Thursday 8 June 2023

Goodbye to My Father, Man of God


Like Shakespeare, Raphael and Ingrid Bergman, my father, the Reverend Professor Stuart George Hall, died yesterday on his birthday, 7 June. He had just completed 95 years alive. Given his age, his visible deterioration over the last few months and our troubled relationship, I am amazed at how winded I feel.

Born to a working-class East London couple, a police constable and a seamstress, he ascended via scholarships at UCL School and Oxford to a firm niche in the Middle Class. My feelings about him are complicated. We did not rub along temperamentally, or rather, were not able to discover if we might have done had we not disagreed about many important issues. He was the type of man who was loved by all outside the household--his academic colleagues, students and parishioners--but found it hard to be an emotionally supportive father.

Growing up in a nuclear family where all decisions need to be referred to an invisible Almighty, whose views are relayed by his vicarious male agent on earth, is a weird experience. When I lost all belief in the Christian faith at the age of 13, my father was incandescent.

He was not a supporter of feminism (I recall his opposition to the Equal Pay Act 1970). He found it almost impossible to express any pride in my achievements (I cannot speak for my siblings). He was slow to anger, but his infrequent outbursts of rage were terrifying. He was no domestic democrat, and was absolutely furious when in my teens I began addressing everyone in the family as “Citizen”.

I did have it out with him after our mother died in 2016. Although he did not apologise, he acknowledged that he could have made much more of an effort to be supportive.  Our recent last meeting, attended by his new wife and my husband, entailed real, affectionate communication and was, I am glad to say, unprecedentedly warm and friendly.

And there are many things I owe to him, besides a firm jawline and an absurdist sense of humour.

He never embraced bourgeois values and when tired started to sound a little like the East-End boy he had been. Childhood interactions with his large circle of working-class relatives irrevocably shaped my politics. He hated racism and I was absolutely inspired at about the age of ten when he rebuked some distant relatives from the Texas Bible belt who had used derogatory language about African Americans.

He had a great sense of fun when he allowed himself to express it, and composed hilarious poems to divert his children when things were boring (as they often were in the 1960s). We used to drive all the way to Scotland at least three times a year. I adored his epic about Romans on Hadrian’s Wall, of which, sadly, I can only remember four lines, with deliberately tortuous rhymes:

         Send us the Scots and we will fight 'em.

         We are stationed at CorstopItum.

         Send us the Picts and we will fix 'em.

         We are stationed half a mile from Hexham.

He loved cats and we had long, jokey conversations,  which I remember almost daily, about what different tail shapes and positions might signify. He was the best shoe-shiner in history, and I can polish black leather boots to a radiant gloss.

I learned how to give a decent lecture by comparing his riveting sermons with those by the usual verbose and uncharismatic C of E preachers. Never more than ten minutes, a simple, lucid argument, improvised without any notes; sustained eye contact and clear diction, at least one joke and always a ringing quotation from the best prose in the King James Bible. It is down to him also that I know most of the Old Testament backwards.

He taught me my first steps in Greek by helping me decode the first sentence of John’s gospel and explained why ‘Beginning’ had no definite article. His own academic publications set a lofty bar on clarity, elegance and meticulous scholarship that I have tried hard to emulate.

I am so completely my father’s daughter that I feel intense sadness at the many things that kept us apart emotionally. That is my sincere final message to him, if he can hear me after death, as, in his piety, he was convinced he would be able to forever.

Monday 8 May 2023

Text of TLS Review of 2 Books on 2 Cleopatras



Egyptian princess, Roman prisoner, African Queen

Jane Draycott (336pp. Bloomsbury. £27.99).



Her history, her myth

Francine Prose (216pp. Yale University Press. £15.99).


