Saturday, 11 September 2021

On Feeling Like Ronaldo


Ancient allegations that for selfish reasons I move between jobs too often have recently resurfaced. This blog is designed to put the record straight.

I left my first permanent job at the University of Reading (1990-1995) after being turned down for promotion. I gather I was a victim of a pre-existing feud between two senior males, my Head of Department and a Professor of English who claimed that I was incapable of an international reputation. I would still be there if I had been promoted.

I left my permanent job at Oxford in 2001 because I could not get the Classics Faculty (then Lit. Hum.) to understand that with two children under two I could not sustain the workload they proposed for me, especially since I had just got in for them a huge research grant  that urgently needed administering. Changes in legislation subsequently would have made my life as new working mother at Oxford possible, since my own college, Somerville, was fantastically supportive. I would still be at Oxford if the current maternity rights legislation had been passed, or if the Faculty could have evinced any sympathy whatsoever during the first two years of our children’s lives.

I left the job I absolutely loved at Durham in 2006 because sadly the university did not match the substantial pay rise and wonderful interdepartmental contract, centered on research and with complete exemption from administration, I competed for and won at Royal Holloway University of London. As breadwinner and full-time working parent this was inviting.

I left Royal Holloway University of London in 2012 because the new Principal had tried to shut the Classics Department and I was exhausted after a long (and successful) campaign to stop him. I did not find the macho new management 'culture' congenial. I don’t think it was too fond of me either. I sensed my future there was in jeopardy, otherwise I would still be at RHUL.

On December 31st 2021 I am leaving King’s College London, at which until less than a year ago I absolutely loved working, to return to my favourite ever job (Durham). The writer Colin Teevan once flatteringly said I was the Thierry Henry of Classics because I 'gunned it into goal from the Left'. But now I feel like (a far less talented) Ronaldo.

Ronaldo returns to his northern English spiritual home

I am extremely excited about my homecoming story and will soon have more to say about why Arts and Humanities at this northern university is so outstanding.

Thierry Henry 'guns it into goal from the Left'.

Monday, 30 August 2021

The Weirdest Royal Wedding: Antiochus and Stratonice


It is Jacques-Louis David’s birthday. He is all too familiar amongst classicists because his paintings ‘The Sabine Women’, ‘The Death of Socrates’, ‘Leonidas at Thermopylae’ and ‘The Oath of the Horatii’, with their pallid, depilated ancient heroes, adorn the covers of far too many books.

But the David work I most love to hate is his ‘Antiochus I and Stratonice’, mainly because it portrays the anecdote I most love to hate in all Plutarch.

Stratonice was married off at 17 years old to Seleucus, who was 25 years her senior.  They had one child, Phlia. But then Antiochus, Seleucus’ son by a previous wife, fell gravely ill. The famous doctor Erasistratus, said to be the grandson of Aristotle, no less, was summoned.

Erasistratus was an expert in anatomy and physiology, which he had gruesomely studied by practising vivisections on criminals. He detected that Antiochus’ symptoms were heightened whenever his stepmother entered his chamber. 

The symptoms were a faltering voice, burning blush, languid eye, sudden sweats, a tumultuous pulse, swooning and deathly pallor. Erasistratus knew, with his customary scientific rigour, that these were symptoms of erotic fixation. Sappho's poetry was on the syllabus at medical school. In a famous poem  she had described how she felt watching the woman she loved talking to a man.

Fortunately for Antiochus, his father let him marry Stratonice. Their sex life was active, since they had five children. This story has everything: royalty, fabulous wealth, sex, parental self-sacrifice, a poem by Sappho, quasi-incest, a detective strand and a celebrity physician.

David was far from the only painter attracted to this story, but he outdid all others in the blinding whiteness and Aryan appearance of his ancient Macedonians and Seleucids. I am particularly fond of the version by Benjamin West, who painted the doctor Erasistratus, in lovely tan and green scrubs, looking as though he was suffering from an apoplexy himself. 

The story also reminds me of Sophocles’ Jocasta, married to both Laius and Oedipus. She ended up dead and disgraced, as did Phaedra in Euripides’ Hippolytus. In a world where women were routinely married off to men old enough to be their father, there must have been many erotic entanglements between young wives and their coeval stepchildren; but poor Phaedra couldn’t just demand that Theseus divorce her and let her get off with the much younger man.

Plutarch doesn’t tell us, of course, how Stratonice felt about being passed around the family like a piece of meat, nor the psychological impact of the transfer on her first daughter, Phlia. Stratonice’s first son by Antiochus certainly grew up disaffected and was executed for rebellion. As George Eliot put it in Romola, ‘Our deeds are like children that are born to us; they live and act apart from our own will. Nay, children may be strangled, but deeds never: they have an indestructible life both in and out of our consciousness’. Bank holiday tip: don’t go falling for your parent’s spouse.

