Weekend Reading: Elizabeth or Elissabeth?

I was going to write a post this week about Mary Beard’s 100-hour work week and the classical twitterstorm that it set off, sustained of course by the university strike, which has left a lot of overworked people thinking about workloads and lurking on social media because for once they’re not at work.

But then three things happened. The first was that I realised that nobody really wants to know how many hours I work or how I feel about that. The second was that I got a version of the Proclaimers’ song stuck in my head (‘I would work one hundred hours…’) and realised that I needed to stop thinking about workloads in order to save my sanity. The third was an article about Queen Elizabeth I in today’s news, which was just so much more interesting than workloads.

Let me explain why this article is, for me, SO FREAKIN’ AWESOME (sorry – my son’s been watching lots of YouTube videos lately, and now we both talk in upper case).

Many years ago, I used to teach the Arts introductory module at the OU. Then I started focusing more on Level 3 and postgraduate Classics, and dropped that. But this year there’s a new introductory module and (for reasons linked to all the workload issues that I’m not going to tell you about) I’m teaching on it.

Arts introductory modules at the Open University are a big deal, because for most students they’re the first thing they study at undergraduate level. And because of the openness of our admissions policy, often students start on these modules with no prior qualifications at all. So these modules are very carefully written. They have to offer a broad introduction, facilitate the development of study skills, give enough depth to be appropriate at undergraduate level – and, crucially, not scare people away!

As a result, the module I’m teaching covers a wide range of interesting and sometimes surprising material. In the last week alone I’ve run tutorials on Mozart, Mary Wollstonecraft, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Van Gogh.

As you can imagine, I’m not an expert on all of these. In fact, I’m having to learn a lot of things very quickly, because I receive the study materials at the same time as the students do. This is a lot of pressure (adding to the workload…) – but honestly, most of the time I’m like a kid with a new toy. I’m having to master new things every day, and some of them are things I wish I’d known about years ago. I’m sure after a few repetitions it will all be routine – but this year it’s very exciting!

(Yes, I know, I need to get out more. But my workload doesn’t let me…)


One of the new A111 textbooks, which in my opinion should win the Best Cover award (if there was one).


One of the chapters in the first book is about Queen Elizabeth I, and I’ve just been marking essays about her life and posthumous reputation. And as I’ve been reading the material, I’ve been intrigued by classical connections which I hadn’t known about before. The Siena Sieve Portrait, for instance, by Metsys the Younger: I’ve seen this before, but I certainly never looked at the details.




The sieve is a common element in Elizabeth’s portraits, symbolising virginity through its association with the Roman Vestal Virgin Tuccia, who was falsely accused (this was covered in Livy’s lost Book 20, apparently) of unchastity, and carried water from the Tiber in a sieve without it leaking, to prove her virginity.

But then, in the background to this Sieve Portrait, there are pillars decorated with scenes from the story of Dido and Aeneas – and apparently this too is meant to signify chastity. The OU course book merely states, ‘The tale is a symbol of chastity because Aeneas did not give in to Dido’s advances before founding the Roman Empire’.

Hmmm. Is there a different version of the Aeneid that I don’t know about? A PG version, maybe?

This fascinated me, so I started to look it up (in the middle of the night, of course, because of that pesky workload…). It seems that yes, the literature on this portrait does often stress the chastity element, but with a crucial link to statesmanship. Some people see it as a warning against love and passion, or as an indication that the Virgin Queen has spurned personal relationships because she has a grander destiny, like Aeneas. But other articles (a minority, from what I could see) advocate an identification of Elizabeth with Dido (or to use her other name, Elissa), who was known as a wise and powerful queen – right up until her passion for Aeneas sent her off track. This, it is suggested, is the moral: that Elizabeth is Elissa as she should have been, and as she would have been if Aeneas and his mother Venus hadn’t come along.

This is linked by some people to Boccaccio and Petrarch, both of whom present Dido as a univira faithful to the memory of her dead husband. So it might be more appropriate to say that maybe here Elizabeth is being compared to Dido as she would have been if Virgil hadn’t come along.

I’m intrigued by the idea that the Elizabethan court may have been a circle of Virgil-deniers who were rooting for Dido. But like all of our discussions about reception, this one is open to the charge of over-interpretation. Was there a secret message in the Sieve Portrait: or was the story of Dido and Aeneas just a story that was popular at the time?


