Category Archives: Uncategorised

Exploring the classical world: on location with the module team

This week Jan Haywood reports on a trip to Greece to film material for our new Classical Studies Module.

Elton on camera at the Lion Gate, Mycenae

The Classical Studies team at the OU are currently working hard to produce our brand new second-level undergraduate module, ‘Exploring the Classical World’ (A229), which will replace its predecessor of the same name, and which is due for its first presentation in October 2018. The module will cover a whole range of aspects of the history, literature and culture of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, from the Homeric poems to the Roman imperial period. As part of the production process, the module team is also creating a number of audio-visual resources, including two new films, one focusing on the archaeology of Mycenae and the other on the Athenian religious festival, the Panathenaea. Last week my colleague Elton Barker and I were fortunate enough to travel to Greece with a production team—Morgan Phillips and David Herd from Angel Eye Media—to create these new films.

The Parthenon

The filming began at the ancient site of Mycenae (in the Argolid gulf), and then moved to several sites in Athens, including the Acropolis, the agora (Athens’ central marketplace in antiquity), the Cerameicus (a well-preserved cemetery located at the outer limits of classical Athens) and the spectacular National Archaeological Museum of Athens, which hosts a fabulous collection of Greek antiquities.

Filming the Caryatid porch


The entire trip was a fascinating, deeply rewarding experience. While Elton and I have spent years studying the classical world, and both of us have considerable teaching experience in higher education, the filming process quickly proved to present a novel set of challenges. On the first day of filming proper, we were exposed to many of the obstacles that are associated with recording video footage. Hyper-sensitive audio equipment (apparently asking after one’s breakfast to get the audio levels for the microphone is a commonplace in media circles), loud crowds, gusts of wind, hedge trimmers, tuneful European sirens, seemingly endless numbers of enthusiastic street-sellers (lime green pillows are clearly all the rage in modern Athens!), and unexpected bug attacks were just some of the less esoteric trials that we had to contend with as the camera rolled.

Capturing the Acropolis on camera

At the sites where we were filming, we had the opportunity to record brief vignettes (known in the media business as ‘pieces to camera’); it was during this process that we were presented with the chance to think afresh about our discipline. Indeed, working with Dave and Morgan—who were coming at things from a visual storytelling angle—brought into sharp relief the core argument in each of our films and the signal importance of thinking about the Greek landscape. For instance, it was while the crew was capturing various shots of the Acropolis from the Areopagus (a low hill northwest of the Acropolis, literally meaning ‘Ares Rock’) and I was looking over westwards towards the Pnyx (the meeting place for Athens’ citizen assembly in the Classical period) that I came to appreciate more clearly the complex topographical and ideological dialogue between the Pnyx, the beating heart of Athenian democracy in the fifth century, and the Acropolis, the city’s highest point, where the ancient Athenians would make offerings to their city’s gods. There were several such moments in which our engagement with the Greek (built and natural) landscape served to inform and enrich the content of the module’s new films.

It would be impossible for me to sum up in a single sentence what was a highly edifying week. Instead, I shall leave you with the words of Morgan, the director: “That’s a wrap!”

by Jan Haywood

Editor’s note: For news on the progress of this new module, and more images taken on location by Jan and Elton follow @OU_Classics on Twitter or search for the hashtag #OUA229.

Image credits: Elton Barker and Jan Haywood

‘Tis the season to be….classical

At OU Classical Studies HQ the conversation in the office turned recently to the subject of Christmas gifts, and this set us thinking about what we might buy for the classicists in our lives; suggestions ranged from the tasteful to the downright bizarre. Personally, I’d quite like a plane ticket to somewhere sunny where there’s a Greek temple or two, but as that’s not looking especially likely I thought I’d share with our blog readers some of the other (generally more affordable) suggestions which came up.

WT_Rome1001A_med[1]Valerie Hope mused that her walls are looking rather bare, so she’s hoping for a couple of classically-themed prints. Val says, “Piranesi is perhaps a bit fussy, and I’m coming out of my Alma-Tadema phase, but vintage travel posters can be quite striking: I might put this on my Christmas list as the blue sky would match my kitchen cupboards….” Also on the Colosseum theme, Mair Lloyd suggested this silver bracelet charm as a way for classicists to, as she put it, “proclaim their dedication to studying the Romans.” Alternatively Mair thought that a bottle or two of Pliny the Elder pale ale might be just the tipple for thirsty classicists. Jessica Hughes suggests that to go with their themed plinytheelderbottle-copy[1]ale keen chefs might like to try the modern version of garum, colatura di alici, writing, “This is a staple in our fridge, and it is delicious on plain pasta with some lemon squeezed over it. A quick and super-tasty meal for busy academics!”

