The Institute of Classical Studies
Sharing and promoting research in Classics.
Aaron Fordwoh writes about the processes and discoveries of the digitisation project underway at the Hellenic and Roman Library, funded by the AG Leventis Foundation
I joined the library in June 2019 to undertake the task of digitising a part of the library’s fascinating manuscript collection. Previously these volumes have only been available to view on site and in person, with the manuscripts being housed safely in the library’s rare books room.
The digitisation project encompasses several collections here at the library; most notably the Wood Collection, the Bent Collection and the Societies Tract volumes.
Firstly, the Wood Collection, which contains the diaries, notebooks, sketchbooks and published works of Robert Wood and his colleagues, who journeyed through the eastern Mediterranean in the mid-18th century. Secondly, the Bent Collection, which contains the travel diaries of Mabel and Theodore Bent, who travelled in Greece and the Middle East in the late 19th century. Finally, the Societies Tract Volumes, a collection of tracts and pamphlets bound into volumes.
Before joining the ICS library I had previously held positons completing a mass conservation audit at Sir John Soane’s Museum’s Drawings and Books department, as well as a 6 month placement assisting at The Warburg Institute’s archive department. Both stood me in good stead for the nature of the job as well as the historic area around Russell Square and Bloomsbury.
For the vast majority of the time I am using a Bookeye 4 Kiosk book scanner to capture the image data and BCS-2 imaging software to process and format the images once they have been transferred from the scanner. The capabilities of the scanner and image processing software can most easily be seen when looking at the digital image files of Giovanni Battista Borra’s sketchbooks (Volume 13) undertaken with Robert Wood throughout their tour (image 1).
Here we can see the amount of detail the scanner can capture. When digitising a volume each page is saved and formatted as a single 600DPI TIFF file, all these files are then collated and converted into a single, readable book format PDF. This particular image comes from a page in Borra’s sketchbook which contains several beautiful pen and ink drawings of Vesuvius. When looking at the higher resolution TIFF file (image 2) we can notice the intricacy of the lines, details in the hatching technique and discern individual washes of ink.
Some of the idiosyncrasies of the manuscript collection can also be noticed. One of these can be found in the diaries of James Dawkins (Volume 5) as transcribed by Robert Wood’s daughter (image 3). A method of pagination is used for writing on the recto side for the whole volume then flipping over and writing the other half on the verso side – usually with the script on the verso side becoming smaller and more cramped as it becomes apparent to the transcriber that they are running out of space in each volume. This can pose something of a mind mangling challenge when it comes time to order the pagination in the metadata!
Another example of these peculiarities are the small illustrations that appear from time to time in the travel diaries of Mabel Bent (Image 4). It would appear that once she noticed something particularly worth mentioning she would accompany her descriptions with small drawings. These include; a sketch of a maid in the Balkans with a “paraffin can for a mop bucket and bare legs” while staying in a “hideous hotel” (Volume 4), a sketch of a mule with carrying apparatus (Volume 8) and an illustration of a unique method of shaving the hair on one’s head (Volume 8).
Lastly we have an example of an ‘accidental palimpsest’ effect (image 5), whereby it appears some scribble or doodle of a flower has occurred over the top of the final pages of Robert Wood’s notebook containing copies of inscriptions from the tour (Volume 13). Whether this was done by a contemporary of Wood or by an overzealous archival assistant remains unknown.
It has been a real pleasure working with the volumes in these collections, I feel very privileged to be able to work so closely with the material on a day to day basis. I feel even more privileged knowing that this work will be made available for the public to see and pore over the pages as thoroughly as I have. So far the Wood collection has been uploaded and made available on SAS-Space, SAS’s online library, with the Bent and Tract collection following soon. Lastly let me thank the AG Leventis Foundation for their generous funding and the Classical Association for enabling us to extend the project since returning back to Senate House.
Professor Simon Mahony, Executive Director of the Research Centre for Digital Publishing and Digital Humanities, Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai; Emeritus Professor of Digital Humanities, Department of Information Studies, UCL; Associate Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies
My association with the ICS has been a long one stretching back to before my undergraduate years at King’s College London, when my evening study college had a very limited holding for classics. I have kept up the association in a variety of ways, particularly through the Digital Classicist as a sub-field of the Digital Humanities that I found myself drawn to. Following my retirement from UCL, with plans to sail off into the sunset sunk by the demise of my skipper, I fully intended to re-engage more actively with classics but was recruited to head up a new research centre in Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, Guangdong, Southern China; this is one of the new twin-campus centres that are being set up in regional development zones and has equal status with Beijing.
I’ve been a regular and frequent visitor to China since 2014 when I first represented UCL at the China Scholarship Council Graduate Fair (CSCGF) in Beijing which brought me into contact with many students wishing to come and study in the UK in a variety of disciplines. One of those that stood out was classics and about which I was more than happy to offer advice. Over the years, I have built up many connections with Chinese universities and research centres in digital humanities which is a fast-growing field, attracting much interest there. Over the years, I have been invited to many conferences, events as well as to give guest lectures to both staff and students. One such invitation linked in with my Digital Classicist connection and asked if, as part of their digital humanities programme, I could deliver a lecture on digital classics; this prompted more in-depth research into the classics scene in China.