The name “Cleopatra” conjures images of a seductive siren – sailing in an opulent barge, dissolving a pearl in vinegar to convince Mark Antony of her fabulous wealth, or pressing a phallic asp into her billowing cleavage after Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, defeats her at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. The picture of Cleopatra as mother-of-four does not quickly spring to mind. But she bore four living children between her mid-twenties and her mid-thirties. The first was her son by Julius Caesar, Ptolemy XV, known as Caesarion, “Little Caesar”; he reigned over Egypt jointly with his mother from the age of three. Her other babies were fathered by Mark Antony – the twins Cleopatra “Selene” (Moon-Goddess) and Alexander “Helios” (Sun-God), born in 40 BCE, and Ptolemy Philadelphus, born four years later.

Cleopatra Selene soon lost her father, her mother and all three brothers produced by her famous mother (most of her five half-siblings, the children of Mark Antony, fared better). Caesarion, as Julius Caesar’s son, was killed by Octavian in 30 BCE, to remove a potential rival. The other three children, not yet in their teens, were taken to Rome, at which point both boys mysteriously disappear from the historical record. But their sister, the last known survivor of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, was taken in by Octavian’s older sister Octavia. Octavia had once been married to Mark Antony, and looked after her large “blended” family in the imperial residences on the Palatine Hill.

At about fifteen, Cleopatra Junior was married off to King Juba II of Numidia. He, too, had been raised in Rome after his father’s kingdom had been annexed, and he became a loyal henchman of the Roman emperor. The couple moved to Juba’s newly expanded realm, at that point retitled Mauretania. They named their capital Caesarea (now Cherchell, Algeria) to acknowledge Juba’s status as Augustus’ client. Juba was a keen supporter of intellectual, cultural and architectural endeavours; their kingdom prospered. They had two children, a girl and a boy; Cleopatra died in her mid-thirties.

That is virtually all that the surviving written sources have to say about her, but Jane Draycott has wrestled dauntlessly with the little evidence there is about this intriguing figure, producing the only modern full-length biography to stand alongside the dozen or more novels in which Cleopatra Selene appears, from Robert Graves’ I, Claudius (1934) onwards.

Draycott is skilled at bringing ancient social environments to life. Her reconstructions of the physical conditions in which the royal offspring lived, and Cleopatra’s emotional responses to her dramatic early life, are plausible and vivid. When only six, Cleopatra sat with her parents and siblings on an elaborate public platform in front of the assembled Alexandrian masses, to be declared queen of Cyrenaica and Libya. After her parents’ suicides, she was forced to march with her twin in Augustus’ Roman triumph in chains of gold, escorting an effigy of their mother holding that asp. She was bombarded with vicious caricatures, produced by the Augustan propaganda machine, of Cleopatra VII as a barbarous whore.

Draycott is writing for the general reader, and needs to make her narrative exciting. She is sometimes seduced by the sensationalism of her sources – Plutarch, Suetonius, Cassius Dio – into presenting their claims without sufficient scepticism. Elsewhere, she is forced, by the nature of her project, to rely on painting imaginative word-pictures or on compiling detailed accounts of the convoluted genealogies and shifting political alliances of her era. Much of the book is written in the subjunctive: Cleopatra Selene “might have” felt sad, or “would probably” have been present at an event. But, with the help of fascinating illustrations, Draycott does an excellent job in recreating the culture and febrile atmosphere of the early years of Augustus’ reign, observing it from the perspective of a politically important pawn in his imperial game. Cleopatra, she reminds us, was also a vulnerable child and teenaged girl. Her gender may have saved her life (in contrast to what very likely happened to her brothers), but it compromised her every freedom. And her complicated ethnic identity – as a member of the Macedonian royal family of the Ptolemies, born in Egypt, partly raised in Rome and reigning as queen in North-West Africa – can, as Draycott shows, illuminate modern debates on immigration, acculturation and citizenship.

