Classically Inclined

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.

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December 28, 2012

Bronze at the British Academy

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:19 am
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I was very glad that I managed to get to see Bronze at the British Academy before it closed at the start of December. There had been a lot of buzz about the exhibition, and I wanted to see how the attempt to combine ancient and modern material worked in tandem with my own obvious interest in the Greek and Roman artefacts on display.

The Dancing Satyr - The Royal Academy of Arts

The Dancing Satyr – The Royal Academy of Arts

To my great personal satisfaction, the exhibition opened with a statue of a dancing satyr from the fourth century B.C. – one of the few surviving examples that we have, because it spent until 1998 in the sea and thus didn’t get melted down in the time between then and now. This is the fate of most classical bronzes – they get shipwrecked, buried or melted for reuse, so the ones that do survive are particularly interesting, especially given the artistic habit of imitating bronzes in marble sculpture. These imitations obviously aren’t as vulnerable to utilitarian impulses, but marble as a medium also has more limitations – many a marble statue from this period leans against a suspiciously convenient tree trunk to stop the piece losing its structural integrity. So to see this dancing satyr stretching out its limbs in all directions, fully in the spirit of the dance, was absolutely breathtaking. (There’s a video that discusses the statue here.)

I rather suspect that the choice of the objects in the show would have struck me as a lot cheekier if I had a wider range of subject knowledge in this field. I draw this conclusion from the brilliant statue of Lucius Mammius Maximus, fully bedecked in toga and in oratorical pose. He looks like every Roman orator stereotype going, and standing next to a number of other sorts of standing figures (including a brilliant Nigerian piece of work and a Giacometti), that is what a visitor to the gallery would suppose he was, given the information on his exhibition label. But wait! For those of us who shelled out for the audio guide, it is revealed that our man is in fact a freedman, an ex-slave, whose statue had been put up by public subscription in the theatre in Herculaneum. Not for one moment would you guess this from anything about the statue – I presume it’s all in the inscription discovered with it. But the exhibition isn’t about to point out to the majority of its guests that this statue actually subverts many of the assumptions that it automatically invites us to make. (Anybody walking too fast past Pablo Picasso’s Baboon and Young without examining its elements too closely might be drawn into making a similar mistake. And the inclusion of Jasper John’s Beer Cans just made me laugh.)

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June 12, 2012

Glanert’s Caligula at the ENO

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:09 am
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It was probably a bit overambitious to go and see the ENO’s production of Glanert’s Caligula the night that I arrived back in the UK from Canada, but G had bought himself a ticket on the assumption that I’d still be in Canada, and the opportunity seemed too good to miss. It’s the British premier of the piece, and Glanert is one of those modern composers that one really should have heard of but doesn’t get much performance or air time here in the UK. The opera is based on Camus’ 1938 play of the same title; I’ve talked about layers of reception in performance before (for instance, in the Rameau Castor and Pollux), but this takes it to a whole other level. Camus was particularly interested in using Caligula as a figure to think with, especially in a world that was creating Hitler and Stalin. Glanert’s choice in 2006 to pick up the tool to think with in the era of Gadaffi, Kim Jong Il and Mugabe is particularly pointed.

This immediately tells you that, in classical reception terms, the direction is going to be a little off. This isn’t a play, and thus an opera, about the historical reality of Caligula, although Camus clearly knew his source material and picks out a number of incidents from Suetonius to work with (Caligula dressing up as Venus was a particularly brilliant sequence). The author is far more interested in what it means to be a dictator – what it does to an individual’s psyche, what the effects on the people around them are, the kinds of decisions and pay-offs that are made. This Caligula is cruelly, brutally calculating, bringing things to their logical conclusions – for instance, if the state wants money so much, then the logical thing to do is prioritise the acquiring of money above the lives of citizens.

The music picks up on this and is superb. The piece is scored so that you actually hear things like the rush of blood to Caligula’s head, the ‘voices’ that speak to him, and his heartbeat – yes, it sounds cheesy, but it’s amazing what a dramatically timed set of timpani can do in the right hands. The other really great thing the music does is capture the sense of all other characters on the stage focussing their emotions to mimic those of Caligula – the sense of treading on eggshells, not wanting to get on his bad side. And because the production is explicit about what happens to those who do get on his bad side, you believe the frantic panic of the music.

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May 15, 2012

The Fortunata article is now out!

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:58 am
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I’m delighted to be able to announce that my first peer reviewed article has now appeared in print! “She’s Only A Bird In A Gilded Cage: Freedwomen At Trimalchio’s Dinner Party” appears in the latest edition of Classical Quarterly.

