We are pleased to announce a rescheduled date for our livestreamed Classical Studies event for schools, hosted by the Open University and the Advocating Classics Education project. This event will be held on 1st April from 1pm-4pm.
We invite you to join us for a live and interactive online broadcast in which you can learn more about Greek drama, listen to an interview with Professor Edith Hall about her recent book Aristotle’s Way and the relevance of Aristotelian philosophy in the modern world, and join in a discussion of ancient religion and votive objects. There will also be a Q&A session for teachers interested in developing the provision of classical civilisation in their schools.
If you would like to get involved, please find our more here, or email us for full information (Jan.Haywood@open.ac.uk or Christine.Plastow@open.ac.uk).
Last summer, we ran a blog post that included some suggestions from colleagues in Classical Studies for classically-themed ‘days out’ in the UK; this year, we thought we’d catch up with a few colleagues on their ‘classical’ adventures over the summer vacation. So, as the nights begin to draw in, we look back at some of our recent encounters with the classical world through archaeological sites, theatre, films, and more. We’d love to hear about your recent classical encounters too … why not tweet us over at @OU_Classics?
I’ve meant to visit Tuscany for years, and finally made it this summer. If you haven’t visited, do! First, I was digging on the Albagino Sacred Lake Project. Beautiful location for an excavation, despite the mosquitoes!
The Albagino Sacred Lake Project
Aside from trowelling clay, my role was to make a phenomenological survey of the site. Why were people in the middle of the first millenium BCE leaving bronze figurines in the countryside? We recorded the sights, sounds, temperatures, birds and beasts in and around Albagino. Our working hypothesis is that people travelling between Prato and Marzabotto may have passed through Albagino, taking advantage of the fresh water and ample provisions there.
After the dig I made a whistle-stop tour of Tuscany. My first, and favourite, stopping place was Volterra … where I found this chap:
Replica of an Etruscan votive figurine
Votives aside, Volterra was one of the significant settlements of Etruria, and is well worth a visit. Enjoy the archaeological museum, Palazzo Priori and wandering the town’s medieval streets. From there I went to Vetulonia (3rd– 2nd century BCE), which has another lovely archaeological museum and the best basalt street I’ve seen outside Rome!
Most of what we know about the Etruscans is from their tombs. Each place has its own character, suggesting localised beliefs and practices. I visited Volterra, Vetulonia, Populonia, Chiusi, Tarquinia, Orvieto and Cerveteri, and can recommend them all. I found the house tombs at Crocofisso del Tufa (Orvieto) and Cerveteri the most resonant. Going inside any of these tombs feels like walking into someone’s house – and they’re homely! Oh, and Tarquinia has amazing painted tombs, such as the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing (Tomba della Caccia e della Pesca).
The Tomb of Hunting and Fishing
I confess: I’m not much of a theatre-goer, even though I love (and research) Greek tragedy. I much prefer cinema, perhaps because it comes with less class baggage. But this trip to see a staging of Sophocles’s Electra at the end of August was going to be different, since the play was being performed outside in a semi-circular theatrical space (thus appealing to my classical sensibilities) in the forest that overlooks Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki.
In a word: Wow. This adaptation by the National Theatre of Greece (under the direction of Thanos Papakonstantinos) was something else! At one level, it appeared quite traditional: the play wasn’t located in a contemporary setting; the costumes were simple, bordering on the stylised; it used music throughout; the chorus sung *and* danced; the text wasn’t excised or adapted in any way (other than it being the modern Greek translation). But it was like nothing else I had seen. As you’ll see from the photographs, the stage was stark in its simplicity, an effect that was further amplified by the simple, almost abstract costuming of all the actors. Not only did this help focus attention on the gestures, movement and interactions of the actors; it also helped to defamiliarise the action and detach it from any particular setting, whether classical or modern. This is something, I think, that Greek tragedy generally manages to do: that is, to speak to audiences not bound by space or time. But one costume did possibly have a contemporary resonance: the clothing of the chorus seemed to me to be a pristine white version of the clothing worn by the handmaids in renowned TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.