That’s what I was doing (alongside my marking, because, you know, my workload…) when I ran across this article in today’s Guardian (with a more detailed version in the TLS). It’s like an early Christmas present, especially for Tacitus fans like me! A translation of Tacitus believed to be by Elizabeth I herself has just been identified.



The translation itself seems to have been recorded by a scribe, but the notes and corrections are in Queen Elizabeth’s own – and distinctively messy – hand. She evidently knew her classical literature, and loved it enough to spend her spare time (and I’m guessing she didn’t have much of that, because of her workload…) translating Tacitus just for fun.

The TLS article about this comments on Elizabeth’s translation style:

With its vigorous colloquialism and succinct turns of phrase, the Tacitus translation exemplifies the queen’s approach to translation more generally. In Elizabeth’s version, Augustus “garboiled the olde soldiers by gyftes”, while Lepidus “by sluggy age went to wracke”. Compared with the more common form “sluggish”, “sluggy” was rare in English of the sixteenth century, appearing only four times in texts published between 1550 and 1600. It was, however, a favourite of Elizabeth’s, and can also be found in her Boethius, where she has “sluggy lust” and “sluggy flames”.

I am now planning to use ‘sluggy’ and ‘garboiled’ in conversation whenever I possibly can. Or possibly in assignment feedback…


It’s intriguing to think of how Roman literature must have seemed to a woman in Elizabeth’s position. Today it’s easy to find things to recognise in Tacitus’ narrative of political machinations and nastiness, of course – but to Elizabeth it must all have seemed disturbingly familiar. The Annals to her may have been a practical guide to What Not To Do When You’re An Autocrat.

Given the extent of her familiarity with Roman literature, I’m now happy to hop on board with any theories about the Dido and Aeneas connections. I also want to learn more about Elizabeth, then go through her translation of Tacitus in detail to identify places where it might have influenced her policy or her speeches.

Sadly I can’t.

Did I mention my workload…?!




This week’s links from around the internet

(not a lot this week, because of my workload…)


From the archives

Black Friday thoughts – Classical Studies Support




Trafficking in artefacts – The Guardian 

Jasper Griffin obituary – The Telegraph 

Roman ear-cleaners – Kent Online 

Romans and the lottery – Chronicle Live 

Grand baths with hidden tragedy – France 24 

Leda fresco on display – ART News 

November newsletter – The Classical Association



Comment and opinion

Socrates and the leaders’ debate – The Spectator 

A holiday seating plan – Sententiae Antiquae 

On academic howlers – A Don’s Life (which is now behind a paywall)

Caligula, Cnut and Trump – Ekathimerini 

Classical Gift Guide – Eidolon 

Visiting the Roman Forum – Wanted in Rome 

Being biased against fabric – Literary Hub 



Podcasts, video and other media

Caligula – Life of Caesar 

The Palatine Hill – When in Rome 

Tusculum and Antium – The Partial Historians 

Ladies in Rome: Part 3 – The Exploress

Discord’s Apple T-shirt – Ancient Impressions 



12 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: Elizabeth or Elissabeth?

  1. Fabulous, thanks for the blog – definitely something for the weekend.

    I have great affection for the old AA100. Being old and, not knowing what the degree journey would be like or any experience of the OU style of building skills, it was a fantastic first module introduction. Something for everyone, I have still got my module books, infact I still have all my module books from every module, not to mention DVDs (does anyone have these nowadays) of Bhaji on the Beach and Dr Faustus plus my Faber Book of Beasts. My first tutorial listenting to an incredibly inspiring tutor reading aloud Abnegation by Adrienne Rich has stayed with me. Although I always mourn the end of an era I do have to agree the Module cover does look pretty awesome.

    I saw MB’s tweet on how many hours she worked and, being a bit of a fan, was disappointed when O saw one of the first replies from an Academic across the pond who berated her saying she hated ‘passive boasting’ like this. Ouch. I understand what MB was saying, but it just shows how careful you have to couch terms on social media nowadays.

    Mischievously I really would want to believe the pillars in the background, although having a link to the sieve, had a double meaning. I sincerely wish it was also a coded message that, overtly she is displaying chastity but at the same time it is a message to her lover, Robert Dudley. Aeneas, a fugitive, on a journey to found Rome and Dudley, also a fugitive from the downfall of his family on a journey to not only rebuild his estates and fortune but to embed the range and influence of the Elizabethan dynasty.

    Love the old English though.


