90 Years of the Classical Association at Swansea

I was recently lucky enough to be handed the minutes from the Classical Association of Wales – South Wales Branch (based at Swansea University) and the opportunity to riffle through the Association’s history between its formation in 1928 and the late 80’s as a result. As a Classicist, it was an interesting change of pace to pursue some more modern, local history, and I jumped at the chance to read a little more into the thoughts, attitudes and perceptions of Classics and its role in the community and the curriculum in the 20th century. As both a student of, and aspiring teacher in, Classics, this blogpost will contain a number of my musings as I flicked through the pages of old journals. I was surprised to find that, despite the many differences between the study of Classics then and now, we are still facing many of the same questions and challenges as our predecessors did nearly 100 years ago.


Swansea Summer School in Ancient Languages 2017

In July and August of this year, the Department of Classics, Ancient History and Egyptology hosted our third Summer School in Ancient Languages. Building on the success of previous years, this year we welcomed more than 35 participants, both new and returning, from a wide variety of backgrounds, cultures, ages, and walks of life, from the UK, Europe, and beyond. Supplemented by our experienced language tutors and co-ordinating staff, the Summer School this year has offered not only high-quality language teaching in Latin and Ancient Greek, but also a number of extra-curricular activities, including talks by local and national lecturers in the field of Classics. Heading the Summer School this year in her first year in charge was Dr Catherine Rozier who, with the help of her team of students, has supported tutors and students alike in order to allow them to work at full capacity. This year’s Summer School has continued the tradition of going from strength to strength, with many noting the high standard of teaching, and the rigorous, but enjoyable, content.

Some of our tutors and participants in week 1


The revenge of the killer dictionary: the story of Liddell, Scott, and a disgruntled octopus

This blog post was originally posted on Gorffennol.

Most of us use dictionaries on a regular basis and take their existence utterly for granted. We expect a dictionary to give us usable definitions and translation(s) of a word so we can read, write, and speak in other languages. That this dictionary was created by other humans, with a social background, political agenda, emotions, and restrictions (such as health and finances) in their lives which may have had an impact on their translations, doesn’t generally enter our thoughts. But researching the history of dictionaries is absolutely fascinating, and reveals that the process is a much more subjective one than you might think.

I’m currently researching the most renowned Greek-English dictionary of them all (and with Greek I mean ancient Greek): the Liddell-Scott-Jones lexicon (or LSJ in short). Everyone who studies ancient Greek will at one point in their lives pick up a copy of the LSJ (or turn to it online at http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/lsj/), and introducing the massive lexicon to my Beginning Greek students each year is always a great moment in the module, with students eagerly taking turns to look up words. I would like to tell you the story about how it all began.


School pupil visit to our Department in March 2017

On the 16th March, we had our annual Classics Schools’ day. Pupils from four local schools attended the day and took part in workshops and talks by our academic staff as well as an object handling session at the Egypt centre. Pupils from Castle School in Pembrokeshire reflect on their experience:

Swansea University

We arrived at Swansea at about 10:30 at the large, phenomenal university. We were a bit late due to traffic and parking problems but that didn’t matter much! On the way to the entrance I couldn’t help but notice the big buildings and the green garden areas. Beautiful. The inside was equally as nice and after getting lost we found our way to the first talk. Sadly we had missed a bit because we were late.

When we got there (a bit late because it takes an hour to get there and there were some traffic and parking problems) we saw lots of people, so it must be a big university.

Classics in Wales

The first talk was taken by Dr. Evelien Bracke. It was about the Romans and some Roman artefacts in Wales. It was very interesting. She talked about some Roman Artwork and buildings in Swansea that were inspired by Roman architecture. The students mentioned many museums in Swansea that held proof that the Romans did play a big role in British society. In fact we had just recently visited Caerleon where there is a theatre and some cool Roman baths. It’s amazing there.



My experience at the British School at Athens Summer School 2016

Guest blog post by Minette Matthews, 2nd Year Ancient History Student

Every year the British School at Athens offers an intensive 3 week summer course for undergraduate students interested in Ancient Greek history. On this course, students are taught by 3 specialists in Greek Ancient history – one of them being Dr. Chryssanthi Papadopoulou, the Assistant Director of the British School at Athens. Approximately 10 days are spent in Athens looking at various archaeological sites and museums (among these the Acropolis, the Parthenon Museum, the Kerameikos, and the National Archaeological Museum), and 11 days in the Peloponnese visiting Mycenae and Tiryns, and Corinth, to name a few. In 2016 I successfully applied for a place on this course.

