The Department of Classics, Ancient History and Egyptology and KYKNOS, The Centre for Research on the Narrative Literatures of the Ancient World, hosted a COAH-sponsored Research Colloquium on Friday, 25 October 2019, in the Mall Room, Taliesin, on Singleton Campus.
The international event – part of the regular biannual Colloquia programme of KYKNOS – centred around four exciting lectures on Greek and Latin texts and their historical and cultural contexts.
Alan Lloyd (Swansea) ‘Timeo Danaos: Motifs can walk’
Rachel Bird (Swansea) ‘The Greek Novel: Voyeurism, Sophrosyne and Heroines as Text’
Olivier Demerre (Ghent) ‘Catching Bodies, Catching Texts: Longus and Ovid on hunting’
Koen de Temmerman (Ghent) ‘Stories of Erotic Desire in Late Antique Hagiography:
the curious case of Euphemia and the Goth (and Callirhoe)’
The Colloquium, organised by Ian Repath and Fritz-Gregor Herrmann, marked the 15th anniversary of the foundation of KYKNOS at Swansea, and at the same time celebrated the 40th anniversary of the arrival at Swansea of Prof. em. John Morgan, at whose initiative KYKNOS was established as a research centre in 2004. At the end of the formal proceedings, John Morgan was presented with a Festschrift with contributions by former colleagues and students, many of whom were present at the event. Some Organic Readings in Narrative, Ancient and Modern contains seventeen original essays which reflect both the wide range of John’s interests and the high esteem in which he is held internationally.
KYKNOS promotes research on the narrative literatures of ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Near East.
OLCAP – the research group for Object and Landscape Centred Approaches to the Past is new to the College of Arts and Humanities. The group’s core aim is to promote and support research, teaching, and training that falls broadly in the fields of material culture studies and landscape, especially where these relate to the ancient world. There are three main, related strands of our mission: Research, Pedagogy, Training and Employability. You can read more about these on OLCAP’s webpage. On 14th October, OLCAP celebrated its official launch and we introduced these aims to staff and students across COAH to explore research synergies and potential future collaborations. The kick-off event was a wonderful opportunity to advertise our annual programme – details of which can also be found here: OLCAP 2019 2020 Events. This term we particularly look forward to hosting our first (of many!) termly core skills training workshops, ‘Mapping Material Culture’ where our students will have the chance to practice mapping the landscape in preparation for archaeological investigation! This will take place on 09.11.19 at Singleton Campus, 11.00-16.00.
OLCAP’s first sponsored post on Hieroglyphs, Heroes, and Heretics is a report from Dr Christian Knoblauch (Lecturer in Egyptian material Culture) about his collaboration with Brown University and their excavations in the Sudan. If you would like to hear more about the project, Christian will be giving a talk at 3pm on Tuesday 29th of October at Singleton Campus, Keir Hardie Building Room 429 as part of the CLAHE Research Seminar Series.
Swansea in the Sudan
The first ever Swansea-Brown Uronarti Regional Archaeological Project team on site in the Sudan, January 2019 (image 1). The project is co-directed by Dr Christian Knoblauch (Swansea, far right) and Dr Laurel Bestock (Brown, front left). In the background, there is the remains of the massive mudbrick gateway that controlled entry into the Middle Kingdom fortress – the focus of our work. Although it is almost 4000 years old, the fortress still stands in places to a height of 7 metres. In the foreground is a back-filled administrative building excavated by the team where we were able to observe, for the first time, the arrival of the Egyptians at the site and their organisation of a mammoth building project. Beyond the fortress, looking south, one can see Lake Nasser/Lake Nubia and the desert adjacent to the ancient border with Kush at the Semna Nile Cataract. During the season, we conducted a systematic survey (image 2) of these areas in order to contextualise the fortress in wider settlement and activity patterns. A report on this last aspect of the work has been accepted for publication by Antiquity and will appear in the Project Gallery shortly.
One interesting aspect of the season was the recording and micro-morphological sampling of an intact column of stratigraphy (image 3) Such well-defined occupation layers are a rarity due to the clearing of most of the interior of the fortress in the 1930’s.
