Asterion: Neurodiverse Classics

Over the last few months, several OU Classical Studies students and graduates have been involved in setting up a new organisation called Asterion, which aims to represent neurodiversity in Classics.

Asterion logo

For the OU Classical Studies Blog, Asterion Director and OU tutor Cora Beth Fraser caught up with two neurodivergent members of the Asterion Editorial Board, Hilary Forbes and Tony Potter, to talk about neurodiversity, OU study and Asterion.

Cora Beth: In setting up Asterion, I’ve been hearing a lot of late-diagnosis stories from people who’ve only found out in adulthood that they are neurodivergent. For many people the diagnosis explains traits and problems that go back a long way. It certainly has done for me. After I was diagnosed as autistic in my 30s, I could look back at my childhood and see all the quirks and difficulties that would have added up to an obviously autistic profile, if I hadn’t been trying so hard to hide them, and if autism hadn’t been so little understood in those days! How about you: when did you first realise that you experienced the world a little differently? 

Tony: I think I’ve always known I was different and that I experienced the world more sensitively than others from my early childhood. Even in primary school I was called a ‘quirky’ child. I remember being told off for having a sort of nervous tick when I got stressed out. I also remember it being referred to as a habit that I’d grow out of. Now however, I see it for what it was, it was a physical manifestation of a condition that at the time I knew nothing about and it was brought on by factors outside of my control. Plus, we’re talking about the late eighties and early nineties here and neurodiversity wasn’t really something that got loads of attention back then. This is the bizarre bit though; in my later teenage years I seemed to do exactly what had been predicted and grew out of it – well, at least that’s what I thought. I sailed through my early twenties with ease. I think this was because I lived in another country and was essentially a different person. I’d escaped my upbringing, so to speak. I worked as a holiday rep for five years and didn’t seem to experience one bit of OCD or anxiety. On the contrary, I would stand up in front of hundreds of people to conduct welcome meetings, I was outgoing, confident and very adventurous and I partied really hard (perhaps too hard if truth be told), but none of this bothered me one bit and any suggestion that I suffered from a mental condition would have had me rolling on the floor in fits of laughter.

It wasn’t until my late twenties to early thirties that I started to experience the world differently again. I could feel myself becoming more and more conscious of my surroundings and how I felt I was being perceived by other people. I think what triggered my OCD and anxiety after all those years was my working environment which at best could be described as stressful and at worst, toxic. There was a very unpleasant culture where I worked at the time, and day in day out people feared for their jobs because the company turned over staff like it was a competition. I personally think that spending three years in that environment sort of broke me. It wasn’t until I bit the bullet and left the business that I felt more secure, but unfortunately the damage had been done and the anxiety and OCD were back to stay. 

Hilary: I think I’ve always known this for as long as I can remember… but I couldn’t express it as a child. I used to think that all the other children at school were in on some secret which I didn’t know, and that’s why they all seemed to be able to communicate with one another, when I didn’t know how.

I have always wanted to know how things worked – from the time when I undid all the nuts on my pram (it nearly collapsed while I was being pushed in it because I did it so quietly and without being seen… but I was fine – it was saved just in time!), to taking radios to pieces. Everything that could come apart, I took apart to see how it worked, so science was a big draw to me. But so was English Literature because I enjoyed learning about how novels and plays were constructed and the context of them, so I was a big Shakespeare fan… so for me delving deep into the possible influences of the ancient world on current science was and is part of the same path. I tend to see history, science, theology etc as one thing rather than chop them up into different disciplines.

Cora Beth: I know you’ve both been studying for a long time. My own path through education has been a winding one: I’ve completed a bunch of degrees in different subjects – and gotten part-way through several more – because when I take an interest in something, I find myself needing to know everything about it! What have your education journeys been like, and how did you end up in Classical Studies?

Hilary: I came to Classical Studies as a natural (to me) progression from Astrophysics and Theology… I know it seems strange, but it makes sense to me! I have had a love of all things astronomy and the night sky since I was four years old and that developed into a BSc in it, and I followed this by a BD (specialising in Old Testament Lit and Lang). However I did these degrees many years ago back in the early 80s and so I have come to Classical Studies quite late in life after a career as a secondary school and then FE maths teacher and after thirteen years of also teaching Astronomy GCSE in FE. Then around fourteen years ago, I found Aristarchus of Samos, who lived around the end of the 3rd and throughout most of the 4th century BC. He was the first person who has been referred to as proposing that the Sun was at the centre of the then known Universe, and that he did this 1800 years before Copernicus did fascinated me.

After reading as much as I could for many years and considering various MA s, I came across the Classical Studies MA at the OU. I love context, and so it satisfied two aspects of study for me, studying the context of ancient cosmologies – and by context I mean, what was everyday life like for the ancient Greeks and Romans? It also gave me a way in to study more of the context of the Roman world in the time of Christ, and the events referred to in the New Testament. Of course, having come now to the end of this MA, I feel I have only just begun to dip my toe in the water…

Tony: I enrolled with the Open University in 2009 and at the time it wasn’t possible to do a degree in Classical Studies alone, so I registered for the BA (Hons) in History. Luckily for me there was a good range of modules available so I was able to tailor my degree pathway to my interests and ended up making up almost 50% of my degree with Classical Studies related modules. Starting in 2009 I studied one 60 credit module per year. I started with AA100: The Arts Past & Present, followed by A219: Exploring the Classical World. I then completed A200: Exploring History: Medieval to Modern followed by A330: Myth in the Greek & Roman World. In my final two years I studied A330: Empire, and finished my degree with A223: Early Modern Europe. So, as you can see, my degree was very varied – but I enjoyed every part of it! I caught the OU bug very shortly after enrolling on my first module so continuing with an MA in Classical Studies after my undergrad degree was finished was a no-brainer for me. Although it has taken me longer than I would’ve liked to complete my MA, owing mainly to a rather inconvenient flare-up in my OCD and anxiety, I’m very pleased to be at the stage I am now.

