Comfort Classics Long Read

Read on for all the Comfort Classics interviews, collected on one handy – and very long – page!




Comfort Classics: Steve Havelin

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

 I have a shoe box full of postcards which I have a good rifle through whenever I’m fed up. One that’s always worth a lovely long lingering look at is this:




When did you first come across this picture?

I first encountered it on the cover of this book:




…which was a set text for one of the Classical Studies courses I did with the Open University.

I distinctly remember, when I took it out of its packaging, thinking what a lovely image it was. Indeed, when I subsequently somehow managed to loose the book, I immediately ordered a replacement copy, and was duly horrified when this arrived:




😳 In comparison it’s awful, isn’t it?! 😣


Can you tell me a bit about the painting and its context?

 It’s a fresco (38 x 32 cm) found at Stabiae which, just a few miles from Pompeii, was also buried by ash from the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Whether the girl is human or divine is debatable. She has most often been identified as the nymph Flora, associated with flowers, signalling the season of Spring. 

It’s now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples where I first saw it for real. I subsequently went back to see it several times when it was later on display for the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum in London.


What is it about the fresco that appeals to you most?

 It has a very uplifting, hope-filled feel about it. The colours are beautiful – the white and gold of the girl’s attire against the background green. It’s all very fresh, clean, light, bright and shinyThere’s a simple sense of renewal, with the promise of plenty summery sunshiny times ahead, of growth in greenery and plant produce, and all the natural abundance which that heralds (the big basket cornucopia she’s beginning to fill up). It has a hint of that start-of-the-long-hot-holiday thrill to it. Lovely! 😊


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

I LOVE re-reading the books I cherished as a child. It’s such a shame that some of the classics of children’s literature are so often seen as childish when they’re anything but. This is especially so once you’ve got a good grounding in Classics behind you. Go back to Narnia, or Middle Earth, or some of E. Nesbitt’s stories and you’ll spot all sorts of stuff that escaped you when you were younger. I can so easily lose myself completely in all the imaginative associations of an old-favourite story. And then emerging from that totally immersive reverie is like waking, thoroughly refreshed, from the soundest, soul-soothing sleep. Sod mindfulness! 😉😂



Steve Havelin focused on Maths and Sciences at school, started out studying Medicine at University, moved on to a BSc in Human Genetics, a PGCE in Chemistry, and subsequently taught school Science subjects.

Then he saw sense.

To tackle the intellectual Enlightenment havoc wrought on his mind by such relentlessly rational scientific thinking, Steve self-therapised himself with a Renaissance recovery regime that targeted hoovering up enough Open University Classical Studies courses to clock up three BAs. A Classics MA followed. And a PhD in Classics is in the offing.

Steve has accrued all his Classics qualifications studying part-time, by distance learning, whilst teaching Latin and Greek from beginners’ level to that of senior school scholarship exam entrants.

He’s glad he’s not a doctor.







Comfort Classics: Lilah Grace Canevaro


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

Greek epic poetry has it all. Gods and monsters, adventures, love stories, and plenty of gratuitous violence. Everything you need for a hefty dose of escapism. Within epic, though, it’s Hesiod’s Works and Days that keeps drawing me in. The underdog of epic poems. The one my students start the semester dubious about, and are completely attached to by the end of the year.


When did you first come across the Works and Days?

I read the Works and Days in a Greek class at Durham University. I was familiar with some of its stories, but this was my first opportunity to tackle it in the original. I was hooked – and ended up writing my PhD (and first book) on the text.


Can you tell me a bit about the work and its context?

The Works and Days is an archaic didactic epic poem, in which the narrator Hesiod teaches his audience how to negotiate the difficulties of Iron-Age life. He looks back to previous ages of myths, legends and metallic races, sets the Iron-Age scene, and gives advice on everything from farming to seafaring to wearing a hat so your ears don’t get wet. These days the poem tends to play second fiddle to Hesiod’s Theogony (when you’ve got hundred-handed monsters, and gods castrating their relatives, why would you read a catalogue of farming tools?), but in antiquity it was actually the Works and Days that was the more popular, the more quoted.


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

Its character. In particular, the character of its narrator. We don’t know who composed the poem – whether there was a Hesiod, or a ‘Hesiod’, or Hesiods. Whether it is the product of a single voice, or an anonymous tradition, or something in between. But that almost doesn’t matter. Not when the narrator has such a strong persona. I feel like I know Hesiod. He is grumpy. He doesn’t much like women, his family drive him up the wall, and he reckons we’re probably all headed for disaster. He is meticulous. He thinks of everything, and offers stream-of-consciousness advice that covers all eventualities in painstaking detail (I know more Greek vocab for parts of a plough than I care to think on). He is demanding. He sets high standards, and is definitely in the ‘teach a man to fish’ line. But he is also, deep down, an optimist. His brother Perses has blotted his copy-book more than once – but Hesiod remains convinced he can do better. The Iron Race are on a bad path – but there are ways out. Even women aren’t all bad – as long as you don’t let parts of their anatomy distract you.


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

I’m mother to two boys under 5. So I don’t have a lot of time for hobbies of my own. Our happy times at the minute involve ‘crafternoons’ (never mind the toilet rolls – we’ve been stockpiling the sequins and pipe cleaners), yoga for kids (it may be Pokemon themed, but it’s still calming), and cooking (the eldest loves baking and is a dab hand with a whisk, the youngest is fervently hoping there’s nothing you can’t puree).


Dr Lilah Grace Canevaro is Lecturer in Greek at the University of Edinburgh. Her research centres on ancient Greek poetry, with a focus on gender. She is pioneering new-materialist approaches to classical study, and has published also in classical reception and comparative literature. Her books include Hesiod’s Works and Days: How to Teach Self-Sufficiency (OUP, 2015) and Women of Substance in Homeric Epic: Objects, Gender, Agency (OUP, 2018).








Comfort Classics: Jack Lambert

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

The mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite from the House of Neptune and Amphitrite in Herculaneum. I have a picture I took of it as my computer desktop image, so I see it every day. I guess it’s a comfort through familiarity, but occasionally I take a moment to appreciate it.




When did you first come across this mosaic?

I was on the Amalfi coast for a friend’s wedding in September 2014 and while there I visited the archaeological site at Herculaneum, which I’d never been to before. I was enjoying exploring the different buildings without necessarily following the guidebook and I ‘discovered’ this mosaic which really stood out for me.


Can you tell me a bit about the mosaic and its context?

It’s found in the triclinium of an atrium house in Herculaneum (Insula V, Cardo IV), the House of Neptune and Amphitrite, which is named after the subjects of the mosaic. The house is lavishly decorated and contains another ornate mosaic in its Nymphaeum.


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

Instantly striking are the use of colour and the intricate floral patterns which frame the figures of Neptune and Amphitrite. Looking closer you can really appreciate the skill of its creator to give the impression of light on the bodies of the figures and of depth in the fan/shell/awning (?) above them. It’s a really beautiful piece. Beyond that, it brings back great memories of my week spent on the Amalfi coast with childhood friends, most of whom I don’t get the opportunity to see very often.


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

I’ve played the guitar since I was 11 or 12, I’m not sure I’m getting any better, but I like to play when I have the time. Also, coastal walks here in Catalonia are a great way to disconnect, or there are plenty of mountains for something a bit more challenging.


Jack studied a BA and MA with the Open University and has lived and worked in Catalonia and the Basque Country as a TEFL teacher for the last 6 years. He is currently taking a break from teaching and studying a PhD at the University of Barcelona investigating language, identity and sociocultural change among the Iberian peoples of the eastern Pyrenees. His interests include Iberian and Latin epigraphy, and creations and representations of identity in the ancient world.


Jack Lambert





Comfort Classics: Joanna Paul

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

I’m going to cheat a little and choose a source that’s not ancient, but rather a modern poem inspired by Homer’s Odyssey: the poem ‘Ithaka’, by the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy(1863-1933).


When did you first come across this poem?

I can’t exactly remember, but I do know that I have always been totally fascinated by how modern writers and artists of all types use the ancient world for inspiration (which is why I’ve ended up specialising in modern receptions of classical antiquity in my research career.) Whenever it was that I read it, it definitely lodged in my brain, perhaps because it engages so profoundly with the Odyssey, which was definitely the first ancient source that I ever encountered, when I began studying the classical world as an A-level student.


Can you tell me a bit about this poem and its context?

Cavafy wrote a lot of poetry that addresses ancient history and myth and this is probably one of his most famous, I think because of the way in which it takes the basic narrative thrust of the Odyssey – the long journey home – and makes it a metaphor for life itself. His central message is that, although that homecoming – the ancient Greek concept of nostos – is something that we long for, ultimately it’s the journey itself that is more important than the destination: ‘Keep Ithaka always in your mind’, he says, ‘But don’t hurry the journey at all’, because we can gain so much wisdom, so many rich experiences, from that journey, just as Odysseus himself did.


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

I think I find it comforting as a reminder that, even when our journey through life feels difficult – besieged by monsters and angry gods as well as adventures and discoveries – that journey teaches us something; we become ‘wise’, says Cavafy, ‘full of experience’ – and that’s a pretty good message to hang onto right now. Concentrating on the journey rather than the destination is also another way of expressing a key principle of present-focused mindfulness, an attitude to life that I also find very comforting at the moment. If we’re always thinking too much about what’s ahead of us, we might distort our own personal ‘Ithakas’ and imagine that they represent some glorious, rewarding future, which may in fact be always out of reach. Instead, says the poem, we shouldn’t expect our Ithaka to make us rich, but we should appreciate our homeland as the place that gives us a grounding, ‘without [which] you wouldn’t have set out’.


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

I have two small daughters, aged 4 and 7, so they can usually be relied upon to cheer me up with some silly dancing, or just a big smile and a hug. I also try to find time for lots of hobbies that have nothing to do with classics or work. When I really need to escape and exercise a different part of my brain, I love running, and playing my sax in the Bristol Community Big Band; and you can never ever beat the joy of getting lost in a good book.


Jo is a Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University, where she’s been since 2011. She works on a wide range of Classical Studies modules, particularly those to do with Latin literature and Roman culture, but her research specialism is the area of classical reception studies. She’s always been particularly interested in the ways in which contemporary popular culture engages with classical material, especially in the cinema, and she continues to publish widely on all aspects of Pompeii and its reception history.






Comfort Classics: Gina May


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

‘Tell me Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel….’


When did you first come across this?

I first met Homer at school when I was doing my O Levels.


Can you tell me a bit about these words and their context?

These are the opening words of Homer’s Odyssey where the narrator is calling on the Muse to tell the story of Odysseus and his wondrous voyage. It was a voyage that should only have been a total distance of about 450 (724km) miles from Troy to Ithaca but he ended up sailing somewhere in the region of 8,083 miles (13,008km).  Monsters and Mayhem is probably the best way to describe it!


What is it about this that appeals to you most?

It’s the beginning of an adventure like never before.  The words draw me in and want me to hear the story, just as those who would have sat around a fire and listened to the magnetic voice of the bard.  The story is old as time, but one that is alive and exciting, and thought-provoking, and one that no matter how old it is, will always be one that people want to hear.


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

I read – so technically that is within Classics – but there are so many books about the ancient world! There are fiction and non-fiction, but no matter which one I read, I learn something new.  I feel like there is a huge unfinished jigsaw of information about the ancient world in my mind.  It already has lots of pieces put in, and I can see parts of the picture, but there are still lots of pieces that need to be found, or made.  I learn all the time, from books, from colleagues and from my students.


Dr Gina May works at The Open University – and does many other things too!

“I have wanted to be a Classicist for as long as I can remember.  I didn’t finish my A levels at school but as the years went by, I did lot of OU courses that made me love Classics even more. Finally, when our youngest child was doing her GCSEs, I gave up work and did a full time Classics Degree at the University of Kent, Canterbury.  I loved every minute of it and it was there that I learned Greek and more Latin, and Hieroglyphs and so, so many other things!  I did well in my degree and was offered teaching jobs at the OU and The University of Kent that same year.  I was lucky enough to be awarded funding for my PhD, and so hot on the heels of finishing my BA, I started working on my thesis which was an extension of an essay question I had been set in my final year.  Three years later, I had the PhD.  I was still working for the OU and taught at Kent for another 8 years. 

18 months ago I left my job at Kent to start a business developing and teaching my own courses which include languages, literature, archaeology, numismatics, academic practice and lots more besides.  I knew that there were people out there that loved Classics as much as me and wanted to know more, either to enhance their BA, MA or PhD studies, or just for pleasure.  Since then, I have taught Ancient Greek and Latin to almost a hundred people.  My six week short courses have been extremely popular as have my Saturday Afternoon Seminars.  I recently advertised a 16 week Ancient Greek and Roman Comedy course and it filled very quickly, as has my 10 week Research Seminar course.  The demand is such that I am running the Research Seminars course again starting in the middle of April during the day.  If there is enough demand, the course will also run in the evenings.  My new 10 week Roman Values, Authority and Self course is also proving to be very popular. 

I am so fortunate. I love my job because I get to talk to students almost all day most days.  Being able to share my knowledge with such motivated, inspiring and inspired people is an absolute pleasure.  And in these days of lock down, and lock in, I hope that I can bring just a little bit of comfort to people by taking them away into another world for a few hours each week. 

To bring more people together, I am running a ‘coffee morning’ at 10am each Wednesday which has been attended by students, staff, professors and lots of other people. For details, please email me at   There is also a new (free) reading group starting on Mondays at 2pm where we will get together and read a book out loud together.  In the ancient world the stories would have been listened to, not read alone, so my aim is that we join together to recreate that feeling. To register for the reading group, and for details of all my courses, please go to”


For details of all Gina’s courses and how to register for the reading group, please go to her website, or email her:  The coffee morning is hosted through the OU in an Adobe Connect room: email Gina for the link.








Comfort Classics: Klara Hegedus


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

Thinking of the Forum, in Rome, always makes me smile. I’ve only ever visited it in summer, so for me, the memory is of the warmth of the sun, the sight of so much history, the smell of the warm air, and the excitement that there is so much to learn about it.


When did you first fall in love with Rome?

I first visited Rome on a family holiday nearly 3 years ago and was instantly captivated by it.




Can you tell me a bit about the Forum and its context?

The Forum was the site of so much Roman political and religious history. Temples, the Senate, the site of Julius Caesar’s cremation, the houses on the Palatine, the Imperial Fora, Nero’s House, all are there or close by. Yes, most are ruins and many are replacements but the sense of history is incredible.




What is it about the Forum that appeals to you most?

There is a sense of being close to the people and events of Rome. Figures like Cicero, Caesar and Augustus would have walked along the Via Sacra as we can now. We can see sites of imperial power such as the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum but protected by time from the more terrible elements of their existence. As I have always visited with family, the place is to me, one of fun exploration, which will then be followed by Aperol for the adults and Diet Coke for the kids in the nearby restaurant which we have made it a family tradition to visit.




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

At the moment, I am enjoying sitting with my family, eating popcorn and watching a TV programme together. We are currently watching The Mandalorian but Star Trek Discovery, The Young Sheldon and The Big Bang Theory are also favourites.

