Comfort Classics: Ben Cassell

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 Ben Cassell

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

This would have to be Plutarch’s Life of Theseus.

When did you first come across this source?

I first read this during my undergraduate degree (in Classics) when doing some source analysis on various passages from Plutarch’s biographies. It’s stuck with me ever since!

Can you tell me a bit about this source… its context and influences?

The Life of Theseus is generally agreed to be one of the final works produced by Plutarch before his death, possibly while serving as a priest to the Delphic Pythia, in c.119-120 CE. As with his other biographies, Plutarch’s Theseus operates within a moralizing combination with another Life, in this instance that of Romulus, and provides us with the most detailed depiction of the hero that survives from antiquity. In terms of methodology, the Theseus is a fascinating case of typological and referential intertextuality with Plutarch very clearly having carried out specific research in the field. In this way Plutarch frames his Life of Theseus within the forms of historiographical archaiologia similar to that used by Diodorus Siculus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus; applying scrutiny to “mythic” elements by collecting various oral and written accounts. In fact while being written in the early second century CE, the Theseus relies heavily on the direct citation of various authors of the 5th– 3rd centuries BCE, such as the Atthidographers Philochorus, Hellanicus and Demon, and the philosopher Dicaearchus of Messana. This methodology is supported by Plutarch’s examination of monuments, traditional place names, and his continuous noting of divergent versions of the episodes being recounted. A good example of this comes in Thes. 20.1-3, where Plutarch notes no less than five differing versions of Ariadne’s fate after she and Theseus part ways!

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

The Life of Theseus appeals to me most specifically in that it provides a vital notion of how the past was constructed and collectively recalled in Classical Athens. Plutarch illustrates a form of museological mnemotopography related to various Thesean episodes in and around Athens, including tombs, localized narratives (especially around the Delphinion), and the original ship used to sail to Crete being harboured in the port of Phaleron. A particularly interesting description is that of Kimon’s discovery of Theseus’ gigantic remains on Skyros, and their interment into a new shrine, the Theseion, in the Agora (Thes.36.1-3). This not only points to the overt popularity the hero enjoyed in Athens during this period, but also a clear employment of relics, monuments and artistic depictions as mnemonic devices.

As well as this, the descriptions of various festivals present us with an idea of how religious rites would cultivate cultural memories of a shared Athenian past. For example, the Oschophoria commemorated the safe return of Theseus from Crete through mimesis of the original episode; two epheboi dressed in female clothes, the “mothers” of the youths and maidens telling stories and replicating the cries of joy at the hero’s return and sorrow at the death of King Aegeus (Thes.22.3; 23.2-3). In effect, Plutarch presents us with what I find to be an utterly fascinating examination of how the heroic era of Theseus would have been experienced in the physical landscape and religious calendar of Athens. As my own research relates to the mechanics of collective memory production in Classical Athens/Attica the Life of Theseus is naturally an invaluable source. Personally, the study of how the past is collectively constructed and recalled, in any context, I believe provides a sobering perspective on the contingent evocations we too engage in today, whether as families, nations or indeed Classicists.

More than this, the Life of Theseus presents us with a genuinely entertaining and detailed account of one of Greek mythology’s better established figures. Theseus here is brave, foolish, kind, disastrously forgetful and cruel. As well as slaying the Minotaur and founding a proto-democracy via his synoecism of Attica, Theseus is openly described by Plutarch as un-honourable in his dealings with women, which in the cases of his raping Helen and Antiope, bring open war to Athens. From his youthful taming of the Attic countryside to his eventual death as a political exile, Plutarch’s depiction of Theseus within this expressed dichotomy presents a fascinatingly complex picture of the heroic emblem of Classical Athens.

Burne-Jones’ design for a Theseus tile, 1861

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

Lately I’d have to say this has been cooking. As with all of us, this year continues to limit our access to many things we usually do for fun (I’m personally thinking of Cinemas, live music, travel and free roaming around libraries!), however cooking has become a genuinely fun activity for me and my partner (my personal favourite being her vegan lasagne).

Outside of reading Classics, I have loved medieval-middle age literature since childhood, Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight being an annual must-read. Currently embarking on my first reading of Don Quixote. Other than this Umberto Eco, both his novels and other works, are constants on my bedside table.

Ben Cassell completed both his Bachelor and Master degrees in Classical Studies with the Open University. He is currently an MPhil/PhD research student with King’s College London, where his subject of interest is the cognitive, phenomenological and material mechanisms by which differing collective memories were generated in late Archaic and Classical Athens. Ben is the author of a number of papers relating to Theseus and memory culture in Athens, with the latest, titled ‘The Thesean Ritual Landscape: Appropriation, Identity and Athenian Collective Memories’, to be published this December. He can be contacted at ben.cassell@kcl.ac.uk

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.


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