We are hopeful the final scientific analysis of the layers and artefacts will shed light on the changing nature of the occupation of the site over two and a half centuries. Finds from these layers included fish-bones and angling equipment, administrative seals, stone arrowheads and some remarkably well preserved textiles (image 4).
There was also time to conduct a condition report of the New Kingdom stone temple that has suffered considerable damage in recent years. An inventory of all decorated blocks (e.g. image 5) was compiled and recommendations were made to our partner, the National Corporation of Museums and Antiquities concerning conserving the structure and making it better accessible to other scholars and the public in the future. We plan to continue this work in early 2020.
The author thanks the COAH Research Fund for enabling his participation in the project in January 2019. Images courtesy of URAP.
Today’s post kick-starts a mini series that will feature on Hieroglyphs, Heroes and Heretics this academic year that showcases the type of teaching that we deliver and our student work. Dr Stephen Harrison, module co-ordinator, introduces the focus and aims of the module, to provide that all important context for the first of our student pieces!
Stephen Harrison: Ronseal don’t sponsor any of our modules at Swansea University, but if they did Beyond Mainland Greece would probably be that module because, like their quick drying wood stain, it is a course that does exactly what It says on the tin: it takes students beyond the Greek mainland – into Asia. The course focuses on two empires, the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire and the Seleucid Empire. The Persians are traditionally seen as the bad guys in Western history: the barbarian invaders whose cruel kings Darius and Xerxes (especially Xerxes) burned Athens to the ground, threatening to snuff out democracy before it was fully established. 150 years later, the Greeks were to have their revenge thanks to Alexander III of Macedon, who earned the moniker ‘Alexander the Great’ as a result of his conquest of Persia. But Alexander died without an established heir and his empire quickly disintegrated as his leading generals fought to succeed to the throne. In territorial terms, at least, the most successful of the contenders was Seleucus I, who emerged who carved out an empire which stretched from India to the Ionian coast. His family would rule much of Asia before pressure from the twin threats of Parthia and Rome in the Second Century BC reduced the Seleucid Empire to a small kingdom centred on Syria.
Traditionally, university courses have given short shrift to these empires – the Persians pop up as invaders at the foundational moment of Classical Greece but are soon dismissed in favour of a focus on Athenian democracy, Spartan idiosyncrasies, and the Peloponnesian War. Then they reappear as the dramatic foil for Alexander’s heroic exploits in the Fourth Century. The Seleucids fair even worse, often dealt with only as one of a succession of powers defeated by the Romans on their march to imperial glory. But the privileging of the Greek mainland is hugely problematic for lots of reasons not least the fact that these two empires were the superpowers of their day – it is as though one were to write a history of the 20th Century and focus solely on, say, Cuba, without ever mentioning the United States. So, this module sought to allow students to study the Persian and Seleucid Empires on their own terms.
All of this reflects my firm belief that extending beyond the usual geographic limitations of ancient history courses offers students the opportunity to develop a much broader understanding of the ancient world, which also helps them to appreciate the importance of some of the unique developments in Greece itself. But in order to do this, students need to be able to work with an array of sources produced in Asia itself, rather than rely solely on written accounts produced on the fringes of these empires by men such as Herodotus, Xenophon, and Polybius. Consequently, we looked at a wide range of sources – from inscriptions written in the name of reigning kings to celebrate and to emphasise their power, to the fascinating astronomical diaries from Babylon, which were recorded fastidiously for several centuries – primarily, these diaries are records of astrological observations, but details such as price data from the local market give us a glimpse into life in the city. Coins, civic inscriptions, archaeology, art, and even letters between local officials in Bactria (ancient Afghanistan) also featured. The students were asked to write four critical analyses of 500 words on some of these pieces of evidence over the course of the term – we have selected some of the best responses for publication here to give you an insight into the sort of thing that our students get up to here at Swansea and the things they are capable of achieving. You will find some creative and original thinking in these pieces of work.
Our first piece is a contribution from Aidan Kee, an Ancient History student, who assessed an inscription from the tomb of Darius I as part of his coursework for the module.
