Author Archives: Emma Bridges

Farewell to Helen King

Earlier this month the Classical Studies team met up to bid farewell to Professor Helen King, who retired from the Open University at the end of January; she remains affiliated to the university as Professor Emerita. James Robson reflects on her involvement in OU Classical Studies over the last six years.

HK lunchHelen joined the department as Professor of Classical Studies back in 2011, moving to the OU from the University of Reading. She came to us with a formidable reputation as a scholar of ancient medicine and its reception, her particular focus being on women both as patients and medical practitioners.  But what Helen also brought with her was a genuine enthusiasm to understand how the Open University and distance learning work in practice and to find new and effective ways to engage with students.

Helen certainly threw herself into Departmental, Faculty and OU life during her sixHK lunch 2 years with us. Her list of commitments and achievements during this time is ludicrously long, including a stint as Head of Department (2014-16), the chairing of our gateway module, A219 Exploring the Classical World, and also the key role she played in the production of our brilliant new MA in Classical Studies.  But however busy she has been, both with internal and external commitments, one quality that has characterized Helen is just the sheer fun she has been to work with.  OK, other qualities readily suggest themselves, too: her extraordinary energy; her supportiveness towards colleagues; her enthusiasm for engaging with both students and the public at large; the high standards she demands of herself and others; and the time she is prepared to dedicate to projects and people she believes in.  But for me, it is the fun that steals the show.

HK lunch 3Helen is certainly going to be missed by her colleagues, but, as her must-read blog, The Retiring Academic, reveals, her retirement promises to be full of a similar level of busyness as before (albeit on her terms).  Research, engaging with students on her MOOC on Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World, various community projects are just some of the things in store.  Plus just a touch of taking it easy.

by James Robson

Kassman essay prize 2016 – winner announced!

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 Westley McCallum.

From Glasgow, Westley has been studying with the Open University since 2013, and is on the Classical Studies degree pathway. So far he has completed the two broad-based level 1 humanities modules, A219 (Exploring the Classical World), and A276 (Classical Latin). Westley is currently studying A330 (Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds) and will finish his degree next year with A340 (The Roman Empire). After that Westley hopes to apply for an MA in the field of Classical Studies.

Westley tells us: ‘I have had a great experience on the OU Classics degree so far. My main area of interest, and accordingly the part of my studies which I have most enjoyed, is Roman social history. I am especially interested in uncovering voices and perspectives which have been ignored or erased; ranging from the socially suppressed voices of women, children and slaves, through to the maligned and crude elements of entertainment forms such as Atellan farce. I also have interest in Roman Scotland, particularly the Antonine occupation.’

Westley’s winning essay was centred on an analysis of one of Cicero’s letters (Fam. 7.1) in which Cicero writes to Marcus Marius about Pompey’s recent shows. The essay explored the contextual and emotional circumstances that shaped the letter, and highlighted the importance of these factors in modern reappraisals of Cicero’s work.

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 for other students to enter in future, and says, ‘For me, working on my submission for the Kassman essay competition helped to keep my essay skills sharp during the summer break between modules, and allowed me to begin developing my own interests within the field of classics. I’d encourage any and all OU Classics students to enter next year, because it is a fantastic experience.’

Warm congratulations to Westley from everyone here at OU Classical Studies.

Reflections on ‘Married to the Military: Soldiers’ Families in the Ancient World and Beyond’ (OU in London, November 11th-12th 2016)

by Emma Bridges

Earlier this month, to coincide with Remembrance Day, Classical Studies at the OU hosted a two-day international conference in London on the theme of ‘Married to the Hector Andromache Astyanax vaseMilitary: Soldiers’ Families in the Ancient World and Beyond’. The idea of thinking about ways in which we might compare the experiences of soldiers’ families in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds with those of their post-classical counterparts was born several years ago when my own marriage to a serving member of the armed forces led me to reflect on the ‘military spouses’ of ancient myth (think of, for example, the Homeric Penelope as the waiting wife of the Odyssey, or Andromache as a war widow in the Iliad). It was as a result of a conversation with my OU colleague Ursula Rothe, however, that the possibility of taking a broader view, in order to consider other areas of the classical world where we might explore the theme of military families, presented itself.

