Category Archives: Reviews

Sensory Experience in Rome’s Northern Provinces – a report by Colin Gough and Kirstie Morey

On the 6th October 2018, several members of the department, current and former PhD students, and a handful of MA Classical Studies students attended a conference hosted by the Roman Society at Senate House in London. The theme for the day was Sensory Experience in Rome’s Northern Provinces and here, fresh from submitting their dissertations for A864, OU Classical Studies MA students Colin Gough and Kirstie Morey share their multisensory impressions of the day.

Colin Gough

The one question that unites students, academics and anyone interested in Classical Studies is ‘what was it like in classical times?’ At the Senate House conference last Saturday we had the opportunity to experience some of the sensations of a Roman. What does the Roman ketchup that is garum, made from putrefying fish, smell like? To this modern, westernised nose – not pleasant, and it would have taken real courage to use it as an edible additive. Yet it was so popular in Roman times that there was mass production. Did Roman men wear perfume? Thomas Derrick (Leicester) not only gave a presentation on the multisensory approach to the impact of Roman settlements in the north but, during lunch demonstrated his (real) passion for Roman scents and perfumes. There is nothing like pouring olive oils with rosemary and pepper, scaping off the excess with a strigil to get the authentic Roman post-bathing experience, even though I spent the rest of the afternoon smelling like focaccia. Patty Baker (Kent) not only gave an interesting presentation on archaeological data to explore retrieving indigenous conceptions of flora but introduced the concept of experimental archaeology in recreating floral crowns from mosaic images in Britannia. These were passed around to give the sensory feel of manufacture and wearing resulting in some new profile pictures on social media. We were treated to a fabulous talk by the author Caroline Lawrence who, with a range of ‘props’ not only gave an insight into how she uses the sensorium to develop her books but gave us a hands-on experience of some of the sights, sounds, smells and feels of the Roman world.

This brings me onto an important point, the value to Classical Studies of experientialism, that is, personally experiencing a location, environment or object. Naturally, our experiences will not be the same as an individual or group in classical times but it does give an opportunity to consider sociological changes and responses and, indeed, help formulate questions to be addressed. But it goes further. It opened my understanding of the different applications of Classical Studies. This was underpinned by the excellent talk by Mike Bishop. Twitter users may know him as @perlineamvalli. He has walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall over fifteen times and has produced two-minute soundtracks at each milecastle prompting the discussion of how the soundscape has changed (Editor’s note: you can listen to them here!). This approach not only focusses the mind on the establishing a temporal frame but allows reconstruction of a likely soundscape in Roman times. Nicky Garland (Newcastle) suggested physiological responses not available from empirical evidence that can be gained by a personally experienced, multisensory approach to the partially re-constructed Commanding Officers House at South Shields. Sophie Jackson (MOLA) gave an interesting presentation on the modern history of the Bloomberg Mithraeum and how consultants, design teams and scholars approached interpreting the archaeology to translate the atmosphere and ritual into a sensory experience for the 21st Century audience.

Unfortunately, because of space constraints, I have not named all the presenters or the subjects tackled (for more see Caroline’s own blog). However, to finish, I have two abiding memories. The enthusiasm of all who presented and the generosity they have in sharing their experience and knowledge. Using our imagination, new methodologies can be developed giving a greater insight into the past and engaging students of the future and the wider public. It has never been a better time to study classical times and sensory studies can be at the centre of all disciplines. Along with OU postgrad and WiP days, I think everyone should experience conferences – if nothing else it makes you appreciate how good we all are and how approachable and helpful other people can be.

Kirstie Morey

As an A864 OU Master’s student, October 1st was a significant date for me. The culmination of two years of hard work and my dissertation was finally submitted. But I had mixed feelings: I was extremely proud of both what I had written, and of how far I had come. I was incredibly relieved to know that it was in and that I had managed to finish it on time and within word limits. But, I was also very sad. Studying for my Masters had been such a journey and had become such a big part of my life, I simply didn’t want it to end. So, I booked myself onto a Roman Society workshop that I’d had my eye on since reading about it on Twitter, and on Saturday last, ventured to the Senate House for the Sensory Experience in Rome’s Northern Provinces workshop. I was nervous at first as I didn’t think I’d know anybody and I wasn’t sure how ‘interactive’ I would be expected to be at a workshop. But, a couple of familiar faces appeared in the room and we were off. It was great.

