Reflections on this year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival from the Classics department.

In recent years the festival has featured an increasing number of talks on Classical literature and history, all delivered by prominent Classicists, spearheaded by the redoubtable Mary Beard. We took our 6thform Latin and Greek scholars to hear several of them and these are their thoughts:

Roman Emperors

This was a lively forum, given by academics (Adrian Goldsworthy and Harry Sidebottom) who were clearly passionate about the classical world, and who convincingly argued that the study of the Classics is still as vibrant and exciting as it has ever been. What I found particularly interesting was how persuasive the panel was about the influence of the Classical World on so many aspects of our modern world, and how much we can still learn from characters such as Augustus. Peter Stothard even argued that ‘the classical world had saved his life,’ such was the impact it had had on him as an individual-telling surely of how much we have to gain from studying Classical history and literature.

Alice Helm Upper 6th

Delphi; A journey to the centre of the ancient world

Michael Scott took us to Delphi, the centre of the ancient world for more than 1000 years. Scott captivated us from the beginning, exploring the ancients’ differing opinions and mythology as to its rise to prophetic power. He also gave several compelling reasons for its survival and lasting importance, despite its geographical obscurity. These ranged from its oracular authority to its being the backdrop to city state competition and rivalry through dedications and votive offerings. We were reminded of the role Delphi plays even today. It continues to be a place of wonder and mystery. Scott pleads with us that this is how it should remain; we are not to ruin the magic by scientific analysis. He concluded that surely a site which has commanded such authority is worth our continued attention today.

Ben George Upper 6th

Why Homer Matters

On reading the title of this talk, my first thought was that it is self-evident – Homer’s two epics are world renowned and shape much of literature today. But in this talk, Adam Nicolson explained why these poems still convey so much about what it is to be human.
He discussed how the raw emotions of the characters: the desperation of grief, the instinctive patriotism, the necessity and importance of familial relationships, are still very much relatable to humans today.

Annabelle Stuart-Bourne Upper 6th

How to read a Latin poem: Martial

Live criticism is an exhilarating experience and two minds are better than one; we can draw a great many inferences from the session by Mary Beard of Cambridge and Llewelyn Morgan of Oxford admirably chaired by Peter Stoddart. We would do well to learn to discuss our ideas with others before publishing our definitive conclusions. Though it was a pleasure to hear these poems read rhythmically and with great understanding in the original Latin, it is also a great tribute to this panel that they present the works in such a way that those with little or no Latin can so get much out of it, while it is also a very challenging session for experienced Latinists. No wonder that the session regularly draws such an audience – in terms of both numbers and involvement.

But definitive conclusions are often elusive in the case of the Roman poet Martial – if only because many of his poems are so short. If there is one overriding feature that this panel brought out it is that the reader – or as we were privileged to be – the hearer is challenged to come to his own conclusion. We studied a good clutch of poems; the panel elucidated the references and how much we can infer from them. How economically did the poet present the social climber Zoilus – from slave’s lowly state to equestrian standing, by merely referring to the chains of the former and the ring of the latter! Then there was the powerful economy of the gay liaison – only presented as a surprise in the last word of the couplet was revealed as ‘nupsit’ (married as a woman) rather than ‘duxit’ (as a man).

But if economy is the watchword that runs throughout this author, there is tremendous range in the topics addressed. He includes the show that Domitian presented at the opening of the Colosseum; but also Chloe who buried seven husbands –but does ‘scelerata’ simply tell us that she regretted outliving her husband (seven times!) – it was often used in this way on epitaphs – or do we read it in its crude sense of ‘wicked’? Martial challenges us by the final enigmatic rhetorical question: ‘What could be more straightforward?’

Charles Wright Classics Department

Laughter in Ancient Rome

Mary Beard’s opening premise was a persuasive one: knowing what the Romans laughed at and at whom and why brings us closer to a culture that in so many ways remains defiantly alien. She concentrated on a collection of jokes (265 of them) collated and written down in Greek sometime in the 4thor 5thcentury AD. We do not know the identity of the scholar-compiler who decided to put together this jokebook (about teachers and scholars, eggheads and fools, people with bad breath, women with prodigious sexual appetites, drunkards and misogynists) but he is known as the “Philogelos” or the “Laughter Lover”. Some are simply not funny ; take this for example: An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man’s wife said that he had ‘departed’, the intellectual replied: “When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?” Others are quite incomprehensible – consider this: While a drunkard was imbibing in a tavern, someone approached and told him: “Your wife is dead.” Taking this in, he said to the bartender: “Time, sir, to mix a drink up from your dark stuff.” Other than discovering that the Romansinter alia,clearly enjoyed jokes of a sexist or misogynistic nature and that the ethnic/racist joke was as popular in Imperial Rome as it was in Bernard Manning’s Britain of the 1970s (the people of Abdera, a town in Asia Minor, had a reputation for inordinate stupidity apparently. Jokes were made about them in the same way in which the Irish were subjected to similarly crude stereotyping), I must confess that I was left feeling underwhelmed by Mary’s attempts to reveal what it was that made the Romans guffaw! Perhaps I should not be surprised – after all is not the humour of a people or nationsui generis?

Jonathan Allen Classics Department

Blood, Sex and Death: Greek Drama

Three eminent literary scholars discussed the appeal and enduring value of Greek Drama. Starting with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and the manner in which Clytemnestra persuades her husband Agamemnon, returning from victory at Troy, to enter the palace walking over a red carpet like an eastern potentate, Rosie Wyles, Edith Hall and Tom Holland (under the direction of Natalie Haynes) discussed the imagery of blood, and how, in this and other plays, the graphic details of death are usually narrated by a messenger but the visual impact of corpses and a character’s self-mutilation (as in the case of Oedipus, king of Thebes) is even more powerful. For the ancient world, when death was commonplace, it was expedient for Athenian society, and the wider Greek society in general, to tackle the issue of suffering and death through dramatic representation and the reactions and emotions it evoked. Many resonances with the modern world were discussed, such as recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Mulala Yousafzai reminding Tom Holland of Sophocles’ Antigone speaking out for truth whatever the consequences and a recent production of Euripides’ Trojan Women in Syria performed by women, where victims of war lament their sufferings and long for the days of peace. So as not to get overly serious, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata was discussed to deal with the second of the titular triad and overall this was a stimulating and thought-provoking session, as we were guided through a number of tragedies and comedies from ancient Athens.