While my own work tends to focus primarily on literary texts, and is grounded in the ancient Greek world, Ursula’s research looks at material culture, and has a decidedly Roman emphasis. By bringing together our complementary approaches to our discipline, and our expertise in different areas of the classical world, Ursula and I were able to put together a conference programme which drew on a cross-section of the range of sources, historical periods and geographical areas with reunionwhich classicists work. For a flavour of what was discussed at the event, take a look at the conference programme and abstracts, and the Storify of livetweets (#OUMTTM) from across the two days. The conference took in ancient perspectives on military families drawn from a variety of different types of evidence, ranging from Greek epic poetry and classical Athenian rhetoric through historiography and ancient material culture, including epigraphic and archaeological sources. Papers ranged across the whole geographical and chronological spread of the classical world, with case studies looking at material not just from Greece and Rome but from locations across the Roman empire, including the provinces of Pannonia, Dacia and Egypt. The topics of presentations extended beyond the field of Classics too, and included an overview of the development of modern attitudes towards the military family from the period before the First World War to the present,military family which opened up the possibilities for rich discussions relating to comparative study and a consideration of where our own area of specialism might sit in relation to other historical periods up to the modern day.

We were also treated to two keynote lectures which highlighted elements of the range of possible approaches which scholars might take when looking at this theme. Edith Hall’s talk explored classical reception studies with a discussion of Spike Lee’s 2015 film Chi-Raq and its relationship to Aristophanes’ 411 BCE comic play Lysistrata and the soldiers’ wives portrayed there. For our second keynote Penelope Allison, whose work on Roman archaeology and gender has been instrumental in shaping this field of study in recent years, took us on an illuminating tour of the development of scholarship relating to the presence of women and children inside Roman military bases.

military family 1One of the great pleasures of studying Classics has always been, for me, its inherent interdisciplinarity; the field offers opportunities to work with a whole range of different kinds of evidence, from diverse geographical areas and across a wide chronological span. Working with a far-reaching theme such as that of this conference, which resonates throughout and beyond the ancient world, allows us to make fresh connections and draw fruitful comparisons between our own work and that of scholars working in other fields. The conversations which began at the event are set to continue; I look forward to seeing how this emerging network based on our shared interests develops in future.

The organisers of the conference would like to extend our thanks to the Institute of Classical Studies and the Hellenic Centre for their generous support of the event.



Conference: Married to the Military: Soldiers’ Families in the Ancient World and Beyond

Hector Andromache Astyanax vaseRegistration is now open for ‘Married to the Military: Soldiers’ Families in the Ancient World and Beyond’, an international conference commemorating Remembrance Day to be held at the Open University in London (1-11 Hawley Crescent, Camden, London NW1 8NP), 11th-12th November 2016. The conference comprises two days of academic papers and includes keynote lectures by Prof. Edith Hall (King’s College London) and Prof. Penelope Allison (University of Leicester). The first of these is a free public event generously sponsored by the Hellenic Centre – all are welcome to attend. The full conference programme can be viewed here.

The cost of the conference is £30 for two days or £20 for one day, to include lunch and refreshments as well as a wine reception prior to the first keynote lecture, hosted by the Hellenic Centre (16-18 Paddington Street, London W1U 5AS) on Friday 11th November. The conference dinner will be held at Opso Restaurant (10, Paddington Street, London W1U 5QL) on Friday 11th at an additional cost of £28.60 per person (excluding wine). Payment is possible by cheque, credit card or BACS transfer.

To register, and for payment details, please email Emma Bridges ( by 1st November 2016, stating whether you wish to attend the full conference or for one day only, and whether you will be attending the conference dinner.

Thanks to the generous support of the Institute of Classical Studies a limited number of bursaries to cover the conference fee (excluding the cost of the conference dinner) and to assist with travel expenses (from within the UK) is available to support the attendance of postgraduate students and those who are under- or unemployed. If you would like to be considered for a bursary please email the organisers (Emma Bridges, and Ursula Rothe, directly by 14th October 2016, outlining briefly your reasons for wishing to attend the conference and stating whether you require a bursary to cover the cost of the conference fee alone, or to assist with travel expenses in addition (if the latter, please give an indication of the expected cost of travel). Those who have no access to an alternative source of funding (e.g. from an institution to which they are affiliated) will be given priority.


