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The Institute of Classical Studies

Sharing and promoting research in Classics.

The postgraduate work-in-progress seminar (PGWiP)

The outgoing co-chairs of the 2017-18 postgraduate work-in-progress seminar reflect on this regular feature of the ICS’s events calendar.

Held at Senate House on Friday afternoons, the PGWiP – Postgraduate Work-in-Progress seminar – is a weekly seminar series organised by postgraduate students in Classics of the University of London and open to everybody who wishes to attend. Usually, speakers are invited to present a paper dealing with any subject connected with the ancient world. During the past year, we have been pleased to attract PhDs from institutions all over the world: the United Kingdom, the EU, North America and Australia, among others. The sessions are moderated by the joint chairs and are followed by a fruitful discussion which continues over wine and nibbles, and then in the more relaxed environment of one of Bloomsbury’s pubs. The PGWiP aims to create a friendly environment in which speakers are able to talk about their research, take part in a stimulating debate over their paper, and extend their social and academic network.

For the past two academic years, the seminars have started with a welcome party in late September/early October, where students and speakers meet up in an informal environment. During the 2017/18 academic year, we scheduled about ten seminars each term. The variety of the subjects has been the guiding principle of the programme, in order to interest the widest possible audience. Philological papers about Greek and Latin Literature or based on ancient historical topics were presented, along with talks on the history of art, epigraphy, numismatics, archaeology and ancient philosophy. We also encouraged speakers to present a panel with two shorter coordinated papers on related subjects. These trigger constructive debates through their comparison, livening up the discussion.

We welcomed talks on the reception of Classics from Late Antiquity to the present day. We appreciated presentations on how Latin and Greek Classical authors were read and re-adapted during the Medieval Ages, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and finally, how the ancient world has been presented in video games. For example, two seminars regarding digital (re)sources for classicists were presented this year; these also involved some practical tasks in order to familiarise classicists with databases and linked open data. We exchanged views on the different approaches to historiography, focusing on the study of paradeigmata in rhetorical speeches, on historical and linguistic analyses of inscriptions and papyri, comparing archaeological data with literary sources. We also had the chance to attend two seminars focused on the Near East: the study of the skin in the Mesopotamian world and the linguistic contacts between Mycenaean and Hittite languages. There have been papers on gender studies and talks concerning anthropological arguments such as the style of the Latin defixiones and the function of the Oracle in Dodona.

The regular seminars end during the first week of June and they are usually followed by more casual activities. Following the path of the previous chairs, this year we focused again on the topic ‘Classics and Reception’, where we decided to create a PGWiP film club. This consisted of a series of three movie screenings, each one followed by a discussion. Last year, the reading group programme provided one movie screening along with several novels on classical reception to read and discuss. Since those discussions were both enjoyable and fruitful, we decided to re-propose the activity this year at the end of the seminars. A poll on our Facebook page where the attendees could vote for their favourite movies gave us the solution. We suggested some titles but we also welcomed suggestions from the public. Thanks to the kind support of Anna Lucia Furlan, (upcoming joint chair for 2018-2019 with William Coles and Dies van der Linde) we have been able to post a synopsis a few days before each screening, providing a short bibliography and information on the movie’s context.

The PGWiP now also even has its own logo, designed by Francesca Bologna (joint chair 2016-2017 with Sara Hale and Francesca Modini) and recently printed on t-shirts. A Facebook page and the Twitter account (@pgwip) help us to keep our followers updated.

The seminars aim to help PhD and MA students to extend their social and academic network but also to stimulate and improve their knowledge and research skills through the exchange of ideas relating to their own work. The environment that the PGWiP fosters is cordial, patient, and focused on the flourishing of future academics. We hope that future PGWiP seminars continue to provide a beneficial space for postgraduate students to explore their own ideas and to enhance their understanding of the ancient world though listening to and discussing the ideas of others.

by Jordan Mitchell, Orestis Mitintzis and Beatrice Pestarino (joint PGWiP seminar chairs 2017-2018)


The call for papers for the PGWiP for the 2018-19 academic year (to be co-chaired by William Coles, Anna Lucia Furlan and Dies van der Linde) is now open. The deadline for the submission of abstracts is 12th August 2018. Postgraduates interested in presenting their work can find further details here.

