Friday 29 December 2017

Five Ancient Greek Rings for the 5th Day of Christmas

The Five Gold Rings of the Fifth Day of Christmas were originally Jesuit ‘code’ for the Pentateuch, the first five Old Testament books. But snow has confined me to an AIRBNB flat in Leith, so I've here assembled Five Pagan Rings.

1] A rich Mycenaean’s grave, recently excavated near Pylos in the Peloponnese, contained gems engraved with astounding intricacy and this fine gold ring. Our Mycenaean may have raided it from Crete, because its bull-jumping scene, with its mysterious links to the Minotaur legend, is typical of Minoan art.

Theseus collects Minos' ring from Amphitrite on Ocean Floor
2] It was when sailing to Crete to kill the Minotaur that Theseus became star of my favourite ring-myth, told by an undervalued poet called Bacchylides. The sexual harasser King Minos tried to terminate Theseus. He threw his golden ring into the sea and ordered Theseus to retrieve it. This was silly, since Theseus was a champion underwater swimmer and the son of Poseidon. Assisted by friendly dolphins, he surfaced with the ring and a new outfit his stepmum Amphitrite gave him in her sea-floor palace.

3] Why do engagement and wedding rings symbolise fidelity? They often signified treachery and falsehood in antiquity. The most famous ancient ring belonged to Gyges. Plato tells the story while asking whether we would all misbehave if we could do so with impunity. 

Gyges was a shepherd who came across a ring of invisibility which enabled him to have sex with the queen, kill the king, and take over the throne.  It can be a good party game to get people to confess how they would use a ring of invisibility: I would reserve it for forcibly redistributing wealth and Bad Hair Days.

4] In Lucian’s dialogue Lover of Lies, a pathological liar called Eucrates describes how an iron ring, given him by a mysterious Arabian, allowed him to visit Hades. He inspected the River of Fire, the Acheron and Cerberus. He recognised his own dad because ‘he was still wearing the same clothes in which we buried him’.

Chaircleia, heroine of Heliodorus' Novel
5] The Fifth Ring belongs to Charicleia, the heroine of the novel An Ethiopian Story. Its gem is an Ethiopian amethyst, ‘more beautiful than those of Spain or Britain’.  The intricacy of the scene engraved on it is literally incredible. A shepherd boy supervising several pastures plays his pipe to his flocks. Lambs jump, climb rocks and dance in a circle round the shepherd. The youngest lambs try to escape but are prevented by a golden band representing a wall.

The dancing sheep are explicitly described as creating ‘a bucolic theatre’. This has excited historians of the ancient theatre who have used it as evidence for a genre of ancient pastoral drama. This is, sadly, to miss the point: the scene on the ring represents fiction’s power to write things into existence that are impossible in reality.

But there are times when I want to go with the more literal-minded amongst my academic colleagues. Having been appalled by the expensive mediocrity of Shrek: the Musical on Boxing Day, and since our TV aerial became detached in shock at the appearance of the new Dr Who, I would much enjoy a pastoral show with dancing sheep right now.  

Sunday 10 December 2017

New Wave Anti-Democrats, Aristotle, and Winter Snow

The first snow of winter falls as I hear evasive politicians talk specious rubbish about sovereignty and referenda on the Andrew Marr Show.  I have not watched Game of Thrones, despite my usual enthusiasm for ‘popular culture’, yet one line in it, ‘Winter is Coming’—I am told the motto of the wholly undemocratic House of Stark—has become emblematic for our political times.

Fantine in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables has to sell her lovely hair and plunges into the last lap of her race to premature death, thus orphaning her little daughter, because she has no money in winter. ‘In winter there is no heat, no light, evening touches morning… Winter changes into stone the water of heaven and the heart of man.’  

My own heart feels turned into stone because not one but four intelligent, educated and mildly famous individuals—a BBC Radio presenter, a young but celebrated theatre director, a Professor of Classics and an MP—have over the last few weeks all said to me privately that they are no longer convinced that democracy is A Good Thing. Two of them cited Aristotle, who says in his Politics that democracy can lead to tyranny. Yes, but democracy is also the constitution that he finds fewest faults with, and which he says fails when there is too much inequality between rich and poor.