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Tories, Tyrants & Tall Poppies


In this week’s incoherent speech ‘explaining’ his ‘levelling up policy', delivered at a West Midlands battery factory where he had apparently inserted some of the goods into his frontal lobes, Boris Johnson attempted to drown his lack of a plan in a tsunami of metaphors: jam-spreading, robbery, rings of steel, building a wall of vaccine against waves of virus, throwing things to the wind, getting up a tail wind, playing around the football goal’s mouth, strenghthening sinews, and—best of all—'the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce—the ketchup of catch-up’.

But one of these vertiginous images involved one his flashiest classical references: ‘We don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies; we don’t think you can make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer’. We can’t possibly tax the rich any more, after all. Perish the thought.

This reference puts Johnson into dodgy company. Thrasybulus, tyrant of Miletus, sent a message to the even bloodthirstier Periander, tyrant of Corinth,  to teach him how to hold onto power. He took Periander’s herald to a field, and cut off all the tallest ears of wheat, which Periander rightly understood as an instruction to slaughter all the most powerful individuals in his country (Herodotus 5.92). Aristotle tells the same story, but put the tyrants’ names the other way round (Pol. 3.1284a).

Tarquinius Superbus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema,

Specifically Tall Poppy Discourse was used by the nonpareil Roman despots, the Tarquins. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus lopped all the tallest poppies in his garden to indicate to his equally nasty rapist son Sextus (NB Jacob Rees-Mogg seems to have remembered this when he baptised a son ‘Sixtus’) that he should execute the leading men of Gabii (Livy 1.54).

Everyday Life in the Tarquin Family

I accept that Boris says that the Tories DON’T want to cut off the heads of the Tall Poppies of London and Middle England. The problem is, he hasn’t said how he’s otherwise going to increase the height of the Short Poppies of the North, let alone its dandelions and daisies. Metaphorical Bulimia is not an Economic Policy.

6-foot Poppies of Guernsey This Morning

But his choice of allusion seems to me to offer interesting material to a psychoanalyst thinking about Projection. BTW I’m weekending in the Channel Islands (to visit my ageing father-in-law for the first time since he buried his wife all alone under Lockdown 1). These are floating tax avoidance sanctuaries. I’ve noticed that the poppies are tall indeed.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Memories of Talking Medea with Helen McCrory


In early 2014 I went downstairs to reception and saw a tiny figure, in a hat worthy of the Peaky Blinders, sunglasses, loose trousers and enveloping anorak. She recognised me, I assumed from my website, waved and smiled. We went up to my office. That was the first of several sessions, for me enthralling, in which we discussed Euripides’ Medea in remarkable detail. Helen McCrory put an incredible amount of intellect and hard work into that staggering, prize-winning performance. 

She was interested in the research I’d done into criminal psychology and the profiles of women who kill their children. Certain patterns recur in these tragic cases. The women are often of high intelligence and well educated; this crime is by no means confined to the poor and deprived.

They usually have evinced violence at some point in their lives, are often migrants in new communities they perceive as hostile, and have been abandoned or humiliated by the father of their children. Above all they are completely isolated, with no sympathetic adults—extended family or close friends—to support them. Euripides’ Medea ticks every one of these boxes. Helen was fascinated, and it helped her understand the desperation that lies behind the witchcraft scene.

 The lines we dwelt on longest were Medea’s famous paradoxical statement that she knows that what she is going to do is wrong, but that her thumos (heart, anger, passion) has conquered her deliberated decisions. Could Medea have had a reduced sentence on the ground of provocation? Temporary insanity?


Then she introduced me to her Jason, the great Danny Sapani. We had a long session on how to portray their relationship. The crucial question here is always whether to present the sexual attraction as reciprocally very much alive or not. If you watch the production you can tell which way they jumped.


I do not remotely claim to have influenced the production substantially. My former colleague Dr Lucy Jackson was NT classical consultant, and the direction by Carrie Cracknell was stellar. Nor do I claim to have been close friends with Helen. She occasionally called me. She always named me with gratitude which I really didn’t deserve when when she was interviewed about her performance, for example in the Telegraph in August 2019 by Gavandra Hodge 

But we had an instant and joyous bond. She was the most wonderful person, with an ethically principled presence to match her beauty, brains and overwhelming charisma. We had both embarked on motherhood late, had been made deliriously happy by it, and shared a saturnine sense of humour.  

She called me eight days before she died to say good-bye. Her last words to me were, ‘thank you, soul sister’. It would be wholly inappropriate to divulge more, except I asked her to keep the great theatre in the sky ready and waiting for me to help plan her performance of Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra in Agamemnon. She accepted with alacrity. Tears in my eyes as I finish now.


