Sunday 30 June 2019

Murderers who Moonlit as Classicists

Classicists are not always the most virtuous of people, but two classicists have outdone the rest of us mere narcissists, grudge-holders and backbiters by committing murder in England. I don’t know if it’s the heat or the mental strain of the Tory leadership contest, but I have an urge to blog about them today.

Murder Victim
Bionic Translator
The Reverend John Selby Watson, an Irishman, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, and headmaster of Stockwell Grammar School, was in 1872 sentenced to death, despite his plea of insanity, for battering his wife to death with the butt of his pistol; his sentence was subsequently reduced to life imprisonment. 

Watson had acquired mild fame as a prodigiously prolific classical translator;  he had translated Quintilian, Xenophon, Lucretius, Cicero, Sallust, Florus, Velleius Paterculus, Justin, Cornelius Nepos, and Eutropius for Bohn’s Classical Library. He lived out his last twelve years in Parkhurst Prison, where he died after falling out of his hammock.

Eugene Aram (1704-59), on the other hand, was an entirely self-taught philologist from Ramsgill, Yorkshire. Despite his humble origins (his father worked as a gardener for a clergyman), he became a philologist of a high order. He taught himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldaean, proved the Indo-European roots of the Celtic languages almost a century before  J.C. Prichard’s lauded Eastern Origin of the Celtic Nations (1831) and was one of the first to dispute the then commonly held view that Latin was derived from Greek.

But Aram was also a murderer, a thief, and reportedly lived incestuously with his daughter. In 1744, he killed his ‘best friend’ Daniel Clarke (nobody knows why although rumours about a woman abounded). He fled to London and earned a living teaching Latin in a school in Piccadilly. He managed to avoid trial until 1759, when Clarke’s body was found in a cave. Aram admitted his crime and attempted suicide by slitting his arm above the elbow. He failed in the attempt and was hanged without delay from the gallows in York.

Would you Learn Latin from This Man?
His corpse was suspended in chains in Knaresborough forest, where his friend’s body had been discovered. The dark philologist’s infamy lived on in Thomas Hood’s ballad The Dream of Eugene Aram, a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton called Eugene Aram, a play by W.G. Wills of the same name, and sundry allusions to his exploits in a 1915 silent movie, poetry and fiction. P.G. Wodehouse was fascinated by Aram, and refers to him in several of his novels about Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.

I’m not proposing that we add these two gentlemen unreservedly to the annals and canonical list of Heroes of the History of Classical Scholarship. But they certainly make it a little more colourful. I’d be interested to hear of other dastardly classicists who committed nefarious deeds in other countries.

Wednesday 19 June 2019

We Are a Proud Professional Mother

Our Earlier Book

I have magnificent news. My collaborator on my Classics and Class project, and co-author of the forthcoming A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain, has been appointed at St Andrews as Lecturer in Latin. I am ecstatic. Henry Stead is a wonderful person as well as an outstanding young intellectual and I am exploding with metaphorically maternal pride.

I’m too delirious to write anything but a boasting love letter to all my Post-Docs and Research students who have kept in touch. They are not my biological children so I do not fear the fate of Niobe. Helping to look after you all has been one of the biggest pleasures and privileges of my life.

Dr Lucy Jackson, Utterly Brilliant
The brilliant Lucy Jackson, who is completing a Leverhulme Post-Doc on Renaissance translations of Greek tragedy, is also about to go off to a permanent appointment at my old stomping-ground, the University of Durham. The astounding Arlene Holmes-Henderson is co-writing a book with me, Teaching Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in Britain at KCL and co-running our ACE campaign to get Greeks and Romans to every British teenager.

More than a quarter of a century ago, at Reading, there were Kim Shahabudin (now Teaching Fellow there), Andrea Bolton (who teaches Classics at Portsmouth Grammar School) and Ruth Bardel, who made a fine career in TEFL. At Durham, the dancing Alessandra Zanobi wrote her elegant thesis/book on ancient pantomime dancing and Emma Bridges her dazzling study of Xerxes co-supervised with Peter Rhodes (Emma’s now ICS Public Engagement Fellow in Classics) as well as the co-edited Cultural Responses to the Persian Wars

It was at Durham that Rosie Wyles began her splendid work on Greek tragedy (she now lectures at Kent Uni and has done THREE books with me as well as her own), Leanne Hunnings began her PhD on slavery (she’s an International Education Analyst), as did Laura Proffitt (who co-edited Reading Ancient Slavery with me and Richard Alston).

