Classically Inclined

March 22, 2013

Classical Timeline entry up!

Filed under: Research,Teaching — lizgloyn @ 6:43 pm
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This entry is a signpost to the fact that I’ve written an entry on Seneca the Younger that’s now up at the Classical Timeline project – when you click through, scroll along to 50 AD or so and you’ll find him.

The Timeline is the brainchild of  Erlend Macgillivray, a Ph.D. student at Aberdeen whose own research interests are mainly within early Christianity – he’s bringing together some interesting people to help build the site. It’s still in its early days, but do pop over and, if you feel so inclined, get involved – it’s potentially a very useful project, and deserves to do well!

March 18, 2013

Film Review: Quo Vadis (1951)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:13 pm
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Although I’ve read a lot and spoken a little bit about this film, I’ve never actually sat down and watched it. So last week, I finally made the time (across two evenings – they don’t make films with that epic spread any more). It turned out to be a surprisingly appropriate film for Lent, because of the significant role played by the early Christian church in the narrative; it also finally made the chariot race in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum make sense! But I now have a better understanding of why Quo Vadis has remained one of the touchstones for classical reception in film, besides its comparatively early production date.

A couple of things about the film surprised me. Although I’d been prepared for it, the way Peter Ustinov played Nero for laughs but then moved the character into a darker and more dangerous place came as a shock. The clowning buffoonish character was sustained throughout the film, ending with a surprisingly heightened emotional scene when Nero had to rely on his spurned lover Acte to help him commit suicide before the mob who have broken into the palace find him. There are moments that are funny despite themselves – “Tigellinus! My robe of grief,” Nero utters as he is about to begin his musical performance over burning Rome, which he has had torched so he can sing convincingly about the fall of Troy. The film clearly aims to show how the spoilt and indulged emperor is abusing his authority, and thus why his fall is justified, but the pantomime aspects sit at odd with the portentous voiceover at the start of the film which labels Nero the antichrist. (I know that label forms part of the historical record and that Christian texts identify Nero in this way, but I wasn’t expecting to hear it in a 1950s introduction.)

The second thing that I was surprised by, and (if I am honest) rather annoyed by, was the relative unimportance of Seneca to the plot and the introduction of the Petronius romance subplot. I have no issues with Petronius having an important role, and with his death being a set piece – after all, it is in Tacitus. I do have issues with the joint suicide of Seneca and his wife Paulina being attributed to Petronius and a slave girl. (Yes, I know Nero’s soldiers saved Paulina from actually dying, the point stands.) It seems to me that Seneca is criminally underused, standing in for ‘template senatorial toady’ who wishes he could resist Nero as Petronius bravely does. Petronius gets to be a creative maverick who can take risks with what he says to Nero, but who unwittingly plants the idea for setting fire to Rome in his mind. Seneca could have been, well, anything – a tutor trying unsuccessfully to bring his charge back to the lessons of his youth; a cynic hardened to the inevitable outcomes of the emperor’s whims despite his philosophy; an optimist who imperils himself through trying to speak Stoicism as Petronius speaks Art. But no, he gets relegated to Standard Representative Of The Senate, thoroughly sidelined, and has parts of his story nicked and given to Petronius to boot. Colour me unimpressed.

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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.

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December 5, 2012

Defining the Roman family

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:28 am
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I’ve been talking around the idea of the Roman family, and the idea is central to my work, but I’ve realised that I’ve never actually explained what the family is on this blog The Latin word for family is familia, but while the two words look more or less the same, familia represents a very different sort of concept – our idea of the nuclear family would have felt very foreign to the Romans. The Roman idea of familia had a primarily legal meaning, which encompassed only those blood relatives who are agnates, or related through the male line, and not cognates, or relatives through the female line. Marriage did not necessarily mean a close legal tie; if a woman married without manus, she remained in the legal control of her father and thus in his familia, not her husband’s. The consequence of this was that she would not legally be part of her children’s familia either.

Another way to define the familia was as those under the legal authority of the paterfamilias, the oldest and most senior male. This definition included the slaves belonging to a household as well as those biologically related to each other through the male line. In fact, familia can be used to refer to the slaves of a household on their own, not including any of the biological family members at all.