Francine Prose’s reappraisal of Cleopatra Selene’s mother, Cleopatra VII, is much shorter and less satisfactory. There have been innumerable studies of this more famous Cleopatra, both as a historical figure and as a cultural icon refashioned by every succeeding age. Prose is not a classical historian, and it shows. The first six chapters consist of an impressionistic historical narrative, divided respectively, and very conventionally, into the Ptolemaic background into which Cleopatra was born around 70 BCE, the politics of Rome in the 50s, Cleopatra’s dealings with Julius Caesar, her relationship with Mark Antony, Actium and the suicide. There is confusion about the intended audience; accounts of complicated diplomacy sit alongside vaguely feminist generalizations; some sources are given precise references, while others are not. The scandal-peddling ancient sources are sometimes treated as hopelessly misogynist and unreliable fictions, sometimes as unassailable truth.

Prose’s real enthusiasm seems to be the more recent reception of Cleopatra. She frequently refers to films about her heroine even in the “historical” chapters, and the second part of the book is entitled “The Afterlife of Cleopatra”. It would better be called “Selected Afterlives of Cleopatra”. It offers a few comments on Renaissance and Early Modern representations of the dissolving pearl anecdote, a sketchy discussion of Shakespeare’s debt to Plutarch in Antony and Cleopatra and Dryden’s All for Love, and a cursory overview of three films about Cleopatra, the main focus inevitably being on the 1963 extravaganza starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – although there have actually been dozens of other films, beginning in the earliest days of silent cinema. 

A controversy has been raging about the casting of the Israeli movie star Gal Gadot, rather than an actress with some Arabic or African ancestry, as Cleopatra in a biopic to be directed by Kari Skogland. The latest such debate is over the casting of Adele James as Cleopatra in a Netflix docudrama, African Queens: Queen Cleopatra, produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, whose maternal ancestors are Jamaican and Bajan (from Barbados) and African-American in her paternal line. James is British and mixed-race, but understandably private about her precise heritage. 

Yet, after a trailer for the four-part programme, an Egyptian lawyer has filed a request that the public prosecutor take steps to prevent access to it in Egypt, claiming without any evidence (because there is none) that Cleopatra was light-skinned.

This is where Draycott shows a sensitivity unknown to Prose towards by far the most important aspect of the reception of Cleopatra over more than a century: her ethnicity. Despite some harshly worded disputes, in which eminent classicists have unwisely expressed uncompromising views, we have absolutely no idea of Cleopatra’s precise genetic make-up: she was descended from Macedonians (whose claim to be Greeks was disputed), but in the course of the Ptolemies’ 260 years’ residence in Egypt, it is difficult to believe that no local genes entered the bloodline. The important point is that to people of African and Arabic heritage worldwide it matters that Cleopatra was “Egyptian”, culturally and/or biologically.

In 1927, for example, the Egyptian author Ahmad Shawqi’s play The Death of Cleopatra challenged the classical sources in arguing that Cleopatra had been falsely maligned, a victim of European imperial propaganda.

 A vast sculpture of “The Death of Cleopatra” by Edmonia Lewis was the sole major work of art by an African American at the  Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876: Nathaniel Hawthorne had already drawn satirical attention to the eroticization by white men of Cleopatra as a smouldering Nubian in The Marble Faun (1860). More recently the Philadelphian artist Barbara Chase-Riboud, who is African American, has returned over twenty times to depictions of Cleopatra in sculpture, wall art and poetry. Ever since abolition, “Cleopatra” has in the USA been a “speaking name”, bestowed by Civil Rights campaigners on their daughters and on the action heroine of the blaxploitation movies Cleopatra Jones (1973) and its sequel. Prose’s attempt to chart the significance of Cleopatra’s afterlife, without properly exploring this aspect, is a missed opportunity indeed.


Saturday 18 March 2023

The Mystery of Greek Theatre's Use in Ancient Medicine


The Ancient Theatre of Epidauros

One of the reasons I’m so thrilled to be leading a retreat, with an initiative called Travelgems, in the north-eastern Greek Peloponnese in July,[i] is that I can revisit the ancient health centre at Epidauros, the most important ancient cult centre of the healing god Asclepius. All his sanctuaries were built in the most healthful locations, where trees, fresh water springs, medicinal herbs and restful views promoted the wellbeing of all who visited them, whether their malady was bodily or psychic.