When I started with the OU in 2009 I wanted to get into secondary teaching. Although teaching in some form or other is still my long-term goal I now know that I’d be better suited to the type of teaching that takes place in further and/or higher education environments. Now that I’ve completed my MA, though, I’m planning a PhD, so hopefully I’ll be a student of the OU for bit a longer! I can’t honestly say with any certainty where I’ll end up after my OU journey, but I know whatever happens I’d love to be involved with Classics and Ancient History and I certainly want to continue researching. Perhaps I’ll apply to become an OU tutor!

Cora Beth: I know that in my own career as a student, and later as a teacher, I’ve had to put a lot of strategies in place to help me, because my autistic brain struggles with certain things. I’ve learned, for instance, that emails tend to overwhelm me – it can take me an hour to compose an answer to a simple query, because I find it so difficult to get my meaning across without misunderstanding. So for me, emails have to be tackled at the right time of day, and in short bursts. Do you find that you’ve had to make adjustments or invent ways of approaching your work differently, because of your neurodivergence?

Hilary: I much prefer learning in my own time and space at my own pace. I enjoy not having to engage with many other students in groups and I have enjoyed especially not having to have my webcam on during tutorials – thanks, Cora Beth, for not asking us to do this…!

This all makes me sound horribly unsociable! I am quite sociable really – but in particular ways when I have the energy to be so, and not in groups or crowds. I did attend one OU conference and it was really lovely to meet people but it also wiped me out for a week or two afterwards so there is a cost to being social around more than three people. The flexibility of the OU also allows study to fit in around work, which is the other major reason it works so well for me.

Tony: I suppose I’ve subconsciously adapted my study methods to appease my OCD and anxiety. For example, one problem I have resulting from my OCD is that I seek perfection in anything I do, or in this case, anything I write which is both physically and mentally exhausting. I’ve tried hard to accept that there’s a point when a piece of work is as good as it needs to be but this just doesn’t work for me so I still strive for perfection. Because my writing style (not sure if ‘style’ is the best word to describe this though!), is a relentless cycle of write, review, delete and repeat, it takes me much longer to get a polished piece of work across the finish line ready for submission. For this reason, over the years I’ve had to be very pro-active in my approach to TMAs. I would start early and work on the little but often approach. I tended to write my TMAs as I worked through the module readings, ending up with a conglomeration of ideas which I could then mould into a coherent piece of work. This approach was exhausting and time consuming, but it was the only workable method I could use.

Luckily for me, I developed a better approach throughout my MA. I still massively over complicated things and made my life very hard, but it worked better for me. I’m still striving for the elusive ‘perfect’ approach (I’m not even sure that exists), and hopefully if I do get on a PhD programme, I’ll have the time to work on that. Despite my convoluted processes though, I always seemed to produce very good work which was at least a reward for the hours I spent polishing my essays. 

Cora Beth: You’re both serving on the Editorial Board of Asterion, alongside neurodivergent classicists from schools and universities around the UK and overseas. Why do you think an organisation representing neurodiversity is needed in Classics?

Tony: Despite a great deal of hard work and tireless effort by a lot of very committed people in our field, the word ‘Classics’ still carries lots of negative connotations, and the perception of it being an ‘exclusive club’ of sorts still persists. Although our field is no longer dominated by elite white males with old-fashioned opinions, it remains difficult to shake off these historic biases. In a world where more and more people are coming to terms with their own mental health and neurodivergencies it’s never been more important to embrace this diversity in our field, particularly if it’s to survive well into the future and become an ‘all-inclusive’ discipline. Classics is a multifaceted and enormously varied area of study and researchers in our field are now regularly exploring the links between neurodiversity and the Classical World, which makes our presence as neurodivergent individuals more and more essential to the future of the discipline.

Hilary: There is a great need generally to raise awareness of neurodivergent people and how we view the world. In the world of Classical Studies – at any level of enjoyment – it is great to have a place which welcomes those who have had experiences of not fitting in anywhere. To be accepted and valued is the one thing we all need.

If you’d like to find out more about the work Asterion is doing, visit our website at and read our blog. We welcome enquiries and new members – so if you’d like to get in touch, do send us an email at, or pitch us an article at!

John Stephen Kassman Memorial Essay Prize 2021

An annual prize is awarded for the best essay in a competition, open to all current Open University undergraduate students. It is likely to be of particular interest to students on A229, A276, A330 and A340. The essay, of not more than 3000 words, should be on any topic related to Greek and Roman Antiquity.

Submission dates for the next prize are as follows:

·         the closing date for notice of intention to enter the competition is 30 June 2021, and 

·         the deadline for submission of essays is 30 September 2021.

For further details, rules and regulations for the competition, see below.