Conversations in classical reception: #OU21Cmyth


Arachne weaving her final tapestry, by Carlyn Becchia ( Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

Emma Bridges reports on ‘Remaking ancient Greek and Roman myths in the twenty-first century’

Earlier this month the Open University’s Camden office hosted an event entitled ‘Remaking ancient Greek and Roman myths in the twenty-first century’. The aim of the day was to bring together academics and practitioners whose work focuses on contemporary versions of the mythical tales of ancient Greece and Rome. Myth is by its very nature pliable, and this means that it has always offered a rich source of inspiration for creative practitioners who have sought to rework these ancient stories in new contexts – historical, geographical and artistic. For those of us who study the reception of the ancient world in the post-classical era there is a wealth of myth-themed material which provides us with the opportunity to think about how these new contexts shape such creative responses, and to consider some of the reasons why these stories have enjoyed such longevity.

Since joining the department of Classical Studies I’ve particularly relished the chance to work on our online journal Practitioners’ Voices in Classical Reception Studies, interviewing some of those for whom sources and themes from the ancient world have provided a stimulus for their own creative endeavours. This opportunity to engage with those whose creative work intersects with some of my own academic interests has been particularly valuable and thought-provoking, and it was with this in mind that I sought to bring together a whole range of practitioners and academics working on ancient mythical themes for this one-day colloquium. The day featured poets, playwrights and novelists, as well as those working on visual art and digital media; it was a huge privilege to hear these creative voices presenting, reading from and discussing their own artistic outputs. The colloquium culminated in a spell-binding performance from members of Blazon Theatre (one of whom, actress Laura Martin-Simpson, is studying for a Classical Studies degree at the OU), who brought to us a rehearsed reading of extracts from their new play, ICONS, which reimagines the myths of the Amazons for the twenty-first century.

You can read the abstracts of talks which were given here, and there is a Storify of livetweets from the day (via #OU21Cmyth), featuring images and audio clips, here. Thanks also to one of the participants, the poet Gareth Prior, who has put together a blog post reflecting on the day’s events. The conversations which the event opened up are set to continue in various forms; in light of the number of offers of papers received, we are discussing running a follow-up event, and there will be further news in due course as to how we plan to disseminate more widely the day’s proceedings. Watch this space!

Borders and Boundaries: a report on the Leeds postgraduate interdisciplinary conference

OU PhD student Sophie Raudnitz reports on the 7th annual postgraduate interdisciplinary conference hosted by the University of Leeds.

Leeds posterOn Monday 20th June, in a week when the issue of national borders and where we draw them was the focus of such intense political attention, I was delighted to attend the 7th Annual Postgraduate Interdisciplinary Conference at the University of Leeds, entitled Borders and Boundaries. The aim of this conference was to bring together postgraduate students from different disciplines and different universities to think about borders—cultural, social, psychological and geographical—how we define them and how they are or might be transgressed.

The conference took place at the beautiful Devonshire Hall in Leeds and was hosted by the Classics Department. There were two short keynotes speeches, one from Dr Ingrid Sharp from the Department of German and the other from Dr Emma Stafford from the Department of Classics, both of the University of Leeds. Dr Sharp spoke about ‘Crossing Gender Boundaries: Expressions of Feminist Rage in German Crime Fiction’ – a thought provoking and entertaining look at the way in which German feminist crime writers use humour as a way of affirming rather than denigrating women’s existence. Dr Stafford spoke later on ‘Thinking About Impact’ and research which crosses the boundary between the academic setting and the wider world.

The programme was packed, with five sessions timetabled and two panels running simultaneously in each. Panel topics included ‘Human and Divine’, ‘Aquatic Boundaries’, ‘Home and Away’, ‘Intertextuality’ and ‘Memory’. Though most speakers were classicists, we also heard papers about wearing the veil as a Muslim feminist issue (by Sadia Seddiki, University of Leeds) and ‘transnational’, as opposed to ‘global’ memories of the Holocaust (by Jade Douglas, University of Leeds). I especially enjoyed Jade Douglas’s paper as her study of transnational Holocaust memory intersected with my own research in very interesting ways but as usual with conferences of this kind, just hearing the range of topics which people are researching, and the energy and enthusiasm with which they speak about them, is inspiring in itself. Given this, it seems churlish to mention individual papers but highlights for me included Natalie Enright (University of Leeds) speaking about ‘Crossing Psychic Boundaries: Humoral Infection of the Soul in Plato’s Timaeus’, Devon Allen (University of Leeds) discussing ‘To What Extent is There a Mythological influence over the Folkloric Type of a Mermaid’ and Maria Haley (University of Leeds) on ‘Beyond Justice: Atreus’ Transgressive Revenge in Greek Tragedy’. You can read Henry Clarke’s Storify of tweets from the event here.

