Classically Inclined

March 31, 2015

On pregnancy, academia and antiquity

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 10:55 am
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I type this from the second day of my official maternity leave, having made it to the end of term without infans making an early appearance. The presence of infans has, of course, been getting more and more obvious over the last few weeks; I’ve been particularly aware of it while staying at on-campus accommodation during the week to make my life easier, and eating in the attached student dining hall in the evenings, although the British Library offered some equally confused expressions. I’ve been thinking about pregnant bodies in academic spaces since Rachel Moss posted about this issue at the end of February, and while I’ve been very lucky not to have encountered any directly negative responses, I’ve been very aware of getting surprised looks from people around campus as I have been going around my daily business. While these reactions do not explicitly say I should not be in the space of an HE institution, they reveal my presence there is unexpected (surely she should be on leave?), particularly in a student dining hall where many of the students may be seeing me for the first time. (A massive thank you to the catering staff and the hospitality team is in order, as they have been lovely throughout the term and looked after an increasingly pregnant academic with remarkable aplomb.)

Another academic space that I shan’t be occupying, although this is entirely self-selecting, is the upcoming Classical Association conference in Bristol. This is largely a matter of practicality – Bristol and my home are very far apart, and my due date is shortly after the conference ends. While the thought of interrupting a staid paper session with a polite request for an ambulance is fairly entertaining in the abstract, I suspect the reality would be pretty subpar. However, this raises questions about whether I would have felt comfortable attending the conference if it had fallen earlier in the pregnancy. I did actually attend a couple of conferences very early on, before anybody knew about it, let alone before there were any physical giveaways beyond me not drinking alcohol. However, I’ve not attended anything particularly formal since the academic year started, and now that conference season proper is kicking off, practicalities intervene. Yet I wonder about the presence of the pregnant female body at these gatherings, and remember the classics and feminism sandpit in January, when I felt visibly pregnant but was not necessarily registering as such to others. The visibility of the pregnancy seems to relate directly to the social acceptability of being seen in public as pregnant – even in a world where economic factors mean women are working up to as close to their due dates as they can.

I want to turn to Soranus here, who has handed down to us an excellent manual on gynaecology which tells you more than you will ever need to know about pregnancy, giving birth and early infant care in the ancient world. (As Helen King says, it’s a relief to find out that midwives were expected to keep their fingernails short.) I’ve been reading his advice for the pregnant woman through the nine months with interest – in the eighth month, for instance, he recommends that women “must take exercise only in a litter or big sedan chair, unless one desires to walk short of the point of exhaustion”, and suggests that the abdomen should be anointed “all over with a cerate containing oil made up from unripe olives and myrtle, for if the skin is toned up it does not break, but is kept unwrinkled”. Soranus, dispensing stretch mark avoidance before Bio-Oil was ever dreamt up.

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November 1, 2013

Rihanna, Medusa, GQ and Photoshop

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:47 am
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Some of you will already have seen on Rogue Classicism that the current edition of GQ features a portfolio of shots taken by Damien Hurst of Rihanna… as Medusa. I saw these photos and thought ‘well, that’s interesting’, but what with my whole Medusa and monsters and space thing, those thoughts just sort of kept going, and here I am, writing a blog post on Rihanna in GQ. Which, somewhat embarrassingly, I keep on mis-typing as CQ, and I can only hope that the editors of that august journal would be amused rather than offended. I’m putting a copy of the front cover picture below the cut to make this vaguely SFW, but if you’ve found this post with the predictable search terms – prepare yourself for a bit of cultural analysis to go along with your mildly salacious picture.

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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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July 5, 2013

Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:09 am
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Oh, where to begin with this one. Let’s start with some basic data. This conference was organised by the Science Fiction Foundation; it also has a conference blog which will keep updating with topics of interest. The programme and abstracts are available online. The conference was well live-tweeted, and a Storify of the relevant tweeting is available . The conference’s aim was to bring together various folks interested in the cross-over between science fiction, fantasy and classical reception, and essentially to give things a good shake and see what happened. Which is all a very prosaic way of saying that it was bloody brilliant. I had an excellent time, met some lovely people, and came away feeling all energised and cheered up. I know that a number of other people went away with brains fizzing and popping with ideas for future research; I’m afraid my brain is so settled on my summer plans that there’s not much space for anything new (and, incidentally, how come it’s July?), but I still got the benefit of the academic adrenaline buzz. Even if I did occasionally forget which day of the week it was.

