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 Chiara Sulprizio
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Apart from reading Homer, which is a perennial go-to for me when I want to feel better, I have spent a fair amount of time contemplating the Delphic maxims, especially since the pandemic began.
When did you first come across the maxims?
I think most people who study ancient Greek history and culture know that the phrase “know thyself” was inscribed above the entrance of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. I also happened to be aware of the other two maxims which were also inscribed on the temple: “nothing in excess” and “surety brings ruin.” What I did not know, until I began preparing to teach a new course on religions of the ancient Mediterranean last year, was that there were another 144 maxims that were likely inscribed on a stele in front of the temple as well.
Can you tell me a bit about this list and its context?
No one is really certain who put together the list of maxims; some ancient sources say they were handed down by Apollo and the Pythia herself, while other, later authors attribute them to the Seven Sages. It is likely that, as short, pithy sayings, they were commonly known. The best-known list as we have it was compiled by Stobaeus in the 5th c. CE but there are other versions of it preserved as well. There is also a 3rd century BCE inscription from the city of Ai-Khanoum that preserves a few of the maxims and states that a Greek named Clearchus (maybe Aristotle’s student, Clearchus of Soli?) copied them from Delphi.
What is it about these maxims that appeals to you most?
Back in March, when I started teaching from home and had my two small kids and husband at home as well, I was experiencing all the same emotions that everyone else was as we began our journey into this period of insecurity and isolation: fear, anxiety, sadness, confusion. And like so many others, I didn’t have the time or the emotional bandwidth to do much about it. I turned to the wisdom of the Delphic maxims as a way to ground myself and focus my thoughts. Their brevity and simplicity really appealed to me; they seemed made for the moment. For one month I chose one maxim a day to meditate on, and I posted it on Twitter in the hope of generating small moments of calm and introspection for myself and anyone else who needed it.
There’s something for everyone to be found in the maxims which also adds to their appeal. I tried to choose ones that really spoke to me and my particular circumstances, such as “Act when you know” (#50), “Wish for what’s possible” (#52), or “Give back what you have received” (#55). There were also a number of maxims that acknowledged the important role of teaching and learning in our lives, such as “Do not tire of learning” (#121) and “Teach a youngster” (#127), which resonated with me in particular because of the work I do. The final five maxims of the list (#143-147) offer a road map through the different stages of life (“As a child, be well behaved,” “As a youth, be self-disciplined,” “In middle age, be just,” “As an old person, be sensible”) and culminates with the challenge I think we are all striving to achieve, “On reaching the end, be without sorrow.” I’ve been trying to keep this one in mind in particular and to apply it, not just to life writ large, but to everything I take on, big or small (with varying degrees of success!).
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I hug and cuddle my kids as much as possible. I also enjoy reading Trollope novels, watching “Call the Midwife,” and practicing piano. And I’ve recently taken up cardio boxing workouts, which I’ve found to be strangely uplifting!
Chiara Sulprizio is a Senior Lecturer in the Program in Classical and Mediterranean Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her scholarly work examines ancient attitudes and ideas about gender and sexuality, especially as they are depicted in comedy, satire and other humor-based literary genres. She recently published a translation entitled Gender and Sexuality in Juvenal’s Rome: Satire 2 and Satire 6 (Oklahoma University Press, 2020), accompanied by notes and an introduction geared toward undergraduates. She is also interested in the reception of the Classical past in modern comics, graphic novels and animation, and she is the creator of the web archive “Animated Antiquity: Cartoon Representations of Ancient Greece and Rome” (www.animatedantiquity.com).
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.