    1. You’re a romantic, Colin! I like the coded message theory!

      Looks like we’re still doing the Faber Book of Beasts, and I believe Benin is still in there too (but I haven’t read that bit of the module yet). The whole thing kicks off with a rewritten Cleopatra chapter, too, which I was glad to see. So A111 is new, but it hasn’t chucked all of the old AA100 stuff out the window.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Happy, happy days – still in touch with my first tutor!

        When you get to the Benin Bronzes, although I’m sure you will, please encourage people to get to the British Museum to have a gander. I know the African gallery is a bit hard to find being at the back and down starirs but in a way, for me, the anticipation in the journey to track them down made the sight of them the more awesome. The display and lighting was so emotional. Having said that I was equally emotional viewing the Greek pots in the flesh that were featured in A219!! So, I am a softie.

        Funnily enough I was discussing the three pieces I have to visit each time I go to the BM with my A219, A330 and A340 tutor today (yes I had the same tutor for all three AND she runs extenal courses so was bending my brain with Plato Republic) which are: Sophilos Dinos, Regina of Arbeia and, purely for the back story and beauty, the Portland Vase. Of course I look at so much more but each of these has a special place for me.

        Having seen the Benin Bronzes then a quick trip to the Pitt Rivers is also a must. One of the craziest museums ever.

        But yes – a romantic, busted 🙂


      2. Great recommendation – thanks!

        Regina’s one of my favourites too. Every time I walk through Morrisons’ car park (where she was found) I pause to say hello. And my town is so weird that nobody even thinks I’m odd…!


  2. This was brilliant, thank you!
    I was excited to see a very famous Italian line at the bottom left of the portrait. It’s a quotation from Petrarch’s Triumph of Love, ”Stanco riposo e riposato affanno’. It refers to a constant and incurable weariness that comes from falling in love. In fact it comes at a passage in the text where the poet gives a grim outlook on love as cause of servitude, ruin and death. So I was thinking that maybe these words at the base of the column could support the view of Elizabeth as Elissa, or Dido as she would have been hadn’t Virgil come along. Tuccia and the sieve were treated in Petrarch’s other triumph, the Triumph of Chastity, where Dido is presented as chaste heroine.


    1. Ooh, thanks Valeria! I’m no Petrarch expert – my Italian is far too patchy – so I hadn’t picked up on the context!

      I think it’s a fascinating painting, and would happily teach a whole tutorial on it – but since we’re now moving on to Van Gogh, I won’t get the chance till next year!


      1. Hi Cora

        Happy my Italian could prove useful for once 🙂
        Yes I mean the fact that Dido and Tuccia were treated together in the Triumph of Chastity (Petrarch says something like ‘Contrary to popular belief, Dido was chaste and died for her late husband, not for Aeneas’) made me think that those other words from his Triumph of Love were put there to underline that Elissa was actually not a “colonised”‘ queen and like Elizabeth was aware of the dangers that come with love / marriage to a foreign prince.

        I’m sure next year your students will love the tutorial 🙂 Personally I really like the idea that Elizabeth wouldn’t be identified with Aeneas but with a woman as statesman. In the end Dido is at least as memorable a character as Aeneas and, even in Virgil, probably easier to sympathise with. I think it makes sense that she would be ‘polished up’ and taken as model.


      2. I like that too! After working on a chapter about Cleopatra, which points out how the Roman writers drew a line from Dido to Cleopatra as dangerous and seductive queens, it’s nice to think of a tradition which reclaims Dido as a positive connection!


      3. Oh yes I think I know that chapter! I never did the introductory module with the OU because I asked for credit transfer but I remember reading that bit from boyfriend’s book last year, it was all about how Octavian presented Cleopatra as oriental / decadent to discredit Anthony as anti-Roman. It was fascinating. I don’t know much about British imperialism or if Elizabeth had already colonies or aims in the East but if so maybe Dido would have made for a good paradigm being she in a way a figure in between eastern and western tradition. I think I’ll have to read around 🙂

        I’ll leave you to your work now eheh I’m distracting but thanks again this was really interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. My TMA was about the original focus of the Pantheon, the divinisation of Augustus and Hadian the purpose of the oculus.. all in 1000 words!.. I probably messed it up, but we will see.. I’m in Rome now.. and I learnt that essays are not inspired by looking at the Pantheon and appreciating its grandure and history with a bottle of Chianti by the oblisk.. its done by reading pliny, Cassius Dio and Ovid… oh I think the OU may make a part time classist out of me yet 🙂


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