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 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