Classically Inclined

October 13, 2014

New publication: Show Me the Way to Go Home: A Reconsideration of Seneca’s De Consolatione ad Polybium

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:02 am
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Those long-time readers of this blog will be very familiar with the Ad Polybium article, which started out life as the Stoic exile article and went through various changes of shape in its journey towards completion. (If you’re interested in catching up, have a look at some of the stuff on the ad Polybium tag.) After many incarnations, starting as a carbuncle on the side of chapter two of the dissertation, I’m delighted to announce that “Show Me the Way to Go Home: A Reconsideration of Seneca’s De Consolatione ad Polybium” has appeared in the latest issue of The American Journal of Philology.

This is the classic example of what can happen when you have good research ideas that don’t fit into an argument you are trying to make yet still deserve airtime. Exactly the same thing happened when I wrote the new chapter four for the book manuscript – I now have the seed kernel of an article on Seneca’s use of paternal imagery in his political philosophy which will be interesting but isn’t in and of itself particularly helpful for the argument I’m making in the book. In “Show me the way” I’m entering a pretty well-worn debate about whether the ad Polybium is a text we can take seriously or not; I argue that it is, and that we do not need to tie ourselves in knots with questions of sincerity and intention to get there. I also argue that what has been read as some of the most outrageous flattery has a parallel function in the text if we start thinking about it from a Stoic perspective rather than getting caught up in those issues of flattery and sincerity which get prioritised when dealing with this text.

My hope is that this will move some of the conversation about this really quite fascinating wee text forward from where it’s got a bit stuck; whatever happens, it’s good to have this particular idea out there, and hopefully getting some people thinking about the consolation in a new way.

January 17, 2013

Book review: Nemesis – Lindsey Davis

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:44 pm
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I expect that a lot of people who read this blog are already very familiar with the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis – in case you aren’t, pop along to Lindsey’s website and get a flavour of what’s on offer. Falco is an informer (in the gum-shoe detective tradition) living in a Rome ruled by the emperor Vespasian; he’s done his duty in the army in Britain, came home to his mum, and then set about making a living. Through the course of the novels, the reader becomes familiar with the colourful cast of characters who populate his world. Nemesis is what looks like the final book in the series (fear ye not, there looks like there will be a spin-off!), so if you haven’t read any of the Falco books before, then come back to this post when you have!

There are a couple of reasons that I wanted to blog about Nemesis, not least of which is saying goodbye to Falco, who has been a very enjoyable companion in my reading since I was a teenager. But there were also a couple of things about the book which, oddly enough, happened to coincide with the work I’ve been doing to get the ad Polybium article up to scratch, and I wanted to draw out how Davis explores that knotty historical issue in fictional form.


December 17, 2012

End of term wrap-up

What with one thing and another, I’ve been run off my feet for the last fortnight or so. Term has now officially been over for a week, but I don’t feel as if I’ve got the paperwork and administration for everything quite under control yet. It’s getting there, but there are a couple of things that still need finishing off. I have, of course, finished all my teaching. The Roman novel first year seminar is working much more smoothly than it did last year; this is partly due to the department increasing seminar lengths from one to two hours across the board, meaning there’s more space for presentations and discussions, but I think the tweaks to the syllabus that I made at the start of the year have paid off as well. There’s still one class that isn’t quite working as I want it to work, but I’ve had another go at redefining the discussion questions, so we’ll see if that helps. It is, in fairness, the class dealing with literary form (e.g. why are parts of the Satyricon in poetry, and do we care?), so I think it’s going to be a case of continually experimenting until I get the formula right. I shall miss my first year tutees, who will be disappearing off to pastures new, but it will be good to meet some more of the first year intake next term.

The Roman Life Course lectures are going well – I have a good group of students, and we’ve established what feels like a productive discussion-based atmosphere to complement the parts of the session where I lecture more traditionally. The material seems to be engaging the students’ interest, and I’m sneakily incorporating as much philosophical evidence for social history as I can – one of the surprise hits was Plutarch’s The Training of Children, which seems to have gone over rather well! The blog posts are still working more or less as I want them to, and the students seem to like the idea of blog-based work in principle even if the practice is a little shakier. I’m also glad that I decided to stick it out with the critical incident questionnaire, for the simple reason that it’s really helping me see what is and isn’t working with this sort of teaching.


November 13, 2012

Seneca and writing for multiple audiences

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:15 am
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In the process of tidying up the Ad Polybium article and working on turning the first three chapters of the dissertation into the first three chapters of a book, one methodological theme has been making its presence known again and again. It’s something I find I’ve hinted at in the dissertation itself, but one of the referees for the Ad Polybium article gave me the language to talk about it in a rather more sophisticated way. It’s the issue of what can be called “two-level discourse” and how that relates to philosophy.