Electra reachers out to her sister Chrysothemis
Controlled and in control, this was a chorus of and for our time, gaining power through their collective action. A *spoiler alert* #metoo movement. Unlike every other chorus I’ve ever seen, this chorus sung and chanted in metre throughout in unison. They also moved as one, like polished mannequins, often with minimal gesture of forefinger touching the thumb, like a Greek orthodox Christ blessing his congregation. Then, as the play hurtles towards its terrifying climax (the matricide; the forever deferred murder of Aegisthus), they transform, as Electra’s hatred and bitterness finally comes to affect and infect them. They transform, indeed, into those terrifying presences who are notably (notoriously) absent from Sophocles’s play. As this performance made real what is only ever hinted at in the text, the chorus take up Electra’s murderous, blood-curdling calls for her brother to strike down her mother, for vengeance to strike down Aegisthus, by transforming into screaming, writhing Erinyes (the Furies). This wasn’t so much a tragedy as a full-on horror show. It was, quite simply, thrilling and has stayed with me, goading me to think and to respond, ever since.
Electra and the Chorus
Towards the end of the summer break I went to see an incredible new film by Zhao Ting entitled The Rider. The film tells the story of a hippophile named Brady, who recently suffered a major head injury after his horse fell on him while he was bronc riding at a rodeo event. As the film begins, we follow Brady’s troubled road to recovery, and remain on tenterhooks throughout, wondering whether or not he will choose to ride again. Although the film bears no obvious resemblances to any specific source text from the ancient world, I found myself continually transported to the literature of classical antiquity; for instance, in one of several stunning sequences, Brady is shown wrangling a particularly stubborn horse, aptly named Apollo. The scene captures powerfully the profound trust between horse and human protagonist, who communicate with each other silently through a series of dance-like movements.
Brady comforts Apollo in The Rider
This kind of special devotion to and care for one’s horse is deeply ingrained in ancient Greek culture; one only need think of Alexander the Great’s famous steed Bucephalus who purportedly served the Macedonian King in several battles, or indeed the Trojan hero Achilles and his immortal horses, Balius and Xanthus, who, in Book 17 of the Iliad, weep at the sight of mutilated Patroclus. Watching the film, I was also reminded of the fourth century BCE Athenian writer Xenophon and his equestrian treatises, namely the Peri Hippikes (‘On Horsemanship’) and Hipparchicus (‘The Cavalry Commander’). In the former of these two works especially, Xenophon includes precisely the kind of exacting details on how to achieve the ‘best of himself and his horse in riding’ that is so vividly depicted throughout the film’s delicate, long takes of Brady and his beloved Apollo. So, a film that is not about equines in antiquity, but nonetheless one that lends itself to contemplation on the values of horsemanship that were deeply ingrained in the classical world.
Alexander and Bucephalus, detail from a Roman floor mosaic, Pompeii
This summer I continued my travels around the sacred sites of Campania, this time exploring the regions of Cilento and Vallo di Diano. It was a wonderful trip, and now – back in England as the autumn leaves turn gold and brown – my mind keeps returning to one place in particular: the Early Christian baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte, which is located just a few hundred metres from the Charterhouse (‘Certosa’) of San Martino in Padula. I’m sharing some video footage that I took at the site, which is thought to have been built on top of an earlier Roman site, perhaps a nymphaeum. In this short sequence, you can see the spring water which the sixth-century writer Cassiodorus described as “a marvellous fountain, full and fresh, and of such transparent clearness that when you look through it you think you are looking through air alone” (Variae 8.33). The camera then moves into the interior of the building, towards the huge ‘font’ in which those receiving baptism may have been fully immersed. You’ll get a brief glimpse of some fragmentary frescoes of Saints, which have been dated to the tenth century, and which may originally have surrounded an image of Jesus. I love the way that the water casts its dappled reflections on the ceiling – and I can’t wait to visit this ‘marvellous fountain’ again in the winter.