When looking for ‘classics’ in a university in mainland China (I’m using the University of Wuhan as an example as that is where I was invited to deliver the lecture), you will generally find the School of Chinese Classics. These would include a comprehensive study of literature, history, philosophy, and art with additional research areas such as philosophical connotations, practical statecraft, textual research, as well as the art of writing. The college motto at Wuhan (a Confucian Analect – ch. 7 v.6) translates as ‘Set your will on the Way, have firm grasp on virtue, rely on humanity, and find recreation in the arts.’ This then is the study of Chinese classics, with sub-sets of Confucian Classics, Historical Classics, Classical Literature, Buddhism and Daoism, as well as Masters’ Theories. Similar to the ICS, Chinese scholars study the foundations of their culture and language(s) as well as the contemporary relevance of their past.
In the West we study Sinology, and there is significant interest in Western Classical Studies in mainland China. This is often seen as a way to understand the western world, western civilisation as a comparison to Chinese civilisation, and the different patterns of development. The universities of Renmin, Fudan, Nanjing and Shanghai Normal University offer such courses; these are the ones I am aware of and doubtless there are many more. These are generally found in History Departments, or those of Literature, Comparative Literature, and Reception Studies. Looking through WorldCat, there are many Chinese translations of western classical texts and secondary literature which can be found in the public libraries, including the Capital Library of China (the premier national public library located in Beijing), Shanghai Library (the second largest national library) and those of other major cities such as Guangzhou and Hangzhou, as well as many university libraries such as Wuhan.
The Shanghai Public Library has extensive holding of works of (western) classical literature, history, and reception studies, although these are held in the tower stacks to be ordered when needed (and so hence rarely accessed). Ancient philosophy, both Greek and Roman, however, is on the open shelves.
Translating the western classical works into Chinese is often seen as a way of introducing them to students in history and literature faculties. Chinese scholars that I have contact with that work on western classical studies tell me that their interest started after reading Greek and Roman authors in translation during their undergraduate years. One that I first met at a CSCGF event has recently started a Postdoc at Tsinghua (ranked number one in China) on the cult of emperor worship after completing a PhD at Kings College London. Their starting point was language learning as an undergraduate at Renmin University followed by courses on tragedy, comedy, philosophy, history and medieval theology, exploring a wide range of interest before moving to Roman history despite the limitations of teaching and other resources. The differences between East and West became a motivating factor for pursuing doctoral study in the UK and the current Postdoc.
A colleague at my current institution had a similar experience but this time by discovering books on Western Historiography and (western) classical writers in their university library as an undergraduate which prompted a master’s programme in ancient world history, including language training. This led to the study of Virgil and other Augustan poets with a focus on the importance of culture within political movements. Their work after PhD took them away from classics which resulted in a move to the Centre for Historical Research at Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, the study of Roman cities and a comparison of ancient Chinese and Western cultures. At this centre, three staff members list Roman History among their research areas. We made initial contact after I got in touch with our campus library to enquire about an extensive collection of the Loeb Classical Library volumes that suddenly appeared in the Foreign Books section. With their distinctive appearance, their presence was immediately obvious. The collection had grown as part of the library initiative to expand their holdings of physical books to be on the same level as the library in the Beijing campus; they share the same online resources but purchase physical books as and when requested by staff, apparently without any budgetary restrictions. Part of the plan for this scholar is to start a systematic translation of selected works into Chinese to stimulate interest in upcoming students.
The interesting thing with both these scholars is their wish to get more Chinese students interested in western classics and western classical culture. Both wish to share their passion for western classics and encourage future students to discover the world of Greece and Rome. The latter scholar has used the resources of the developing campus library to generate extensive (for a Chinese university library) collections of classical works in English, Latin, and Greek. Their long-term plan is to translate and publish as many as possible into Chinese to stimulate interest amongst the students together with offering courses in western classical culture; something I shall be watching and advising on. Both scholars wish to open up the world of ancient Greece and Rome to Chinese students as well as contributing to the study of classics more widely.
It is clear to me that although there are many cultural differences, the study of the ancient world in China has many similarities with that in the West. Both study ancient sources, canonical texts, manuscripts, and other cultural artifacts; examine how our culture has developed and, importantly, how that relates to us now; as well as the importance of understanding our heritage to link the past with the present and our future. Here, as in the west, classics are studied with a passion and a wish to share that passion as widely as possible.
Claudina Romero Mayorga writes about the recent event for which she received an ICS Public Engagement grant
I can’t conceive a day without dancing and, apparently, neither could the ancient Greeks. According to ancient sources, dancing was present in everyday life, in religious ceremonies, in weddings, in funerals, dinner parties, theatre, competitions, etc. It could be performed in private or public, either spontaneously or choreographed, in groups or solo. Dancing’s omnipresence hints to a variety of functions in the ancient Greek world: it was used to tell a story, to showcase martial and athletic skills, entertain guests, shape processions and religious rituals. Dancing was part of the broad Greek category of “mousikē”, a term that encompassed all activities that fell under the realm of the Muses: poetry, music-making, reciting, singing, and any coordinated physical movement.
And with dancing comes music, of course, or at least some rhythmic pace. Fortunately, music in antiquity is one of the research lines at the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology (Department of Classics, University of Reading), where we hosted the 11th MOISA meeting in 2018 and an exhibition on Music and Materiality. My own research in mystery cults had already propelled my interest in sensorial archaeology and the perception – and function – of music and dance in ancient Greece and Rome. Meeting colleagues who shared my interests in Reading – and who definitely enriched my understanding of the topic – did nothing but encouraged me to continue researching to make music and dance in antiquity accessible to a wider audience.
