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Archive for June, 2008

Every so often, something like this happens. Scientists apparently believe that they can date Odysseus’ return to a specific year, month, day and probably even hour, based around a prophecy in Book 20 about the sun disappearing from the sky, factoring in also some reference to astronomical features and phenomena seen elsewhere in the book. And good for them.

But does it matter? And what good has such specificity done us in the past? Discoveries of this kind are often huge archaeological triumphs, such as Schliemann’s discoveries of Mycenae and Troy, and Evans’ excavation of the palace at Knossos on Crete. But even then our desire for specifics (and specific links to ancient myth) lead us into scholastic disaster. For example, Schliemann declared that he had “gazed upon the face of Agamemnon” when he discovered the stunning death mask shown here in one of the elite graves at Mycenae. The \"Mask of Agamemnon\", now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The mask is nothing of the kind, and pre-dates any of the traditional estimates of Agamemnon’s life span. This was not even the first time Schliemann had made such an error- when he excavated sections of Troy, he dug down until he found a layer which satisfied his own conceptions of what Troy should have been like during the reign of Priam (i.e. filled with gold), then took the jewelery, ran away from Turkey and took what seems to me to be a very smug photo of his wife wearing all of “Helen’s Gold”. Sophia Schliemann with \"Helen\'s Gold\". Mind you, this was the same man who named his children Agamemnon and Andromache.

Sir Arthur Evans also succumbed to the call of history when he gave names to the rooms in the Neo-Palatial remains he found in Knossos. These have strong Homeric echoes, such as can be found in “The Queen’s Megaron”. You can’t believe the confusion this causes when an archaeologist who is arguing that the Queen’s Megaron is neither is forced to refer to it constantly as “The Queen’s Megaron”. I suppose the same is true with “Agamemnon’s” death mask, or any other badly named artifact from any archaeological site (bits of statues are always getting re-identified: is it Apollo? Hyacinthus? Antinoos?).

So why do they do it, the archaeologists, the historians, the scientists? Well, for one thing, publicity. If you can identify a dull Roman bust as some trendy Roman emperor, the interest (and the funding) skyrockets. But another (possibly more altruistic) reason is our desire as classicists to relate what we think is important to the general public.  Yes, a gold mask is interesting, but if you can link it to ancient legend (particularly ones involving sex, we all like those) then at least we can communicate with each other. Even if the name is woefully inaccurate, it’s bound to be more punchy than an ordinary catalogue number or a vague description (“Did you see that death-mask-y thing they’ve got in Athens?”). We crave connection- something easy, something accessible, something which doesn’t have to have hours of discussion layered around it.  I find that artifacts are excellent ways of relating to my non-Classicist friends and family- while dates and events have the potential to be interesting, the interest is strengthened when there is a physical link to the old days, be it a statue, a pot or a wall-painting, anything that brings a civilization to life.  Classics doesn’t look so foolish and irrelevant when you can have real, physical contact with the people under scrutiny, whether that’s going to see Helen’s earrings or simply noticing that you’ve scheduled a garden party on the day Odysseus finally came home. I suppose the trick is not to take names and dates too seriously, but to use them as a wedge to open wider interest.

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‘Tis the season for reading lists. Yes, summer is fast approaching and with it comes lists from newspapers (and universities, of course, but those tend to be a little more formal and don’t tend to include the latest bestsellers) of books which we simply must read over the holidays. Rarely however, do those lists include any Classical texts. Naturally, I think this is a travesty, so I have put together my own required reading list, suitable for taking on holiday, whether you’re going to the Lake District, the beach or the mountains. I’m quite skewed in favour of Greek authors, but that is because I do love them so and because I think they wrote some of the best literature on the face of the planet. Incidentally, ‘encyclopedia’ comes from the Greek egkuklios paideia which means ‘circle of learning’, so essentially a syllabus or curriculum. Ah, etymology. It’s excellent.