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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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October 25, 2012

#acwrimo and me

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 1:43 pm
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Most people will now be familiar with NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, which has been running since 1999 with the goal of making November the time when people let out their frustrated inner novelists. Last year saw the arrival of AcBoWriMo, or Academic Book Writing Month, in an attempt to bring a tried and tested method of productivity to the field of academic writing. This was not without its problems – a lot of constructive debate took place about whether this was a healthy thing to be aiming for, giving the need for academic writing to simmer and mature, and the general pressure on academics to work flat out doing all of our seventy-two top priority things at once anyway. I didn’t take part – I certainly didn’t have a book to write, was finding my feet in a new job, and generally looked on in a ‘good luck if you’ve got it in you’ sort of way.

Well, this year, the project is back and it’s developed a bit as the result of the discussions last year – now it’s simply AcWriMo, or Academic Writing Month, recognising that academic writing isn’t always about generating fresh text, and isn’t always about books. As the Thesis Whisperer has noted, this explicit widening of the project to all kinds of academic writing makes the project more hackable to suit where each individual researcher is at when November starts. NaNoWriMo asks potential novelists to make the committment to generating crazy amounts of fictional prose; AcWriMo asks researchers to set crazy goals suitable for them. If that crazy goal is to prioritise your own research for an hour a day through the month, then that’s a crazy enough dream to head for.

I’ve been pondering this for some time, and I’ve been thinking about whether this will work for me – and, do you know, I rather think it will.

As some of you may remember, I have that whole thesis thing sitting and waiting revision into a book manuscript. I actually made a start on that this Monday (shock! horror!), and it’s not half as bad as I thought it was going to be. But I need to get on with it, and I need to prioritise it – there is a real pay-off here, in that the sooner I can get enough revised text to my publisher, the sooner I have a chance of getting a book contract, and the sooner that contract can appear in job applications and on my CV. (Mercenary, I know, but the current market doesn’t leave me much choice.) So here I am, getting on the #acwrimo bandwagon by publicly declaring my goals:

  1. By the end of November, I will have revised the introduction and first three chapters of my book manuscript.
  2. From 5th November onwards, I will spend at least one hour every weekday working on revisions.

There’s no point in me setting a word-related goal, as I’m not generating new material but reworking older stuff. As I’ll have prepared my teaching notes up to week 9 as of next week, I should be able to find the hour a day without taking away from teaching-related work. Having the pressure of revising three chapters over the course of the month should stop me getting precious about the whole affair and fussing that it’s not quite perfect – and should also capitalise on the sudden burst of confidence I find I have now that I’m coming back to the revision process after eighteen months thinking about the project but not looking at it.

And if it doesn’t work out to plan? Well, I’ll have a couple of revised chapters in hand, and that’s still going to be a positive result.

October 15, 2012

So, those summer goals…

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:57 am
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Back at the end of July, I wrote about my summer goals for the upcoming vacation – perhaps a little late, but better late than never. One of the tricks to setting goals, of course, is to look back over them and see how one has done, so in the spirit of intellectual honesty, here is a quick review!

Personal

  • Have a holiday – achieved! I managed to have not one but two of these, counting the honeymoon, so I get a pat on the back for that.
  • Get married – achieved! This happened, and happened successfully! All the hard work and planning that went into it paid off, and it was a lovely day.

Abstracts

  • Classical Association 2013achieved! I followed my instincts and put together an abstract thinking about Seneca’s De Matrimonio; I’m now waiting for the conference organisers to let me know their decision, which should come through by the end of this month.
  • Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical Worldachieved! Alright, this got done in the weekend before the deadline, but never mind. The abstract also fell into place nicely with the ideas I was tinkering with and what the texts actually said, which is always a nice surprise. The conference organisers should be in touch at some point this month.

Publishing

  • Condense Chapter Five – achieved! The summer goal was to tighten the chapter up and have it with the editor by mid-August, and I managed that. However, I also managed to do a first stage of edits and refinements that the editor suggested, and am now awaiting a second batch. So this is still a work in progress, but it’s moving along at a healthy speed.
  • Revise and Resubmit the Ad Polybium – almost achieved! No, the Ad Polybium article still hasn’t made it out of my hands, but it’s so very very nearly there. I have set firm limits on how much more reading I’m going to do (one German book down and one to go), and after that it’s a question of checking that the writing is Good Enough and letting it go. So very nearly within my grasp – but not quite there.

