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 Liz Gloyn
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I don’t have something that I go to as a matter of course – my main research is on the work of Seneca, so if I want something thought-provoking I’ll head to his philosophy and his tragedies are always good for high drama, but I wouldn’t call them comforting! That said, one text which always lifts my spirits when I encounter it is Petronius’ novel The Satyricon. I love teaching it to my first year students, and it was the subject of my first published article; it turns all the assumptions about what classical literature is supposed to be about on their heads, and it really cheers me up.
When did you first come across Petronius?
When I was doing my A-level Latin in secondary school, we used a book based on an adapted text from Petronius, which used the middle section (also known as the Cena Trimalchionis or ‘Trimalchio’s Dinner Party’) as the basis for a thorough grammar review. I had no idea then that I’d read the full Dinner Party as part of my undergraduate degree, or that I’d end up studying and teaching it myself!
Can you tell me a bit about the Satyricon and its context?
We don’t’ have all of the Satyricon – the consensus is that we probably have about a tenth of what would have been a whopping great novel, probably from somewhere in the second half. The author Petronius is usually identified with the advisor of the emperor Nero, who was brought in to consult on matters of luxury, so the novel was written in the middle of the first century AD. It’s an escapist romp which follows the adventures of Encolpius, a ne’er-do-well who potters around the bay of Naples getting into financial, erotic and social scrapes. Our surviving text spends a lot of time exploring the troubles of a love triangle he finds himself in, and his continuing problems to win the heart of the youth Giton. The whole novel seems to have been written as a parody of the Odyssey, except the offended god isn’t Poseidon – it’s Priapus, the fertility god, whose secret rituals Encolpius has accidentally profaned. Of course, you can imagine precisely which area of Encolpius’ life starts to go wrong as divine punishment…
What is it about this text that appeals to you most?
I love that it turns all our assumptions about what Rome ‘should’ be like on their heads. The novel happily settles into a demi-monde which the author may have known very little about personally, but which gives us a completely different glimpse of what life in Roman Italy was like, away from the imperial politics of the capital city and instead lounging around the luxury villa complexes of the sunny coastline.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I’m a voracious reader outside classics when I get the chance; I’m particularly keen on science fiction and fantasy, as well as trying to tick off some of the literary canon (or what people think is the canon… an early encounter with Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles has left me very cautious of books we’re told are ‘must reads’!). I’m also a classically trained singer; while I’ve not had much chance to sing since the birth of my son, I do get to our church choir for special services and evensong as often as I can. Now we’re all finding the small pleasures of being at home, I’m enjoying the opportunity to spend more time out in the garden and keeping things as under control as I can manage.
Dr. Liz Gloyn is a Senior Lecturer in Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research focuses on the intersections between Latin literature, ancient philosophy and gender studies. She also has a strong specialism in classical reception; her most recent book is Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture [Editor’s Note: currently 30% off on the Bloomsbury website, or 45% for the ebook!]. She blogs about her academic life and research at Classically Inclined and is on Twitter at @lizgloyn.