Figure 1. Caryatids on the Erechtheion. Acropolis, Athens



Nero and History: A Clash of Interest


By Oscar Brierley, 2nd Year Classical Civilisation Student
Student Interest Research






The Remorse of Nero, J. W. Waterhouse. 1878. A depiction of Nero lamenting after the assassination of his mother Agrippina in AD59, notoriously by his own command.


I was first introduced to the intricacies of Nero’s reign of AD54-68 in Dr Nigel Pollard and Dr Joanne Berry’s Rome: From Village to Empire module. While I had heard of him before, the interpretation that I had of him was merely superficial, devoid of any historical methodology. What I learned about him in these lectures, however, challenged this view in the most fascinating way: it brought to light the facts of Nero’s reign, with no bias, creating a completely different character from what had been formed in my mind. This is the basis of my fascination with Nero, and, to an extent, my love of history. The fact that there are so many interpretations of Nero, so often exaggerated to draw in an audience, simply reflects that very little has changed since his reign. Some of Suetonius’ more extravagant accounts continue to be repeated today, and filtering through these accounts to find the truth never ceases to entertain me.

The idea that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” has long been rejected by historians. However, the notion that Nero was a debased, merciless emperor to the extent that he would not look out of place in a horror story still remains laced within history. The name Nero has become so synonymous with brutality that if you were to call someone “Neronian” you would most probably follow by offering them a therapist appointment. Most people, when Nero is mentioned, would call back to Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus in Gladiator, and think that he is a close enough representation. If Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, and a number of other works on Nero’s life are taken as fact, this perception would not be far from the truth.

Only recently have we been able to read Roman history with a level of modern academic scrutiny. Before the nineteenth century, sources such as the works of Suetonius and Livy could mostly be accepted as fact, with little notion of the possibility of a personal, ideological narrative within their works. Recently however, there has been an increase of historians looking at history in the context the society in which they were written, and not their own. And yet still there remains a struggle to separate fact from fiction when it comes to modern accounts of Roman Emperors, most prominently those of the imperial era. Else Roesdahl perfectly describes ancient works driven by a personal narrative as “historical novels”, yet documentaries and books continue to disperse them as fact. Nowhere else is this as apparent as in depictions of Nero, which continue to be as sensationalist today as they were almost 2000 years ago.

Nero came at a time when the Roman senate was still adapting itself to a state ruled by a single emperor. The senate and Roman elite began to realise their need to secure influence which was rapidly dissolving under Emperors who noticed the senate was now merely an advisory institution. The pragmatic members of the elite, however, realised that there was still a way to exercise power over the Emperors: through writing. Roman elites had already been writing diaries and cataloguing letters for centuries, but not as extensively as during this time of slow senatorial alienation from imperial power. With loss of power came the rise of writing Roman “history”. Authors began to write with more than the glorification of the Roman empire in mind.

Suetonius’ account of the lives of emperors is wonderfully useful when attempting to discover the ins and outs of Roman society and its elites, but becomes frustrating in its description of details, some of which Suetonius could not possibly have known. He cites “reliable authorities” as his sources, which dissolves any form of reliability his statements have. A particularly far-fetched moment in his description of Nero comes after the assassination of his mother Agrippina by his own order. It states that Nero rushed to his mother’s corpse to examine and assess her body critically, perversely. This certainly does evoke a reaction of disgust in the reader, but this is exactly the reaction Suetonius desires. If he wanted to give his readers a chance to critically evaluate Nero, he would have omitted this moment entirely. Nero’s chapter in Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars is rife with moments like this, but sensationalist stories attempting to dramatise Nero’s life for an audience reaction do not end with Suetonius’ work. You simply have to watch a modern documentary on his life to find that ridiculous examples of imagery still remain. Documentaries begin with wonderful montages of brutality and fire overlaid with the sounds of screaming crowds and a deafening orchestra in the process of a violent fit. While it certainly is attractive to an audience, you could start a documentary on any Roman emperor with a montage of brutalities and remain safe in the assurance that it remains loyal to its source material. Nero’s violence was not unique, simply more public and personal.

Those who did not write history, the common people of Rome, it is harder to predict the opinions of. However, we can probably assume that Nero’s reign, being of such spectacle, was in fact enjoyed by the lower classes of Rome. His love of all the arts and past times of Rome, from poetry to music to athletics, ingratiated him with the Roman people, something an Emperor completely enthralled with the Senate would find nearly impossible. He thrived in this section of Roman society, something which has been difficult to determine due to the colouring of history by the elite. Nero’s obsession with Hellenic, artistic culture benefitted both him and the eastern half of the empire when he brought into effect a “liberation of the Hellas”, exempting Achaea and the Peloponnese from taxes. Upon his return, Nero acquired all manner of divine acclamations, “Nero Zeus the Liberator”, to name one among many others. On one side of this decision is a certain distaste from the Senate due to its removal of a large portion of income to Rome. On the other, however, was a huge increase in support for Nero from the lower classes, marvelling at his generosity.

