Thursday, 19 October 2017

Diary of a Peripatetic Classicist in Ulster & the Midwest

A longer blog than usual after a week dashing between events in Belfast, Ohio and Philadelphia. A public discussion on Saturday of the vitality of ancient Greek stories was organised by BBC Radio Northern Ireland. It was a joy to meet the author of the bestselling Orchard Book of Greek Myths—the eloquent Geraldine McCaughrean. And to have an interviewer as well-read in Homer and Aristotle as William Crawley was a delightful surprise.

The venue was Mount Stewart, an elegant 19th-century stately home and garden decorated by Edith, the 7th Marchioness Londonderry, who liked to cavort as Circe alongside her daughters dressed as Sirens. The family’s Greek obsession goes back to the 2nd Marquess (Lord Castlereagh) who masterminded the nation’s purchase of the Parthenon marbles from Lord Elgin. The Scottish opportunist gave Castlereagh this exquisite  fifth-century Athenian funerary sculpture as a thank-you present.

Inter-Aristocratic Backhander
On Sunday I faced the most unpleasant airport staff I have ever encountered. Two British employees of Air Canada, who appeared to be having a lovers’ tiff, refused to let me board my flight to Toronto airport at which I was ticketed to transfer onto a flight to Columbus, Ohio. 

I failed to acquire a visa on my mobile phone. The Father Of My Children managed to sort it out at home, but too late. I did finally arrive at Columbus, in a foul mood, many hours later than expected, but in time to lecture on what movies Aristotle would have chosen to illustrate his moral philosophy.

My Columbus host, Professor Fritz Graf, is a world authority on ancient religion, magic, and inscriptions. I was treated to a private viewing of some of his centre’s best ‘squeezes’ (papier-mache impressions of inscribed stones). My favourite was the epitaph for a 17-year-old African girl, a weaver in Rome. She must have been excellent at her craft for her employer/owner to commission this monument.

Edith Espinal in Sanctuary
The Columbus TV news was dominated by the riveting headline BISON ESCAPE FARM and the sad case of another Edith, Edith Espinal, who is at risk of deportation to Mexico, despite having two children born in the USA. She is in permanent sanctuary at a Mennonite Church while the politicians squabble over her immigration status.

Edith Hall in Vrokastro, Crete
On to the Penn Museum at Philadelphia. Its classical collections owe much to my Pennsylvanian true namesake Edith Hall (after marriage Edith Hall Dohan). She was an expert on Cretan archaeology, and an indomitable donkey-rider. I am not a natural digger and talked instead about Aristotle and Environmentalism.

So now I’m back at Philadelphia airport, watching round-the-clock reporting of the US President’s inattentiveness to the emotions of everyone and anyone with whom he interacts.  But I have discovered a new hobby—impersonating the huge repertoire of completely dejected facial expressions used by his press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I could happily watcher her glower, grimace, scowl, sneer, frown and sigh miserably, all day long, every day.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Was Homer a Sicilian Woman?

Butler MS--Cave near Trapani 'where the Cyclops lived'
An invitation to speak at Trapani in north-west Sicily proved irresistible. The topic was Victorian eccentric Samuel Butler. The manuscript of Butler’s notorious book The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897) is in Trapani’s gorgeous Fardelliana Library. It argues that this epic was penned by a young Sicilian woman. After worshipping the manuscript we spoke at a standing-room only public event in the presence of The Mayor.*
With speakers Dr Christiano Turbil & Renato LoSchiavo

Butler was thrilled that one scholar in antiquity, Naucrates, thought Homer was a woman too.** Naucrates claimed both ‘Homeric’ epics were by Phantasia, child of Philosophy Prof. Nicarinos. She put them in the temple of Hephaestus at Memphis. Homer acquired copies and published them under his name. But I argued that Butler had been persuaded of the Odyssey’s feminine authorship for three other reasons.

Breeches Actress plays Mercury in Victorian Burlesque
First, he was influenced by the gender-subverting popular burlesques on the Odyssey and other classical myths which were the mid-Victorian rage at the Strand Theatre, on the corner of the Strand underneath my office where the Aldwych Underground station was built and the KCL merchandise shop now stands. Butler lived a stone’s throw away at Clifford’s Inn. The most popular Odyssey burlesques were by his exact Cambridge contemporary F.C. Burnand. Young women played the heroic male roles and spoke in the street-smart contemporary English which Butler used for his own Homer translations.
Strand Theatre, left corner where KCL now is

Second, femininity is a ‘mask’ for social class.  Butler’s theory and 1900 Odyssey outraged scholars because  he implied that ancient Greeks heroes were working and lower-middle class. His gods, Professors sneered, spoke ‘like angry housemaids’. In Butler’s mind, the plebeian London theatre audiences had fused with the Sicilian peasantry and residents of ancient Ithaca.