When the kids are asleep, we are enjoying watching The Thick of It and remembering how fabulously awful Malcolm Tucker was, whilst drinking an Aperol and remembering that all this will pass and one day we will be able to visit Italy once again.


Klara is a very mature student, studying for an MA at the OU and learning Latin, before hopefully starting a further MA in Classics & Ancient History at Reading in September. Her first love is Rome but she is currently fascinated by studying the work of Heinrich Schliemann and seeing how archaeology has developed over the last 150 years, and is happy to bore anyone to tears by discussing this topic at length…








Comfort Classics: Christine Plastow


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

It’s a bit of a weird one! I work on the Athenian forensic (law court) speeches, and I’m particularly interested in speeches from homicide trials. I know that sounds grim, but I promise I have a particular reason why this one makes me happy, so bear with me! This particular speech is Antiphon 6, On the Chorus Boy. It’s a defence speech for a man accused of poisoning a boy who was part of a theatrical chorus that he was managing.


When did you first come across this speech?

I first met this source while I was writing my PhD on the homicide speeches. It’s one of only 5 surviving speeches from homicide trials, so it was essential reading for me.


Can you tell me a bit about the speech and its context?

The defendant in the trial argues that he’s innocent (obviously!) but particularly that the whole trial is the result of a plot against him by his political opponents. He says that they waited so long to bring the case against him that it can’t possibly be sincere. He also says that this meant he was able to go about his normal business for a long time until they brought the case against him. This is because, once a person was accused of homicide, they weren’t allowed to enter certain buildings or parts of the city, such as temples, law courts, and the agora (marketplace), because they were seen to be ritually unclean and socially excluded. The speaker says that he was the key witness in a different trial, and that the friends of the people who were being prosecuted in that trial had brought this homicide charge against him in order to stop him being able to enter the law court and give his crucial testimony. That’s all a bit complicated, but it does bring me to the moment that I like most in this speech…



What do you like most about this speech?

While he’s arguing that the case against him is frivolous and insincere, the speaker says this:

‘To top it all off, by Zeus and all the gods, in the Council-house in front of the Council Philocrates here [the prosecutor] joined me on the podium, and with his hand on my arm he talked with me, calling me by name, and I did the same.’ (translation by Michael Gagarin)

The speaker’s point is that if the prosecutor Philocrates really believed that he had killed the boy in question, he would have considered him to be ritually unclean and socially excluded, and would not have been seen with him in public in this way. But what I love about this moment is how it encapsulates a fragment of human interaction – this feels like real life to me. There are plenty of problems with saying ‘the ancients were just like us!’ – in many ways they were totally different. But moments like this remind me that humans have been humans for a very long time: communicating, calling each other’s names, and, yes, touching each other. Simple moments of connection between people have been happening for thousands of years in so many forms, and they continue today. To me, it’s a reminder that we come from a long line of human beings living human lives, and that encourages me to believe that we can continue to do so long into the future.


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

My best tactic is keeping a playlist of songs that make me want to dance. Even if I’m in a rotten mood and can’t imagine wanting to drag myself off the sofa, I put on that playlist and soon enough I start dancing around my living room. It doesn’t have to be expert dancing – mine certainly isn’t! Just moving the body, getting the blood flowing, and reminding yourself that joy exists in the world.


Christine Plastow is a Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University. She works on the Athenian forensic speeches, and Athenian rhetoric, law, politics, and history more broadly. Her book Homicide in the Attic Orators was released by Routledge in 2020. She also works with London-based performance collective By Jove Theatre Company. You can find Christine on Twitter @chrissieplastow.







Comfort Classics: Mary Beard


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

I am not sure that there is a single one, or that much of classical culture etc. makes me feel ‘better’ in the way that a good movie does!  But if I was to choose an object, it would probably be the so-called ‘Tomb of the Baker’ in Rome. This is a wonderfully self-confident tomb in the shape of a bread oven, to commemorate a rich but definitely not-posh baker. The hutzpah always makes me smile (there is even a sculpted frieze showing not mythological battles, but work in the bakery).




As for a work of literature, it would have to be the Odyssey.


When did you first come across the Odyssey?

I knew some of the stories from it when I was very young, from what must have been a ‘Tales of Ancient Greece’ book. But I first came across it in Homer’s version when I was at high school. I was lucky enough to learn Greek at school… and the Circe book (Book 10) was one of the first bits of real Greek I read, aged about 14.



Can you tell me a bit about the Odyssey and its context?

The Odyssey I suppose counts as the second earliest work of western literature, going back to the 8th century BC. Whatever its origins in ‘bardic performance’, in the form that has come down to us, it is an extraordinarily sophisticated text weaving together two different stories: the long homecoming of Odysseus after the Trojan War and the fate of his family as they wait back in Ithaca. It includes some of the most memorable (and most reworked) episodes in Greek literature – Odysseus’ cruel encounter with the Cyclops, or the sorceress Circe turning Odysseus’ men into pigs (a story recently told from Circe’s point of view by Madeline Miller).


What is it about the Odyssey that appeals to you most?

Its brilliant complexity and self-awareness. Take the episode with the Cyclops, for example. It really undermines our certainty about the very definition of ‘civilisation’. Is it simply a clash between the heroic Odysseus and the barbarous cannibal? Or should we be calling into question quite how heroic the trickster Odysseus is? It is no surprise, I think, that this part of the Odyssey, in particular, has been seen as an uncomfortable model for the colonial encounter.


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

As I said, it is a good movie for me.


Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge; and author of SPQR and Women and Power. She is presenting a new series of Front Row Late on BBC2 from 16 April at 11.30 pm. Under current restrictions, she is presenting from her study at home (and is also standing in as camera person, sound engineer, floor manager and make-up artist). Wish her luck.


A small selection from the Editor’s ‘Mary Beard’ shelf…


Check out, too, the BBC Titian documentary from last weekend, in which Mary Beard talks about Titian and Ovid.





Comfort Classics: Rob Cromarty


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

There are a few actually, but it rather depends on my mood and what mood I want to get to. If I want reassurance that posterity will out, then I turn to Tacitus’ ‘Histories’. But I suppose the author I keep going back to is Ovid. He’s like an addiction. I was translating the ‘Ibis’ last year, this year I’m working on a commentary of ‘Fasti’ Book 2. But I’d tend towards the ‘Amores’ more than anything else. I still remember a comment in the Introduction to the Loeb edition of the ‘Amores’: “The reader will not look to the Amores for profundity of any sort, whether of thought or emotion.” Now, to be fair the editor goes on to say that this is what gives the poems their peculiar charm, but I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe it is just me patting myself on the back for seeing all the literary fun Ovid is having in writing these poems, or maybe it’s because I hear a note of sarcastic opposition to Augustus’ hypocritical puritanism throughout, but for me the ‘Amores’ are very much a regular re-read.


When did you first come across the ‘Amores’?

Well, I’d always been aware of them, but I only started looking at them seriously about 13 years ago as they were among the first texts I had to teach as part of the IB Diploma poetry allocation. I got very pissed off at how sanitised everyone else seemed to be in their delivery of them, so I just jumped in to full-blown ‘nequitia’ with both feet and haven’t really looked back since.



Can you tell me a bit about the poems and their context?


They survive as the second edition of the ‘Amores’ which you can date pretty firmly to ca. 14 BC, based on some references to wigs made from the hair of captured Germans, with Ovid adding in a little prologue to say that he reduced the first edition from five books to three, so he’s giving us a slimmed-down and tightened-up version. So they’re written in the opening decade or so of Augustus’ reign as the first emperor and so give us a pleasing insight into the literary and sexual predilections of Roman society at that time. This is even more interesting when one considers the Leges Juliae of 18 BC, with Augustus doing his best to curtail marital infidelity.



What is it about the ‘Amores’ that appeals to you most?

Where to start? The sheer exuberance of the poetry? The fact that Ovid’s love affair with love-elegy was so potent that he effectively killed off the genre, rendering all subsequent efforts moot? The fact that they are laced with inter-textuality and borrowings/homages/piss-takes of other poets’ work?

These are all great… But for me it’s also that Ovid is decidedly thumbing his nose at Augustus. For me there is no doubt that the “rusticus” of Amores 3.4, who “is smarting from his wife’s adultery” and “does not know well-enough the customs of this city, wherein not even those sons of Ilia – Romulus and Remus – were born without a nudge-and-a-wink”, is Augustus – desperately and hypocritically trying to stem the tide of adultery. I think Ovid would have afforded himself a sly chuckle in AD 9 when Augustus had to re-issue his adultery laws as the Lex Papia Poppaea, notably removing his own name from this unpopular legislation.



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

I guess that when I’m not on lockdown I can usually be found in a restaurant eating tremendous food and quaffing a cocktail or two (mine’s a ‘Morning Glory Fizz’). But also I coach Rugby, Netball, and Javelin; I used to be a carpenter, so I keep my hand in with a bit of wood-working; some old comic collecting brightens the day; and I’m a sucker for a good quiz or cryptic crossword.


Dr Rob Cromarty is a Classics Teacher writing books for Bloomsbury Classics, with the current one being a Commentary on Ovid, Fasti Book 2. He can be found on Twitter @DocCrom.


Durham University: B.A. (Hons.) Dunelm – Ancient History and Archaeology: Undergraduate Dissertation on Harappan Culture.

Durham University: M.A. Classics – Master’s Dissertation on Trade and Cultural Exchange Patterns in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean.

Durham University: PhD Classics – Research Title: Burning Bulls, Broken Bones: Sacrificial Ritual in the Context of Palace Period Minoan Religion.







Comfort Classics: Colin Gough


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

Well, I can see the question but, like Aristophanes pushing the envelope, I am going to be controversial and say two, both Greek orientated, for very different but personal reasons.

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ – Odyssey Homer

And the first 3.05 minutes of this:



When did you first come across these?

The scene is 2013, the first second-level and the first Classical Studies module as an undergraduate. After introductions the first words of the tutor: ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ – Tell me O Muse of the man of many ways.

I don’t know why but the words made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, they sounded so evocative, so epic. The effect was life changing because, when I got home, I changed from a History degree to Classical Studies and I now eat, breathe and sleep anything classical.

The second left me open mouthed with astonishment and started my love affair with the theatre and tragedy in particular. Whilst the first one inspired me into my love for anything Classical, it is the second one I go to whenever I falter on essays or need a pick-me-up as I find the content and, dare I say the presenter, so inspiring. It kept me motivated and on the straight and narrow.


Can you tell me a bit about these sources and their context?

Hmmmm, what can I say about the opening line of Homer’s Odyssey? One of the greatest Classical Epics? Possibly the cornerstone of literature for millennia? The basis for myth, legend, playwrights, poets and filmmakers? All the above and more.

The second is the first three minutes of a three-part BBC documentary series. It starts in Ancient Greece with the intertwining of theatre, drama performance and tragedy with Athenian democracy… through the fall of the Athenian Empire and a new form of comedy… to the third episode of Roman preservation and adaptation of Greek drama and connections of modern with ancient Greek drama. Three hours of delight.



What is it about these sources that appeals to you most?

Both have the ability to transport me back to Ancient Greece. Listening to different performances in Greek of the opening lines of the Odyssey is fascinating and allows me to believe that I am potentially listening to Homer as (he?) would have been orally performed at the time. The documentary is littered with academics, gives a grounding of drama and theatre encompassing so many disciplines and the presenter, well, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and engaging doesn’t do him justice.

A final note: the opening line inspired me to the extent that I have it permanently etched as a reminder of the start of my journey of discovery. So, on my left arm:




But then my interests broadened and, in the spirit of balance on my right arm:






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

There are things outside Classics? Seriously a lot of my leisure time is taken up with classical things, but I also enjoy eating out (who doesn’t?), theatre, walking my fabulous dogs, dreaming about self sufficiency and ballet. Swan Lake is the one ballet everybody should see – even if you grit your teeth booking the tickets, I guarantee you will be emotionally moved by the music and beauty of the performance.


“Left school 50 years ago with five ‘O’ levels and after a recent foray with the OU have emerged the proud holder of a BA and MA Classical Studies. Coming under intense pressure to start a PhD but, apart from suffering acute imposter syndrome, am actually enjoying myself on a Comedy course and fitfully dipping my toes into Latin and Greek. One day maybe. We live on a farm in Hertfordshire and my nearest neighbour is over a quarter of a mile away so no problems on social distancing! Great for walking the dogs (when I have some of my best thoughts) – two beautiful sister Rotties and a Miniature Dachshund with an unfortunate Napoleon complex. Not only have I been married for 35 years, we also work together and, thankfully, share the same interests, visiting historical sites, to the extent of dragging her along to the Cambridge Greek Plays – she says she enjoys them…. honestly. Off now to dig my veggie plot (that one lasted quite a few meals).”




Stay safe and keep smiling everyone.





Comfort Classics: Sarah Thomason


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

‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’ Aeschylus “Agamemnon” Trans. Edith Hamilton

Not particularly uplifting at first glance, but essentially a quote to inspire exceptional strength in desperate times.

May I choose two? Herewith, in support –





When did you first come across Aeschylus and Thomson?

The ‘Agamemnon’; as an angst ridden 13-year-old uprooted from everything familiar. The Textbook; a gift from my self-educated grandmother, forced to leave school at a similar age.


Can you tell me a bit about these sources and their context?

‘Agamemnon’ is the first play in Aeschylus’ Trilogy ‘Oresteia’. A gory tale of the fall of the House of Atreus; infanticide, cannibalism, bloody revenge, insanity, war, tyranny and dreadful gods.  All related in beautiful poetic imagery.

Thomson sets the works of Aeschylus as a reflection of the agonising and brutal emergence of civilisation from a barbaric and primitive tribal society.


What is it about these sources that appeals to you most?

As a teenager of course I loved the stories, they appealed to my nascent Goth! I also adored the poetry, the imagery. Thomson taught me the importance of historical context and never to accept anything in isolation and without attempting verification.

Most importantly the notion of “Wisdom through Suffering” gave hope to my teenage self and helped explain the injustice I saw in the world at large. It still resonates today.

Recently, a past pupil (now in her 40’s) made contact to say she still reads her classroom annotated texts – and sent me proof!  I’m thrilled Aeschylus continues to give her hope.




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

Eat the delicious food cooked by my husband!

However, there is no ‘outside of Classics’ – Classics is all pervading!  We travel a lot both here and abroad, always seeking out archaeological sites, museums and food markets. For the moment our travelling is electronic, and as for visiting far flung friends – Hurrah for FaceTime!





Sarah is “Hellene Travel” Joint Founder & Consultant, BA Classics/History Jt. Hons., Rtd HoD and Chief Examiner OCR, as well as Ambassador for MOLA (+ working for ‘Shelter’, Teaching Children with Special Needs, Fire Service Training Clerk, GKN production line machine operator, factory floor sweeper-upper of iron filings, building a BSA Fleet Star motorcycle, archaeology & hand-picking swedes).

You can find her on Twitter @HelleneTravel.






Comfort Classics: LJ Trafford


Is there a source from the ancient world (a text, an inscription, an object…) that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

I’d like to say it was a work that celebrated the human spirit against adversity. Or opened a philosophical window into the very nature of man. A work of deep inspirational and intellectual value that has echoed through the centuries and brings insight and knowledge to the darkest of times.

