Thursday 26 May 2016

Another Non-Tomb of Aristotle

The tomb in Stageira causing a fuss
Call me a cynic, but has archaeologist Kostas Sismanidis really found a single shred of evidence that the tomb excavated in ancient Stageira long ago in 1996 houses the remains of Aristotle? After the Amphipolis ‘tomb of Alexander’ fiasco last summer, we are entitled to be sceptical. And releasing the information in the 2,400th anniversary year of Aristotle’s birth strikes me as a little too much of a coincidence.

The Tomb Mandeville claimed to have seen
Amongst Sismanidis’ alleged ‘literary sources’ which ‘prove’ that Aristotle was really buried there is, I believe, John Mandeville’s 1499 Travels: ‘In this country was Aristotle born, in a city that men clepe Stagyra, a little from the city of Thrace.  And at Stagyra lieth Aristotle; and there is an altar upon his tomb.  And there make men great feasts for him every year, as though he were a saint.  And at his altar they holden their great councils and their assemblies, and they hope, that through inspiration of God and of him, they shall have the better council.’

I am happy to believe Sir John when he says that there was a cult of Aristotle in medieval eastern Chalkidiki. Aristotle was by far the most famous person from that part of the world and read obsessively in medieval universities. I also LOVE the illustration of the tomb in the manuscript. But Sismanidis is carefully not telling the world that Aristotle’s ‘actual’ tomb has been sensationally ‘discovered’ before.

Waldstein enters Aristotle's Other Tomb
If you read the article published by famous American archaeologist Charles Waldstein  in Century magazine in 1892, you will find that that 'Aristotle’s' marble tomb was excavated by the American School of Archaeology of Athens at Eretria in 1891. Waldstein, a colourful figure who deserves a whole blog to himself, claimed to have found styluses (although he didn’t go so far as to say that they were the ones used to write the Nicomachean Ethics), a portrait statue of the philosopher, and an inscription bearing Aristotle’s name. 

Portrait Statue of Aristotle Waldstein found in Euboea Grave
Waldstein’s ‘tomb of Aristotle’ is much nearer the place where the actual ancient sources said the philosopher died,  in Chalcis, Euboea, in 322 BCE. Early Christians claimed he had drowned himself, after a last-minute religious conversion, in the wild tides of the Euripus, but other ancient writers say he died of his longstanding stomach complaint.

I am delighted by the attention Aristotle is getting as I am finishing a book called Ten Ways Aristotle Can Change Your Life. I wrote on his life and death in this month’s History Today. I would love to believe that anything new about the Magnificent Man from Stageira has been unearthed. But I am not impressed by any of the ‘evidence’ Sismanidis has ‘revealed’ so far.

Friday 20 May 2016

Using Classics to Oil Corporate Wheels

Fiennes' Oedipus, sponsored by Shell
What is it with enormous oil companies and the sponsorship of classics-themed cultural activity?  In 2008 the National Theatre accepted funding from Shell to stage Sophocles’ Oedipus, a play concerning a plague-stricken land suffering from blighted crops and airborne pestilence. Now BP is pretending that it cares about our oceans.

What BP want you to associate with them
On Tuesday I enjoyed the press preview of the British Museum’s stunning new exhibition ‘Sunken Cities’, featuring underwater finds from the lost Greek cities of the Nile Delta. As I said on BBC Radio’s Front Row, it is exquisitely designed, accessible but erudite, and perfect for All The Family.  Besides the sensational statues, the best thing is the juxtaposition of artefacts with video footage of the divers on the sea floor pulling them from the sand.

Dudley's Pen mightier than truth?
But the effect of all these translucent aquamarine Mediterranean seascapes is jeopardised by the surreal hypocrisy of the ‘Sponsor’s Foreword’ to the exhibition guidebook, penned by Bob Dudley, Group Chief Executive of BP.

A few Environmental Protesters at the BM
Discovery is part science and technology, part human endeavour… we feel a strong affinity with the maritime archaeologists who have created and studied their own maps of the Mediterranean seabed to discover the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. We may work at different depths, but like our fellow marine explorers, BP knows the Nile Delta and the waters off the Mediterranean coast well… We continue to invest in Egypt’s future … through our social programmes which are supporting education and local communities. We remain grow [sic] production safely, reliably and efficiently.’ Nauseating.