Images courtesy of Orestis Mitintzis, Anna Lucia Furlan and Beatrice Pestarino.

The reception of Catiline, the classical conspirator

Prof. Mathilde Skoie (UiO, Norway) has spent this spring as a visiting fellow at UCL, dividing her days between the ICS library, the Warburg and the British Library while tracking down the reception of the Roman villain Catiline. Catiline is (in)famous among students studying Latin of all ages, but how much do we know about his reception? On May 30th 2018 Mathilde gave a paper at the ICS on her research so far and here she shares some of the thoughts from that paper.

After several years of heavy administrative duties at the University of Oslo, I´ve been able to enjoy half a year of bonus sabbatical trying to re-establish myself as a proper researcher again. This has been a weird and wonderful experience. Wonderful not least due to the great resources available in London and the lovely people at the ICS with whom I´ve been lunching on a regular basis.  As the reception of Catiline is huge, what I´ve wanted to do this term was to establish a context or framework for later, more targeted work on specific instances of the reception of Catiline, and on the basis of this articulate what might be the relevant questions both in case of the reception of Catiline and – more widely and fundamentally – the process of reception itself.

Catiline´s so-called conspiracy against the state in year 63 BCE, during the consulate of Cicero, is one of the best documented episodes in the late Roman republic. At times we even have a day-by-day narrative which gives the impression that we really know this episode, but our evidence is rather one sided. We have Cicero´s four speeches against Catiline given at the time and Sallust´s short monograph known as Bellum Catilinae (The war with Catiline) or De Catilinae coniuratione (About Catiline´s conspiracy), written approximately twenty years afterwards. Cicero as a participant and winner (at least temporarily) of this conflict attacks Catiline with all his rhetorical powers. Much of his attack is ad hominem and Catiline is described as a classical villain as Cicero insinuates that he is involved in all sorts of morally unacceptable and criminal activities. Sallust picks up on this in his narrative in his own way. He presents Catiline as the ultimate example of everything which is wrong with the Roman republic within a grand narrative of the decline of Rome.

Both of these texts almost immediately became classics in the form of widely read school texts, and the name Catiline was often used as a paradigm for learning the first declension. The Augustan poet Virgil moreover emphasises the negative image of Catiline by placing him in the underworld amongst the crooks hanging from the edge of a cliff shivering in front of the furies in his epic poem The Aeneid.

Catiline is described in these sources as a typical villain out to ruin the republic and his name works as a metonymy for a conspiracy. Cicero has to a large extent won the battle of his reputation in the reception. As Henrik Ibsen´s Catiline says prophetically in his play by the same name:

Now in the senate has my adversary,

The crafty Cicero, trampled me to earth.

His speech was a portrayal of my life,

So glaring that I, even I, must gasp.

In every look I read dismay and fear;

With loathing people speak of Catiline;

To races unborn my name will be

A symbol of a low and dreadful union

Of sensuality and wretchedness,

Of scorn and ridicule for what is noble. –

And there will be no deed to purge this name

And crush to earth the lies that have been told!

Each will believe what rumour tells –

(Ibsen, Catilina, 1850, Act I, transl. Orbeck)

Cesare Maccari, Cicero denounces Catiline (1889). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The same power structure is pictured in the fresco by Cesare Maccari in the Senate of Rome. This image accompanies almost every edition of the classical texts about Catiline as well as instances of later reception. Almost everything in it is wrong: The senate meeting was not in the senate, but in the temple of Jupiter Stator; the senate did not have that kind of seating etc. Most interesting to me, however, is the way Cicero is portrayed as an elderly statesman with white hair, while Catiline looks much younger. In reality Cicero was two years younger than Catiline.