And yet it cannot be denied that Nero was a man of few boundaries when it came to indulging a more extreme lifestyle. And it is in these indulgences that he simply happened to be on the wrong side of the authors of history. His obsession with art leaked into his political life, ­spawning a number of Hellenistic values being put upon the Senate and people of Rome. The most prominent example of this is the quinquennial Neroneia he introduced to Rome in AD60: a series of artistic competitions, modelling on Homeric contests. This slow merging of Hellenistic and Roman values in the public domain was unsurprisingly disturbing for the traditionalist Senate. While leaking into some parts of his political attitude, his love of art simply replaced and removed other aspects of politics. His apparent lack of reaction initially to Vindex’s revolt in AD68-69 shows his mental separation from some aspects of policy, and a reliance upon others – in this case probably Verginius Rufus, a nearby commander of an army – to solve the issues which he held no concern for.

So why do people love to dramatise his life so often? Part of the problem when looking at Nero’s life comes from the imaginations it seems to have captured. Recently, in Trier, there was an art exhibition using the theme of Nero’s death named Lust and Crime, a rather theatrical name intended to pull in those with less interest. In the same way that Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra twisted the love between its two protagonists to romanticise their situation, this art installation reveals representations of Nero’s life that have twisted him into a figure of mythical debauchery.

The fact of the matter remains, however, that we will never truly know Nero. We can only get two extreme accounts of him-one supportive, and one, more substantial, damning him. Though recently it has been accepted that the truth about Nero’s reign remains hidden somewhere between those two accounts, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly where. Modern romanticising of his reign has not helped this, and many documentaries and books on his reign merely act to obscure the balance between the two opinions. Nero has inspired so much artistic interest in his modern audience that his supposed final words, “what an artist dies in me”, take on a completely different meaning. Though an artist died with Nero, his death generated more works of art and imagination than he could possibly have wished for, transforming his rule into one of mythical proportions.

Written by Oscar Brierley

Reflecting on the definition of ‘cultural heritage’

I took Dr Heather Hunter-Crawley’s Greek and Roman Art and Architecture module last year and was taken on an art historical journey, studying the progression of art from Bronze Age Greece to the Byzantine era. One of the ways in which this module was brilliant was the way in which the students were taught how to ‘look’ at art, which isn’t as passive an experience as one may think (similarly to Alastair Sooke’s ‘Treasures of Ancient Greece’, a BBC Production which I highly recommend watching if you are interested in the art history of the ancient world). Heather teaches her students not only the historical significance of sculptures, pottery, and paintings – the Pergamum altar, and the Jockey of Artemision to name a couple of my favourites – but the ways in which they can be read and interpreted. However, while I could easily continue to write about the merits of this module that is not the purpose of this post. Instead I wish to write about a guest lecture given by Dr Nigel Pollard which was organised by Heather at the end of this module.

One focus of Nigel’s lecture was on the Hague Convention in 1954 which passed the Act on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, a law which made it a crime against human rights to damage or destroy a site or cultural or historical importance. The catalyst for this was the extensive damage done to sites during the Second World War, for example Coventry Cathedral or Pompeii. Now, this Act is enforced by groups such as the International Committee of the Blue Shield, which protect sites under threat and seeks to gain the co-operation of governments or other bodies that can help to implement this.

Figure1: Artemision Jockey. National Archaeological Museum, Athens

However, Nigel noted that while this law is commendable, it is not always enforced (of course some sites are easier to protect than others), and there is a global disparity in the definition of ‘cultural heritage’. For example in 2003 the Iraq National Museum in Bagdad was looted as a result of American forces not stepping into the security vacuum after the Taliban were pushed out. Also when comparing the number of UNESCO sites in Europe and Middle Eastern States the difference is quite staggering; 499 and 81 respectively (I use this example as Nigel’s lecture focused predominantly on the Middle East and the West). This to me suggests a dominant interest in Western sites and Western ideas of culture, perhaps at the expense of those elsewhere.  