Once the leftist-liberal middle class who lead the British thought-world give up on democracy as a system worth preserving, then winter for our sceptred isles may indeed be coming. What concerns me is that these people have never been crypto-oligarchs, like the Etonians in the Tory government, but sincere democrats. I now see that this was only because democracy was producing the results that they wanted. The minute the ‘masses’ start asking for things that such influential opinion-makers don’t like, the system which gives ‘the masses’ some form of say in how things are run must itself be brought into question.

"We can't have housewives deciding things"
All four acquaintances reminded me of Jean Rey, once President of the European Commission, who annoyed me when I was a teenager in 1974 by bemoaning the use of a referendum on EU membership in the UK: ‘I would deplore a situation in which the policy of this great country should be left to housewives. It should be decided instead by trained and informed people.’
And the trouble is that our modern version of democracy, instead of meaning that the people (demos) gets real executive power (kratos), worked for such successful individuals as now criticise democracy only because it safeguarded the monopoly on most of the money, nice jobs and privileges enjoyed by their (and my) section of the population. There was always going to be a backlash, and in countries like the UK and the USA, creaking public education systems means that the backlash has sometimes been ill-informed.

The problem lies not in democracy as such, but in the ultimate failure of post-war democracy to stop large sections of the population being frozen out of basic necessities of life and a decent education.  Aristotle, who believed everything in nature had an objective, never answered to his own satisfaction exactly what purpose was served by rain and snow in winter. I feel I understand his bewilderment, at least on a metaphorical level.

Sunday 26 November 2017

An Epic Week, in Several Senses

An epic week. Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule in Zimbabwe ended, an event headlined in NewsDay Zimbabwe as ‘Epic Fall of a Dictator’. Less epically, I helped host Professor Emily Wilson when she came to my university to talk about her superb new translation of the Odyssey.

It's a literary landmark and an epic achievement which I predict will rival previous stellar Odysseys by Alexander Pope and E.V. Rieu. Rieu’s was only knocked off the top of the list for bestselling paperback in the UK by Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I discuss Wilson’s version in a Telegraph review which I was told would come out this weekend, but haven’t yet seen as it is, er, not my regular newspaper. I will provide a link here soon.

On Thursday I felt like the academic equivalent of an epic warrior since it was the most strenuous day of my entire working life. In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg and my mates Paul Cartledge and Sam Gartland was about Thebes, believed by the ancients to be the oldest Greek city of all. Epic poems about its serial sieges and ‘epic fail’ royals were composed from the Bronze Age to Statius’ Thebaid and beyond.

First Gresham Lecture
From Broadcasting House I dashed to Gresham College in Chancery Lane, where at 1300 I gave my inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor. It was on the epic movie Troy, the epic poem the Iliad, and the Mycenaeans they both portray. It can be watched here

The best thing about the movie is the casting. Brian Cox’s Agamemnon is always in my head when I teach the Iliad: this Mycenaean monarch combines the raucousness of Cox’s working-class Dundee childhood with the nastiness of President Snow in The Hunger Games. Even our pets look terrified when he raises the war-cry on our TV (the epithet 'good at the war-cry' is not actually used of him in the Iliad, rather of Menelaus and Diomedes, but Cox is so good at it that I'll tolerate the inaccuracy).

Brian Cox, the Definitive Agamemnon
Thence quickly to Nottingham, where at 1800 I lectured to the local Classical Association on Virgil’s Aeneid and possible Carthaginian sources—even epic poems?—lost when the Romans ‘deleted’ the library of Carthage along with the rest of the city in 146 BCE. The venue happened to be Nottingham Girls’ High School, which I attended in the 1970s. This brought back memories of reading Virgil there myself, and already preferring Homer.
Annihilation of Carthage 