Reconstruction of Asclepius' Temple at Epidauros

Available treatments included dream interpretation, a precursor of modern psychotherapy.  Rituals, bathing and daily prayer and meditation promoted optimism and positivity. But a great mystery surrounds one aspect of most sites where the arts of the therapeutic doctor-god were practised: Epidauros and others have beautiful ancient theatres, and performance arts seem to have been cultivated at many of his other sanctuaries.

We just do not know exactly what form these performative cures actually took. But the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the son of a distinguished medical physician, who claimed descent from a doctor given his medicine chest by the doctor-centaur Cheiron, speaks of the role of music, as experienced in certain religious rites, in the treatment of emotional distress. There were special ‘sacred melodies’, both ecstatic and calming, which could help groups of people suffering from the same psychological problem find relief. 

This is probably related to Aristotle’s theory that tragic theatre helps people deal with painful emotions through ‘catharsis’ by watching tragedy—which was a musical medium similar to opera—in a form of emotional homeopathy.

There are other links between tragic theatre and medicine. Sophocles was said to have introduced the cult of the healing hero Asclepius into his own household.

The retreat I am leading, with stunning guest lecturer Natalie Haynes,  will culminate in a performance of tragedy at the great Epidauros theatre itself. The experience will allow participants to undergo the healing power of the medical god himself as well as discuss the therapeutic psychological aspects of tragedy.

[i] A few places still available.

Sunday 22 January 2023

Good Times A-coming: Join me in Greece?


Last time I blogged I was entering an unpleasant period of medical treatment, but I’m thrilled to say that I’m nearly through and have been given the all-clear. So I’m getting back down to business and am in search of Helios' sunshine!

I’ve got something wonderful to look forward to, as well, and some of you may even be interested in joining in. An enterprising company called Travelgems run by some inspiring Greek ladies has invited me to lead a retreat on the psychological relevance of Greek tragedy to today’s problems at an excellent hotel in the old seaside town of Naflplio between 11th and 16th July 2023.

The culmination will be a group outing to a live performance of an ancient drama at the stunning ancient theatre of Epidaurus. It will be unforgettable.

I’ll lead all the sessions where we will explore these timeless plays; there'll also be a guest lecture by the incomparable Nat Haynes and expeditions to the marvellous concentration of museums and sites in Greece.

I’ve just finished a book coming out next year with Yale University Press called Facing down the Furies on how Greek tragedy and ethics can help us address even the most intractable emotional problems, and this retreat will give me a chance to offer participants a private preview of the book’s contents.

We will ask how Aeschylus’ Oresteia  can teach us resilience, Sophocles’ Antigone the importance of patience in decision-making,  Philoctetes how to maintain hope even in our darkest hours, and Euripides’ Heracles on how to move on even after disaster and depression. We will ask why the Greek tragedians returned time and again to the stories of strong women facing up to the emotional problems of a society which oppressed them.

We’ll  laugh, cry, swim, eat, explore, and get inspired by some of the most beautiful art, poetry and archaeology in the world. I really can’t wait! To prepare myself, I’m going to start blogging on different myths connected with the area, starting next week with the healing sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidauros. The Greeks understood a great deal about minds and emotions. I’d love you to come with me on this retreat for a journey through their ideas.

Sunday 27 November 2022

Finding the Argo, Medea and Alcestis: Adventures in Thessaly


I’ve just ticked off a crucial item on my bucket list by touring Thessaly, and identifying key places in Greek mythology. I’m in a break between surgery for breast cancer and radiotherapy and am determined to enjoy myself. The horrid little tumour was detected very early and the prognosis is excellent. But I spoke too soon two blogs ago about things looking massively up after a couple of wilderness years.


After speaking at an august conference run by the Academy of Athens I set off with fellow Argonauts, brother and sister Leonidas and Sofia of the Papadopoulos family. But only after seeing Leonidas’ beautiful new play Pass-Port at the aptly named Argo theatre in Athens. Based on the PhD thesis he wrote under my supervision, it explores the place that tragic sea crossings have always played in Greek life.