My own paper, the last of the day, was on ‘The Politics of Empathy: a Memory-Centred Approach to Euripides’ Trojan Women’ and it suggested that the notion of empathy might unite political and aesthetic approaches to tragedy but also might be a way into reading across genres and considering, for example, discussions around the legitimacy or morality of Holocaust fictions. The paper centred on the ways in which rhetoric generates empathy to sway political responses, and giving it at this conference on Borders and Boundaries, attended by delegates from across the EU, in that week when political rhetoric regarding borders and immigration was at its height, I could suddenly feel its ‘impact’.

In all these respects, it was a very worthwhile trip. It was also great to compare experiences with postgraduate students from other universities and to meet people face to face I had hitherto only met on Twitter. My thanks to the committee from the University of Leeds Classics Department, and to Natalie Enright in particular, for organising such a great day.

by Sophie Raudnitz

ICONS: giving life to the Amazons via the modern female gaze


We are delighted to invite you to a free public event taking place at The Open University in London (1-11 Hawley Crescent, Camden, London NW1 8NP) at 5.45pm on 7th July 2016.

Laura Martin-Simpson and Rachel Bagshaw of Blazon Theatre will be presenting readings from ICONS, a new play about the Amazons by Paula B. Stanic. All are welcome and attendance is free. To reserve a space please contact Emma Bridges:

Wham, #BAM: Linking the Big Ancient Mediterranean

This week Elton Barker, Reader in Classical Studies at the OU, tells us about his recent trip to the University of Iowa for the ‘Linking the Big Ancient Mediterranean’ (#BAM2016) conference.

BAM2016 all guestsWith this month’s news in the UK being dominated by the EU referendum and specifically the issue of migration, a fortnight ago I was making good my escape, so I thought, to the relative sanctuary of the American Mid-West. But, in addition to being detained upon entry to the US at Chicago O’Hare airport (the inconvenience of a missed flight a merest hint of the difficulty many experience when travelling), participants at the conference to which I had been invited time and again came back to a matrix of contemporary concerns, relating to ideas of networks and mobility; standards, services and accessibility; and transformation.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised: the conference was entitled “Linking the Big Ancient Mediterranean” (BAM) after all, and came with the promise of “leveraging the ancient world’s impressive and growing body of linked data to provide an innovative platform for research and teaching”. Organised by our Iowa hosts Sarah Bond and Paul Dilley, #BAM2016 brought together an array of scholars and research developers to talk about not only what digital work they were undertaking but how and why that was important for understanding their topic. The work represented was highly diverse: language texts ranged from Greek, Latin and Persian (Open Philology; Digital Latin Library), to Coptic (Coptic Scriptorium) and Syriac (; disciplines from epigraphy (Inscriptions of Israel/Palestine; and papyrology (, to graffiti (Ancient Graffiti Project), numismatics ( and archaeology (3-D modelling of cultural heritage sites); and approaches from focusing on linking places (Pelagios), to linking people (SNAP:DRGN) and time (PeriodO). There were also a number of useful resources presented, such as the Classical Language Toolkit and a gazetteer of ancient place names (Pleiades Project). (You can see the full line-up at the BAM conference website.)