Henrik Ibsen – and his play Catiline (1850) – was also my way into this project. For someone writing an introduction to Classical Reception in Norwegian, his play was an obvious choice. It is a classic example of someone appropriating antiquity for his own aesthetic and political purposes. The conflict between ability and ideal seen in so many of his later plays is here seen in nucleo in the character of Catiline. And in a later preface he explicitly writes about his own revolutionary passion(i.a. inspired by the French 1848-revolution). Studying at night for his finals, the set texts were Cicero and Sallust. Inspired by these texts and his current situation he staged them in his own image – filling in the gaps, cutting and pasting from the sources and drawing out potential different meanings of them. These are interpretations which enrich and colour our image of the ancient Catiline.

Ibsen´s play is both typical and untypical of the reception of Catiline as I have seen it so far. He is typical in the way that he finds the figure and the conflict relevant to his own times and fills it with his own passions and ideas. He is also typical in the fact that he was writing this at a very young age – and while studying Latin. Quite a lot of the reception of Catiline may be categorised as juvenilia and there are not that that many really famous or prestigious instances of reception compared to the reception of Caesar, Spartacus or Nero. Apart from Ben Jonson´s Catiline. His Conspiracy (1611) and Voltaire, Rome Sauvée ou Catilina (1752), most of the authors and artists are unknown. And Catiline is still popular among the young. Try a search on YouTube and you´ll find a wide range of inventive reworkings of the story.

Disraeli (as Cicero) denouncing W. E. Gladstone (as Catiline), by John Leech. From The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ibsen is also typical in the way he exploits gaps and elements in the classical texts and fleshes out, frames and plots the story in his own image. Typically, the sources give room for manoeuvre in Catiline´s motivation. Here authors may also play up the social circumstances in contemporary Rome. Or they can choose to make Catiline into a purely selfish villain. Likewise, the role of women is a place where artists may fill in gaps. Sallust has already given the story a feminine angle in his presentation of Sempronia and Fulvia, but this may also be expanded upon. Ibsen for instance, lets Catiline´s wife Aurelia and an invented vestal virgin drive the plot as they fight over Catiline representing and appealing to different aspects of Catiline´s own character.

Ibsen is perhaps less typical in trying to offer a more nuanced Catiline and leaving Cicero completely out of it. Though there are some attempts to claim him as a kind of revolutionary hero, Catiline is mostly presented as a through and through negative figure.  Though the people cast as this villain cover a wide range – from from Martin Luther via Robespierre and Gladstone (see illustration) to Angela Merkel or opponents of the Clintons.

Catiline may play a part both in the story of the glory of Rome (or at least Cicero’s version of it) and the decline of Rome. The conspiracy accordingly plays no little part in political treatises – not least since Machiavelli treats the conspiracy as an important point of reference. The view of Catiline is in these cases influenced by people´s view on Rome as a whole and wider issues such as republicanism, decline, populism and change. And this colours not only overtly political treatment of Catiline, but touches upon issues of labelling and translation important for any one dealing with the ancient texts. Thus a study of the reception of Catiline is an important reminder to us all of the importance of scrutinizing our own horizons of interest when we meet the ancients.

by Mathilde Skoie

Staging Paradise Lost: a workshopped reading of the text

ICS Research Associate Dr. Caroline Spearing reviews a reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost which took place at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe on May 14th 2018. The event was a Research in Action Event supported by the UCL Arts and Humanities Dean’s Strategic Fund.

Classicists tend to see Milton as the English Virgil, struggling to accommodate the measures and diction of his predecessor to the demands of vernacular epic just as Virgil himself did with Homer. For the even more select band of neo-Latinists – among whom I am bold to number myself –  Milton is a minor Latin poet whose efforts in the language, at least in Dr. Johnson’s view, fall short in originality and modernity of those of his contemporary Abraham Cowley.

The team who staged Paradise Lost at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on May 14th, however, set the work squarely in its English context. Directors Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper and Dr. Emma Whipday explained their goal of interrogating the performance value of non-dramatic poetry and, in particular, considering the text in terms of its Shakespearean intertextuality. Virgil was nowhere to be found. Nor was Cowley.

