of which, the Researcher on the project Classics and Class has persuaded me to take Twitter seriously. I have always believed I was temperamentally unsuited to it. I like using longer prose periods than fit into a tweeting box and often get tired and emotional. I have actually had a twitter account under the name of an obscure avatar for some time, but couldn’t even work it. So just to prove I’m no Luddite, even though I am now tempted to call myself @ZenobiaAugusta, I’m about to start tweeting more sedately as @edithmayhall  as soon as I can locate this thing my family tell me is called an app.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Are You Adult Enough for Aesop?

Aesop Talking Realpolitik on red-figure dish

A sustained meditation on iniquitous power relations, dressed up as cute dialogues between cuddly animals—are Aesop’s Fables really suitable for impressionable children?  I gave a paper over Skype to a conference on children’s literature in Warsaw, and laughed when I reminded myself that Aesop should come with an ‘X’ certificate.

In The Wolf and the Lamb, the darling baby mammal is mercilessly  devoured by the wolf.  Moral: nice guys finish last.  In The Cockerel and the Jewel, the humble cock is taught to accept that a grain of corn ought to be the limit of his aspirations. In The Hare and the Tortoise, the tortoise is motivated to plod on forever because his superior might—just might—nod off and let him win something. The Gnat and the Bull shows, however, that small powerless entities aren’t even noticed by big ones. 
"I'm bigger than you are"

A disturbing number of fables stress that different groups are naturally irreconcilable, e.g. The Jackdaw and the Doves.  Surely we don’t want to teach our children this principle in a multicultural society? Others suggest that masses are incapable of ruling themselves--The Mice in Council, and the Frogs who wanted a King. Let’s introduce a dictatorship!

No Democracy for Little People
It has become fashionable amongst Classical scholars to argue that Aesop’s Fables were originally stories told by ancient slaves, and that they therefore have a subversive and rebellious undertow. I am inclined to think that while any slave will have seen the fact of domination reflected in the message of the Fables, they will also have chimed perfectly in tune with the mindset of the master class.

Socrates put Aesop’s Fables into verse in prison.  Luther said every peasant should read them.  Malcolm X read them in prison and recommended them to his followers. The radical socialist Hugo Gellert framed his critique of the brutalities of American capitalism in his collection of fables Aesop Said So (1936). But there have also been sinister ultra-right readings of Aesop, such as Trau keinem Fuchs auf grüner Heid’ und Keinem Jud bei seinem Eid! (Trust Neither  A Fox On the Green Heath Nor the Promise of a Jew) by Elvira Bauer (also 1936), which sold at least 70,000 copies. 

Next time you  give a first-time parent a charmingly illustrated copy of the Fables, ask yourself if the precious newborn is really ready for such cynical ethics. More importantly, all three children with whom I have read many books said that Aesop was completely boring. Perhaps you have to have experienced the unfairness of life full-on before you are ready for his wisdom.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Meet the Classicist Foremothers

The glyph 'woman' is after 'man' so why does 'sow' come before 'boar' etc?
How gratifying it has been this week to see the role played in decipherment of Linear B by a woman—Alice Kober—finally being acknowledged in the New York Times!  The ‘code’  in which the elusive Mycenaeans wrote their lists was cracked  because several scholarly minds, British and American, male and female, had cumulatively applied their brains to the problem over the course of several decades.  Kober was on the verge of full decipherment when she died young, in 1950.

de Romilly, great Thucydidean
Many other outstanding female classical scholars remain unsung. Two months ago, with my colleague Rosie Wyles and student Lottie Parkyn, I convened an international conference devoted to unearthing them. We chose the date to mark the centenary of the birth of Jacqueline de Romilly, outstanding French Hellenist and first ever woman to be nominated to the Collège de France.

But we also unearthed Lusia Sigea, the 16th-century Spanish humanist who actually made a living out of teaching Latin and Greek to other women.  The foremother of Dutch women classical scholars,  Anna Maria van Schurman, was a leading light of the Dutch Golden Age; her wit and intelligence shine through her Latin treatise Whether a Christian Woman Should Be Educated, available online in English translation

Sigea, professional lecturer
The 18th century saw Anne Dacier showing  the French how to do Classics with erudition and style, and in England Elizabeth Carter enthralling Dr Johnson with her command of ancient Greek and translation of Epictetus.  By the late 19th, the study of classics was central to the campaign to secure African American women education in the post-emancipation USA.
van Schurman, prodigy of Utrecht

Excavating these ancestral figures is fun and inspiring.   I want to build a library room in which their portraits hang in the alcoves alongside the standard-issue tired clergymen and bewhiskered dons. Actually, we will be building a virtual gallery, online or in print or both, so my wish will soon enough come true.

Carter as (Smiling) Minerva
There has been a two-month delay in writing about this conference. The reason is that celebrating anything felt entirely inappropriate given the absolutely tragic death in America during it of Professor Kate Bosher, a superb young scholar and the kindest person with whom I have ever worked. 

I had just reviewed a fine volume by her for the Times Literary Supplement on Feb. 1st and can scarcely believe she is dead. She was only thirty-eight, leaves a husband, a young child, and a painful hole in the lives of many friends and colleagues. The output from Women Classical Scholars conference will of course be dedicated to her memory.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Conundrum of the Netherlands

Leiden Uni. The Most Civilised Place on Earth?

I have just taught an MA class at the University of Leiden, and fell in love with the institution. The chairs of both Latin and Greek are held by wonderful women, a situation I never expected to see at any university in my lifetime. The students have all learned their excellent Greek in state schools. They come from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds.  

Leiden was awarded its university in 1575 by William I of Orange, as a reward for holding out when besieged by the Spanish.  The foundation story claims that the citizens were offered a choice of reward--advantageous tax breaks or a university-- and chose the latter. The inhabitants of Leiden are still actually proud that their forefathers chose intellectual life over lucre.

Gulliver in Brogdingnag
The Leiden students, of both sexes, are so tall that I feel like Gulliver in the land of the outsize Brobdingnagians, whose advanced culture was based on the practice of reason. They are polite, but I am careful not to offend them. Remember the tackles with which the enormous Dutch national football team assaulted all opponents in the 2010 World Cup? These culminated in the final, with Nigel de Jong’s chest-high kicking of the Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso.  The (British) referee was so scared of de Jong that he only gave him a yellow card. 

Why I am careful not to offend Dutch people
Perhaps the Dutch are so tall because of the proteinous dairy products derived from their glossy Friesian cattle.  Perhaps it was an evolutionary adaptation which helped them fix their windmills without having to use ladders. Since the Renaissance, they have themselves traced their height to the rigorous physical training of their forefathers, the glorious tribe of the Batavi, whom Tacitus described as most courageous.

The Batavi were exceptional horsemen and swimmers and conducted rebellions against Rome when they felt they were treated disrespectfully.  In my favourite Latin inscription of all time, a Batavian auxiliary serving under Hadrian in AD 117 boasts, ‘I swam across the wide waters of the deep Danube with all my arms; and while a weapon from a bow hung in the air fell, I transfixed it with an arrow and broke it, I whom no Roman nor barbarian, no soldier with a javelin nor Parthian was ever able to outdo…’
Fectio, the Dutch Batavian Re-Enactment Society

The Batavians’ descendants, at least in their football stadiums, still systematically applaud when their stars execute violence against their opponents. I am finding this hard to reconcile with the rational organisation of society and high levels of civilisation and culture which the country has achieved. Please can someone enlighten me?