All in all, I think that looks like a pretty productive summer. I do wish I had got the Ad Polybium article out of the way, but I feel a lot better for setting firm boundaries about how much energy I’m willing to give it and the end of the tunnel is looking fairly close. There have been substantial improvements from the version that went to the journal originally, and that in and of itself is good enough for now. I also want to get my attention focused on the process of revising the Book, especially as I have a slot coming up at the end of November in the department’s Work in Progress seminar – I want them to have a look at a hacked-about version of my first chapter, and in order to get that into shape, I need to start paying it some serious attention!

July 31, 2012

Summer goals

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:35 am
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Lately, my bit of the Twittersphere has been talking about how best to survive the summer. There have been two threads to this discussion. The first has focused around how to formulate and tackle summer goals – Flora Poste seemed to start the trend on this. The second has looked at ways of using the summer as a space to decompress and recharge – that was what I took away from the last #femlead chat I attended, and you can read the Storify archive if you’re interested. Summer may be late coming in this year, but I thought it was probably a good thing to share my summer goals now that they’ve actually solidified! They’ve also changed a lot since the summer started, mainly because of some unexpected opportunities that have turned up; now is (oddly enough) probably the right time to post them, especially as I’m extending my definition of summer to ‘when term starts’. My overarching aim is to Get Some Research Out There And Stay Sane, which doesn’t sound like it should be too difficult… (famous last words).

Personal

  • Have a holiday – what I spent last week doing, so this gets a big tick.
  • Get married – happening in early September, so a lot of energy is going into organising this and it only seems fair to acknowledge it!

Abstracts

Publishing

  • Condense Chapter Five – this would be the completely unexpected opportunity of the summer. I’ve been asked whether I’d like to submit a piece to a collected volume of a conference I was unable to attend last year (it was in Paris on the same day I was graduating with my PhD in New Jersey…), but the deadline is quite tight. My current Major Goal is to have the chapter tidied up and in line with editorial guidelines by the middle of this month. Fingers crossed!
  • Revise and Resubmit the Ad Polybium – oh, this article. I’ve made some progress so far over the summer, but not quite enough. Having to read a lot of work in foreign languages that ultimately turns out to have nothing relevant to contribute isn’t helping (for more on which, see Mary Beard’s latest piece on damn footnotes). I’ve had a first go at revising it, and now have some helpful comments from my reading group, and a whole pile more reading to do – but there’s no deadline. So once I’ve got chapter five out of the way, I’ll sit down and do some more heavy lifting with it.

If all goes according to plan, at the end of the summer I will be well rested and married, have submitted two abstracts, have two pieces off seeking their fortunes with their spotted handkerchiefs, and be ready to pick up the thesis manuscript and get properly stuck into revisions. Fingers crossed!

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.

January 26, 2012

Seneca and the impossibility of purchasing knowledge

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 11:16 am
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I feel I should be saying something interesting about the news that the government is apparently planning to shelve its proposed HE bill for the time being, and the changes that will be held off and the changes that have already been made, and that sort of thing. Unfortunately, I am currently under a particularly tall pile of marking and lecture prep, and any spare brain power I have is going into job applications and trying to get the Harryhausen article into shape for the end of the month.

However, I have just finished translating Seneca’s Epistulae Morales 27 in preparation for teaching it to the Latin IV class (who, I am glad to report, appear to be finding Seneca quite good fun, thus reinforcing my firm belief that he’s a brilliant author and more people should read him earlier). Letter 27 is about the the process of improving oneself and attempting to acknowledge and cure the faults in one’s character; Seneca tells his addressee, Lucilius, to think of him as a patient in the same ward rather than as a doctor with the infallible cure. However, the second half of the letter is about the impossibility of getting someone else to do this sort of work for you.

With typical Senecan verve, the letter recounts the story of the freedman Calvisius Sabinus, who had a lot of money but not much sense; he got Achilles, Odysseus and Priam mixed up, he couldn’t remember his literary references, and generally had a really rotten memory. (In a nice touch of class snobbishness, Seneca comments that he is “not like us, who knew these names along with those of our school-slaves” – ignoring the fact that Sabinus might well have been a school-slave himself, never mind that he would not have had the educational opportunities afforded to the sons of Roman knights and senators). Seneca’s disdain, however, truly comes to the fore when he reports Sabinus’ solution. Rather than put in the time and effort to actually read Homer and get to grips with the basics, Sabinus used some of his extraordinary wealth to order some very specialised slaves – one who knew Homer, one who knew Hesiod, and one for each of the nine lyric poets. Having the slaves in the house, Sabinus claimed, was as good as knowing the material himself, since anything a member of his household knew, he knew too. (more…)

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