These last three passed their doctorates at Royal Holloway, where I also supervised Justine McConnell, now a trailblazing lecturer in Comparative Literature at KCL, who's done two books with me besides her pathbreaking Black Odysseys, Daniel Goad, a successful administrator at LSE, where no doubt being an expert on the Aristophanic Absurd throws light on the strange workings of academe, David Bullen, Theatre Director and Lecturer, and Jarrid Looney, who teaches Classics and English at Uwharrie Charter Academy.

At KCL I’ve made a point of supervising excellent mature and part-time PhDs students, including Matthew Shipton (a mountaineer when not Head of Comms at City Uni, London), Caroline Latham (an unnervingly intelligent star, older even than me, who’s done wonderful indexes for Women Classical Scholars and New Light on Tony Harrison), Miryana Dimitrova (freelance translator), Etta Chatterjee (an international lawyer),  Lottie Parkyn (now Director for Academic Engagement at Notre Dame London), Oliver Baldwin (world’s greatest expert on Seneca in Spain), Devan Turner (a university administrator), Anactoria Clarke (Curriculum Innovator at the Open University) and Magdalena Zira (one of Cyprus’ top theatre directors).

There are also two famous theatre directors amongst my past KCL PhD full-timers, Helen Eastman (an outstanding writer too) and Leonidas Papadopoulos, who wrote a lyrical thesis on Greek Tragedy and the Sea. Currently on the books full-time are Nimisha Patel (whose insights into contemporary Indian education never cease to stagger me) Peter Swallow (with whom I’m co-editing Aristophanic Humour) and Connie Bloomfield (with whom I’m convening a conference on Time in Greek Literature in September). Hardeep Dhindsa is soon to join me to research all those ridiculously pale Greek gods and heroes in 18th-century British neoclassical art.

Two students whose Masters' Level dissertations I supervised are now leading lights of their academic departments, Dr Emma Cole at Bristol and Professor Matthew Wright at Exeter. Many other wonderful junior colleagues (Stephe Harrop, once post-doc at the APGRD I co-founded at Oxford and with whom I edited Theorising Performance, now Senior Lecturer in Drama & Theatre at Liverpool Hope Uni) and students have laughed and cried with me in my many offices (Marcus Bell!), but this is already a long blog. Here are just some of the books which my babies have produced. (The software won't let my load any more). They have also had lots of their own real babies, theatrical productions, glamorous weddings, and other exciting tales to tell.

Saturday 15 June 2019

A Bloomsday Post on Another Irish Ulysses

June 16th is Bloomsday, the date when James Joyce’s Ulysses is set. One of Leopold Bloom’s encounters is with the terrifying Cyclops, the obsessive Fenian anti-Semite Citizen, who baits the Jewish hero mercilessly. But another creative Irishman, James Barry,  had used the Odyssey long before to make a point about conflict between him and a compatriot.  

Permanent Collection of Cork's Crawford Gallery
Barry’s Portraits of Burke and Barry in the characters of Ulysses and a Companion fleeing from the Cave of Polyphemus (c. 1776) is discussed in my forthcoming book with Henry Stead, A People’s History of Classics. Barry was born to a Protestant father, who operated a cargo coaster out of the Port of Cork. But he enthusiastically adopted the faith of his Catholic mother.

He was saved from working as a sailor by fellow Irishman Edmund Burke, no less. Burke was still most famous as the author of A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful rather than for his trenchant conservative Whiggery. 

Burke spotted Barry’s talent, and had him trained in the workshop of James ‘Athenian’ Stuart (who was also the son of a sailor, and suffered a near-destitute boyhood in Ludgate). Burke paid for Barry to study in Rome. But Burke disagreed with Barry’s politics and attitudes to authority. The much poorer, younger man loathed having to appease patrons.

Barry supported Irish peasants, French revolutionaries, Abolitionists and Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminism. Burke agreed with him on religious freedom and American independence but very little else. 

Polyphemus represents the rapacious British establishment, and the sheep its chattel-like Irish subjects. Burke (Ulysses) is trying to silence his companion. Barry knew that Ulysses’ lieutenant Eurylochus later becomes mutinous, complaining that Ulysses was himself responsible for the disaster on the Cyclops’ island.

Barry was appointed Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy in 1782. But his Irish vernacular, slovenly clothes (he was sometimes mistaken for a beggar) and what an insider called his ‘avowed democratical principles' culminated in his expulsion from the Academy in 1799 and death in abject poverty seven years later.  

His inability to embrace the British artistic and political establishments, as the increasingly reactionary Burke urged, is the fundamental message of this fascinating pre-Joycean Irish allegory of the Odyssey. It is one reason why Barry was so admired by Blake, Turner, and Watts. But, despite his endlessly reproduced and beautiful pictures of the suffering Philoctetes, Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida, etc, far too few of us are aware of his radical classicism today.