As the Education Officer at the Ure Museum, I heavily rely on object-based teaching methodologies – framed under experiential archaeology – to engage with our audience: primary teachers and students covering the ancient Greeks at school, families, UoR students, academics, etc. However, teaching ancient Greek dancing can be tricky, since it was an ephemeral art: it left no dance notation, no record about the precise sequence of steps to perform – neither in writing nor in images – and no technical literature about it has been recovered so far. Although ancient Greek written sources affirm the key role of certain dances in festivals, religious ceremonies, or parties, it is the art produced by the ancient Greeks that give us some clues about what dancing looked like. Wall painting, reliefs, sculptures, jewellery – but mostly Greek vases – showcase gods, people, animals, and hybrids dancing. Whether or not those gestures and body movements can be seen as well-documented dancing steps or mere artistic conventions to represent movement is another story.
Thanks to the ICS Public Engagement Grant I was able to organise an event that allowed everyone to have a hands-on experience with dancing. I contacted a dance practitioner, Tanya Allen, from The Allenova School of Dancing in Berkshire, who has been teaching Classical Greek dance for more than 30 years. This is one of the many reconstruction methodologies of ancient Greek dance that appeared in the 19th-20th century. In this case, the method was created by Ruby Ginner based on the theatrical performances of the 5th century BC and their artistic representations. Tanya was as enthusiastic as I was about working together and brought with her some of her students to interact with our audience.
“Ancient Greek Dance-off” took place on August 5th, when all covid restrictions were lifted in the UK. At the UoR campus, however, certain protocols remained in place – such as social distancing – so we had to work with small groups of visitors and made sure to timeslot all the activities planned for the day. Our audience consisted mainly of families, whose children were 6-16 years old. The ICS funds also allowed me to hire a film editor who recorded the event and will soon provide us with a video which will hopefully be uploaded to our brand new research website on ancient dance at the UoR https://research.reading.ac.uk/ancient-dance/
“Ancient Greek Dance-off” was a tripartite event that included (1) a chat with a key note speaker; (2) a guided tour around the Ure Museum and (3) a dancing lesson by Tanya and her students. I was ecstatic to have my colleague Nathalie Choubineh delivering a friendly chat to parents and kids, lively challenging them with notions about dancing and society in the ancient Greek world in the first part of the day. Then, she kindly joined me in the second part, looking around our collection of vases and how easy – or not – spotting dancing people was. Unsurprisingly, visitors recognised dancing steps, collective dancing and even the gods connected to the performing arts, such as Apollo and Dionysus. This was a great opportunity for the families – most of them visiting the museum for the first time – to engage with our collection and to appreciate the usefulness of material culture to study not only dancing, but every single aspect of ancient Greek society.
The third part was definitely a surprise for the families: they got to meet Tanya and learnt from her and her students. Tanya prepared “snippets” – as she called them – of the dance that could have been performed in the Spring Festival. Her students carried flower petals, wreaths and wowed everyone with their swift and marvellous movements. The best, however, was yet to come: Tanya invited families to dance with them and taught them procession postures (how the ancient Greeks held objects that were offered to the gods). She also reminded visitors that dancing was an athletic activity – it trains body coordination and strengthens muscles – and our audience took part in the challenging exercise that included throwing up and down – and catching – a ball, running, jumping – and laughing, of course.
Families’ feedback was more than positive: they loved the opportunity of coming face to face with a specialist on the subject and with the objects of our collection. Dancing with Tanya enabled them to have an immersive experience and fully appreciated how rhythm, postures, balance, and coordination were key elements in ancient Greek dance. By joining Tanya’s students, they felt part of a group and interacted with them, proving that dancing favours accessibility and inclusivity while promoting physical activity. After so many lockdowns, the possibility of learning while dancing was fully embraced by families. If there is something I learnt from this experience is that, if I want to teach the idea that dancing was present in every sphere of the ancient word, I’d better start including a practical take on the topic in every school session, half-term family event, wide participation activity I plan. ICS has made possible for the Ure Museum to find in Tanya a new community partner who will hopefully continue to work with us in upcoming educational and research projects.
Professor Franco De Angelis was A.D. Trendall Fellow in 2018-2019 and reports on a recently published edited book completed while in residence.
I am very happy to share my recent book launch, which happened via the newly established Centre for Migration Studies at the University of British Columbia, my home institution. You can watch it on the Centre’s YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zw8bUJtb_io. Why am I blogging about my edited book A Companion to Greeks Across the Ancient World here? In the final days of my fellowship at the ICS, I busily readied the book’s material for press. The very last details became part of pandemic publishing with the book squeaking through the presses just as lockdowns slammed everything shut. Thanks to this precious time at the ICS, we made it!
The edited book is titled A Companion to Greeks Across the Ancient World, published in the series Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World via the Hoboken, NJ office of Wiley Blackwell Publishers. The book consists of 580 pages (xxvi + 554) and contains 15 maps, 26 figures, and 3 tables (one of the maps is reproduced below). Chronologically speaking, the book covers the Early Iron Age to the end of the Hellenistic period. Geographically speaking, this story stretches from Catalonia in the far western Mediterranean to Afghanistan in central Asia, encompassing such regions as Italy, Libya, the Black Sea, and Middle East in between. Such a book exceeds the abilities of any one scholar and thus demands a collective effort. This is the most up-to-date book on the subject and ambitiously gathers and analyzes the largest ever body of historical and archaeological data. The book is divided into three parts, across which are distributed 24 chapters, all written by leading specialists in their fields. Part I has seven chapters that deal with ancient and modern approaches. Part II comprises 14 chapters of warts-and-all regional history. Part III concludes with three chapters bringing together wider themes, such as the role played by ancient Greeks in culturally developing the pre-Roman Mediterranean, and how Greek migrants and their non-Greek neighbours made vital contributions to making Greece itself, in terms of supplying exports, ideas, and political and military challenges. Full details about the book’s contents can be found on the publisher’s website: https://www.wiley.com/en-ca/A+Companion+to+Greeks+Across+the+Ancient+World-p-9781118341377.