The Persians did not produce the sort of written histories that we often use to explore a society. Instead, one of our best ways into examining the topic are a series of royal inscriptions that the Persian kings set up at key places to emphasise their power and to outline their ideology. These inscriptions very much reflect a top-down perspective on the Persian Empire so there are very real questions about how far the claims made in these documents reflect reality, but they can still be revealing. This particular inscription is part of the text that was carved onto the tomb of Darius I at Naqs-i-Rustam, a few miles from Persepolis, the most important city in the empire. (Introduction by Stephen Harrison)
Translation (from: Kuhrt, A., The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period. Routledge, 2007):
(1) A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this excellent thing which is seen, who created happiness for man, who set wisdom and capability down upon King Darius.
(2a) King Darius/Xerxes says: By the grace of Ahuramazda I am of such a sort, I am a friend of the right, of wrong I am not a friend. It is not my wish that the weak should have harm done him by the strong, nor is it my wish that the strong should have harm done him by the weak.
(2b) The right, that is my desire. To the man who is a follower of the lie I am no friend. I am not hot-tempered. What things develop in my anger, I hold firmly under control by my thinking power. I am firmly ruling over my own impulses.
(2c) The man who is cooperative, according to his cooperation thus I reward him. Who does harm, him according to the harm I punish. It is not my wish that a man should do harm; nor indeed is it my wish that if he does harm he should not be punished.
(2d) What a man says against a man, that does not convince me, until I hear the sworn statements of both.
(2e) What a man does or performs, according to his ability, by that I become satisfied with him, and it is much to my desire, and I am well pleased, and I give much to loyal men.
(2f) Of such a sort are my understanding and my judgment: if what has been done by me you see or hear of, both in in the palace and in the expeditionary camp, this is my capability over will and understanding.
(2g) This indeed my capability: that my body is strong. As a fighter of battles I am a good fighter of battles. When ever with my judgment in a place I determine whether I behold or do not behold an enemy, both with understanding and with judgment, then I think prior to panic, when I see an enemy as when I do not see one.
(2h) I am skilled both in hands and in feet. As a horseman, I am a good horseman. As a bowman, I am a good bowman, both on foot and on horseback. As a spearman, I am a good spearman, both on foot and on horseback.
(2i) These skills that Ahuramazda set down upon me, and which I am strong enough to bear, by the will of Ahuramazda, what was done by me, with these skills I did, which Ahuramazda set down upon me.
(3a) Man, vigorously make you known of what sort I am, and of what sort my skillfulnesses, and of what sort my superiority. Let not that seem false to you, which has been heard by your ears. Listen to what is said to you.
(3b) Man, let that not be made to seem false to you, which has been done by me. That do you behold, which has been inscribed. Let not the laws be disobeyed by you. Let not anyone be untrained in obedience. [The last line is unintelligible]
‘Although […] the Achaemenid History Workshop profoundly transformed our understanding of the Achaemenid empire, members of that group devoted surprisingly little attention to the role of religion.’ So, Lincoln shows, the question of Achaemenid religion is far from answered in scholarship. Therefore, considering the religious aspect of the inscription, it is a useful source of evidence on the subject, especially in relation to Achaemenid kingship. Darius thanks the help that Ahurumazda has given him in his journey to kingship multiple times in the passage. Its placement at the site of Darius’ tomb means that the text is what Darius wishes to be remembered for, clearly revealing the importance of Ahurumazda to his reign.