Let’s start with the idea that a text can be multilayered. We’re all pretty comfortable with the idea that a text can have multiple meanings – George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for instance, can be read as a fictional story about rural agricultural life or as a metaphor for life in the Soviet state, depending on the amount of background information a reader has available to inform their reading. The same principle applies to films (which are also texts, in the theoretical ‘everything is a text’ sense) – when I saw the recent remake of Alice in Wonderland (2010), I saw a parable of the adolescent girl’s struggle to come to terms with menarche, which may not have been a univerally shared interpretation…

This idea, which works well (as Animal Farm demonstrates) for political writing, transfers to philosophy, particularly Stoicism. Most of our evidence for hardcore Stoic theory in the Roman period comes from Cicero, who was not a Stoic himself, but wrote a number of dialogues outlining Stoic, Epicurean and Sceptic theories and their flaws. Seneca also has some moments of heavy doctrinal theorising – On Benefits is full of it, which makes it heavy going in places, and some of the Moral Epistles are fairly dense. But, in the main, Seneca doesn’t write doctrinal tracts designed to lay out the practical workings of Stoicism. What he does instead is write work which on one level wants to be accessible and relevant to the average reader, and also seeks to speak on another level to those who are aware of the Stoic importance of seemingly everyday terms.


June 27, 2012

Judging Stoic Influence

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:30 am
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I’m in the middle of revisions for the ad Polybium article, which are taking me a while to get back into – such are the consequences of letting the research wheels stop during the middle of term and the resulting dissipation. But never mind, I’m slowly getting back into the swing of things now. One of the things the article tries to do, in a very small and modest sort of way, is point out that the ad Polybium is a Stoic text. But what does being a Stoic text actually mean?

This is the sort of question that generates heated discussion at conferences, particularly when people are talking about Seneca’s tragedies. The tragedies are the sensible place to start because they exemplify the problem particularly clearly(and if you’re into this sort of thing, check out the article by Hine in the further reading at the bottom of this post, because he provides brilliant summary of the various arguments involved). We know that the Seneca who wrote these plays was a committed Stoic – but does our knowledge of his philosophical convictions change how we interpret the plays? Are they deliberately written to promote Stoicism? To illustrate the horrors of lives lived against Stoic doctrine? To show that Stoicism doesn’t work? Does Seneca expect the people who consume his plays to be fully aware of a Stoic framework, entirely unaware of it, or a mix of the two?


April 19, 2012

Reading as Consolation in Seneca – The Aftermath

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:14 pm
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I promised that I would write a little more about my paper on reading as consolation in Seneca which I gave at the Classical Association conference. I thought I’d start out with a Wordle of the paper itself, just for the sake of interest:

As you will be able to guess from the Wordle, most of the paper was about consolation and how it works. I specifically looked at two passages from the consolations Seneca writes to his mother and to the freedman Polybius in which he advises them to turn to various forms of literary activity in order to assuage their respective grief. Telling people to go to philosophy for consolation is nothing new – Cicero does it in a lot of his extant consolatory letters, for instance. But where Cicero tells people to go back to tried and trusted things that they have already learned, Seneca tells his addressees to pick up entirely new intellectual projects, which will actively engage their minds and thus have the psychological effect of bringing balance back to a disturbed soul.

Reading forms a well-known part of the Stoic armory against the distractions of the world, as Martha Nussbaum explores inter alia in her influential book The Therapy of Desire; reading serves as a grounding point, a place to start thinking about ethical growth. By applying this general Stoic attitude to the specific task of consolation, Seneca makes a new point about the use of reading for practical purposes, in this case the calming of grief. He also makes it clear that he expects his addressees to engage with their reading material actively, and that the material is itself an active participant in the process. This is in contrast to Helvia’s finances, which Seneca explicitly says he does not recommend as a distraction from grief. There’s some interesting stuff going on there about the difference between numbers and letters in terms of intellectual activity – the accounts seem passive, for sifting through, rather than active players in the consolatory process.

Where next with this work? Well, sadly, to the back of a desk drawer until I finish The Book, but I’ve got a few ideas for what to do after that. By that point, hopefully a book on the consolatory tradition that somebody mentioned to me will have appeared, which will help me work out if I’ve got a point to make in the first place – but I suspect I will. The current plan is to look at literary activity specifically as a consolatory recommendation in the Latin sources, and to see what that means in a social context where people are not necessarily reading themselves but may be read to by slave secretaries, and what differences this makes to the consolatory admonitions. This was a thread that I only identified at the end of my research for the paper and so didn’t get a lot of airtime in the paper itself, but I think it’s an important social factor to consider when Seneca is so adamant that philosophy must be an active rather than passive occupation.