But the week ended with Mother Courage at the Southwark Theatre, directed by Hannah Chissick. It is the best production I’ve ever seen of my favourite piece of Brechtian Epic Theater. It was influenced by both Euripides’ Trojan Women and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.  Josie Lawrence is remarkable as the woman whose real name was Anna Fierling: Courage got her nickname after braving the non-stop bombardment of Riga to keep on selling bread.
Lawrence: Unforgettable as Mother Courage

Brecht invented the term episches Theater in 1926 because he wanted a new type of non-realist drama that would make audiences think about class oppression rather than sentimentally relate to characters’ plights. But I clearly don’t know how to appreciate Brecht. I ended up with wet eyes both when Courage is forced to disown the corpse of her son Swiss Cheese and when her daughter Kattrin is shot dead at the end.

The word epos  originally began with a 'w' (digamma) 
The ancient Greeks rarely used the adjective ‘epic’, epikos, even to describe poetry. Their noun epos, plural epea, which in Mycenaean times still had its initial w, wepea, meant words of any kind, but especially significant words such as those used in prophecies or promises. Nowadays epic can just mean ‘notable’. 

I also wrote a review, published in the Guardian Wednesday, of Stephen Fry’s charming new retelling of classical myths mostly drawn from epics: Hesiod’s Theogony and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And I was delighted to read the excellent new book, developed out of a doctoral thesis I supervised, by Miryana Dimitrova. It discusses sources, including Lucan's epic Pharsalia, for Julius Caesar's own epic afterlife on the stages/screens of the world.  This means I have engaged within 5 days on almost all the major classical epics besides the Argonautica. It certainly feels appropriate to describe my own exhaustion today as wepic.
Finlay and Satan Watching Troy

Friday 17 November 2017

Manspreading Modern & Ancient

I’ve been on a lot planes lately, and so am unusually sensitive to manspreading at the moment. This week I spoke at Policy Exchange, a Westminster Think-Tank, on the enduring relevance of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987). I was manspread (manspreaded?) like never before by Tory MP Kwasi Kwarteng. I note that I place my hands in a defensive-rampart postition. He also verbally interrupted me, but he wasn't alone in that.

The verb 'manspread' was not added to the Oxford English Dictionary until 2015, but my brief investigations of sitting postures in the history of art suggest that it is not confined to modernity. In Giovanni Belloni's 1514 'Feast of the Gods', for example, poor Amphitrite is wedged between a groping Neptune, and a manspreading Mercury. The satyr in the red cloak behind her looks as though his knees are pressing into her bottom, too. Her straight-ahead gaze suggests she is not enjoying her quince. It's supposed to be an aphrodisiac, but I don't think it's working.

More recent pictures of classical deities portray similarly exaggerated manspreading, for example this Hades and Persephone. Her hands are doing what mine were.

My hasty research into sitting etiquette in ancient art today suggested, however, that in ancient times themselves it was by no means as obviously gendered. 

Add caption
In  ancient Mespotamia and Egypt, for example, I have only (so far) found depictions of men sitting with their knees considerately together next to women in the identical posture. 

Indeed, the Mesopotamian woman seems to feel able to wedge her knee further into her boyfriend's space than he does into hers. The Egyptian couple look perfectly at ease: mutually touching elbows but legs nowhere near in contact.

The East Pediment of the Parthenon sculptures, probably depicting Dionysos, Persephone and Demeter, suggest that spreading was in Pheidas' day a matter of status:  all the gods, whatever their gender, are letting their knees loll apart regardless of what anyone else thinks. This would cause quite a difficult situation on Easyjet.

And here is Atalanta, admittedly not the kind of girl to be told not to do anything, let alone not to sit like a man. But her refusal to cross her legs or squeeze her knees demurely together doesn't seem to be disapproved of by the artist as a woman sitting like that would be censured today.

My final piece of evidence is the so-called 'Capitoline Triad' of Juno, Jupiter and Minerva. It is true that Jupiter has his knees casually apart, but he is not extending either leg into his wife or daughter's space. And they both apparently feel free to sit with their knees relaxed and apart, just like him.