Now, any conference write-up has to be selective, especially one trying to deal with a conference that has over eighty papers, so let me say up front that I didn’t hear a single duff paper. I heard one or two that could have done with a little more preparatory work, but every paper had an interesting idea that it tried to get across, and that itself is worth celebrating. So, if I don’t mention your particular paper and you know I was in the audience… sorry. I’m sure Tony Keen will have picked up what I said at the time on the Storify. Because I was pretty heavy on the livetweeting, and all my Twitter followers are either interested in the sci-fi/fantasy/classics cross-over or very, very patient people. What I’m going to try and do instead of summarise every single paper is sum up some of my take-homes from the conference and things that jumped out at me. Beyond, of course, the fact that I now have a very long list of things to add to my already very long reading list.

I want to start the impact of the conference on my research, as I gave the first paper of the parallel panels on Saturday. The panel hung together with a remarkable coherence considering that we had all submitted our papers individually, and I’m fairly sure that at least one person will be picking up Lud-in-the-Mist to take on holiday with them as a result. There were some really strong resonances about walls and borders and Roman Britain as a creative space and identity and all that good stuff. I couldn’t have been happier with the company I kept, and with the intelligent and helpful questions from the audience. So many thanks to Sandeep Parmar, Cara Sheldrake and Stephe Harrop, and Penny Goodman for chairing the panel.

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June 5, 2013

Film review: Centurion (2010)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:28 am
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This film forms a group of ‘recent films on Roman Britain’, the others being King Arthur (2004), The Last Legion (2007) and The Eagle (2011). There are some interesting resonances starting to develop between these films, but each of them uses the Roman frame to do something rather different as well.

2852-FINAL_CENTURION 70x100op 50 %.inddThis is the first film I have watched for a while where I have felt the hand of the director shaping the material quite as heavily as I did here. The director in question is Neil Marshall, whose work was summed up by mrph2 on Twitter as “visit Scotland, die horribly”. I hadn’t realised that this was a Neil Marshall piece, but watching it, I felt that it had resonances with two particular films – Valhalla Rising (2009), a particularly dreadful Scandewegian piece with Mads Mikkelsen which tries to be Aguirre but fails, and Dog Soldiers (2002), a Marshall film about squaddies becoming werewolves whilst out on a routine military exercise in Scotland. The parallels with the latter were, unsurprisingly, particularly strong, given that the basic plot elements of squaddies, Scotland and people who don’t play by the rules all feature heavily.

But this brings us to one thing that particularly stood out for me in the film, which was its depiction of the squaddies in the Roman army as – well, squaddies. They drank a lot, pissed up against trees, generally did all sorts of squaddie-esque things. Now, there may be some ways in which this is an anachronistic reading of modern soldierly behaviour back into the past, but on the other hand, chatting to one of my colleagues about his research into the Roman army has made me realise that we have plenty of evidence for the sort of behaviour which Marshall puts on screen. There’s a tenderness to the depiction too – at one point, all the soldiers who have survived a Pict attack are sitting in a cave sharing a bit about their backgrounds, and it’s all a bit male-bond-y and reminding us that trained vicious killers are people too – so there’s a nice balance in representing these people are human rather than as either scum of the earth or alternatively as systematically heroic and noble. I can’t think of an example which has bothered to fill in the characters of the average soldier, as opposed to the commanders, as well as this film does.

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February 18, 2013

Death, Rome and the Mitfords

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 11:31 am
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Last week was one of those weeks when my personal reading and my teaching prep coincided in unexpected and rewarding ways. I’ve just finished reading Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, and have also finished preparing a lecture on Roman attitudes to funerals and memorialisation. The American Way of Death is a sharp-tongued exposé of funeral practitioners in America in the 1960s; I read an original edition, but Mitford published a revised version shortly before her death. You wouldn’t expect many points of intersection between the two cultures, but I was quite surprised by how many similarities there actually were.

I want to elaborate on two examples. The first concerns the treatment of the body after death. Mitford is particularly scathing about the practice of embalming (supposedly carried out for reasons of ‘public health’, although she can find no doctor who agrees with this) and open casket funerals, which embalming enables; she points out that the open casket is a peculiarly American practice, and that the funeral director’s obsession with creating ‘A Beautiful Memory Picture’ of the deceased is based on sentiment rather than hard psychology. The open casket also, she feels, is sold as an opportunity for ostentation (in loving memory of the deceased, of course) rather than a genuine act of remembrance.

Detail from the funeral monument of the Haterii in Rome. Photo credit: Barbara McManus, 2007.

Detail from the funeral monument of the Haterii in Rome.
Photo credit: Barbara McManus, 2007.