The Iliad, by Homer. This should top the Desert Island Books of any self-respecting Classicist. Yes, the dialogue can be stilted and drawn out; yes, the genealogies can be dull (unless you’re like my friend S, who weeps over every death because of how Homer describes the deceased’s home life); yes, you should really skip out the Catalogue of Ships in Book 2 if you want to stay sane, but what about the high drama of a man forced to choose between life and glory, the violence of rape by proxy, the humour of swapping gold armour for bronze or an ugly guy getting beaten with a big stick? The seeds of many crucial ideas are contained in the Iliad, depending on what scholar you speak to: democracy, tragedy, women’s rights, individualism vs collectivism, and so on. Read it- everyone comes away with something different. And no, watching ‘Troy’ is no replacement.

The Odyssey, by Homer. If you’re less into battles and more into adventure, this is the book to beat all books. Sex, questionable paternity, witches, monsters, death, lies- this book has inspired cinematic and literary classics like ‘Cold Mountain’ and ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ Plus, unlike many ancient books, there’s a clever woman in it! Penelope, Mrs. Odysseus, was the archetype for many Classical ideas of a good woman (if such a thing could exist, of course), but she’s also devious and an excellent match for her devious husband Odysseus. Plus, this would be particularly good reading for anyone stuck in an airport on the way home- we’ve all known an air hostess who resembled Scylla haven’t we? Just thank your lucky stars it isn’t taking you 10 years to get across the Mediterranean…

The Oresteia, by Aeschylus A collection of three plays by Greece’s first tragedian (who wasn’t Homer), all about the downfall of one particularly dysfunctional family. Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, comes home from Troy to the arms of his wife Clytemnaestra, who is Helen’s sister and hates Agamemnon more than anything else because he sacrificed their daughter to allow him to sail to Troy ten years previous. Now, with her lover, Agamemnon’s cousin Aegisthus, she takes her revenge. Agamemnon’s children are none too pleased by this, but their vengeance has its own problems… Well, what do you expect from a family with a history of cannibalism and incest? Another plus- plays are quite short and punchy, so they’re a quick read.

The Theban Plays, by Sophocles
“There once was a man called Oedipus Rex
You may have heard of his odd complex
His name is found in Freud’s index
‘Cause he loved his mother”
So the Tom Lehrer song goes. These three plays, chronicling the rise and fall of King Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother, are one of the cornerstones of Western civilization, without a doubt. The first, ‘Oedipus the King’, was chosen by Aristotle as the archetypal tragedy for its ability to inspire fear and pity in its audience, and is a beautiful additon to the philosophy of Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. The trilogy is a beautiful piece of writing, with the added bonus of gore (he does tear his eyes out, after all).

A True History, by Lucian Lucian, what a guy. Condemned by the Catholic Church, but the text for students of Ancient Greek for generations, his huge output makes my head spin (particularly because he was central to one of my units this year). This is a story of his bizarre journey around the universe, ranging from the Moon to the Underworld. This might just be the origin of the legend of the Moon’s high cheese content, and even if it isn’t, it’s still hilarious. Naturally, it’s also a subtle comment on education, imperialism, travelogues, the Roman Empire and the nature of truth, but it reads like the best Bill Bryson exploration ever. If you read this after The Odyssey, you’re more likely to get the jokes, but it’s wonderful on its own as well.

Medea, by Euripides This was the play which really put the fire in my heart to study Classics, and it tends to inspire similarly strong reactions in everyone who reads it. Medea, brought from her home by the dreamy hero Jason, is suddenly abandoned by him with her two children so that he can make a more advantageous marriage. After having helped Jason become a hero in the first place, having stolen her dowry and run away from home with him, killing her brother to slow down her pursuing father, Medea is naturally infuriated, and her rage takes a gruesome and murderous form. I dare you not to cringe at the description of a human melting. Is she a feminist? Is she insane? Is she right? This was the most recent Cambridge Greek Play, and an excellent opportunity for us to assess our views on women, the family, citizenship, infanticide, everything. Please, please read it. It’s amazing.