I subsequently interviewed Helen at the Archive of Performances of Greek & Roman Drama; the recording is here.

Articles on Medea in which I discuss the issues in the play explored here are available to download free from my website at

Sunday, 13 June 2021

On Being Able to See Again Now and in Ancient Athens


My second-last blog was written at my worst low for three decades. Professional problems have been compounded by eyesight hassles, and these are now—it feels miraculously—over. I have several much loved friends with incurable eye problems and the contrast makes me humble and triply grateful.

I'd suffered from galloping myopia since infancy, and from dodgy retinas and cataracts for three years. My optician and doctor could not understand it since at my age refraction should be going the other way. In March I was down to minus 19.5 diopters; on top of distance fogginess that no contact lenses or glasses could correct I was finding it increasingly difficult to read.

Inside an Asclepieion

Fortunately my friend from 1978, Cathy Williams, is a consultant eye doctor. She recommended the best retina specialist in the world, Alistair Laidlaw, a true descendant of Asclepius; the first Greek doctor got his name from his first patient Ascles, ruler of Epidaurus, whom he cured of a previously untreatable eye condition.

Poussin's Orion Searching for the Rising Sun

There are many blindness stories in ancient Greek myth. I was not helped by Metope, whose father blinded her when she had a love affair, and said he would not restore her sight until she had ground grains of bronze as fine as flour. 

More encouraging was Orion, whose blindness was cured when he was led by the dwarf Orion towards the rising sun; I've written about him recently in a magnificent volume on disability in antiquity edited by my KCL colleague Ellen Adams. And in drama, the blind titular character of Aristophanes’ Wealth is cured after overnighting at the sanctuary of Asclepius in Piraeus, where two snakes lick his eyelids back to health.

I was anaesthetised so I don’t know whether snakes were involved. But after two operations I have 20/20 vision for the first time in my life, can read perfectly, and (more importantly) be sure the man entering the bedroom with tea in the morning is actually my husband.

Golding's Piggy

It is impossible to express the difference this has made. I feel now not only optimistic about the future, but more vital and powerful and brave than ever in my life. I am sleeping far better—I think I had always been afraid that I would not be able to defend myself if rudely awakened. I had always been terrified of an apocalypse in which contact lenses and glasses became unavailable, and of suffering the fate of poor shortsighted Piggy after his glasses are broken in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (a novel much influenced by Euripides' Bacchae).

Praxias' Wife: Was she Cured?

So what do I do now, besides saving hundreds of pounds a year at Spec-Savers? I am taking my cue from the beautiful eye votives dedicated in antiquity. A man named Praxias set one up for his wife in the Athenian Asclepieion in the fourth century BCE. Another was nicked from near the Pnyx Hill by Lord Aberdeen but ended up in Lord Elgin's hands; he sold to the British Museum along with the Parthenon sculptures. The great Manchester Uni epigraphist Peter Liddel, who with Durham's Polly Low is editing the inscriptions in the British Museum, excitingly tells me that the person who dedicated it to Zeus, Philemation, was probably a woman, perhaps a freedwoman.

Philemation's Votive Dedication Should Have been Left in Athens

My new superpower reminds me of the Argonaut Lynceus, whose sight was so acute that he could see through walls, trees, boulders, darkness, and into the Underworld. Aristotle played with the idea that Lynceus could see through skin to ascertain the true moral worth of a human being. I've always been rather trusting and over-inclined to assume people’s motives are good. A warning to all speciously smiling agents of darkness: perhaps my psychological antennae have improved as much as my eyesight.

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Can The Most Tragic Tragedy, Trojan Women, be Turned into a Comic?

 Here is a first draft of my review of Anne Carson and Rosanna Bruno's Trojan Women: A Comic, which appeared in a paywalled version in TLS on 20 May 2021.

It is an exciting moment when Anne Carson collaborates with the cartoonist Rosanna Bruno, renowned for The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson (2017), on the Euripidean play identified in antiquity as the most heartrending tragedy ever written. Audience responses still reveal the unparalleled affective power of the scenes where Andromache’s baby Astyanax is torn from her arms and prepared for burial by his grandmother Hekabe.

The play’s reputation has created a subterranean impact. When Philip Sidney championed theatre in his Defence of Poetry (1581), he used a story from Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas to illustrate tragedy’s emotive moral instrumentality: the murderous tyrant Alexander of Pherae was forced to leave the theatre when moved by the ‘sweet violence’ of the depiction of the sorrows of Hekabe and Andromache. Alexander realised it would not be expedient for his subjects to see him weep. This Plutarchan anecdote, in conjunction with an itinerant actor’s description of Hecuba, suggested to Shakespeare’s Hamlet the very idea that ‘the play’s the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.' Claudius must leave the theatrical production at his court because it hits, as Euripides' Trojan Women had done long ago, far too close to home.

