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 Michael Beer
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Virgil’s Aeneid. I’ve studied and taught it for a number of years, both as a work of literature and as part of modules on Augustus. I’m continually changing my mind about how I feel about it. But its themes have so many resonances today. And it has some of the loveliest imagery and language in Latin literature.
When did you first come across this text?
In school. I studied Latin for O level, and one of the set texts was Aeneid Book 6. It was the gateway drug for me.
Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?
It’s a mainstay of most Classics course in schools and university, particularly any that look at the Augustan era. It’s often presented as a work of explicit propaganda for Augustus and his worldview, but there is so much more. Passages such as the parade of future Romans in Book 6 and the Shield of Aeneas in Book 8 may seem clumsy and bombastic, but it’s a tremendously nuanced work about the glamour and the horror of war. The stories of Nisus and Euryalus, or Camilla, are not the work of a crude imperialist. The tensions and ambiguities of the text provide great discussions for students.
What is it about this poem that appeals to you most?
So hard to choose one thing, but I think it must be the ending. We get the triumph of Aeneas over Turnus, and so theoretically a happy conclusion. And yet the ending is resolutely downbeat, with the execution of Turnus. The triumphalist national epic becomes a morally ambiguous one, with a new society about to be forged not on magnanimity and mercy, but as one stained with the blood of an execution carried out in a spirit of angry revenge. A comment on the realities of realpolitik or a subtle critique of Roman cultural identity? I change my mind almost every time I read it.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I find a mountain, or a forest, and I walk. Preferably listening to an audiobook. I discovered years ago that walking was a guaranteed way of lifting a mood as well as helping the thought processes: solvitur ambulando.
Michael Beer is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter.
“Since my PhD on food taboos and identity in Greek and Latin texts, I have taught classical subjects in a variety of contexts, mostly for A level and undergraduate.
My research interests are cultural identity, Greek cultural interaction with Rome, late republican Rome and early imperial period, Roman Egypt. I also have a soft spot for Elagabalus.
Most recently, I have written ‘Sensory deception and manipulation in ancient aristocratic banquets’, a chapter for an interdisciplinary volume ‘Luxury and the senses: the past, present and future’, originally intended for publication by Bloomsbury in 2019, but now scheduled for 2021/22. It attempts to link molecular gastronomy, the recipes of the Italian Futurists and the banquets of Domitian and Elagabalus. I’m currently researching attitudes to body modification, piercing and tattooing amongst Graeco-Roman elites.”
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.