Classically Inclined

September 6, 2013

Between Words and Walls: Material and Textual Approaches to Housing in the Graeco-Roman World

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:38 pm
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Last week was very much a week where all sorts of things seemed like very good ideas on their own, but in aggregate started to look just the tiniest bit over-optimistic. One of those things was attending the conference Between Words and Walls, organised by April Pudsey and Jen Baird of Birkbeck. I don’t think I have ever been to a conference before where I have had to explain why I’m there quite so often – and, let’s be honest, perhaps it’s not immediately obvious why I was there. The conference wanted to examine the study of ancient housing, how to combine the archaeological sources with the literary sources without privileging either, and consider new methodologies for studying the ancient house. It is an entirely fair question to ask how all that links in with what I do.

However, there is actually a very nice link between my stuff and ancient housing. A lot of the study of ancient housing has started looking at what, for want of a better term, you might call the sociology of living – that is, how the shape and layout of houses reflects the hierarchies of the families living in them, and what we might extrapolate about kinship relationships based on the space that families inhabit. This is where the link with my research comes in – although my work on Seneca’s concept of the family is currently based on his representation of the idealised philosophical family, I can’t discuss that without a good grounding in the social history of the Roman family, of which the study of housing forms a part. I told you it made perfect sense.

From mthat perspective, there were a couple of very interesting papers. Jen’s paper on houses at Dura-Europos included as a case study the records of a house which was given to four brothers as an inheritance, and the process of splitting one oikos into four oikoi – but within the same building. This is kind of mind-exploding from an ancient housing point of view, because when we think about houses, there’s a tendency to assume that one family unit inhabited one building, and that each building was a single oikos. If you have the sense of multiple households living in a single structure, that changes a lot of our assumptions about life in the ancient world – population density, the hierarchy of shared spaces within the shared structure, the practicalities of living in such small quarters, not to mention the difference between what the legal document says and what may have actually happened. The paper given by Heather Baker offered a brilliant counterpoint with evidence from Hellenistic Uruk, with tablet documentation of parts of houses being sold off to family members, or records of habitation that suggest multiple households in a single building again. Heather also bought out the evidence this gives us for female economic activity in this period, which for various reasons is not as well documented in other spheres of life.

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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.

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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.

September 7, 2011

Guest post for Three Pipe Problem!

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:12 am
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I’ve been a bit quiet this week, partly because I spent the weekend in Lymington and then yesterday I was completing the final stage of my move to Birmingham in preparation for the new university term.

However, I’m delighted to be able to point you in the direction of the fruit of some of my summer labours, which is a guest post over at the art history blog Three Pipe Problem on Cicero, Greek sculpture and art theft.

Cicero isn’t my usual stomping ground, but it was great fun to go and do some research on the Verrines and think a bit about the mechanics of the ancient art market – not least because one of my writing group works on temple robbery, and one of the issues that comes up a lot is when removing a statue from a temple is ‘good’ theft and when it’s ‘bad’ theft. Cicero explicitly sets up that dichotomy between Verres and Marcellus in his speech, and it’s a very interesting cultural tightrope that he’s walking.

But don’t take my word for it – click the link, read the post, and share your thoughts with Hasan, the brains behind 3PP who was kind enough to invite me to write in the first place!

June 27, 2011

Consolations and grief in the ancient world

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:15 am
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Given how much I’m blogging and tweeting about consolations in the ancient world, I thought I should give a quick run-down of what they actually are rather than expecting everyone to know. It’s actually quite a tricky question, because while people are happy to bandy about terms like ‘the genre of consolatio‘, our evidence for such a thing is remarkably poor. Now, speaking less technically, consolation has been around in the ancient world since as early as Homer – people comfort other people on misfortunes they have suffered, which is the basic definition of consolation. What’s interesting about the consolatio as a genre is that eventually it became a special sort of writing with its own rules and standard tropes. Crantor, a third century B.C. member of the Academy (the school which tried to follow Plato’s way of doing philosophy) is normally credited with being the first person to write a consolatio as we’d understand it – that is, a piece of writing addressed to someone suffering some specific misfortune designed to comfort them with philosophical arguments.

Originally, certain philosophical schools had certain specific consolatory arguments which they would deploy, but by the time we get to Cicero’s period, what seems to have happened is that all these arguments have been brought together into a library of potential consolatory arguments that an author might use in a consolatio. Cicero himself wrote a lost consolatio after the death of his daughter Tullia, and he also wrote many letters of consolation to others who were bereaved or in exile. Consolations were multi-purpose – Cicero tells us that it would be appropriate to write a consolatio for those suffering poverty, an inglorious life, exile, the destruction of their country, slavery, lameness or blindness (Tusculan Disputations 3.81). (more…)

May 22, 2011

On the value of Twitter

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 5:43 pm
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I’m mainly writing this post to direct blog readers to a post by the Rogue Classicist on the utility of Twitter. I wanted to write a very similar post myself, but unfortunately I don’t run my own installation of WordPress, and so don’t have the necessary plug-ins to make it work without playing around a great deal with MS Paint.

On Friday, Dr. Penny Goodman was live-tweeting the talks at the British Museum program Lead the Way: Teaching Classics Through Material Culture, and mentioned this wonderful inscription that one of the other presenters used:

Cue much excitement and tweets saying things like ‘wow, that’s a fantastic inscription, please tell me where to find it so I can use it in my class when I teach Cicero next year’ and so forth.  However, because we’re a difficult lot, once the natural excitement subsided, we moved on to more difficult questions. Where is this text recorded? What does it actually say? How are we getting from the text on the wall in Mau’s edition to the translation Ray used? What are the style conventions of Roman graffiti? If you go through to the Rogue Classicist’s post, you’ll see plenty more of the conversation stream, which we’re still working through.

But I thought I’d flag this up, because it’s a brilliant example of the kind of things Twitter can do for classicists. It makes available interesting (and transferable) snippets of information, otherwise locked inside Mau 1893 and inaccessible to all but the hardy few, to the whole research community. It gives people unable to attend an event a taste of the ideas being shared there. It stimulates discussion and interaction between interested researchers, who might perhaps otherwise have little or no reason to communicate. It’s even a platform where proper research work can happen, albeit limited by being only in 140 characters. It allows people to express doubts, questions, alternative interpretations, and to drop in and out of the conversation as they are able to participate.

So if anyone was ever in doubt about the scholarly value of Twitter, here is a fabulous example of how well it can function in the right circumstances.

Edit: there’s now another perspective on this conversation over at the art history blog Three Pipe Problem, this time talking about what it’s like not to be the qualified academic in this kind of discussion.

Dr. Goodman has also searched out the reading of the inscription in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum – it gives a slightly different reading from Mau, but given how contentious graffiti transcriptions are in the first place, that isn’t much of a surprise.

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