Although this book has been a decade in the making, the research trajectory of which it is part has been even longer in the making and includes several issues of larger relevance to more than just the ancient Greeks outside Greece per se. To start, these issues involve the application of postcolonial and postmodern approaches and include critically evaluating the appropriateness of previous terminologies and analytical concepts, the dismantling of centre and periphery narratives, the greater appreciation of the ancient world’s regionalism and non-Greek peoples, and the stressing of interconnected and interdependent relationships that have been challenging to identify with older nationalist and disciplinary approaches. It is now clear that about one-half of the ancient Greek world did not live in Greece, and that the traditional neglect of these Greeks beyond Greece can no longer be ignored in the way we study and teach ancient history. The edited book shows how a seemingly well-trodden subject like the ancient Greeks can still be opened up to new horizons in research. Since my student days, my research has always aimed at telling a more diverse and inclusive story of the ancient Greek world, and this book represents another step in attaining that goal.
The next step involves writing a new book re-examining the role played by ancient Greeks in the development of the pre-Roman western Mediterranean, which was the primary focus of my Trendall fellowship at the ICS. The complex sociocultural picture of this region, which is only partially illustrated on one of the maps from my edited volume, has come into sharp focus in the last generation of research. Did the ancient Greeks play as big a role in the rise of Rome as scholarship has traditionally maintained? Stay tuned!
Abigail Graham writes about the research project which she is carrying out at the ICS
In Dickens’ famous “The Christmas Carol” the spirit of Jacob Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge in his home, and Scrooge is so shocked and incredulous, he makes an unforgivable pun…
Ghost: “Why do you doubt your senses”
Scrooge: “Because a little thing affects them, a slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be a bit of undigested beef, a blot of mustard… There is more of gravy than of grave about you…..”
As a shrewd Scrooge illustrates, reconciling our sensory experiences of an event with our expectations is a difficult undertaking. Senses are not definitive, they can betray us, but they can also play a crucial part in countering our expectations. The survival of an object or account can lead us to treat a source as a factual, as opposed to a subjective version of events. Historians and archaeologists are often haunted by ghosts of expectation, which can play a defining role in interpretation: if one is looking for the mask of Agamemnon, a lost archive or an accurate account of a ritual procession, one is likely to find it, whether or not it exists.
After studying monumental writing on public buildings for 20 years, I remain tempted by the siren song of ancient voices: this writing has survived two millenia, surely it was revered and forged in truth. I want to believe the ancient whispers of success, glory, and inviolability that ancient monuments claim, just as I would like to believe that my engagement with ancient monuments is like that of an ancient reader, but neither is true.
How we access information can also distort our views: inscriptions are often found in a book or a website, written in a recognisable typeface with added punctuation, and a translation. Modern readers are more inclined to accept a published text, overlooking possible variables in sensory engagement with an object in context, such as lighting, legibility, lettering, organisation, spacing, accessibility, location, weather, or noise. These variables, which played a primary role in the experience of ancient viewer, can be lost in the translation from monument to text.
For example, when one encounters a large collection of documents in a book, such as the “Archive Wall” at Aphrodisias, a series of Imperial letters dating from 39 BCE into the mid 3rd century CE, recording the city’s special status and relationship with Rome, published in Reynolds’ Aphrodisias and Rome (1982) or online I.Aph2007; it is natural to assume this collection of documents, presented as a useful archive for modern scholars, played a similar role for ancient viewers (See fig. 2a: An entry from I.APh 2007 8.29).
Approaching these documents as a monument, however, inscribed in five columns across a shadowed entranceway in the north parodos of the theatre at Aphrodisias, present a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles for the viewer (Image 2.b). Inevitable doubts creep in: Did anyone read these inscriptions? Were they accessible? Do they represent a truth or an aspiration? My research at the ICS attempts to address these questions and to imagine or recreate ancient sensory engagements with monuments in their urban contexts.
Cognitive approaches facilitate attempts at placing oneself in the shoes of an ancient viewer. Recent studies in cognitive neurology (see Prof. S. Dehaene (2010)’s recent book and public lectures have shown how the process of reading was developed through a pre-existing neural network: how we process a visual landscape. How a viewer engaged and interpreted monumental writing was inextricably linked to their experience of a broader visual landscape.
Imagine walking down this crowded passage on a performance day (Image 3, Archive wall is on the lefthand side). There is a constant flow of traffic as people enter, chattering about an upcoming event. There is no place sit quietly and read, nor was it well-lit for most of of the day. This bustling entranceway was among the least-suited places for a thoughtful reading. In this context, reading was likely a brief encounter by a passing viewer, which imposed a number of constraints. That is not to say that no one read these documents. The careful arrangement of the inscription across the columns, the prominent heading, larger letters in the margins, use of indentations and spacing, suggest that writing was meant to be seen, but perhaps not read in its entirety or in one sitting (Image 4: below).