We have a fine selection of Greek vase mugs in the OU Classical Studies office, but Ursula Rothe has her eye on this one, bearing the phrase ‘Beam me up Scotty’ in Latin, to add to the collection. I’m also wondering whether as a department we perhaps ought to invest in some ‘Team Hector’ and ‘Team Achilles’ merchandise – the pin badges declaring allegiance to their favourite Homeric hero would be the perfect stocking-filler for any fan of Greek epic.

Perhaps unsurprisingly books featured rather heavily on many of our wishlists, with some suggestions in particular for the Christmas stockings of the next generation of classicists. Naoko Yamagata loves the Latin translation of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (Fabula de Petro Cuniculo); she remembers reading this along with the original and the Japanese translation to her baby son, and suggests that it also makes a great text for Beginners’ Latin classes for any teachers out there who are running Latin lessons. I’m a big fan of Usborne’s beautiful Greek Myths Sticker Book, which uses fabulous images of classical and post-classical artwork to introduce children to the characters and stories of Greek mythology. Meanwhile Jessica Hughes recommends Marcia Williams’ illustrated Greek Myths and The Iliad and the Odyssey for young readers aged 5 and over; Jess says that “the characters’ speech bubbles also provide a hilarious running commentary on the action which keeps the grown-up readers entertained too!” For adult readers Jess recommends trying The Dark Labyrinth by Lawrence Durrell, which she describes as “an enchanting, if slightly unnerving, story of some English travellers who disembark from their cruise ship on Crete to explore the ‘dark labyrinth’ and look for the Minotaur who inhabits it.” On a similar theme is Stephen Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break .

We simply wouldn’t be covering the festive season fully if we didn’t giveWP_20151130_001 a mention to the obligatory Christmas jumper, and Laura Swift has found a knitting pattern for one that’s just right for those who love their Greek vases (see photo). Oddly enough her husband, who is also a classicist, has so far resisted donning one of these while lecturing, but she’s hoping she might get away with producing one for her infant daughter to wear… While we’re on the theme of festive clothing, Emma-Jayne Graham, who combines her love of the ancient Roman world with a penchant for penguins, likes the look of this rather niche ‘Emperor Penguin’ T-shirt. If penguins aren’t your thing, E-J also found this T-shirt featuring an illustrated history of the ancient world from 800-200BC, as well as some snazzy architecturally-themed accessories. Alternatively she suggests showing someone you care at zero expense by sending them a virtual votive.

TeddytaurThe prize for finding the weirdest classically-themed Christmas gift, however, has to go to our Head of Department, Helen King, whose suggestion will be haunting my nightmares for some time to come. Helen writes, “Combining my interest in half human, half animal beasts with my abiding love of soft fluffy toys, the ideal present has to be the Teddytaur. There are some very dodgy variations on the teddy bear theme out there (if you’ve been to Amsterdam, you’ll know what I mean) but this is far more tasteful!”

Do you have any more gift suggestions for the classicist who has everything? Let us know in the comments below, or share your thoughts by tweeting us @OU_Classics. Merry Christmas!

Greek and Roman Holidays

Stuck for somewhere to go this summer? We’ve collected together some last-minute travel ideas from members of the OU Classical Studies community. If you’d like to add any more classical destinations to our list, please feel free to use the ‘Comments’ feature at the bottom of the article. Happy travels!

Trier, Western Germany (as suggested by Ursula Rothe)


If you want to combine glorious medieval architecture and continental urban sophistication with your visit to Roman antiquities this summer, look no further than Trier in western Germany. It has an intact late antique basilica (still in use), a Roman bridge (still in use), the ruins of two bath complexes and the famous Porta Nigra – a Roman city gateway that has remained intact because it was used as a church in the Middle Ages. It’s also a beautiful city with a twin cathedral and lots of nice cafes and restaurants. If you hire a car, the surrounding countryside is also full of interesting stuff, and not only because it is the Moselle Valley wine region: there is a huge, 23m-high Roman gravestone covered in reliefs from family life at a place called Igel; a rebuilt Gallo-Roman temple at Tawern; and a spectacular rebuilt Roman villa at Nennig.

Italica, Spain (as suggested by Paula James)


In summer 2001 our daughter Tanith, then resident in Madrid, arranged a few days’ stay in Seville and the three of us took the 50p bus ride to the Roman remains of Italica early in the morning. We were on our own for a couple of hours and I suspect it was a little visited site (and may still be!) but it was well worth it (vale la pena!). Hot and dusty (the surroundings and us!) we could only imagine what this walled town (home of emperors Trajan and Hadrian) might have been like in its heyday with colonnades, temples, baths, water features, theatre etc. Every house seemed to have had a mosaic and you got a real sense of this as a vibrant place to be from the time of Augustus. Standing under the baking sun in the arena of what was the third largest (and well preserved) amphitheatre in the Empire I found myself shuddering at what the prisoners must have felt as they stepped out onto the sand. The Ridley Scott movie Gladiator was a recent phenomenon and suddenly the scene in the provincial arena when the fear of the ‘performers’ was palpable rang horribly true. Sometimes keeping a critical and dispassionate distance which I had urged our students to do when studying the Roman Games at the Colosseum in A103 Introduction to the Humanities course is just not possible!