Information and Regulations for Entrants

1. The prize is an annual award based on the income from a donation given by the late Alec Kassman in memory of his son. Alec was an Arts Faculty Staff Tutor in London Region of the Open University and a contributor to Classical Studies courses. The purpose of the prize, which is awarded for the best essay in an annual competition, is to develop and foster study of Classical Antiquity in the Open University. The award takes the form of a book-token (or other academic related goods) to the approximate value of £100. 

2. The competition is open to all current OU Undergraduates and Associate students (i.e. current at the date of notice to enter the competition – see below 4). Candidates may compete in more than one year if they wish, but no candidate may submit an essay more than once on the same topic.

3. Details covering presentation of essay:

i) The essay may be on any topic related to Greek and Roman Antiquity; this regulation may be interpreted liberally – including e.g. comparative study, provided that a substantial part of the essay deals with a Greek or Roman aspect of the topic. The right is reserved to refuse proposals deemed unsuitable.

ii) The essay should be an original piece of work, written for the purpose of the competition, and should not replicate material submitted by candidates for previous assessment (TMAs and EMAs) at the OU or elsewhere.

iii) A word-limit of 3000 words, including notes, should be observed (if appropriate to the essay subject, a limited amount of additional illustrated and/or diagrammatic material may be included). A bibliography should be appended, together with a statement that the essay is the candidate’s own unaided work.

iv) Essays should be submitted as an attached file e.mailed to In order to preserve anonymity for judges, the candidate’s name and address should not be written on the essay itself but enclosed on a separate cover-sheet.

4. Notice to enter the competition should be sent, together with the proposed essay title, by 30th June 2021 via email to

The deadline for receipt of essays is 30th September 2021. This timing is intended to give competitors an opportunity to work on their essays after the 2021 academic session. The decision of the judges, which will be final, will be announced to all competitors as soon as possible after the closing date.

5. The administration and adjudication of the competition will be by a Committee appointed by the Department of Classical Studies. The committee reserves the right not to award the prize in any given year if there is no essay of an acceptable standard.

6. Guidelines for competitors. The following criteria will be observed by the judges:

i) Quality of the Essay as a piece of English prose

ii) Appreciation of the issues involved in the selected topic

iii) Quality of thought displayed in setting out and addressing such issues

iv) Sensitivity to the historical ambience of the topic, and its significance within that setting

v) Capacity for independent critical analysis

vi) Imaginative choice of topic.

Another Letter from Paul Jackson in Provence

Two years ago we published a ‘Letter from Provence‘, sent by our recent PhD graduate, Paul Jackson. Since then, Paul has been busy  working on his Alexandre Dumas translations (and much more), and it’s a pleasure to receive this second letter updating us on his progress. We love keeping in touch with our graduates, and would welcome other letters like this from our OU Classical Studies alumni. You can email us on

Greetings, or should I say salut, from over here in Provence again, from Pont-du-Loup to be precise, which was apparently once one of Queen Victoria’s favourite haunts! Given the travel restrictions, I find myself working my way through Depardieu’s filmography and Pagnol’s bibliography as well as hunting down Romanesque chapels and local cheeses and wines, all of which are as numerous as the chickens, pheasants, quails, pigeons, tortoises, cats, and rabbits our garden seems to be accumulating, wannabee Cincinnatus I seem to be. Well, I haven’t completely dedicated myself to the plough yet, trying to maintain the philosophy of Émile Zola – and Pliny the Elder before him – “Nulla dies sine linea”, whether that be reading or writing, difficult as that is in these uniquely trying times…

Still collecting recipes and writing poems and penning travel diaries and delving into the legends of Roland, as well as recently providing consultancy for the development of a rather wonderful Italian pedagogical tool, Alatin, work on my Classical Dumas Series is also progressing, with Isaac Laquedem: A Tale of the Wandering Jew finally due for publication later this year, the first part of which was teased as an eBook last Christmas ( Unfortunately, circumstances prevented me from speaking on the project at last year’s Classical Association Annual Conference in Swansea as planned, but the paper I was to read, The Other Dumas: Alexandre Dumas and the Classics, was subsequently published in Classics for All’s online Ad Familiares journal (, and hot off the press, coming next in the series will be Acte of Corinth, The Convert of Saint Paul: A Tale of Greece and Rome, with several other exciting ones to come thereafter!

Again, further details and updates can as always be found on my website,



Leventis MA Studentships for Teachers

We are delighted to be able to offer three fully-funded scholarships for teachers in state schools wishing to study our MA in Classical Studies. These scholarships, generously funded by the A.G. Leventis Foundation, will be awarded to UK schoolteachers who intend to introduce or develop the provision of Classical Civilisation in the curriculum of the school where they work.

The Open University’s MA in Classical Studies:

The MA in Classical Studies at the Open University focuses on the question ‘How do we know what we know about the ancient world?’ It is designed both to introduce you to key concepts and themes in Classical Studies and to allow you to explore some of these in more depth. Over the course of the two modules that make up the qualification, it gradually builds up your knowledge and the skills you need to explore ancient visual and written material, while also training you to become an independent researcher. This is the ideal qualification for anyone who wants to know more about the ancient world and the ways in which we can approach it as researchers. It also offers an excellent starting-point for those wishing to teach classical subjects in secondary school. It is a two-year qualification requiring approximately 16 hours of study time a week, which means that it can be completed alongside employment, and it is taught entirely online. No specific prior knowledge is assumed, and there is no requirement to have studied Latin or Ancient Greek, but an undergraduate degree in a cognate discipline is recommended as a basis. By consultation other arrangements can sometimes be made if you do not hold a degree in such a discipline. This usually involves preparatory reading. Further information about the MA is available on the OU website, and on our departmental website.