Reflecting back on this lecture I can’t help but notice that in seeking to protect sites of cultural heritage, we are simultaneously potentially making them more vulnerable to cultural conflict. In the past, sites of cultural or historical importance have frequently been targeted by opposition parties as a means to demonstrate another culture’s vulnerability or lack of permanence in the world. In 25/24 BCE the Kushites invaded the province of Egypt (now North Sudan), and in a fit of triumph against Augustus, emperor of Rome, they severed a bronze head of Augustus (see figure 2), which they took back to Meroë and buried under the steps of their victory monument. Not only did this demonstrate resistance to Rome as it was never returned, but this symbolically showed the Kushites’ strength and perhaps cultural superiority over the Roman Empire, and would have evoked a sense of disgust from the Romans (if they knew that this had happened). 

With this in mind, it is perhaps not particularly surprising that cultural sites are damaged now, especially with Palmyra in mind (August 2015), and ongoing cultural conflict in the Middle East.

It is noticeable that the West has become increasingly desensitised to the atrocities that have been going on in the Middle East; some may go so far to say as disinterested. Therefore, destroying a place that we have so clearly stated is important to our culture seems an obvious way to attract our attention. Equally though, this Western interest in ancient sites has fuelled the selling of looted antiquities eg. from Apamea. Does that mean that the West is indirectly violating the 1954 Hague Convention?

While I agree that it is important to continue to protect sites with historical importance, I do think that we should be aware that there is a cultural disparity in the consensus in terms of ‘cultural significance’ which may have potentially caused conflict between groups of people. I also would argue that when people set out to protect these sites, it is necessary to be aware that increasing their publicity can have a negative impact. This is a diverse and complex topic, one which ultimately has no ideal solution.

Written by Minette Matthews, 2nd Year Ancient History Student

Here are a couple of links if you are interested in reading more on this:




Dr Nigel Pollard welcomes the new UK Cultural Property Act

On Thursday 23rd February 2017, the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill 2016-2017 received the Royal Assent and so became an Act of Parliament. This was a big moment for me, as I’ve been part of lobbying efforts to achieve this for the last five years as a board member of the UK National Committee of Blue Shield. The key provision of the Act is that the UK will finally ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on the protection of cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and its two Protocols, of 1954 and 1999. ‘Cultural Property’ in this sense includes monuments, sites and buildings, museums, galleries , libraries, archives and their contents ‘of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people’.

The Blue Shield emblem, displayed on the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Military History Museum) in Vienna. (photo by Corine Wegener)

Damage to cultural property has been long-standing feature of wars and internal conflicts throughout history, and has been subject to considerable scrutiny in recent decades, through conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Mali, Libya, Egypt and the former Yugoslavia. This is the result of deliberate, ideologically motivated attacks on cultural property associated with other cultures and religions, accidental damage caused by insufficient care and respect for cultural property when conducting military operations, failure of occupying armed forces to safeguard cultural sites and property for which they are responsible, and looting of unprotected sites and collections in conflict zones for the illicit antiquities trade.

The Temple of Bel at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra in Syria, deliberately destroyed by Da’esh (the ‘Islamic State’) in 2015.

The UK, like the USA, didn’t ratify the original 1954 Hague Convention for political and military reasons associated with its Cold War context, and while the UK claimed to work within the spirit of the Convention (for example, at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq), it is the last country with extensive military involvements abroad to ratify it. Passing of the Act and ratification of the Convention will be important symbolic steps in demonstrating the UK’s commitment to the protection of cultural property as well as having practical implications. For example, violations of the Convention and its protocols will be recognised as offences in UK law, and legal sanctions relating to dealing in ‘unlawfully exported cultural property’ will be strengthened.  The UK is preparing an inventory of its own cultural property for the purposes of protection, and potentially some buildings may be marked with the Blue Shield emblem for protection, already in use in some countries such as Austria. Another requirement of the Convention is that the UK is establishing a special unit within the armed forces for the protection of cultural property, inevitably popularly dubbed the ‘New Monuments Men’ after the Anglo-American Allied Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Sub-Commission of the Second World War, popularised by the 2014 George Clooney film. In addition, the UK set up a £30 million Cultural Protection Fund to fund projects and initiatives in this field in 2016, after consultation with heritage specialists including myself.

A late Roman house at Sergilla, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site ‘Ancient Villages of Northern Syria’, damaged in the course of fighting in the Syrian civil war.

I became interested in this issue through my research relating to damage to archaeological sites such as Pompeii in the Second World War, and the history of the ‘Monuments Men’ organisation. For that reason I played a role in the re-establishment of the UK National Committee of Blue Shield in 2012. However, as an archaeologist, much of my past research and fieldwork related to Roman Syria, so the intensification of the civil war there involved me more and more in contemporary efforts to preserve heritage sites in conflict zones.  I have digitised many of my images of archaeological sites in Syria that have been damaged in the conflict as a contribution to their preservation for research and teaching.