This tragedy’s monumental standing makes Carson’s decision to rewrite it as ‘A Comic’ (the subtitle) provocative and risky. When children are meeting brutal deaths and almost every female is a rape victim, playing with generic fire requires exceptional judgement. Carson once worked in the graphic art world; despite the success of her previous welding of another canonical Greek tragedy, Sophocles’ Antigone, to comic book format in Antigonick (with artist Bianca Stone, 2012), the unrelenting focus of Trojan Women on war crimes induced scepticism in me, exacerbated by the cover. It both intimates Bruno’s debt to the Gothic visual idioms of Emily Carroll’s horror stories in her bestselling graphic novella Through the Woods (2015) and announces that the tragedy will be enacted zoomorphically: a seductive fox in high heels (Helen) stares at a dejected elderly dog (Hekabe).

Further alarm bells sounded during Poseidon’s opening speech bubble (the text seems throughout, as in Antigonick, to be in Carson’s upper-case handwriting, creating effects ranging from crazed diary entries to red-top headlines). Carson has a well-earned reputation for abstruse references. Her prizewinning ‘novel in verse’ Autobiography of Red (1998), inspired by Stesichorus’ fragmentary lyric poem Geryoneis, notoriously requires knowledge of cinema, photography, Plato, Dante, Heidegger, Yeats, Whitman, Judith Butler, Homi Bhaba, Paul Celan, Woolf, Einstein, Freud, and Emily Dickinson, among others.

My trepidation grew as her Poseidon flippantly alludes to Hotel Troy (a former sanitorium in North Carolina featuring Classical Revival architecture), to a (pay-walled) poem about James Baldwin by the darling of US High Poetry circles  Frederick Seidel, and to classicist Robert Graves’ 1929 World War I memoir, Goodbye to all That. I prefer my art less cluttered by displays of intertextual bravura. Yet I had been converted by the last page, where Hekabe stares through the smoke swirling upwards from the ashes of her ‘deleted’ civilisation, concluding, ‘Start me up, left leg, forward to the day of slavery. We can’t go on. We go on’.

For Carson soon concentrates on the unique tonality of Euripidean tragedy.  It is well-known in theatre circles that while Aeschylus and Sophocles have inspired new masterpieces of literary translation, in English alone by such titans as Heaney, Hughes and Harrison, Euripides’ slippery, genre-transgressive, vivid and demotic bravura has rarely found an adequate stage translator. Euripides’ theatrical verse was already acknowledged by Aristophanes, and subsequently by Aristotle in both his Poetics and Rhetoric, to sound like ordinary people engaged in spontaneous, idiomatic conversation. Euripidean diction, especially in rapid-fire dialogue, turns out to be suited to speech-balloons. The triangular altercation between Menelaus, Helen and Hecabe works particularly well. But the ancients also celebrated Euripides’ lambent lyric poetry, which was excerpted and performed at concerts and symposia into the Roman era. Carson rises effortlessly to the challenge of the Trojan widows’ magnificent epitaph for their homeland, ‘sacred Pergamon itself,/rivers of Ida washed by running snow,/sheer cliffs at dawn ablaze with holy light’.

Another characteristic of Euripidean tragedy is sudden lurching between agony and absurdist humour. The best joke in his oeuvre occurs in this very play, when Hekabe, fearing that Menelaus will be seduced by Helen into sparing her life, begs him not to sail back to Greece with the legendary beauty on the same ship. ‘Why?’, he asks in the Greek, ‘has she put on weight?’ The image of a now-obese sex kitten threatening to sink one of Menelaus’ Spartan triremes, occurring at a moment of utter despair, is a quintessentially Euripidean use of humour to throw pain into relief. Carson does justice to this memorable line, and takes inspiration from its tone throughout.

The rhetoric Euripides gives his dramatis personae characteristically edges dangerously near to parody as it punctures ways in which individuals delude themselves.  Cassandra’s coping mechanism, when chosen to be Agamemnon’s concubine, is to argue that the defeated Trojans have actually emerged better from the war than their conquerors (Carson’s text here resonates in our era of alternative facts and fake news). She ecstatically orders the womenfolk to celebrate her bridal, as the only character to have a visual persona in fully human form (a gangling teenager with long hair and an inane grin). The wedding announcement is illustrated by my favourite frame in the work, depicting a copy of a magazine called TROJAN BRIDE, A LOVE AND WAR PUBLICATION. It trails ‘10 tips on treating him like a king’, ‘14 clever wife hacks’, and ‘Axes: The Perfect Accessory’, in a wittily assonantal allusion to Cassandra’s boast that, once arrived in Greece, she will destroy Troy’s destroyers.