Having been introduced to the idea of sensory studies in A864, the concepts were easy enough to follow. And the speakers were very engaging and interesting. Some papers were quite theoretical, like Thomas Derrick (Leicester) and Andrew Gardner (UCL); and some were very much more practical. We wore, felt and smelled our way through various coronas, courtesy of Patty Baker (Kent) and heard our way through the milecastles along Hadrian’s Wall, thanks to Mike Bishop. We oiled and ‘strigilled’ ourselves during lunch with ‘authentic’ Roman perfumes and we chewed on mastic chewing gum.

The highlights for me were Stuart McKie’s (Durham) talk on curse tablets and the connection between them and votive offerings and author Caroline Lawrence’s explanation of how she tries to evoke every sensual experience for the readers of her Roman Mysteries series of children’s books.  I wish she had been available for my kids’ birthday parties – she was brilliant! While Sophie Jackson from MOLA was talking about the history of the London Mithraeum, she showed us a newspaper photograph showing the thousands of people who queued daily in the 1950s to see the original ruins. A lady in the audience shared with us her memories of being in that queue and how it inspired her to become an archaeologist.  That was the icing on the cake.

I am told that this conference may not have been typical and that others aren’t usually so ‘touchy feely’ but, while that may have been the case, the fact that the theme was so interesting, and the speakers were so engaging was secondary to my enjoyment of just being there. It made me realise that my academic journey is not over and that there is plenty more to be involved with, to listen to and, maybe even one day, to contribute to.

By Colin Gough (@saddad52) and Kirstie Morey (@K33Morey)

Seventh Conference of Italian Archaeology

Phil Perkins and Eleanor Betts represented the OU Classical Studies department at the Seventh Conference of Italian Archaeology, which was held at the National University of Ireland, Galway on 16th-19th April 2016. Scholars from 15 countries presented papers and posters on the archaeology and cultural history of Italy from prehistory to the modern period. Whilst the primary theme of the Conference was the archaeology of death, our papers considered some recent developments in Italian archaeology.

Phil Perkins presenting on the exciting recent finds from Poggio Colla

Phil Perkins presenting on exciting recent finds from Poggio Colla

Phil spoke about the final excavation seasons at Poggio Colla and their context in Northern Etruria, focusing in particular on the remarkable stele which was discovered in Summer 2015. The stele was built into the wall of the earliest temple and bears one of the longest inscriptions known in Etruria. Phil will be presenting on this, and more, in the Accordia Lecture Series on 3rd May.

You can also find out more about the stele and the initial reading of the inscription, here (at 08:54 to 15:16 minutes in the Italian news programme).

Susanna Harris presenting her Etruscan cloak experiment in Galway

Susanna Harris presenting her Etruscan cloak experiment

Eleanor organised and presented in the panel ‘Moving Bodies: Multisensory Approaches to the Ancient Mediterranean’, which was in many ways part of the homage to the work of Ruth Whitehouse which marked the conference. The papers were wide-ranging in their chronological spread, and what they had in common was their application of phenomenology to ancient sites and fieldwork methods in Italy and Malta. The five papers presented were by Sue Hamilton and Ruth Whitehouse, Reuben Grima, Claudia Lambrugo, Susanna Harris and Eleanor Betts. Robin Skeates wrapped up the session, drawing out the main themes of the presentations, and giving much food for thought for the future of sensory archaeologies. You can read more on these papers and the discussion at Sensory Studies in Antiquity.

Odyssey week

by Emma Bridges

Last week was, for me, a week of Odysseys. The previous weekend I’d tuned in to catch up on this recent BBC spoof of Homer’s epic of homecoming by comedy trio Penny Dreadfuls, starring Peep Show actor Robert Webb as a hilariously self-obsessed Odysseus. The week also took me to London to see two very different live performances of the ancient tale. First up, on Tuesday, was a theatrical performance at the Armitage OdysseyGlobe of Simon Armitage’s The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead. This new version wove episodes from the ancient text – Odysseus’ encounters with a giant Cyclops, the Sirens, the Lotus Eaters, and the enchantress Circe – into a contemporary story featuring a government minister’s attempts to return home to his family after an unfortunate diplomatic incident abroad. The fusion of contemporary political drama and ancient narrative provided an insight into the possibilities which a classical text might offer for shedding fresh light on current issues, and vice-versa; in this case the themes of hospitality (and its abuse) and xenophobia loomed large, and the production – like the original Homeric text – explored the nature of storytelling from multiple perspectives, with the modern media and political spin highlighted as modern equivalents of the ways in which narratives are woven together by the ancient poet and his characters.