This blogpost by Elton Barker was originally posted on the blog Sententiae Antiquae, and republished here with minor alterations.
As some of you on the Twitterverse may have seen, all this month @OU_Classics has been celebrating the books that members of the department have published over the past few years. This has been a great way to find out what colleagues spend their “spare” time on, as well as to enjoy how the books look and to speculate on the choice of image—that arboreal skeletal hand gripping E-J’s book Death Embodied, for example, or the implied dialogue between Aristotle and Homer in Jan’s Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War.
When my own book on debate in Homer, historiography and tragedy was tweeted, I was reminded of a couple of things about the title: specifically why I had chosen to treat those genres in that order (wouldn’t historiography have been better discussed after tragedy?), and my then students’ game, when Google was just becoming a thing, of typing “Entering the Agon” into the search box and returning the result “Do you mean Enter the Dragon?”. But it also got me thinking about my choice of cover …
With the possible exception of writing acknowledgements, I find choosing a cover image for a book arguably the most pleasurable, and most difficult, of the final tasks that needs accomplishing before I can happily pack off my manuscript on its merry way to the press. Even if we are told otherwise (in the famous axiom not to judge a book by its cover), how a book looks can play a decisive role in its purchase; after the subject matter and author, it’s the one thing that may determine whether I buy book a book or not. If I look on my bookshelves, for example, the dust jackets that stand out for me are: the famous image (from the so-called François vase) of Ajax carrying the dead body of Achilles that emblazons Greg Nagy’s 1979 classic The Best of the Achaeans (and Michael Lynn-George’s equally ground-breaking Homeric criticism Epos: Word, Narrative and the Iliad); the contemplative Regarding Penelopeby Nancy Felson; the highly wrought, yet seductive, Medea of James Clauss and Sarah Iles Johnston; the satirical depiction of famous classicists playing characters from Aristophanes (!) on Martin Revermann’s Comic Business; and the striking pose of Gertrude Eysoldt captured in the role of Electra that advertises Simon Goldhill’s Who Needs Greek?. The arresting contemporary nature of this image (though the photograph dates back to 1903) hints at Goldhill’s thesis of the continuing legacy of Victorian attitudes to, and contests over, the Classics that shape and inform our own implicated relationship with the subject.
As these examples suggest, aesthetic looks isn’t the only desideratum when it comes to choosing a book cover. For sure we want something that looks good; but it’s equally, if not more, important for that image to say something about the book itself (a picture is worth a thousand words, right?), though perhaps not in an obvious or straightforward way. Let me explore this issue by reflecting on my own choice of three covers that I’ve had the pleasure to be able to choose.
The image I chose for my first book—Entering the Agon: Dissent and authority in Homer, Historiography and Tragedy (Oxford, 2009)—is in many ways very traditional. It’s the famous image (on the black-figure amphora by Exekias) of Achilles and Ajax playing dice. But it’s an image that worked for me not only because of its beauty—though hats off here to the team at OUP who extended the pot’s gleaming background (which sets off the black figures) to cover the entirety of the book’s cover in a fiery golden afterglow. This image also spoke to my book’s subject matter: namely, the idea of contest (agōn) and its representation in ancient Greek literature. In truth, I had a hard time finding an image that worked for me. I wanted some kind of ancient Greek artistic representation; perhaps because it was my first book (the “book of the thesis”), I felt it needed to be unambiguously classical. It should have been easy, right, to find an image from the whole corpus of ancient Greek ceramics, right? Wrong. I could find none of the scenes of debate in epic, history and tragedy, which were the core focus of my argument, that had been illustrated, not even—as one may have expected—the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon that starts off the Iliad with such a bang. There is a fresco, highly fragmented, from Pompeii’s House of the Dioscuri (on exhibition at the National Archaeological museum in Naples), which shows Achilles going for his sword; and of course there are later Renaissance paintings depicting the quarrel (such as Giovanni Battista Gaulli’s baroque rendering). But I could find none from the world of ancient Greek ceramics or friezes—perhaps because, as Robin Osborne pointed out to me, Greek artists simply were less interested in illustrating literary stories than in creating their own. (It is striking that the wall paintings from Pompeii *do* look like illustrations of early Greek literary narratives, including the moment Euripides’s Medea ponders killing her children.) What Exekias’s scene of gaming heroes gave me was a hint not only of the formalisation of contest, but also of the prominence of Achilles (who in my argument institutionalises contest in the arena of debate) and, moreover, of his pairing with Ajax (whose story in Sophocles’s tragedy formed one of my chapters).