This was not the first attempt to dramatise Milton’s epic. Michael Symmons Roberts’ two-part adaptation, starring Ian McKellen and Frances Barber, was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in March this year; in 2015, New College Chapel staged a costumed reading over three nights; 2004 saw two separate productions, in Bristol and Northampton. Back in 1674 John Dryden valiantly attempted a stage adaptation snappily entitled The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man. Milton himself made his first attempt on the story of the Fall in the form of an unfinished drama called, in one of his less successful neologisms, Adam Unparadised.

William Blake, ‘The Casting of the Rebel Angels into Hell’ (1808): illustration to Paradise Lost. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And yet the enterprise is beset by difficulties. The first is a simple one of length: the 12,000 lines of Milton’s epic need to be reduced to something acceptable to the attention spans of modern audiences – in this case, around 2,000. Then there is the issue of staging, with the director needing to represent not only Heaven, Hell and Eden, but also such set-pieces as Satan’s Disney-esque flight through the cosmos (not to mention his momentary metamorphosis into a cormorant) and the hordes of rebellious angels careering lemming-like over the edge of Heaven (this last pragmatically cut by the adaptor, Dr. Eric Langley). The audience was encouraged to picture the cosmos in the three-tier space of the candle-lit Wanamaker playhouse, its ceiling helpfully embellished with celestial paintings, its pit offering an infernal space well below the level of the stage.

More serious is the challenge of Milton’s poetry itself, the leisurely periods and Latinate syntax making considerable demands on the listener. As one of the actors observed in the Q and A that followed the performance, the contrast with the direct and urgent communication of Shakespearean blank verse could not be greater. When the rich imagery and extended similes (many cut) of Milton’s text are added to the mix, the result is certainly a powerful experience for the listener, but not necessarily a dramatic one for the spectator. Only towards the end, when Adam and Eve (played beautifully by Tok Stephen and Aruhan Galieva) exchanged their anger for sorrowful tenderness, did the production take on a dramatic vigour independent of the glorious euphony of the text.

Ultimately, however, any staging of  Paradise Lost must stand or fall on its attempts to address the vast distance between Milton and a modern audience. For Milton and his contemporaries, Hell was a real place, and one where real people stood a real chance of ending up; Sin was an absolute presence; Death, as Horace puts it, always sitting behind the horseman. Bitter and often violent dispute surrounded the nature of God, but his existence was never seriously in doubt. Paradise Lost’s story of human sin redeemed by the sacrifice of the Son of God was accepted as a fundamental truth. Chastity was an important virtue, lust a sin. And the inferiority of women to man, analogous to man’s inferiority to God, was taken as read.

William Blake, ‘The Temptation and Fall of Eve’ (1808): illustration to Paradise Lost. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All this is markedly at odds with twenty-first century sensibilities. Many of those who frequent the Globe inhabit a secular world of moral and cultural relativism. There is little room in this world for the cosmic, for the heroic, for the divine – those key ingredients of classical epic. Audience laughter greeted the narrator who presented ‘hanging in a golden chain, / This pendant world’;  Eve’s apostrophe of Adam as her ‘guide / And head’ was met with similar amusement; even Adam failed to keep a straight face during a frenzied post-lapsarian coupling.

The adaptation, too, emphasised the human and personal at the expense of the divine and universal. The character of Raphael was completely excised, along with his narrative of the War in Heaven – thus at a stroke erasing the important parallels with Odysseus’ narrative in Homer and Aeneas’ in Virgil. Also missing was the Son, whose decisive role in the war prefigures his redemptive self-sacrifice. The vast Virgilian vista of imperium sine fine is closed down into a scene of domestic suffering.