The Leventis scholarships consist of a grant of £8000 to cover the full cost of the tuition fees for the MA with the balance available to assist with the cost of book purchases related to the study of the MA modules and the acquisition and development of resources for teaching Classical Studies, or related subjects, in the scholarship holder’s school.

Developing Classical Studies in Schools:

Applicants may be interested in the panel discussion at the Open University’s Advocating Classics Education event in 2019, in which representatives of the ACE projectClassics for All, and a teacher with recent experience of developing Classical Studies provision in a state secondary school shared their experiences and offered guidance and advice. The full discussion is available online here.

How to apply:

To apply for the scholarship, please complete the application form (available at this link: MA-scholarship-application-form-2021) and send it to With the form you should also send:

  • a separate curriculum vitae (CV) of no more than two pages;
  • a copy of your latest degree certificate;
  • a transcript of your degree that makes clear the level of your academic achievement;
  • a statement from your headteacher indicating that they are willing to support your plans to develop Classical Civilisation.

The application form includes a section for a personal statement. You should use this section to outline you teaching experience to date and to provide a clear indication of the way in which you propose to develop the provision of Classical Civilisation in their school. The successful applicant will be selected on the basis of this statement, and on academic excellence in their studies to date.

The scholarships will not be awarded to students receiving full funding from other funding bodies. It is not necessary to register for the MA degree before making this application.

The Open University promotes diversity in education and we welcome applications from all sections of the community. If it would help to have the application in an alternative format please contact

The deadline for applications is 4pm on Friday 4th June and we intend to inform all applicants by late June.

Informal enquiries can be made to Trevor Fear (

Podcasting Thucydides

Thucydides Mosaic from Jerash, Jordan, Roman, 3rd century CE at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

OU PhD student Liz Webb recently had the opportunity to record a podcast episode with James Renshaw, who teaches Classics at Godolphin and Latymer School and runs their weekly Ancient World Breakfast Club for both the school and community. The conversation centred on Liz’s PhD research on ‘Audience Sensory Experience in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Click on this link or on the image above to listen to the podcast episode.

Liz’s research utilises theory from phenomenology, sensory archaeology and literary sensory theory to develop a framework for understanding how Thucydides deploys sensory hierarchies, time, space, emotion and movement in his narrative. The objective of illuminating this aspect of his work is to consider how his historiographical technique draws on sensory experience to underline the points at which Thucydides requires the audience to exercise its judgement, which contributes to our understanding of early ancient historiography.

You can follow Liz on Twitter at @WebbEA02. James’ Twitter handle is @jajrenshaw, and the Godolphin and Latymer School can be found at @gandlschool and @gandlclassics

Thank you to Liz and James for sharing this conversation!

Image on this page: Thucydides Mosaic from Jerash, Jordan, Roman, 3rd century CE. Now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.


Kassman Essay Prize 2020 – winners announced!

The John Stephen Kassman Memorial Essay prize is an annual award based on the income from a donation given by the late Alec Kassman in memory of his son. Alec was an Arts Faculty Staff Tutor in the London Region and a contributor to Classical Studies modules. The prize is open to all current Open University undergraduates, who are invited to submit a 3,000 word essay on any aspect of Greek and Roman antiquity.

We’re delighted to announce that the winners of the 2020 John Stephen Kassman Memorial Essay prize and the titles of their essays are as follows:

First prize: Steven Vitale‘The Case of the Missing Toponym: A Reinterpretation of the Archaeological Evidence at Iron Age Lefkandi’

Second prize: Patrick Bell, ‘Plague and pandemic; echoes down the ages’

Third prize: Lisa Fortescue-Poole, The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion – scientists and sex-robots: the re-creation of Ovid’s myth in contemporary science fiction’

We asked each of our prize-winners to tell us a bit about their essays and about their OU study journey so far:

Steven: ‘I am in the second year of my studies with the Open University, on track toward a BA in Classical Studies. Though I have a university education in science, this is my first formal opportunity to study the Arts and Humanities, my first time studying through a distance learning program, and my first time studying with a British University. I grew up, and still live, in the United States where distance learning is not popular (present pandemic circumstances excluded) and there is no real alternative to a traditional, residential learning experience for a field such as Classical Studies. The program offered by the Open University is ideal as I can perform my studies interleaved between the responsibilities of work and parenting. I hope in the future to be able to combine my background in science with my study of the classical world to be able to answer archaeological and art historical questions through advancements in forensic technologies.

My Kassman essay addresses a problem I find personally vexing. Lefkandi is an Iron Age settlement on Euboea, Greece, which has been the subject of excavation from the 1960’s through the present day. The archaeological evidence at Lefkandi is extraordinary for its period, including gold jewelry, valuable foreign imports, and monumental architecture. It is not an overstatement that Lefkandi has re-written the previous understanding of a depopulated and impoverished Greek “Dark Ages.” The problem is: this apparently important settlement is no where attested in ancient sources. Lefkandi is a modern name. How can it be that the wealthiest city of the Greek Iron Age has completely disappeared from ancient texts? In my essay I suggest this apparent mystery is due to a misinterpretation of the archaeology. One can show that essentially all of the extraordinary finds are concentrated in one location on the edge of the excavated area, which likely represents a cemetery and ritual centre for wealthy landholders whose estates were distributed throughout the Lelantine Plain. The remainder of the settlement is actually not so remarkable and could plausibly have been ignored by history.’