Exploring the cognitive process of how we read read can help us understand how ancient carvers and viewers addressed the difficulties presented by the physical context. This monumental writing was painstakingly organised on specific spaces with visual cues (spaces, decorations, margins, larger letters) as well as coloured paint. Cognitive neuroscience illustrates how these features played a transformative role in reading: color creates contrasts, rectilinear capital letterforms can be decoded quickly, empty spaces (vacats) and paratextual elements (margins and decorations) played a crucial role in delineating the text; drawing the eye to key points of information (the author, recipient, greeting and theme of the letter). These visual cues formed patterns in two ways, both in the columns (top to bottom) and on a horizontal line of vision (across the columns) (Image 5: below). Both features were useful, particularly for viewers in motion, highlighting the format or formula of a letter, so that passing readers could discern the writing as well as (to some degree) its form and function.
The twenty-odd letters inscribed on the wall, which range in time from the Triumviral period (mid 1st c BCE) into the 3rd century CE, are a subjective selection of letters, chosen for a specific purpose: they are not a comprehensive collection of Imperial letters to Aphrodisias (see reconstruction from Kokkinia’s recent article 2016 article). In fact, some letters are not addressed to Aphrodisias, but to public officials or other cities (e.g. Smyrna (a provincial capital in Asia Minor) and the island of Samos). The letters share a tone of respect and warning from the emperor, regarding the special nature of Aphrodisias’ position in the Roman Empire. These messages, often at the end of a letter, were visually accentuated with spaces and/or decorations to draw the eye of the viewer.
The presentation of public writing can also provide clues about the function of monumental writing (e.g. was the “Archive Wall” intended as an archive?). On a practical level, there are a few issues in accepting this dossier collection as an archive. Some inscriptions are difficult to access (See fig 2b above), it could be too high (column 2 is 5+ meters high) or too low (the lowest level was at hip height: less than one meter high). The letters appear to have been edited to fit within the space and to emphasise messages about the city’s privileges. These may not have been “true” copies, unlike more accessible papyrus scrolls that were probably available in a local archive, where readers were not exposed to crowds or the elements.
Questioning how an ancient reader engaged with this inscription is a way of exploring the transformation from text to monument in antiquity. From a practical or sensory perspective, the experience of viewing and/or reading inscribed documents was often quite distinct from other forms of reading. Stepping away from expectations of legibility and immutability of these documents, we can begin to experience the monument in a different way. Altering the location and appearance of writing, as well as editing and arranging the text, probably reflects a different function: such as an honorary monument, intended for a broader audience. This makes sense, as the theatre hosted large and diverse audiences: locals, citizens, freedmen, foreigners, officials.
Exploring sensory experiences in our approaches to the ancient world need not lead us into darkness, rather it is a way of bringing our own ghosts of expectations to light, of exploring the veracity of monumental claims. Our view of the past is neither complete, nor perfect, and when it comes to understanding an ancient viewer, a little bit of doubt can go a long way.
This research will be formally published in the American Journal of Archaeology this October, and is also explored in forthcoming edited volume “Senses and Cognition”.
By Jove Theatre Company are pleased to announce The Gentlest Work, the culmination of three years of work on our ‘Orestes Project’, which has been supported in part by the ICS Public Engagement Grant Scheme.
Loving you is the gentlest work
A delicate spin over a linoleum tile
And then you open your mouth to speak
Because you have to ruin everything
The Gentlest Work is a fragmented, digital installation exploring queerness, trauma, and joy in the myths surrounding Orestes through performance, poetry, and art. Since our inception, By Jove have been fascinated by the ancient characters from the Oresteia: our first two projects, in 2011 and 2012, drew on the underlying myths. For the past three years we have obsessed again over siblings Orestes, Electra, and Iphigenia, as well as Pylades, the man whose life becomes so tightly interwoven with theirs. We’ve read and re-read the tragedies around their lives by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and imagined moments within, between, and after these narratives. We’ve sought out the queerness that is latent or hidden or, in the past, actively excluded, as well as the queer pieces of ourselves we’ve found refracted in their stories and the history of their stories.
Originally conceived as an in-person performance when development began in 2018, the shift online as a result of the pandemic last year led the company to rework the mass of material that had been generated into its current form. The fragmented, digitised experience of the world that so many people in the UK and across the globe have been facing has thus become part of the way By Jove have adapted their source material. By Jove’s co-artistic directors, SJ Brady and David Bullen, reflected on this adaptation process:
“During the successive lockdowns of the last year, the imperfect worlds of social media have become even more crucial for the queer community than they already were. Reflecting on this, we returned to the fact that online, Greek myth has long been embraced by many in the queer community for the way it can represent queer experiences. So in making The Gentlest Work a digital installation, we’ve created a kind of mirror to look again at the fragmented online environments in which contemporary queerness meets ancient myth, uncovering the ways this resonates with our own trauma and joy as queer people.”
In The Gentlest Work you’ll find a myriad of different versions of and responses to the myths – we invite you to chart your own course through the mosaic. And, as part of this, you will have the chance to leave your mark: respond to our responses, tell us your own story, celebrate and commiserate these mythic lives with us.
Tickets are available now via Eventbrite on a pay-what-you-can basis. The installation will open on Monday 7 June 2021 at 00:01 BST; it will be available until Sunday, 13 June 2021 at 23:59 BST, and the project will culminate in a live performance event via Zoom on Saturday, 12 June 2021 at 20:00 BST.
This event is made possible through the support of Arts Council England, the Institute of Classical Studies, the Hellenic Society, SCS Classics Everywhere, the Open University, the Louis M. Rabinowitz Foundation, and our Patreon supporters.
Please be aware this performance includes strong language, discussions of violence and sexual abuse, scenes of a sexual nature, and extensive depiction of trauma. The event will include captioning and audio description throughout. Feel free to contact us with any access or content questions at email@example.com.
