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 Penny Whitworth
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
If I were to choose a text, then it would have to be Virgil’s Aeneid. It’s a text which brings comfort primarily because of its familiarity; small selections of it are always assigned as the verse text at GCSE, and I find myself suddenly engrossed in a few lines from whichever book it happens to be, mining them for the techniques employed, desperate for students to be caught up in the joy of glimpsing beautiful language and intentional composition. This year’s text has been Book 2, and it’s fair to say that the slaughter of Priam at the altar and the description of Hecuba and her daughters like doves flung headlong into a black storm is not comforting, but it is nevertheless beautiful.
Really though, what sprung to mind when I considered the question are these two images of ancient Corinth:
When did you first visit the site of ancient Corinth?
A huge privilege of being a Classics teacher is the opportunity to take students to see, with their own eyes, the places you’ve been telling them about, and the ‘Greece trip’ is the best trip of them all. My first memory of Corinth was about 12 years ago, when I was with an enthusiastic colleague who demanded that we climb the Acrocorinth. I can’t recall it being an universally popular decision, but up we went nevertheless. Reaching the top felt like an enormous achievement at the time, but also a remarkable moment of engaging with history. I didn’t visit the site itself, from which the photos above are taken, until a number of years later, but it is these photos which particularly bring comfort to me.
Can you tell me a bit about Corinth?
Corinth was a polis on the narrow stretch of land which joins the Peloponnese to the mainland of Greece. In literature, it features in Euripides’ play Medea, as the location of Jason’s betrayal and Medea’s subsequent revenge. In the classical period, it was a large and important city, rivalling Athens and Thebes for wealth and it had involvement in all the significant wars. The Romans destroyed the city in the mid 2nd century BC, but around a hundred years later it was rebuilt, and was a city of note in New Testament times.
What is it about Corinth that appeals to you most?
The site today is stunning and tranquil. At the right time of year, the poppies are exquisite. There is nothing better than pausing on a bench and reflecting on all that has gone before in that very location – and for me, flicking through the account in the book of Acts in the New Testament, and imagining the apostle Paul there, who is said to have been brought to trial at the bema in Corinth.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Right now, I’m drinking a lot of coffee and cooking delicious food. I’m in anticipation of news about the return of live rugby, but in the meantime I’m following all the various signings clubs are making! I’m hanging out with my cat and watching previous seasons of Spooks, which are wonderfully all available on iplayer, and I look forward to Sundays and ‘online’ church, which is nowhere near as good as the real thing, but a decent substitute in the circumstances.
Penny studied Classics at Durham before becoming a teacher, first at Durham Gilesgate Sixth Form College, and now at RGS, Newcastle. She teaches classical subjects to students from Y7 all the way through to A level. She loves introducing students to literature texts at GCSE, and teaching Greek tragedy (usually as the Greek A level verse text) and Homer (to Classical Civilisation students) in the Sixth Form. She is also really interested in classical reception, motivated in part by the desire to engage young people with the relevance of ancient texts for today.