Far from occluding the hard graft and uncertainty that goes into research, digital activity was shown to shine a light on scholarly practices. Nowhere was this better exemplified that in the project presented by Adam Rabinowitz, called PeriodO. Where a gazetteer like Pleiades has allowed researchers to agree on what place they are talking about (whether one uses the character string “Athens” or another “Athina” or even “Αθήνα”), which means that online documents referring to the same place can now be linked together (by Pelagios—the project I’m working on, more on which in a future post), there is no such agreement on time. Different scholars can—and frequently do—use the same period terms to mean widely different things, or with respect to widely different spaces. For example, how does a computer know that 323 BC, the Hellenistic period, the age of Alexander, etc. all specify more or less the same time? PeriodO, a Gazetteer of Period Definitions, is an attempt to bring some order to this category chaos. Thus, an element of scholarly publications so familiar as the expression of time was revealed to be hugely complex and complicated because of the attempt to apply it in a digital realm. The same is true too, as Ryan Horne (Technical Director at BAM and map guru at the Ancient World Mapping Center) pointed out, of maps—and visualisations more generally: how do you visualise uncertain or ambiguous data?

So, ambiguity and uncertainty were key take home messages—ironically, arguably, given how precise and certain digital data first appear. (We all need to be educated in reading visualisations and interpreting search results, not just our students.) But there are at least three further points to make about the projects presented:

1. Collaboration: as is clear from the brief narrative about PeriodO, it has built on previous and on-going work in the field, specifically by adapting an approach to connecting data taken from Pelagios’s focus on places; and Pelagios itself has been possible only because of Pleiades (among a whole host of other partners). There are various ways of doing collaboration of course: at Iowa, they have a dedicated in-house Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio, which helps to support scholars and provide assistance in addressing critical issues such as preservation and sustainability (more longstanding problems that haven’t gone away now that we’ve moved to the digital realm). What #BAM2016 revealed, however, is that collaboration also takes the form of teams of scholars and research developers that cross not only institution but also continents. (Pelagios’s Commons Committee is formed of both groups from European, US and South American institutions. And such collaboration as being developed by PeriodO, Pelagios and others is at its basis a way of connecting data and facilitating further collaboration—an infrastructure from the ground up, as it were.

2. Openness: a common element of all the projects (including Iowa’s Walt Whitman archive), which underpins the collaborative practices noted above, is the fact that they are open and accessible to all. At the very least openness means being able to access data and material openly—so, for data providers/curators, this means not holding data behind a paywall or making them accessible only via institutional networks. An indication of openness is the use of permissive Creative Commons (CC) licenses, such as those recently advertised by the AWMC for maps or those used by Perseus, which are importantly for not only allowing use but also enabling re-use. (The Hestia project was able to “reuse” the Perseus text of Herodotus, to conduct various digital mapping experiments. I write more about this experience, in the context of digital texts more generally, with Melissa Terras.) In fact, sharing extends beyond data: a number of the projects are using the GitHub online repository to make their tools and code available, which can then be used and improved upon by the community.

3. Community: and so we get to the c-word—the human factor in the digital world. As part of their goal of openness, all the projects had in mind a public audience that includes but also somehow extends beyond academia. (How to address different audiences was a major concern highlighted by a number of speakers.) As part of their interest in collaboration, all the projects had in mind, too, building common methods and processes for working with digital data and tools. In fact, together with technical development, community building is the aim of Pelagios Commons, on the understanding that digital resources will remain a niche product and the preserve of the few unless they can be embedded in everyday practice. This is not only a question of how data can be produced but also how data can be consumed: while digital classics guru, Sebastian Heath, was presenting his work on Mapping Roman Amphitheaters, thoughts turned to how his combination of narrative and modelling approaches could form a recognisable scholarly publication. (Or, rather, how they currently don’t.) More challenging still: now that we are able to link between datasets of highly varied nature—texts, databases (of archaeological material), images (of maps, artefacts, etc.)—what happens then? How does one read archaeological excavation data alongside a literary text? And, even if one has as the target the Bigger Ancient Mediterranean picture, how can we put these diverse data together to make sense of this highly contested, rapidly changing, transforming space?