Zoroaster, a prophet considered active around 1000 BC, allegedly produced the Gāthās setting out ‘a dualistic system in which aša (truth, rightness) is opposed to druj (lie, deceit) with Ahurumazda as the supreme deity.’ Whilst Zoroaster may not have been a historical figure, the rough estimate of when he lived usefully provides us with a rough date for the commencement of the oral tradition conveying the Gāthās. Considering this oral tradition that carried the Gāthās from this time through to Sasanian times, where it was eventually textualized, it stands to reason that it reflected Achaemenid religious ideology in order to survive. Therefore, whilst the Achaemenids may not strictly have been Zoroastrians, it is likely that the Achaemenid Ahurumazda is very similar to its Zoroastrian counterpart. Thus, in the inscription where Darius attributes his ‘wisdom and capability’ to being gifted to him by Ahurumazda, Darius legitimises his reign. Darius has been supported by the protector of aša with skills that make him a good king. Perhaps surprisingly, Darius also presents himself as a judge of aša and druj in the passage, ‘I am a friend of the right, of the wrong I am not a friend’. This idea is also present in the Bisitun inscription, indicating it as an important aspect of his kingship and how he legitimised himself. Therefore, in the inscription Darius aligns himself with Ahurumazda with a subtle hint at his own divinity. However, this is counterbalanced by Darius also presenting himself as a human, subject to aša and druj respectively, ‘I am firmly ruling over my own impulses’. He is clearly below Ahurumazda here, as the Gāthās state ‘look upon the two sides, between which each man must choose for himself.’ Darius clearly is subject to the trials of ‘each man’ demonstrated by his ‘impulses’. This illustrates the caution that Darius had to take when dealing with religion as on one hand it was a useful tool for legitimising his reign, whilst on the other it was vital to simultaneously remain humble and pious. The religious aspect of the inscription is replicated by Xerxes at Persepolis indicating that the way Darius deals with religion in the passage was deemed contemporarily successful. So, the inscription presents us with a useful opportunity to examine how religion was utilised successfully to legitimise the early Achaemenid king’s reigns.
We may have been a little quiet on the blog front last term, but by no means did this mean that we weren’t busy! For example, we saw the completion and launch of the Ancient World on Film project and the successful delivery of new, innovative modules (including handlings sessions in the Egypt Centre and a trip to the British Museum) – you can read about these in the COAH College newsletter here. Towards the end of term, many staff and students delivered papers at The Egypt Centre’s conference ‘Wonderful Things‘, an event that showcased the history of the museum and current research that is taking place there in conjunction with our department. The Egypt Centre Collection Blog is a fantastic read as it regularly features news about its volunteers, the research that our students undertake, collaborative work with the department and the current renovations to its store rooms. All in all it has been an exciting year and the 2019/20 academic year promises to be equally as busy for all staff and students here in the department…
Along with the rest of the university, we are celebrating the Swansea 2020 centenary! This academic year will also see the official launch of OLCAP – our new research group for object and landscape centred approaches to the ancient past. More on this to come! In April, the department will also host the Classical Association conference in April 2020 – a truly international event that draws attention to cutting edge research, innovations in pedagogy across all stages of education provision and pressing issues for our fields of study and work. So watch this space as more information about these events, as well as many others, will be featured on the blog! We also have a number of contributions from our undergraduate and postgraduate researchers to look forward to.
To kick start the year, I draw your attention to the UWICAH postgraduate conference that will take place on 16th November on the theme of Narratives of Power! This conference has been organised by our postgraduate research students and, as you can see below, promises to be a fantastic event. We look forward to seeing you there!
From the organisers:
On the sixteenth of November the Universities of Wales Institute of Classics and Ancient History Postgraduate conference will take place in the Council Chamber and Conference Room 2 in Singleton Abbey. PhD candidates in the Department of Classics, Ancient History and Egyptology at Swansea University have this year organized the conference. The topic of this year’s conference will be Narratives of Power, and explores powerful narratives in Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Near East. After a successful call for papers, the conference has drawn speakers from across Britain and beyond. The conference will feature twenty-two speakers, from eighteen institutions (including all three UWICAH Universities, Swansea, Cardiff and Trinity St David’s, Lampeter) and run from 09:30-17:30; followed by a roundtable debate and drinks in a nearby pub.
The delegates have interpreted Narratives of Power in a wide variety of ways, and therefore there will be talks on many topics including mythology, material culture, rulers, identity and more. Furthermore, we are thinking of publishing some of the papers from the conference in an edited volume. Food and drinks will be provided for attendees of the conference, and we hope to see as many people as possible from Swansea to support the event. If you are interested in attending, email firstname.lastname@example.org and/or sign up on Eventbrite (https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/uwicah-2019-narratives-of-power-tickets-73538673151).
Eventbrite QR code:
Thomas Alexander Husøy, William Clayton, Urska Furlan.
