Saturday 23 October 2021

Remembering Who I am in Padua


After an unpleasant academic year 2020-2021, my sanity has finally been restored this week by my first ever visit to Padua (a solo journey I could not have contemplated even a few weeks ago). Its University, founded in 1222, is the fifth oldest in the world. My host was the wry Rocco Coronato, Professor of English, gifted at entitling publications (a recent article of his is ‘The Emergence of Priapism in Two Gentlemen of Verona’).

Elena Cornario Piscopia in the ermine of a Doctor of Philosophy

As Head of the PhD programme in Linguistic, Philological and Literary Sciences, Rocco invited me to address the doctoral students on the topic of women classical scholars in Italy. The lecture will be available online soon. The first woman ever to be awarded a doctorate was Elena Cornaro PIscopia as early as 1678—her topic was Aristotle. One of the most important papyrologists of all time was the inspirational Medea Norsa, who found and published Sappho fragment 2.

Medea Norsa, Papyrologist Extraordinary

Padua is forever engraved on a classicist’s heart as the city founded by Antenor, the Trojan counsellor who in the Iliad sensibly advises the Trojans to give Helen back to Menelaus immediately. But Antenor’s most famous exploit was founding Padua (Patavium), an act described by Venus to Jupiter in some of the most memorable lines of the Aeneid (1.242-9), when she is arguing that it is about time the other Trojan exile, Aeneas, is allowed to settle in Italy too.


The historian Livy was himself a Paduan, who retained an accent people laughed at all his life. He even opens his History of Rome with a resounding allusion to Aeneas and Antenor arriving from Troy and the foundation of Patavium ‘in the furthest regions of the Adriatic’. 

Livy has been given a monument in Antenor’s piazza, where an ancient sarcophagus said to contain  Antenor’s body was discovered in the thirteenth century and an imposing edifice built to house it. Sadly, carbon investigation reveals that the bones are not old enough for a Bronze Age hero and indeed one is a female femur.

Antenor's Tomb and Livy's Monument

Padua is famous as the setting of much of The Taming of the Shrew, but the show I went to see in the magnificent Teatro Verdi was Turandot. I made a mistake: I thought it was the Puccini opera, and so I would get to hear the football fan’s favourite aria Nessun Dorma. But it turned out to be the play, with minimal music. It didn’t matter, even though the acting was more declamatory than I’m used to and the plot of course preposterous.

I went back to the hotel to play every recording of Nessun Dorma I could find on Youtube (there are a lot; some are better than Pavarotti), while swigging Valpolicella and scoffing the local speciality, baccalĂ  alla vicentina (cod long basted in a milk and onion sauce, served with polenta). And I really thought seven months ago that I had forever lost my lust for life.

Thursday 14 October 2021

On Being UnStoic in Zeno's Cypriot Birthplace


My Favourite Paphos Mosaic: Ikarios Invents Wine

Regular readers will know that I am neither temperamentally nor philosophically impressed by Stoicism. But I like to visit the home-towns of ancient Greek intellectuals, and so rounded up six wonderful days in Greece and Cyprus celebrating freedom by having a deeply unStoic time in Kition, Cyprus, where Zeno the great Stoic was born at some distance from Aphrodite's birthplace in the west of the island, because obviously a Stoic disapproves of this divinity.

Zeno, not my Type of Role Model

The day started with not going studiously round the ruins of ancient Kition, but waving at them from my wonderful hostess’ Magdalena Zira’s car (she is a former PhD student of mine and a theatre director). It is impossible not to laugh in this vehicle because an imperious lady living in the dashboard constantly gives orders in Japanese, and nobody on Cyprus knows how to shut her up.

Posh Customers Only: Magdalena & Me

First I went to swim on Larnaca beach, not to improve my capacity for self-control and resilience, but to enjoy gratuitous physical ecstasy. Then we went to a world-famous taverna run by Mr Militzis surrounded by fragrant flowers and drank his homemade wine BEFORE NOON. We ate far more than any Stoic would in a week because it was delicious. Moreover, British Airways, with whom we were returning later in the day, no longer think economy passengers have any physical requirements even on 5-hour flights.

Prior to being unStoic in Kition, where I enjoyed staying in a flat where the Communist Party of Cyprus used to have unofficial meetings, I fulfilled a lifetime ambition by visiting Paphos. Aphrodite's town, as my travelling companion daughter Sarah Poynder discovered to her joy, contains even more (deeply unStoic, pleasure-addicted) cats than mosaics or statues of Aphrodite. 

Aphrodite of Paphos obviously needs two different frocks

And we had arrived from the Peloponnese where I had talked, within 48 hours, to audiences at the inaugural Benaki festival, on both Homer and ancient democracy. Hanging out with my classical besties Nat Haynes and Bettany Hughes was a delight.

