Saturday 31 October 2020

Ancient Tips from Lucian for Halloween Costumes


On Halloween I’ve managed to get into the British Library for the first time in 6 months. The intention was to conduct some serious research into Lucian, the great Syrian satirist who wrote such dazzling Greek dialogues and parodies in the 2nd century CE. But he waylaid me. I have not read his Lover of Lies for at least three decades, and had forgotten that it’s all about ghost stories.

So I’ve spent the afternoon trying not to disturb other masked readers by laughing out loud. Lucian’s brilliant device is to tell a whole series of ghost stories, but put them into the mouths of supposedly serious professional philosophers who should despise all such superstitious lore about the supernatural. It’s a bit like jokes beginning ‘A Scotsman, an Irishman and a Welshman walk into a bar…’, but its ‘a Stoic, a Platonist and a Peripatetic go to a Halloween symposium’.

There’s the youth who summoned the ghost of his dead father and Hecate (who changes into a puppy) in order to get his ladylove into bed. There’s a statue of a pot-bellied man who at nightfall descends from his pedestal, takes a bath in the courtyard fountain and sings non-stop. A statue (belonging to a doctor) of Hippocrates comes alive and maliciously trashes his owner’s pharmaceutical cupboard.

There’s a Medusa-like female three hundred feet high whose lower body is in the form of a snake; dogs can detect when she’s coming. One philosopher was led by her down to Hades, where he saw his dead father and Socrates looking fat and bald.

Another witnessed a man who’d been dead for twenty days enjoy a resurrection. The host was visited by the ghost of his wife who rebukes him for failing to locate one of her sandals, but then a Maltese terrier barks and they suddenly find it. There’s a pitch-black hairy ghost who can mutate into animals but can be made to disappear if you talk to him in Egyptian.

The narrator tries to bring the philosophers back to their rational senses by reporting that the wise Democritus had foiled the attempt of a gang of youths to frighten him. They ‘got themselves up in black palls and skull-masks, formed a ring round him, and treated him to a brisk dance’.  It didn’t work. All Democritus said was ‘Come on, enough of that nonsense’.

Nonsense it may have been, but the dialogue surely offers some inspiration for classical-themed Halloween costumes. Bags I the 300-foot Medusa who knows how to locate the dead Socrates.

Monday 26 October 2020

Caractacus Ap-Cymbeline Rides Again

Newly Discovered Caractacus Coin-A Snip at £24,000

Regular readers of this blog or one-off readers of Greek Tragedy & the British Theatre  or A People’s History of Classics will know what a fan I am of the ancient British chieftain Caradog, or Caractacus. Head of the Catuvellauni tribe, which stretched from the Thames to the Wash and in whose territory I now live, he stood up against the Romans for eight whole years. The dastardly British Queen Cartimandua betrayed him to the Romans, but he made such a good speech in the Roman Forum that the Emperor Claudius spared him.

I was first put onto Caradog by Peter Bowles, a suave actor far more famous for domestic sitcoms set in suburbia, who wore improbable hair and make-up to impersonate him in the great TV adaptation of I Claudius in 1976.

I became excited when I discovered that Welsh-speaking Edwardian schoolchildren enacted musicals about Caradog, and Lloyd-George found it useful propaganda to point out how brave their ancestors were when he was on his notorious WW1 Welsh recruitment drive. A version of this research is also published in the excellent Celts, Romans,Britons: Classical and Celtic Influence in the Construction of British Identities, ed. by Rhys and Francesca Kaminski-Jones, just published by OUP. I’m happy to send a pdf to anyone who emails me via my website

So I’m melancholy that I don’t have lying around in any of my numerous Offshore Bank Accounts even the starting price of £24,000 set by the Norwich auctioneers who will on November 15 be selling off a unique gold stater coin  depicting Caractacus (thanks to my dear friend Paul Cartledge for bringing this to my attention).

Found by a metal detectorist a year ago near Newbury, it was minted in Hampshire not long before Claudius sent four legions to subdue the ancestors. We can even stare into the remains of the face of a young man who may have fought for Caractacus. A skull of the right date was discovered in a nearby ditch last year as well.

19-year-old who died fighting for Caractacus?

The coin is important because it is gold rather than the usual silver for coins of this time and type, thus revealing the rich resources Caractacus seems to have had at his disposal. It suggests he thought he was an excellent horseman and liked arable farming.  The inscription CYNO on the reverse also probably shows that Caractacus really was the son of Cymbeline of Shakespeare fame, another early Briton of whom I am fond, as an earlier blog explored. At the end of his play Cymbeline drops his crazy jingoistic former allies and makes great friends with Rome. He would definitely have voted against Brexit.

So I’d be sad if the coin was bought by the kind of tub-thumping nationalist who fetishizes ancestral ‘heroes’. If there weren’t far more pressing financial issues blighting the poor of the nation currently, I’d even have suggested a crowdsourced funding campaign to buy it and donate it to a Catuvellaunian museum. 