Third, in 1882 a student at Butler’s own Cambridge college published the first English translation of the massive Japanese 11th-century epic romance Genji Monogatari, sensationally written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu. The translator was Kenchio Suyematz, a high-level Japanese aristocrat whose residency at St. John’s attracted national attention.  If the Japanese national epic was authored by a woman, why not the ancient Greek one?

A perfect trip, rounded off by visits to the nearby ancient theatre and temple at Segesta. Then I returned to launch this year’s undergraduate course at KCL and, in Kent, my ACE campaign to get Classical subjects into every state school in the land, on which see the project website. Constant activity, but, however knackering, that's the way I like it.
* Organised by the super-efficient and super-hospitable Renato LoSchiavo and Diego Grammatico.

** As cited by the mythographer Ptolemy Chennos, himself quoted by  Photius of Constantinople.

Segesta Theatre--Diego Grammatico and Christiano Turbil

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Medea and the Gender Realignment of Georgia

Cutting Medea-themed Cake with Prof Darchia
I’ve been Tbilisi to lecture on the most famous female Georgian of all time, Medea—sorceress, murderess, and agent of the Justice of Zeus Oath-God when her morally invertebrate husband Jason breaks his marriage vows. An international conference run by the extraordinarily enterprising classicist Professor Irine Darchia explored the complex ways in which Medea has fired cultural imaginations across time and the planet.

On a steep learning curve, I discovered that Georgians get cross when people say their only famous native son has been Stalin, aka Ioseb Jughashvili. On the contrary, women authority figures are a Georgian tradition, far more so than Medea-obsessed classicists have realised.

Nino, Georgeia's She-Enlightener
So you thought that the most important saint in Georgia was obviously dragon-slaying George, also chosen as England’s national patron by Edward III in 1327? Forget it—the individual who brought Christianity to the Georgians was not George at all, but his cousin Saint Nina (aka Nino), ‘Equal to the Apostles, Enlightener of Georgia’.

Tomb of Nana, Converted by Nino
Nino was trained in her faith by a wise woman called Nianfora, went to the Caucasus, was aided by a gardener’s wife called Anastasia, and converted the people there, starting with Sidonia, six other prominent Jewish women and Royal Consort Nana (previously a Venus-worshipper). Georgia should really be called Ninopolis. George never even visited.

Georgia's Best She-King, Tamara
And the most effective monarch of Georgia in history was King Tamara (there was no word for Queen) in the 12th-13th centuries. She was such a capable child that her father George III made her his joint ruler at the age of 12. She led the successful defence of her people from serial invasions, expanded their territory, banished her first husband for immorality, married a better one, had two fine children, and oversaw the ‘Golden Age’ of Georgian culture.

Unsmiling Medea waves the fleece at western exploiters in Batumi
As a result, the country’s national epic, The Knight in the Panther's Skin, was composed in her lifetime. An allegorical embodiment of her, the exquisite Nestan-Darejan, is the inspiration of its courtly action. 

Move over, George and Joseph: it is Nino, Nana, Sidonia and Tamara as well as the defiant Medea who are the real representatives of your country. 

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Ancient Nomads, Modern Travellers

Siberian Scythians' Self-Portrait, c. 400 BCE
It has been Week of the Nomad. The new British Museum Scythians exhibition is revelatory. It reminded me of Tom Gunn’s immortal poem ‘Hedonism’:

   After the Scythians, how advance
      In the pursuit of happiness?
   They went around in leather pants,
    And every night smoked cannabis.

At the same time, Travellers have been encamped in two fields beside our home in Cambridgeshire. They have been polite and friendly. They are unobtrusive but have a laugh with me when our dog plays with theirs.

The prejudiced coverage in the local press has been shocking. So have the expressions of terror and outrage amongst my non-nomadic fellow villagers. Travellers have always faced harassment, and difficulty finding places to park caravans, but the drastic decrease in available Common Land over the last decades has made their situation much tougher. The pernicious Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 eroded the duties of local councils to furnish adequate sites for them and expanded police powers of summary eviction.