 First stop was Mount Pelion, home of the timber that made the Argo, where I met its most famous resident, Cheiron the Centaur. Then I explored the Mycenaean Palace at ancient Iolkos near Volos, a substantial building complex in which Medea persuaded the daughters of Bad King Pelias to boil him to death. The most influential version of this story was told in

Euripides’ tragedy
Daughters of Pelias, of which only fragments and vase images illustrating it remain. 

 The details of this amazing site, and the finds from it like this toy horses and chariot, will feature in my forthcoming book Medea: A Life in Five Acts with Yale University Press. 

Today we found a replica Argo in Volos harbour, a statue of the Argo competing with Santa’s sleigh on the ring-road, and the Mycenaean harbour at Pefkakia from which the Argo first set sail. A magical experience on the lovely coast directly beneath Pelion’s wooded heights.

Today we ventured inland to the Mycenaean archaeological sites at nearby ancient Pherae, where one of Pelias’ daughters, Alcestis, married the local king, Admetus. Another tragedy by Euripides, his Alcestis, enacts how she gave up her life in the place of Admetus, died with her little children at her side, and then miraculously returned from the dead. 

Heracles wrestled with Thanatos and retrieved her. We even found a Mycenaean tomb outside which that wrestling match could have taken place.


Nothing pleases me more than adventures which trace the geophysical reality which provided the contexts for ancient literature. I returned to Blighted Blighty tomorrow fully energized to face whatever the NHS is about to throw at me. Not only have you not got rid of me yet, but you ain’t SEEN nothing yet. I promise.

Sunday 11 September 2022

Five New North-Eastern Classics Initiatives


Yesterday was the launch of five new initiatives fostering understanding and enjoyment of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds in the North-East of England. It was drizzling on and off, and the lawn outside the Durham Uni lecture hall on Palace Green lived up to its name, shining emerald in the intermittent sunshine. I made a large celebratory chocolate cake.

The Head of the Classics & Ancient History Department, Prof. Jennifer Ingleheart, kicked off proceedings with an eloquent manifesto contrasting the richness of classical culture in our region with its educational and material poverty (our event was free, as was lunch, and plenty of local people came).

I offered some context by talking about the extraordinary cluster of brilliant creative individuals produced by Grangefield Grammar School, at other times known as Stockton Secondary School: Ridley Scott, director of Gladiator; Pat Barker, author of Silence of the Girls and Women of Troy, and Barry Unsworth, a miner’s son, whose Songs of the Kings is a searing account of how Iphigenia was literally ‘spun’ to death by a New Labour PR man named Odysseus.

Initiative 1: Durham University School of Education has just introduced the first PGCE training in Classics for decades. The Northerners who want to teach Classics have been forced for far too long to up sticks and go to Cambridge or King’s College London. My amazing fellow-schemer Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson has designed the teaching materials. Schools in the North-East wanting to teach Classics will finally have a locally-trained supply of teachers on tap.

Initiative 2: The campaign to make Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in State Education, Advocating Classics Education, which Arlene and I founded in 2017, transfers its HQ to Durham University from King’s College London. I remain available to talk at schools and sixth-form colleges, either in person or virtually; please just email via my website. And I’ve just completed translations of all the plays on the Greek Theatre A-Level module for use as the standard set texts. More on this soon.

Initiative 3: Dr Edmund Thomas and I, with the help of champion cricketer PhD student Rory McInnes-Gibbons,  are convening a year-long seminar series and a conference on the history of Classics in the North-East. Papers will discuss radical printing houses, translations of ancient zoological and botanical treatises, historical pageants, classicizing architecture, Hadrian’s Wall, workers’ education and much, much more. There will be a book, a website and building of a network to participate in making a film to explore the rich classical tradition in this part of the world.