Singleton Abbey, Swansea University, SA2 8PP
Conference Room 2
Rebecca Rusk (Reading): The Rule of Zeus in Hesiod’s Theogony
Thomas Humphrey (UWTSD): Power and Diplomacy in the Amarna Letters: Cypro-Egyptian Relations in the 14th Century BCE
Brian McPhee (North Carolina): Brawn Without Brain? Mythopoetic Trajectories in Heracles’ Teratomachies
Rachael Cornwell (Liverpool): The Power of Change: The Accumulated Impact of Minor Linguistic Changes on the Egyptian Verbal System
Georgina Homer (Open University): Infamous Medea: Power Through Reputation and Infamy
John Rogers (Swansea): “I Made This as an Act of Praise”: Power and Agency in 7th-Century BCE Egyptian Non-Royal Statuary
Gina Bevan (Cardiff): Medusa’s Rape: Lady Gaga and Victimhood
Marwa Abdel Razek (Cairo/Cairo Museum): The Mystery of Female Figurines (Concubines) Represented on Plaques and Beds in the Cairo Museum
Archaic and Classical Greece
Thomas Alexander Husøy (Swansea): Thessaly and the Narrative of Identities in Central Greece
Lonneke Deipeut (Leiden): Horses in Egypt: A Status Symbol or a Status Marker?
Richard Phillips (Birkbeck College, London): Cultural and Political Soft Power in the Ancient Greek World: Paros and Athens
Islam Alwakeel (Ain Shams): Offering of the Field (sḫt) in the Egyptian Temples of the Greco-Roman Period (Edfou-Dendara)
Matt Thompson (Nottingham): Projecting Power By Displaying Nothing? Possible Motivations for the Apparent Refusal of the Spartans to Dedicate Captured Arms
Henry Bohun (UWTSD): Exploring Ptolemy II Within the Narrative of Ancient Egyptian Kingship: Ruler Cult and Material Culture
Ana Garcia Espinosa (Cardiff): Mercenary Armies and Power: The Narrative of Leadership in Xenophon’s Anabasis
Frédéric Rouffet (Paul-Valéry): Title TBC, Egyptian Magic
Conference Room 2
Late Classical Greece
Egyptian and Roman History
Maria Gisella Giannone (Exeter): Narratives of Power By and Within Athens in Isocrates’ On the Peace
Ella McCafferty Wright (Cambridge): The Meroe Bust of Augustus and Narratives of Rebellion
Leon Battista Borsano (Scuola Normale Superiore): Kyrios Estō: Narrative(s) of Power in Late Classical Lycia
Consuelo Martino (St. Andrews): The Last Republican or the First Emperor? Discussing Suetonius’ Divus Iulius and the Political Power of Biographical Writing
Roberta Dainotto (Crete): Building Concepts of Power Through Narrative in Forensic Speeches: The Case of Apollodorus
Domiziana Rossi (Cardiff): Sasanian Kings as Decision-Makers: Reshaping the Ērānshahr
This year we’re celebrating the Egypt Centre’s 20th Anniversary! Below are ten fun facts about Egyptology and the collection housed in this award winning museum and educational centre.
An amulet or charm was worn to give the wearer protection or power. Different amulets were connected with different powers. The living wore amulets as jewellery. The dead wore amulets wrapped up in their mummification bandages to protect them. The wealthier you were, the more amulets you had. If you look really close – the detail is incredible!
Did you know that during the Victorian Era, wealthy Victorians would host ‘mummy parties’ as a social occasion? The upper-class Victorians would get together and unwrap a mummy to see how many amulets they could find and they’d be kept as gifts.
The Egyptians had their own numbering system. Here’s what 1 million looks like (a God with praised arms)… and 100,000 (a tadpole)…. And 1000 (lotus flower).
Did you know that during the mummification process, all organs were removed except the heart? Even the brain was pulled out from the nose!
The lungs, stomach, intestines, and liver were dried out and each placed in a canopic jar. The jars came in sets of four, and each of the Four Sons of Horus were assigned the duty of protecting the contents.
A Mummy Mask like this would be placed on the face of the dead. These would be made from a mixture of plaster and bandages, and gilded.