I’d like to say that but I can’t because my chosen text is Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars.

Which is the most fabulously gossipy work ever created.



When did you first come across this text?

I first became interested in Roman history as an A Level English Lit student. We were studying Antony & Cleopatra. Being somewhat of a swat I read around the subject and was flabbergasted to discover that the villain of that play, Octavius Caesar, transformed into the good emperor Augustus!!! This was a mystery that needed unpacking. I began with historical fiction, working my way through the likes of Allan Massie and Robert Graves. Once I’d exhausted fiction I strayed onto Tacitus and Cassius Dio. Then one day I stumbled across a copy of The Twelve Caesars in the Cambridge branch of WH Smith’s.

It was quite an eye-opener for an innocent 17-year-old from East Anglia. I hold Suetonius wholly responsible for having written 4 books with the taglines:

Depravity. Debauchery. Decadence.

Sex. Skulduggery. Slaughter

Duplicity. Degeneracy. Destruction

Hedonism. Heroism. Horror


I still have that copy of Suetonius; it’s looking pretty battered now. It travelled with me to university after I talked my way onto an Ancient History degree by fan-girling over Augustus in my supporting statement. It accompanied me on my first trip to Rome where I determined I was going to read the chapter on Augustus outside the great man’s mausoleum on his birthday, which I did surrounded by drunks and hypodermic needles (it wasn’t a terribly nice neighbourhood in the late 90s).




I still flick through my copy regularly and it has been used as a source for my four fiction and two non-fiction books. As well as this History Girls article: The Sauce Factor!


Can you tell me a bit about The Twelve Caesars and its context?

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a 2nd century biographer. We know very little about the man. He was a friend of Pliny the Younger’s, but then so apparently was every man in Rome at the time. He worked as a secretary for Emperor Hadrian but was dismissed for ‘impolite’ behaviour towards the Empress Sabina. He wrote a book called Greek Terms of Abuse, whose loss I mourn since it sounds like it could have had a useful practical application. And also Lives of Famous Whores which I like to pretend included the Empress Sabina as some sort of revenge.

His surviving work The Twelve Caesars is a collection of biographies of Caesars from Julius Caesar to Domitian.  It is undeniably stupendous.



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

Its very accessibility. Classics has a somewhat unfair reputation as being a closed subject, something that the elite study so they can make witty jokes in Latin at dinner parties that only they understand. Suetonius demolishes that. It is simply a tour de force of scurrilous rumour served up on a plate to gleeful undergraduates worn down by the Aeneid and those books that Livy wrote.

It is an unparalleled joy from start to finish. Yes, Tacitus is so very quotable and he has that whole “they create a desert and call it peace” bit which is great but Suetonius has:

“So much for the man, now for the monster”.

This classic: “Valerian Catullus revealed publicly he had buggered the emperor, and quite worn himself out in the process.”

And my all-time favourite on Tiberius: “Some aspects of his gross depravities are almost too vile to discuss, much less believe”

Which Suetonius then helpfully lists so we may judge for ourselves their vile believability.

Suetonius tells us much about those twelve Caesars that you simply won’t find anywhere else, like Domitian’s bandy legs and Augustus’ woollen underpants. Not to mention the time a whole field of horses started crying because they knew Julius Caesar would be assassinated, if only horses could talk….

In times of stress I find Suetonius comforting, partly because it is very funny but also because it is littered with examples of people having a far worse day than you are; the ‘inoffensive’ senators accidentally mown down during Caligula’s assassination, the unfortunate dinner party guests invited to Domitian’s black banquet, the hundreds of people forced to endure Nero’s poetry recitals.



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

There is nothing better than being the first up, sitting in my chair with a nice cup of tea watching my fish tanks in quite contemplation.

Failing that a G&T hits the spot.



L.J. Trafford studied Ancient History at the University of Reading after which she took a job as a Tour Guide in the Lake District.

Moving to London in 2000 she began writing ‘The Four Emperors’ series. The series comprises four books – Palatine, Galba’s Men, Otho’s Regret and Vitellius’ Feast – which cover the dramatic fall of Nero and the chaotic year of the four emperors that followed. 

Her new book How to Survive in Ancient Rome will be published in October 2020.

She is currently working on a book on sex and sexuality in ancient Rome.

A regular contributor to The History Girls site, her proudest moment remains creating #phallusthursday a popular Twitter hashtag dedicated to depictions of penises in antiquity.

Follow her on Twitter at @traffordlj

Or Facebook








Comfort Classics: Pam Herbert


Is there a source from the ancient world (a text, an inscription, an object…) that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

There are so many wonderful sources from the ancient world that it’s quite difficult to narrow it down to just one, and other contributors to this series have already chosen sources that I enjoy, so as I’m a bit of a sucker for a mosaic, here’s one of my favourites. It’s from the Villa Romana del Casale near the village of Piazza Armerina in Sicily. This is my own photo, so it isn’t the best quality, I’m afraid.





When did you first come across this mosaic?

I’m going to show my low-brow credentials here – I’m pretty sure that I first saw it on a TV programme called Sicily Unpacked in which the art critic, Andrew Graham-Dixon and his friend, chef Giorgio Locatelli travelled around Sicily admiring the art treasures and cooking up some good food as they went. During the show they highlighted the so-called bikini girls, and I think it was then that I decided that the villa was on my list of places to visit.




Can you tell me a bit about this mosaic and its context?

The Villa Romana del Casale was built during the early fourth century CE, although it isn’t clear whether it belonged to a rich landowner or to the Emperor himself. It is an extremely elaborate and luxurious villa, and pretty well all the floors in the main parts are covered with the most beautiful mosaics, often showing wild animals being captured and traded, and also daily life and mythological scenes. This particular image is from the Cubicle of Children Hunters. The floor of this room shows four rather gender stereotyped panels – one panel shows girls collecting roses and there is a panel showing a boy carrying heavy baskets of the roses (why? – for perfume making perhaps?). The other two panels show boys hunting small animals – a hare and a duck. Unfortunately for the boys, it all goes wrong for them in the next panel, in which one of them is bitten by a rat, and another is chased by a cockerel, and it is this last image that makes me smile.


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

I know that we are often told that the people of the ancient world were not like us, but there is something in this image that reminds me of the bravado of small boys who can do anything …just like Daddy, until it doesn’t work out the way they expect, and then they run away in disarray, exactly like the little boy being chased by the cockerel. Pride comes before a fall, as they say, and as the mother of two boys (now grown up) I well remember this “just watch me do this” attitude! The other thing about this image is that it recollects a wonderful holiday, during which we visited amazing ancient sites and generally had a great time!


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

As you can possibly guess, I love travelling, always to a place with something interesting to see, either in the way of an ancient site or some lovely flora and fauna (my idea of hell would be a 100% beach holiday – I would be so bored). As that isn’t really on the cards right now, I have to escape in imagination by reading, with historical fiction as my preferred genre.



“I got hooked on the classical world at an early age when I was given a child’s book of Greek & Roman myths, and was lucky enough to study Latin at school. I specialized in science later, studying for a BSc (Hons.) Genetics & Cell Biology at Manchester University, graduating in 1978. After a brush with secondary science teaching, I eventually came back to Classics through the OU and basically registered for any course that was about the classical world. I graduated in 2011 with a BA (Hons.) Humanities with Classical Studies, and then went on to study for a MA as a distance learner with Trinity St. David (Lampeter University), gaining my MA in Classical Language and Literature in 2015. Unfortunately, Classics has remained an amateur interest for me, and I am currently an industrial chemist, working for Pirelli Tyres.”


Happy times in Capri.





Comfort Classics: Naoko Yamagata


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

The Philosophy of Epicurus.



When did you first come across this?

When I was sixteen, after both my grandmothers died within a month of each other and I became very aware of and scared of my own mortality.



Can you tell me a bit about the texts and their context?

Much of Epicurus’ works are lost, but some are preserved in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers (Book X in the Loeb edition’s Vol. II). Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who lived in the Hellenistic period (4th to 3rd century BCE) when democracy was lost and people felt they had less control over their lives. He opened a school in Athens which was, unique to the customs of much of the ancient world, open to men and women. The essence of his teaching is also expanded in Lucretius’s Latin epic, On the Nature of Things.




What is it about Epicurus’ work that appeals to you most?

It reassures you that death is not to be feared, because it has nothing to do with us while we are alive and when death comes we ourselves will not exist to feel it. He also advocates a stress-free life, teaching you how to keep peace of mind under any circumstances, being content with what you have got and valuing friendship. Contrary to what later became known as ‘epicureanism’ of small ‘e’, synonymous with excessive pursuit of pleasure, the original Epicureanism with the big ‘E’ is about controlling one’s fear, desire and other negative feelings that cause stress, and being content with life as it is, which arguably is the fail-proof pursuit of happiness. It has much in common with Buddhism as well.



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

Nothing much, because Classics is my hobby and reading about various classical authors is what keeps me happy most of the time. I do like sitting in the garden and admiring flowers as well, but that is also following in the footsteps of Epicurus whose school was known as the ‘Garden’!





Naoko is teaching Classics at the OU. She fell in love with Greece when she read a book called “Classical Greece” by Maurice Bowra when she was fourteen and has been learning about the Greeks and Romans ever since. She never looked back!








Comfort Classics: Tony Potter


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

Yes – Absolutely! I’ve recently re-discovered Martial’s Epigrams and they always cheer me up when I’m feeling a little low.


When did you first come across Martial?

I originally came across his work when I was studying the old OU course A219 – Exploring the Classical World. I can’t remember the exact details, but I think one of the TMAs was about Roman baths or something along those lines and one of the sources we looked at was Martial. I seem to remember then thinking that he was a real ‘people watcher’, and that sort of appeals to me!


Can you tell me a bit about his work and its context?

If I remember correctly Martial was originally from what we would call Spain today and I’m pretty certain that the twelve books of Epigrams are probably the best known of his works. The Epigrams were written between AD 86 and 103 during the reign of the Emperors Domitian, Nerva and Trajan. I reckon if you asked anyone about Martial, they’d definitely mention his Epigrams. I did a quick search on the definition of ‘epigrams’ just to check I knew what I was talking about and Wikipedia (don’t shoot me!) says that they are ‘brief, interesting, memorable, and sometimes surprising or satirical statements’ and I think this sums them up perfectly!


What is it about Martial that appeals to you most?

As I mentioned earlier, I think Martial was the ultimate ‘people watcher’ and if we take anything from the Epigrams, they prove that he was a quick witted, outstandingly sarcastic and unapologetic man with a staggeringly vicious tongue! He observed life in Rome as it was and said exactly what he saw without thinking about the implications and I admire him for that. If I were to go out on a limb, I think I’d go as far as to say I can see a little bit of myself in Martial’s ‘take no prisoners’ attitude! The Epigrams are amazingly offensive but also side-splittingly hilarious and they never cease to make me chuckle.


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

This might sound a bit weird, particularly because we are talking about what I do to cheer myself up – but I do love a good horror film, the scarier the better. I’m not really into gory films but I do like a good film that chills you to the bone. When I’m not scaring myself silly with films about possessed dolls in rocking chairs I like to try and get outside as much as possible. I’m not a sporty person at all but I do have three hyper-active spaniels so I like to take them out on long walks to use up their energy. I also find it helps clear my mind and focus on whatever I’m currently researching or working on.


Tony Potter is currently a postgraduate student with the Open University, in the final year of study for the MA in Classical Studies.

“I have big ambitions and as soon as I’ve got my MA in the bag I really want to start thinking about PhDs. My current area of interest is Greek and Roman medicine, especially the cult of Asclepius. But I’m currently focusing on how the Roman Imperial army contributed to the spread of Roman medicine throughout the Empire.

My day job is not related to Classics at all! I am actually a Customer Service Manager for a decorative aggregates company in East Yorkshire, so my day to day activities are worlds away from Ancient Greece or Rome. In my spare time I’ve been learning Latin (I’ve been on with this for the past few years) and this coming summer I’m going to tackle Ancient Greek.

I am a very occasional blogger, but you can find me most often on Twitter where I tweet from the account @classicalfix. I tweet about lots of things but mainly classics stuff so if you don’t already do so, then please follow me!”








Comfort Classics: Edith Hall


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

 Yes, it’s an epigram by Nossis, here with my translation:

Θαυμαρέτας μορφὰν ὁ πίναξ ἔχει· εὖ γε τὸ γαῦρον
τεῦξε τό θ’ ὡραῖον τᾶς ἀγανοβλεφάρου.
σαίνοι κέν σ’ ἐσιδοῖσα καὶ οἰκοφυλαξ σκυλάκαινα
δέσποιναν μελάθρων οἰομένα ποθορῆν.


The little painting shows the beautiful figure of Thaumareta,

skilfully represented in her youthful pride and with melting gaze.

Even the puppy that guards the house would wag her tail if she looked at you,

and think that you were really her own mistress.



When did you first come across this epigram?

When I was teaching a module on Women in the Ancient World for Classical Civilisation A Level in the mid-1980s. I taught at 6th-form colleges in Oxford while I did my doctorate to make money as my then husband had very expensive tastes!



Can you tell me a bit about Nossis and the epigram’s context?

Nossis was a poet who lived in the third century CE on the underneath of the toe of Italy in Epizephyrian Locris, ‘City of the Western Locrians’, which Plato called ‘the flower of Italy’. It had two gorgeous sanctuaries, both for female deities—one for Persephone and one for Aphrodite. The temple of Persephone was famous for its votive pinakes or painted terracotta pictures of scenes from the life of Persephone, which I once spent hours looking at in the National Museum of Magna Graecia in Reggio Calabria.




Children were dedicated to Persephone in her grand temple, and this poem was probably commissioned to go with a painting of a girl called Thaumareta ‘Astonishing-Excellence’ when she was dedicated, or possibly before her wedding.

Nossis was inspired to write poetry, in her Doric dialect, by the example of Sappho.  We have twelve of her four-line epigrams. She was famous in antiquity and one of the canon of nine women poets.  Some of them, like this, celebrate individual local women and girls, their relationships and their visits to the goddesses’ temples. She names her own mother and daughter in them.



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

It takes me straight into an intimate moment shared between a female poet and a girl in a beautiful environment. It is joyful and the combination of the girl’s pride in her youthfulness and melting gaze enables me to see the portrait in my mind’s eye and imagine the pleasure of her mother, who probably commissioned the picture and the poem.

The clincher is the detail about the puppy, who like everyone else involved here (as in most of Nossis’ poems), is female.  The thought of the girl’s pet wagging her tail when she saw Thaumareta or even a likeness of her is delightful. It also makes me think of my own daughters and their intense love of our pets, which include a beloved dog. The Olympian religion offered women far more opportunities for regular fun together than the big monotheisms of today. Their festivals and dedications and sacrifices must have made up a good deal for their exclusion from political life, and I like to be reminded of this.


Edith Hall1



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

Talk to my daughters either in person or online! Walk the dog! Cook huge meals and watch Masterchef. Browse online art galleries. Go to musicals, especially Les Miserables and The Book of Mormon. Watch Eastenders with my husband while drinking red wine.