Initiative 4: We launched the new Hadrian’s Wall Branch of the Classical Association, of which I am president, Dr Cora-Beth Fraser is Secretary/Editor and Prof. Justine Wolfenden is Chair. We are determined to make this an inclusive organization: ethnic minority, disabled, unwaged and neuro-diverse members are particularly welcome. Our first big public event will be a family-friendly celebration of the Saturnalia on Saturday 10 December. Parents will have to serve children. Costumes will be worn. Delicious Roman dishes will be available.

Initiative 5: Our department’s bid to become the best Classics research centre in the land has got off to a flying start this term with my securing of two large research grants. One, funded by Leverhulme, studies Aristotle’s presence outside academic circles since the Restoration (see e.g. this anti-feminist cartoon); the other studies his fascinating and hopelessly under-researched writing styles. It is funded by UKRI. Four new post-doctoral researchers will be arriving in Durham to turn it into the most important northern outpost of the great philosopher’s Athenian Lyceum.

There is a great deal to do, but I’m bursting with enthusiasm for every single initiative-research, outreach, public engagement, widening access, boosting state education, local history, sheer good fun. I have the best collaborators in the world. And the Geordie for collaborator, my friends, is the deeply unclassical, Scandinavian-derived and resonant noun marra.

Wednesday 10 August 2022

On Vindication and Robert the Bruce's Spider

What a difference a month can make! A year ago I was in the greatest pickle of my working life.  Fortunately, the visionary Head of Classics & Ancient History and the management at Durham, which still understands  the purpose of a university, embraced my job application and have made me welcome.

The downward spiral began at the end of 2014, when I was officially invited by the Oxford Faculty of Classics to apply for their Regius Chair of Greek. I would not have applied otherwise. Uncivilly, they did not shortlist me. I got over it quickly. I loved my job at King’s College London.

But the events of 2020-2021 took my public humiliation to a whole new level. I was interviewed for the Cambridge Regius Chair of Greek, and told it had been offered to another candidate. He is brilliant; it was no shame to lose to him. I got over it quickly. But nobody told me I had been deemed unappointable. This meant that for more than two months after he turned it down, I was forced to field endless enquiries from all over the world asking if I ‘had heard anything’. My 'unappointability' was visible to all. I hit an all-time low.

In the end I swallowed my pride and asked a friend at Cambridge what was going on. I did eventually get an apology that I had not been kept informed. When I asked Cambridge HR on which of the published criteria I had been deemed unappointable, they said the committee had identified my ‘Research Plans’ as inadequate. This was somewhat mystifying since I had included in my dossier full details of all my current research grant applications.

None of this would have mattered if management at KCL had not decided that the tasks I had been contracted to perform nearly a decade ago no longer applied, and that I was now required to do substantial amounts of elementary teaching. I could no longer travel in term and needed, demeaningly, to tell all the international institutions I had agreed to lecture to that I could no longer come because of my many first-year seminars backing up other lecturers’ courses.  

I love teaching and I could have coped with this if it were not for the coercive tone taken by management. I accessed my inner socialist rebel and union member. But I was facing being driven out of one university by brutality after being deemed unappointable at another. I was being pensioned off when I still need income to educate our children.

The verb ‘vindicate’ originally meant ‘to proclaim (dicare) authority (vis)'. I felt I was disrespected by many peers and had lost all authority as a scholar of Greek. So it is with incredible joy to me that I’ve heard, within four weeks, three pieces of news that have restored my self-belief. I’ve been elected Fellow of the British Academy, and won two large research grants, one of which, on Aristotle’s prose style, pays 70% of my salary for five years as well as supporting three others. Things can change quickly! Readers, do not give up!

I’m delighted to have my authority restored and to be giving Durham any benefits that accrue. I am also pleased that the Aristotelian principle motoring my life—it doesn’t matter how others judge you if you are true to your own principles and project and never give up—has been vindicated.

My mother often told me the story of the King of Scotland called Robert the Bruce and the spider. Robert’s army kept being defeated by the English. When he was taking refuge in a cave, he watched a spider fail six times to attach her web to the cave wall.  She succeeded on her seventh attempt. This inspired Robert to try to expel the English again. He won. He proclaimed the Scots' authority.