An example reinforcing this feminist argument  is the ‘trad wife’ Andromache’s eulogy of her own compliance with ideal feminine virtue as dictated by patriarchy. Euripides makes modern audiences squirm when Andromache boasts that she always stayed at home, renounced female friends, and kept quiet, modest and docile in front of her husband Hector. The response of Carson and Bruno is to portray Andromache (represented by a poplar tree, of which more anon) in two frames on facing pages, her branches in one uplifted and in the next drooping, as her self-affirming rhetoric fails to comfort her.

There have been many classically inspired graphic-narrative renderings of ancient myths and history. Classicists like to claim that they were adumbrated in antiquity by e.g. Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2331, containing a poem about the superhero’s labours, adorned with coloured line drawings of the Nemean Lion episode. The 20th century saw the emergence of a rich seam of male-focussed comic-book versions of classical narratives concerning heroic escapades, epic quests and ancient battles, now being academically mined in, for example, George Kovacs and C.W. Marshall (eds.) Classics and Comics (OUP 2011). But female-focussed examples have been thin on the ground, even since Alison Bechdel’s exquisite use of the Odyssey in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2007). And combining a female focus with a refusal to limit the graphic representation of an ancient tragedy to anthropomorphically drawn characters is rarer still.

Depicting Hekabe as a newly homeless canine matriarch was an obvious choice, given the ancient tradition that she was  transformed at the ‘Sign of the Dog’, Cynossema, a promontory at the narrowest part of the Hellespont. Dante, one of Carson’s favourite authors, speals of Hekabe as ‘driven mad by sorrow and barking like a dog’ (Inferno 30.19-20). Half Carson-Bruno’s chorus of Trojan Women are also depicted as dogs, while the remainder are cows: this is reminiscent of the lauded public cattle herds of Troy that grazed outside its walls as well as the dogs that Homer tells roamed at Priam’s gates. The abuse suffered by the women comes over with strange pathos in the animal mugshots, complete with convict-boards daubed with inmate numbers, on the page portraying the chorus’ first entrance. These stranded domesticated animals are contrasted with the  feral, ‘foxy’ Helen, a Reynardian antiheroine in false eyelashes (although later morphing into a vanity mirror), who has developed a different strategy from Andromache’s for surviving under patriarchy: as an ancient Greek proverb had it, ‘the she-fox masters the ox’.

        The Greek soldiers, on other hand, are malevolent cats and crows, the artwork suggestive of the burlesque epic Batryomyomachia (Battle of the Frogs and Mice). Talthybios, the Greek herald forced to expedite his overlords’ dirty work, is a bedraggled crow (here the comic is influenced by Ali Smith’s exquisite picture-book for young readers, The Story of Antigone (2016), narrated by a Theban crow, although this Trojan Women is far too allusive and too explicit for children).

Remaining characters, however, are not even zoomorphic. The unintelligent but elemental Poseidon is represented by an enormous wave. The masculine Athena is symbolised by a pair of workman’s overalls and an owl’s mask. Menelaus is a phallic-looking piece of machinery, ‘some sort of gearbox, clutch or coupling mechanism, once sleek, not this year’s model’. Andromache is a slim poplar, split down the middle, her treetop invisible beyond the picture frame; she cradles the tiny Astyanax-sapling about to be torn from her branching arms.

Why a poplar? The Astanyanax scenes in this tragedy are so shocking and physical that a comic-book drawing of a human mother and infant would risk turning tragedy into melodrama. In the myth of the Heliades, the daughters of Helios were turned into poplars, transfixed as they mourned their brother Phaethon in eternity. Astyanax is addressed at one point as a ‘mushroom’, and ancient horticulturalists well knew that mushrooms flourish in poplar stumps. But a fragment of the comic poet Cratinus (not so obscure that Carson, an accomplished Greek scholar, can have avoided it) tells us that the ‘the poplar view’ proverbially denoted a seat in the theatre so high that it had no view of the stage. Andromache’s suffering is so exceptional that it escapes the boundaries of art: the frames containing her cannot accommodate her full height and topmost branches.

My final reservation about turning Trojan Women into a comic had been the play’s metaphysical profundity. Of all Greek tragic figures, Hekabe confronts most directly the philosophical problem of unearned suffering, in the extreme forms of genocide, separation from offspring, bereavement, enslavement, rape and annihilation of their physical homeland and social bonds. This is why Sartre adapted Trojan Women in 1965 to protest against French brutality in Algeria via Existentialism; his gods pass the death sentence alike in the opening scene, thus removing all hope, the Sartrean precondition of meaningful action or existence. It is why theatre director Tadashi Suzuki chose this tragedy in 1982 to explore the inadequacies of Shinto Buddhism in response to Hiroshima. The play juxtaposes physically manifest Olympian gods with Hekabe's explicit doubts that the gods concern themselves with humans or exist in their traditional form at all.  She appeals to the gods in an offhand articulation of 'Pascal's wager': acknowledging god may, she says, be useless, but best to do it just in case: Carson wittily renders this as ‘I do admire that old mannerism of calling out to some divinity when things go wrong’. She proposes that the supreme god is actually the physical laws that govern the material universe, or human intelligence: Carson’s Menelaus tartly responds, ‘What’s this? Some new-age spirituality?’ Finally, Hekabe repudiates  traditional religion altogether, because, in Carson’s bleak translation, ‘The gods had no interest in us/except to ruin me and despise Troy’.

