The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Edith Hall
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Yes, it’s an epigram by Nossis, here with my translation:
Θαυμαρέτας μορφὰν ὁ πίναξ ἔχει· εὖ γε τὸ γαῦρον
τεῦξε τό θ’ ὡραῖον τᾶς ἀγανοβλεφάρου.
σαίνοι κέν σ’ ἐσιδοῖσα καὶ οἰκοφυλαξ σκυλάκαινα
δέσποιναν μελάθρων οἰομένα ποθορῆν.
The little painting shows the beautiful figure of Thaumareta,
skilfully represented in her youthful pride and with melting gaze.
Even the puppy that guards the house would wag her tail if she looked at you,
and think that you were really her own mistress.
When did you first come across this epigram?
When I was teaching a module on Women in the Ancient World for Classical Civilisation A Level in the mid-1980s. I taught at 6th-form colleges in Oxford while I did my doctorate to make money as my then husband had very expensive tastes!
Can you tell me a bit about Nossis and the epigram’s context?
Nossis was a poet who lived in the third century BCE on the underneath of the toe of Italy in Epizephyrian Locris, ‘City of the Western Locrians’, which Plato called ‘the flower of Italy’. It had two gorgeous sanctuaries, both for female deities—one for Persephone and one for Aphrodite. The temple of Persephone was famous for its votive pinakes or painted terracotta pictures of scenes from the life of Persephone, which I once spent hours looking at in the National Museum of Magna Graecia in Reggio Calabria.
Children were dedicated to Persephone in her grand temple, and this poem was probably commissioned to go with a painting of a girl called Thaumareta ‘Astonishing-Excellence’ when she was dedicated, or possibly before her wedding.
Nossis was inspired to write poetry, in her Doric dialect, by the example of Sappho. We have twelve of her four-line epigrams. She was famous in antiquity and one of the canon of nine women poets. Some of them, like this, celebrate individual local women and girls, their relationships and their visits to the goddesses’ temples. She names her own mother and daughter in them.
What is it about this epigram that appeals to you most?
It takes me straight into an intimate moment shared between a female poet and a girl in a beautiful environment. It is joyful and the combination of the girl’s pride in her youthfulness and melting gaze enables me to see the portrait in my mind’s eye and imagine the pleasure of her mother, who probably commissioned the picture and the poem.
The clincher is the detail about the puppy, who like everyone else involved here (as in most of Nossis’ poems), is female. The thought of the girl’s pet wagging her tail when she saw Thaumareta or even a likeness of her is delightful. It also makes me think of my own daughters and their intense love of our pets, which include a beloved dog. The Olympian religion offered women far more opportunities for regular fun together than the big monotheisms of today. Their festivals and dedications and sacrifices must have made up a good deal for their exclusion from political life, and I like to be reminded of this.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Talk to my daughters either in person or online! Walk the dog! Cook huge meals and watch Masterchef. Browse online art galleries. Go to musicals, especially Les Miserables and The Book of Mormon. Watch Eastenders with my husband while drinking red wine.
Edith Hall is Professor of Classics at King’s College London. Most of her books are available on her personal website http://edithhall.co.uk/. Her latest book, written with Dr Henry Stead (Lecturer in Latin at St. Andrews—pictured with him below) is A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain 1689-1939 (Routledge Taylor Francis 2020), currently only £23.99 and a perfect antidote to lockdown tedium. Her dog is called Finlay.