I’ll finish my summary on this note of caution about the possible transformative, even disruptive, effects of the digital on traditional scholarship, though other opinions are available. (See, for example, the excellent blog posts on #BAM2016 by Michael Satlow and Ryan Horne, while an archive of all the tweets—and there were many—has been created in storify.) But to end, paradoxically, I’d like to IMG_2103briefly sketch how I began my presentation, with Herodotus. We are all by now familiar with the Greek – barbarian axis by which Herodotus introduces his inquiry into the Persian Wars, and which has proven influential for how space—at least the Mediterranean space—is still viewed as divided between West and East (or a European vs. Oriental/African other). We even hear an echo of Herodotus’s opening concerns just a few chapters into his narrative, when it is said that the Persians consider “Asia and the barbarian nations dwelling there” their own, while considering Europe and Greece (or, more accurately, the “Greek thing”, to Hellenikon) separate (1.4.4). Yet, that viewpoint is pointedly attributed to Persian wise men; observing how Herodotus begins his attempt to put together (sumballesthai—a word Herodotus uses to describe moments of interpretation) his Big Ancient Mediterranean suggests a far more complex and uncertain route. Immediately the category distinction between Greek and barbarian is complicated and compromised by the introduction of not only Persians but also Phoenicians (1.1: Are they both barbarian? To what extent? In the same way?) And not only do the Phoenicians enter the scene already networking (carrying Egyptian and Assyrian merchandise here and there and to Argos), but they have a different story of the origins of the conflict (1.5.2). The Mediterranean comes across as an already highly interconnected, diverse and contested space, and Herodotus’s way of putting that space together—to borrow a contemporary idea—highly networked. (For more on Herodotus’s networked thinking, see Hestia’s New Worlds OUP book.)

Putting aside these opening skirmishes of accusation and counter-accusation, Herodotus asserts that he’ll investigate cites both small and large alike, since, he reckons, happiness does not reside “in the same place” (1.5.4)—a striking metaphor carried over from the spatial realm to the analysis of human life. For Herodotus, the Mediterranean was already a world in motion. In antiquity this insight anticipated Thucydides’s anatomisation of the great “movement”, kinesis, of his time, the war between the Athenians and Spartans. So it is again now, and we have an obligation as researchers to inquire into its causes and unpick as best we can the various threads that provide the dominant stories of our day.

Editor’s note: You can find Elton on Twitter @eltonteb

Avid for Ovid: A Q&A with Malcolm Atkins

This week we chatted to Malcolm Atkins, an Open University Associate Lecturer in Music, who also has a degree in Classics. Malcolm is one of the founders of Avid for Ovid, a group of performers who reinterpret ancient myth through dance and music.

Thank you for talking to us, Malcolm. Where did the idea for Avid for Ovid came from?

Malcolm and Ségolène performing ‘Lycaon’ at Modern Art Oxford, September 2014. Photo credit Pier Corona

Malcolm and Ségolène performing ‘Lycaon’ at Modern Art Oxford, September 2014. Photo credit Pier Corona

Avid for Ovid (A4O) was formed by three Oxford-based artists (dancers Susie Crow and Ségolène Tarte, and musician Malcolm Atkins) after an involvement in the Oxford University research project Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers, where we had brought our practical knowledge as performers to explore the long forgotten form of tragoedia saltata, or ancient Roman pantomime, solo storytelling through dance and music. We formed A4O as a group of performing artists to explore from our perspective as artists the potential of using principles and ideas from ancient dance and music in contemporary performance. We later invited Birmingham-­based dancer Marie-­Louise Crawley to join the group. We found the potential of this solo dance form to be enormous – it can really communicate with an audience of any background and can be performed almost anywhere (and in this we seem to be continuing the Roman tradition).

Susie and Malcolm performing 'Tisiphone' at a Classics Colloquium in Oxford in 2013.

Susie and Malcolm performing ‘Tisiphone’ at a Classics Colloquium in Oxford in 2013.

Can you tell us a little more about the performers? Did any of them, other than you, have any prior knowledge of ancient poetry?

Susie Crow is a ballet dancer and choreographer interested in the expressive and narrative potential of ballet, and how skills and approaches from Roman pantomime may have informed its inception; Ségolène Tarte is an academic as well as a ballet dancer and researches as a Digital Humanist in close collaboration with classicists at the University of Oxford; Marie-Louise Crawley is a choreographer and contemporary dance theatre artist who also studied Classics at Oxford.

What might someone who comes to one of your performances expect to see?

We attempt to create narrative through movement and sound. The choice of movement and sound is eclectic and represents the diverse practices and genres we have all worked in. I use a range of instruments (in the spirit of this dance practice which seems to have used all available resources) and create soundscapes as well as direct motivic and thematic interactions, word setting and word painting. The dancers often choreograph a setting of a myth and as with the Roman practice shift from one character to another in unfolding a narrative. They are informed by a range of practices including ballet, mime, kathak [1] and butoh [2] – all of which have a unique relation to narrative. In fact this is also similar to the way musically I use traditions of leitmotif, thematic transformation, rhythmic pattern and power and dissonance as appropriate. Much of this is inevitably informed by our cinematic and visual culture.