Spencer: Divisive and Unhelpful Remarks
Members of one Traveller family received sentences this week at Nottingham Crown Court for running a slavery racket in Lincolnshire. Their behaviour to the workers they abused  was appalling, and so was their defence claim that they were ‘only’ doing what other Travellers did all over the country.  But I could not believe the irresponsibility of Timothy Spencer QC when he said, on no evidence whatsoever, that he feared they were correct ‘that all Travellers had workers operating under similar conditions.’

There are at least 300,000 Travellers in Britain. As Bill Forrester of the National Association of Gypsy and Traveller Officers said in response to Spencer’s outburst, ‘the vast majority of them ‘are just as outraged by modern-day slavery as the vast majority of the non-Traveller communities.’ There are plenty of modern-day slaves exploited in Britain by people living in houses.

So why do Travellers of all origins—Roma, Irish, Eastern European—arouse such hostility? Ignorance of their way of life is one factor, but I believe another is unacknowledged envy. I suffer from no romantic illusions about Traveller lifestyles. Yet I do not think I am alone in feeling that the 60,000 years during which every Homo Sapiens wandered the planet in pursuit of food, eventually with portable tents and in company with herds of livestock and cooperative dogs, were in many ways preferable to the sedentary life of the modern city-dweller.

My Idea of a Good Time
The ancient Greeks saw nomadic peoples of Scythia, Libya and Ethiopia as utopian—more egalitarian, more virtuous and more just—than the agriculturalists and bricklayers of the great ‘civilisations’ of Sumer, Egypt and Iran. I know that I often long in the morning to emerge from my tent to watch the sun rise over a different valley from yesterday. I get depressed if I have no travel lined up in my diary for a month or two. We all need to acknowledge our Inner Hunter-Gatherer-Itinerant-Pastoralist and stop fanning the flames of prejudice like Judge Spencer did this week.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

A Serious Response to Rees-Mogg's views on Abortion

The Etonian MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who claims to have become a Tory at the age of five, and has burdened his own sixth child with the name ‘Sixtus’, told us this week that he is opposed to abortion. This means abortion at any point after conception and under all circumstances, including where a pregnancy is the result of rape.

Much as I disagree with him, I acknowledge that his views are internally consistent. I do not understand the idea that abortion should be illegal except when a woman has been raped, when she should be ‘allowed’ one. Either you think abortion is equivalent to the killing of a post-partum human or you don’t. If abortion is equivalent to murder, then it is indefensible under any circumstances.

The one position which is entirely inconsistent is to say that abortion is absolutely wrong ‘unless the woman was raped’. According to this view, child murder is fine if the woman did not want the sex. Such a view would clearly be motivated by a desire to control women’s sexual activity and punish them for having sex voluntarily.

But most Britons think abortion is not equivalent to the murder of a post-partum human, which means that other reasons for abortion may be valid. Under current UK law, there are several reasons why the two required doctors can ‘agree’ to ‘let’ a woman have an abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, and these do indeed rest on the premise that a woman’s mental and physical health is more important than the unborn potential human. Moreover, doctors may take financial and social factors into consideration.

The current law in the UK (excluding the antediluvian state of affairs in Northern Ireland) works well enough in practice. But it is surely wrong that abortion is still a crime unless signed off by those two doctors.  Along with the British Medical Association, I am convinced that it is a medical rather than a legal issue. We are currently in the situation where a woman who succeeds in taking an abortion pill without ‘permission’, however early in the pregnancy, is committing a crime for which, unbelievably, there is a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

This needs to change. It would be a sign of a healthy democracy if all the journalists filling columns with responses to Sixtus’ dad could use those inches to discuss potential reforms to the Abortion Act 1967 instead. 

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Rhinoceros Persecution Ancient & Modern

John Hume, a disgrace to his species
The older I get, the more I am moved by the plight of other fauna on the planet in the face of human rapacity. One of the week's most disgusting news items was the inaugural online auction of rhinoceros horn, held by South African millionaire rhinoceros horn farmer John Hume.

Young Female Siberian Woolly Rhino
Who does not feel atavistic guilt and melancholy looking at the 39,00-year-old woolly rhinoceros found in eastern Siberia in May, one of the many species of megafauna exterminated by our hunter-gatherer ancestors? Only a few millennia later, some of them created thrilling portraits of some of her close relatives in Chauvet, southern France.

Chauvet cave animal paintings
The rhinoceros had lived alongside Neanderthal man in prehistoric Thessaly, but by the classical era the European rhino was long extinct. Aristotle had heard of them, probably through accounts sent by Alexander’s army in the east, and the occasional Egyptian-Greek amulet shaped like a rhinoceros has turned up. But the brutal exploitation of the rhinoceros can clearly be seen in ancient Rome, where it became the star of the amphitheatre.