The Romans would have been right on the side of the funeral directors for this one. Particularly for wealthy families, displaying the body in the hall of the house (Italian weather, one suspects, permitting) was a standard practice, sometimes for up to seven days if the dead person had been particularly distinguished. The picture to the left depicts the laying in state of a woman’s body depicted on the tomb of the Haterii; she’s lying on a couch in her hall, surrounded by mourners and musicians. The display of the body allowed visitors to come and pay their respects – and see and be seen. Once the body had been displayed for an appropriate period, it would be carried to the forum on the couch, open to the elements and visible to all who passed the procession. When the procession reached the forum, someone, normally the eldest surviving son, would give an eulogy about his dead father, emphasising his achievements and accomplishments in public life – and, incidentally, not-so-subtly indicating that the speaker too was part of this successful political lineage. The Romans also took great care to dress the deceased in appropriate clothing (so a senator would be dressed in his senatorial toga) – just as the American undertakers Mitford explores have a range of dedicated clothing catalogues at their disposal to make sure that the deceased is properly fitted out in comfortable footwear. Of course, this is for the wealthy – the Roman poor would probably have been buried as soon after their deaths as possible, and I don’t think we have enough evidence to judge whether they would have buried in their best clothes. But the public display of the corpse for social purposes feels like something the Romans would have found fairly familiar.

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November 22, 2012

Film Review: Sebastiane (1976)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 8:47 am
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Derek Jarman is one of those film makers. He’s a bit of an enfant terrible, especially in this, his first film. There are some deliberate nods to Fellini’s cinematic style, and the whole Italian art house oeuvre clearly had a strong influence on the direction this film took. It’s not got the same directorial voice and chaotic association-by-accident that Jarman develops later in films like The Last of England (1988), and nor does he quite reach the levels of ultraviolence he plays with in Jubilee (1977 – the film which really established Jarman’s cinematic identity, and one of the few films I’ve actually had to stop watching half way through). Of course, what most people reading will know Sebastiane for is not the historic importance of Jarman’s historic role in British cinema, but the porn.

For Sebastiane is, ultimately, a film about homosexual desire, BDSM and nude lads running about a desert without much more than a strategically placed posing pouch between them. And sometimes not even that. For Jarman to have chosen the story of St. Sebastian as a vehicle for these themes is not actually that surprising, given the numerous paintings of the saint supposedly in his death agonies, but in reality displaying off rather well-developed pecs and fair tousled hair. (There’s an interesting article over at the Independent on how Sebastian came to be a homoerotic icon, if you’re interested in the broader historical context.) All that positioning had happened well before Jarman came on the scene, so the choice makes cultural sense. For that matter, a lot of the film actually consists of reconstructions of famous classical paintings by the actors, including a beautiful shot echoing Narcissus looking at his own reflection in a seaside pool.

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April 24, 2012

Film Review: The Eagle (2011)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 12:29 pm
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On the Friday afternoon of the Classical Association conference, rather than go on an excursion I decided to stay behind and watch The Eagle (2011), in a showing which at times resembled one of the offerings of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The Eagle is one of four ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ films which have come out in the last ten years – the others are King Arthur (2004), The Last Legion (2007) and Centurion (2010). The Eagle has a literary pedigree, in that it purports to be the film version of Rosemary Sutcliff’s popular book The Eagle of the Ninth, which I have yet to read (so this review will include very little about that aspect of the film). Tony Keen’s theory is that the four films also all aspire to be westerns – but again, I have insufficient knowledge of the western genre to make much of a comment on that, and I await Tony’s further development of his theory with interest.

But what I do have is a bit of a critical eye and a heavy dose of cynicism, on which these thoughts are based. First off – the cinematographers needed to be told when to back off with the whole light/dark/sun/shade thing. Particularly as symbolic of Marcus Flavius Aquila’s battle with his own sense of identity and failure and coming into the light from the darkness. This led to a number of scenes with faces half in shadow looking broody, shots of trees and shade falling attractively, people walking from darkness into incredibly bright light, shots framed so that the sun nearly obliterated everything in them – you get the idea. It didn’t help that the sun-god/Mithras figure object of worship thing at the start of the film was also pulled into this nexus of meaning to add a vague wifty spiritual overtone to it all. I don’t want to sound philistine – I’m all for meaningful cinematography and sensitive mise-en-scène. But that does include knowing when to stop.

The second thing to point out is the whole negotiating identitytheme, done with about as much subtlety as the light/dark theme. There are multiple elements of this – Roman vs. Britain, free vs. slave, father and son, soldier vs. civilian, soldier vs. politician. There’s a lot in there about the importance of naming and speaking (who gets to name whom, the significance of the trinomina when Aquila is passing as a slave among the Seal People, the fact that only Esca can speak whatever it is that’s passing for Universal Briton), which all links together the idea of naming as identity. Aquila spends a period as his slave Esca’s slave once they’re over Hadrian’s wall, thus illustrating the ‘walk a mile in another man’s shoes’ cliche rather too tidily, which I think is the most heavy-handed part of the theme – but it fits into a general pattern in recent films set in the ancient world with a male protagonist (i.e. most of them) of a young man at a transitional period working out where he fits in the matrix of the world. In this particular case, Aquila has to cleanse his family name from the shame at his father losing the eagle of the Ninth Legion up beyond the border, but that’s used as a hook upon which to hang a whole load of other contemporary identity issues.