Does this mean that we have actually gone backwards since the Renaissance in terms of sitting etiquette being dictated by patriarchy? I am certainly having a hard time figuring out how to translate 'manspread' into ancient Greek.* 

*[Colleagues have suggested several solutions since I first posted this, including ὀνοσκελίζομαι (Brady Kiesling), the adjectives πανταχογόνατος (Kevin Solez)χαυνόπρωκτος, or διαπεπλιγμένος (Pavlos Avlamis) and new portmanteau verb ἀν(δρ)οίγνυμι (Nirvanya Visnjic)] 

Friday 10 November 2017

Week of the Unaccountable Oligarchs

A week where the full de-democratisation of Higher Education governance came sharply into focus for me after I watched the brilliant movie Death of Stalin, in which a cabal of unaccountable fellow oligarchs battle it out over control of the Politburo.

Management at our universities often takes no account of what even its most senior academic staff advise, even when they do it in unison. When challenged, as one was challenged by me this week, these unelected ‘leaders’ even admit it, implying that  it is fine for them to take (usually ill-informed) unilateral decisions with far-reaching implications.

What I do not understand is why Senior Leadership Teams and SManagementTs (unaffectionately known as Sluts and Smuts) bother going through the motions of consultation.  It is a sign of the times that I fear to say more because I want to keep my job for a few more years.

"Choice of Hercules", Adam Room, Grove House, Roehampton
I often feel guilty that in the 1990s, along with many other academics who might now be in positions of institutional power, I decided against climbing the management pole. I preferred to concentrate on the real business of university life: teaching, research, and communicating with the public. But that was before any of us realised that we were about to be annexed by a new professional Management Class who regard our views as worthless and our consultative procedures a Jurassic inheritance completely at odds with their commercialised concept of education and intellectual labour.

"Hercules and the Hydra", Joseph Kirsch, 1937
I also heard this week from an excellent middle-aged classicist at an English university, a man for whom I write references, that he and one other lecturer have been made redundant as of 30th June 2018. This would be bad enough at the best of times, but in this case he had only recently signed a contract for a full-time continuing post. He had given up some other non-recoverable lucrative teaching contracts in order to accept it. Some administrative cock-up at Management level meant that the financial implications of the appointment were realised in the local Kremlin far too late, and so two individuals’ futures have been abruptly and arbitrarily sacrificed.

I may not be hearing the sound of physical corpses being kicked down the back stairs by the KGB. But the movie seems painfully relevant, and not only to the Tory Cabinet.

Thursday 19 October 2017

Diary of a Peripatetic Classicist in Ulster & the Midwest

A longer blog than usual after a week dashing between events in Belfast, Ohio and Philadelphia. A public discussion on Saturday of the vitality of ancient Greek stories was organised by BBC Radio Northern Ireland. It was a joy to meet the author of the bestselling Orchard Book of Greek Myths—the eloquent Geraldine McCaughrean. And to have an interviewer as well-read in Homer and Aristotle as William Crawley was a delightful surprise.

The venue was Mount Stewart, an elegant 19th-century stately home and garden decorated by Edith, the 7th Marchioness Londonderry, who liked to cavort as Circe alongside her daughters dressed as Sirens. The family’s Greek obsession goes back to the 2nd Marquess (Lord Castlereagh) who masterminded the nation’s purchase of the Parthenon marbles from Lord Elgin. The Scottish opportunist gave Castlereagh this exquisite  fifth-century Athenian funerary sculpture as a thank-you present.

Inter-Aristocratic Backhander
On Sunday I faced the most unpleasant airport staff I have ever encountered. Two British employees of Air Canada, who appeared to be having a lovers’ tiff, refused to let me board my flight to Toronto airport at which I was ticketed to transfer onto a flight to Columbus, Ohio. 

I failed to acquire a visa on my mobile phone. The Father Of My Children managed to sort it out at home, but too late. I did finally arrive at Columbus, in a foul mood, many hours later than expected, but in time to lecture on what movies Aristotle would have chosen to illustrate his moral philosophy.