Lefkandi centaur, from Lefkandi I. The Iron Age. Text. The Settlement

Patrick: ‘My OU studies in classics represent longstanding unfinished business. At school in the 1960s opting for science subjects meant dropping Latin and much else. My interest in classics was kept alive as I encountered all sorts of connections whilst studying and later practising medicine. When retirement came 4 years ago, embarking on a BA in Classical Studies was an easy choice. It turned out to be a great experience, not least because of uniformly excellent tuition and support. I completed my degree earlier this year and, when the final assessment was cancelled, had time to enter the Kassman Essay Prize.

In the year of coronavirus I used the benefit of a medical background to examine how ancient Greek literary sources dealt with plague. It soon became clear from the chosen sources, Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Thucydides’ History, that the attitudes and responses of the ancients are still relevant today. Specifically we see the same mistakes being made: explaining events in entirely irrational ways, indulging in a toxic blame culture and avoiding difficult political decisions.

I have taken a break from OU studies since the summer, but have been recruited by my old medical school in Belfast to deliver a talk on ‘The Legacy of the Classics in Medicine’ in one of our undergraduate special study modules. I hope there may be other opportunities to demonstrate the importance of classics to the next generation of doctors.’

Plague in an Ancient City, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

Lisa: ‘I am currently in my final year of a Classical Studies degree with the Open University, pursuing a lifelong passion. In my first careers interview at school, I said I wanted to be an archaeologist and despite being an English teacher for twenty-five years, I still think there’s time!

I began the course very much focused on ancient Greece, having lived and worked in Greece as a teacher many years ago. I found, however, that the course introduced me to the wonders of Rome, which I am now equally passionate about in terms of Ancient History. My personal area of interest are the constructions of narratives: whether Homer, Ovid or Augustus, the inclusions and omissions, the focus and purpose of each construction. Fascinating too, and connected to this, is the use of myth and its modification in everyday contemporary society.

Inspired by Paula James’ discussion of Pygmalion in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in A330 and being an avid fan of contemporary science fiction film, it occurred to me I had seen this myth rendered more darkly and this provided the basis for my essay. I have recently seen another area: video games, which also explores classical history and myth, namely Assassin’s Creed. Time allowing, I will pursue this; it does involve playing video games, too, another hobby! It’s fascinating how strikingly relevant classic is.’

The evolution of Pygmalion in Blade Runner 2049

Congratulations to the winners, and thank you to everyone who entered the competition – we really enjoyed reading all your essays!

The Battle for Latin: Reports from the front line of research into Latin teaching

This article was originally published over on the brand new ‘FASS Centre for Scholarship and Innovation’ blog. Visit that blog and follow @OU_FASSTEST on Twitter to find out more about how the Centre supports the critical, scholarly evaluation of approaches to teaching and learning in the Arts and Social Sciences.

Hiding behind any respectable project that seeks to improve the student experience is always an element of nerdiness – an obsessive love of stats and number-crunching – as well as a curtain-twitching urge to take a peek into the lives of others. What precisely do teachers and students get up to in their classrooms? How does it all go so right for students – and sometimes so wrong?

Well, that’s our experience anyway. We are James Robson (Professor of Classical Studies at the OU) and Dr Mair Lloyd (Associate Lecturer and former OU PhD student) and our story starts about seven years ago when we met up for the first time over multiple cups of tea, nursing the shared ambition of carrying out a bold project that hadn’t been attempted for a generation: a nuts-and-bolts survey of beginners’ Latin and Greek teaching in Classics departments across the UK. We carried out this survey in 2014 and as the data poured in and we feasted greedily on the diet of bar charts and pivot tables we were creating, one statistic kept jumping out at us: nearly one in four students who began studying Latin at university (23%) didn’t complete their module. Why was that? And how come the pass rates at different universities varied so greatly?

Image: Mair and James drinking tea in contrasting settings

Image: Mair and James drinking tea in contrasting settings

That is how The Battle for Latin was born, a project dedicated to examining the factors driving student success, failure and withdrawal amongst beginners’ Latin students. More in hope than expectation, we put together a bid for the British Academy small grants scheme, drawing on James’ long experience of classical language teaching at the Open University and Mair’s expertise in Modern Foreign Language and Latin pedagogy. Importantly for the bid, we were able to cite the statistically-rich research that we had already published. And crucially, too, we had a burning question that, to us at least, seemed so vital to answer: why were so many aspiring Latinists in UK universities unable to stay the distance?

A few months later, we learnt that our bid had been successful and when our spontaneous whooping and partying eventually subsided, we set to work. As stats fiends, one thing we felt we needed was more targeted, up-to-date data, so we ran a new survey of UK Latin instructors, who between them kindly furnished us with data on 30 different Latin modules covering 888 students nationwide. As our graph below shows, the variation in completion rates was striking once again. Remarkably, too, we also learnt that, while a greater number of students were completing and passing our own Latin module at the OU, this was not a picture reflected across the sector: nationwide the completion rate for beginners’ Latin modules was stuck at 76%.