Brandon Braun has been an academic visitor at the ICS over the last two years while writing his UCLA doctoral dissertation on monuments and memorials in ancient Greece. As well as researching the monuments of Marathon, which he discusses in this blog, he has run the course of the first marathon from the battlefield to the city of Athens.
The battle of Marathon was fought in 490 BCE. It was (and indeed still is) one of the most well-known ancient battles, having been alluded to as early as Aeschylus’ Persians of the 470s BCE, before a generation later Herodotus described the events that led to the battle, narrated the fighting itself, and indicated some of the subsequent commemorations. I won’t analyze of the ancient sources here. Instead, I want to focus on how the battle was remembered in physical forms on the field itself, primarily centered around a single stone column monument. This column, undoubtedly a commemoration of the battle, had a very interesting object biography.
As we understand from reconstructions, the Ionic column stood more than 10 metres tall. The vertical effect was further emphasized by the placement of the monument, as it appears that its base would have stood on an earthen mound, perhaps granting extra height and, therefore, prominence on the field.
Being such an imposing monument for an important battle, it may be surprising that the architectural features of the column date to the 460s BCE stylistically, indicating it was erected several decades after the battle was fought in 490 BCE. There are several possible reasons for this, and I’m sure the readers of this blog could posit many, but I’ll just talk about one: was it a stone replacement of an ephemeral trophy?
The answer is complex. First, we have to ask what a trophy was. Scholars connect the monument type to a celebration of the rout, literally the “turn” of the battle, linked etymologically with the Greek term τροπή. The trophy would thus be placed at the point in the field where the tide turned and victory was assured. There are plenty of literary sources that mention trophies, especially historians after Thucydides.
That leads to the follow-up question: what about in the early fifth century BCE? Some project the practice of raising trophies backwards from Thucydides, but there is little evidence before the second half of the fifth century. The earliest literary reference to a trophy is from the 460s in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes (line 954). All in all, it seems unlikely that an ephemeral trophy was raised after the fighting at Marathon, thus the stone column was not a monumental replacement.
Nevertheless, the column monument attracted later embellishments that added iconography that would be expected of an ancient trophy. The first of these is a set of carved weaponry, now stored in the British Museum.
There is some question regarding where this sculpture originated (a very interesting question, involving museum collections, inventories, and the relative fame of ancient battles), but let’s assume that it can be associated with the column. Thus, these sculptures effectively updated the appearance of the column, such that it more closely resembled an ancient battlefield trophy.
We only know of a second embellishment because of 19th-century drawings by Loius François Sébastien Fauvel. In this drawing, the early-modern French diplomat/artist/archaeologist has a block with the inscribed label ΤΡΟΠΑΙΟΥ, the Greek word for “trophy”. Unfortunately, the stone is lost so it is not possible to get more information about it. Still, assuming that it existed and was not Fauvel’s creative way of labelling a drawing of the column, the block is further evidence that the column monument was at one point considered a trophy.
There may have been later changes to the column or the space around it, but the next secure phase of its biography dates to the medieval period. Perhaps around the 12th century, several column drums and the ionic capital were re-used as building materials in the lower courses of a medieval tower. This was the state of the column until it was extricated from the tower in the 20th century, then taken to be displayed in the museum at Marathon.
In addition to being used as expedient building material, the monument also served as a makeshift gameboard at some point in its object biography. Close inspection of the face of the capital shows the marks for a game called “Nine-man’s Morris”, similar to checkers or tic-tac-toe.
Today, the remains of the column are on display in the archaeological museum at Marathon, or rather, a few column drums and the Ionic capital. On the field, a modern reconstruction stands near where the original had been found. Rather than simply a stand-in for its ancient predecessor, the modern column is a monument in its own right, which has the capacity to attract further commemorations or “dedications”, such as the wreath in the first picture.
Thus was the simplified object biography of the stone column monument at Marathon. It was an early-Classical commemoration of the battle, which was later updated to reflect developing expectations of battlefield commemorations in the later Classical and Hellenistic period, before eventually falling and being reused as building material and a gameboard. Later, the stone was “rescued” from the field to be displayed in a museum, and its original location was marked by a modern replica.
The column was not the only monument on the field. Anyone who has visited will remember the soros or tumulus, an imposing human-made mound measuring nine meters tall and 50 meters diameter, supposedly marking the burial of the 192 Athenians that had perished in the battle. Just as with the column, monuments such as the soros also have complex histories, but I’ll leave that for another time!
Matteo Zaccarini writes about the graphic novel ‘Thirty’ for which he received an ICS Public Engagement grant
Revolutions are a bloody business.
(Xenophon, Hellenica 2.3.32)
As a researcher in ancient Greek history and a fan of comics, I’ve always had quite a bunch of stuff to choose from when I wanted to combine hobby and work. The idea for Thirty goes back a long way, but above all I must acknowledge the influence of two graphic novels.
The first is Frank Miller’s 300 (1998), a fictional tale of the famous battle of the Thermopylae, depicting the Spartans as indefatigably heroic, dutiful, stern hyper-machos fighting for freedom against literally monstruous Persians. When I read it, during my undergraduate studies, I was not aware that 300 embodies what scholars commonly refer to as the ‘Spartan mirage’, i.e. a gross jumble of ancient and modern stereotypes and ideological myths view which widely (wildly) departs from Spartan society as it can be historically reconstructed. This, in principle, is fine: nobody should expect source-criticism from a work of art.