Written by Dr Nigel Pollard

For further information, see:






Epicurean Legacy

Written by Jack Brooker
2nd Year Ancient History Student at Swansea University
Published: February 2017

I chose to write about Epicurus because I think he is important. The world we live in has recently become, undeniably, highly politicised. I see the teachings of Epicurus, generally ignored as the basis for a moral code, as a solid foundation for friendly interaction between people. Perhaps if his philosophy was studied more closely, we would be further from the war of attrition between a myriad of inflexible groups, in which we currently find ourselves.

Epicurean Legacy

When we, the general public, hear the words ‘ancient philosophy’ our thoughts are generally drawn to Aristotle and Plato, the great beardy philosophers of the Greek Classical Period. Perhaps the more well-read amongst us will think of, gods forbid, the Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius (whose morose Meditations have plagued the world of Hellenistic Philosophy with dreariness for far too long).

But the Hellenistic world, fortunately, produced far more than just Stoicism; nor were the Stoics the only school of philosophy to influence modern thought. Indeed, one could argue that modern thought has been influenced more by the chief opponents of the Stoics, and the subjects of this piece: the Epicureans.

Born on Samos in 341 BCE, Epicurus founded his philosophical school – the Garden – outside the walls of Athens in 306. There he lived amongst his friends and fellow members of the school (with Epicurus considering the former the more important qualification) and constructed his philosophy, based upon the attainment of pleasure through the removal of both physical and mental pain. He died there in 270, leaving his school and home to his disciples.

Epicureanism thereafter spread rapidly through the classical world, eventually becoming a major philosophy within the Roman Empire. Gaius Cassius Longinus, the tyrannicide, was an Epicurean (though seemingly in breach of the Epicurean principle of not getting involved in politics). The Roman philosopher Lucretius, writing in the 1st Century BCE, penned the definitive distillation of Epicurus’ philosophy in Latin, De Rerum Natura (‘On the Nature of Things’). Both Cicero and Seneca discussed Epicureanism in their works, and the charred papyrus scrolls discovered in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum are a treasure trove of Epicurean works, including the works of Philodemus.

A series of Stoic emperors and the rise of Christianity, coupled with the general reluctance of Epicureans to engage in public life, led to the decline of the philosophy in latter half and aftermath of the Roman Empire, with its only echo to be found in the monastic communities of the Christian monks (environments which, I suspect, were much less joy-oriented). However, the ideas of the Epicureans would be rediscovered in the early Renaissance, and went on to become the cornerstone of modern thought.

Epicurean atomism, the theory that everything in the universe consists of invisible atoms of a fixed shape, size and weight, would be developed by 16th and 17th Century scholars to develop the heliocentric solar system model of Copernicus into something defensible, and by Renaissance alchemists to develop the theories that would eventually become the science of chemistry.

Epicurean philosophies have also informed some of the greatest historical social thinkers: Epicurus’ view that supernatural entities (like gods) are unable to have any direct influence in the natural world informed the metaphysical views of Kant and Hume, Epicurean ideas about natural law and justice informed the social contract theories of Hobbes and Rousseau, and the principle of maximising pleasure and reducing pain was a driving idea for the founders of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Epicurus’ ideal of living a contented life even informed the walking, talking controversy that was Karl Marx.

The works of Epicurus and his successors have had an immeasurable impact upon the social and scientific thought of the modern world. Their slip back into obscurity, in an age where ever increasing numbers of people report being unhappy or discontent with daily life, cannot be allowed to stand. So, whilst Aristotle and Plato are all well and good, I would argue that we all need to inject a little Epicureanism into the mix. And, yes, I suppose we can study the Stoics too…

For a more comprehensive discussion of Epicurean philosophy and its influence on modern thinking, see Catherine Wilson’s Epicureanism: A Very Short Introduction, in the popular Oxford Very Short Introduction series.

A comprehensive collection of works by Epicurean philosophers can be found in The Epicurean Philosophers, edited by John Gaskin and published by Everyman.






Figure 1: Bust of Epicurus, Roman, 3rd/2nd C. BCE

Politicians ancient and modern in the comedy series Plebs

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. (Please note political views are the student’s, not necessarily the department’s.)

A striking result from a class quiz result got me thinking about the political message in the comedy series Plebs. Asked whether we agree that the series is ‘purely for entertainment’, the vast majority of us, including myself, answered in the affirmative. On reflection, though, I think I answered like this because of the show’s close similarity to The Inbetweeners – a sitcom about a dysfunctional group of lads, outsiders to the society they live in, who are thrown together into outrageous situations. But I have now come to the conclusion that underlying the comedy of Plebs is a political message. Tom Basden, a writer on the show, admits that the ‘Plebgate’ scandal in politics, featuring a clash between an MP and the police, at the time of the show’s initial release highlighted a key theme: that people are the same now as they were two thousand years ago. He explains that there is always going to be the angry mob ready to criticise the rich and powerful; and that society will always be obsessed with class.[1] So, with this in mind I am interested in Plebs’ use of Classics and modern politics.


