Five Questions with… Dr Holton

Classics Marketing Intern Chloe has been finding out more about our academic staff! Next up on the interview list is Dr Stephanie Holton, Senior Lecturer in Classics

Who is your favourite ancient writer and why? 

It’s so hard to choose! I’d probably actually say Aeschylus – I love the Oresteia, his Clytemnestra is phenomenal! It’s always my favourite thing to read with my classes, and it usually results in lots of interesting end of term projects on Clytemnestra (especially her dreams).

What are your hobbies outside of classics?

Drawing, adventuring with my 5 year old son, watching too much TV, reading lots of non-classical modern fiction. I’ve just started reading the DCI Ryan series by LJ Ross, and I’m completely obsessed.

Who do you think is one of the most interesting figures of antiquity and why? 

Pythagoras – because he’s not just about triangles! There’s so much more: a secretive cult, bilocation, a golden thigh, magical arrows, talking rivers, reincarnation, a field of beans causing a murder… The early Greek philosophers are wild.

What book would you recommend to everyone? 

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Essential on any classicist’s reading list!

What are you researching at the moment? 

A few different things: I’m working on a chapter about sleep patterns in the ancient world, and preparing a new book on early Greek beliefs about the afterlife. I also have a few smaller projects ongoing about the inscriptions on Hadrian’s Wall, object-based learning, and alternative assessment methods in Higher Education.

Thanks Dr Holton! If you’d like to find out more about her research and teaching, you can visit her Academic Profile Page.

Five Questions with… Dr Walter

Classics Marketing Intern Chloe has been finding out more about our academic staff! Next up on the interview list is Dr Anke Walter, Senior Lecturer in Classics

Who is your favourite ancient writer and why? 

Hard to say – but if I had to pick just one, I’d probably say Ovid, for the variety of his works, his imagination, and wit.

Who do you think is one of the most interesting figures of antiquity?

Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, who lived from 63BC – AD14. He ruled from 27BC until his death.

Why have you chosen Augustus?

I keep being fascinated by his skills in using the past to create a new present.

What book would you recommend to everyone? 

Vergil’s Aeneid.

What are you researching at the moment? 

I am currently researching how festivals are depicted in Latin texts of different genres, and which narrative and metapoetic functions their representation can have.

Thanks Dr Walter! If you’d like to find out more about her research and teaching, you can visit her Academic Profile Page.

Five Questions with… Dr Phillippo

Classics Marketing Intern Chloe has been finding out more about our academic staff! Her first interviewee is Dr Phillippo, Senior Lecturer in Classics..

Hello Dr Phillippo! The first question is hopefully an easy one: who is your favourite ancient writer and why?

Homer, because of the Iliad: I love how it’s so even-handed in its sympathies for Trojans as well as Greeks (Hector’s death in Book 22 and the scenes with him, his wife and his son always make me cry); also the wonderful similes that bring in working men and women and even a boy with a sandcastle!

 What are your hobbies outside of classics?

Baking biscuits, decorating cakes, playing violin in the university orchestra, singing, football and writing stories about (and drawing) penguins…. to name just a few!

 Who do you think is one of the most interesting figures of antiquity and why?

One female, one male!  Telesilla of Argos is intriguing: 6th-5th C female poet (sadly only tiny fragments of her work survive) who was said to have orchestrated defence of the city against Spartan attack (in one account arming the women and slaves to ‘man’ (!) the defences!).  Sophocles, who wrote some 120 plays, managed to remain popular with the notoriously fickle Athenians despite having political involvement at several tricky points, and was still writing great tragedies in his 90s (now I’m over 50 I especially appreciate this!)

 What book would you recommend to everyone?

My favourite novelists about the classical world are Mary Renault and Rosemary Sutcliff; I’d recommend almost all their work but since I’m a Hellenist, top of my list would be Renault’s two Theseus novels (The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea: strong female characters in both as well as interesting male ones), and The Praise Singer (about the life of the poet Simonides, but also a superb evocation of the poetic, political and cultural world of late 6th-century Greece; there’s a great and rather tragic episode set at the Olympic Games).

 What are you researching at the moment?

Three projects at the moment!  I’ve been working on Sir Charles Monck, owner and designer of local NE Belsay Hall and estate: his references to classical literature in the diaries of his travels in Greece and Sicily, and his later life manuscript translation of Homer’s Iliad.  I’m finishing off an article on Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman Britain novels, looking at how she uses quotations from and allusions to classical literature within her key theme of contrasts and links between cultures.  And this year I’m returning to work on 17th century French tragedy and its complex links to Greek literature, with particular focus on Jean Racine and his privately annotated copies of Homer, Sophocles and Euripides.