Fortunata’s journey to this point has been rather long and arduous; it started back in the autumn of 2006, when I wrote a graduate seminar paper offering a close reading of the chapter which now forms the core of the article itself. I submitted the article to the Winkler Memorial Prize, and although it didn’t win, it did produce an encouraging e-mail from one of the judging panel. So I carried on trying to refine and rework the piece, through an outright journal rejection, and then a revise and resumbit for Classical Quarterly that happily was then accepted. I doubt any of my work is going to have a pedigree that rooted in my early academic career (unless I go back to my undergraduate thesis to see what I can salvage), so it’s wonderful to see her finally in print.

What spurred me to write the original seminar paper was the good old academic vice of close reading. I noticed features of the text which didn’t make sense, and wanted to know why. These features centered on Fortunata, the wife of the nouveau riche Trimalchio who throws an extravagant dinner party in the Satyricon, a Roman novel by Petronius. The dinner party episode is one of the best preserved sections of the novel, so we can say a lot more about context and characterisation than we can about characters who turn up elsewhere. But all of the secondary literature I found didn’t address the character of Fortunata in a systematic or significant way. The most she got was a couple of disparaging lines commenting on her past life as a prostitute. And, it seemed to me, this was not a conclusion supported by what the text actually said.

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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…)

January 19, 2012

The principle of joint enterprise, Tacitus and Roman slavery

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:09 pm
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Yesterday morning, as I was brushing my teeth, I vaguely heard Today on Radio Four discussing the new proposals that the principle of joint enterprise in murder cases needs reexamining. This, for those unfamiliar with the statue, is the law that says it is possible to prosecute a group of people for a criminal action; it was the legal principle which allowed the conviction in the Steven Lawrence case earlier this month. The general idea is that even though only one person may have struck the killing blow, those in the group around him can still be held legally responsible for creating the environment in which the criminal act was possible.

Now, because I’m a classicist and a a bit strange, my mind immediately made a connection with Roman slave law. Bear with me here, this will shortly make sense. You see, there is in Tacitus’ Annals an account of what happened in precisely this sort of group situation:

Soon afterwards one of his own slaves murdered the city-prefect, Pedanius Secundus, either because he had been refused his freedom, for which he had made a bargain, or in the jealousy of a love in which he could not brook his master’s rivalry. Ancient custom required that the whole slave-establishment which had dwelt under the same roof should be dragged to execution, when a sudden gathering of the populace, which was for saving so many innocent lives, brought matters to actual insurrection. Even in the Senate there was a strong feeling on the part of those who shrank from extreme rigour, though the majority were opposed to any innovation.

The principle here is much the same. If one slave murders their master, then it was customary for all the slaves of the household to die. However, much like the recent review, the Roman people felt this was unreasonably harsh. Not all the slaves had been responsible, they had not all been allies of the murderer,and thus they did not think the slaves deserved their fate. They even had some of the senate on their side, although I find it interesting to note that some crusty hardliners thought this sort of thing was the thin end of the wedge. (more…)

May 30, 2011

A further thought on slavery and the Pompeii exhibit

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:53 am
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I had a further thought about the Pompeii exhibition in Times Square over the weekend, specifically about the comparative absence of slavery.

My feelings about slavery are very different to those of the vast majority of the American audience who will see the current incarnation of this exhibition. I come from a British environment, where the inheritance of slavery is more or less invisible unless you specifically explore the Empire’s participation in the slave trade in the colonies, which was abolished by the Slave Trade Act of 1807 (followed by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which made the practice of owning slaves itself illegal). We never had slaves in England itself on the same scale as America, and as such we do not have a similar legacy. We have no equivalent of Jim Crow, of segregation, of the Montgomery bus boycotts, of Martin Luther King. I have had to internalise these things and remind myself that this is the cultural world my students inhabit, even if it is not mine.

When I teach, I am very aware that the word ‘slavery’ has a certain resonance, certain implications, that I have to break down at once. I have to tell my students explicitly and with no messing about that Roman slavery is a very different beast, it’s not race-based, it has more fluidity to it than ante-bellum American slavery, and that they have to rewire their brains to work with this material. It’s hard, it’s delicate, and it takes at least fifteen minutes of focused, careful explanation to lay the groundwork for tackling the subject for the rest of the semester.

I can’t ignore the subject when I’m teaching. The topic is too interwoven into every topic, every source, that I want to use with my students. But Discovery don’t have the luxury of a captive audience, or of taking fifteen minutes of carefully prepared discussion to make sure that their visitors are absolutely clear on the differences between Roman and American ante-bellum slavery. They can’t afford to take the risk that something will be misunderstood when the topic in hand is such a loaded one for American culture. As they don’t have the luxury of giving their popular audience the kind of in-depth instruction that making this distinction requires, they simply elide as much of slavery as they can.

I still don’t think that you can give an accurate picture of Roman society without talking about slavery and acknowledging its role. But given the audience that Discovery is targeting, and the practical challenges you face when you educate people about something this tricky and delicate, I can see why they decided to gloss over this potential minefield.

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