And yet the production did engage with classical epic, in the form of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Nowhere was this clearer than in Eve’s narrative of her creation, where, Narcissus-like, she gazed enraptured at her reflection in the water but, unlike her classical antecedent, was successfully enticed away by Adam’s ‘manly grace / And wisdom.’ Some recent work on classical intertextuality in Paradise Lost, notably by Mandy Green and Maggie Kilgour, has emphasised this Ovidian strain: here, it was Ovid’s deft irony, his knowing textuality, that came to the fore. For an audience unfazed by Sin and Hell, the production became an exploration not of humanity’s place in the cosmos but of its representation. Ovid exposes the surreal absurdity of traditional myth through the resolutely quotidian nature of his characters. In the same way, here we saw a Satan so lacking in bombast as to evoke nothing so strongly as a Lib Dem councillor deprived of his seat; an Adam and Eve reacting to the Fall with a petulant marital spat; and a rape of Persephone – extraordinarily – played for laughs. The wonderful economy and invention of Miltonian diction, the jolt with which we recognise how he has said something better than anyone else conceivably could, became an Ovidian delight in language for its own sake, a coruscating display of pyrotechnic cleverness.

In discussion with the audience following the show, the actors freely acknowledged how their performances had been shaped by the audience reaction, recognising the contribution of both actors and audience in generating the reading of the text. ‘This audience is smutty,’ remarked one actor, identifying a level of innuendo and double-entendre that had not been there in rehearsal. It is this demonstration of the power of an audience to privilege one reading over another – here, Ovid over Virgil – that is the experiment’s real legacy.

The goddess and damned wrath

Professor Joshua Katz (Princeton) is one of this year’s Dorothy Tarrant Visiting Fellows at the ICS. Here he shares an insight into his research into the language of Archaic Greek poetry from a comparative/historical linguistic perspective.

On sabbatical from my home institution, I am spending April and May at the Institute of Classical Studies, where the award of a Dorothy Tarrant Fellowship has made it possible for me to think about the language of Archaic Greek poetry surrounded by thousands of books and in the company of friends and colleagues old and new. I’d given a couple of talks at the ICS in past years but never before used the library. What a gem the place is—though on good days, of which there are increasingly many as early spring heads into summer, the leafy sunshine of Russell Square can exert an irresistible appeal. I am going to miss the view of the back of the British Museum from my office (if you have not made it to the exhibition ‘Charmed Lives in Greece: Chika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor’, go now!), the ability of the librarians to find within minutes a book that had unaccountably (and, let me stress, most unusually) been shelved in an entirely different room from where it was supposed to be, and the good humor of Greg Woolf, Valerie James, and so many others.

My recent publications have largely been devoted to the language of Archaic Greek poetry. In particular, I am interested in bringing linguistic and literary work together by demonstrating to literary scholars how an understanding of the deep linguistic background of Homer and Hesiod can be of more than narrow interest while at the same time pointing out to linguists that there is a wide world out there beyond the asterisk. In a paper titled ‘Toward an Indo-European Commentary on Hesiod’, soon to appear in a series published by Hempen Verlag, I offer a sample of what a specifically linguistic commentary on the first two verses of the Works & Days might look like: a commentary that examines an eighth- or seventh-century BCE poem from the perspective of Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of languages from Greek to Latin to Sanskrit to Russian to Welsh to English that was spoken, probably on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, around 6000 or 5500 years ago. Comparative philologists, who have as one of their tasks to use established linguistic tools to reconstruct this proto-language, can be comically methodical, in a snail-like way, and one may wonder just how long it will take me to get to verse 10, not to say 100, not to say 828. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that in my Tarrant Lecture, ‘The Goddess and Damned Wrath: How a Linguist Reads the Iliad’, held at the ICS on 8 May, I talked about the first, second, third, and sixth words of the poem that is conventionally considered the start of Western literature, thereby instantiating my not wholly tongue-in-cheek answer to the question, ‘So, how does a Linguist Read the Iliad?’: ‘Slowly!’