Image: One of Mair’s and James’ signature graphs: Beginners’ Latin modules in UK universities listed by anonymized alphanumeric code, showing percentages of those starting the module who passed, failed and withdrew.

Image: One of Mair’s and James’ signature graphs: Beginners’ Latin modules in UK universities listed by anonymized alphanumeric code, showing percentages of those starting the module who passed, failed and withdrew.

So, what were the factors driving student success, withdrawal and failure? Our data allowed us to rule out elements such as module duration, credit value and even student contact hours to a large extent (the exception being a handful of particularly intensive modules which included five or more hours’ classroom time each week). Nor did the choice of textbook or assessment strategy appear to be determinative (although we did note a possible benefit of including substantial elements of assessed coursework). Ultimately, whatever hypothesis we investigated there always seemed to be modules that bucked the trend. Clearly, staring at the stats was only going to get us so far.

Fortunately, our project also built in human contact: a series of whole-class observations, interviews with instructors and students, and even an online student survey to allow us to understand better the obstacles to student success. We learnt a lot from our activities, not least the need to ask a small number of very focused questions if you hope to finish the interview on time! But we were also delighted to discover the warmth, dedication and reflectiveness not only of Latin instructors, but also of the students they teach, who were generous with their time and hugely thoughtful and thought-provoking in their responses to our questions.

So, is there a magic bullet for improving student success on beginners’ Latin modules? Well, maybe not, but our research nevertheless provides some useful trends and pointers, we hope. Plus, our forthcoming paper also distils some of the top tips that Latin students would pass on to new starters – all the more useful, we hope, for being direct quotations in the students’ own voices. If we have an overarching conclusion, however, it is perhaps that the magic lies somewhere in the dynamic interactions between the teacher, students, textbook, teaching methods and class as a whole. Of course, these are factors that are challenging to quantify and pin down – but this merely convinces restless enthusiasts like us that another research project is needed to scrutinize these more closely.

A paper with further details will be published shortly, we will post a link here when the article is live.

For further details please contact James and Mair:

James Robson, Professor of Classical Studies

Dr Mair Lloyd (Associate Lecturer and former OU PhD student)

2020 Classical Studies MA Essay Prize

We are delighted to announce that the winner of the 2020 Open University Classical Studies MA Essay Prize is Susan Marks, who submitted an essay entitled “The influence of Rome on Louis XIV’s triumphal arch at Porte Saint-Martin, Paris”.

We invited Susan to tell us a bit about her OU study journey:

“My first introduction to the OU was when, with the support of my employers, I achieved a Professional Diploma in Management. Some fifteen years later I took early retirement and this presented the opportunity to return to the OU. I decided to do a short course, Y180 Making Sense of the Arts, which I really enjoyed. This rapidly led to me enrolling for a BA Open degree with honours which I achieved in 2018.

I chose as my first optional module U214: Worlds of English, which was fascinating, but after completing A219: Exploring the Classical World, I found my real interest lay in Classical Studies. I went on to do A330: Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds and A340: The Roman Empire, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I did Latin at ‘O’ Level many, many, years ago and I remember learning about Ancient Greece at primary school. The interest in these subjects that my teachers sparked has never really left me. I am currently about to start A864, the second year of the Classical Studies MA, and am contemplating the topic of my dissertation.

The subject of the essay for this competition was something I had been wanting to research for some time. I visited Paris a couple of years ago and travelled on one of the open-top sightseeing buses. I had been to Paris before but had not seen the city at that level. We passed a number of triumphal arches and I was struck by the Roman terms used in the inscriptions, in particular the titles that the person it honoured held such as consul, praefectus and aedilis. The essay competition gave me the impetus to explore one of these arches in detail and I found that not only the inscription but also the iconography used was aimed at closely aligning the French king, Louis XIV, with Imperial Rome and its emperors.

Classical Studies is such a wide-ranging subject there is something new to learn every day and so many paths to tread. I am not sure where I go after A864, but I think it would be impossible for me to give up studying now.”

Many congratulations to Susan from all of us in the Department of Classical Studies!

Porte Saint-Martin

Note of a trip to the Circus Maximus in May 2019, by Marilyn Booth

Marilyn Booth completed her MA in Classical Studies with the OU in September 2018. Her dissertation focused on the sensory experience of everyday Romans in the home, working environment and public spaces. Her interest continues and this report enabled her to consider likely sensory experiences of one such relatively undervalued public space, the Circus Maximus.

I visited the Circus Maximus in late May 2019, two days after the opening of a new virtual/augmented reality exhibition (The Circo Maximo experience) in the site’s archaeological area. While much of the site remains unexcavated and open to the public as a free space, I had been aware that I could visit the archaeological area, which has largely been excavated and revealed in the last fifteen years (Buonfigio, 2015).  As Figure 1 below shows, there are 8 information points dotted around the site at which visitors direct their headsets in order to initiate a dedicated virtual reality presentation of the site.

Figure 1: Panoramic views of Circo Maximo Experience site

Figure 1: Panoramic views of Circo Maximo Experience site

Some 40 minutes’ worth of such information is  provided, centred around 8 broad themes:

  • The Valley and the origins of the Circus
  • The Circus from Julius Caesar to Trajan
  • The Circus in the Imperial Age
  • The Cavea
  • The Arch of Titus
  • The Shops of the Circus (tabernae)
  • The Circus in the medieval age and in modern times
  • “A day at the Circus”

There is also an opportunity to experience a panoramic viewpoint from the top of the medieval Torre della Moletta. As such, the overall experience provides a relatively comprehensive introduction to the life of the Circus for visitors, giving a real sense of the site’s evolution over time, as well as providing a useful introduction to the role of religion and the site’s potential significance in archaic Rome. It also provides a unique sensory experience in its own right, adding new elements to any potential sensory analysis of the site.

