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 Abigail Graham
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
In my experience, comfort often comes from the connections we make on a personal or physical level with others. During the pandemic, the disconnect from ‘normality’ and social interactions can leave one feeling both lost and isolated. Social media can distort this further, amplifying the extremes in life: successes and failures. Whilst we heartily applaud the achievements of our friends and family, perhaps inevitably, we end up making comparisons too. Dancing around watching Hamilton: the musical for the 5th time with my kids left me pondering: who will tell my story? It is not only feelings of comfort and normality that have faded during lockdowns but also a sense of self and meaning that comes from personal connections. Who am I? Does anything I do matter?
Comfort and connection are what drew me to Classics in secondary school. As a lovestruck and heartbroken teenager, I felt no one could possibly plumb the depths of my despair. The last place I expected to find empathy and understanding was a dead poet named Catullus, who lived in Rome at the end of the Republic: 84-54 BCE. My connection to his humbling, humorous, vivid and playful poetry is something I come back to again and again, even as my interests drifted towards epigraphy & archaeology, as the root of my love for Classics.
Where did your connection with Catullus come from?
When I read Catullus’ Poem 8, riding the rollercoaster of love, from dejection to recovery in a handful of stanzas, the desolation of heartbreak seemed to morph into something beautiful and inspiring. Knowing his love of candid and colloquial speech, today he might have called it: “Suck it up cupcake!”. The opening line: miser Catulle, desinas ineptire “Wretched Catullus, stop being such an idiot’ starts from a dark place of self-loathing that we’ve all visited.
As the poem develops, we witness a turnaround as Catullus goes from seeing what he has lost to what Lesbia, his ex-lover, stands to lose in the break up: “Who will you love? Who will you love-bite now?” In the final lines he returns as a different person: at tu, Catulle destinatus obdura “And you Catullus, be resolved and stand strong!”. There is a clear juxtaposition in language and tone between the first line and the last as Catullus navigates us through the stormy seas of rejection into a message of strength and hope. I found his resilience far more inspiring than Vergil’s ‘Pius Aeneas’, whom, in solidarity with Dido, I’d have liked to rap on the head with a pan.
Catullus not only cheered me up with his candid and hilarious descriptions of humiliation and heartbreak (his playful tone and treatment of language reminds me of the modern poet: Brian Bilston), he also showed me that it is ok to feel sad, small and a bit lost. A few weeks later we read a poem about his brother’s grave (poem 101). The poem struggles with the displacement of death and grief: his brother passed away at Troy, and Catullus travels across the seas like Odysseus, on his own epic journey to visit his brother’s tomb: Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias “Travelling through many people and through many seas, I come for these wretched funerary rites, Brother.” Unlike Odysseus’, Catullus’ reunion is not met with a wife and family; his tearful goodbye was never heard but spoken to “silent ash” mutam adloqueror cinerem (line 4).
As my teacher read it aloud, tears streamed silently down his cheeks.
In that moment, I understood why Latin would never be a dead language: it lives within us, speaking to our souls with its beauty and understanding, reaching across the bonds of time and space to say: I am with you. Here is my story. I realized too that Classics’ comfort and inspiration was not just embedded in the materials, it lay at the heart of its teachers, who have the strength of character and spirit to share a poignant moment with an audience. Before my teacher’s recitation, I had wondered if I was a bit strange to feel such a strong a connection with someone so far distant in the past: was this ‘normal’? Seeing my teacher’s connection with Catullus showed me that personal connections and grief itself, could be beautiful and something that binds us, rather than isolating us, if we can find the courage to share it.
What is it about these sources that appeals to you most?
It may feel like we have lost a sense of normality in the pandemic, but precious moments of beauty, love and loss are all around, they remind us: life goes on, and still small voices survive. This is why I like to tweet epitaphs on #EpigraphyTuesday: to illustrate the poignant beauty of everyday life. Like Catullus’ brother, subjects of Roman epitaphs are seldom the famous heroes of epic or giants of history. Tombstones, a combination of images and words often limited by space and bound by common formulae, read like individual tweets from the past: to a “wife most sweet”, from mother to her son cicerculus “little chickpea”, to a “best” father and freedman, Marcus Gavius Amphonius Mus “mouse”, depicting a mouse with bread.
Connecting people with ancient texts, contexts, objects and each other is what I love about co-ordinating the Postgraduate Course in Epigraphy at the British School at Rome: (next course in July 2021!). Fostering personal as well as intellectual connections is an aspect of some excellent Classics initiatives: such as Cora Beth Knowles’ “Comfort Classics” and Liz Gloyn’s #Tinyjoys on Twitter. These initiatives (and many others) are an unsung strength of Classics as a discipline. Personal connections help to remind us who we are, why we are here, and why we matter.
Who knows how your story will be told? It needn’t be a medal, a monument or a best-selling musical; it may be a simple farewell, as Catullus said to his brother, sounding almost like a sigh, atque in perpetuum, Frater, ave atque vale “and forever, Brother, hail and farewell”. What we do each day matters, whether or not we leave the house, there are voices whispering and hidden beauties: we just have to listen, allow ourselves to connect, and sometimes, put ourselves out there as well. Classics taught me how to find comfort in connections with others, be they living or long gone; I am forever grateful.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
The best part of my day is bedtime reading with my children, I get swept into a magical place (sometimes it’s ancient Rome, thanks to Caroline Lawrence), and no matter what has happened during the day, when I switch off the light, my worries, like the Boogie man are lost in the shadows. Sensory experiences (scent, taste, texture, etc.) are also transformative. When I try to cook, for example, everyone can smell and often hear it: when the smoke alarm goes off. I’ve focused my talents on foods (kale, bacon, rye bread) that are best served ‘crispy’, as I await ‘The Great British Burn Off’. For exercise, I like running barefoot on beaches or grass, doing yoga/pilates while watching TV, and getting lost on family walks/historic sites. For fun, I like dressing up/making costumes, writing nonsense in a journal, smelling flowers, eating gelato, chatting over a coffee or a glass of prosecco, singing in the shower.
Abigail Graham has been a Lecturer and Teaching Fellow at Warwick University (2006-9, 2011-2019) and is now a Research Fellow at the Institute for Classical Studies. She is founder and coordinator of the Postgraduate Epigraphy Course at the British School at Rome (since 2012, next course in 2021!) and has been coordinator of Practical Epigraphy Courses (Centre for Study of Ancient Documents, Oxford). She is working on a monograph about cognitive approaches to Epigraphy at Ephesus, and her primer The Romans: An Introduction (Routledge) 4th edition was published in May 2020.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.