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(Don’t) judge a book by its cover

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 Penelope by 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. Figure4This 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). Figure7The 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” ( 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.



Studentships: MA in Classical Studies

We are delighted to be able to offer two fully-funded scholarships for our MA in Classical Studies:

  • One scholarship will be awarded through an open competition, on the basis of the academic excellence of the applicant.
  • One scholarship, generously funded by the A.G. Leventis Foundation, will be awarded to a UK schoolteacher who intends 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 scholarship covers full fees for the MA.

How to apply:

To apply for the scholarship, please complete the MA-scholarship-application-form 2018 and send it, completed, 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;
  • the name of an academic referee who would be prepared to support your application if you are shortlisted (this should be someone who has taught you or worked with you);
  • a statement from your headteacher indicating that they are willing to support your plans to develop Classical Civilisation, if you are applying for the Leventis scholarship.

The application form includes a section for a personal statement.

  • Applicants for the Leventis scholarship should use this section to outline their teaching experience to date and to provide a clear indication of the way in which they 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.
  • Applicants for the open competition scholarship should use the personal statement to give an account of their prior experience of studying the ancient world, and to explain why they want to study for the MA in Classical Studies at the OU.

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 Monday 2nd July and we intend to inform all applicants of the outcome in mid-July.

Informal enquiries can be made to Joanna Paul (



Rumours of our demise …

An article appeared in Thursday’s Guardian (March 22) about proposed curriculum and staffing cuts at the Open University:

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.

POSTPONED: ACE event, 12 March

We’re sorry to announce that our planned ACE (Advocating Classics Education) live-streamed event has been postponed, due to ongoing industrial action by the Universities and Colleges Union. Watch this space for details of a rescheduled event! Please direct any queries to or

Programme for our ACE event, 12 March

As we announced in our last blog post, our event with the Advocating Classical Education project is just around the corner. We’re now very excited to reveal the programme for the afternoon! If you’re interested in attending the event through our live-streaming platform, see our previous post for contact details for an initial registration of interest. More details about what to expect from each session, and how to join in on the day, will be available soon – watch this space!

2pm            Introduction and welcome

2.15pm      The World of Greek Drama (Jan Haywood, Christine Plastow)

2.40pm       In Conversation with Mary Beard

3.15pm       Classical Studies Question Time (Mary Beard, Edith Hall, Elton Barker)

3.45pm       The Votives Project (E-J Graham, Jessica Hughes)

4.10pm       Keeping in Touch with Classical Studies at the OU

4.30pm       Teachers’ Q&A (Arlene Holmes-Henderson, Stephen Dobson, Virginia Campbell,          Stephen Dobson)

Our MA in Classical Studies: a student’s perspective

In this post, John Teller, a recent graduate of our MA in Classical Studies, reflects on his experience. If you’re interested in finding out more about this qualification, visit our department website

When I came across the details for the MA in Classical Studies at the Open University, in 2015, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for. I had no background in Classics, and no experience of studying history (I’d previously studied as a scientist and a policy studies wonk), and to begin with, I was advised against registering. However, after discussion with tutors, I convinced them that I might make the grade – and in 2017 I completed the MA with a distinction!

My initial excitement at being accepted was quickly tempered by the realisation that I had no idea what Classical Studies really was. My lifeline turned out to be the very heavily recommended book by D. M. Schaps, Handbook for Classical Research. This did for me what a good Lonely Planet guide does for the traveller. It showed me the scope of where I was going to travel in my studies and, whilst the enormity and the depth of the study material was mindblowing, it only whetted my appetite for what was to come. Continue reading

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…?