Advocacy for Aristophanes: Greatest Greek

On Saturday night there was a competition chaired by Nat in a splendid restaurant between spokespersons for The Greatest Greek. I am pleased to say that Aristophanes, advocated by me, saw off Judith Herrin’s Empress Eirene, Yannis Palaiologos’ Venizelos, Bettany’s Helen of Sparta/Troy and Tom Holland’s Alexander the Great. I simply asked whether the audience, if stranded together on a desert island, would rather have icons, unlimited sex, unlimited political ambition/power or laughter plus freedom of speech. I am glad to say that they voted the right way. And nobody nominated Zeno.

Sunday 3 October 2021

Plutarch's Ten Top Tips for Freshers' Week

When Plutarch’s young friend Nicander started university, the writer sent him a treatise with advice on how to listen to lectures, De recta ratione audiendi. Much of it remains astonishingly relevant today for today’s students, even if I don’t like his first simile and, under no. 3, I think laughing and smiling are perfectly acceptable! 

  1. Don’t Go Mad Socially in Freshers’ Week 
Sudden absence of control from home unchains the impulses towards pleasure and the feelings of suspicion towards hard work. “And just as Herodotus says that women put off their modesty along with their undergarments, so some of our young men, as soon as they lay aside the garb of childhood, lay aside also their sense of modesty and fear, and become full of unruliness”.

  2. Don’t Be Late to Class 
“Some think it only right that the speaker shall come with his discourse carefully thought out and prepared, while they, without consideration or thought of their obligations, rush in and take their seats exactly as though they had come to dinner, to have a good time while others toil.

 3. Lecture-Hall Decorum 
Even with atrocious lecturers, it is imperative “to sit upright without any lounging or sprawling, to look directly at the speaker, to maintain a pose of active attention, and a sedateness of countenance free from any expression, not merely of arrogance or displeasure—not only frowning, a sour face, a roving glance, twisting the body about, and crossing the legs, are unbecoming, but even nodding, whispering to another, smiling, sleepy yawns, bowing down the head, and all like actions, are culpable and need to be carefully avoided”. 

4. Don’t Hold the Class Up 
Don’t be like the students who “hold back the speaker on every possible occasion by inane and superfluous questions, impeding the regular course of the lecture”. 

 5. Don’t Introduce Irrelevant Questions 
“Those persons who lead the speaker to digress to other topics, and interject questions, and raise new difficulties, are not pleasant or agreeable company at a lecture; if it is on ethical philosophy don’t ask about science, maths or logic”. 

 6. Don’t Demand Spoon-feeding 
Some students do no work themselves, “but they give trouble to the speaker by repeatedly asking questions about the same things, like unfledged nestlings always agape toward the mouth of another, and desirous of receiving everything ready prepared and pre-digested”. 

 7.  Be a Good Listener Don’t Interrupt 
Avoid being like “those who instantly interrupt with contradictions, neither hearing nor being heard, but talking while others talk, behaving in an unseemly manner...forward and contentious”. “Guard against proposing many problems or proposing them often. For this is the mark of a man who is taking occasion to show himself off. But to listen good-naturedly when another advances them, marks the considerate gentleman and the scholar. An offensive and tiresome listener is the man who is not to be touched or moved by anything that is said, full of festering presumption and ingrained self-assertion, as though convinced that he could say something better than what is being said, who neither moves his brow nor utters a single word to bear witness that he is glad to listen, but by means of silence and an affected gravity and pose, seeks to gain a reputation for poise and profundity”. 

 8. Don’t Condemn or Acclaim Teachers too fast
For you too are capable of “poverty of thought, emptiness of phrase, an offensive bearing, fluttering excitement combined with a vulgar delight at commendation”. But don’t be a sycophant because you will get “no benefit from the lecture because it has been made full of confusion and fluttering excitement by your continual applause” and you will be regarded as either “a dissembler, a flatterer, or a boor”. 

 9. Ignore Peer Pressure and Make Up Your Own Mind 
Do not distract yourself by turning to look at “the other persons present to see whether they are showing any pleasure or admiration”. Just as when a person leaves the hairdresser “he stands by the mirror and feels his head, examining the cut of his hair and the difference made by its trimming”, you should evaluate the lecture afterwards independently. 

 10. Learn to Take Criticism Constructively 
“Admonitions and rebukes must be listened to neither with stolid indifference nor with unseemly emotion”. Do not laugh at the criticism, “nor listen unmoved, grinning, dissembling in the face of it all”. On the other hand, don’t be demolished by it, “running away if you ever hear a single word directed against you”, because shame has no place in education. “Indeed, even if the reproof seems to be given unjustly, it is an admirable thing to endure it with continued patience while the man is speaking”, but go to him privately afterwards to discuss the matter and ask him to keep his severity “for some real misconduct”. 

I recognise all the types of student Plutarch describes here: I also recognise his less edifying teachers. Here’s to a lovely, civil, constructive and happy new term in lecture halls across the land!