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 Frances Breen
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
While there are certainly many sources that I find fascinating, choosing one that brings ‘comfort’ is an interesting concept. Those that come to mind are mostly objects and places: a visit inside the Curia in the Forum Romanum; my battered Loeb editions of Cicero’s Letters to Atticus; holding an eggshell-thin cup over 4,000 years old on a placement in Santorini; hunching over a drawing board recording a tiny oil lamp in a dusty storage room. They all provoke emotion (I definitely cried in the Curia!).
One that I have tucked away to revisit when it’s cold and rainy (as it often can be in the north of England!) however, is this small fresco of a swan.
When did you first come across this fresco?
Two years ago I was part of a month-long excavation in Pompeii with the University of Genoa. The days were long, hot and physically demanding – permits to excavate within the site are limited so time is of the essence. We were working on the Via dell’Abbondanza, one of Pompeii’s main thoroughfares, and after downing tools each day I would wander slowly back through the cobbled streets picking a different place each day to investigate – until the lure of a shower and cold beer became too great to resist. One day I stepped through a doorway and found myself in a dark corridor; when my eyes adjusted from the intense sunshine I saw this little swan by my elbow. I was lucky enough to have stumbled into the House of Menander in a rare moment of quiet and I don’t think I will ever forget seeing this beautiful, tiny fresco come into focus.
Can you tell me a bit about this house and its context?
The discovery of a ring seal and graffiti suggests that the House of Menander was probably owned by Quintus Poppaeus, possibly a relative of Emperor Nero’s second wife, Poppaea Sabina. The house is so called due to a painting of the Greek dramatist Menander in a small room. The joy and frustration of archaeology (in my opinion!), however, means that this is also ‘probable’, as the figure may in fact be the owner of the property or just someone enjoying Menander’s work. One of my favourite things about studying the ancient world is that we can never be absolutely, 100% certain. The truth lies tantalisingly close at times! The house is a typical example of the home of a high-ranking family and thanks to parts of the roof remaining intact, much of the interior is well preserved. There are many frescoes including the death of Laocoon, scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey and incredible decoration throughout, surrounding a large peristyle flanked by columns. A collection of over 100 pieces of silverware was discovered in one of the cellars during excavation in the 1920s, much of which is on display at the Archaeological Museum in Naples. It is a fascinating place to explore, as is all of Pompeii.
What is it about this swan that appeals to you most?
It’s a combination of factors. The swan is so beautifully painted, yet in comparison to some of the other highly ornate frescoes in the House of Menander I understand that it may seem rather unassuming. It’s only about 3 inches in height, but that tiny bird contains so many possibilities. It provokes questions – who painted it? How did they live? Were they happy? The author Susan Vreeland writes: ‘That a thing made by hand, the work and thought of a single craftsman, can endure much longer than its maker, through centuries in fact, has always filled me with wonder. The unknown life of the maker is evanescent in its brevity, but the work of his or her hands and heart remains.’ The tangible, human element appeals to me. But mainly when I think of it, I am transported back to that day in Pompeii – hot, tired and very happy.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Being outside usually cheers me up, and I enjoy hiking and running. Last year I took up tennis: it is safe to say that I am not a natural. I also love being part of archaeological projects and am a trustee for Epiacum Heritage; we look after an incredible site in Northumberland, which contains – among other interesting things – the highest Roman fort in Britain. In any spare time I can probably be found drawing, playing Lego with my nephews, decorating elaborate cakes or thinking about biscuits.
Frances is a former OU student, having completed modules in Classical Latin and Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds. She works as a charity bid writer and is currently studying for an MRes in Archaeology at the University of Bournemouth, researching how participating in archaeology can benefit the mental well-being of older people. After completing her MRes she hopes to undertake a PhD further investigating the links between archaeology and how it makes people feel. Frances also works with the Strata Florida Archaeological Field School, which provides archaeological training at a site in Wales, as well as serving as a trustee for Epiacum Roman Fort.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.