Comfort Classics: Ellie Newman

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 Ellie Newman

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

I have always found myself drawn to the light-hearted, funnier side of Classics. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, for instance, never fails to make me laugh: “The female sex! Sheer lustfulness, that’s us! … Our lives are simply full of sex and intrigue.” As a Greek art historian, I am also drawn to the beautiful side of Classics (like the free-spirited Winged Nike of Samothrace). However, it is a Roman text that I have chosen to talk about because of its sheer ridiculousness and because I feel like it hasn’t been given the appreciation it deserves: the Historia Augusta.

When did you first come across this text?

During my undergraduate degree at the University of Nottingham, one of the most popular modules was Imperial Biography. It was delivered by one of my favourite lecturers and focused on all the gossip and drama that can be found in Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars and the Historia Augusta. I already loved Suetonius, but it was the latter that really grabbed my attention. We joked at the time that it was like a student in ancient Rome had an essay due about emperors the next day and was just desperately trying to fill up the word count, something which we, as students, could relate to.

Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?

The Historia Augusta is a ‘biographical’ (in the loosest sense of the word) account of the lives of the emperors from Hadrian to Carus. It talks about their various accomplishments as well as their personalities and appearances. The context of this text is relatively unknown – all that is known for certain is that it was written before AD 425. Even the number of authors is unknown – it claims to have been written by six different authors, but studies have shown that it may have been written by as few as one.

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

The fact that it is almost completely fictional, gossipy, and dramatic. The author(s) used made up references to back up their ‘facts’ (another method a lot of students can relate to, I’m sure). If you can look past some of the grim details, the claims made are ridiculous, like the idea that Elagabalus’ nickname was ‘Varius’ because his mother had slept with so many men when she was pregnant that he had multiple fathers. They even added at least one non-existent emperor for good measure. There’s just something so charming about the fact that this source has little historical value and is so poorly written, and yet has managed to survive into the 21st century.

Cover of a 1698 edition of the Historia Augusta

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

I bake! Not only do I love eating bread like there’s no tomorrow, I also love baking for others, especially my family and my boyfriend. They have done so much for me and been so incredibly supportive throughout my studies and the pandemic, it’s so nice to be able to make something for them and bring them some kind of joy.

Ellie is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. She graduated with a BA in Classical Civilisation from the University of Nottingham in 2019 and an MSt in Classical Archaeology from Oxford in 2020. With a particular interest in cultural art history, she wishes to write her thesis on the treatment of Black women in Classical and Hellenistic art. She is running a session at the Cambridge Annual Student Archaeology Conference this year, which will focus on the concepts of race and ethnicity across the archaeological field, as well as address the ongoing problem of racism in the subject. Having been taught at various state schools in the small town of Nuneaton, Ellie is also interested in expanding the horizons of Classics, making the subjects more accessible to people of all backgrounds.

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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