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 Andrew Fox
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Oh, so many. I love the garden of Livia room in the Palazzo Massimo, like Greg Gilles, and used to take my notebook there on quiet days when I was staying at the British School at Rome. I have fond memories of Herculaneum, after I led a society trip to Naples as an undergraduate: the town was empty except for us, and it was the first place I relaxed after the stresses of getting 30 students around the city (the trains were striking too, which made everything ten times trickier!). There is also a particularly atmospheric Mithraeum in Ostia that I practically fell into a few years ago, while exploring for a risqué mosaic with a friend so we could giggle like errant schoolchildren at it.
But I’d have to say that if I am picking one thing that I keep coming back to, it has to be my way into my current specialism of trees, and the sentence that sparked this six-year trip down a rabbit hole. It is from Livy’s History of Rome, or Ab urbe condita, and it describes the very beginnings of Rome:
They exposed the boys at the nearest point of the flood, where the Ruminal fig tree is now – it has been called the Romulan fig. (AUC 1.4.5)
When did you first come across this passage?
In the first week of my MA, at the University of Nottingham, I was asked to give a five-minute presentation about any myth from any source in any part of the ancient world. I had a lot on that week, and decided I would present a brief summary of Romulus and Remus’ exposure. I had not at that point read much about the exposure beyond brief summaries, so thought I ought to pick up an actual ancient text to show willing. So I grabbed a copy of Livy’s history of Rome, got a private room in the library, and set to work reading. It was within the first ten minutes or so that I came across this sentence, which I thought quite unusual at the time. I got curious, so delved a bit deeper: why was this tree named in an Augustan history of Rome?
Can you tell me a bit about this text and its context?
Livy’s History of Rome was a lengthy history of, well, Rome. It began with the founding of the city (its Latin title, Ab urbe condita, translates as ‘From the city’s founding’), and continued until the death of Drusus, in 9 BCE. It was written under Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, and consisted of 142 books.
As with almost any text from 2000 years ago, we do not have everything, and only 35 of those books have survived in full (or almost full, we cannot be too picky!). The rest are summarised in a collection known as the Periochae, which is particularly useful for some of the work I do in the inconveniently missing books.
What is it about this source that appeals to you most?
This source has layers of meaning within it, and its complexity is one of the things that draws me into it every time.
1. The Ruminal fig tree, for Livy, was not present at the time of the exposure, but it is a feature of some visual depictions of the myth, like this coin from 137 BCE, minted by Sextus Pompeius Fostlus:
2. The tree had a name change at some point, from Romulan to Ruminal. Why the name change? What caused the name Ruminal to stick?
3. Rumina refers to an ancient Palatine deity of motherhood and fertility, the fig tree is symbolic of fertility, especially with its milky sap.
4. This tree is a landmark. Livy is referring to it as if everyone knows where it is, there is no further geographic identifier, and how trees are negotiated in the ancient city like this grabbed me from the moment I read the passage.
But the main reason I keep coming back to this sentence is for a bit of a self-confidence injection. This is where I began my specialism, this sentence has informed my future scholarship, and it all happened because of a quick five-minute presentation that I had not planned to devote too much time to. It reminds me that the ancient world can keep throwing up surprises, even in stories that you think you know, and keeps me humble as to the origins of my specialism.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
At the start of my PhD, I was told in a grad school workshop that we needed something non-academic to keep our minds occupied outside of work. That evening, I bought a very large piece of aida, found a cross-stitch pattern (of Pokémon) and set to work. It’s still not done. I also play field hockey with East London Hockey club (less so now of course), and am slowly introducing my 6 month old daughter to new foods. Today will probably be a cauliflower day.
Andy Fox has spent the 2019/20 academic year as the University of Nottingham Midlands3Cities Next Steps Postdoctoral Fellow, working on turning his PhD thesis, ‘Living Trophies: Trees, Triumphs, and the Subjugation of Nature in Early Imperial Rome’ into a book. During his doctoral thesis, he compiled and published the Roman Trees Database, and has been blogging about Roman trees on his blog. His first article, in Papers of the British School at Rome, was published in the 2019 volume, and explored the 224 trees on Trajan’s Column. His plans for the next academic year are to take some time out and focus on his daughter, with the optimistic target of getting all onesies on the right way round first time.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.