Saturday 17 October 2020

On Zoom-Age Academia and the Problematic Thomas Carlyle


The conditions of collective near-house-arrest get worse. Of course I’m worried about my father, in his nineties in a Scottish care home. But I’m even more worried about the numerous teenagers and young adults known to me personally whose distress signals are getting noisier daily. I’m also terrified by the creeping surveillance of our every move, inaugurated by having to give personal data just to go out for a coffee.

But in times like these it’s important to celebrate any glimmer of light, and for me that has been the newfound opportunities to drop into academic events across the country and even the planet. PLEASE can we continue to make all our seminars open to anyone with an internet link once this epidemic is finally over?

Toasting Nat Haynes' latest book

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been virtually in London, toasting Nat Haynes’ brilliant new book on women in Greek myth, in Athens, expatiating on Greek democracy, in Glasgow lapping up Prof. Christopher Pelling’s insightful talk on editing Thucydides, and—best of all—in St. Andrews yesterday, giving a lecture on my old accomplice Henry Stead’s undergraduate course on Scotland and the Classics. 

Dropping in On St Andrews Classics Teaching

My theme was Thomas Carlyle, author of Sartor Resartus and Past and Present, which used Classics in pathbreaking ways and transformed the attitude of the Victorians to poverty and working-class discontent. He identified with Cassandra in popular Siege of Troy spectacles, doomed to forecasting disaster but never believed in time. His Arachnes were the dehumanising looms and machines to which workers became shackled by the industrial revolution. His Midases were the avaricious owners of land and means of production who tried to turn everything into lucre but lived empty moral lives in the process.

Walter Crane's 'Riddle of the Sphinx', inspired by Carlyle's Past and Present

His Sphinxes were the Manchester operatives who lost their lives at Peterloo, but only after putting the unanswerable, terrifying riddle to the nation—how to solve the class struggle? His hydras were the million-headed underclasses that no Herculean state militia could ever defeat definitively. But there is hope, which he expressed by quoting Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’: it might yet be possible for the human race to reach the ‘Happy Isles’.

Carlyle’s almost incalculable influence was exerted through his myriad admirers: Keir Hardie, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Booth, and the entire Trade Union movement.   The docker Ben Tillett, effectively founder of the TGWU, recalls being ‘spellbound by the dark fury’ of Carlyle’s spirit’.    In 1906, when Labour MPs and the Liberals who had supported the 1903 Lib–Lab pact were polled, they named Carlyle (along with the Bible) as the reading matter that had influenced them most.

Carlyle Identified with Cassandra

Yet Carlyle, who believed that history was driven by brilliant individual ‘heroes’ like Christ and Cromwell, has since the 1930s been seen as a problematic hero himself. His views on slavery, empire, democracy and the superiority of white people make some of what he wrote unacceptable. His allusions to Homer and Greek tragedy in The French Revolution cannot conceal its antidemocratic attitude to history. He is the sort of erstwhile hero whose public statues are in jeopardy.

On November 12 I will be dropping in remotely from my Cambridgeshire home to Oxford, to debate with the outstandingly witty and erudite Tom Holland at the University Classics Society: the question is ‘Does the Modern World Need Ancient Heroes?'  I would have had to decline the invitation normally, because the dreaded X3 bus from my town to Oxford takes more than three hours and has no apparent suspension.

I don’t know how far the invitation to attend will be extended, if at all, to the public. So I’ll report back in a blog who won, while explaining my own view: we don’t need ancient heroes, but we certainly need to trace the genealogies of our cultural foremothers and fathers. And to keep up making our seminars open to anyone with a Zoom link. I get to crack jokes with old mates in three continents in the comments panel.

Sunday 11 October 2020

Why Little Girls Shouldn't Play Dido with their Dolls


On UN International Day of the Girl Child, by total coincidence I’ve read one of the memories recorded by Jane Welsh, later to marry Thomas Carlyle, of her childhood. Her yearning to be allowed to do things boys did, like learn Latin, while also to be allowed maternal feelings and girlish entertainment, feel powerfully relevant. The role of her mother in recycling sexist views and holding her back needs to be well noted. It is all too often the case.

The clever daughter of a Haddington doctor, Jane desperately wanted ‘to learn Latin like a boy! 'But’, writes her early biographer, ‘Mrs Alexander Ireland’, ‘there was a difference of opinion on the subject at home. Mrs. Welsh opposed her; but her father, who thought well of her talents, was willing she should have her way.

‘Jeannie took the matter into her own hands. She found out a lad in Haddington school who taught her to repeat a Latin noun of the first declension. Armed with this weapon, she hid herself, one  night when she was supposed to be in bed, under the drawing-room table. When opportunity offered, her small voice, from under the tablecover, broke silence with 'penna, a pen; pennae, of a pen,' &c. And, amid the general amusement, she crept out, ran to her father, and repeated her simple petition, 'I want to learn Latin; please let me be a boy!’…which settled the Latin question. At nine years old Jeannie was being taught ‘Virgil by a young schoolteacher. The effect was, she wrote, to change her religion, and make her into a sort of pagan.’   