Edith Hall is Professor of Classics at King’s College London. Most of her books are available on her personal website Her latest book, written with Dr Henry Stead (Lecturer in Latin at St. Andrews—pictured with him below) is A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain 1689-1939 (Routledge Taylor Francis 2020), currently only £23.99 and a perfect antidote to lockdown tedium. Her dog is called Finlay.


Edith Hall3


Edith Hall2





Comfort Classics: Liz Gloyn


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

I don’t have something that I go to as a matter of course – my main research is on the work of Seneca, so if I want something thought-provoking I’ll head to his philosophy and his tragedies are always good for high drama, but I wouldn’t call them comforting! That said, one text which always lifts my spirits when I encounter it is Petronius’ novel The Satyricon. I love teaching it to my first year students, and it was the subject of my first published article; it turns all the assumptions about what classical literature is supposed to be about on their heads, and it really cheers me up.



When did you first come across Petronius?

When I was doing my A-level Latin in secondary school, we used a book based on an adapted text from Petronius, which used the middle section (also known as the Cena Trimalchionis or ‘Trimalchio’s Dinner Party’) as the basis for a thorough grammar review. I had no idea then that I’d read the full Dinner Party as part of my undergraduate degree, or that I’d end up studying and teaching it myself!



Can you tell me a bit about the Satyricon and its context?

We don’t’ have all of the Satyricon – the consensus is that we probably have about a tenth of what would have been a whopping great novel, probably from somewhere in the second half. The author Petronius is usually identified with the advisor of the emperor Nero, who was brought in to consult on matters of luxury, so the novel was written in the middle of the first century AD. It’s an escapist romp which follows the adventures of Encolpius, a ne’er-do-well who potters around the bay of Naples getting into financial, erotic and social scrapes. Our surviving text spends a lot of time exploring the troubles of a love triangle he finds himself in, and his continuing problems to win the heart of the youth Giton. The whole novel seems to have been written as a parody of the Odyssey, except the offended god isn’t Poseidon – it’s Priapus, the fertility god, whose secret rituals Encolpius has accidentally profaned. Of course, you can imagine precisely which area of Encolpius’ life starts to go wrong as divine punishment…



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

I love that it turns all our assumptions about what Rome ‘should’ be like on their heads. The novel happily settles into a demi-monde which the author may have known very little about personally, but which gives us a completely different glimpse of what life in Roman Italy was like, away from the imperial politics of the capital city and instead lounging around the luxury villa complexes of the sunny coastline.



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

I’m a voracious reader outside classics when I get the chance; I’m particularly keen on science fiction and fantasy, as well as trying to tick off some of the literary canon (or what people think is the canon… an early encounter with Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles has left me very cautious of books we’re told are ‘must reads’!). I’m also a classically trained singer; while I’ve not had much chance to sing since the birth of my son, I do get to our church choir for special services and evensong as often as I can. Now we’re all finding the small pleasures of being at home, I’m enjoying the opportunity to spend more time out in the garden and keeping things as under control as I can manage.



Dr. Liz Gloyn is a Senior Lecturer in Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research focuses on the intersections between Latin literature, ancient philosophy and gender studies. She also has a strong specialism in classical reception; her most recent book is Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture [Editor’s Note: currently 30% off on the Bloomsbury website, or 45% for the ebook!]. She blogs about her academic life and research at Classically Inclined and is on Twitter at @lizgloyn.







Comfort Classics: Greg Woolf


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

I don’t find many classical texts comforting. Intriguing, entertaining, provocative maybe. But I don’t think I have much in common with the people who wrote them, or those they expected to read them. I think people like me eavesdrop on the past. Do private eyes find comfort in their tapes?

But I do have many favourites, and one of them is Juvenal.


When did you first come across Juvenal?

In my second term at university I asked if I could study Horace’s Satires. My teacher grimaced and suggested the topic ‘Are Horace’s Satires as trivial and pointless as they seem?’ We compromised on Juvenal, and I never looked back.



Can you tell me a bit about Juvenal and his context?

Juvenal wrote in the comfy first decades of the second century CE, and his satires are mostly set in and around the city of Rome. He was a contemporary of Martial and Pliny and Tacitus but he is quite unlike them (perhaps a bit like the more fun bits of Tacitus). Satire was an old genre of poetry in Rome, had been invented two hundred years before by Lucilius. The fragments of his poems that survive show his satire was rude, political, personal and contemporary – a sort of anti-epic even though it was written in hexameters, the metre of epic. Since then other poets – including Horace – had made it more gentle, calm, witty. Juvenal made satire angry again.


What is it about Juvenal that appeals to you most?

Like Tacitus and most Latin authors of the principate Juvenal was trained in oratory. The oppressive politics of empire didn’t allow many spaces for the kind of ferocious attacks Cicero used against enemies like Clodius and Antony. I love the way Juvenal harnesses the power of oratory to make savage attacks on Roman society, especially the hypocrisy of the wealthy, the pomposity of the wellborn, the feebleness of poets, the cowardice of those close to the emperor. He packs a lot into each verse too.

I don’t always share the opinions expressed. The attack on aristocratic women behaving badly in Satire 6 is quite strong stuff. But I love the energy and sustained fury with which his spokespeople launch their attack. He rarely speaks in his own person and in fact we know almost nothing for sure about him. Juvenal’s satires repay close reading too, which is one of the things that make them so much fun to re-read again and again. There have been many imitations too. I love Samuel Johnson’s London,  an attack on the city that makes good use of Juvenal’s third satire on Rome.



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

Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello LOUD. Reading detective fiction, Ian Rankin a special favourite. Watching science fiction on Netflix and reading Marvel Comics. When things are dark, a long walk, ideally by the sea. But I am lucky that I am not usually down for long, and usually remember life is a roller-coaster and that what goes down goes up.



“At the moment I am Director of the Institute of Classical Studies in London which is an amazing place to work as there is always something going on, new visitors arriving and all the excitement of the capital (so I agree with Samuel Johnson on something else). But I like to move about. I have studied and taught in Oxford and Cambridge, and for nearly twenty years in Scotland where I still have a home. I am about to move again, after Christmas, to Los Angeles and looking forward to that.

As for classical interests I am a sort of hybrid classicist-historian-archaeologist and I have very broad interests. One of the great things about Classics is that this has always been easy to do. I have worked on Roman identity in the provinces, on ancient libraries, on Iron Age hillforts, Roman religion and the assassination of Caesar. I have a new book coming out in a few months called The Life and Death of Ancient Cities. A Natural History which gave me a chance to learn a lot about evolution.”






Comfort Classics: Leigh David Cobley


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

Most of what I research on antiquity is a bit grim, but confronting the terrible nature of existence also has its comforts! It’s ancient philosophy I come back to, the idea that it can be lived as well as studied and that it’s a form of training (askesis) to deal with the things that life can throw at us. If I had to pick just one source it’d be Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.



When did you first come across this text?

I skimmed it a few times when I was younger, but as Aristotle says in the work, philosophy is wasted on the young! I only got to know it properly a few years ago when I was visiting a friend in Thessaloniki. We spent evenings jamming on the lyre and discussing philosophy. I’d packed my Loeb as I knew we’d be visiting Aristotle’s school at Naoussa and when we drove up there we couldn’t resist doing a few recitations. It’s such a wonderfully quiet place, perfect for contemplation and peripatetic countryside walks!





Can you tell me a bit about this text and its context?

The work’s title supposedly refers to Aristotle’s son, so maybe he also had difficulties bringing his kids up, though most parents wouldn’t go so far as to write philosophical tracts to rein their kids in! Unfortunately, all of his actual books are lost and the surviving text is really a collection of lecture notes from the Lyceum, his school at Athens. The work goes in and out of philosophical fashion, but has recently been an influence on the virtue ethics of writers like Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum.



What is it about Aristotle that appeals to you most?

Maybe it’s his observation that happiness (or however you prefer to translate eudaimonia) is an activity rather than a state. It’s not so much being happy that’s important as doing something happily. Life has its ups and downs so we can’t expect to remain in a constantly happy state. Human beings are complex organisms with many emotions, but if what we do gives purpose to our lives, they will be rewarding nonetheless.



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

I’ve always been into languages, so Greek was just an extension of that. I live in a cosmopolitan city so it’s easy to meet people from different backgrounds and in Europe meeting up on a terrace for drinks and language exchanges is an everyday thing. More than any specific text, it’s the active use of languages which I find cheers me up. I’m not very talented at it, but I have the patience to persevere and not feel embarrassed by making mistakes, which are a natural part of language acquisition. The same goes for Classical languages. For instance, I recently started a Greek blog to practice my writing.  It’s hardly Attic prose, but it’s a very productive learning process as I gradually realise how much I still don’t know from a real world need to communicate and take the grammar from there. Aristotle said that the activity of contemplation is true happiness, but he was most likely a monolingual Greek. Maybe if he had taken the time to pick up some of those supposedly “barbarian” languages he would have done things even more happily still.


Leigh David Cobley (M.A. Classical Studies) is an artist, musician and philologist specialising in recreating the memes of antiquity. His blog is an ongoing project to practice writing Ancient Greek and produce materials for beginner students. His YouTube channel documents his other classical comfort, learning to play an Ancient Greek tortoise shell lyre. He can be followed on Twitter @LeighDCobley.






Comfort Classics: Valerie Hope


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

Pliny the Younger’s Letters.


When did you first come across Pliny?

I first met Pliny when studying for my O-level in Latin. Extracts from a handful of his letters were among the set texts. The latter also included Tacitus’ Agricola – another of my go-to favourites.


Can you tell me a bit about Pliny’s letters and their context?

Pliny lived 61 to c.113 CE. He was a senator, lawyer and author, best known now for his surviving letters.  These letters were no doubt heavily edited before publication, and are thus carefully crafted to put Pliny in a good light as the perfect Roman gent. Or, at least, that’s what he intended. In the process, the letters provide lots of insights into life in the city of Rome – the daily round, family, slavery, dining and so forth. For a Roman social historian, the letters are essential reading, and for someone interested in death customs and mourning practices, they provide glimpses into the emotive world of Roman grief and loss.



What is it about the letters that appeals to you most?

Well, not Pliny’s Letters to the emperor Trajan……which are not his best or him at his best! Indeed, Pliny is not always easy to like – he’s vain, pompous, petty and obsequious. I don’t think the two of us would have got on. But Pliny’s faults (and sometimes obsessive self-interest) make him human.  I particularly enjoy the letters where he makes snide comments about his rival, Regulus, and the often moving obituary letters he wrote at the deaths of his friends. The letters also remind me of my school days, and how my Classical Studies journey began. Attending a small, rural comprehensive, it was very unusual (but fortuitous for me) to have the opportunity to study the ancient world, and we were the last year that took Latin in the school. In my own touch of 16-year-old pompousness, in an old autograph book I have my Latin classes’ signatures, under a quotation from Pliny (8.16). Clearly Pliny and I have a long term love-hate relationship, which is often exasperating, but also makes me chuckle.




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

Home life involves four children, four hens and two rabbits, so that keeps me pretty busy.  I enjoy reading and I am (an often reluctant) 5k runner, currently missing Parkruns on Saturdays.


Valerie Hope is a senior lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University, with research interests in Roman death, funerals, commemoration, and mourning. Her books include: Death in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook; Roman Death; and Memory and Mourning: Studies on Roman Death. She is currently working on a book about Roman mourners.







Comfort Classics: Gideon Nisbet


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

The epigrams of the Greek Anthology.


When did you first come across the Greek Anthology?

My old undergraduate tutor, Ewen Bowie, steered me towards it when I was interested in doing postgrad but didn’t really know what kind of topic to go for. He’d fancied taking a run at the Anthology’s book of satirical epigrams, but had never found the time to get round to them. He reckoned they would suit my sense of humour – and also, I suspect, my short attention span.



Can you tell me a bit about this book and its context?

An epigram is a short poem, typically in elegiac couplets, and the Anthology contains about four thousand of them, plus some other bits and pieces. It’s truly massive. It was assembled in more or less its present form in the tenth century by a Byzantine scholar called Constantine Cephalas, who drew on a tradition of anthologisation going back at least as far as Meleager of Gadara in the first century BC. The story of how Cephalas’s Anthology came together, only to be lost and (mostly) eventually rediscovered, is dauntingly complicated; Alan Cameron tells it in his book, The Greek Anthology from Meleager to Planudes (1993).

The earliest epigrams of the Anthology are classical inscriptions rescued from authors such as Herodotus (Simonides, ‘Go tell the Spartans…’), but epigram branched out and became a literary genre in the early Hellenistic age, when they began to be performed at symposia and collected into authored books such as the recently rediscovered ‘Milan Posidippus’ papyrus. No other form of literature was as versatile – epigrams could be about practically anything – or as easy to break into; an aspiring writer only needed to stay in metre for a few lines, perhaps only a single couplet. So these little poems carried on being written in huge numbers, both for inscription and as literature, right through the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and far into late antiquity – the sixth century AD was an absolute hotbed of epigram-writing.



What is it about the Anthology that appeals to you most?

The Anthology’s versatility means that there is something there for pretty much everybody. Greek epigrams immortalised victories on the racetrack and battlefield – or in the bedroom; cracked jokes; posed riddles; chronicled lovers’ misfortunes; celebrated friendship, the rhythms of nature and the countryside, the satisfaction of a job well done… the list could go on. Last year I had the good fortune to spend several intensive months translating a large selection of its poems for the World’s Classics, which will be out this November under the title Epigrams from the Greek Anthology. It’s a classic that non-classicists have largely forgotten – the last selection on this scale was nearly a century ago – but that once had huge public appeal, and I hope my readers will see why.

Remember, epigrams began as inscriptions, and one place you keep on needing inscriptions is tombs and gravestones. In recent weeks, with a deadly pandemic cancelling all bets and unfinished business in grief already in hand, I have sought solace in going back to the Anthology and translating yet more poems, specifically from the gloomy fourth-century theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory was a hugely important man in the history of the church, but he lost everyone he cared about, almost all to illness, often quite suddenly. Here’s an example (Greek Anthology 8.23), on a talented young friend who had everything to live for:


Though he had only twenty years, no more,

Euphemius flew to every Muse of Greece

And each of Rome, as no man ever flew

To any one of either. He burned bright:

A flash of brilliance and character.

Then he was gone. Alas, too quick comes death

When it is coming to the wonderful.


That one is in my World’s Classics selection, but I’ve been posting further versions on my academic blog (, really just as a way to get things off my chest. A century ago, facing an existential threat, the Greek Anthology might have been pressed into service for much more public consolation: epigram’s efficacy at heroizing the dead and consoling the living made it the irresistible template for poets memorialising the Allied fallen of the First World War (there’s a very good book by Elizabeth Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles (2010), that will tell you all about this).

I’ve found real comfort in spending more time with Gregory. Still, I can’t help being a bit suspicious of the Anthology’s formerly much-vaunted efficacy as a balm to the soul, if only because it’s served that purpose for some utterly dreadful people in the past, as well as some amazing ones. An aptitude in translating Greek epigram used to be the hallmark of a classical education, and carefully pruned selections from the Anthology helped empire-builders unwind, casting a glamour of humane culture over some pretty inhumane deeds and attitudes. That’s one strand of the story I explored in my last big academic book, Greek Epigram in Reception (2013).