Carson and Bruno have risen to an unusual challenge. Their medium’s conventions could have flattened distinctive literary qualities, but their book instead refocuses our attention on Euripides’ styles. The format highlights this play’s outstanding quality, praised by Sidney as 'sweet violence'. This phrase  was borrowed by Terry Eagleton to entitle his own book on the tragic (2002), in which he said that tragedy can only survive as a 21st-century art-form if it is metaphysically open, aesthetically beautiful, and unflinching in its depiction of suffering. All three criteria are fulfilled by this innovative version of Trojan Women.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Countering Misery with Greek Authors beginning with A


I have not been able to blog for weeks during the worst professional time of my entire working life. I will be able to explain in more detail soon. I know that many have it immeasurably worse than I do, but that has not prevented paroxysms of weeping and anxiety attacks. Medication, a sympathetic doctor, an outstandingly supportive husband and children and a huge phalanx of true friends mean, however, that I am coming out the other side.

And the three great classical Greek authors whose names begin with ‘A’ have helped me every day. I’m just finishing my edition of the greatest verbal symphony on emotional pain ever composed by a human brain, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. It is not that I am having to deal with kin-murder, incest, massive war fatalities or a violent coup d’etat. But my emotional identification is with the amazing elderly chorus of Argive citizens. 

Their poetic expressions of apprehension, helplessness, terror, humiliation, and anger, but also patience, commitment to decency, and compassion for those far worse off than themselves are truly inspiring. They use about twenty different words for ‘sorrow’ alone, a challenge to any translator. But by sharing pain and standing up to tyrants, they manage to survive. The city-state of Argos can and will one day see off all incompetent, vindictive and petty-minded people who happen temporarily to hold power.

Argos Will Survive--The Chorus of Aeschylus' Agamemnon

Next up is Aristophanes, on whom I’m finishing a book I’ve been writing for thirty years. His utter hilarity and joie de vivre banish tension. I defy anyone to enact the opening chorus of his Wealth without collapsing in hysterical laughter: the super-smart slave Cario impersonates Polyphemus the Cyclops, driving his flocks (the chorus dressed as lambs) out to pasture, singing to his lyre and leading an animal dance, ‘lurching from side to side with both his legs’. He tells his flock of youngsters to bleat repeatedly (the onomatopoeic blēchōmenoi), fart and wave their ithyphalloi. Then he pretends to be Circe, and the chorus-men impersonate pigs. The best possible script for Home Karaoke.

Aristophanes and Aristotle

But last is my stalwart buttress, as Aeschylus might call it, the ethicist Aristotle. In his discussion of good and bad ambition (philotimia), he says that when things go wrong and a person is disrespected, s/he can always cope if they do not forget what they were trying to achieve in the first place. No insults, casual brutalities, demotions, lack of gongs or approbation can have any real effect if you stay true to your real mission—in my case, although I like praise as much as the next woman, it is to make ancient Greek ideas fun, free and intelligible to as many people as possible. No tyrant of Argos can stop me from doing that. Onwards and upwards, comrades!

Sunday, 21 February 2021

On Not Apologising for Teaching and Promoting "Classics"


Around the beginning of the 18th century, the study of the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the languages they spoke began to be called ‘Classics’. The texts and artefacts under the ‘Classics’ umbrella have been used in the name of countless deplorable causes from the defence of slavery and the elevation of whiteness to the justification of imperialism and the oppression of women. They have also been used in countless admirable ones from the abolition of slavery and anti-colonialism to gay rights, female suffrage and the Trade Union movement.

The very term Classics has class connotations, since it comes from the same root as the term for the top ancient Roman tax band and metaphorically designates the most ‘upper-class’ cultural phenomena.  The title could do with revisiting, but one reason for retaining it is as a permanent reminder to discuss the historical and potential role of Classics in the creation and maintenance of social inequities.

The discipline has all too often excluded other ancient languages and cultures, even those in intimate relationships with people whose primary language was Latin or Greek, and needs to attend to this urgently. The inclusion of ancient Achaemenid Persian sources on the A Level Classical Civilisation module ‘Invention of the Barbarian’ in the UK has been a resounding success, as have courses on epic which include Gilgamesh.