Pompeii, Italy (as suggested by Joanna Paul)


Given that Pompeii is already one of the most-visited archaeological sites in the world – attracting well over 2 million people each year – its inclusion on a list of recommended ancient sites might seem a bit pointless. Indeed, even if you can’t visit the site in person, there are a multitude of ways to do so virtually, whether it’s through blockbusting museum exhibitions like the British Museum’s ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ (2013) or smartphone apps like ‘Pompeii Touch’. But having visited the site repeatedly over the past couple of decades, and after devoting a good deal of my research time to exploring its reception in the modern world, I couldn’t not make this my number one site to visit. Cliches and superlatives are applied to Pompeii with good reason – it is an awe-inspiring place, unrivalled for the scale and apparent immediacy of access to the ancient world that it seems to give us, and even a slog round the site in the heat of the summer sun in the company of thousands of other tourists can’t fail to have an impact. But a little extra effort is well worth it. The Pompeii that I love is the backstreet Pompeii, the quiet road that you stumble across when you’ve struck out beyond the Forum or the Via dell’Abbondanza, where the hubbub of tourist noise is suddenly replaced by the sound of cicadas, and Vesuvius looms at the end of the street, unimpeded by tourist-guide umbrellas and selfie-sticks. I’ve never really thought of Pompeii as a time machine that transports us magically back into the past (although many people do), but it is in these quiet and deserted spaces that contemplation of this ancient town – and of the distance between us and yet the close relationship that we seem to have with it – really becomes possible.

Unfortunately, this quiet contemplation isn’t easy to come by. Over the years, I’ve seen access to these Pompeian backstreets become ever more difficult, and the dream of stumbling across an empty house that you can wander around at leisure is often frustrated. Huge chunks of the site are invariably closed as the demands of staffing, and conserving, such a fragile site take their toll. But it can be done. On my most recent visit, in June this year, a lucky tip-off alerted me to the fact that the Via di Nola, heading towards the north-east edge of the site, was open beyond the usual barrier, allowing access to the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto (see picture). Though hot, dusty, and footsore, we set off down the road, and were soon to be rewarded with a fantastic spell alone in this house, with its beautiful frescoes – by far the most memorable aspect of this trip for me. So, my advice to you is: don’t spend too long studying your map; instead, be prepared just to wander, to leave the tourist crowds behind as much as you possibly can – and if you turn a corner and a quiet road with no barrier opens up before you – follow it!

Naples (as suggested by Jessica Hughes)

Naples from the Certosa di San Martino

If you do go to Pompeii, then chances are you’ll be staying in nearby Naples and making a day-trip to Pompeii on the Circumvesuviana train. Tourists often use Naples as a base for visiting other local destinations (Herculaneum, Cumae, Solfatara, Sorrento, and so on), but the city itself is an absolute treasure-trove for historians of every period.

One of my favourite sites is the Museo San Martino up on the Vomero hill. This is a kind of ‘Museum of Naples’, filled with paintings of the city and objects from its past, so it’s a great place to start getting to grips with Neapolitan history (as well as the urban layout, thanks to the gorgeous panoramic views – see the image above). Archaeologists will obviously love the National Archaeological Museum (perhaps the best museum in the world?), but there are also many other Greco-Roman elements of the city to explore, such as the Roman macellum beneath the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore in the historic centre, and the underground tunnels of Napoli Sotterranea (‘Naples Underground’), which can be visited as part of a guided tour starting from near San Lorenzo. And there’s always something new to discover: on my last trip I wandered into the Museo Duca di Martina at the Villa Floridiana which is dedicated to the decorative arts, especially 18th-century ceramics from the porcelain factory at Capodimonte. Lots of the objects in the Villa Floridiana depict classical scenes, and the imagery is often drawn from Pompeian paintings – a nice example of the close relationship that’s always existed between Naples and the other ancient cities in the region.