Thanks Dr Phillippo! You can find out even more about Dr Phillippo’s teaching and research over on her Academic Profile Page

Exploring Ancient Medicine!

During the pandemic, we were invited to take part in a cross-Faculty collaborative project to support the GCSE History paper Health and the People, designed and led by our amazing University Library Education Outreach team in collaboration with the Great North Museum. This resulted in an in-person exhibition at the Great North Museum (which you can still visit on Level 1!) as well as an accompanying online exhibition for those further afield:

Our own Dr S Holton delivered online talks for local pupils on ancient medical beliefs as part of the project, using key objects from the museum’s collections. But the most exciting part was when the outreach team were asked to deliver some family-friendly activities at the museum over February half-term! We couldn’t wait! We had so many ideas – some messier than others! – but eventually settled on activities linked to the exhibition artefacts.

Ancient Egypt

We decided to showcase a very exciting Magic Wand from Ancient Egypt, on loan to the Great North Museum from the collections at the British Museum:

This is an apotropaic wand – a fancy word meaning it was used to keep bad luck away! It is made from ivory and dedicated to the goddess Taweret. Taweret is the Ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility and childbirth. If you’ve seen Disney’s Moon Knight, you’ll recognise her as the very cheery hippo goddess:

Along with colouring and cutting Ancient Egyptian god/goddess masks, we thought everyone could use a magic wand – especially one which doubles as a handy bookmark! Using a simple hieroglyph chart, we helped children spell their names out on a bright yellow piece of card. We were so impressed with the many amazing magic wands we saw — hopefully they will bring you plenty of good luck, too!

Ancient Greece & Rome

For our second activity, we decided to focus on the anatomical votives left at the sanctuaries of Asclepius. This seemed like a good excuse to make something fun while also teaching kids the Ancient Greek alphabet – and it was very popular! There were two options: cutting out colourful body parts or getting messy with some rainbow clay, then adding your name in Ancient Greek. They looked fantastic at the end of the day at our Temple to Asclepius, especially with their neatly written Ancient Greek labels!

A huge thank you to everyone who came along and crafted ancient artefacts with us – we had such an amazing day. And especially thanks to the lovely team at the Great North Museum for letting us unleash ancient chaos for two days straight!

Finding out about: Ancient Women

Interested in learning more about women in the ancient world? Chloe (Stage 3 Ancient History) gives some advice on where to start!

When first learning about ancient Greece and Rome, what becomes immediately and increasingly visible is the absence and silence of women within the pages of Greco-Roman history. The overwhelming majority of our literary sources for the classical world are written by, and for, elite men – and it can therefore feel rather difficult and hopeless trying to navigate and uncover a female perspective. However, just beneath this surface, the voices of women are visible – and this post will hopefully help guide you to the many different ways you can find out more about ancient women!

Myth retellings are a perfect place to start when learning about women in Greek and Roman mythology, whether hearing the exploits of powerful goddesses like Aphrodite, Artemis and Hera, or getting a glimpse into more everyday mortal lives. The last decade has seen a flourish of new books centred around giving women from mythology a voice, such as the works of Natalie Haynes, Jennifer Saint, Bettany Hughes and Pat Barker. While these novels are obviously written as fiction, many are based in the equally fictional and poetic world of the epic cycle,  and provide an updated perspective on well-known women like Andromache, Hecuba, Cassandra, Briseis, Helen, and Penelope. Our favourite myth retellings that are brilliant for beginners include: A Thousand Ships and Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes, and The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Bettany Hughes meanwhile has focused on the incredible mythological life of Helen of Troy, providing a much needed empowered perspective to this figure who faced immense sexism, both in antiquity and in modern commentaries. The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper is one of the most compelling recent novels that navigates the complex lives of women in one of Pompeii’s brothels. The protagonist Amara is an enslaved Greek woman sold into sex-work, and the deeply moving storyline follows her journey and friendships with the lives of the other women in the Wolf Den. While the narrative is fictional, the details of Pompeii and of the experiences of prostitutes are exceptionally reconstructed, well-researched and grounded in historical truth that ultimately elevate this piece to must-read novel.