November 2, 2011

Reading as Consolation in Seneca – a preview

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:11 pm
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My good luck with abstracts continues! First it was Animating Antiquity (which is now, um, next week…), then it was Feminism and Classics VI, and now it’s the Classical Association 2012 conference! There are a couple of reasons that I’m really excited about this one. It’s only the second paper I’ve had the opportunity to present that will be based on my thesis research (the first was at the Oikos-Familia conference, link leads to PDF), although technically it’s a further offshoot of the Ad Polybium article. The important thing is that it’s an opportunity to talk about Seneca, who is supposed to be my author of special interest and as yet is a bit underrepresented on the CV. The other major reason I’m very pleased about this is that the CA conference is the major classics conference in the UK, so I’ll have the chance to present my work in a nationally significant arena. It’s the first time it’s been possible for me to talk about my research to this large a group since I returned to England, and thus it will be the first time that I meet many of the people who are now my peers in the profession. It’s great that part of that process will be a chance to share what it I work on.

(I should mention that it also looks like it’s going to be a really good CA meeting for Birmingham – so far I know of one graduate-organised panel and one graduate paper that have been accepted besides me, and I’m sure more will appear on the program.)

So, what is this particular paper about? Two of the themes that this year’s CA hosts at Exeter highlighted as a suggested topics were the ancient book/material text and reading in antiquity. While I was working on the Ad Polybium article, it became increasingly clear that I needed to think about how Seneca was presenting Polybius in relation to literature and scholarship (especially as part of my argument hinged on the fact that Polybius had to be able to understand any Stoic arguments that Seneca might include in his consolation). When the CFP for the CA conference came through, it struck me that this might be a good place to begin thinking about what Seneca does with the topic of reading in his consolations – after all, he makes a similar recommendation in his consolation to his mother, so there’s a bit of a theme going here, and as yet it doesn’t seem to have been discussed much in the secondary literature on the consolations. (Not that there is that much secondary literature on the consolations in the first place, but I digress.)

The paper I will give at the CA is a chance for me to unpick these ideas of consolation and its connection to reading in a little more detail than I had the chance to do in the Ad Polybium article – it seems like it’s an important strategy, and deserves more consideration than I could give it in the article (and indeed in the thesis). I want to focus on the fact that reading seems to be viewed as something that the addressee needs to work at, really get their teeth into, in order to get the most out of the process. I particularly like the comparision Seneca draws in the consolation to his mother, where he makes a distinction between the comfort that comes from reading and the temporary distraction that comes from mathematics!

I also want to look at the kinds of literature that Seneca recommends people should read. It’s obvious in some cases that he’s referring to what we would classify as ‘literature’ (that is, Homer and similar authors), and in other places that he’s thinking of philosophical writing. I want to see if there are differences in how he conceptualises reading and the sorts of benefits we get out of it, and if what we read matters more than how we read. And that, I think, remains a live question in the cultural discourse that surrounds us today.

October 6, 2011

Success! An article off to seek its fortune

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:40 am
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I am quite chuffed with myself this morning, because I have finally got the Ad Polybium article out to the journal I wished to submit it to. I feel very much as if I am sending it out to seek its fortune, stick with a knotted handkerchief on the end and all. It’s been quite a rough process; I had hoped to have this over and done with by the start of September, but fate and events conspired against me and my optimistic opinions of my own ability to do everything all at once. The process this week was more about making sure the minutiae were in place – checking that the document I intended to submit met all the requirements of the journal’s submission guidelines, for instance, which included writing an abstract and fiddling about with page numbers. When you’ve engaged with chunky arguments and argumentative approaches, coming down to small-scale formatting feels like rather a bump, however necessary it is.

In fact, it was fiddling about with page numbers that means this post is going up today rather than yesterday. At the moment, I don’t have access to a printer at home, so wanted to print the article at work. There is some Greek in the article, and thus I created a PDF at home so as to not risk the problem of the font getting garbled. Unfortunately, when I opened the file yesterday, the first thing I noticed was that the page numbers were out of sync… and there was no way for me to edit the document at work without garbling the Greek. (My attempts to install the correct font were, alas, unsuccessful.) So I had to create a fresh PDF with the correct page numbers at home before printing it all out this morning – but it’s done now!

I am hoping that this small hurdle will be apotropaic and spare me from other indignities of the article submission process, but it’s a vain hope. I know that my reading group have been over the manuscript with a fine tooth comb and have made it an infinitely better product, but I also know that guarantees nothing in the world of anonymous peer review. Obviously I’d like the article to be accepted, but more realistically I’m expecting at least one more round of significant revisions. The article has already changed its shape quite a lot since I wrote about it in May, and I expect it will change more before it finally appears in print. However, it’s out there, and I can now turn my attention to my paper for Animating Antiquity next month – it’ll be a nice change of pace to spend some time in front of my freshly ordered Clash of the Titans DVDs!

