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 Liv Mariah Yarrow
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I really like browsing images. I can get lost in pretty much any database that will show me objects from the ancient world just looking at the iconography. Coins are my specialty, but for real comfort I want see something I’ve never seen before. It is the little thrill of an image puzzle and connecting the dots in my mind between the new (to me!) object and what I already know or have seen before. I’m always on the hunt for a new database I’ve not yet exhausted, but I keep coming back to the Getty, the MET, the Boston MFA, and the British Museum. Sometimes I just pick a random search term like ‘dog’ or ‘bread’ and enjoy the variation in objects the search returns, but often I search for intaglios, especially glass pastes. For the latter, Thorvaldsen is amazing. Arachne is probably the biggest but the image quality varies a great deal so I tend to associate it with ‘serious work’, not comfort searches.
I even “play” versions of this with my children where we “visit” a museum by searching the collection using words they suggest and then use Google Earth to “travel” to where the object they select from the results was created or found.
When did you first come across these databases?
It is hard to remember when such image databases didn’t exist but my AHRC post-doc on RPC IV actually built one of the largest (of its day) back in the early 2000s. It was really fun to work with a team of numismatists and data structure and web interface experts to create it. We looked at the Beazley Archive and tried to improve on that, especially thinking about how to make it more user friendly. I admire how RPC has kept refining the interface as technology has improved; too often Digital Humanities projects get abandoned or just fail to age well.
However, back then it was all still work to me as a database builder, rather than avid user. I think I first fell in love with database searches when I started working extensively with the American Numismatic Society collections database, Mantis. This was just about a decade ago when I was in the early stages of thinking about how to write my book on coins as historical sources for the Roman Republic. I’d stick in a search term to call up a coin I half-remembered and it would give me not just that coin, but coins from all over the world and from different periods the records for which also contained that same search term. I loved seeing continuities and discontinuities in iconography. This led to my tree and sunset paper on the long shadow of Roman imperialism on representations of Africa.
Yet, when I search for comfort it never starts as research per se, just seeking the thrill of a new image and how it fits into the fragmentary puzzle of antiquity, or sometimes getting distracted when I’m doing image research for class prep or using image research to procrastinate on some bureaucratic task. Some of what I find I stick on social media or my blog if I think it might be ‘relevant’ or ‘fun’ but most of the images I just enjoy for myself.
What is it about these images that appeals to you most?
The great push to digitize collections has radically transformed access to images, but most especially for objects that aren’t particularly pretty or very unique. For a very long time the focus has been on objects from the ancient world that are spectacular masterpieces—stunning works of art that represent the elites of those societies. “Bad” art isn’t what is used to illustrate textbooks or the glossier museum publications, but the ancient world was full of iconography and that iconography was shockingly repetitive. So as an ancient historian I want to see all the bad, ordinary, everyday objects and how they were decorated. It is the best clue I have for understanding what was banal and everyday in contrast to what was indeed special or striking to an ancient viewer. This also helps to break down artificial distinctions in media: mirrors, lamps, intaglios, coins, pottery, and more all share overlapping visual repertoires.
That and the sheer humanity expressed through those objects. The people of the past feel more real to me through their objects, than their texts.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Weather allowing: weeding. I like to sit on my lawn—the portion that is still grass, not the Covi-ctory Garden—and select an invasive species to eradicate in the small patch in front of me and I carefully remove that one type of plant using a hori hori. I then reseed usually with white clover (a nitrogen fixer for the soil) but if I’ve left a real bare spot when I’m done, I mix in some native grass seed. It is a (near) futile task that gives me great peace.
Winter and Covid-19 isolation have led me to finally learn to crochet and it feels the same as weeding. With the right texture yarn and the right hook I can go on and on and get lost in a repetitive circular pattern (links to my current favorite).
I also enjoy cooking and baking without recipes and whatever I find in the cupboard to inspire me, and long chats with friends, but esp. my beloved, or when times get really bad: a hot bath and some poetry: Fenton, Cope, Auden, Addonizio, amongst others.
Liv Mariah Yarrow is a Professor at the City University of New York, in Classics at Brooklyn College and in Classics and History at the Graduate Center. She earned a BA from the George Washington University and an MPhil and DPhil from the University of Oxford. Her books include Historiography at the End of the Republic: Provincial Perspectives on Roman Rule (Oxford 2006) and The Republic to 49 BCE: Using Coins as Sources (Cambridge 2021). She co-directs the Roman Republican Die Project with Dr. Lucia Carbone at the American Numismatic Society, preserving and expanding the work of Dr. Richard Schaefer. She also enjoys designing course websites, blogging, and tweeting.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.