Last week classicists from around the country were hosted by the University of Nottingham for the annual Classical Association conference; long-time readers may remember my conference report from the 2012 event. I had been referring in jest to my break in sunny Nottingham, but the weather took me at my word – we had glorious sunshine, and were able to enjoy the beauties of University Park campus, including a wonderful lake for strolling around. For the academic side of things, those of you who follow me on Twitter will have seen that the hashtag #CA14 was getting good traffic, and not just from me – we’ve been praised from many different quarters for the quality of our livetweeting. (This may or may not have anything to do with the fact that on Wednesday evening I decided we probably needed a livetweeting protocol, and lo, by Friday we had a livetweeting protocol.)
From a social point of view, the difference between my 2012 experience and last week’s was huge. It seemed I could hardly turn a corner without seeing somebody I wanted to say hello to, somebody whose work I knew and I wanted to introduce myself to, somebody I’d heard speak, somebody I’d sat with during dinner, somebody I knew from the States… it felt good to feel as if I have now got enough of a UK network to be able to feel as if three and a half days isn’t enough to talk to all the interesting people I know. There was also a good chance to meet new people, created by the CA’s policy of sitting everyone on communal tables for dinner; you can sit with friends on one side and new friends on the other, which is a great way of breaking down all sorts of unhelpful hierarchies. Nobody can think about hierarchies while there is dessert on offer.
And what of the academic side? While this conference didn’t have much on the program that directly spoke to Seneca (and the one paper that did was timetabled against mine), there were plenty of other things that either broadened my general horizons or spoke to other interests. As usual, I should note that not mentioning a paper does not mean I did not enjoy it! I’m a big fan of taking at least one panel at conferences that has nothing at all to do with your field of research and seeing what happens; for this conference, that was the Material Culture panel, with papers about coinage in the Athenian empire, the adaptation of dock properties in Delos to increased small-scall commercial activity, and my favourite, small finds on Romano-British temple sites – Katarina-Kay Alaimo made animal bones far more interesting than I ever thought possible (which is a wonderful reminder of just what you can do with archaeology if you think about it in the right way, something my brain is incapable of doing but that I enjoy very much on the part of others).
In some ways, I found this conference linked together thematically in more obvious ways than 2012 – for instance, there was definitely a reception ‘pathway’ and a teaching ‘pathway’ that you could follow through if you were so inclined. I treated myself to a morning of Roman Bodies on Monday, including marvellous papers on the use of the body as a way of articulating and forming invective in Roman political speeches by Jan Meister, Caroline Vout’s analysis of how Lucan and Statius invite us in to touch the bodies of their wounded and dead, Mark Bradley’s masterly summary of the significance of the Roman nose, and Jane Draycott’s challenging invitation to think about hair as a ritual dedication within the Roman world. I also found myself pondering the significance of iconography in wedding altars following Glenys Davies’ paper on subservient body language – her findings seem to suggest a development towards a more passive bride in scenes depicting the iunctio dextrarum, which goes against the traditional scholarly narrative of a move towards more companionate ideals of marriage in the literary sources. One for the art historians, I think, but one of those papers which helpfully jolts you out of scholarly comfort.
Similarly, John North gave a tour de force paper on the relationship between the censor, the census and the lustrum. Not least impressive among its elements was his patient and careful work with Festus, whose frustrations and irritations and familiar to anyone who works on ancient marriage. He constructed a meaningful relationship between fragmentary definitions, sculptural representations and passing mentions in texts concerned with other things to offer a plausible account of how everything links together; again, it’s a sort of scholarship that my brain doesn’t do very well, but is a real pleasure to hear others excel in.
I should also mention the panel on Ethics and Late Republican Politics, put together by colleagues from Australia, which was a bracing refresher on Wednesday morning after the CA dinner and disco. We had papers on Stoicism and its influence on Cato’s politics from Kit Morrell; utility and virtue in Cicero and Sallust from Martin Stone; an invitation to think again about Mark Antony’s virtues from Kathryn Welch; and a lovely close reading of Valerius Maximus from Sarah Lawrence. All these papers picked up on my heart-felt belief that we don’t think enough about ancient philosophy as totally lived systems, and made various compelling points about how philosophy interweaves into political life. This is one thing the CA is great for – bringing together people physically to share ideas and conversations who otherwise would be hindered by geography.
My paper, in the panel Across the Border – Four Movies about Hadrian’s Wall, went very well, or so it felt at the time. All four papers had strong thematic links that held them together into a coherent set; I’m particularly glad that Alex McAuley’s paper could be read in absentia, as it added a valuable extra dimension to our thoughts. We also had an extremely lively discussion afterwards, which was great, although apologies to those who found their lunchtime somewhat curtailed. The panel, as I think I have mentioned, was the brainchild of Tony Keen and Juliette Harrisson, who are starting to work up a book about on-screen representations of Roman Britain, in which there will hopefully be a worked-up version of my paper. I think I have also earned my favourite conference badge of honour so far – as Monica Cyrino, who was chairing our panel, opened the floor to questions after I had spoken, she thanked me for a ‘provocative paper’. If Monica thinks you’re being provocative, you’ve got to be doing something right…
My final observation is about my other appearance on the programme, at the roundtable on the future of classics in the UK media, organised by Zosia Archibald; I was very pleased to be asked to take part in this, and not a little unnerved to be listed next to the CA’s current president, Martha Kearney (who, I should add, gave a fantastic presidential address on bees later in the evening). I had no idea how the roundtable was going to go, but in the end we had a lively and well-attended discussion, and we’ve come out of it with some ideas about how to make some advances on the issues raised. We’ll see what else happens as a result, but watch this space.
A fruitful, rewarding and intellectually enjoyable conference, with good food, fantastic organisation (for which all hail Helen Lovatt and the Greenshirts), and excellent company. Thank you all.