September 9, 2011

Undiscovered treasures – the Laus Pisonis

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:32 am
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I’m loving the fact that working on the Ad Polybium is taking me to some really strange places, mostly to attempt to work out what ‘stereotypical panegyric’ looks like. One big response I got from my reading group on the original article draft was a sense that the features I was pointing out formed part of the ‘normal’ panegyric repertoire – but I have to say that after going through the secondary literature and doing a bit of digging in the primary sources, I’m becoming less and less convinced about what a panegyric trope actually looks like and whether anyone’s proven one exists. Sure, we know what panegyric feels like, but I’m starting to have my doubts about dismissing something from anything in the early imperial period as a ‘trope’ without a lot more groundwork.

The text I want to talk about today is called the Laus Pisonis, or “the praise of Piso”. We’re fairly sure that the Piso in question is Calpurnius Piso, who was one of the ringleaders in a plot to assassinate the Emperor Nero; it was this same plot that Seneca and his nephew Lucan got incriminated in and were killed over, which gives some pleasing syncronicity to investigating it. The text is about 260 lines long and takes the form of poetry – and, I’m afraid to say, for the first dozen lines or so it really is dreadful poetry. I suspect this may be an artefact of the “introductions are hard” phenomenon that anyone who does any academic writing is very familiar with, because once the poet has got into his stride, he starts having quite a lot of fun with the language. (We have No Idea who wrote the Laus; it was preserved in a 1527 edition of Ovid by Sichard, who says it was traditionally attributed to Virgil, and various medieval compilations say it was written by Lucan, but this typifies the desire to hang orphan texts on famous names rather than anything approximating cast iron proof of authorship.)

I have a couple of thoughts about the text which are based mainly on what jumped out at me while I was translating the piece for myself, and some kind pointers from Ted Gellar-Goad over on Twitter. Ted responded to my tweet that olorinus, meaning of or belong to a swan, was a great word that I hadn’t seen before by pointing out that choosing that word was actually an important poetic choice – what the poet arguably should have done was pick cycneus, derived from the Greek word for swan, rather than the native Latin word, thereby signalling his allegiance to a certain kind of Callimachean poetry. Now, I’m not an expert on Callimachean poetry by any means, but suddenly a lot of other things about the poem’s style fell into place – the heavy reliance on lots of obscure mythological references and adjectives, for instance. The poet is clearly putting himself into a firm poetic camp, although I suspect it may be a Roman home-grown neoteric one rather than a strictly Callimachean one – he uses the word lepos, meaning smooth, at line 163, and that’s a notorious catchword for the neoterics, whose most famous member was Catullus. So while I can’t unpick precisely what’s going on here in terms of poetic agenda, there’s obviously something being said about allegiance and Roman-ness and style that’s worth unravelling. (more…)

May 25, 2011

When a thesis chapter breeds – the Stoic Exile article

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:39 pm
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Seneca's Tower on Corscia - © Ethelwulf

Sometimes, when you are writing a thesis chapter, you find yourself going off on a tangent. It’s a pretty tangent, with highways and byways and beautifully flowered verges, and you wander through it on your way back to your main point, and you think nothing of it, because it’s been part of your mental process to get where you are in your thinking about your material. Then you hand your draft to your advisor, who looks at it, raises an eyebrow, and wants to know how on earth this relates to what you said you were going to give her. Although in my case, she did it very kindly, and she was right. Chapter two of my thesis was supposed to look at the subject of brothers and the Stoic cosmopolis in Seneca’s de Consolatione ad Polybium, a really interesting treatise that gets maltreated because – well, there’s no way of getting around it, it’s a bit sycophantic. Seneca claims he’s writing to Polybius to console him on the recent death of his brother, but he writes with the agenda of getting himself recalled to Rome from Corsica, where he’s currently being held in exile. Let’s just say that he gets the tiniest bit florid, and over the years many academics haven’t reacted well to his stylistic choices.

I wanted to look at the relationships between brothers in the consolation, because my thesis was about the family. However, I ended up getting distracted by the representation of the Emperor Claudius, and how he gets described using several images that the Stoics use to talk about God. It’s all a bit complicated, as the same images are used to describe Jupiter, head of the Roman pantheon, but that’s part of the point. Anyway, I wrote a great big lengthy draft of this chapter and proudly sent it off to my supervisor; she duly worked through it and her feedback essentialy said that it was all very interesting, but wasn’t this chapter supposed to be about brothers and the ad Polybium rather than Stoicism and the ad Polybium? At which point I re-read what I’d written, groaned, and chopped about four thousand words out of the manuscript. They were there because they were trying to take over my chapter, and turn it into something else. It wasn’t that what I wanted to say about Claudius and the Stoic god and all my other shiny ideas weren’t worth saying – it was just that they didn’t actually contribute towards my overall thesis about how families work in Seneca.

I knew, however, that hanging on to those four thousand words would come in handy. (more…)

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