We all know that politicians are basically untrustworthy. Nigel Farage exemplifies this, for example in his promise that there would be £350 million for the NHS once we voted for Brexit. In Plebs, there is no greater archetype for the untrustworthy politician than Victor in the episode on The Candidate. He is clearly depicted as the ‘conservative’ candidate for the election week. He hires ‘clappers’ (people to support his campaign trail) and wears a Donald Trump type toupee. What is more worrying is that he has no idea about the common people. When visiting a poorer district, the Aventine, Victor declares that the people would like a “biscuit based brawl”. This is a clear dig at our out of touch politicians, such as Ed Miliband who guessed that a weekly shop for a family of four would be £70 or £80, which is £30 short of the national average.[2] Even though his representation is exaggerated, Victor’s cluelessness about the Aventine does seem to be plausible because there was no real ‘middle class’ in Ancient Rome.

Victor (middle) with Marcus (left)

Julius Priscus, who represents the opposition, is also worth a mention. He has laudable socialist ideas about renewing the Aventine and stopping corrupt landlords. Ironically, at the end of the episode, the game of politics seems to have changed him. He wins the campaign, but only with the support of the landlords he so desperately wanted to get rid of. Grumio dubs him a “slippery sod”, and I must say, on the whole, that this is the prevailing feeling about all politicians by the end of this episode.

“A tiny cog in a big wheel”

Key targets for satire are ‘the landlords’, a mafia-esque consortium, working together to keep themselves rich and the poor, even poorer. As Landlord states, as he raises Marcus and Stylax’s rent, “I’m just a tiny cog in a big wheel”. But this does not ring true for the rest of the episode. In fact, Landlord has a sinister hold over the politics in Rome and ultimately Davus, his henchman, assassinates Victor. Earlier in the episode the group of landlords have an informal meeting with Victor at the baths, ominously remarking: “we think you’ve forgotten who your friends are.” The parallel between the personal relationship between endorser and endorsee, common in modern politics, is difficult to miss: in the Tory party, reportedly, the highest donation from an individual was from the businessman, Michael Farmer, who is also co-treasurer of the Tory party.[3] It seems that manipulation in politics has been true throughout time, and scholars such as Staveley explore how voting was rigged in Rome.[4] It occurs to me that the disparity between the classes is really apparent in the context of Plebs. The show uses this to highlight the failings of our own politicians.

Alright, Landlord?!

Marcus climbs the social ladder, becoming a ‘wigman’ cum political advisor to Victor’s campaign. He suggests a cap on rent in the Aventine to Victor; and in desperation for the crowd’s applause Victor supports it and Marcus’ and Landlord’s roles are then reversed. This is displayed perfectly when Marcus delivers the line back to Landlord: “I am just a ting cog in a big wheel”. Reversal of class is something we also witness in the episode Jugball, when Marcus takes on Flavia’s job. Both times though, the role reversal is restored as Victor is assassinated and Flavia becomes manager again. By the end of The Candidate and Jugball the main characters in fact end up in a poorer position than they were previously, and in The Candidate, Aurelius informs the gang that they will be fined if they do not clap at political speeches.


On the whole, Plebs criticizes the corruption that surrounds politics, the way in which it is used as a game simply to be won. It undermines the two main modern ideologies of Labour and Conservative by displaying the representatives, Victor or Julius Priscus, as easily bought. Nothing changes at the end of the episode; there is no revolution of the people, no fair representation for the Aventine. The status quo remains the same, and there is a feeling that history repeats itself. And, I must say, a similar feeling comes every five years after an election.

Written by Rebecca Elms


[1] Basden, T (2013) ‘Plebs: A funny thing happened on the way to the Colosseum’, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/comedy/features/plebs-a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-the-colosseum-8547754.html. Accessed: 26/10/2016/.

[2] Graham, G. (2014). ‘Ed Miliband’s weekly shopping bill? Er… £70? More?’, The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/ed-miliband/10842953/Ed-Milibands-weekly-shopping-bill-Er…-70-More.html. Accessed: 27/10/2016

[3] Thelwell, E. ‘FactCheck: party donors—who funds Labour and the Tories’, http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/labour-funding-party-donors-tories-factcheck/13899 . Accessed: 27/10/2016

[4] Staveley, E. (1972) Greece and Roman Voting and Elections. London: Thames and Hudson.

