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 Josh Nudell
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
There are ancient historians I find endlessly fascinating or amusing, such as a scene in Curtius Rufus’ History of Alexander where Spitamenes’ wife appears in the Macedonian camp covered in blood. Alexander fears that his soldiers had attacked her, but when she reveals her husband’s severed head, which she detached because he refused to surrender to the invaders, he orders her out of his camp because he is concerned that her barbarian licentiousness (licentiate barbarae exemplar) will corrupt his soldiers’ placid demeanour (mitia ingenia transferret, 8.3.15). There are also plays that I return to in order to reflect on issues of today, such as Aristophanes’ Clouds. But I don’t use these for comfort.
However, there is an inscription I’ve been thinking about a lot this year from 401/0 BCE in Athens, extending honours for the foreigners who supported the democracy against the Thirty (RO 4 = AIO 1191).
When did you first come across this inscription?
I am not an epigrapher by training but came across the inscription while researching for a paper on bread-baking in ancient Greece that I delivered at the Classical Association of the Middle West and South annual meeting in 2019.
Can you tell me a bit about the inscription and its context?
This inscription records a mass grant of honours to non-citizens in 401/0 BCE. When Lysander had captured Athens in 404, he had installed a notoriously violent and corrupt regime of oligarchs called the Thirty. As described by Xenophon, an uprising led by Thrasybulus of Steiria about a year later led to fighting in the streets that drove the Thirty from the city and the eventual restoration of the democracy (Hell. 2.4). After the end of the fighting, the restored ecclesia moved to undo the harm caused by the Thirty and extend honours to everyone responsible for the victory. The specific award is now lost, but likely included ἰσοτέλεια (isoteleia, a favorable status with regard to taxation mentioned in Xen. Hell. 2.4.25) if not outright citizenship. The inscription concludes with a list of recipients.
What is it about this source that appeals to you most?
I hold the contrarian position that that canonical end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE is more interesting than how the war broke out. When Athens finally surrenders, Xenophon gives us a memorably discordant scene that is simultaneously celebratory and mournful (Hell. 2.2.23). Athenian democracy is defeated and the Thirty is just over the horizon, but the action on the page is flute girls playing while the Peloponnesians joyously tear down the walls of Athens thinking that their victory meant freedom for Greece.
Of course, the Thirty did not last. I don’t mean to romanticize Athenian democracy, which was fickle, exclusive, and built on the backs of exploited people, many of whom were enslaved, but I like the reminder that 404 was not its end, regardless of how bleak things looked.
What appeals to me about this inscription, though, is the list of names. Some are Greek, others are decidedly not, and since the inscription also includes their professions, we get a heterogenous collection of people that was probably meant to be conspicuously democratic. My favourite is Abdes (col. 6, l. 109), listed as a baker, whose name is likely Semitic. My second favourite is the other baker on the list, a man named Paidikos (col. 7, l. 115). We don’t know much about these people, but I find comfort in that relative anonymity. Institutions are important and elites might get most of the credit, but it takes ordinary people stepping up to defend democracy.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I feel more normal when I make time to exercise and read. I still find exercise important, even if COVID has interrupted my regular basketball games, and have consciously carved out time to read even during the semester. Ordinarily I vary my reading diet; I track my progress to make sure that my intake is not too homogenous and relax by researching books from places I have never visited, even if at the end of a long semester all I have energy to do is escape into science fiction and fantasy.
But, really, what I do to cheer myself up is bake—mostly breads, but also cookies, pies, and cheesecake. I cultivated my sourdough starter five or so years ago from flour, water, and some lime juice (acidity inhibits the growth of bad bacteria) and have since effectively stopped using industrial yeast. I use my starter for everything from loaves, to flatbreads, to croissants, to pizza, and usually travel with some of it in a jar if I know I’ll be able to use a kitchen. I also spend time looking for new recipes that I can try out (and show off on Instagram, alongside cats and books). A couple weeks ago, for instance, I decided to make phyllo for some spanakopita cups. They were a bit thick and clumsy but tasted wonderful.
Josh Nudell is an ancient historian whose interests include Ionia and the Greeks of Asia Minor, political rhetoric, cultural memory, and the history of food. He has published articles on Alexander’s supposed refoundation of Didyma and other aspects of Ionian history. He is currently working on his first book, Accustomed to Obedience?: A History of Classical Ionia, which examines the relationship between local agency and imperial authority. That project is under contract with the University of Michigan Press.
Josh is a contingent faculty member living, working, and baking in Central Missouri (USA) with his partner and their three cats. He keeps a blog on his personal website for assorted (mostly non-academic) writing and you can find him on both Twitter and Instagram @jpnudell.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.