This beaded collar made of faience beads dates from the middle of the New Kingdom c1350BC. The object below may have belonged to an Amarna princess.
Take a look at this brand new VR feature! It brings to life a mysterious wrapped linen package that contains a mummified snake! @DrRichJohnston of @CollegeofEngineering made a 3D print of what the snake would look like.
Hundreds of gods and goddesses were worshipped in ancient Egypt, including this cheeky looking fellow Bes. Bes looked after women, children, and was even a god of music and dancing!
The Egypt Centre has a very full trophy cabinet. This year the centre was awarded The Queen’s Golden Jubilee Award for voluntary service by groups in the community. This is the equivalent of an MBE!
Note: For the module ‘Classics in Popular Culture’ (CLC315), students were asked to write blog posts on Classical Reception in the TV series Plebs or Once Upon a Time, and on the comics Asterix or George O’Connor’s Olympians. Some of the best blogs are featured on our departmental blog site.
The idea of a ‘Queen of the Underworld’ has always appealed to me, and so I was delighted when I found out that George O’Connor’s graphic novel ‘Hades’ (see http://olympiansrule.com/) centred around just that. O’Connor’s Olympians series was created by drawing on ‘primary documents to reconstruct and retell classic Greek myths’, so it is surprising that O’Connor felt the best way to convey the story of Hades, was by telling a coming of age story concerning Hades’ wife, Persephone. The fourth instalment to the series has proved a run-away hit with critics, many making comments such as ‘I loved the twist on this myth of how Persephone became the Queen of the Underworld’. One of the key things to explore in reading this, is to find out why O’Connor took a character so ostracised in her own mythology, and made her the star.
Kore! A traditional classical woman
Persephone is first introduced in the comic as Kore: an awkward and seemingly minor character. O’Connor emphasises this by placing her in a small, side panel, of which Kore only occupies a fraction. She is shown in an awkward position, and due to her innocent reaction to Apollo, her naivety is emphasised. The Homeric hymn to Demeter uses the word ‘playing’ to describe Persephone before her abduction, which Debloois argues shows her to be ‘like a child’ (1997,248). Kore seems to personify women commonly found in classic tradition: as a young woman, she is submissive to those around her. Dowden notes that in myth, ‘women may be maidens, or matrons, but not unmarried women’ (2002, 46), and so it is easy to see that Kore fits straight into the mould of ‘maiden’. It is also notable, that in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Persephone and her thoughts occupy very little of the narrative, and is instead filled by Demeter. By showing Kore to be awkward and pushed aside, he is symbolically representing the traditional way which Persephone has been depicted in antiquity, and the model he is going to challenge.
Becoming Persephone- a modern feminist statement
Later in the comic, Kore adopts the name Persephone, officially accepting her role as Queen of the Dead. Gone is the awkward youth, now we see a woman single-handedly occupying a whole page. O’Connor’s choice to have her fill the page shows she is no longer pushed aside, but knows who she is. A smile plays on her lips as she speaks her new name, emphasising her metamorphoses. This page tells the reader two major things: this is a coming of age story, and Persephone is the real protagonist in this graphic novel. The bold colours which O’Connor elects to use shows that this is not the same maiden we were introduced to, picking flowers in a bright field, and thus illustrate her change as a character; she is sure of herself.
By having her so readily break free of the bonds of her mother, and embracing such a drastically different path, O’Connor is creating a feminist statement. We should not view her as a meek character, but as a strong and powerful woman in charge of her fate. The tradition of Persephone being powerful is even reflected in some ancient Roman sources; Ovid calls Persephone ‘the queen, the most powerful woman in the underworld’ (5.507). Nixon argues that the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is an example of feminism in the ancient world, as it ‘focuses on a harmonious mother-daughter relationship, rather than a violent father-son dyad’ (2002, 92). In this way, O’Connor can be seen to take on the original intent of the Demeter/ Kore relationship, and show it through the lens of modern feminism. The Happy Couple- Persephone and her sweetheart (200)
O’Connor does not fail to explore the relationship between Hades and Persephone either. As the images below show, there is an accuracy to showing the two gods ruling harmoniously side by side. In fact, a number of ancient sources which deal with Hades and Persephone show them to be equals. Odysseus ensures that he makes offerings to ‘the powerful Hades, and to revered Persephone’ (11.47), while the Iliad names her ‘dread Persephone’ (9.457). There is no doubt that throughout antiquity literary tradition, Persephone was viewed just as formidably as her husband.