Arguably the best way to learn about ancient women is to read and absorb their surviving words, fragments and poems. Unfortunately, only about fifty-five works from ancient female writers and poets survive today, comprehensively compiled in a fabulous sourcebook by I M Plant, Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome. While most people have heard of Sappho, and read her intoxicatingly beautiful love songs, there are a breadth of forgotten Greco-Roman women with equally intricate prose, including Erinna, Corinna, Praxilla, Nossis, and Antye. One of my favourite female poets is Sulpicia, who is the only surviving Latin love elegist. Her short cycle of six poems depicts a truthful picture of a young woman navigating her relationship with Cerinthus, and details the feelings of betrayal, heartache and fervent passion that accompany a love affair. If you want to read non-erotic prose, then Erinna’s poetry is perfect in illuminating the domestic and social role of women. Her poem ‘The Distaff’ provides an intimate picture of female friendship, as the poetic voice laments her recently deceased friend and illuminates the significance of marriage in the female world, and how this also signifies departure, absence and grief for the friends left behind. Routledge will soon publish a new sourcebook on Ancient Women Writers of Greece and Rome – an up-to-date collection with modern translations and commentaries, which is perfect for learning about an array of Greco-Roman women writers. If you are a university or college student, you can ask your University Library to acquire a digital or hard copy of it – both to save you some money and also to contribute to the continued study of ancient women that other students may have originally overlooked. To read excerpts and poems for free, there are lots of useful websites with translations online such as the Perseus Digital Library.

In recent years, many classicists and historians have tackled the reconstruction of the identities of powerful female figures from ancient history, particularly the Julio-Claudian women. The seemingly power-hungry and manipulative women of the early Roman empire have captured much attention: Emma Southon’s book Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore explores the extraordinary life of Agrippina the Younger, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero. This biography is not only excellently written and researched, but also brings to life the incredible figure of Agrippa, detailing her journey to becoming the most powerful woman in Rome. Another excellent biography by Annelise Freisenbruch The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind The Caesars unveils the incredible lives of Rome’s Empresses from Livia to Galla Placidia. It is perfect for gaining a wider grasp of elite women in the Roman Empire, and understanding the immense private power of the empresses. More interested in fierce mythological women? The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor brings to life the stories of the warrior women of the Amazons. Mayor explores the potential historical truth behind these myths, ultimately illuminating how battle-trained female warriors could have existed in the ancient world.

But women from the lower strata of society are still, arguably, silenced. Scholars have started to research the lives of working women in brilliant articles such as Brocks ‘The Labour of Women in Classical Athens’ which convincingly argues for the large presence of women in the public workforce. Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant’s sourcebook, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, collates a wide range of evidence types together exploring women’s roles in areas like religion and medicine, as well as laws relating to women, and different accounts of women’s behaviour in public and in private. Selections from it are accessible on the Diotima website – which also has a wealth of amazing resources on women and gender in the ancient world. For one of the best overviews of ancient women from all social backgrounds, from prehistory to the end of the Roman empire, Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Wives, Whores and Slaves is hard to beat. Though it was published nearly four decades ago, it marks a clear turning point in the study of ancient women – and its focus on the lived day-to-day experiences of all women is still essential today.

Classics Book Club: Silence of the Girls

Ancient History student – and resident book expert – William Rigby talks us through Pat Barker’s phenomenal 2018 retelling of the Trojan War. You can follow his reading adventures over on Instagram at @rigby_reads!

The Silence of the Girls, written by Pat Barker in 2018, is set in the mythological world of Homer’s Iliad. Homer’s Iliad is a setting where male aggression and power struggles take centre stage. 10 long years of siege, countless dead on both sides, sons, brothers, fathers, husbands, all killed in the name of a single King’s desire for his wife to be returned to him and for his honour to be restored. It is a setting in which ancient heroes were brought to life. Familiar figures like Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon all fight to achieve kleos, everlasting glory. In this setting, their actions are heroic, brave and courageous. And their feats are echoed throughout history forever. Achilles fulfil his prophecy, and he is still revered as one of the greatest fighters of all time. Odysseus achieves his nostos, his homecoming. And Agamemnon successfully sacks the city of Troy.

However, you may notice a glaring omission from this description. There are no women. This is a world where male fantasy is given higher priority over female reality. A quote from The Silence of The Girls clearly shows a female’s place in this world:

‘Silence becomes a woman’

This deeply misogynistic rhetoric is commonplace in this world. Their voices are never consulted in the original text, their actions are unnoticed, and their position is often seen as an item. An accessory to a man’s entourage of baubles and titles.

Barker takes up the important and eye-opening task of giving a voice to the voiceless. The Silence of the Girls serves as a feminist retelling of these ancient stories. This refreshing female perspective allows its audience to try and imagine the experiences that women went through on a daily basis inside the Greek camp.

Barker’s Briseis is a tenacious and complex character. Her life as a slave to Achilles and then to Agamemnon and then back to Achilles is a stark reminder of the reality of ancient warfare. Too often are we told of the heroics, stratagems and feats, but not nearly enough are we reminded of the gritty reality of war. Unfortunately, while unique in her own rights, Briseis’s experiences are far too common a fate.