Problems arise, however, as one starts to realize that the controversial 300 and its 2006 box-office hit Hollywood adaptation (here and here; cfr. Miller’s statements; the spin off, and movie sequel) provide what many perceive as an insulting, polarized, and ultimately racist view of the East vs West confrontation. 300’s over-the-top views have been easily parodied (here and here), for example by L. Ortolani’s brilliant 299+1 (see also Zerocalcare’s 300-inspired treatment of a not-so-unrelated topic). Much more concerningly, however, well before 300 the mirage was heavily (ab)used, among many, by the Nazi regime, and today remains favoured by extreme-right movements: to give just one most recent and prominent example, ‘Spartan’-related mottos, imagery, and props were spotted at the 2021 storming of the US Capitol. While scholars, such as S. Hodkinson and A. Powell (see this talk), have done much to dispel the mirage, it remains extremely persistent especially outside of academia.
This last issue has produced what I consider my second and main source of inspiration: in 2014 we welcomed Three, the result of a collaboration between comic artists (K. Gillen, R. Kelly, J. Bellaire, C. Cowles), and the University of Nottingham (S. Hodkinson and L. Fotheringham). Three tells the fictional story of a small group of helots on the run from the crippled and bitter state that was left of Sparta after 371: accurately grounded in historical and iconographical terms, Three provides an authoritative reply to mirage-based views.
As obvious as it may seem, between 300 and Three, ‘thirty’ was the missing figure. Very conveniently, it happens to evoke one of the most critical moments in Greek history, the oligarchic regime of the Thirty ‘constituents’ (more familiarly known as ‘tyrants’) who, led by Critias, ruled Athens for a few months in 404/3 BCE. Arithmetically, the fit is perfect. Thematically, the focus of this story is on Athens, but the Thirty were imposed by Sparta after Athens’ defeat by the brilliant Spartan general Lysander.
The Athens of Thirty is not the democratic dream (mis-)represented by Pericles’ funeral speech in Thucydides, but a broken community, exhausted and humiliated. Thirty shows a brutal civil war between the grudge-bearing supporters or the oligarchy and their former fellow citizens who aim to restore democracy. But the story will show that sides are not so clear-cut: a modest poet can become a vicious despot, and self-declared patriots can be driven by more than high ideals; hidden plots might bring some closer than they appear, and crawling envies might destroy fragile alliances. Though short-lived, the regime of the Thirty brought to light the contradictions and fragility of the democracy, changed it at the core, and left deep scars in its social fabric. This seemed to me perfectly suited for a story on the past narrated in our time, as our own ideas of democracy come under attack from many sides.
As a major literary source, first-person witness, and terrific narrator, Xenophon seemed obvious as the main protagonist. Other big names, such as Socrates and Plato, will play a part, contributing to make Thirty appealing to a wide audience. With no reliable ancient portraits of the main villains(?) Lysander, Theramenes, and Critias, we toyed with some ideas to give them a face. Other important roles will be written for both invented and real characters (e.g. Aspasia, Pericles’ former mistress, and Xanthippe, Socrates’ wife), balancing the dramatis personae in terms of age, gender, and social class.
Thirty aims to follow the steps set by Three: fiction, but as historically grounded and plausible as it can be. I envisage it to further show how academia can contribute to a product of entertainment that can convey scholarly validated contents while remaining accessible and enjoyable to a wide public. But of course, I could not do all of this alone: I received help from other members of the Honour in Classical Greece project at the University of Edinburgh, and joined forces with independent artist Andrea Chiappino, the author of the stunning artwork you can preview here. The financial support of the ICS kickstarted our work, and further aid from Edinburgh allowed us to complete a whole scene: Lysander’s entrance in Athens, immediately before the inception of the Thirty.
So where are we now? Other commitments and the pandemic slowed us down dramatically, but we are working on the second scene, which will feature Critias, and on a flash-back in which several of the main characters discuss the ‘problems’ of democracy with Socrates. We are seeking additional creative and financial support with the aim of contacting a professional comics publisher. In the meanwhile, thanks to help from Rodopis: Experience Ancient History, Andrea managed to produce a short, partially animated teaser trailer, which will soon be published online.
For now, the story ends here, possibly leaving you with more questions than answers: what’s next? How did we employ sources? When is the final product due? And, where the heck is Lysander’s conspicuous beard mentioned by Plutarch? Get in touch, follow us on Facebook, and you might find out. And please, let us know your thoughts!
Links: Thirty graphic novel Facebook page
Andrea Chiappino (ac.kenap) on Instagram
Honour in Classical Greece ERC project
Here She Comes: Agave in lockdown
In summer 2020, By Jove Theatre Company staged two digital productions of existing works by the company: Medea and Here She Comes. Medea, a new retelling of Euripides’ play by Wendy Haines, was broadcast live from performers’ homes in lockdown, and was funded by By Jove’s Patreon supporters. You can find out more about the project and Medea in this Open University blog post. Here She Comes was generously supported by the Institute of Classical Studies Public Engagement Grant.
Here She Comes is a spoken word piece telling the story of Euripides’ Bacchae from the perspective of Agave, the mother of Pentheus, who is lured out into the woods and ultimately driven to kill her son by the god Dionysus, as part of his plan to make the Thebans recognise his divinity. In SJ Brady’s powerful retelling, a more modern Agave reflects on the events of this period of her life from the seaside, where she now lives in exile. As she recalls her tale, we are exposed to Agave’s feelings of repression and isolation in her son’s home: the sense that he does not want her to play a role in his life, and that she cannot guide him in his political choices or connect with him on a personal level. She searches for some kind of escape from the suffocating atmosphere, and finds it in the woods with Dionysus and the other bacchants who have been drawn there. Here she discovers the freedom of movement and music that the god provides, but also the darker side of her apparent liberation: in the divinely-induced frenzy, she mistakes her son for a lion and has the women kill him. In the end, she finds herself shunned by society once more.