My Columbus host, Professor Fritz Graf, is a world authority on ancient religion, magic, and inscriptions. I was treated to a private viewing of some of his centre’s best ‘squeezes’ (papier-mache impressions of inscribed stones). My favourite was the epitaph for a 17-year-old African girl, a weaver in Rome. She must have been excellent at her craft for her employer/owner to commission this monument.

Edith Espinal in Sanctuary
The Columbus TV news was dominated by the riveting headline BISON ESCAPE FARM and the sad case of another Edith, Edith Espinal, who is at risk of deportation to Mexico, despite having two children born in the USA. She is in permanent sanctuary at a Mennonite Church while the politicians squabble over her immigration status.

Edith Hall in Vrokastro, Crete
On to the Penn Museum at Philadelphia. Its classical collections owe much to my Pennsylvanian true namesake Edith Hall (after marriage Edith Hall Dohan). She was an expert on Cretan archaeology, and an indomitable donkey-rider. I am not a natural digger and talked instead about Aristotle and Environmentalism.

So now I’m back at Philadelphia airport, watching round-the-clock reporting of the US President’s inattentiveness to the emotions of everyone and anyone with whom he interacts.  But I have discovered a new hobby—impersonating the huge repertoire of completely dejected facial expressions used by his press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I could happily watcher her glower, grimace, scowl, sneer, frown and sigh miserably, all day long, every day.

Sunday 1 October 2017

Was Homer a Sicilian Woman?

Butler MS--Cave near Trapani 'where the Cyclops lived'
An invitation to speak at Trapani in north-west Sicily proved irresistible. The topic was Victorian eccentric Samuel Butler. The manuscript of Butler’s notorious book The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897) is in Trapani’s gorgeous Fardelliana Library. It argues that this epic was penned by a young Sicilian woman. After worshipping the manuscript we spoke at a standing-room only public event in the presence of The Mayor.*
With speakers Dr Christiano Turbil & Renato LoSchiavo

Butler was thrilled that one scholar in antiquity, Naucrates, thought Homer was a woman too.** Naucrates claimed both ‘Homeric’ epics were by Phantasia, child of Philosophy Prof. Nicarinos. She put them in the temple of Hephaestus at Memphis. Homer acquired copies and published them under his name. But I argued that Butler had been persuaded of the Odyssey’s feminine authorship for three other reasons.

Breeches Actress plays Mercury in Victorian Burlesque
First, he was influenced by the gender-subverting popular burlesques on the Odyssey and other classical myths which were the mid-Victorian rage at the Strand Theatre, on the corner of the Strand underneath my office where the Aldwych Underground station was built and the KCL merchandise shop now stands. Butler lived a stone’s throw away at Clifford’s Inn. The most popular Odyssey burlesques were by his exact Cambridge contemporary F.C. Burnand. Young women played the heroic male roles and spoke in the street-smart contemporary English which Butler used for his own Homer translations.
Strand Theatre, left corner where KCL now is

Second, femininity is a ‘mask’ for social class.  Butler’s theory and 1900 Odyssey outraged scholars because  he implied that ancient Greeks heroes were working and lower-middle class. His gods, Professors sneered, spoke ‘like angry housemaids’. In Butler’s mind, the plebeian London theatre audiences had fused with the Sicilian peasantry and residents of ancient Ithaca.

Third, in 1882 a student at Butler’s own Cambridge college published the first English translation of the massive Japanese 11th-century epic romance Genji Monogatari, sensationally written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu. The translator was Kenchio Suyematz, a high-level Japanese aristocrat whose residency at St. John’s attracted national attention.  If the Japanese national epic was authored by a woman, why not the ancient Greek one?

A perfect trip, rounded off by visits to the nearby ancient theatre and temple at Segesta. Then I returned to launch this year’s undergraduate course at KCL and, in Kent, my ACE campaign to get Classical subjects into every state school in the land, on which see the project website. Constant activity, but, however knackering, that's the way I like it.
* Organised by the super-efficient and super-hospitable Renato LoSchiavo and Diego Grammatico.

** As cited by the mythographer Ptolemy Chennos, himself quoted by  Photius of Constantinople.

Segesta Theatre--Diego Grammatico and Christiano Turbil