What you will see is something exciting and engaging in a way that is far more accessible than much contemporary dance because the focus on narrative allows communication with all – just as the Roman practice did.

What is it about Ovid’s poetry in particular which lends itself to this kind of performative storytelling?

Within the Metamorphoses there is an incredible range of narrative and characterisation and perhaps this is why this was such a favourite of Shakespeare. We have the opportunity to select from so many different styles of story and presentation of character through the music and dance we create. The poetry as a compendium of myths also seems to have an incredibly challenging and subversive meta-narrative. Unlike the overt challenge of the radical exploration of myth in Euripides, Ovid is far more subtle in the way he relentlessly punctures male patriarchal pomposity although more often through flawed divinities than mortals.  This ambivalence towards authority and emphasis on its malign side lends to the possibilities of exploration in dance and musical interpretation as does the breezy tone of Ovid as he skips from one scene of abject and unjustified misery to another often juxtaposing farce and tragedy.

Do you personally have any favourite episodes from Ovid? Could you tell us why you are drawn to certain parts of his poetry over others?

One of those awkward lycanthrope moments. Ségolène  performing ‘Lycaon’ at Modern Art Oxford, September 2014. Photo credit Pier Corona

One of those awkward lycanthrope moments. Ségolène performing ‘Lycaon’ at Modern Art Oxford, September 2014. Photo credit Pier Corona

I have become particularly attached to passages that we have performed because my engagement with the text has deepened (often as I recite or sing it in Latin). The visceral power of the description of Lycaon’s transformation to a wolf was captured through a recording suggested by Ségolène where the text was recited like ‘maggots in the brain’. When Ségolène performed her interpretation a child had to be led out crying from a performance that had no graphic violence. The pathos of Aurora’s grief at the death of her son – particularly relevant in a time of so much desolation that we see daily on the news – was so well expressed by Susie’s exploration of archetypes of grieving. Marie-Louise’s exploration of Myrrha and the desperation that leads to her transformation to a tree (and the very powerful subtext of the girl as a victim of patriarchal desire that resonates with our time) was particularly unsettling (as was the subject) and to me lent to an expressionist theme and the solipsistic musical misery of fin de siècle Vienna. On top of this the subversive story of Arachne who studiously reports the misdemeanours of our betters against the strident defence of Athene was brought home to me by Ségolène’s inspired interpretation. Ovid’s lack of a decisive judgement is all the more powerful in highlighting the abuse of power – something else that strikes a chord with contemporary politics and conflicting media narratives sponsored by corporate power.

Marie-Louise performing ‘Myrrha’ at the MAC Birmingham, October 2015. Photo credit Christian Hunt

Marie-Louise performing ‘Myrrha’ at the MAC Birmingham, October 2015. Photo credit Christian Hunt

For readers of our blog who are interested in seeing Avid for Ovid perform, could you tell us when and where your next performance is taking place?

We are next performing at the opening of a recreation of Ovid’s Garden in Winterbourne Gardens at the University of Birmingham (58 Edgbaston Park Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham) on the 18th June at 3pm. This is a free performance to celebrate the opening of the garden. More details are available here.

Where can our readers find out more about the project?

They can visit our blog and Facebook page, find us on Twitter (@Avid4Ovid) or contact me via email:


[1] Butoh is an expressive dance theatre form which arose in Japan in the late 1950s; often incorporating playful and grotesque imagery, extreme or absurd situations and slowly evolving movement, performed in white body make-up.

[2] Kathak is one of eight Indian classical dance forms; originating in North India, it combines the telling of stories through codified gestural movement with a more formal vocabulary incorporating virtuosic and percussive footwork, rhythmic complexity and spins. (With thanks to Susie Crow for providing definitions.)

Introducing…Adam Parker, PhD student

We asked our newest PhD student, Adam Parker, to tell us about his research project and the path that brought him to postgraduate study at the Open University.