Ptolemaic Rhino Amulet
The rhinoceros features in accounts of wicked Emperors’ depravity: Commodus liked to slaughter rhinoceroses personally, at no danger to himself. Caracalla revelled in rhinocericidal spectacles as well.  Domitian had been particularly keen, even stamping a rhinoceros on coins to remind his imperial subjects of the lavishness of the games he had provided.

Domitian's Rhinoceros coin boast
The poet Martial’s poems on Domitian’s rhinoceros fetish are heart-breaking. Since this magnificent beast is vegetarian, and temperamentally placid, it proved profoundly disappointing in the shows when animals were meant to tear each other apart to gratify the audience. So the rhino had to be tortured into losing its temper and attacking other animals. But then it could toss two oxen in the air,  terrorise a lion, or vanquish a great brown bear.

Mosaic at the Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily
The rhinoceros, all 3,800 lbs of it, can indeed charge an adversary at 30 mph. John Hume’s rhinoceroses can’t toss their assailants, of course, because he has removed and auctioned their horns. But I for one would not be sorry to see him face a herd of them, furious, in an arena. Perhaps a new form of the ancient venationes (hunting spectacles) could be invented specifically to punish humans convicted of cruelty to animals.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Spartacus in Haiti and Lancashire

23 August is the annual International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. UNESCO chose the date because it marks the beginnings of the momentous 1791 slave rebellion on St Domingue (Haiti). 

Black Spartacus
Enslaved Africans spread fire across a thousand plantations. In 1794 the French National Convention voted to abolish slavery throughout all territories of the French Republic. Although Napoleon later repealed this measure, the fact that it had been passed at all was instrumental in the eventual abolition of the European slave trade altogether.

The leader of the rebellion was Toussaint L'Ouverture, known as The Black Spartacus. He had been inspired by the portrait of the ancient rebel gladiator Spartacus in Plutarch’s Life of Crassus.  

L'Ouverture’s importance was brought to its widest English-speaking audience by a biography written by the Reverend John Relly Beard (1853), not coincidentally the Victorian most committed to bringing classical education at the highest level to all working people. A passionate Lancashire Unitarian minister, he was a crucial force behind the movement for popular education.

Beard also wrote the sections on Latin, Greek and English Literature for Cassell’s Popular Educator, Latin Made Easy (1848) Cassell’s Lessons in Greek

He proudly addressed this to ‘the uneducated’,  his stated purpose ‘to simplify the study of Greek so as to throw open to all who are earnest in the great work of self-culture. Nor need any industrious person of ordinary capacity despair of acquiring skill to read the New Testament; and if he pleases, and will persevere, he may go on to an intimate acquaintance with Xenophon, Demosthenes, Thucydides, Homer, and the other Greek classics'.

Book downloadable free on 
An estimated 21 million people, shockingly, are slaves across the planet today, and 13,000 in Britain alone. You can find out more at the Global Slavery Index. Its famous-face patron is none other than gladiator-impersonator Russell Crowe.  

In 2012 there was a French TV serial about L'Ouverture, sadly unavailable with English subtitles. Surely it’s time for a major-budget blockbuster movie, with Crowe as Napoleon.  David Oyelowo, the best Prometheus in Aeschylus I’ve ever seen (see pic), is an obvious candidate for L'Ouverture.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Some Classical and presidential Left-Handers

August 13th is the 28th International Left-Handers’ Day.  The usual journalistic response is to point out the disproportionate number of US Presidents who have been left-handed, including Thomas Jefferson, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  Few of those succeeded, within 8 months in office, in threatening us with nuclear war and Nazi rallies, so perhaps the Americans’ great mistake last November was to elect a right-hander.

For light relief let’s look at some of the rare indications of left-handers in antiquity. A papyrus in Göttingen contains a letter written by the clearly left-handed  Aurelius Victor, a post office accountant in Oxyrhynchus. The experts can tell this from the contorted way he pens his lambdas.  A vase in the Louvre depicts FOUR mysteriously left-handed lyre-players. This could at a pinch be an artist’s mistake, but I like to think that the artist was left-handed and paying himself a secret compliment.

Left-handedness is often thought to be correlated with high IQ. Aristotle is sometimes said to have been left-handed simply because he was fascinated by the natural differences between left- and right-handed children. Plato said that we are all by nature ambidextrous, but that through ‘the folly of nurses and mothers’ we lose power in one hand: this causes problems in warfare if anyone ends up left-handed. If you think about the hoplite phalanx you can see what he means, so I’m intrigued to find a left-handed hoplite lion on a lovely Greek gemstone in the BM.  Shield on right paw and sword held in left.