One day she was told that a young lady in the world of Virgil would disdain to play with dolls. So she decided to destroy her doll, taking inspiration from Dido’s death in Aeneid 4. Her own words are too thrilling—and sad—to be paraphrased:

‘She should end as Dido ended, that doll as the doll of a young lady in ‘Virgil' should end. With her dresses, which were many and sumptuous, her four-posted bed, a faggot or two of cedar allumettes, a few sticks of cinnamon and a nutmeg, I, non ignara futuri, constructed her funeral pile sub auras, of course; and this new Dido, being placed in the bed with my help, spoke through my lips the sad last words of Dido the First, which I had then all by heart. . . . The doll having thus spoken, pallida morte futura, kindled the pile, and stabbed herself with a penknife, by way of Tyrian sword. Then, however, in the moment of seeing my poor doll blaze up for, being stuffed with bran, she took fire, and was all over in no time.

‘In that supreme moment my affection for her blazed up also, and I shrieked, and would have saved her, and could not, and went on shrieking till everybody within hearing flew to me and bore me off in a plunge of tears an epitome of most of one's 'heroic sacrifices,' it strikes me, magnanimously resolved on, ostentatiously gone about, repented of at the last moment, and bewailed with an outcry. Thus was my inner world at that period three-fourths old Roman and one-fourth old Fairy’.

Jane faced a choice no girl, woman or indeed human being should ever be asked to make. I always wanted dolls and books, children and an interesting job. It is really not too much to ask.

Saturday 3 October 2020

Talking Athenian Oarsmen 2500 years after Salamis


It’s 2,500 years since the Greek fleet, led by the Athenians, defeated Xerxes’ Armada off the island of Salamis, in one of several battles that kept mainland Greece out of the Persian Empire and launched democratic Athens’ 75-year seapower-based empire. I’m speaking at a rather splendid virtual conference starting today of which the President of the Hellenic Republic no less,  Katerina Sakellaropoulou, is patron. Other speakers include such heavyweight Greek historians as Josh Ober and Paul Cartledge, with a male/female ratio sadly typical of such events (32:4).

In my paper I ask why there is so little recognition in classical Athenian art that Athenian power was based on the millions of oar-strokes made by her large class of professional oarsmen, many of whom lived in the harbour area of the Piraeus or on Salamis island itself. Their champion was Pericles, yet you could never tell from the sculptures of the Acropolis temples he commissioned that the sovereign power lay with the democratic majority of lower-class rowers, rather than with wealthier hoplites or cavalrymen.

There were, however, subcutaneous compliments to seapower in the overall design of the Acropolis experience. When visitors enter the Propylaea from the east, they can see the mountains in the centre of the island of Salamis, but when they exit, almost all the island comes come within their sightline. The massive statue of Athena in hoplite gear, later named Athena Promachos, stood thirty feet high between the Propylaea and the Parthenon. She was set up there in 456 BCE, and commemorated the land battle of Marathon. But Pausanias pointed out that she speaks loud to sailors, since she served as a seamark, helping ships to steer towards her city (1.28.2). 

Nike with aphlasta

A very few artefacts refer to maritime warfare. Two wine cups have personifications of Salamis painted on them, with her name inscribed. Amongst the smaller Acropolis fragments, one shows a male figure holding an aphlaston (the beak of a conquered ship), being crowned by either Athena or Victory (Nike). A tiny votive shield shows a beautiful Nike with an aphlaston in each hand. Another Nike of around the same date, with relief, holds an aphlaston too.Two larger vases made in Athens portray Athena or Poseidon wielding an aphlaston.  But these are slim pickings, perhaps used in private symposia or individual dedications.

Athena holds aphlaston

The visual record would therefore give us little suggestion of the millions of oar-strokes made by Athenians during the imperial period, carefully synchronised by the keleustēs or boatswain and the penetrating rhythm of the reeded pipe called the aulos. But in five of Aristophanes’ plays, we have intense discussion of rowing affairs, designed to flatter the working-class majority in the audience that Aristophanes needed to applaud if he were to win the drama competition. 

Salamis Personified

It is from comedy that we even know what the orders given by the keleustēs sounded like (ōop), and the antiphonal responses of the oarsmen (appapai) In one of the Athenian naval inscriptions that makes me tingle with time-travelling excitement, we can even learn the names of these important ship-crew members in about 410 BCE: one boatswain was Charias of Acharnae, and his pipe-player was a man from Siphnos island by name of Sogenes.

My own involvement with rowing consists of little more than circling the lake in the University Park at Nottingham in a canoe in about 1970. But those amazing Athenian oarsmen, thanks to Aristophanes, can still speak loud to us of their skill, expertise, and camaraderie.