There have been criticisms levelled against Classics since its inception,  on grounds from its elitism to its irrelevance and atavism. There is a huge amount to be done to modernize Classics, especially in terms of critical examination of the subject’s history, and deliberate recruitment to its ranks of paid promulgators from ethnic minorities and the economically deprived. This is essential if ministries of education, university managements, research funders, school children and the general public are to be convinced that investigating the ancient Greeks and Romans and their neighbours, and the world-altering results of the constant ethnic interactions around and beyond the ancient Mediterranean and Black Sea, will always be worthwhile.

But it is also essential if those of us who do not apologise for being specialists trained in what—deep breath—I do regard as some of the most intellectually challenging and pleasurable literature, history, thought and material culture homines sapientes have ever produced are to be able to continue doing what we do.  

There has been a recent spate of attacks on Classics from within the field, often voiced by self-appointed policepersons of what is and is not appropriate educational subject-matter for the human race in the 21st century. These individuals tend to have tenured posts at elite universities.  But how do such autophagous attacks from inside the field feel to those in less well-fed positions?

This week I have spoken to a schoolteacher struggling to persuade her managers to expand classical civilization and ancient history provision in a northern state school, as well as a precariat lecturer whose small provincial Classics department is under even more threat than it was before Covid. These tireless educators are at their wits’ end. If they can’t rely on the ‘Securitat’ with permanent jobs in Tertiary Education to watch their back, and defend their mission to open up intellectual horizons, then they are going to feel lost indeed.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Why Honduran Sexist Lawmakers need Aristotle's Advice


So Honduras looks set to pass a bill which will make it impossible for abortion under any circumstances (including rape and incest) ever to be legalised. Honduras has a huge gap between male and female incomes and alarming levels of femicide, rape, sexual abuse and death in childbirth.

By raising to 75% the percentage of Congress votes required to modify the current (punitive) abortion law, the law if passed becomes immune to challenge in perpetuity. The first of two votes this week show that the bill may well pass. The man who made the proposal, Mario Pérez, praises it as a "constitutional lock" to prevent the abortion law ever being modified in future. Progressive members of the Opposition, like MP Doris Gutiérrez, are terrified.

Mario Pérez, Aspiring Timelord

Roman Catholics are historically supposed to be favourable to Aristotelian philosophy. I would like to draw Mr Pérez’s attention to Aristotle’s recommendation that written codes of law must eternally be open to revision “because it is impossible that the structure of the state can have been framed correctly for all time in relation to all its details”. Proposals to restructure laws and government can be “a common good” (Politics 2.1268b-69a).

Doris Gutiérrez MP

Just as medical science and athletics “and all other arts and powers” have advanced over the centuries, so the same holds good for government. The ancient laws were “too simple and barbarous, which allowed the Greeks to wear swords in the city, and to buy wives off each other”.

Aristotle cites as particularly ridiculous the ancient murder law of Cyme, which stipulated that if a person prosecuting another for murder could produce a certain number of witnesses to it from amongst his own relations, the accused was automatically condemned!

The conviction that unalterable laws were unhelpful goes in tandem with Aristotle’s argument in the Nicomachean Ethics  that all opinions must always be open to revision. Although steadfastness is essentially a virtue, there are times when it can be damaging to adhere too rigidly to fixed views. If you receive incontrovertible evidence that your opinion is wrong, then changing your mind, which some people might condemn as inconstancy, is worthy of high praise.

He cites the case of Neoptolemus in the Philoctetes of Sophocles. Neoptolemus had been persuaded by Odysseus to lie to the lame Philoctetes, but when he sees Philoctetes’ suffering and learns more information about his plight, he changes his mind and refuses to participate in the deception. He revises his opinion.

For this reason, I believe that if we could talk to Aristotle and present him with the relevant information, we could persuade him to revise his own atavistic opinions about women and slaves. But I would also like him to visit Mr Pérez in a dream to explain that he just might not be qualified to impose on Honduran women of eternity as well as those of today a law that is just “too simple and barbarous”.

Friday, 8 January 2021

Elisabetta Sirani's Classical Heroines Keeping Calm and Carrying On

Less famous than Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabetta Sirani, born this day 1638, is my favourite Italian painter. She lived her belief in women’s abilities; she was family breadwinner after her father’s arthritis stopped him working and she founded a painting school for women open to non-aristocrats without connections. 
Self-Portrait as Circe

Although many of her subjects were bible scenes or saints, she read widely in classical literature. and found inspiring ancient women heroes in Plutarch and Ovid, amongst others. In stark contrast with her male contemporaries, she painted most of them fully clothed and business-like. 
Timoclea's Revenge

The funniest is her Timoclea of Thebes, calmly pushing into a well the brutish captain who had raped her during Alexander’s conquest of Greece. But a close second is her self-portrait as Circe, serenely mixing pharmaceuticals according to an instruction manual, no man in sight, while staring the viewer straight in the eye. 