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

I spend time with my amazing wife, and with the rest of my family when I can, which alas, isn’t now. I like to tinker with small projects around the house, and I love to cook. I play videogames and read comics, occasionally with a pretext of studying classical reception, but mostly just because I enjoy them. I ride motorcycles, not very well, with a particular weakness for Moto Guzzis; for years we used to take our dog to Italy and back twice a year by bike, though sadly he’s gone now and Italy isn’t really a prospect at the moment anyway. I can’t wait to be back there, eating lovely things and drinking wine with good friends, just like the Greek Anthology says I should.


Gideon Nisbet is Reader in Classics at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of Greek Epigram in the Roman Empire (2003), Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture (2006), Epigram (2009, with Niall Livingstone), and Greek Epigram in Reception (2013). He has translated Martial: Epigrams for Oxford World’s Classics (2015), and his translation of Epigrams from the Greek Anthology will be published in November 2020. He lives in Dublin.







Comfort Classics: Laura Jenkinson-Brown


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

When I want a bit of escapism, I dive into myths. I have a gorgeous double-volume Folio edition set of ‘The Greek Myths’ by Robert Graves, who includes all the different versions of every story.



When did you first come across this book?

My dad found it for me, in a skip in London. Apparently. He’s rather good at finding slightly obscure (to me, anyway) Classics-themed books with lots of pictures as inspiration for my comics.


Can you tell me a bit about the book and its context?

Robert Graves was a novelist and Classicist and a poet and rather an inspiration – he also had Irish parents, and grew up in London. I think I saw ‘I, Claudius’ very early on and was mystified, then further mystified when I discovered it was a book and he’d written quite seriously about myths. ‘The Greek Myths’ is a mythography, a compendium of Greek mythology but with the author’s comments and analyses. I want to be a mythographer when I grow up. I’ve had a copy of ‘The White Goddess’ on the shelf, another of his that examines poetic myth, for when I finish ‘The Greek Myths’, but as I tend to get distracted and start making comics of the myth I’m reading, that’s not going to be any time soon.



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

It’s more a piece of research than a totally entertaining read, but that’s what entertains me – the twistier and rabbit-holier the better! I tend to end up making frantic notes as I read. It also comes in a rather beautiful slipcase, with a black-figure-style Leda and the Swan illustration across it. Proper book porn.



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

The year before I met my husband, I bought a tiny maisonette in Southsea, Portsmouth. I’m from London and was amazed that I could a) actually afford to buy somewhere, especially that b) had a garden, with an actual tree in it! Since then, we’ve built a summerhouse and a shed with a green roof and planted vegetables and pink and blue plants everywhere, and it’s my absolute saviour right now. I also like to make things, and am currently working on felt animals for a mobile for the baby arriving in July. And I love to read, or at least listen to someone reading to me.



Laura Jenkinson-Brown is a secondary school Classics teacher, and illustrator of Greek Myth Comix, living in Southsea, Portsmouth. Before that she taught English, and before that was a bookseller in Oxford. Her educational comix include several books of the Odyssey, the life of Heracles, the Classical meanings behind names in Harry Potter, and an infographic on Deaths in the Iliad. She has most recently been collaborating with CSCP, Dr Sophie Hay and Caroline Lawrence on a new Pompeii-based Classics/Ancient History course as illustrator – the Amarantus project – launching later this year. You can see an overview of her projects and links to all her GCSE Classical Civilisation resources at and







Comfort Classics: Neville Morley


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

To be honest, I don’t really think of the ancient world in terms of comfort and reassurance; on the contrary, I tend to emphasise the elements that are jarring and disconcerting, or that unsettle comfortable modern assumptions about the Glories of Western Civilisation. Perhaps this is further evidence that I am not really a proper classicist… But there is certainly one work that I do find oddly calming: Frontinus’ De Aquis urbis Romae


When did you first come across this text?

During the first year of my PhD, when I was desperately floundering around for a topic and at the same time trying to understand how to ‘do research’ (in retrospect, the entry standards then must have been terribly lax; I certainly wouldn’t accept me for doctoral study without a lot more evidence that I had any idea what I was doing). I knew that I was interested in something to do with the supply systems of Rome, and so it made sense to try reading this work.



Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?

Sextus Iulius Frontinus was a successful general and provincial governor under Domitian, who in 96 was appointed curator aquarum, the superintendent of aqueducts in Rome, by Nerva. He took this role extremely seriously, not just embarking on a programme of renovation, repair and clamping down on people siphoning off water illegally, but also writing a two-volume book about the history and management of Rome’s aqueduct system and how great it is, since this might be useful to his successor. It’s a fascinating source of information about everything to do with water supply.



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

It’s the combination of the public service ethos – Frontinus wants to be the best possible curator aquarum he can, rather than having to rely on his subordinates, and takes great delight in reporting his success in improving the quantity and quality of the urban water supply without having to build any new aqueducts or anything expensive like that – and the sheer nerdy enthusiasm that leads him to write a book all about pipe sizes and rates of water flow. It’s written in the same spirit as Pliny’s Natural History or Columella’s account of farming; a genuine interest in practical knowledge. Of course, as with those other authors, you can do a more sophisticated, cynical, political reading if you want; here’s someone who has flourished under Domitian and his successors, and of course his work is all about the dominance of the Roman state and sucking up to the emperor… I’ve done this myself – not in print, but I gave a talk a few years ago on ‘flows of power and flows of capital’ in Frontinus’ work – but generally I’m much happier to think that he simply immersed himself in his new job and then kept button-holing people at parties to tell them all about how water can be switched from one channel to another for the purposes of repairing the conduits or maintaining the supply to a particular part of the city, and do you know why the water of the Anio Novus is always rather muddy despite the settling tanks..? “With such an array of indispensable structures carrying so many waters, compare, if you will, the idle Pyramids or the useless, though famous, works of the Greeks!”



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

I tend to do practical things, mostly involving food and drink: cooking, baking, jam-making, preserving, sausage-making, smoking and curing, brewing, making cider, and growing fruit and vegetables. I do also play music – jazz bass – but generally I need to be in a reasonably good mood already, or I just get depressed at my limited ability.



Neville Morley is Professor of Classics & Ancient History at the University of Exeter. He works on a wide range of topics in economic and social history, historiography and classical reception, with a particular focus in recent years on the modern influence of Thucydides – he is currently finishing a book for Princeton entitled What Thucydides Knew, which is now going to have to have an extra chapter on coronavirus. He blogs regularly at, and tweets @NevilleMorley.







Comfort Classics: Daisy Dunn


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

There’s a small terracotta sculpture in the British Museum of two young women perched on the ground playing knucklebones. It’s quite a modest piece but so sensitive and beautiful. It’s strangely calming to behold.





When did you first come across this sculpture?

It caught my eye many years ago while I was visiting the museum and I saw it again when it was displayed as part of the Defining Beauty exhibition in 2015. I often look at pictures of it at home.



Can you tell me a bit about the sculpture and its context?

The sculpture is thought to be Campanian and was probably made around 330–300 BC. The paint has faded but a surprising amount of colour still survives.



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

The figures are so animated they seem to be moving. I love the look of concentration on their faces and the position of their hands. It’s such a simple thing, two people playing a game, but charming for that. It’s not often you see women so carefree and at leisure in the ancient world.





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

I read a lot, especially poetry, and enjoy looking at art, even if it’s just online. Lately I’ve been going through old photographs of my travels and reminiscing.


Dr Daisy Dunn is an author, classicist and critic. Her most recent books, published in 2019, are In The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny, Of Gods and Men: 100 Stories from Ancient Greece & Rome, and Homer: A Ladybird Expert Book. Her website is and she tweets at @Daisyfdunn.


Daisy pic




Comfort Classics: Jan Haywood


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

I’m not sure if there is a single ancient source that I find great solace in, although Priam and Achilles’ tête-à-tête in the final book of Iliad is stirring stuff! A source that I continue to wonder at, however, is Herodotus’ Histories.



When did you first come across Herodotus?

As a young boy, when I first picked up a second-hand library book on the Greeks and Romans. I remember distinctly being unable to pronounce Herodotus’ name, and the sense of fascination that a Greek author was writing about the ancient Egyptians.



Can you tell me a bit about Herodotus and his context?

Herodotus is often regarded as ‘the father of history’ in the western literary tradition. He was writing in the latter half of the fifth century BCE about the great conflict between Persia and the Greek world from 490-79 BCE, although, as any of his readers will tell you, his perspective ends up being much wider than this.



What is it about Herodotus that appeals to you most?

I cannot think of a more enigmatic author. Herodotus is supremely sophisticated in his approach towards narrating the events of history. A clear example of this is his celebrated account of the Lydian king Croesus in Book 1 of the Histories (there are a total of nine books). It’s a story that looks back several generations, weaving in cryptic oracles delivered at the famous centre of Delphi, while also drawing on the wisdom of the sixth-century BCE Athenian lawgiver Solon. The whole account appeals to such a wide range of sources of information and traditions and ultimately defies easy or reductive interpretations. It ends up being a profound meditation on the processes of history, and on the role that individuals play in shaping the past.



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

I am an avid cinephile and enjoy watching all kinds of films. Life in lockdown has been made a little less stressful recently by Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro felice, Clare Denis’ High Life, Céline Sciamma’s Bande de filles and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir – just four fine examples of the many amazing women directing films today!


Jan lectures in Classical Studies at The Open University. He is the author of a co-authored book on cross-cultural receptions of the Trojan War tradition with Professor Naoíse Mac Sweeney (Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War: Dialogues on Tradition; Bloomsbury, 2018), and has co-edited with Dr Zosia Archibald a volume in honour of the ancient historian John K. Davies (The Power of Individual and Community in Ancient Athens And Beyond; Classical Press of Wales, 2019). Jan is now working on a book and several articles concerning Herodotus’ Histories, and has recently set up the Herodotus Helpline with Professor Thomas Harrison – a free, online seminar series for all interested in Herodotus and his world.






Comfort Classics: David Meadows


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

The sarcophagus at the Metropolitan Museum depicting the contest between Sirens and Muses.





When did you first come across this sarcophagus?

I honestly can’t recall but it was during one trip down a rabbit hole when I was looking for photos of portrayals of Sirens.


Can you tell me a bit about this story and its context?

The story is mentioned in one of Pausanias’ books (and probably elsewhere) of the Sirens being talked into a singing contest with the Muses. The Muses won, and then plucked the feathers from the poor Sirens to make victory crowns. The sarcophagus in the Met is from the third century or so and depicts the whole progression of the contest.




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

I  love the ‘narrative’ of the sarcophagus. From left to right we see Zeus et al as judges, a few vignettes from the contest in a way that appeals to modern sensibilities — the best is the Siren taking on Euterpe and they look like a pair of metal guitarists competing at some Battle of the Bands. As the scene closes on the right the vanquished Sirens are depicted almost as fallen warriors. Outside of the great visuals, it’s also a great metaphor for social media, with the Sirens distracting you from the serious stuff represented by the Muses. In real life, though, the Sirens sometimes win.





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

 I  watch far too many sporting events for my own good.


David Meadows has an MA in Classics (Queen’s) and was ABD (McMaster) when the decision was made to head into elementary-level education instead. Even so, he is actively involved in the ‘internet side’ of the Classical World and has been blogging at rogueclassicism for 17 years — the sarcophagus mentioned above is the current anchor picture for the site. For the past decade he has been curating #Classicstwitter and continues to whinge about how Classicists should be making more use of the Internet and social media than they currently are.







Comfort Classics: Anactoria Clarke


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

Tryphiodorus’ The Taking of Ilios.  I’ve been fascinated by the Trojan war epic cycle since I first started studying the classics, and love reading the later ancients who fill in the missing gaps from texts we have lost.  I like the thought that even when there are gaps, people have found creative ways to fill them and record what might have been there.


When did you first come across this text?

My research originally started looking at minor male prophets (still a sideline of research) and I was looking for references to Calchas and Helenus.  I was trying to cut down my spending on Loebs and, having previously found Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica in the dusty basement of my local library service through the online catalogue, I idly wondered if Tryphiodorus would be there too.  It was!  I now have a tradition where I take it out over Christmas and New Year every year, to re-read.


Can you tell me a bit about this work and its context?

Like Quintus Smyrnaeus, Tryphiodorus was writing in Greek in the later Roman empire, 3rd or 4th century AD.  He was based in Egypt, and this is his only surviving work, although we know of two other lost poems, Marathoniaca and The Story of Hippodamea. It only covers from the building of the wooden horse through to the sacrifice of Polyxena, so is much shorter than Quintus Smyrnaeus.



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

There are quite a few elements that seem to show the various receptions we have of some of the characters – Helen in particular.  It also shows Cassandra, daughter of Priam and prophetess (although it was her curse to be an accurate prophet but not believed); she is dealt with particularly harshly by Priam, and this reaction feels to me very much modelled on Agamemnon’s reaction to Calchas at the beginning of the Iliad, even calling her ‘prophetess of evil’.  If my Greek ever gets good enough, I’d love to do a detailed comparison!



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

I am a colossal geek so in my spare time I study; as a rare treat, I might read the odd Nordic Noir thriller.  I also work on creative writing, specifically poetry which usually has a classics-based theme.  I regularly try and brush up my ancient Greek and Latin, and intersperse this with not doing anything to brush up on them and taking two steps back.  During the pandemic and working from home, I’m currently being shadowed 24/7 by Freddie the miniature long-haired sausage dog.  Walking him definitely cheers me up.


Fred jumper


Anactoria is a Staff Tutor for Access modules and an Associate Lecturer in Arts for the Open University.  She originally studied for a PhD in late nineteenth century gothic literature, and then undertook a Masters in Classical Studies whilst working at the OU.  She is currently working towards a PhD in Classics at Kings College London, looking at Cheiron the centaur in ancient sources and in reception. 






Comfort Classics: Jaap Wisse


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

Hard to choose, though to be honest I am not sure there are many that actually cheer me up. But I do find it comforting that these old texts can still touch us – whether by being intellectually fascinating (Cicero), by ironically but seriously reflecting on life (Horace), or by giving us disturbing and gripping stories, fictional or historical (Homer, tragedy, Tacitus). Of course these authors are very different from us (Cicero would make a fascinating but rather too overwhelming dinner guest, Horace’s attitude to women is often embarrassing); but that, for me, in fact enhances the surprise and delight of finding common ground. But if I have to choose one text it would have to be Vergil’s Aeneid.


When did you first come across the Aeneid?

At school, but I don’t think I understood much of it then. I liked Lucretius much better (I forgot to mention him just now). The Dido episode was what appealed to us most, because it just seemed a ‘tragic’ love story.


Can you tell me a bit about the Aeneid and its context?

It was written in the 20s BC, so at the start of Augustus’ reign, when the Roman world was ‘settling down’ after a long period of devastating civil wars. The new empire was relatively peaceful, but that came at the cost of growing authoritarianism. Augustus presented himself as rebuilding Rome and its power. At one level the Aeneid fits into that project by presenting an epic about the foundation of the City that looks forward to Rome’s later greatness. At another level, Vergil shows an acute awareness of the pain and suffering that was behind this, clearly partly a reflection of the civil wars. He may even suggest scepticism about Augustus’ grand claims, but the jury is still out on that, and opinions about this question will continue to differ.