The second book I needed to choose an image for presented a rather different challenge. This was for an edited volume entitled: New Worlds out of Old Texts: Revisiting Ancient Space and Place (Oxford, 2016). The book derived from an interdisciplinary project that I had led called Hestia, which investigated representations of space and place in Herodotus, as well as the spatial construction underpinning his Histories. At the heart of the book was a discussion of the different disciplinary approaches that we undertook, spread over three chapters (which I co-authored with different team members), exploring: digital annotation and mapping (with Leif Isaksen and Jessica Ogden), geographical spatial theory (with Stefan Bouzarvoski), and philological close reading (with Chris Pelling). Our resulting book included other contributors working in this space (pardon the pun), who had presented at our conference in Oxford, and who, like our team, represented an array of disciplines—not only Classical Studies, but also archaeology, digital humanities, and the history of thought. The image I wanted, then, needed to respect these different disciplinary approaches while at the same time hinting at ways in which they might be combined and intertwined (for interdisciplinary research). And, of course, it needed to be in some way spatial, to suggest the complexity of trying to represent and unpick spatial entities and relations. A web-designer friend (a shout-out here to Richard Rowley of Agile Collective) put me on to London-based artist Emma McNally, whose work attempts to “portray essence not as substance… but rather as the result of a process of reciprocal determination, where individual lines, markings, and trajectories are brought to significance through their interrelations with those around them” (https://www.flickr.com/people/emmamcnally/). After getting her approval (she was very happy for us to use her work provided that she got a copy of our book: gold armour for bronze, as Homer would say!), I chose her scratches, traces, spaces. This work on graphite (“a medium that lends itself perfectly to [a] sort of rhythmic making and unmaking. It is a material for palimpsest”: ibid) seemed to me to perfectly capture the spatial palimpsests that many of us were striving to reveal and more closely examine in our texts, while also being provocatively new and overtly relational. Emma later informed me that the very same artwork was used by Ridley Scott as a navigation map in his latest Alienprequel Convenant. If it’s good enough for Ridley…!
All this brings me to the last image—the one that Joel had invited me to write about in the first place… Our book, Homer’s Thebes, sets out to argue that the Iliad and Odyssey (mis)represent heroes and themes from the Theban tradition to set out and realise the unique superiority of these texts in performance. In arguing this, we are attempting to view the Homeric poems in a new light, by emphasizing a non-hierarchical model of “reading” them and the Epic Cycle together within the framework of oral-formulaic poetics and artistic rivalry. With this in mind, we wanted an image that suggested Homer in some way (epic poetry, heroes, etc.) but that wasn’t a straightforward classical take on that. From a very early stage I was convinced that a cubist painting of some kind would work, with that central idea of taking something familiar (for us, reading Homer; for Homer’s audience, the Troy story and the siege of Thebes) and, by viewing it from different perspectives, producing a radically different picture (a Troy story that emphasises internal conflict among the Achaeans, for instance). For me, cubist works echo the type of violent reception and adaptation that our book is about. But here we ran into a significant problem that meets anyone looking to reuse a contemporary image, whether that is a museum photograph of an ancient artefact or a modern painting in a gallery’s collection: copyright. For all the cubist paintings that I could find that seemed to dialogue with our approach, the answer kept coming back from our publishers that we couldn’t use them because of the copyright and/or the costs involved. Out went The Thebaid by Wyndham Lewis, along with his Composition; we fared no better with Barbara Hepworth’s Two Heroes; we couldn’t even use Le Poèteby Picasso, even though I had sourced it from Wikipedia.
