Weekend Reading: From Ascanius to Higgins

This week I was invited to take part in a couple of really interesting projects, so it should have been a good week.

It wasn’t.

The thing about future projects is that they float in front of you like a mirage, when in fact you’re stuck in a featureless desert of marking, stretching ahead as far as the eye can see. So it’s been a tiresome week, with a worse one to come.

Oh, and I have a cold. At times this week I have entirely lost my voice – which is why, if I promised to phone you, I haven’t done so (sorry!). Marking while full of cold is one of my least favourite experiences, even further down the list than children’s soft-play birthday parties.

This week I’ve been marking essays on the importance of family to Aeneas (for the Latin module), on the social function of myth in Rome (for the Myth module), and on Roman burial practices (for the second MA module). Usually when I have to juggle simultaneous piles of marking they tend to be on different subjects; but there’s been quite an overlap this time. It’s started to confuse me – and so I’m now working on representing the situation in diagram form…




So far, the main point of intersection is the tombstone of Petronia Grata. She’s been popping up all over the place in essays this week. And that’s cheered me up a bit, even through my cold, because I’m fascinated by Petronia Grata.


If you haven’t heard of her tombstone before, here’s a picture.


Petronia Grata
CIL 5.7521 Funerary altar for Petronia Grata, a freedwoman, and her mother, with bas-reliefs, including a depiction of Aeneas’ flight from Troy where the figure of a young girl stands in for Ascanius.


The inscription tells us that a freedwoman called Petronia Grata set up this tombstone for herself and her mother – but the real joy is the image on the side. It shows the popular scene of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises and holding his son Ascanius/Iulus by the hand as they flee the destruction of Troy. But in this version he’s holding a girl by the hand, not a boy.

Why? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else. Maybe it has something to do with Petronia Grata’s own life – perhaps she had to flee the destruction of her home as a child, like Aeneas’ son. Perhaps it’s meant to represent daughterly devotion. Maybe it’s an otherwise unknown variant of the Aeneas story. Maybe it’s a Trimalchio-style error on the part of Petronia, or a mistake by the craftsman. Perhaps it’s sentimental; maybe Petronia Grata’s mother used to tell her this story, and pretended that she was a character in it.  Maybe it’s a joke.

We have no way of knowing – and that’s fine with me. I’m simply intrigued by the fact that a freedwoman has adapted a core Roman myth to make it more girl-friendly.

It makes me wonder how often this was done. Given how limited our evidence is, this sort of thing might have happened all the time in the ancient world. It’s possible that all over the empire people were tweaking myths to represent girls.

Coincidentally, I was casting around a few weeks ago for something to watch on TV, and stumbled on the recent reworking of Magnum PI (yes – like any good classicist, I can leap from Roman tombstones to Magnum PI in a single bound). I was a big fan of the original series, so I was curious to see how it had been “updated”. And I was disturbed to find that they’d messed with Higgins, my favourite character from the original series. He’d been re-cast as a woman. Gone were his moustache and snazzy shorts/socks combo. Today’s Higgins is slim, elegant, young and often found in improbable yoga poses.



Replacing male characters with female ones is a TV trend that has irritated me ever since Battlestar Galactica and Elementary. I might actually enjoy the series itself (I did go on to binge-watch the whole of the new Magnum PI series) – but still, it bothers me when the dynamics between the original characters are altered like that. I’m sure it shouldn’t bother me, because I usually like TV with strong female characters – but it does. I’m a purist.

So now I’m wondering: what was the contemporary response to Petronia Grata’s tombstone? Was it the Roman equivalent of turning Higgins into an athletic blonde woman? Was Petronia actively trying to attract attention from passers-by, to amuse some with a novelty and to annoy the myth purists? And if I were a Roman, would I be as irritated by a girl Ascanius as I am by a girl Higgins, or a girl Watson?

This is the problem with too much repetitive marking – it sends my brain off down some strange tangents. Tune in next week, when I’ll no doubt have even more weird musings for you…




This week’s links from around the internet



‘Head of coffee’ curator row – The Guardian 

Rome and post-Brexit tourism – BBC News 

Coronavirus and the Tacitus Trap – The Diplomat

Musical Mythos – The Herald


Comment and opinion

Grammar and gender diversity – Ad Meliora

Creepy Romans in Alexandria – The Onion

Orpheus and popular music – Society for Classical Studies

Women of Troy – British Museum Blog

Helena at Chatsworth – Writing Helena 

Latin, Greek and investment – Financial Times 

About Cleopatra – Ann Foster 


Podcasts, video and other media

Ancient Athens – History of the World podcast 

Health and medicine in the Roman empire – Emperors of Rome 



Mind, Body, Magic Conference – Open Material Religion 

Homer Summer School – UCL 



7 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: From Ascanius to Higgins

  1. Everything you have said about the funerary altar for Petronia Grata and Petronia Grata fascinates me.. never heard of her before, thanks. Get well soon.


  2. Another possibility for the Petronia Grata monument is an eschatological interpretation of the Aeneid, hence the image has been personalized for the sex of the deceased.


  3. Wonder if it’s an alternative non-Virgilian version of the story where Ascanius is disguised as a girl to avoid Trojan Aeneas’ fleeing family group being as easily identified by the enemy Greeks? A counterpoint to the non-Iliadic story of Achilles’ in disguise as the girl Pyrrha which kept him hidden at Skyros? Hope your cold shifts pronto 🤧🤞


  4. I hope you are getting better -whiskey is my suggestion.

    Aren’t you too young to remember the original series?

    Thanks for Petronia Grata – to my shame I didn’t know about her (bearing in mind I have completed A219, A330, A340 A863, A864)!! Just like I don’t know about the Polyxena sacrifice pot until the Troy exhibition. How have I managed to lead such a sheltered life?


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