Then Thursday brought a very different kind of staged version of the poem. This year the Almeida Theatre’s Greeks season, consisting of productions of three Greek tragedies along with a programme of related events, has been hugely successful (you can read my interview with the theatre’s Associate Director, Robert Icke, here). To end the season the theatre staged an all-day reading of the Odyssey (in the translation of Robert Fagles) in its entirety; this followed on from a reading of the whole of the Iliad back in August. The Odyssey, read by sixty actors including such stellar names as Ian McKellen, Simon Russell Beale and Miranda Richardson, took its performers and audiences on an ‘odyssey’ of their own around London, both on foot and in various modes of transport including a London bus, several black cabs, a boat on the Thames and even the London Eye (where it was a stroke of genius to set the Cyclops episode).

Waiting to board for our Odyssey along the Thames.

Waiting to board for our Odyssey along the Thames.

Four key locations were open to live audiences, while the whole event was livestreamed online. I was lucky enough to get a seat on the boat trip up the Thames, during which I was treated to a series of actors reading the section of the story beginning with Odysseus’ arrival among the Phaeacians; then I, like thousands of others, managed to catch much of the rest of the day’s action online via the livestream and on Twitter (for a flavour, and for comments by those who shared in the experience from locations around the world, take a look at the Twitter feed for @almeidaodyssey or search #Odyssey).

Almeida Odyssey






That this durational reading (it lasted from 9am until after 9pm, when it ended in a bar in Islington at which the Almeida team were holding their end-of-season party) of an epic poem which is over two and a half thousand years old had such reach and generated such a buzz (remarkably, #Odyssey was trending on Twitter for much of the day) was due in large part to the capacity which modern technology has for facilitating mass communication and fostering collective experience; this was on a scale far beyond anything which might have been imagined by the bards who originally sang the Homeric tales. It was also a reminder of the power of a good story to entertain and enthral. The Odyssey has it all – monsters and magic, peril and heroism, pathos and humour, as well as a colourful cast of characters both mortal and divine – and that is perhaps why it has proved to be such a rich source of inspiration for writers and artists ever since its original composition.

During my week of Odysseys, I’d also asked followers on Twitter to share their favourite modern receptions of the Odyssey – suggestions ranged from the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? to Margaret Atwood’s novel The Penelopiad and the 1980s children’s television series Ulysses 31. I’d love to hear your suggestions too, either in comments on this post or over on Twitter, where you can find me @emmabridges.

Update 16th December 2015: You can now watch the Almeida Odyssey reading in its entirety online here.


Thinking through theatre

by Emma Bridges

This week I’ve been lucky enough to see productions of two Greek tragedies in London. The first, Euripides’ Bakkhai, was at the Almeida Theatre; the second, a version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, was also an Almeida production but after a highly successful run earlier in the summer it has now transferred to Trafalgar Studios in the West End. The experience of watching, on consecutive days, two very different plays whose production and performance contrasted strikingly with one another, set me thinking about what we can take away from actually seeing a performance of a play rather than simply reading it as a text on a page.

Bakkhai progAs a classicist with a particular interest in the reception of Greek literature I spend a lot of time thinking about how the context in which a text is written/read/viewed/performed/rewritten affects both the appearance of the text itself and an audience’s response to it. When we look at Greek tragedy and its manipulation of ancient myths (themselves fluid stories which did not have a fixed form, but which evolved depending on who was telling the story, to whom, and the context in which it was being told) this becomes interesting in all sorts of ways. For me, one of the things which makes tragedy so thought-provoking is the way in which it takes themes which are universally applicable to the human condition, and looks at some heavy moral questions (What is justice? Who gets to decide who lives and who dies? Are divine laws more important than those made by humans?). These questions, which exercised the theatregoers of fifth-century Athens, are not confined to one era or geographical location. This is precisely why Athenian tragedy can be transferred to new contexts, and why it has enjoyed a long and varied performance history.

Bakkhai – in the translation of Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson – took what might be described as a fairly traditional approach to the staging of the play, in which the god Dionysus, walking the earth in disguise as a mortal, wreaks terrible revenge upon those who deny his divinity. This production broadly maintained the structure of Euripides’ original text and made use of a full Chorus, whose note-perfect singing was one of the highlights of the play; their odes, echoing the themes of the play – nature versus civilisation, irrationality and madness versus rationality and sanity, belief in the gods versus scepticism – provoked for me a series of reflections on the significance of religious ritual in the original performances of tragedy and offered an insight into how this might have appeared when performed in the Theatre of Dionysus in the fifth century BC. By contrast, the Oresteia – a new version by the Almeida’s Associate Director Robert Icke, Oresteia progwhich condensed the three separate plays of Aeschylus’ trilogy into one new play – was undeniably contemporary in both its setting and its structure, with Agamemnon reimagined as a modern politician whose actions as he carries out his civic duty have unbearable consequences which rock the foundations of his family and reverberate down the generations. In watching both plays I was struck overwhelmingly by how many of the questions which these stories raise have their equivalents in our own generation. Bakkhai, for example,focuses on the nature of religious belief, or superstition, and asks why some embrace it, yet others scorn or fear it. Meanwhile the Oresteia raises questions about loyalty and sacrifice, asking whether one death can ever be excused if it saves countless other lives, and whether revenge can ever be justified or appropriate.