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

The depth of its humanity in the face of darkness and moral complexity, underlined by the comforting beauty of the way it is written. You always feel there is more going on than you have understood until now.


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

A good bottle of wine in good company (which doesn’t happen often enough), and music: lately Bob Dylan’s new work, Bryan Ferry, Schubert and Chopin.


Jaap Wisse is Professor of Latin Language and Literature at Newcastle. He studied mathematics and then classics in Amsterdam, where he also received his doctorate. His book publications centre on ancient rhetoric, in particular Cicero and his masterpiece, De oratore (On the (Ideal) Orator); they include an accessible translation of the latter (with James May). He also likes to work on Roman intellectual life, Greek and Roman historiography, and Greek and Latin language. He is currently collaborating with his Newcastle colleague Federico Santangelo in writing a commentary on Sallust’s War with Jugurtha for the Cambridge ‘Green & Yellow’ series.


On the Ideal Orator_cover


You can listen here to the recording of his public lecture ‘Lest we forget: Tacitus on history writing under a tyranny’.






Comfort Classics: Emma Bridges


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

The majority of the ancient sources I spend most of my time with at the moment aren’t particularly comforting, and in fact they often make me feel quite sad – I’m currently working on a project which examines the experiences of soldiers’ wives in ancient Greek myth, and the representations of these women in epic poetry and tragic drama can be particularly harrowing. But in a different genre altogether, I’ve always really loved reading the comedies of Aristophanes (in fact I’m a bit surprised that no-one else in this series has mentioned them yet!)


When did you first come across Aristophanes?

My first encounter with the classical world was via A level Classical Civilisation in the 1990s, where we read Frogs and Thesmophoriazusae (‘The Women at the Thesmophoria festival’) in English translation. Recently I went to the King’s College London Greek Play (it’s the last theatre production I saw before lockdown) which was a brilliant mashup of Frogs and Euripides’ Bacchae, and it reminded me of what it is that I love about Aristophanes.


Can you tell me a bit about Aristophanes and his context?

Aristophanes was writing his plays for performance at the theatre festivals in Athens between the 420s and 380s BCE. Eleven of his plays survive in full, but he seems to have written many more than this; of the rest we have titles or fragments. They’re a pretty raucous mix of every imaginable comic technique, from cutting-edge political satire and caricatures of well-known figures to downright silliness – puns and visual humour along with plenty of toilet jokes and sexual innuendo. Usually they have absurd plots – Frogs, for example, features the god of drama, Dionysus, making a trip to the underworld to bring back to Athens one of two dead tragic poets, Aeschylus or Euripides, to ‘save the city’ during a time of political turmoil.


What is it about Aristophanes that appeals to you most?

Some people think that as soon as you start to analyse something which is intended to be humorous it stops being funny. That may be true to some extent, but I think you can learn a lot about a society from finding out what makes its people laugh. I love the fact that we can read Aristophanes and see what kinds of running jokes there were in Athens at particular points in the fifth century BCE – from seeing which politicians were in or out of favour, to the kind of mockery to which Aristophanes subjects the tragic poets Euripides and Aeschylus in Frogs. Also, productions like the King’s College Greek Play show that, even after two and a half millennia, these ancient plays can still be hilarious for a modern audience.


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

Things I really love include: family time with my husband and our two children; long walks with our Labrador Izzy; yoga (great for switching off when my mind’s too full); working my way through the never-ending stack of fiction books by my bed; long chats with friends, ideally over tea (brewed strong, with just a dash of milk) or G&T (with ice and a slice of lime).


Emma Bridges is Public Engagement Fellow in Classics at the Institute of Classical Studies in London. She helps researchers to find creative and interesting ways of sharing their work in Classics with wider publics. She’s also a researcher herself; her next book, Warriors’ Wives: Ancient Greek Myth and Modern Experience, compares the depictions of soldiers’ wives in Homeric epic and Athenian tragedy with the experiences of contemporary ‘military spouses’. It will be published by Oxford University Press in 2021.

You can find Emma on Twitter @emmabridges.







Comfort Classics: Michael Scott


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

The Philogelos –  ‘Laughter Love’ – a compendium of ancient jokes!


When did you first come across this text?

In 2012 – when I was a research Fellow at Cambridge.


Can you tell me a bit about this compendium and its context?

It’s the oldest existing collection of jokes – written in the 3rd or 4th century CE (in ancient Greek). 265 jokes categorised into different sections depending on the subject.

For instance…

#263. Someone needled a jokester: “I had your wife, without paying a dime.” He replied: “It’s my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?”


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

We spend so much time thinking about the serious and important things the Greeks did – it’s good to see them ‘in their down time’, having fun, and telling jokes (even if some of them aren’t particularly funny anymore).





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

I am a massive fan of backgammon, board games, movies (old and new ones) and long walks.


Michael Scott is Professor of Classics at the University of Warwick.

“I am interested both in ancient Greece (and particularly its religious activities) and also in the ancient Silk Roads. My most recent book is on the development of connections across the ancient silk roads from the Mediterranean to China (Ancient Worlds). I am also passionate about communicating the ancient world to the wider public – through TV, books, lectures and social media. Check out my regular live Facebook Q&A via my page or my website:”







Comfort Classics: Frederick Armour


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

Pindar’s Odes.


When did you first come across this text?

I’d always been aware of Pindar as a kind of majestic background to Classical Greek lit but had not read anything by him, since he seems never to be included in any anthologies. I began reading his Odes a couple of years ago having read through Thucydides and Aeschylus – I must be a sucker for the Austere Style!


Can you tell me a bit about the Odes and their context?

Pindar, a Boeotian poet born in Thebes in the late 6th century, composed a number of different choral lyric works during the first half of the 5th century BC, and some seventeen books existed in Hellenistic times of which only four books are extant, more or less in entirety, the rest existing in fragments. It is in these four books that we have Pindar’s Epinician Odes, forty-four of them, each book entitled by one of the four Pan- Hellenic games: the Olympic, Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian Odes.

These were composed, on commission by the victor or member of his family, to be sung and danced by a chorus to pipe and lyre in celebration of a victorious athlete in one of these Games (not necessarily the actual athlete – the owner of a horse/chariot team being the commissioner/honorand, eg Hieron the Tyrant of Syracuse), the performance to take place in the victor’s home city (there’s some discussion as to whether the shorter odes might have taken place at the Games).

In the epinician ode genre, and others, Pindar had an elder contemporary, Simonides, and a younger, Bacchylides (Simonides’ nephew), thus these three were in competition. In the late 19th century some fifteen epinician odes by Bacchylides were discovered but of Simonides only fragments remain and the epinician genre seems to have flourished and died with these three (though Aristophanes the comic dramatist is said to have composed an epinician for Alcibiades and the antecedents of epinican are lost in the mists of time like those of the tragic genre).

To satisfy the commissioner, the ode would have to mention the victor’s name (as mentioned above, this not necessarily being the actual athlete), his competition, city, family name (some belonging or purporting to belong to famous families), sometimes past family members’ victories in Games, and a myth linked to the victor’s family or city, embedding them in an Hellenic whole as an egg yolk binding pastry together (possibly this felt more important for one in the Greek colonies in Crete or Cyrene in North Africa or elsewhere).


Etruscan bronze helmet found at Olympia in 19th century dedicated by Hieron the Syracusan tyrant to Zeus after defeating an Etruscan force off Cumae in the 470s BC, which is mentioned by Pindar in Pythian 1, 71-75 (Olympian 1 and Pythian 1 – 3 are dedicated to Hieron). British Museum.


What is it about Pindar that appeals to you most?

I enjoy reading poetry and I enjoy reading Greek lit and Pindar seems to fit perfectly in a Venn diagram of these. The necessarily celebratory nature of the Odes lends itself to cheeriness but there’s a deeper pleasure to be had in enjoying the verbal versatility of Pindar in ringing the changes to the formulae he necessarily has to use to satisfy the commission. There are regular transitions from one theme to another – there are no longeurs in Pindar – with a swift glide by means of a simple relative pronoun. Indeed there’s an almost liminal nature to the Odes when one finds oneself entering a mythic episode, in medias res, where there is a colourful vividness. For instance Heracles, in chase of a golden-horned doe (mythic does have mythic horns as Gildersleeve says!), in the land of the Hyperboreans, stands in amazed wonder at the shady foliage over the river Ister; Klotho withdraws young Pelops ,with his gleaming ivory shoulder, from a cauldron; Bellerophon, astride Pegasus, from the cold recesses of the empty air shoots missiles at the Amazon hordes – and so on in picturesque marvelousness.

Just to give a single example of Pindar’s poetic gift: in the phrase haptetai oikothen Herakleos stalan, (Olympian 3, 43-44) without that small ordinary word oikothen (this is the root of the word for home, oikos, plus termination –then meaning place from, so = “from home”) haptetai stalan Herakleos, “touches the pillars of Hercules” would be a worn metaphor, but adding oikothen Pindar produces a dizzying oxymoron – it emphasises the enormous distance (the pillars of Hercules were as sort of Hellenic Ultima Thule) but also presents a kind of optical illusion of the honorand, Theron, both at home and in physical contact with those far flung Pillars, rather like that illusion of the revolving mask, concave one side, convex the other, which when seen revolving shows convex both sides. (Those Pillars by the way, as well as being associated with the straits of Gibraltar, seem to have originated in early Greek travellers’ sightings of two huge pillars in the Phoenician temple of Melqart at Cadiz (Gadeira in Greek), according to Robin Lane Fox in “Travelling Heroes” following Strabo.)


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

Reading mainly…. Kate Atkinson is a current favourite, Mick Herron too and the old classics like Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, Agatha Christie, and in particular Dorothy Sayers. I like watching the David Suchet Poirot films too. I wish I could say drinking beer in the pub but we’ll not go there….


“I left school as soon as I could and I’ve worked on the railways in various jobs at various places for 36 years, during which time I taught myself to read Classical Greek and subsequently started doing OU courses studying Classical Greek and Latin and Classical culture out of curiosity, one course leading to another and so found myself with a degree (though I ran out of Classical culture courses and got my honours with a Shakespeare course – which was nice!). I now work part time so I have lots of time to study Greek lit.”






Comfort Classics: Susan Raikes


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

Having worked in museum education all my career, the answer to this question has to be an object, but which one out of so many wonderful, fascinating, beautiful things that I have had the privilege to work with? Could be any of about 20, but, of all the fancy and famous things it could be, I am going to go for a sock! A woolly, stripy child’s sock from Roman Egypt, radio-carbon dated from 3rd or 4th century.  You can see it here: and it’s definitely worth spending some time taking a really good look.

The formal object description tells us it is a sock for the left foot of a child with separation between the big toe and four other toes worked in 6 or 7 colours of wool in a single needle looping technique sometimes called naalebinding and worked from the toe upwards. If you’re really into knitting then there are lots more lines on how the stripes are achieved!


From the British Museum:


When did you first come across this object?

I was lucky enough to be the first person ever to put this lovely object on public display. Until a couple of years ago I worked at the British Museum, leading the learning teams and also the museum’s activity across the UK. Thanks to my exceptionally talented and patient colleagues, in my ‘spare’ time I curated an exhibition called Roman Empire: Power and People which toured the UK. I was very keen to get my love of the ordinary object into the show and the sock was just being researched and cleaned and conserved at the right time for the people of Norwich, Coventry, Wallsend, Bristol and Dundee to see it up close. It later also starred in the wonderful Faith after the Pharaohs exhibition at the BM in London.


Can you tell me a bit about the sock and its context?

The sock comes from Antinoupolis, close to modern Sheikh Ibada, at the east bank of the river Nile.  Antinoupolis (I use the spelling that the British Museum does, although there are many others and you may have other preferences) was founded by the Emperor Hadrian in AD130 in honour of the loss of his lover (something else you can argue about if you want to!) Antinous who drowned in the Nile.

From 1913 to 1914 the Egypt Exploration Fund, led by John de Monins Johnson (1882-1956) excavated in the rubbish heaps along the ancient city wall of the town with the primary purpose of finding papyri, but also found leatherwork and textiles, including our sock.


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

I mentioned the fancy knitting techniques employed in the making of this object already, but it’s not the knitting that makes me return to this object again and again. It’s the combined sense of the ordinary, everyday thing that we all still have and still recognise instantly, and the wonder of the fact that such a thing has survived the centuries and is as colourful and comforting as it was when it was first knitted (or naalebinded? naalebound? answers on a postcard please!).

So often it is easy to forget, as we fall in love with their art, or poetry, or military tactics, or whatever floats your personal classics boat, that the people of the ancient world are the same people as we are – with hopes and fears and mundane daily tasks to do and… cold feet. Pair this sock (excuse the pun) with the Vindolanda tablets in which soldiers are receiving socks and underpants to keep them warm on Hadrian’s Wall (you can see one here) and you start to get a human connection with real people, just like us.  To my mind at least, objects do this more strongly than texts. And it’s that human connection that gives me comfort as well as wonder and joy.


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

Being outside with my dogs, Stanley and Mabel (my husband vetoed Alcibiades and Aspasia as too embarrassing to call out in the park!), always cheers me up and I love reading pretty much all historical fiction. I am currently re-reading all of Lindsay Davies’ books – Marcus Didius Falco can always make me smile no matter what’s going on in the outside world.


Susan Raikes is Director of Learning at the Science Museum Group and is passionate about the power of museums to intrigue and inspire and their unique position in providing creative learning environments.

Previously, Susan spent 10 years at the British Museum, with responsibility for all education programming and national partnership work. She also curated two touring BM exhibitions: Roman Empire: Power and People for the UK and Rome: City and Empire for an international tour and wrote accompanying books and catalogues. Prior to that, Susan worked in museum education roles for Tyne & Wear Museums and the Sussex Archaeological Society.

You can find her on Twitter @sraikes.





Comfort Classics: Armand D’Angour


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

This poem by Nicarchus makes me laugh every time. I love the idea of someone coming seventh in a race with six people – and the punchline is fabulous!


When Kharmos, in Arcadia, once entered in a race

    competing with five runners, he came out in seventh place.

A curious result, and you’ll be saying ‘How in heaven,

    with six men in the race, did Kharmos finish no. 7?’

The reason’s this. A mate of Kharmos, shouting ‘Go, you’re fine’

   ran fully dressed around the course, and beat him to the line.

So Kharmos finished seventh, but here’s to his sporting health:

    if he had five more friends, just think — he would have finished twelfth.





When did you first come across this poem?

I was writing an article about the ancient Olympics after I composed the Pindaric Ode for Athens in 2004, and it was cited in a scholarly book about ancient sport. I thought I must translate it into verse form, and did so.


Can you tell me a bit about this poem and its context?

Nicarchus was a Greek poet of the 1st century AD, famous for his witty epigrams, forty-two of which survive in a collection called the Greek Anthology. Many of them have a sting in the tail, like this one:


The pall of death hangs on the raven’s wing;

The song of death sounds in the raven’s cries.

But when Demophilus begins to sing…

The raven dies!


Not surprisingly Nicarchus was an influence on the Roman poet Martial, who wrote even more stinging epigrams.


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

Its humour and irreverence, and the ingenuity of putting the thought into the elegiac verse form.