Illustration from John Flaxman’s (1755-1826) Iliad (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

My talk extended some ideas about the start of the Iliad that I first presented in a pair of papers published in 2013, ‘Gods and Vowels’ (revised version in press) and ‘The Hymnic Long Alpha: Μούσαϛ ἀείδω and Related Incipits in Archaic Greek Poetry’, as well as giving a taste of a third one that is coming out shortly, ‘Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά and the Form of the Homeric Word for “Goddess”’. My goal was to give a new appreciation of what the beginning of the Iliad does and does not mean, to say something about where it comes from in pre-Greek terms and how it was received (and, as it were, mis-received), and to make a novel proposal about how it was first performed nearly three thousand years ago. More specifically, I hope to have shown the following four things about Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆοϛ | οὐλομένην ‘Of the baneful/damned wrath of Achilles son of Peleus sing, o goddess’.

(1) From the Indo-European perspective, all four of our most archaic hexametric poems — the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Theogony, and the Works & Days — have in their first verse a word that goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *men- ‘think, engage in mental activity’ or its derivative *mneh2- ‘keep in mind’: forms of Μοῦσα ‘Muse’ in the Odyssey and in the two works of Hesiod, μῆνιν ‘wrath’ (etymologically something like ‘bad-mindedness’) in the Iliad. Indeed, this root underlies the very first syllable of three of them. Furthermore, three of the four are followed by a form of *h2weid- ‘sing’, as in ἀείδειν ‘to sing’ and ἀοιδή ‘song’, and three of the four main Homeric Hymns, as well as a number of the shorter ones, both begin and end with forms of *men-/mneh2- and/or *h2weid- (e.g., the Hymn to Apollo, which opens with μνήσομαι ‘let me remember’ [from *mneh2-] and finishes with the common hymnic closer μνήσομ’ ἀοιδῆϛ ‘I shall remember a song’). The two main roles of the Muse-inspired bard in an oral culture are to be the memory of the people (the Muses’ mother is Μνημοσύνη ‘Memory’, likewise from *mneh2-) and to sing of that memory. We are thus able to reconstruct the collocation *men- + *h2weid- as a pre-Greek poetic incipit, an idea whose implications for such matters as genre will need to be worked out carefully.

(2) The alternative opening to the Iliad associated with the Athenian book collector Apellicon of Teos (d. 84 BCE) goes like this: Μούσαϛ ἀείδω καὶ Ἀπόλλωνα κλυτότοξον ‘Of the Muses I sing, and Apollo of the famed bow’. As we now understand, the first two words of the so-called ‘Old Iliad’, which bring us to the caesura, are etymologically equivalent to Μῆνιν ἄειδε.

Achilles and Agamemnon: Roman mosaic from Pompeii (Naples National Archaeological Museum). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

(3) The etymologically unexpected long initial vowel in ἀείδω (vis-à-vis ἄειδε, with a short one) is an instance of a hitherto unnoticed phenomenon by which the bard calls his audience to attention by elongating the most resonant of the Greek vowels: the ‘hymnic long alpha’, as I call it. Once we have noted that the goddess at the start of the Iliad is the Muse and that it requires adding the word θεά to establish metrical and semantic as well as etymological equivalence between Μούσαϛ ἀείδω and Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, then we may suggest that the likewise difficult-to-explain long alpha in θεά, found here and throughout Homer, is likewise an instance of this same phenomenon. If this is correct, we have evidence not only for a detail of Archaic performance but also for the influence of that oral performance practice on written text.

(4) Finally, the enjambed first word of the second verse, οὐλομένην, supposedly a middle participle of ὄλλυμαι ‘perish’, agrees grammatically and forms a ring with the first word of the first verse, μῆνιν. It is semantically problematic: the ‘active’ translation ‘baneful, murderous’ is difficult to justify since the verb is in the middle voice; on the other hand, the ‘mediopassive’ translation ‘damned, doomed’ don’t make much sense as a description of Achilles’ wrath. A common solution is that the meaning ‘damned’ has been transferred from the optative of wish ὄλοιτο ‘may he perish!’ Mine is very different: the familiar feminine accusative singular aorist middle participle of οὐλόμενοϛ was not originally a participle at all but has replaced οὐλομενήν (note the different accent), the Arcado-Cypriot feminine accusative singular form of the otherwise unknown adjective οὐλομενήϛ ‘destructive-minded’, a compound of οὖλοϛ ‘destructive’ and μένοϛ ‘force, passion’ (cf. εὐμενήϛ ‘well-minded, kindly’ and δυσμενήϛ ‘ill-minded, hostile’) whose second member goes back in Proto-Indo-European to none other than the root *men-. In other words, μῆνιν … οὐλομένην is a hidden figura etymologica ‘destructive-minded bad-mindedness’.