O’Connor discusses this in the epilogue to his graphic novel; he comments ‘maybe Persephone likes being the Queen of the Dead. It would certainly explain why she’s apparently always hanging around the Underworld.’ O’Connor’s exploration of Persephone as a willing and eager Queen of the Dead definitely shows her as a woman in control of her fate. Indeed, it is notable that in the panel shown above, they are shown to mirror one another; they wear the same colours, their body language is exactly the same, and they sit on equal thrones. It seems Persephone is completely comfortable with her position of power.
In ‘Hades: Lord of the Dead’ O’Connor achieves a coming of age story, which details the awkward and forgettable Kore’s transformation into the formidable Persephone. He draws from a number of ancient sources, but ultimately he tells the story through the veneer of feminism. He explores the famously female lead story, and updates it in order for his audience to see a powerful woman in control of her own fate. Persephone is definitely someone his younger audience is portrayed as a role model.
After a hiatus of few years working on the Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project I am again offering her module on Ancient Egyptian Religious Beliefs and Practices—this time for both year 2 and 3. Students not only get to handle 4,000 year old artifacts in a special area of the Egypt Centre Museum as part of the course, but they also get to be creative and reconstruct an Ancient Egyptian ritual. One group made a “Mockumentary” while another group decided to dramatize and read out a “Water-Spell” against crocodiles. I can’t wait to see what we do this year!
You can also see a blog post by one of the students in my year 3 & MA module on “Supernatural Beings and Demons of Ancient Egypt” that was offered last year. His daemon was “MISSING: Armed and possibly dangerous!”
Note: For the module ‘Classics in Popular Culture’ (CLC315), students were asked to write blog posts on Classical Reception in the TV series Plebs or Once Upon a Time, and on the comics Asterix or George O’Connor’s Olympians. Some of the best blogs are featured on our departmental blog site.
Plebs is a 2013 ITV2 sitcom, created by Tom Basden and Sam Leifer. It centers on Marcus (Tom Rosenthal), his roommate and best friend Stylax (Joel Fry), and their slave Grumio (Ryan Sampson) and their misadventures in Ancient Rome. The show is a clever mix of Ancient Rome and the 21st century, trying to show audiences that “over the course of 2000 years, people haven’t changed.”
Of course, the creators acknowledge that the show is not always historically accurate, with episodes focusing on Grumio’s never-ending quest to try all the food at the market with the help of a friend’s gold credit card, or a group of rowdy Thracians introducing our protagonists to “Bananae”. Because of the show’s interaction with modern themes, a viewer with only casual knowledge of Ancient Roman society might assume that much of the interpersonal relationships and personalities of the characters are strictly based on the 21st century. On the contrary, Plebs uses classic theater archetypes and gender norms as well as modern character influences to analyze the way we view masculinity today.
In the second episode of series 1, Cynthia, Marcus’ crush, introduces Cassius, a gladiator and her new boyfriend. Marcus has already run into Cassius, as it happens, at the Roman Baths, and was intimidated by Cassius’ masculinity. Later, at work with Stylax, he calls Cassius’ manhood “fearsome, like a boa constrictor,” whereas he had just gotten out of the plunge pool, looking less than daunting. Marcus, our main protagonist, is less than traditionally masculine, falling more in line with the “adulescens, the youthful romantic hero,” in Ancient Roman comedy. In Plautan comedy, the “more farcical the comedy gets […], the sillier the young lover is shown to be.” While Plebs is not exclusively a farce, it does lend itself to farcical situations. Early in the series, Marcus’ actions are often motivated by his attraction to Cynthia, leading to comic situations like trying to sneak Grumio into an orgy in a paper thin disguise. But unlike his ancient counterpart Marcus does not always get the girl, in part because he lacks the self-confidence to see himself as a viable option for the women he fancies.