Her Cleopatra, usually depicted topless and miserable with a phallic snake, is an alternative Cleopatra she found in Pliny: she is smiling, modestly clothed and coiffed, proving her own enormous wealth to Antony by dissolving a pearl in vinegar, but with Antony himself excised. 

Berenice Cutting her Hair

Lockdown home-hairdressers may relate more to her ‘Berenice Cutting Her Hair’. Berenice was the wife of Ptolemy III who fulfilled her vow that if he returned safely from war she would dedicate her fabled long hair to her dead sort-of-mother-in-law Arsinoe II, worshipped as Aphrodite. I like the tatty fringe and the gleeful look in her eye as she wields the scissors, as if she had found an excuse to get rid of a tiresome burden while getting moral kudos at the same time. 

Portia Stabbing Her Thigh

Feminist art critics debate whether her Portia (aka Porcia) is a tough and feisty broad satirising Stoic masculinity or a victim of self-harming or sado-masochistic fantasies: the wife of Brutus, she wanted to prove to him that she could conspire as well as anyone to assassinate a dictator. So she stabbed herself in the thigh to prove she could stand pain and wouldn’t talk under torture. I find this one most disturbing and will leave it to you to decide for yourself. 

Sadly, many of Sirani’s classical females have been lost, including a Galatea, a Pamphile (the inventor of silk-weaving) and two of her three paintings of Iole. 

I particularly regret the lost Ioles, especially if one depicted Iole’s escape from her aspiring rapist Heracles: she jumped off the wall of her father’s palace in Oechalia to commit suicide, but her dress billowed out like a parachute and she survived. 

Do Not Try This at Home

This story is told in an obscure work by an imitator of Plutarch, but that would not have stopped Sirani discovering it. It would make a great topic for an art competition for locked-down schoolchildren. This gives me something to plan.

Saturday, 2 January 2021

How My Favourite (Ovidian?) Painting Has Helped Me in Lockdown


During the  confinements of the last ten months, virtual art galleries have provided comfort. On the anniversary of Piero di Cosimo’s birth in 1462, with our British hospitals in crisis, my favourite painting in the National Gallery seems apposite. Erwin Panofsky got it right in saying that it entrances by its "strange lure”.

The external viewer forms a triangle, with the two internal viewers, of the prostrate young woman. The dog on the right and the satyr on the left bow their heads towards her. We assume she is dead—her throat bears an injury—and wonder about the relationship between her and these two non-human witnesses.

It was once assumed that it portrayed the death of Procris, an Athenian princess, as told by Ovid. In Ars Amatoria book III,  after realizing that her lover Cephalus had not been unfaithful, she rushes to be with him in the forest. He shoots her dead with an arrow, mistaking her for a wild beast. In Ovid’s  Metamorphoses book VII, the goddess Eos makes Cephalus doubt Procris’ fidelity. She runs away to be a nymph of Diana. When Cephalus apologises she returns to him, bringing him a magical spear and Laelaps (“Hurricane”), an infallible hunting dog. But her husband mistakes her for an animal and kills her—this time with a javelin in her breast.

But Ovid's narratives are difficult to reconcile with the painting. Ovid’s Procris dies in her human husband’s arms, with no mention of any satyr. The wound is in her breast rather than throat, and both she and the dog are transformed into marble statues.

It is just possible that di Cosimo was responding to a tragic drama, Cefalo by Niccolò da Correggio. This did include a faun, who was himself in love with Procris. He falsely told her that Cephalus had been unfaithful, thus indirectly making himself responsible for her death. The dog might then symbolize the true faithfulness of Procris, contrasted with the faun’s destructive jealousy.

Yet since 1951, the Natonal Gallery has stopped calling the painting ‘The death of Procris’; it is simply ‘A mythological subject’ or ‘A satyr mourning over a nymph’. The mystery behind the tragic death of the woman perhaps makes it even more profound.  We wonder at the detail of her sandals, making us ask who she is, who used to frolic in this lovely landscape. Did the satyr and dog see what happened? Did they love her? How much do they each know?

We wonder at the distant ships and buildings—what human community is seemingly so oblivious of this private tragedy? Why is this dog separated from his pack, seen unconcerned in the middle distance? Who killed the woman and why? Above all, the tender concern in the satyr’s face, and the gentleness of his touch on her shoulder and forehead, make us ask what his own role has been.  

The companionship of faithful pets, tragic death, as well as the need for trust and kindness, are all dominant presences in our lockdown life. This eerie, dreamlike, compassionate painting helps me to think about all of them.

Finlay, Captain Seahawk and Jasper aka Satan