Ultimately what makes these dramas so gripping is that they are essentially human stories, and there is a sense in which the viewers of a play see elements of themselves, and their own world, reflected back to them. This week I was beguiled by a disquieting Dionysus who was by turns charismatic and sinister; I recoiled at the horror of Agave’s slaughter – blinded by Bacchic madness – of her son Pentheus; I shared in Agamemnon’s conflicted loyalties and his impossible moral dilemma as he sacrificed his daughter for the sake of his army; and I lived through Clytemnestra’s maternal anguish as she wreaked her bloody revenge for the death of her child. That live performance of tragedy still has the ability to engender strong emotional responses and provoke profound reflection reminds us of the enduring power of these ancient narratives millennia after they were first conceived.

Penelope RETOLD: remaking myth in the twenty-first century

by Emma Bridges

Recently I’ve been making some headway with a new research project which looks at the wives of soldiers in ancient myth, and the ways in which the stories of these ‘military wives’ might be compared with the experiences of modern day women whose partners are serving in the armed forces. I have a special interest in the figure of Penelope who, as the archetypal faithful ‘waiting wife’ of ancient literature, has been reimagined by authors and artists in a vast range of contexts ever since the composition of Homer’s Odyssey.

I’ve talked in an earlier blog post about my broader interest in the reception of ancient themes and texts, an interest which I share with other members of the OU Classical Studies department. It’s a rare event, however, when a contemporary reworking of an ancient story comes along which tunes in so precisely with one’s own individual research project. The recent production of Penelope RETOLD, however, did just that for me. This one-woman play written by Caroline Horton, who herself plays Penelope in the show, finds its title character marooned on the bed she shared with Odysseus in the days after he has returned to Ithaca and then left her alone again. In contrast with the Odyssey, where Penelope is very much on the sidelines, this version of the myth allows her to tell her own story, and it is a story which paints a picture of Penelope as a ‘military wife’, many of whose emotions and experiences would be recognisable today to the spouses of serving military personnel the world over.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to talk to Caroline as she was rehearsing for the play earlier this year, and to record an interview with her for our online journal Practitioners’ Voices in Classical Reception Studies (you can read the interview here). In light of my own research it was fascinating to learn about how, in devising the show, she too had spent a lot of time reading about, and talking to, women who had been through the ordeal of separation from a loved one who is away at war. This weekend the play reached the end of its 2015 run, and yesterday I was able to see the final show at the HUB theatre in Leeds. This intimate performance space, housed beneath disused railway arches and with a seating capacity of only 80, was the perfect venue for a sold-out audience to encounter Penelope at close quarters.

Caroline Horton as Penelope. Photograph by Robert Day.

Caroline Horton as Penelope.
Photograph by Robert Day.

At times playful and at others simply heart-breaking, this Penelope has a voice of her own, one which is largely absent from the Homeric version of her story. Her recollections of her relationship with Odysseus – from her loneliness and isolation in his absence, to her jealousy of Calypso, her pride in her husband’s reputation and the complex mix of disbelief, joy, and anger on his return – are both enthralling and moving. Aspects of the myth recognisable to those familiar with ancient poetry are woven seamlessly together with contemporary elements, as Penelope records an interview for a website aimed at an online community of military wives, or anxiously listens to the shipping forecast in the hope that it will shed light on the whereabouts of her husband. Penelope RETOLD thus gives us a Penelope whose situation is recognisable in the twenty-first century, yet one who is nonetheless firmly rooted in the ancient tradition within which her story was conceived.

Coincidentally at the weekend I also spent some time teaching students on our module Myth in the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds; in the course of the tutorial we discussed some of the reasons behind the longevity of the ancient myths. We came to the conclusion that a key factor which has contributed to their continuing appeal is the sheer flexibility of these stories; they can be almost infinitely adapted and updated to appeal to new audiences and to shed fresh light on issues of contemporary relevance. That the story of Penelope, a story which originated thousands of years ago, still has the power to captivate a twenty-first century audience is testimony both to the universal human appeal of ancient myth and to the brilliance of the creative practitioners who have revisited this enduring tale from a new perspective.