What I actually associate with BP
The worst oil spill in U.S. history occurred on April 20 2010. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded. It killed 11 people. By July 15, when the well was finally capped, BP’s pipe had leaked more than 3 million barrels of oil into the ocean off Louisiana. Both the oil and the chemicals used to disperse it did incalculable damage to water quality, seaweed stocks, wildlife, coral and the Gulf coast as well as the entire ecosystem and human health.

Mexico Gulf Dolphins
Sponsorship is not philanthropy. In this case it is a cynical attempt to obscure well-deserved reputational damage. BP have never issued any very convincing apology to anybody, let alone the millions of whales, dolphins, turtles, fish and 93 species of birds which they killed at the peak of spawning/nesting season. But they were forced into pleading guilty to 11 felony counts related to the human deaths and lying to congress.

Please go to this marvellous exhibition. But get your children to read the Smithsonian Museum’s account of the effects of the Gulf catastrophe before you take them. Because I have a  thing about dolphins, they (rather than BP’s alleged work for the environment and the poor) dominated my consciousness as I gazed into the clear turquoise waters lapping round those divers in the sparkling video installations. As Cervantes said, ‘Truth shrinks and doesn’t fragment, and  lies on top of falsehoods like oil on water.’

Saturday 14 May 2016

Cheiron the Centaur for Minister of Education!

Cheiron teaches Jason the lyre
A Warsaw conference on mythical beasts allowed me to celebrate the centaur Cheiron. Where other centaurs are hyper-randy,tanked-up brutes, Cheiron is an expert in healing, botany, lyre-playing and hunting. He teaches these skills to heroes in childhood and adolescence. He is an Agony Uncle and initiation guru who gives youths romantic advice.

Centaur toy from 10th century BCE
But, far more excitingly, he is also the ONLY ancient Greek author with a non-human lower body. There was a poem as old as Homer and Hesiod called the Precepts of Cheiron, addressed to the teenager Achilles. It consisted of Cheiron's own timeless wisdom for all children and the people raising them.

In our days of compulsory testing of the literary and numeracy of even the very young (in my view, year 2 SATS are a form of child abuse), it's good to recall that Cheiron said that forcing children to read before the age of seven was counter-productive.* Cheiron for Minister of Education, say I!

Box on table is labelled CHEIRONEIA
Sadly, his poem has not survived except in fragments. Nor has the other poem in which he starred, the Cheironeia. Panaitios, the youth seated left on this vase in Berlin, is reading this epic intently in the presence of his tutor. The vase tells us that the both the boy and the poem are BEAUTIFUL.

The Greeks, then, would be shocked at how we ‘educate’ our four to six-year-olds. But they wouldn’t be surprised at the popularity of centaurs in modern youth culture. I spent hours this week baffled by the explicit initiatory adventures of she-centaur Himeno Kimihara, in the bestselling manga series A Centaur's Life, until my own youngest teenager patiently explained that you start such books at what I call the ‘end’, the right-hand cover as you hold it.

But the best find of the week was this old bike advert. Cheiron, who had attempted to teach the youth to ride a horse, is in my view not racked with envious desire for a velocipede. He doesn’t need one. What he is actually planning is a centaur revolution: ‘four legs good, two wheels bad’. 
Peirce Brosnan as Cheiron in Percy Jackson movie

* That seven is the earliest age (aetas) at which a child is able "intellectum disciplinarum capere et laborem pati" was a Cheironic Precept  (Quintilian Inst. Orat. 1.1.15).

Sunday 8 May 2016

Oedipal Quiz-Llittle Boys in Greek Tragedy

The "Oedipus Vase"--NOT
Fancy a Greek Theatre Workout? This is a blog crowd-sourcing about a famous ancient Greek image. Which myth or play does this vase-painting illustrate?

Sophocles’ Oedipus is one of the most famous plays in world history, but it is difficult to find any ancient Greek image illustrating the play in performance. So the one vase-painting that scholars have said shows a scene from the play gets endlessly reproduced. It is from the fourth century BCE, when the then century-old classic tragedy was being performed all over the Greek world. The precious pot is in the archaeological museum of Syracuse, Sicily. The label beside it insists it is a scene from Sophocles' Oedipus

Not much room for doubt there then
I recently had to withdraw from a wonderful conference in Leiden organised by two of my fave Hellenists, Ineke Sluiter and Felix Budelmann, about mental processes in tragedy, because my mother has been critically ill. I was going to argue that our assumptions about what Little Girls Ought to Look Like has led to a massive misunderstanding of this vase-image.
The assumed 'girls' on assumed 'Oedipus' pot

Everyone has assumed that the two children are girls, simply because they have long dresses and ringlets. The only play we have in which two little girls appear is Sophocles' Oedipus. At the end of the tragedy, the incestuous and parricidal hero is brutally separated from his daughters/sisters, Antigone and Ismene. Scholars have assumed that this vase-scene shows a fusion of the scene in which Oedipus and Jocasta learn who he really is, and that painful parting scene at the end of the drama.