Chocolate, death, and St Valentine

You’ve probably all seen the St Valentine’s meme on social media:

(Image from: http://blog.cnbeyer.com/history/will-the-real-st-valentine-please-stand-up-or-why-i-hate-the-history-channel/)

It is a pretty good joke, pointing out the incongruity of celebrating the violent death of an early Christian martyr at Rome with a consumerist frenzy dedicated to love and romance. Moreover, the meme is quite well-informed: the basic outlines of the story derive from an anonymous Latin account of Valentine’s torture and death.

Of course, the whole story is pretty dubious. The text itself is late, dating to the sixth or seventh century, and so to some 200-300 years after the Romans had stopped persecuting Christians. Many of the details it contains push the limits of historical credibility. The persecution in which Valentine supposedly died happened “during the reign of Claudius” but it is not clear which Claudius is meant: the Julio-Claudian emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) is too early, given that Roman persecution of Christians didn’t begin until the reign of his successor Nero; and the later emperor Claudius II (268-270) is not known to have suppressed Christians. The historical situation is confused further by the text’s mention that Valentine was a priest at Rome when the pope was Callistus, whose dates of 217-222 coincide with the reign of neither emperor Claudius. If you like your history full of “accurate facts”, this story will have you pulling your hair out.

But that is probably to approach the text about Valentine in the wrong way. It was never meant as straight history, but rather as a celebration of a Roman saint and martyr. In fact, it is one of dozens of Latin romances about martyrs composed at Rome between the fifth and seventh centuries. These texts reflect the popularity of martyr cult, and were themselves so popular that their use in Christian services had to be restricted by the Church.

The Valentine story shares many features with these other romances – and not just a cavalier attitude to historical “accuracy”. The scenes of Valentine curing a magistrate’s daughter of blindness, of his subsequent arrest, torture, and death, as well as of the recovery of his body by a Christian matron who then buries it in a Christian cemetery – all of these are features that can be found in countless Roman martyr romances. Moreover, the story of Valentine appears in a connected narrative that contains the stories of other martyrs too, such as the Persian pilgrims Marius, Martha, Audifax, and Abbacuc who came to Rome to visit the tombs of the martyrs and ended up as martyrs themselves.

In other words, the story makes perfect sense in the context of Christian Rome in Late Antiquity. This was a time when the flourishing cult of martyrs created a demand for stories to explain who these martyrs were. These stories often papered over cracks and uncertainties in the historical record, or simply invented details where none survived. For example, from a calendar of saints’ days that dates to the same period as the story of Valentine, we learn that 14 February was associated with not one but two martyrs called Valentine: one from Rome, and the other from Interamna, modern Terni in Umbria, but confusingly buried at Rome. (And there are other Valentines besides: the name was relatively common.) Were these two Valentines the same person? Scholars usually assume that they were, but disagree on which came first. In any case, the story told in the martyr romance about Valentine is plainly the Roman one mentioned in the calendar. It records that he was buried on 14 February at the Via Flaminia leading north from Rome, where a church dedicated in Valentine’s name is known from the fourth century. (Barely anything remains there anymore, although a skull allegedly belonging to a St Valentine is now on display in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the centre of Rome.) And that is essentially what the story is all about: an explanation of how a Valentine celebrated on 14 February ended up buried on the Via Flaminia, and to which various details of his heroic Christian resolve in the face of persecution have been added.

So did St Valentine suffer as horribly as the meme suggests? Probably not: the story was invented to tell a compelling and inspiring story to a receptive audience. But then he has nothing to do with the celebration of romantic love either: that association seems to have come about only in the later Middle Ages. So far as St Valentine is concerned, Tina Turner got it absolutely right when she sang: “What’s love got to do with it? What’s love but a second hand emotion?”

In other words, you can send each other chocolates, and gobble them up too, with a clear conscience.

Written by Prof. Mark Humphries

Charon doesn’t have a great job, but he Styx with it – the representation of Charon in O’Connor’s graphic novel ‘Hades’

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.

I’ve always been a fan of comic books and graphic novels and was surprised to find that someone had created a  series about the Greek gods. Finding out that the target audience of the Olympians was young children I was worried that I would not be able to fully enjoy them; how wrong I was! After reading Zeus I decided to read Hades as I view Hades as the most underrated Greek god. I call him a Greek god instead of an Olympian because just as O’Connor says in his author’s note that ‘He cheated. Hades is not an Olympian.’ That being said I had expectations before sitting down to read Hades of a quite morbid and dark visual novel and my expectations were fully met by O’Connor.