SJ Brady’s lyrical, powerful poem was first staged by By Jove in 2017 as part of the Season of Violent Women, a collaboration with the Gallery on the Corner in Tooting. On stage, Brady performed surrounded by the ephemera of domestic life captured in a state of decay and a return to nature; audience members sat on tree stumps and cushions, scattered among soil and plants, and were invited to take part in the bacchanal rave by sipping red wine from teacups. For the lockdown production, we opted for an audio-only production, to bring the focus to the intricacy of Brady’s poetry and also allow audience members to listen to the production without necessarily having to sit in front of a screen—something we were already tired of in July 2020. As in the staged production, the atmosphere created by Brady’s writing and performance was heightened by music written and performed by Vivienne Youel, which wove its way among the words and created a sense of intrigue, isolation, or frenzy as the events being related required. For the YouTube presentation of the production, Brady prepared a slideshow of images that drew viewers into a world that straddled modern and ancient, human and divine.
The recording of the production was performed entirely in lockdown, and was itself a very intense experience for Brady and Youel, who have been working together for many years. In her reflections on the project, Brady noted:
[The process of recording the production in lockdown was] pretty lonely if I’m honest. Viv and I have been doing various music, theatre and anything together over the 10 years, but this was the biggest project we have done to date. There’s just something unexplainable about being together, working creatively, feeding off one another in the rehearsal room. That way you’re not just laughing on your own at your mistakes, new trials, new discoveries—all the magical things you discover throughout a creative process. It also really struck me how reliant I became on her music, not just to soundscape, but to communicate with one another on stage—nothing beats it. She makes me a better performer, and enriches my work beyond belief.
You can watch Here She Comes on YouTube or listen to it on Soundcloud until 31st July 2021. You can also watch the post-premiere discussion with SJ Brady, Vivienne Youel, and academics David Bullen and Christine Plastow on YouTube, and listen to a companion podcast with David Bullen and Christine Plastow discussing the stories behind and around the Bacchae on YouTube and Soundcloud. You can find out more about By Jove Theatre Company on our website and Twitter, or become one of our valued supporters on Patreon.
By Jove are very grateful to the ICS for their support of the Here She Comes digital recording project.
Dr. Liz Gloyn reports on her on-going partnership with visual artist Howard Hardiman to retell Greek myth in BSL.
One thing that classicists know is the power of myth. So many of our students and the general public first encounter and come to love the classics through the stories of Greece and Rome; the continued popularity of retellings of myth, both classics like those of Robert Graves and the D’Aulaires and more contemporary versions like Stephen Fry’s recent Mythos and Troy, speak to the strength that myth still has, both in terms of cultural capital and narrative force. But what if these stories aren’t accessible to you?
While the Greek myths have been translated into multiple languages, as far as I am aware there are so far no attempts to make them accessible in British Sign Language. According to the British Deaf Association, 151,000 people in the UK use BSL, and 87,000 of them are Deaf; for many, BSL will be their first or preferred language. I have been working in partnership with Howard Hardiman to create video pieces of performance poetry in BSL which tell stories based on classical myth, and thus make these stories accessible to an audience which uses BSL. Our work also seeks to highlight that we can only ever know classical myths in translation, by reanimating the narrative through the physicality of a silent language.
Our previous collaboration produced two videos, one capturing the transformation of Harmonia and Cadmus into serpents [http://howardhardiman.com/harmonia/] and the other offering a long-form retelling of the Callisto myth [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=535pc6qWhn0&t]. The experience of working together in preparing these videos and working with the Deaf actors who performed them helped us learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t; for instance, the Callisto piece was far too long, while the focus of the Harmonia/Cadmus piece on a single element of the myth, spoken by Harmonia, had much better pacing and energy. We also wanted to give the language used a suitably archaic tone, which led to some fascinating discussions; the sign for ‘king’ uses the shape of a modern crown, which was totally inappropriate for archaic Greece, so we needed to come up with a way of communicating ‘king’ using the flexibility and responsiveness of BSL.
Our approach for these pieces had been to create an English working script and then consult with the Deaf actors about the text to turn it into a BSL script. We decided this wasn’t the best way to approach the issue, and instead wanted to produce both a working English script and a roughed-out BSL script, performed by Howard, as a basis for creating a more polished performance piece. The ICS Public Engagement Grant supported the development of this working script for a short monologue spoken by the Minotaur in the Labyrinth at some point before meeting Theseus; the result is available at [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YGYHB4hwuM&feature=youtu.be]. Our academic collaboration for this piece focused on the nature of thread and spinning in the ancient world, which became the dominant imagery for exploring the story and the nature of the labyrinth and myth itself. We also worked on developing a visual lexicon for the Minotaur story itself, invoking the wonderful vase painting of Pasiphae breastfeeding the Minotaur on her knee (Paris BnF inv. no. 1066), which fed into both the story and the BSL used to express it.
Our next step will be to work with a Deaf artist to create a formal performance piece, although the COVID-19 pandemic and our personal circumstances mean that will have to happen a little further in the future than we had hoped. We hope to continue collaborating to create a good video library of stories from classical Greek myth, and to explore ways of sharing these with the BSL-using community in the future.