The episode The Gladiator also features an unexpected example of a man with softer characteristics. Cassius, the titular Gladiator, is introduced as representing everything the stereotypical alpha-man should. Brash, tough, and muscular, he is even employed in one of the manliest occupations you could have in Ancient Rome. However, throughout the episode, he is slowly revealed to be surprisingly sensitive. He is kind and friendly to Cynthia’s friends, acts very caring to her, and he is heartbroken to the point of apathy when she dumps him. Cassius’ presence offers an interesting antithesis to Marcus in this episode. While Marcus’ sensitivity and unmanly characteristics make him self-doubting and ultimately keep him from winning Cynthia’s love, Cassius embraces these aspects of himself, making him much more confident in his masculinity, and therefore more successful with the girl.
It is Cassius’ acceptance of all aspects of his masculinity which makes him more than just a one-off romantic foil to Marcus. He becomes an example of what Marcus could be, someone who represents the modern notion that it is okay for men to want herbal tea or to feel emotional after a break-up. Modern masculinity has started to reject the traditional, macho definition of manliness, making the (on the surface) barbaric gladiator perhaps the most progressive character in the episode. Unfortunately for Cassius, Marcus is not ready to accept these aspects of his character, making Cassius’ death in combat perhaps symbolic of Marcus’ belief that the sensitive man is not ready to survive in society.
Hyper masculinity and The Beast
The opposite then, of Marcus and Cassius’ masculinity, is the hyper masculine, seen in Plebs in the form of The Beast, a gladiator that Landlord hires to help Marcus stack Cassius’ next fight against him.
The Beast doesn’t have an apparent stock character equivalent, but his character can perhaps be linked to another monstrous character from ancient times, the Minotaur. Though Greek in origin, the Minotaur has several apparent parallels to The Beast that Cassius must face. Both lack a human face, and both appear larger than life and threatening to our heroes. The Beast, like the Minotaur, is also shrouded in mystery, to heighten his fearful reputation and almost inhuman nature. When Marcus asks whether The Beast is actually a beast or not, the Landlord even responds “I’d say he’s of mixed heritage.”
All of these factors make The Beast decidedly disagreeable to the audience, which is not surprising, as we often view this kind of toxic hyper-masculinity as unappealing or even dangerous. While ostensibly the Beast would be seen as the peak of manliness, we instead see him as a grotesque monster. He epitomizes the type of toxic masculinity that we, as a society, have tried to begin moving away from, as we become more accepting of varied representations of maleness in society. If we accept that Cassius’ death is due to Marcus’ insecurity in his own masculinity, then the Beast is the tool with which it is done, the idea of the hyper-masculine man.
Ancient and new
Plebs is, at its heart, a show about “taking three 21st-century lads, with all the hang-ups and foibles that entails, and hurling them into history.” The show achieves this with ease, cleverly twisting elements of 21st century comedy and Ancient Roman archetypes. It also does one of the things comedy does best, masking social critique in humor, delivering important themes alongside laughs. “The Gladiator” suggests we reassess what it means to be masculine by deconstructing the established character archetypes. Indeed, at their most basic descriptions, these stock characters “cannot stand up to serious criticism, nor is it intended that they should.” They’re meant to be analyzed and critiqued, to hold up a mirror to our real life. Plebs does an excellent job of critiquing the 21st century through its unique combination of the ancient and the new.
Jo Berry has written a blog article about the ancient Roman city of Pompeii that was buried due to the eruption of Mount Versuvius in AD 79. It is titled Eight things you (probably) didn’t know about Pompeii (2015) and features on the BBC History website, which can be found here.
Evelien Bracke has also written several blog articles that are listed below:
The story of Liddell and Scott, who published the Greek-English Lexicon in 1843. The revenge of the killer dictionary: the story of Liddell, Scott, and a disgruntled octopus can be found on the Gorffennol website of the University here.
The development of Classics in Wales and South West Wales in particular. Uniting Ram and Dragon: Classics in Wales is located here and Developing Classics in Wales can be accessed here.
Numerous blog posts on a variety of topics the Secretary’s blog section of the South West Wales Classical Association website. The site is located here.