Comfort Classics: Arlene Holmes-Henderson



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 Arlene Holmes-Henderson





Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?


I find it hard to derive *comfort* from the ancient world but I do derive entertainment, encouragement and motivation from various sources. I could have chosen Cicero’s oratory or letters, ancient numismatics or polychrome marble as these have variously featured in my research to date (and I think they’re all a bit special). Instead, I have done what a good number of #ComfortClassicists have chosen to do and that is – gone back to school – and selected one of the first ‘proper’ texts I studied pre-university. This decision has been influenced by the particular (pandemic) circumstances in which we find ourselves and the unsettling nature of ‘work’ for so many Classicists currently.


Seneca Moral Letters 3, 5-6

On finding the balance between work and leisure

Similarly, people who never relax and people who are invariably in a relaxed state merit your disapproval — the former as much as the latter. For a delight in bustling about is not industry — it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind. And the state of mind that looks on all activity as tiresome is not true repose, but a spineless inertia. This prompts me to memorise something which I came across in Pomponius. “Some men have shrunk so far into dark corners that objects in bright daylight seem quite blurred to them”. A balanced combination of the two attitudes is what we want; the active man should be able to take things easily, while the man who is inclined towards repose should be capable of action. Ask nature: she will tell you that she made both day and night.




When did you first come across this passage?


I first encountered it when I studied Advanced Higher Latin at school in Scotland. The specification offers two literature options: Love Poetry which includes a selection from Ovid, Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus and Horace OR Letters and letter-writing which showcases the epistles of Seneca, Cicero and Pliny. Only about 50 candidates sit Advanced Higher Latin in Scotland each year and Love Poetry is the option taught in most schools. My teacher made the choice for me (she had the resources to teach epistolography, but not love poetry) and so I encountered Seneca’s ideas for living.





Can you tell me a bit about the letters and their context?


Seneca, first tutor then advisor to the emperor Nero, wrote this letter to Lucilius who was procurator of Sicily. It forms part of a larger work (we have twenty books but believe that others are missing) in which Seneca offers advice on how to live well. The letters are intended to help Lucilius to become a good Stoic, and to make progress in philosophical thinking, but Seneca is always open about his own struggles and difficulties. Seneca wrote these letters in his retirement (probably during 63-65 AD) and includes personal experiences in his exploration of moral and ethical questions. Themes include friendship, modesty, anger, forgiveness, pleasure, old age, retirement, fear and death. My chosen extract comes from a letter about friendship which (elsewhere) includes an examination of what it means to be a friend, both emotionally and behaviourally. I continue to find the content of the letters fascinating.



Nero and Seneca, 1904





What is it about this letter that appeals to you most?


Although this letter was written almost 2000 years ago, it still feels relevant. I am an active person. I work on three research projects and provide advice to a number of charities on a pro bono basis. My days currently include far more work than leisure and my mind can become restless as I check multiple email inboxes. Where possible, balance between activity and repose is desirable. Perhaps it is even necessary. Perspective matters. This echoes current wellbeing advice being shared in bestselling books and on twitter:







And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?


I buy flowers. If I weren’t a Classicist, I’d like to be a florist. I love flowers. I enjoy gardening (the good bits: not the weeding, obviously) and spending time in the sunshine. Cooking helps me relax – I enjoy cooking recipes from all over the world.





Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson is the Outreach Officer of the Classical Association and Chair of the national Classics Development Group. She is a member of the Schools’ Committee of the Roman Society, the OCR Consultative Forum and the National Qualification Support Team at the Scottish Qualifications Authority. She holds board positions on the British Curriculum Forum and the US-UK Fulbright Commission.

She now specialises in the academic study of Classics education, but is a fully-qualified high-school teacher of Classics and has experience of leading departments in a range of schools across the UK.

As Research Fellow in Classics Education, she leads the Classics in Communities project at the University of Oxford, co-directs the Advocating Classics Education project at King’s College London and is Senior Research Fellow on the AHRC Speaking Citizens project at the University of Sussex.

She is co-editor of Forward with Classics: Classical languages in schools and communities (Bloomsbury, 2018) and author of numerous chapters and articles on Classics education.


AHH with book


Arlene is currently writing ‘Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in British Secondary Education’ (Liverpool University Press) with Prof Edith Hall and Dr James Corke-Webster.

You can find out more at

She tweets at @drarlenehh



Arlene at Giverny



Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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