A left-handed gladiator, however, was at an advantage if fighting a right-hander, because his opponent might have had little opportunity to train against left-handers. The Emperor Commodus (the one in the movie Gladiator) liked to boast about his left-handed gladiatorial prowess.   Albanus, the figure on the right in this graffito from Pompeii, is a left-hander fighting the right-handed Severus, and the abbreviation SC. after his name represents SCAEVA, ‘left-hander’.
Assyrian kings liked to be portrayed fighting from chariots, but in only one such portrait, a wall-painting from Til-Barsip near Aleppo in Syria, is a left-handed king portrayed. He holds the bow in his right hand, and his sword is sheathed on his right. He is probably the obsessive astrologer Esarhaddon, who reigned from  681 – 669 BCE.
The most famous ancient left-hander was Gaius Mucius, a Roman citizen who volunteered to assassinate the hostile Etruscan king Lars Porsena in 508 BCE. He was not very bright and accidentally killed the wrong man. He was captured. To show how brave Romans were, he shoved his right hand into a sacrificial fire and did not cry out. Porsena was impressed, freed him and sued for peace with Rome.  So our newly one-handed hero was given the honorary cognomen Scaevola or ‘Left-Handed’.
President Garfield brushing up his classical languages
But I can’t finish without pointing out that one ambidextrous U.S. president, Andrew Garfield, could simultaneously write the same sentence in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other. This was impressive because he had risen from abject poverty.  It sadly did not prevent him serving for less than a year; he was assassinated in the September of 1881 only months after entering office.
A pity. Those were the days when U.S. presidents still said things like ‘Next in importance  to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained’. How Times Have Changed.  

Saturday, 29 July 2017

How Virgil Framed Dido

It’s been Phoenician-Carthaginian Week for me, culminating last night at the Proms in a BBC debate on ancient mariners with archaeologist Sir Barry Cunliffe.  Earlier I had talked about Carthage, the mesmerising lost civilisation centred in Tunisia, to the cast of the upcoming Royal Shakespeare Company production of Marlowe’s Dido Queen of Carthage, starring the charismatic Chipo Chung.

‘Everyone knows’ that Dido was a Lebanese refugee whose project of founding Carthage (the name means New Town) was jeopardised when she fell for the visiting Trojan Aeneas. She was abandoned by him and committed suicide. Virgil says so in his Aeneid, after all.

Dido costume for Victorian Fancy Dress Party
But Virgil cynically framed Dido. He imposed parallels between the Roman conquest of Carthage and Augustus’ victory over Cleopatra at Actium. The Carthaginians themselves told a different tale. Their Dido, whom they knew as Elissa, was a she-hero who led compatriots to freedom and sacrificed herself for them. No opportunistic Trojan beau in sight.

Dido/Elissa’s original tale, preserved in authors including the Sicilian historian Timaeus, goes like this:

King Mutto of Tyre had a son Pygmalion and a daughter Elissa to whom he bequeathed joint rule of his realm. Pygmalion wanted to be sole tyrant. Coveting the gold in the temple, he killed Elissa’s husband, the high priest. Elissa outwitted her brother by pretending to put the gold into bags which were emptied into the sea (they actually contained sand), made off in a ship with the money and half the Phoenician Senate, picked up some wives for them in Cyprus, and arrived in North Africa.

As Clever as she Was Brave: Dido Maximises her Land Grab
From the locals she bought as much land ‘as could be covered with an oxhide’.  Cleverly, she cut the leather into narrow strips and marked out an enormous perimeter. 

Unfortunately, a neighbouring Libyan leader named Hiarbas sought her hand in marriage. Under pressure from her own people to accept, she chose to kill herself so that they would not become subject to him as their queen’s husband and patriarch. With this self-sacrifice she secured the fierce autonomy of the Carthage of magnificent generals Hamilcar and Hannibal for many centuries to come.

The Great City which Dido Founded
I love Marlowe. This production comes highly recommended. It has an outstanding director in Kimberley Sykes, a charming, plausible, Scottish Aeneas in Sandy Grierson and a moving, empathetic Daniel York as Iarbas. But it’s high time a 21st-century playwright dramatized the Carthaginians’ indigenous story of their exemplary Founding Mother. The Romans need to butt out at last from Dido’s inspiring quest epic.