AP blog picThe life changing time for me, when I first started to get really excited about the ancient world, was at Durham 6th Form Centre, while doing an A-level in Classical Civilisation. It was over a decade ago now, but reading the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Sophocles’ Theban plays alongside Tacitus, Suetonius and doing a bit of Greek and Roman architecture still looms large in my head as the time when my eyes were opened to the complexity, importance and sheer murderous humanity of the ancient world. Fast-forward to May 2016 and I am five months into my part-time PhD research in Classical Studies at the Open University. My project aims to investigate the artifactual nature of ‘magic’ in Roman Britain and to try to establish chronological, spatial, material and contextual relationships within this huge, amorphous dataset in order to try and understand what magic is and what function it served.

The wonderful thing I’ve found about postgraduate studies with the OU is that the students here have usually gone off and done a bit of living before getting into the PhD research; I’m no different. Undergraduate studies in Ancient History and Archaeology at Leicester cemented my love of archaeology and the Roman world. This was the first time I ever encountered ‘magic’ as something that can be studied. A second year essay for a module on ‘the Roman Principate’ required students to sign up to a seminar group: 25 people, 5 seminar topics, and 5 places per slot. Getting a place on the ‘Magic and Imperial Politics’ seminar required sprinting from the lecture theatre where this announcement was made to the sign up board on the other side of the campus to ensure I got the place I wanted. Staying on at Leicester for a fourth year MA in Rome & its Neighbours allowed me to pick up Magic as a research topic for my dissertation.

Since that point I have never really left the topic alone. Having a consuming and unfaltering passion for history, heritage and archaeology is certainly a benefit in getting from undergraduate to PhD studies. Entering the world of museums in 2010 did mean that I got to play with loads of really cool material culture, but it also meant that I spent a lot of time driving vans and fork-lift trucks (for more of an insight into my day job take a look at this article). Since discovering the phrase ‘Independent researcher’ in 2011 I’ve gone out of my way to try and push my research agenda outside of my professional life. Commuting daily from Crook, Co. Durham to York – where I am currently Assistant Curator of Archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum – meant that I had 4-5 hours per day of bus and train time to kill reading and writing. OU courses in ‘Reading Classical Latin’ and ‘Heritage? Whose Heritage?’ filled in bits of that. (A quick piece of advice here: conjugating verbs and declining nouns on the bus to Darlington at 6:45am daily is not the best way to learn Latin.)

After 5 or 6 years of part-time study I want to end up with a database of a few thousand objects. Jet pendants, phallic carvings, and inscribed gold tablets might seem to be a disparate group of objects but they are all joined by a modern appreciation of them having served some sort of protective, beneficial, or lucky function in the Roman world. It is this supposed supernatural function that links these, and numerous other objects, together. My intention is to actually test this hypothesis through a broad artifactual study where I will start by deconstructing the semantics and implications of the word ‘magic’ and establish how this can be applied to material culture. Contextual, material and spatial studies will (hopefully!) establish themes, links and patterns within this dataset that can be used to build on our current understanding on how these things work. There are already some excellent material culture studies into Roman magic (most recently several papers in two entirely different 2015 publications with the same name, The Materiality of Magic) but these each focus on a specific object type, literary or iconographic element. My aim is to be the first to actually draw all of this together into one place and look it as a single group. It requires first negotiating some hugely problematic conceptual issues about what magic is, what religion is, and how we can differentiate enough to allow a useful programme of data collection.

It needs to go on record that I am sincerely grateful for being able to undertake PhD research with the Open University and with a scholarship to boot. My initial approach to the OU for PhD purposes is entirely due to a chat I had with Stuart McKie (fellow OU post-grad) after meeting at the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference in 2014. I gave a paper talking about magical things, he came and chatted to me afterwards about his own research on magic, and a series of Facebook conversations afterwards pointed me towards his supervisory team – Ursula Rothe and E-J Graham. And now they are my supervisors too, joined by Helen King. Under the tutelage of my OU triumvirate the past five months have focused on this attempt to try and establish what magic actually is… I’m not sure I’ve managed it yet it, but it’s been great fun so far trying to find out!

I am very happy to be a research student in the Classical Studies department – thanks for having me, OU.

by Adam Parker

Editor’s note: Adam has his own blog, where you can read more of his thoughts on Roman magic: You can also find him on Twitter @adamarchaeology.