Just as I was beginning to despair, and I thought that we would have to give up on this idea of a cubist-style makeover for our Homer, I had the inspiration to look for works by modern Greek artists. I knew that ever since the twentieth century, Greek writers and painters alike have been grappling with the problem of their country’s complicated (and often times suffocating) classical legacy. And thus I had the fortune to come across the work of Nikos Engonopoulos. He’s the painter most famous in Greece for revisiting classical themes in a distinct modern style (tending towards surrealism). Having found a number of post-classical images that I thought that we could use, I contacted the person responsible for his website and who owns the copyright to his works, his daughter Errietti Engonopoulou. Like Emma, Errietti could not have been more accommodating, and immediately allowed us to use a high-resolution image of the image that we decided on.
I present to you Engonopoulou’s 1939 oil on canvas The poet and the muse. We hope that you like it as much as we do.
The Classics students’ journal NEO, founded in 2016, is now calling for papers for its second issue. For further information and guidance on the submission process, click here.
The 2017 issue of the journal (which can be downloaded here) includes a piece by former Open University Classical Studies student Ian Ramskill, whose paper ‘Horace Odes 3.14: a pragmatic and welcome acceptance of the early Pax Augusta’ started life back in 2014 as a prizewinning essay for the John Stephen Kassman Memorial Essay Prize. This is a competition which is open to all OU Classical Studies undergraduates. Look out for more details soon!
There is an implication here that Classical Studies as a discipline is at risk or is being cut.
Despite what is said here, you can rest assured that there are NO plans whatsoever to axe Classical Studies at the OU. Our student numbers remain buoyant and we are recruiting to all modules and qualifications as normal. As part of a university-wide review of curriculum there is, indeed, a plan to remove A275 Reading Classical Greek following its 2019/20 presentation, i.e. a year earlier than was initially planned. But while this is regrettable, it’s hardly something that the department was expecting to be front page news.
The VC has already publically rebutted the Guardian claims about Classical Studies and has reaffirmed his continued commitment to the discipline. So for now in the department, it is business as usual.
In Classical Studies we have an annual essay competition. 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 purpose of the prize is to develop and foster study of classical antiquity in the Open University.
We’re delighted to announce that this year’s winner is Ben Cassell.
Originally from North London, and now living in Wales, Ben has recently graduated with First Class Honours in Classical Studies after studying full time over three years at the Open University. Ben has now begun studying the MA in Classical Studies with the OU. He has previously been awarded the Sir Julian-Hodge Prize in 2014/15, the prize sponsored by Ede and Ravenscroft in 2016, and he was also the runner up for the J.S. Kassman Essay Prize last year.
Ben tells us: ‘I have always had a keen interest in ancient and medieval history, being something cultivated in my childhood, but was drawn to studying Classics after reading Euripides and Aristophanes as well as Michael Scott’s Delphi and Olympia: Spatial politics and pan-hellenism, a work that revolutionized my appreciation of Classics as a field of study.’
Ben’s winning essay examined the monuments and iconography of fifth-century BCE Athens, exploring how they played a vital role in shaping Athenian identity in this period. The essay offered an analysis of the context and ideology of various iconographic schemes, such as the paintings in the Stoa Poikile and the metopes and friezes in the Hephaisteion (both in the Athenian agora), highlighting how monumental iconography in Athens was not simply a product of ethnic identity, but an essential medium for its enactment through memorisation.
The annual competition is open to all current OU undergraduates, with a notification date usually at the end of June, with submission at the end of September. This year’s winner is keen to continue developing his interests in memory studies, inspired by prominent figures in the field such as Jan Assmann and Claude Calame. Ben says, ‘My ambition is to work within the field of Classical Studies professionally … [looking at] the role of memory as a mechanism for cultivating identity, especially as relating to art, iconography and ritually consumed space.’
Many congratulations to Ben from everyone here at OU Classical Studies.