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December 28, 2011

Thinking about monsters

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:20 pm
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I type to you from the British Library, where I have taken cover for the day in order to do some more reading for the Harryhausen article. The thing I’m currently trying to get a handle on is monsters and the monstrous in film. The problem is that the two Clash of the Titans films both appear in just the wrong eras for the usual social matrixes to apply, and I’m having trouble working my own way through the implications of historical context.

To back up a little. Film has to be understood as part of its historical context. It’s one of the things that creates a film’s production conditions, that emphasises what contemporary social and cultural concerns a film speaks to. The big player in this game is American society exploring its anxieties about itself through representations of the Roman Empire, normally through empire films like The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) or Gladiator (2000). Here, the historical context is set either in the Cold War, in which case there’s obvious historical interpretation about the anxieties concerning Russia and nuclear annihilation, or it’s a question of America’s new role in the world as the lone superpower, questions of modern empire, that sort of thing. (Monica Cyrino’s Big Screen Rome has a good intro to this sort of thing if you’re interested.) The monster analysis I’ve found so far fits into this pattern – 1950s monster movies work out the social anxieties of the Cold War period, and the danger of the end of humanity, through a dehumanised vehicle that allows fear to be fully represented without coming too close to home.

Here’s the snag. The two Clash films are neither set in the right period, nor are they about Romans. The non-Roman kit isn’t such a big deal, but the chronology is more of a problem. Even given the time delay involved in producing a Dynamotion picture, the 1981 Clash is a product of the late 1970s to early 1980s, but before the 1980s egotistic boom gets under way – Perseus is, in some ways, the last of the traditional film heroes before the anti-hero craze kicks in. The Cold War is over, more or less, and the biggest national incident is the Iran embassy hostages (now, this may be a lead worth following, but I digress). 1980, interestingly, is the year Mount St. Helens erupts, which may link into concerns with landscape and danger, but only tangentially. As for Clash 2010, it too falls in an interesting half-place – it’s too late to be all about the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan (or indeed quite properly about the global financial crisis), and while it’s obviously more interested in the individual hero narrative, I don’t quite see Hades as Goldman Sachs or the collapse of the Eurozone.

So I’m trying to work out the historical context in which these two films place monsters, and which anxieties and fears those monsters express (and why the question of landscape is then relevant to how those monsters are thematically expressed). If you can see something I’ve missed or have any ideas, please do put them in the comments!

November 15, 2011

Thoughts on Animating Antiquity

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:28 am
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Last week’s conference on Ray Harryhausen, Animating Antiquity: Harryhausen and the Classical Tradition, was a really good experience, both personally and intellectually. I should start out by thanking Steve Green and Penny Goodman of the University of Leeds for all the hard work they put in to making the day a success, and to the National Media Museum in Bradford for providing excellent facilities, including a great space, efficient tech and very tasty refreshments.

The conference day was split up into three panels of three papers each; you can see a full program here. I have to admit that I started off the day rather tired, as my sleeping patterns had for some reason been shot for most of the previous week, but I soon woke up as I listened to the stimulating ideas and perspectives of my fellow speakers.

I don’t want to give a complete summary of each paper, but I’ll give a quick outline in case you’re interested (more detailed abstracts
are here
). Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones gave us a framework for understanding the gods in Harryhausen’s films, while Dunstan Lowe argued for a shift towards narratives of gigantomachy in modern films rather than unquestioned divine authority. Eleanor OKell gave a persuasive and amusing account of how Harryhausen’s Cyclops in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad has influenced other filmic depictions of the creature, while Helen Lovatt continued the ancestor narrative by exploring the place of Jason and the Argonauts in the Argonautic mythic tradition. Tony Keen made the case for reading the Harryhausen myth films in dialogue with the contemporary Sinbad films, and Brock DeShane provided an overview of Harryhausen’s use of ancient ruins throughout his oeuvre. Stephen Trzaskoma wondered what happens if we read the gods in Clash and Jason as animators in Harryhausen’s own mould, and Steve Green closed the conference by considering Perseus’ negotiation of his identity as demi-god in the 2010 remake. (My post summarising my paper is here, just in case by some wild chance you’ve not already seen it.) (more…)

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