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 Jan Haywood
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I’m not sure if there is a single ancient source that I find great solace in, although Priam and Achilles’ tête-à-tête in the final book of Iliad is stirring stuff! A source that I continue to wonder at, however, is Herodotus’ Histories.
When did you first come across Herodotus?
As a young boy, when I first picked up a second-hand library book on the Greeks and Romans. I remember distinctly being unable to pronounce Herodotus’ name, and the sense of fascination that a Greek author was writing about the ancient Egyptians.
Can you tell me a bit about Herodotus and his context?
Herodotus is often regarded as ‘the father of history’ in the western literary tradition. He was writing in the latter half of the fifth century BCE about the great conflict between Persia and the Greek world from 490-79 BCE, although, as any of his readers will tell you, his perspective ends up being much wider than this.
What is it about Herodotus that appeals to you most?
I cannot think of a more enigmatic author. Herodotus is supremely sophisticated in his approach towards narrating the events of history. A clear example of this is his celebrated account of the Lydian king Croesus in Book 1 of the Histories (there are a total of nine books). It’s a story that looks back several generations, weaving in cryptic oracles delivered at the famous centre of Delphi, while also drawing on the wisdom of the sixth-century BCE Athenian lawgiver Solon. The whole account appeals to such a wide range of sources of information and traditions and ultimately defies easy or reductive interpretations. It ends up being a profound meditation on the processes of history, and on the role that individuals play in shaping the past.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I am an avid cinephile and enjoy watching all kinds of films. Life in lockdown has been made a little less stressful recently by Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro felice, Clare Denis’ High Life, Céline Sciamma’s Bande de filles and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir – just four fine examples of the many amazing women directing films today!
Jan lectures in Classical Studies at The Open University. He is the author of a co-authored book on cross-cultural receptions of the Trojan War tradition with Professor Naoíse Mac Sweeney (Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War: Dialogues on Tradition; Bloomsbury, 2018), and has co-edited with Dr Zosia Archibald a volume in honour of the ancient historian John K. Davies (The Power of Individual and Community in Ancient Athens And Beyond; Classical Press of Wales, 2019). Jan is now working on a book and several articles concerning Herodotus’ Histories, and has recently set up the Herodotus Helpline with Professor Thomas Harrison – a free, online seminar series for all interested in Herodotus and his world.