The next word of the Iliad is the relative pronoun ἥ. I doubt that there is anything of broad interest to say about it. But the poem has 15,693 verses, and I invite others to join me in uncovering its linguistic gems.

by Joshua Katz

Researching Neo-Latin poetry at the ICS

ICS Research Associate Dr. Caroline Spearing shares with us her journey through teaching and researching Classics, and talks about her research into Neo-Latin poetry.


My path to Research Associateship at the ICS has been a long and meandering one. After graduating from Oxford with a BA in Classics more years ago than I am prepared to admit, I spent a couple of years half-heartedly working towards a DPhil in ethnographical writing of the Second Sophistic, with a particular focus on pachyderms, under the endlessly patient tutelage of Ewen Bowie. Financial exigencies drew me into the murky world of A level resit teaching, where, in those far-off innocent days, completely unqualified and inexperienced graduate students were unleashed on the casualties of the British education system in return for rather less than today’s minimum wage. Over the course of a year, I was roundly assured that the Nile was in Britain, asked whether Octavian was ‘top geezer’ in Rome before Augustus came along, and had a student removed from my care when passers-by unaccountably objected to his promenading down the Cornmarket stark naked.

Teaching, I decided, was my passion and my vocation. A fortuitous set of circumstances led to a maternity cover at Abingdon School, where the headmaster declared on my last day, with finely-judged ambiguity, that ‘no one who has been taught by Miss Butler [as I then was] will ever forget the experience.’ I then joined Winchester College as one of a very few female members of staff and the only one under thirty. While the boys bombarded me with cheap innuendo and obscene graffiti, the redoubtable and exacting Stephen Anderson – now Rodewald Lector at New College, Oxford – succeeded in turning me into a plausibly competent classroom practitioner capable of explaining the difference between the gerund and the gerundive without turning a hair and equipped with an impressive repertoire of classics-related jokes.[1]

After eight years, I moved to St Paul’s School as Head of Classics. Here I became accustomed to deflecting intrusive questioning about my personal life by claiming that my lawyer boyfriend – now my husband – ran a whelk stall in the East End, a policy that spectacularly backfired when the High Master’s Secretary attempted to engage him in small talk about the wet fish trade. After six years among the flower of metropolitan youth I decided that it was time for a foray into senior management, and became deputy head of a co-educational school in South-East London. Five years of spreadsheets, lesson observations, detentions, and meetings which felt like detentions, the whole interrupted only by maternity leave, left me in need of a break from an education system which felt increasingly like a treadmill.

My inclination was to spend the foreseeable future baking cupcakes, but Stephen Anderson and the late and greatly missed James Morwood persuaded me to go to see their friend Roland Mayer with a view to studying for an MA in Classics at King’s College London. After an hour of Roland’s urbane charm I was quite happily filling in an application form and, to my relief, was accepted onto the course. A particular draw for me was the opportunity to study Neo-Latin poetry, on a module taught by Victoria Moul and Gesine Manuwald: after all my years teaching canonical classical texts in minute linguistic detail, I thought it would be rather exciting to see how those texts had inspired Latin literature in very different times and places.