There is a specific line in this book that encapsulates this divide between fantasy and reality. It takes place when King Priam begs Achilles for the body of his dead son, Hector, to be returned. On his knees, he declares:

“I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”

Closely mirroring the original lines in Iliad 24 (503-506) this is a scene that is wrapped in pathos and dramatic weight. It is a terrifying sentiment for anyone to comprehend, but the fact that he says this with such grace and respect is revealing of what kind of man Priam is. But then, in an aside to the audience, Briseis remarks:

“I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”

This line is a perfect juxtaposition. It is a stark message and reminder to the audience, that whilst the stories of these men are undoubtedly tragic, and their lives are woven with gut-wrenching drama and irony. But, on the other hand, the women are forced to suffer a much more human and prolonged reality.

Achilles and Briseis fresco in the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii
ArchaiOptix CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Book Club Questions

1. Briseis’ attitude toward Achilles changes throughout the course of the novel. Did you always find yourself agreeing with her opinion of him? Why or why not?

2. What is most striking about the difference between how Achilles presents himself privately and publicly? In what ways do the two personas merge toward the end of the novel?

3. How did reading The Silence of the Girls impact your understanding of Homer’s Iliad? What did this book add to the story of the Trojan War as a whole?

4. There are many visceral and devastating depictions of war and its aftermath in The Silence of the Girls. Which moment struck you as the most heartbreaking or poignant?

5. Honour (τιμή), for your family and your city, is a strong theme of the Iliad. How does this theme apply to The Silence of the Girls?

6. The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the Iliad from one of the minor character’s point of view. If Pat Barker were to write another retelling, whose point of view would you be most interested in reading? How, for instance, might Paris, Helen’s lover, tell his tale?

7. What did you think of Barker’s decision never explicitly say what kind of relationship Achilles and Patroclus had? Especially in light of the fact that many other modern authors portray them as having a romantic relationship.

Getting Started with Classics 🏺✨

When you first start studying classics or wanting to learn about ancient history, it can feel pretty overwhelming and difficult! (don’t worry – we’ve all been there! ❤️)

So here are some tips to help you start studying classics in an easier way which isn’t super overwhelming and intimidating 📚

Sometimes rather than going straight for the primary sources, it’s really helpful to read some non-academic books to give you a fun and interesting overview – this will then give you the confidence to explore the literature!

Stephen Fry’s Mythos

1) Start with Greek mythology!
There are sooo many Greek mythology retellings that have come out in recent years. Reading about mythology is a really fun, interesting and easy way to learn about ancient culture, history and society. The one we’ve chosen is Mythos by Stephen Fry: it’s accessible and perfect if you’re a beginner to mythology too!

2) Start with a period/culture you’re interested in learning more about!
A History of Ancient Greece in 50 Lives and Eureka were perfect for me, as someone who prefers Greek history, to get an overview of all the significant figures and events in Ancient Greece! If you’re more interested in Ancient Rome, I would recommend SPQR by Mary Beard. Follow your interests and passions!

These are all books that helped me (Chloe) get to grips with undergraduate study of ancient history as someone who had never studied classics before. Our inbox is always open if you have any questions or want any more recommendations! 💘

Hello!

Welcome to our new Classics Outreach blog! Linked with our shiny new @ClassicsNCL Instagram account, we will be sharing a range of posts on the ancient world: on studying in Newcastle, the Roman presence in the North East, ancient literature, languages, mythology, art, archaeology and so on! 🏺

These entries will be posted by our Classics Outreach team of students, so here’s some facts so you can get to know us a little bit better.

4/6 of the team!

Chloe Roberts

Hi guys! I’ll be running lead on most of these posts. I’m a third year Ancient History (V110) undergraduate student and I love learning about sexuality and gender in Ancient Greece (resident Sappho nerd over here)

Elise Ridings

Hi I’m Elise and I’m a second year Classical Studies (Q810) student. I’m interested in the modern reception of Homeric epic, and I love retellings like Circe. I’m excited to help make Classics more accessible.

Jemimah Allen

Hi I’m in first year studying Classical Studies and English (QQ83)! I’m interested in Classical Art and Architecture, and feminist adaptations and translations of classical texts.

Lauren Stokes

Hi I’m a third year Classics (Q800) student and I love studying the Ancient Greek language and mythology.

Caitlyn Ward

Hey! I’m a second year Classics (Q800) student and I’m interested in ancient languages and comparative historical linguistics.

Elizabeth Cattermole

Hi, I’m a third year Classics (Q800) student!

Leading our team is Dr Stephanie Holton who runs lots of Classics outreach projects and teaches fab modules on Dreams in the Ancient World, Ancient Philosophy, and Ancient Greek (to name a few!)

We’re excited to begin posting all things ancient for you guys! If there’s anything you particularly want us to discuss/post then please feel free to leave us a comment below! 🏺🌿🏛