More on a research topic rather than UK parliamentary politics again next week!

Saturday 8 June 2019

A Bridesmaid on Old Greeks and Prizes

It's great that the judges of the Womens Prize for Fiction chose Tayari Jones harrowing account of the effect of an African American mans wrongful incarceration on his marriage. Like Ava DuVernay's dazzling Netflix When they See Us, which I could not turn off this week, and Barry Jenkins'/James Baldwins If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Jones novel makes it impossible to forget this: 22% of the worlds incarcerated population is in the USA; a shameful 59% of them are black and/or Hispanic.

DuVernay: her directing is stupendous
Jones has said that every novel she has written harks back to the Greeks; her prisoner's wife Celestial is a twist on Penelope, the wife who waits  for Odysseus, only modern, independent and famous for her art. Curiously, Homer lies behind two of the other shortlisted novels, Pat Barkers The Silence of the Girls and Madeline Millers Circe.

Aristotle's Way in shortlist pile under Robin Lane Fox
If there are runners-up as distinguished as Barker and Miller, how can I object to being runner-up for what is the fifth, sixth or seventh time (I have seriously lost count) for the London Hellenic Prize with Aristotles Way? Since I didnt know I had been shortlisted this year, getting told on Thursday that I was bridesmaid yet again came as a pleasant surprise. Surely it would be disorientating if I ever came first?  

This means that Homer has beaten Aristotle, since the prize deservedly goes to Michael Hughes Country, a retelling of the Iliad in the context of the Northern Irish troubles. Hughes is a lovely man (I interviewed him and Barker at the Piccadilly Waterstones last year) and the book is tremendous. The Irish dialogue is crying out for a radio adaptation and he is also an actor (hint to radio commissioners).

Homer was Aristotles favourite author, to judge from the number and nature of the Homeric quotations in his works. He thinks about random bad luck with Priam's staggering misfortunes; he suggests avoiding vices by following the example of Odysseus, steering between Scylla and Charybdis. So I bet Aristotle wouldnt mind being beaten by The Best Ever Bard, at all.
Aristotle with his Bust of Homer

Sunday 2 June 2019

Slavery in Ancient Greek Ukraine and Today

This week I read a depressing report on trafficking of individuals from Vietnam into slavery in Britain (the kind of really significant news nobody’s been interested in for the last three years). But I’ve also been indexing a book about the culture of ancient Black Sea communities. It reminded me that slavery is the topic of one of the most electrifying of ancient Black Sea documents.

Berezan in Dnieper/Bug Estuary 
Actually, it’s one of the most electrifying of all ancient documents from anywhere. It is the oldest one in Greek prose. It’s by an ‘ordinary person’. It is a letter written around 510 BCE on a lead plate found in around 1970 on the island of Berezan near the Ukrainian coast.

A desperate father named Achillodorus begs his son, Protagoras, to help. Achillodorus is about to be enslaved because there is confusion between two merchants about the ownership of property and his status as freeman. Achillodorus asks his son to intervene, and above all to get his mother and brothers out to safety in an unnamed city, probably Olbia on the mainland, founded in the 7th century BCE by Greek colonists from what is now Turkey.
Ruins of Olbia, a Major 7th-century Greek city

I first read this letter as an undergraduate doing a course on Greek prose style delivered by the legendary Sir Kenneth Dover. It interested me more than the endless obscene ancient Greek graffiti he liked to introduce us to. It is important because it shows that ‘ordinary’ Greeks were literate, and that they wrote the way that they spoke, not in long, elaborate periods like some literary authors. It is important because it helps me argue what I have long felt passionately—that scholars need to talk about ‘The Mediterranean and Black Sea worlds’ when defining the scope of Classics.

But most of all it’s important because it reminds us that the terror of being enslaved and losing your liberty was an everyday reality for people in antiquity, just as it is today for many more people in the world than the 45 million+ already enduring conditions of unfreedom. We will never know what happened to Achillodorus, his wife and his children. But we could start to do something about slavery today.
Slave Market: the Fate Achillodorus Dreaded for his Family

So now you know that the earliest example of Greek prose in the world comes from Ukraine, not Athens or Anatolia, which may or may not excite you. It does me. As we face two months of UK news entirely dominated by the tournament deciding which buffoon will get to lead all those of us who never voted Tory, I’m retiring into libraries to get inspired.

But I’m also going to step up the blog’s frequency in order to take my mind off the whole nauseating media exhibition of hypocrisy and lies we’re about to be served with night and day. See you again, I hope, with more news from the archives next week.

My co-editors of Ancient Theatre and Performance Culture Around the Black Sea (C.U.P. 2019) are David Braund and Rosie Wyles.