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

The thought of a fresh almond croissant and coffee from our local café Sable d’Or cheers me up every time, though I ration myself to weekends. I think the idea actually stimulates endorphins.


“I teach Classics at Jesus College, Oxford, and I live in London NW3. I love all the Classics, Greek and Latin, but have been hugely enthused about my latest subject of research, the philosopher Socrates.  In my book Socrates in Love (2019) I paint a brand new picture of him  – that of a young man falling in love, fighting in battle, and sparring with friends. I’m looking forward to the book being made into a film, but it’s also a piece of serious revisionist history with which I think scholars must engage.”








Comfort Classics: Valeria Bosisio


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

It’s hard to pick just one! But for me it would probably be the Boxer at Rest.





When did you first come across this sculpture?

It’s quite a funny story. When my partner and I first started dating I remember asking him a question similar to the one I’ve just answered here – if there was a source from the classical world that he particularly liked. I knew he wasn’t much into Classics but he came up with this source I hadn’t met yet, the Boxer at Rest. Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed … many more dates were soon scheduled!



Can you tell me a bit about the Boxer and his context?

It’s a bronze statue dated to the Hellenistic period, between 330 and 50 BC. It was unearthed in Rome at the end of the nineteenth century but there are still many unanswered questions surrounding this source – nobody really knows for sure who sculpted it or how it ended up in Rome. There’s the oft-cited line from Horace, Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio: as the Romans marched east conquering Greece and the Hellenistic kingdoms they were absolutely bewitched by their art ,of which they became avid collectors – so this might provide an explanation for the Boxer’s find-spot. To be precise the statue was found near the ancient Baths of Constantine, and perhaps was publicly displayed there in antiquity; the fingers and toes are worn by repeated touching so possibly it was attributed healing powers. This was apparently not uncommon for statues of athletes, and could partly explain the statue’s safeguarding when the Baths were destroyed during the 5th century.



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

Well… if beauty is in the details then the unknown artist really did a magnificent job: the Boxer has a broken nose, even cauliflower ears – a deformity resulting from trauma to the ear that commonly affects combat athletes. His face and torso are those not of a boy but a more mature man and are covered in scars and bruises, with the impression of blood rendered through skillful use of copper inlays. What I like the most about the statue is precisely this dramatic realism and inclusion of bodily ‘flaws’, which is something we don’t find in the idealised, youthful figures of Classical Greek sculpture. There is a movement away from earlier traditions and I find this new representation of human vulnerability refreshing. The fact that the athlete is ‘at rest’ instead of in action like, let’s say, Myron’s Discobolus, is in itself striking – it shows tiredness, which matches the wounds in offering a picture of very human imperfection and weakness.

Now some might feel that there is something sad about this battered, beaten man but to me this is a markedly heroic figure (he has indeed been compared stylistically to previous representations of Herakles, the ideological connection here being with the Twelve Labours). I think the Boxer is heroic not in the ‘classical’ sense, but for the fact that despite his visible fatigue his head is turned to the right presumably to face an (invisible to us) adversary, the muscles in his legs are tense and he overall seems ready to resume the fight. To me there is something more relatable here in terms of human experience as compared to earlier utopian portrayals, and I personally love the way in which this work makes a hero out of an ordinary human with, and exactly because of, all of his frailties. Of course, I cannot know for sure what message the artist wished to convey or what ancient viewers made of it, but for me this reading is sweet and comforting – so this is my takeaway from the piece!





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

I love travelling and a second trip to Rome to meet the Boxer at Rest in person is definitely on my list! Of course this will have to wait for now, but it’s easy for me to divert myself at home. I enjoy a good night in binge watching some new series – period drama is my favourite, I’m currently on ‘Belgravia’ (watch out fans of Downton Abbey!). But other than this, I generally remain truthful to my passion for the classical world; I’ve recently come across this National Geographic kit to build a model of the Colosseum available on eBay and I’m feeling overly enthusiastic! I’m sharing the link here for anyone who’s interested – might be a nice way to occupy some hours during the quarantine.


“I am originally from Italy but have been living in the UK for about 3 years. I am approaching the end of my BA Classical Studies with the OU and I plan to continue with a MA. Rome is my preferred subject, especially the Late Republic and the Augustan period. I should love to deepen my knowledge around these topics! I’m not currently working in a Classics-related field but I hope my degree will eventually allow me to do just that – a job in a museum or a career in teaching would be very lovely.”






Comfort Classics: Simon Pulleyn


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

 Given that I have written a fair bit about Homer, people might expect me to say the Iliad or the Odyssey. But I don’t think I go to those works in order to be cheered up. The Iliad, in particular, is apt to show you nature red in tooth and claw and it has about as much consolation in it as a Greek tragedy. In her obituary of Prof Martin West OM, Prof Jane Lightfoot said that, ‘he was drawn to archaic poetry because of its unaffected, unshowy directness and lack of mannerism (not for him the “clever-clever” Hellenistic poets, Callimachus and the poets of the Alexandrian library.’ Martin himself once said of the Avestan Gāthās that they ‘give the impression of ringing out somewhere in the middle of a fresh and hopeful young world.’ I recognize the attraction of that lofty archaic simplicity, even if I think that Homer and the Gāthās are a good deal more sophisticated than they might seem. But I am not sure that this is where I go in order to feel better.

For that, I almost always go to Virgil’s Eclogues.




When did you first come across this text?

As a student at Balliol in the 1980s. I had the good fortune to be taught by Jasper Griffin and Oliver Lyne. People might think that Jasper was a Hellenist and Oliver a Latinist. But this was not so. Jasper wrote Latin Poets and Roman Life and also a very good study of Virgil in the Oxford Past Masters series. Oliver, for his part, was a brilliant expositor of Homer and I had half of my tutorials on Homer with him, not Jasper! So both my tutors covered Greek and Latin evenly. But it was Oliver who introduced me to the Eclogues. I later read the Georgics with him too.


Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?

Virgil wrote two works about the countryside, the Eclogues and the Georgics. The first in time was the Eclogues, a book of ten poems on which he was at work from about 43–38 BC.  Although they are both ostensibly about rural life, they are very different in content and feel.

Essentially the Eclogues owe a great deal to the pastoral poetry of the Greek poet Theocritus (fl. 280–260 BC). Theocritus wrote Idylls – these were partly poems about shepherds and rural pursuits but they could extend to urban themes. Although rustic in content, there is nothing crude or simple about the style of either the Idylls or the Eclogues. Theocritus was a Hellenistic poet and the literary movement to which he belonged valued craft and allusiveness in poetic constructions. Virgil took Theocritus’ characters and moved them to a world nearer to Rome (e.g. E. 1). He also wove into them some of the tension that surrounded the political struggles that attended the last decades of the Roman Republic. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Octavian claimed the succession. Antony, Lepidus and Octavian formed the second triumvirate in 43 BC. In the next year, at the Battle of Philippi, Octavian and Antony defeated Cassius and Brutus, who were behind the killing of Julius Caesar. In 41 BC, the three divided up the world between themselves: Octavian took the West, Antony the East and Lepidus Africa. War broke out in Italy between soldiers loyal to Antony and those supporting Octavian. In 40 BC, Octavian captured Perusia and Antony’s Italian forces collapsed.  Later the same year, Antony and Octavian temporarily patched up their differences through the Peace of Brundisium. Octavian gave his sister Octavia to Antony in marriage to strengthen the alliance. In 37 BC Antony repudiated Octavia and married Cleopatra.

This is not the place to narrate the rest of the events that led to the victory of Octavian over Antony at Actium in 31 BC. The last Eclogues had appeared by 37 BC. It is enough to note that the period during which Virgil was writing was one of profound upheaval and anxiety. Concerns about loss of land through expropriation in favour of military veterans, loss of livelihood, and worries about the effect of war on the rural way of life surface time and again in the Eclogues. But there are also charming passages celebrating love, even if mostly not straightforward or successful, and the simple pleasures of the locus amoenus (the charming spot) and Arcadia. The Eclogues are formed into a book with a conscious architecture – poems towards the end of the book echo themes and lines from poems earlier in the book and the poems alternate between a single poetic voice and amoebaean song with two or more participants. So there is considerable sophistication there.

The Georgics are a very different kind of rural poetry. They stand in a didactic tradition going back to the Greek hexameter poet Hesiod (C7 BC) but with the huge influence of the Latin poem on natural philosophy De Rerum Natura by Lucretius (99–55 BC). The style of Virgil’s didactic poetry is altogether loftier than that of the Eclogues and stands in a different tradition, albeit allusion and craft are still very much to the fore. The sort of simplicity that some attribute to the archaic Hesiod is not to be found in the Georgics.


What is it about these poems that appeals to you most?

 What I love about the Eclogues is their sheer charm and beauty.  There are catalogues of flowers, with Virgil showing off his knowledge of the flora of Italy but also of Theocritus’ Sicily. There are contests among shepherds in poetic song – shepherds who turn out to be remarkably skilled at crafting dactylic hexameters with pointed rhetorical figures and games. There are laments about lost love, including a clever conceit (E. 2. 25–6) where Alexis says that he cannot understand why he has been rejected. After all, he recently caught sight of himself in the still waters of the sea and he did not seem so ugly. The joke here is that Virgil is following the story of the cyclops Polyphemus from Theocritus. A giant might be able to use the sea as a mirror, but scarcely an ordinary mortal. There is a pathos in these borrowed words.

This might be criticized as ‘clever clever’. Perhaps it is. But I have been enjoying these poems for more than 30 years and every time I come back to them I want to re-read so much other Latin poetry as well. Virgil expects you to revel with him in the quality of the poetic textures that he is creating.

In the end, I perhaps love the Eclogues for the same reason that I love AE Housman. Both show great beauty shot through with the complexity of longing and loss. Eclogue 2. 3 begins with rustic singing under umbrosa cacumina (‘shady tree-tops’); by Eclogue 9. 9 these have turned into iam fracta cacumina (‘tree-tops that are now shattered’). The move from pleasant rural pursuit to loss and gloom is also echoed in the placement of these two poems within the larger whole. In the same vein, Housman talks about the countryside of Shropshire and ‘the happy highways where I went and cannot come again’. (Shropshire Lad, XL). Just as Virgil’s characters bemoan the loss of love, e.g. Corydon and Alexis (Eclogue II), so Housman knows the same all too well (‘The heart out of the bosom / Was never given in vain; / ‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty / And sold for endless rue’, Shropshire Lad, XIII). Just as Virgil’s shepherds know of loss of land and livelihood (Eclogue IX), so Housman’s characters know about the bitter contrast between soldiery and farming (‘Oh stay at home, my lad, and plough / The land and not the sea, / And leave the soldiers at their drill, / And all about the idle hill / Shepherd your sheep with me.’ (Last Poems XXXVIII). In some ways, Virgil’s Arcadia and Housman’s Shropshire are mirrors to the same concerns.

The Eclogues is a book of contrasts. There is the complex literary allusiveness of Eclogue IV (the so-called Messianic Eclogue, seen in the Middle Ages as a prophecy of the birth of Christ) and Eclogue VI (the so-called Neoteric Eclogue where Virgil sets out a literary manifesto following the artful Hellenistic poet Callimachus and others). But there is also some very poignant poetry about love and loss and the beauty of nature and song. It is to this inexhaustibly rich mixture that I find myself drawn again and again.


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

I read poetry, listen to music, go for walks, and ride my bike. My tastes in English poetry range from Tennyson, Keats and Matthew Arnold to Philip Larkin, Dick Davis and Richard Scott. I have never enjoyed TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. In French, I love the poems of José-Maria de Hérédia, a C19 French Parnassian poet born in Cuba who wrote some brilliant classicizing verses and was elected to the Académie Française.  My musical tastes range from a deep love of early and Renaissance polyphonic religious music (sung by The Tallis Scholars, The Cardinall’s Musick and The Sixteen) through French chansons of all periods to the great English classics of the 60s (The Kinks) and the 80s (Dire Straits). Mark Knopfler, IMHO, knocks Eric Clapton into a cocked hat. I could not ride a bicycle until I was 47. In the years since then, it has given me so much pleasure making up for lost time.


Simon Pulleyn read Classics at Balliol College, Oxford in the 1980s. He stayed on and did a doctorate on Prayer in Greek Religion. He was a Lecturer in Classics at Merton College, Oxford for most of the 1990s. He practised Law in the City of London for seven years and taught Law for another six after that. During that time, he took a degree in Canon Law and has written a bit about that too. He is a vegan and committed to the raising the quality of ethical thinking about animals. He is a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and has contributed papers on animal experimentation in antiquity, vegetarianism in antiquity, and the treatment of animals in the religious laws of Latin Christendom. In 2014, he decided to go back to writing. He is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Greek and Latin at University College London. He is currently preparing an edition and commentary on Homer, Odyssey Book XI under contract to Oxford University Press.

A full list of his publications can be seen here, including a work for the non-specialist reader wanting an introduction to linguistics and philology.

He has three elderly cats, the oldest of which – Mildred – recently turned 19 and is pictured below:






Comfort Classics: Mirko Canevaro


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

 I’m not sure classical sources make me ‘feel better’ these days. I actually find most of them, particularly the textual ones, rather stress-inducing. I’m so used to unpacking them, thinking with them and through them about whatever problem is bugging me that I find it quite difficult just to sit down and enjoy them. My most recent attempt at a remedy has been changing the medium: if I listen to audiobooks of the Odyssey, of Herodotus or even of Aristotle’s Poetics, that helps me just go with the flow. But I’m going on a tangent…

Right, if I had to pick one text that consistently puts a smile on my face every time I go back to it, that would probably be Aristophanes’ Wasps. However analytically I go about reading it, I just always find it very funny, and somehow satisfying, though perhaps not for the ‘right’ reasons…


When did you first come across this play?

 It was at high school (Liceo Classico, in Italy), I must have been fifteen or sixteen. We had to read it all as an assignment, and then some time later we were brought to see a performance of it. I loved it… Those rough, ‘vulgar’, lowly, grumpy old men – I had plenty of those sorts in my family and I liked them. It was a mixture of familiarity and estrangement, because in the play those guys passed judgment in the lawcourts, made decisions for the city in the Assembly, kind of ran the place (whatever Bdelycleon says – he didn’t fool me, the pompous bore). A city where those guys were in charge… that’s a place I wanted to know more about!


Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?

 Aristophanes’ Wasps was produced in 422 BCE, during a brief stop in the Peloponnesian War following a truce between Athens and Sparta. It’s a comedy and, as is typical of Aristophanes’ plays of those years, it makes fun of demagogues (thieving opportunists and so on) and those who follow them (the lower classes that apparently are enjoying democracy a bit too much). But, unlike other comedies of the same years, this play concentrates on a particular institution – the lawcourts – and on the kind of people that typically manned them: the poor, grumpy old men I mentioned earlier. It goes on and on about how manipulated these people were by canny politicians without scruples, but also shows how at ease they were within the formal institutions of the state, how much ‘ownership’ they felt they had over them. And it provides a picture of class dynamics as they played out in Athenian politics and society which is very complex and rather subtle, I think, while remaining very very funny.