Experiencing the space

The area covered by the visit represents a relatively small portion of the south eastern (Porta Capena) end of the Circus site, as shown in Figure 2, with sections of the cavea and tabernae open to view.  The area corresponds to the curved end of the stadium, which also housed a triumphal arch dedicated to the Emperor Titus.

Figure 2: Google Map of the Circus Maximus showing the archaeological area visited

Figure 2: Google Map of the Circus Maximus showing the archaeological area visited

The visit took place between 10 and 11.30 am on an unseasonably cool May morning.  Temperatures were in the early 20 degrees Celsius, with both sunny and overcast skies witnessed during that time period.  The sun was almost directly overhead for much of the visit duration and would remain so for the majority of the day. In the site’s early iterations, there would have been no respite from the elements. While the current site contains none of the shelter that would have been available to users in later iterations, it was obvious that there was little respite from the overhead sun at many points in the day for both spectators and those involved directly in the action in the middle of the Circus space.  While on an obviously much smaller scale, a recent visit to Shakespeare’s Globe for a summer afternoon performance showed that even roofed enclosures do not provide complete shelter from the midday sun.

The reconstructed course

The virtual reality presentation certainly brought the site to life, and from a sensory perspective bring both the colour and size, as well as the spectacularly opulent nature of the site into sharp focus.  Visually, this is a stunning and evocative realization of the site.  Aurally, sounds including the roar of the excited crowds, the galloping horses and grinding machinery are also evoked.  Less easy to replicate are potential smells, and taste elements, although forcing the viewer to sit down while a virtual race occurs (presumably to avoid complete disorientation and dizziness) was a useful device.  Equally, the ability to touch the various extant construction materials, and interact with surfaces including elements of the cavea and tabernae, enriched the experience.  Those surfaces ranged from the rough brickwork of the tabernae, to original roadways and passages, to the smooth and cool marble remains of the Arch of Titus which were scattered across the site.

Once “inside” the virtual reconstruction, rich golds and reds marked the starting gates, and the viewer is even given a viewpoint from the spectacularly lavish emperor’s box at one point.  Unsurprisingly, the view from both here and the judges’ box / Temple of Sol opposite were clearer and less constricted than many people within the stands would have experienced.

Figure 3: Reconstruction of the Carceres or starting gates at the straight end of the course (Virtual views taken from Circo Maximo’s Instagram account and website)

Figure 3: Reconstruction of the Carceres or starting gates at the straight end of the course (Virtual views taken from Circo Maximo’s Instagram account and website)

The demonstration effectively showed how the course evolved from an ad hoc space used in the archaic period, with elements such as the early shrine to Consus eventually being incorporated into the splendidly opulent Euripus or spina in the middle of the racetrack area. While citizens would undoubtedly have been exposed to grandeur at other iconic sites, including forums and temples, clearly there would have been a sharp and highly visual contrast with the lack of splendour in the majority of non-elite homes: the insulae buildings dotted across the city.    However, as the presentation tracked the development of the  course over time, it became clear that questions could be asked about just how clear views were for spectators, with the amount of material housed on the Euripus increasing over time, creating a crowded and distracted space that could only have obstructed the view for many audience members. The obelisk visible in the virtual image in Figure 4 below is now located in a square beside the Lateran Palace, and personal photographs show that it does, in fact, split the view of the site for the viewer.

Figure 4: reconstructed Euripus views

Figure 4: reconstructed Euripus views

Words associated with “dust” are quite common in ancient descriptions of the site, and that dusty element was recreated as racing quadrigae thundered past, conjuring up clouds of dust.   The virtual element also vividly brought home the Circus’ key role in iconic historical events, including its position as the starting point for the fire of AD 64.

Figure 5: The AD 64 fire consumes part of the cavea and a triumphal arch

Figure 5: The AD 64 fire consumes part of the cavea and a triumphal arch


 The tabernae, such as that depicted in Figure 7, evoked the type of construction used in the Markets of Trajan, perhaps not unexpected given Trajan may have been the last emperor to develop the site.  As such, his architects and building teams may have used similar techniques and materials, albeit on a different scale. While there are relatively limited tabernae remains at the Circus, they were surprisingly complete in some instances.   I was able to physically stand up upright in one of the “shops” and stretch my hands out without reaching either side wall, a contrast to the experience of a researcher who had previously told me that they were unable to stand fully upright in one of the shops above the insula dell’ara coeli.  At 1.55m tall, I am relatively short by both modern and Roman standards, so this may or may not have much significance.  However, it showed that some people at least would have had a relatively comfortable experience while in the work or leisure environment that these small shops represent.  However, it is also clear that that comfort would have been somewhat compromised at various intervals during a day’s activity at the Circus: during particularly crowded moments, for example during arrival to or departure from the site, these would still have been constrictive spaces for people working within them as crowds congregated in the relatively narrow corridors and streets around the outside of the building, cutting off light and space in which to move.