The Metamorphoses, by Ovid My first Latin entry, and a very Ronseal kind of title- exactly what it says on the tin. This is a poem (though now mostly translated into prose) all about various alterations- human to god, human to animal, human to plant, two people into one. There are some clear links with ‘Just So’ stories, since Ovid enjoys including explanations of the origins of flower names and other natural phenomena, like amber. I think one of my favourites has to be the story of the king struck with eternal hunger, whose daughter transforms herself into different animals every day to be sold at market to feed his habit. Reminds me a bit of prostitutes, really. The poem is very entertaining, never slow or stuck, and is very good as a grounding in lots of basic ancient myths. There’s also a beautiful translation of some passages from the Metamorphoses by Ted Hughes, which I highly recommend. Oh, and did I mention, it has the story of Echo and Narcissus? How convenient.

The Aeneid, by Virgil Possibly the greatest Roman epic, ‘The Aeneid’ is the story of the journey of Aeneas, a Trojan prince, from his destroyed home in Asia Minor to his promised land of Italy, where he is destined to become the father of the Roman race. Conveniently, he’s also the son of the goddess Venus. Written for the Emperor Augustus, who claimed descent from Aeneas, it’s a subtle satire of the Imperial family, but also a very exciting story of love, violence and destiny. Try reading it with an eye to the current conflict in Israel/Palestine, or while listening to Purcell’s opera ‘Dido and Aeneas’.

The Satyricon, by Petronius This book is simply hilarious. The archetype of crazy excess, allegedly written by one of the sharpest satirists from the reign of the Emperor Nero, it was made into a very strange film by Fellini in 1969. It tells the story of three wandering layabouts, spending their time in orgies, weird voyages and surreal dinner parties. Perhaps the most famous section is the Dinner Party of Trimalchio, whose eccentric central host was the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Great Gatsby’– in fact, the working title was “Trimalchio in East Egg”. Few people have read the Satyricon and regretted it.

The Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius This history chronicles the first twelve Emperors (or Caesars) from Julius to Domitian. It was one of the key sources for Robert Graves’ ‘I Claudius’, and even after so long it is still great reading- crazy emperors like Caligula, who made his horse consul and had extended incestuous love affairs, cold, manipulating emperors like Domitian, who would squash flies, pretending they were his enemies, exist alongside relatively “good” emperors like Augustus, who brought a certain amount of stability to the Empire but who has been compared to Hitler. It’s a tale of successive perversions and weirdnesses, poisonings, incest, rape and murder- just the thing for a beach holiday.

There are, of course, many other titles I’d like to include- Herodotus’ ‘Histories’ (perfect for all readers because of its bizarre blend of history, ethnography and plain fiction), Achilles Tatius’ ‘Leucippe and Clitophon’ (an early novel wrapped up in concerns about virginity, marriage, true love and bad dreams), and Apuleius’ ‘The Golden Ass’ (a man peers into the forbidden, only to be transformed into a donkey and then stolen by bandits), to name but a few. They’re all wonderful- not only because they’re the root of many other works which we take for granted in the modern world, but also because they’re just plain interesting. Summer reading need not be restricted to Jeremy Clarkson or Patricia Cornwell- try reading something by an author with just one name.

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Ex ovo omnia

Well, here I am!

This Classics blog is going to be my new project for a while.  A friend of mine suggested to me a while back that I should think about writing a Classics column as a career, and initially I thought he was a little insane.

But then I watched ‘300’ last night, and I thought again.

‘300’ caused a lot of drama in the political as well as the academic community. While the Classicists bewailed the total loss of several hundred years worth of studies on hoplite armour, discarded in favour of leather speedos and gigantic capes, the Iranians were enraged at the depiction of Persians as lascivious, corrupt, effiminate, cowardly and monstrous.  As a Classicist, I dread drinks parties and the inevitable ‘So, what are you studying?’, followed by ‘Oh. And what exactly can you do with that?’, which is incredibly frustrating for reasons I will no doubt discuss in later posts. It’s reactions like that of Iran which continue to prove that Classics can be a powerful tool in real life.

So here I am. My aim here, I guess, is to publish sporadic bits of information on how Classics is not only beautiful and excellent training for all walks of life, but also incredibly powerful and relevant. Here goes, I guess…

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