Abraham Cowley 1618-1667 (after William Faithorne 1616-1691)

Nor was I wrong. A few weeks into the course we were asked to prepare ‘Violet’ and ‘Water-Lily’ from Abraham Cowley’s Plantarum Libri Sex (1668). I was less than immediately enthusiastic about a text which appeared to be a didactic work on botany. But these expectations were almost instantly overturned. ‘Violet’ is a Horatian ode, in grandiose Sapphics, which references some of Horace’s most elevated political panegyric in order to celebrate the pharmacological powers of a tiny flower. ‘Water-Lily’, by contrast, is Cowley’s attempt at an Ovidian metamorphosis, the story, in elegiac couplets, of a minor goddess who falls in love with Hercules and enjoys a single night with him before he departs on his mission to rid the world of monsters. Tormented by jealous grief, she weeps inconsolably until Juno takes pity and turns her into a water-lily, floating on a pool of her own tears. In a final twist, the flower explains that the antaphrodisiac powers of her root are designed to prevent other women from suffering a similar fate. When Victoria told us that this 7,000-line work had received very little scholarly attention, and was ripe for a PhD, I felt the hand of History on my shoulder.

Charles I and Henrietta Maria, with Charles, Prince of Wales and Princess Mary. Anthony van Dyck 1599-1641 (1633)

I was awarded my PhD in September 2017, and know that I am extremely fortunate to feel no less passionate about the Plantarum than I did at the outset. Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) was an immensely successful English poet whose work is very little read today, but which deserves far wider study; he was also a rather less successful spy, working for Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria, during the English Civil War. The Plantarum is his longest surviving work in English or Latin, the product of the early Restoration, when the poet, failing to secure an appointment in the brave new world of Charles II’s court, made a very public retirement to the countryside. Often described as a didactic poem, it instead resists classification: among its more remarkable features are a debate between plants as to the purpose of menstruation; a contest between fruit trees of the Old and New Worlds; and a long narrative of the Civil War and Restoration. My thesis aimed to set the work in its Restoration context, looking above all at the ways in which themes and tropes from classical poetry are reworked so as to engage with the social and political issues of mid-seventeenth-century England.

As a Research Associate at the ICS, I am enjoying the opportunity to work up my PhD thesis for publication and to get stuck into a new project, the anthologies of Latin poetry produced by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge to mark major state occasions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. First of all I want to look at poetry celebrating the marriage of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese Catholic princess forced to accept her bridegroom’s pregnant mistress as her lady-in-waiting. Last but not least, the hic haec hoc joke still gets an annual airing in my undergraduate Latin language class.

by Caroline Spearing

[1] Three, of which the hic haec hoc joke is a total corker.

Free access to ICS publications

Dr. Liz Potter, ICS Publications Manager, shares news of a short-term offer inviting readers to access recent issues of the Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies (BICS) for free.

This week the ICS is pleased to offer free access to recent issues of BICS for a limited period from Monday 9th April (marking the closing day of the UK Classical Association conference), and ending on Friday 13th April.

For this period, we are making available the first of our commissioned themed issues:


  • BICS 60-1 (’Roman History: Six Studies for Fergus Millar’) is edited and introduced by Nicholas Purcell. There are articles by Hannah M. Cotton-Paltiel, Avner Ecker, and Dov Gera; T. P. Wiseman; Claudia Moatti; Stéphane Benoist; Ted Kaizer; and Simon Corcoran.
  • BICS 60-2 (‘Varronian Moments’) is edited by Valentina Arena and Fiachra Mac Góráin , and contains pieces by the editors; Giorgio Piras; Grant A. Nelsestuen; Duncan MacRae; Elisabetta Todisco; R. M. A. Marshall; Daniel Hadas; Daniel Vallat; and Wolfgang D. C. de Melo. The issue also has a general index and an index locorum.

While visiting the BICS site, classicists and archaeologists can also refer to our virtual issues on Mycenaean Studies; on Greek law and law courts; and on ancient philosophy — all of this material is free to access at all times. In addition, the BICS Mycenaean Seminar, and some recent BICS Supplements, are available on an Open Access basis on Humanities Digital Library.


Further information about our commissioning cycle for BICS themed issues is available here; all enquiries are very welcome and should be addressed to