During races, workers and customers would likely have heard what was going on in/at the racetrack and performance space behind the back wall of the relevant taberna, but been relatively isolated from the action, only looking out at a windowless corridor (Figure 8) or road around the circus which would likely have been packed with people.  As can be seen from Figure 8 below, even the relative height of the vaulted ceiling of the walkway would have provided little respite from an otherwise restrictive space.  Evidence apparently suggested that shops, cafes (Figure 6), fullonicae and even latrines were dotted around the perimeter of the site in these purpose built spaces, resulting in a richly layered smellscape (Forichon, 2019) experienced by the workforce, and by spectators as they entered and left the perimeter of the site.

Figure 6: Circo Maximo’s own reconstruction of a poppea / café

Figure 6: Circo Maximo’s own reconstruction of a poppea / café

Figure 7: Photos of extant tabernae spaces

Figure 7: Photos of extant tabernae spaces

Figure 8: a covered walkway at the edge of the tabernae area

Figure 8: a covered walkway at the edge of the tabernae area


I did not see the latrines which co-existed with the shops of the tabernae area, although their presence would surely have been felt by visitors in such a confined space.  I was struck by their likely co-existence with the shops, and reminded of visits to concerts in purpose built modern stadia and concert venues (London’s Wembley Arena, Belfast’s King’s Hall and Dublin’s Point Depot) where, by the end of the night on any given event, toilets became blocked, slippery, smelly and generally unsavoury spaces.  Assuming each of the Circus’s 150-250,000 visitors made at least one latrine trip on a day’s visit to the site, the chances are that these latrines must have also become blocked and equally pungent relatively quickly.  Associated smells may have been limited by the proximity of purpose-built fullonicae, which could have disposed of liquid urine quite quickly and effectively.  Equally, though this type of facility would have created their own distinctive sensory environments for both workers and onlookers.

The Arch of Titus

Figure 9: detail of the virtual reconstruction of the Arch of Titus

Figure 9: detail of the virtual reconstruction of the Arch of Titus

The Arch is a key feature of one of the InfoPoint stops, and is reconstructed in much detail, suggesting that it was at least as impressive as its namesake in the Roman Forum.  However, that reconstruction has been decidedly whitewashed, as shown in Figure 9 above.  While still impressive, it remains difficult to assess whether the arch had a similar colour scheme to other monuments in the imperial era.  Surprisingly, much purported original material was available to view in a relatively compromised external position, as shown in Figure 10 below.  The material on view undoubtedly attests to both the size and quality of the structure. This material was somewhat weathered, but still impressive – it struck me as I was walking around modern Rome that perhaps its closest modern equivalent in terms of visual impact is the Vittoriano which is often dazzling to the eye when struck directly by sunlight. I have since seen almost new Carrara marble in London’s Spencer House visitor attraction and it quite literally gleams even in small quantities, again suggesting that the arch could have had a noticeable visual impact.

Figure 10: marble fragments of the Arch of Titus dot the site

Figure 10: marble fragments of the Arch of Titus dot the site


Visiting the archaeological site certainly brought the detail in 21st Century excavation reports to life.  Those reports actually seem to have downplayed the scale of the extant evidence.  While a comparatively small area of the site has certainly been uncovered, it is nevertheless quite an extensive space.  Interacting with the remains, both real and virtual, enabled a number of conclusions on the site’s likely sensory environment.  The virtual/augmented reality elements of the new visitor experience added a further sensory experience which could itself be productively explored in future research.   Many questions certainly remain on the site and its usage, but this visit represented a useful first step in assessing how the sensory experiences within the Circus Maximus could be productively explored in a sustained research project.

Herodotus Helpline

In this blog post, Dr Jan Haywood reflects on the first series of the newly instituted Herodotus Helpline – an online seminar series freely available to all.

Over the last few months, I have been working with Tom Harrison at St Andrews University on a weekly seminar series entitled Herodotus Helpline. The idea came about at the beginning of lockdown – as a way for colleagues to come together and share research ideas, but also to foster the sense of a scholarly community at what was a very difficult time for all! While the title of the series might suggest a narrow focus on Herodotean studies, our hope was that the figure of Herodotus would be read by all as a symbol of omnivorous intellectual discovery, thus attracting those with research interests in the wider Greek world, Near East, Egypt, etc.

Image by Karin Eremia. Please visit her website at

The series has since run every Wednesday, at 6pm GMT, and has attracted a huge variety of participants from across the globe (typically 40-60 individuals attend each week). So we have had people calling in from New Zealand, Ghana, South Africa, Brazil, Israel, USA, as well as across different parts of Europe (notably Italy, Greece and the UK). Topics have ranged from exploring individual chapters of Herodotus’ Histories to much broader assessments that encompass his understanding of the rule of law and the reception of his Histories in modern English-language poetry. All presentations have been followed by group discussion, which, as all attendees are encouraged in the strongest terms, should be purposeful, open and constructive.

I’m delighted to add that many of these presentations were also recorded, and are freely accessible on our YouTube channel. As you will see, all recordings have been accessed many times already (one more than 650 times!).

As we break for the summer recess, the first edition of the series has now come to a close. But rest assured: we have lined up a full suite of seminars, workshops, lectures and other events for the 2020-2021 academic year. There are also plans for publications taking shape – and talk is even afoot about a limited range of Herodotus Helpline merchandise!

Herodotus Helpline is and will always be for everyone. It is open to all.