 At its core the Hades novel’s primary purpose is to teach its reader about how Hades came to be married to Persephone. But any piece of work writing about death and the underworld contains deeper meanings. O’Connor chooses to describe the journey into the underworld as if it were you yourself embarking on the journey. This not only allows him to fit as much information about the underworld as possible in a short period of time, but also allows him to touch on much more existential meanings

The Hardworking Ferryman

The ferryman Charon is one of the staples of the Underworld in the ancient world. He did not have to be included in this visual novel as O’Connor’s focus is primarily on the Olympians. However O’Connor has him appear in 8 panels throughout Hades with most of these appearing at the start of the visual novel. We can say that by including Charon at the start of Hades, O’Connor bases the structure of this graphic novel on the journey a dead person would take as they enter the underworld. Charon also acts as O’Connor’s ‘tour guide’ as he ferries the soul past all the noticeable criminals in the underworld allowing O’Connor to describe them to his reader.

Sullivan sums up Charon’s depiction in Greek literature as ‘the busy, impatient ferryman, anxious to get the shades aboard’.[1] It is important to look at the depiction of Charon in Greek literature as O’Connor himself revealed he used Hesiod’s Theogony as a model for his Zeus. Euripides mentions Charon in his Alcestis as Alcestis says ‘the ferryman of the dead, Charon, has his hand on the quant and calls to me now: “Why delay? Hurry! You’re holding me up”.[2] This is further evidence of O’Connor taking his model of Charon from Greek literature, much in the same way he modelled Zeus on his representation in the Theogony. O’Connor has clearly gone to great lengths to create an authentic depiction of his characters, even minor ones such as Charon.

Charon as the grim reaper: O’Connor’s hybrid ferryman


Figure 1: Charon and Hermes Psychopomp, Athenian red-figure lekythos C5th B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art

Figure 2: Detail from Athenian red-figure white-ground clay vase circa 450-400 BC. Munich, Antikensammlungen 2777. © Antikensammlungen, Munich

Looking at these two images we can see that O’Connor’s inspiration for his Charon was not just limited to literary descriptions as there were many vases depicting Charon. Sullivan speaks about this saying that Charon was ‘glorified in Greek art’ often depicted with Hermes guiding the soul of the dead.[3] This means that O’Connor had many ancient literary and visual depictions of Charon as a base model. But we can see a break from the ancient visual depiction of Charon as when looking at his clothing in O’Connor’s Hades we see a very dark and cloaked old man. The vases above show Charon as wearing a tunic that barely covers his body whilst also looking more approachable to the dead person he is ferrying across. What O’Connor has clearly done here is move away from the Charon of the ancient world. Instead he creates a hybrid of the modern interpretation of the Grim Reaper with the dark cloak and the animal skull on the front of his boat. Neither of these elements is present on the Greek vases.

Importance of the Coin

The coin to pay the ferryman is a very prominent concept that is found in many literary works. The most notable of these are Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, and the story of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.[4][5] Stevens speaks of the custom of putting a coin in a deceased person’s mouth as being found in Greek and Latin literature from 5th Century BC to 2nd Century AD.[6] At first glance it is just a simple coin but Stevens writes that ‘the low value of the coin is a symbol of the poverty of death’.[7] What this can also mean is that no matter how rich or poor you are when you die, it is the same low amount of money that lets you pass on.

Coinciding with this, when looking at the picture to the right, O’Connor writes that ‘hopefully a loved one placed a coin in your mouth’. This at first glance can mean that you physically cannot put the coin in your mouth when you’re dead, which is true. However it has much more weight behind it in a modern view, as you are made to think about your own family and loved ones. They are the ones who decide what happens to you when you die, such as what coffin you have and whether you are buried or cremated.

What I personally take from this comic is that when we die we are all worth the same value, except to your family and loved ones who will mourn your loss. This is emphasised by the comic itself as Hades no longer wants to be alone in the underworld.

Written by Adam Smith

[1] Sullivan, F. A (1950) ‘Charon, the Ferryman of the Dead’, Classical Journal, 46.1, 12.

[2] Euripides Alcestis 252-63.

[3] Sullivan, F. A (1950) ‘Charon, the Ferryman of the Dead’, Classical Journal, 46.1. p.12.

[4] Virgil Aeneid 6.299-317.

[5] Apuleius Metamorphoses, 6.18.

[6] Stevens, S.T. (1991) ‘Charon’s Obol and Other Coins in Ancient Funerary Practice’, Phoenix, 45.3, 215.

[7] Stevens, S.T. (1991) ‘Charon’s Obol and Other Coins in Ancient Funerary Practice’, Phoenix, 45.3, 219-220.