If you’re preparing for a trip to Naples, two popular history books that I’d recommend as preparatory reading are Peter Robb’s Street Fight in Naples and Jordan Lancaster’s book In the Shadow of Vesuvius. To find out about ancient Naples, you can download for free Rabun Taylor’s  A Documentary History of Ancient Naplesand for an insight into how this ancient past has been appropriated in later eras, you can look at our edited volume Remembering Parthenope: The Reception of Classical Naples from Antiquity to the PresentThere are lots of good websites devoted to the cultural history of Naples, and I’ve particularly enjoyed dipping into Naples: Life, Death & Miracles and Napoli Unplugged. Naples is one of the most heavily stereotyped cities in the world (pizza, traffic, chaos etc), but that’s partly why it’s so rewarding to go there in person – you’ll have many of your expectations confounded, and if you’re interested in ancient history and classical reception studies – well, you’ll probably discover a dozen new research topics in the process!

Amiens, France (as suggested by Cathy Mercer) 


Just across the Channel, easy to get to, with a splendid Gothic cathedral, twice as big as Notre Dame de Paris which, remarkably, survived WWI intact. Jules Verne lived in Amiens and you can visit his house, complete with tower. There are lovely walks along the River Somme, through the Hortillonages, miles of marshy market gardens and parks, reached by charming little bridges.

Some may say that the delicious macarons d’Amiens are reason alone to visit and the delightful patisserie opposite the cathedral does a wonderful lunch. But why might a classics person would want to visit Amiens rather than Rheims or Rouen?

Why, for the outstanding archaeological display in Amiens’ museum, the Musee de Picardie, tagged by Amiens TI as a fantastic museum and they’re right. It has a really good Roman collection and a tremendous display of archaeological artefacts, carefully arranged in those lovely 19th century typologies so beloved by Pitt-Rivers and co. Amiens skilletFor me the museum’s star exhibit was the beautifully displayed Amiens Skillet, a Roman enamelled bronze souvenir of Hadrian’s Wall found in Amiens in 1949. It shows soldiers with shields peeking through crenulations, conveniently marked up with names of the forts from Mais to Banna, Bowness to Birdoswald, maybe birthplace of St Patrick. There must be a matching cup waiting to be found out there, with forts from Vindolanda to Wallsend. The Amiens Skillet is similar in design to the British Museum’s Rudge Cup and lists the same western forts on Hadrian’s Wall. Another similar HW tourist souvenir is the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan found in 2003. The interesting difference is that the Amiens Skillet shows that the fame of Hadrian’s Wall had spread beyond the shores of Britannia. The museum is housed in a handsome chateau in the centre of Amiens and visits cost 5.5 Euros. This was clearly enough to put locals off because the only other visitors we met were two English ladies on a choir visit. The contrast with the crowds at the British Museum could not be more striking. Samarobriva, as Amiens was known in Roman times, seems to have been excavated in the main in the 19th century but there is remarkably little to see in town, except for a corner of the amphitheatre under a square and a block of flats named Samorobriva. For details of these and other places to visit see

We enjoyed a splendid long weekend in Amiens, with stop-offs at Boulogne for its splendid old town and riverside walk as far as the La Manche (English Channel). These stop-offs were in fact enforced by the rather eccentric timing of local trains – this meant that, apart from early morning and evening worker services, there is just one lunch time train to Amiens. But Boulogne’s medieval ramparts and fascinating Napoleonic connections are reasons enough to visit. 

Samothrace (as suggested by Elton Barker)


The suggestions from my (esteemed) colleagues are all very good and excellent, but they’re all a bit too Roman for my liking. Perhaps that’s because there are simply so many places to go to in Greece that it’s difficult to choose a favourite – the sheer variety can be bewildering! Whether it’s the centre of the world at Delphi, or the wandering island of Delos, Greece is impossible to beat for the sheer joy of ancient monuments jostling for attention amidst stunning landscape.
A personal favourite of mine, and off the beaten track, is Samothrace. You’ll all know its most famous export, the Winged Victory of Samothrace (now in the Louvre): but you’ll possibly be less familiar with the site where it was found, the Sanctuary of the Great Gods (Hieron ton Megalon Theon). I guarantee that you’ll be blown away by the views. More than that, Samothrace is the alternative place to visit. The people are incredibly friendly, it has great camping facilities, and the walks through the forests provide a welcome relief from the heat (you can even take a dip in natural mountain pools – if you’re brave enough!). The question is, with all the choices Greece has to offer, do I go there again this year…?

Welcome to the OU Classical Studies blog

Helen King photo

by Helen King

As the current head of department, it’s great to welcome you to our blog. Whatever brings you here – whether you are a current or prospective student, or just someone interested in all things classical – I hope you enjoy hearing more about what we’re doing and that it inspires you to find out even more about the classical world!

At the Open University we cover a wide range of aspects of the classical world, from texts to images to material culture. Many of us also think about the reception of the classical past, from the ancient world itself – Romans thinking about the Greek world – to the present. So there should be something here to interest pretty well everyone.

I’m spending part of today speaking to a Classical Association branch in Southampton. Maybe some readers of this blog will be there…?