Mystery woman with no role in Oedipus and ringlets
The best scholars did admit that the ‘extra’, ringleted dark-haired woman, listening in from behind the pillar on the right of the scene as you look at it, could not be explained from the play. She is also reacting to the bad news the messenger brings, but in a different way from the blonde queen-person.

Boy has frock and girl is semi-nude
I talked to several colleagues who know much more about ancient art than I do.They all said I was deluded because we would expect small mythical boys to be naked. But then I came across this second vase-painting, showing a scene from Euripides’ Alcestis. Alcestis dies, after a tearful parting from her son Eumelus and her daughter. In this image, it is certainly the daughter (right) who is semi-naked, and the son (left) who has a long frock and ringlets. 

What this means is that on the 'Not-Oedipus Vase' we need to see a myth/tragedy involving two different adult females looking horrified, and two little boy children who look like beardless, miniature versions of their dad and ringleted mystery woman. Fortunately there are far more brother doublets than sisters in Greek mythology. I will blog back with your suggestions soon! You can find my email on my personal website.

Monday 2 May 2016

Hellenic Heroes in Lovely Lancashire

On the way to address an impressively big audience at the UK’s newest branch of the Classical Association, founded in Lytham St. Anne’s a couple of years ago by the enterprising (and then only 17-year old) Katrina Kelly, I stopped off in a hailstorm at Preston.  In the Harris Museum I stumbled across this jaw-dropping stained-glass window celebrating ancient Greek achievements in philosophy, science, art, literature, and riding horses bareback to the Parthenon.

I had heard of the artist, Henry Holiday, because I’ve done some research on women from classical history in British art. He painted Aspasia, Pericles’ intellectual girlfriend, sitting on the Pnyx Hill where the Athenian Assembly met. But I didn’t know, until The Best Window in Britain sent me scurrying off to read his memoirs, that Holiday was a sterling supporter of women’s suffrage (which explains the significance of the Pnyx).
Holiday's Aspasia on the Pnyx

He was a colourful character. He also campaigned for Irish independence, socialism and dress reform. He believed that sartorial uniformity was destroying homo sapiens and that we should all wear different clothes. He personally liked to wear an outfit of medieval chain-mail. 

Medieval Holiday
Hirsute Tertullian
For years he kept a cast of Praxiteles’ Hermes and an enormous model of the Acropolis he'd constructed for himself in his studio. The latter, he says, he sold to the Royal Ontario Museum: Toronto readers, is it still on display there? 

He had an intense relationship with all the many hundred figures he portrayed in stained glass in churches, town halls and universities in the USA as well as Britain. The clean-shaven patristic writer Tertullian, whom he designed for Trinity College, Cambridge, had to be revised when a friend told him that the worthy Church Father thought shaving was effeminate. 

Robert Harris reading
Holiday’s Greek window was commissioned in 1905 by the Harris Museum, founded in memory of the longstanding Headmaster of Preston Grammar School, the Reverend Robert Harris. He was the upwardly mobile son of a ‘goods carrier’. He had read a few classics books himself.

Homer with line 1 of the Iliad
The lowest panel portrays Sappho, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Homer. The middle panel, with its Greek inscription The Great Panathenaea, is a vivid rendition of some Parthenon horsemen.

The classics-mad GCSE Drama set from Lancashire Technology College
But I need help on the top panel (thinkers and artists) because my arms couldn’t hold my camera high enough to include all the names. I think the information on display has got some of the names against the wrong figures and that Aristotle, of whom I’m collecting portraits, is actually second from the left at the top. There is no guide book available offering any discussion.

Which Sage is Which? 
Entrance to the Harris is free. If anyone in the north-west taller than I am can get a good photo of the top panel, with all the names, I would be grateful. 

I want to discuss it in my forthcoming book from my Classics & Class projectA People’s History of Classics, co-authored with Henry Stead, which has been accepted by Routledge under their Gold Open Access scheme and will be made available, entirely free, online. This is only appropriate for a study addressing the historic exclusion of the working class from intellectual property. But I need a good image of Holiday’s top panel! You will be warmly thanked in the caption.
Holiday's Sappho
Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston