Sunday 27 September 2020

Downs but More Ups in the North-East and Denmark

With James Miller (whom I taught 20 years ago!) at Durham 6th-Form Centre

I’ve come off social media for a few months after some bizarre reactions to the In Our Time radio show on Pericles to which I contributed, broadcast on September 17th. But some faithful friends, including the great Nat Haynes, have persuaded me at least to continue blogging, on the ground that women’s voices should not be silenced in public by hate campaigns. This all happened during my first in-person visit to schools and sixth-form colleges for several months to encourage them to expand their provision of classical subjects.

Some of the Year 13s at Newcastle RGS, where I talked Sappho & Ancient Women

I managed to visit a few fine north-eastern institutions teaching classical civilisation, as well as my former postdoc Lucy Jackson (now lecturer in Greek at Durham Uni) and her beautiful new baby Zelda, beamingly reminiscent of Sappho’s poetic statements of her great love for her daughter Cleïs. But the north-east lockdown on September 17 prevented me, sadly, from my long-awaited visit to my friend, poet Tony Harrison, in his 80s and immuno-compromised. And now I find myself in quarantine for two whole weeks after Denmark was put on the list at 4 a.m. yesterday, when my return plane did not arrive until 4 pm. No leaving the house for any reason whatsoever!

Lecturing in Aarhus

But it was worth it. It was pure joy to travel abroad again and to visit the lively Classics Department at Aarhus, where another former mentee, Prof. Isabelle Torrance, leads a large and inspirational ERC-funded project on Classical Influences in Irish Culture. Being able to address an audience physically, in person, and enjoy spontaneous laughter and questions that such a live event produces, was magical. And that evening we defiantly affirmed or forged friendships in the shadow of imminent separation.

Photo by my host, Archaeology Prof. Troels Myrup Kristensen

I spoke on the history of women classical scholars in Denmark, a country of fewer than 6 million which has punched far above its weight in terms of classical scholarship relative to the size of its population. Birgitte Thott was one of the founders of Danish literary prose when she translated Seneca’s philosophical works in the mid-17th century. She also wrote a massive work on the importance of women being educated to an advanced level, which teems with classical references.

The visual familiarity of museum and gallery visitors all over Europe with ancient Greek art, particularly archaic sculpture, owes much to the sculptor Anna-Marie Carl-Nielsen, who was the first to align correctly the ‘Typhon’ pediment of the archaic Athenian temple of Athena, and painter Maria Henriques. Her watercolours of archaic statues, both Greek and Etruscan, once hung on the walls of every state school across Denmark.

Ada Adler, often said to be greatest woman philologist of all time, in the 1920s-1930s edited the massive Byzantine encyclopaedic Suda so brilliantly that her text is used by the latest online edition; Ingeborg Hammer-Jensen was a prolific expert on ancient Greek mathematics and science at a time when Danes were the world leaders in this area on account of the Archimedes palimpsest.

I was nervous about ‘taking coals to Newcastle’ by lecturing Danes on their own foremothers, but they either appreciated it or pretended to convincingly. And we were treated to a personal tour of the Aarhus museum of classical antiquities by its curator, Vinnie Nørskov. Since she is the top expert on the Classical Civilisation component in the Danish secondary curriculum which has been compulsory for over a century, I’ll be using quarantine to interview her and post it as a blog here soon.

Monday 21 September 2020

On Virgil's Death Anniversary, Was the AENEID complete?


On the anniversary of Virgil’s death in 19 BCE, the poet who (like so many from antiquity) dazzles me with his artistry while making me feel politically squeamish, I’ve returned to the old chestnut: how nearly complete was the Aeneid?  The tradition that Virgil had not completed it and was not happy with it being published unrevised goes back to a biography written in the fourth century CE by a grammarian called Aelius Donatus. This biography may contain earlier material (but not therefore necessarily more reliable) written by Suetonius. It certainly includes bits of text added by other scholars subsequent to Donatus.

The main evidence that the poem was unfinished consists of the 57 incomplete lines spread across all 12 books but particularly concentrated in books 2-5, 7 and 9-10.

Donatus says that Virgil went to Greece, planning a three-year stay to finish the epic. He asked his friend Varius to burn the Aeneid if anything happened to him. He fell ill in Greece, returned to the Italian port city of Brindisi, and died there, having tried and failed to have the manuscripts burned. Varius published them anyway ‘acting under the authority of Augustus. But they were revised only in a cursory fashion, so that if there were any unfinished lines, he left them unfinished’.

There have been several responses to this information. People who think Virgil was quietly subversive towards Augustus and the Roman Empire suppose that he had fallen out of love with the propagandist aspects of the poem and so considered destroying it. This premise informed the famous 1945 novel The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch, which explores the difficulties faced by an artist under totalitarianism.

Others have said that Virgil knew he wanted to adjust or supplement the ideological import of the poem to make it either more anti- or pro-Augustus.  Sometimes they cite a passage interpolated into Donatus’ account, which says that ‘if he had lived longer, Virgil would have written 24 books, up to the time of Augustus, and that he meant…to deal with the deeds of Augustus in detail’.

But I am not alone in thinking that at least some of the ‘unfinished’ lines were actually finished. The truncation of the metrical flow often adds pathos or rhetorical emphasis.

When the Trojans take the momentous decision to drag the wooden horse into the city, the moment just before Aeneas says ‘we parted the walls and laid bare the city’s battlements’ is preceded by the ominous pause created by a missing half-line (2.233).

When Aeneas brutally tells Dido to stop harassing him with her complaints, ‘for I’m not trying to get to Italy of my own volition’, the impact his emotional brutality has on Dido is arguably increased, again, by the thudding silence of the missing metrical feet (4.361).

In the final book, when Turnus, who has lost some of his dearest friends in battle, is upbraided by his disguised sister for not attacking hard enough, a pause precedes the tragic soliloquy in which he accepts that his violent death is now imminent and inevitable (12.630). It is as if he is drawing a very deep breath.

One thing is for certain, if the human race survives what it is currently doing to the planet, and unless a wholly unexpected and reliable new source turns up for what went on in Brindisi just before and on 21st September 19 BCE, we will be arguing about Virgil’s aesthetic and political intentions in the Aeneid for a good few millennia to come.

The Tomb of Virgil' by Joseph Wright of Derby

Friday 11 September 2020

Diana Rigg's Greeks and Romans: An Appreciation

Diana Rigg of Doncaster, whose first name (Enid) she wisely decided against using, died yesterday. She was a hugely popular figure both in the theatre world and amongst the public. Her mesmerising 1992-1994 performance as Euripides’ Medea, directed by Jonathan Kent, transferred to Broadway, where she received the Tony Award for best actress. Her thoroughly cerebral Medea changed my interpretation of several of the scenes in this deathless tragedy. She was extraordinarily intelligent and approached genius in her feeling for verse forms.

As my own tribute, I’ve collected some pictures from most of her other Greek or Roman roles, broadly defined. Her Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra at the 1985 Chichester Festival was said to be a masterclass in the precision delivery of iambic pentameters. She had learned her craft cavorting wittily in the woods as Helena during the pre-nuptial theatricals of Theseus and Hippolyta in Peter Hall’s Beatnik film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1968 (alongside Judy Dench and Helen Mirren, no less).

In 1975 she won high praise for her scintillating whiplash delivery of Tony Harrison’s demotic rhyming couplets in his Phaedra Britannica, which relocated Racine’s Phèdre to India in the run-up to the 1857 revolt. It was only a matter of time before she played Racine’s own Phèdre at the Albery Theatre in 1998, although I preferred her creepy, mordant Agrippina in the accompanying production of Racine’s Britannicus.

But I will always cherish most my memories of her astoundingly glamorous Clytemnestra In the notorious 3-part Oresteia, under the new title The Serpent Son, which the BBC broadcast in 1979. Having brought a vast new audience to Greek tragedy because they had loved her so much in television shows, especially The Avengers, she acted everyone else off the screen. This is saying something when Helen Mirren played Kassandra and Sian Phillips was the Head Fury.

I had just arrived at university and loved the show—she managed to find some humour even in the terrifying Clytemnestra—but it was deplored by all my Classics tutors, who nevertheless watched every minute, as slightly steamy conversations with them accidentally revealed. I think she would have relished this information. So sad to see her go.