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

First of all, I love how it begins. Pure slapstick! A house enveloped in a net, the door barricaded, the master and his two slaves on guard. And the old Philocleon trying in any possible way to get out of the house and join his fellow wasps on their way to the lawcourts – through the drains, the windows, up the chimney disguised as smoke. His son, Bdelycleon, and the two slaves only just manage to keep him inside. Scholars are sometimes dismissive of this part – of this kind of childish slapstick comedy. It just so happens that this is precisely what my own sense of humour demands… And the scene has now acquired a new poignancy, hasn’t it? A worried son trying hard to keep a disgruntled old father within the house, for his own good – it’s lockdown comedy!

The play then goes on to represent these poor old men’s attachment to political power in the lawcourts as an addiction and gives us a wonderful parody of an Athenian trial in which two dogs play the parts of two famous politicians and the item of contention is the theft of Sicilian cheese.

Finally, it shows us what happens when the old man is convinced to abandon his old ways: his son ‘frees’ him of his addiction to political participation and tries to educate him to the norms of upper-class society, taking him along to a symposion. There, Philocleon is uncomfortable, out of place, annoyed (more or less how I’ve felt at every formal dinner I’ve ever been to…) and so wreaks havoc on the conventions of polite society, gets raucously drunk, insults the pretentious friends of his son, steals a flute girl and when confronted by his son about it on the way home claims she is a torch (!). I’m not sure this is what Aristophanes wanted me to get out of this (probably not), but, to me, it is quite satisfying to see how Philocleon ultimately resists his son’s attempts to civilise him, particularly because being civilised apparently means dropping all political participation in favour of the company of a bunch of pretentious bores. When the people that Philocleon has insulted threaten to bring him to court, well, to me that’s his victory: despite Bdelycleon’s best efforts, there we go again!



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

 In a different world I’d be spending time on my beloved mountains, skiing, climbing, hiking. These days, I keep (or perhaps lose) my sanity through regression to teenage Mirko’s habits and tastes: comic books and videogames have been my cure for lockdown angst. They work too!


Mirko Canevaro is Professor of Greek History at the University of Edinburgh. He works on a wide range of topics in the institutional, social, legal and cultural history of ancient Athens and of the Greek polis more generally, always in dialogue with modern social and political theory. He has published extensively on authors and topics such as Demosthenes, Aristotle, Greek law and institutions, the Hellenistic reception of Athenian democracy and the possible synergies between Greek history and the social sciences. He is currently completing a commentary (in Italian) on Aristotle’s Politics books VII and VIII, and co-directing a large European project on Honour in Classical Greece. He also regularly writes (about ancient and, even more frequently, modern politics and society) for Italian national newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano and cultural magazine MicroMega.









Comfort Classics: Tom Mason


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

As a couple of others have done, I’d like to cheat a little and say two, but they are related to each other: the Philosophy of Epicurus, and an excerpt from Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses,


Now since the sea’s great surges sweep me on,

All canvas spread, hear me! In all creation

Nothing endures, all is in endless flux,

Each wandering shape a pilgrim passing by.

And time itself glides on in ceaseless flow,

A rolling stream – and streams can never stay,

Nor lightfoot hours. As wave is driven by wave,

And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,

So time flies on and follows, flies, and follows,

Always for ever new. What was before

Is left behind; What never was is now;

And every passing moment is renewed.




When did you first come across these sources?

I first encountered Epicurus about 20 years ago, when I caught a series of short programmes called The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton, one of which was about Epicurus’ Philosophy. The excerpt from Ovid I first heard a few years ago watching a BBC 4 documentary called Ovid: the Poet and the Emperor (I suppose TV is good for some things!)


Can you tell me a bit about these texts and their context?

Epicurus was born on Samos to Athenian parents in 341BCE and, after learning of atomistic philosophy, settled in Athens in around 307/6BCE to teach, buying a house and garden and moving in with friends, slightly similar to the self-isolation going on at the moment, but done to address philosophical problems in a practical way; he said that “Any Philosopher’s argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless”. Rather than the gluttonous ‘Epicurean’ he has been caricatured as, Epicurus actually suggested that happiness comes merely from fulfilling our essential needs which, aside from simple food, drink and shelter, consists of Friendship, Freedom and (not surprisingly) Philosophy, or ‘the examined life’. Fulfilling desires beyond these won’t necessarily make us any happier, and trying to do so could make us unhappy. His main concern was attaining ἀταραξία (ataraxia), a tranquility derived from being free of worries and distress.

Ovid was a Roman poet, born in Sulmo in 43BCE. Among other works, he finished his Metamorphoses in about 8CE, an epic series of mythologies around the theme of change and intended to provide a ‘continuous song’ from the beginning of time until the advent of Roman society and civilization. Unfortunately he fell foul of Augustus, embroiled in some plot the details of which are still unclear, and he was banished to Tomis on the Black Sea, about as far from Rome as it was possible to be then. The poem is equally playful and problematic, the fates of Daphne, Actaeon, Arachne and Marsyas just some of the more shocking events depicted. The excerpt I have chosen, though, comes from much later, in book 15, where Ovid is relating the philosophy of Pythagoras; while still agreeing with the atomism of Lucretius and Epicurus, he suggests the soul is immortal and can move between bodies.


What is it about these sources that appeals to you most?

While I’m not sure I agree entirely with Epicurus’ philosophy, it’s his approach that I find most uplifting. Philosophy is often seen as dry and abstract (don’t worry: it still can be!), but Epicurus shows that it can be applied to everyday life to resolve practical difficulties, that it is in fact open to all of us regardless of who we are or where we come from. The ultimate goal of reducing stresses and worries also feels particularly appealing right now. The lines from Ovid’s poem are not only poetically moving in their own right; they show a 1st Century BCE Roman poet discussing a 4th Century BCE Greek philosopher’s ideas, by referring to another Greek philosopher from the 6th Century BCE. It’s this constant conversation that these sources, and Classics generally, have with themselves, and which we can have by engaging with them, that I find continually inspiring. As the last line of this excerpt says, “…every passing moment is renewed” – there is always something new to find, a hopeful thought in these troubled times.


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

I enjoy reading (be a bit weird if I didn’t!) and wittering on about philosophy to increasingly bored- looking people, as the above will testify. Added to this, I find a lot of classical music very relaxing, as well as jazz and film music. I don’t know if it’s a proper thing or not, but there are some ‘800% slower’ film scores on YouTube at the moment, which I’m finding sublimely soothing – check out Thomas Newman’s Shawshank Redemption score if you’ve got an hour to spare (who doesn’t at the moment!)



I like gardening and being outdoors generally, and really enjoy mountain and fell walking; I am incredibly lucky to live close to the southern Lake District hills, with a fantastic viewpoint a 25 minute walk away (sorry to rub it in!). Oh, and real ale. Semper ale.


Tom has been studying with the OU for nearly 18 years, earning two undergraduate degrees; after studying both Philosophy and Classical Studies in the first degree, he thought he would concentrate on science and maths for the second one, but couldn’t resist the allure of Classics, ending up studying all the courses in the subject which he hadn’t already done, and is currently working towards an MA in Classical Studies. He has made repeated efforts to learn Greek and Latin, vowing each time that “this will be the last time!” He is looking into concentrating his MA thesis around ancient strangeness: like Pliny the Elder, he is still trying to work out if the Cynocephali are real or not (his pet dog Toby is very interested in the answer to this), but overall his interests are in ancient historical writers and particularly ancient philosophy, how it has evolved from the pre-Socratics to late antiquity and medieval times, and how it has interacted with mythology and religion throughout the Classical world.






Comfort Classics: Katie Low


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

I can think of a few sources to which I feel a particular connection, from Euripides’ tragedy Orestes (the highlight of my not very glorious career in student drama was being a chorus member in a production in the original Greek) to Fishbourne Roman Palace in West Sussex, where I used to volunteer as a teenager. But recent events have made me think a lot about ancient history in general, and – almost inevitably, given that I wrote my doctorate on him – the works of the Roman historian Tacitus in particular. History is a reminder that living through challenging times, and trying to make sense of them, has always been part of human existence. To someone like me, lucky enough to have been born in western Europe in the closing decades of the twentieth century, the pandemic may feel like an unprecedented horror – but looking back at the past shows that it really is not. I am not just talking about historical plagues here, but all the difficult situations that people have faced over millennia. I know that this may not be a source of direct comfort, but I think that it can be helpful to put our current experiences in perspective, and to be reminded that we are not unique in our troubles, although there are many things about the modern world that make us relatively fortunate compared with those who came before us.


When did you first come across Tacitus?

I first encountered Tacitus when I was studying Latin in my last year of secondary school. Part of Book 15 of the Annals was on the syllabus, describing Nero’s increasingly unhinged behaviour, the great fire in Rome, the scapegoating of the Christians, a conspiracy against the emperor, and more. Somehow I then didn’t read any more of his writings until I was a final-year undergraduate in Classics, when I realised I was especially interested in ancient historiography: the study of historians’ works from a literary perspective. Tacitus is an author who is fascinating to look at in this way, and I ended up writing my doctoral thesis on the first part of the Annals, his account of the emperor Tiberius’ reign.


Can you tell me a bit about Tacitus’ work and its context?

Born in the AD mid-50s, Tacitus followed a classic Roman political career that began in the time of the emperor Vespasian (69-79) and culminated with the consulship, Rome’s highest political office, which he held in 97. A few years later, he also governed the province of Asia, part of modern Turkey. He therefore lived through the civil war that broke out after Nero’s death in 68, and the reign of Vespasian’s son Domitian, who is said by most ancient sources (including Tacitus himself) to have been a paranoid monster – although his reputation may well have been posthumously blackened.

Tacitus wrote three short works, including a biography of his father-in-law Agricola, governor of the province of Britannia, and two longer historical narratives: the Histories, which starts with the civil war and would have ended (today only the first part survives) with the death of Domitian in 96, and the Annals. This begins with the death of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, and the accession of his stepson and heir Tiberius in 14, and continues the imperial story up to the death of Nero. Some sections – including the reign of Caligula, and the very end – are now lost.

Although Tacitus states that he will one day write about life under the emperors Nerva and Trajan, who followed Domitian and are generally positively portrayed in the sources, it is not clear if he meant this, or if it was just a polite but empty promise. Tacitus’ attitude to the imperial regime continues to be debated – his successful political career shows that he did not shun public life under the emperors but, when you read the Histories and the Annals in particular, you are very much not left with the impression that he approved of the system. However, his works also suggest he viewed the idea of reverting to the republic, which had collapsed amid dysfunction and civil war in the first century BC, as naïve and unrealistic.


What is it about the Annals that appeals to you most?

I am still interested in the aspects of Tacitus’ work that initially drew me in: his habit of often seeming to say one thing but imply another, his claustrophobic accounts of life under tyranny, his enigmatic authorial persona. But coming back to the Annals is also a way of reflecting on what has happened to me over the years that I have been reading and rereading it. I have similar feelings about the city of Rome itself. I was first there with my family in 1997, then about a decade later as a student, and most recently a few months ago, having come from Brussels, where I now work for the EU. On those previous visits, that would have seemed well outside the bounds of possibility! The ancient sites are more or less the same, but the way I look at them has changed.


(Trajan’s Column, July 2007 and December 2019)


When five years ago I arrived in Brussels, where politicians are coming and going all the time, it indeed felt as my life had taken a completely different direction: instead of studying history, I was finally going to witness it being made. Then the Brexit referendum happened and I realised what I should have known all along: it is often a lot less pleasant to live through historical events than read about them. This made me start writing a memoir about studying Classics, leaving academia behind, and then realising that Tacitus might illuminate the contemporary world after all. Are the anti-Roman freedom fighters in his works like populist politicians? What can his views on how to live under a bad emperor tell us about being the subjects of governments to which we strongly object? I wasn’t trying to make simple comparisons between the ancient past and modern times but rather to explore how history can shape our thinking about the present, just as what I used to study is still relevant to my life today.

I have to add that the memoir project is on hold for now, as I try to work out where those questions fit into the current global crisis and the tragic and far-reaching effects it will have. But I hope I will find a way to continue. As I said at the beginning, if history can teach us anything, it is that even the worst experiences are not unprecedented, and that life always goes on.


This Could be a Place of Historical Importance, Braco Dimitrijevic – spotted in Dresden last summer


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

Since last autumn I have been learning Czech, partly for family reasons, partly because in the last few years I have become fascinated by central European history and culture. I miss attending classes, but my weekly Skype lesson always cheers me up. Focusing on grammar and vocabulary is certainly one form of distraction (and I was delighted to discover that a knowledge of Latin is occasionally helpful) – as is daydreaming about travelling though the Czech Republic, preferably by train. I had planned to do just that in the summer, but instead I am going to try to learn the basics of Old Church Slavonic, the ancestor of modern Slavic languages. After so many years of Latin and Greek, it is time to get to grips with another historical language!


Katie Low studied Classics at the University of Oxford, with a year as a visiting graduate student in Paris, although at various points she was also a freelance translator, language editor, restaurant blogger and unpublished novelist. In 2013 she was awarded a doctorate, having written her thesis on Tacitus’ Annals, with a focus on the historian’s portrayal of foreigners and the recurring motif of civil war.

She then carried on teaching and researching but, having spent much of her time in Oxford looking for opportunities to escape temporarily across the English Channel, in early 2015 she decided to leave academia and move to Brussels. Since then, she has held several roles in and around the EU’s institutions, and currently works on advanced technology policy at the European Commission. She is still very interested in Classics, having contributed to the forthcoming Tacitus Encyclopedia and given conference papers on topics including the uses of antiquity in Simone de Beauvoir’s works and ‘Tacitus and Brexit’, and hopes one day to finish a book on her experiences of ancient history and the contemporary world. She tweets sometimes at @_katie_low and blogs occasionally at






Comfort Classics: Penny Whitworth


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

If I were to choose a text, then it would have to be Virgil’s Aeneid. It’s a text which brings comfort primarily because of its familiarity; small selections of it are always assigned as the verse text at GCSE, and I find myself suddenly engrossed in a few lines from whichever book it happens to be, mining them for the techniques employed, desperate for students to be caught up in the joy of glimpsing beautiful language and intentional composition. This year’s text has been Book 2, and it’s fair to say that the slaughter of Priam at the altar and the description of Hecuba and her daughters like doves flung headlong into a black storm is not comforting, but it is nevertheless beautiful.

Really though, what sprung to mind when I considered the question are these two images of ancient Corinth:







When did you first visit the site of ancient Corinth?

A huge privilege of being a Classics teacher is the opportunity to take students to see, with their own eyes, the places you’ve been telling them about, and the ‘Greece trip’ is the best trip of them all. My first memory of Corinth was about 12 years ago, when I was with an enthusiastic colleague who demanded that we climb the Acrocorinth. I can’t recall it being an universally popular decision, but up we went nevertheless. Reaching the top felt like an enormous achievement at the time, but also a remarkable moment of engaging with history. I didn’t visit the site itself, from which the photos above are taken, until a number of years later, but it is these photos which particularly bring comfort to me.


Can you tell me a bit about Corinth?

Corinth was a polis on the narrow stretch of land which joins the Peloponnese to the mainland of Greece. In literature, it features in Euripides’ play Medea, as the location of Jason’s betrayal and Medea’s subsequent revenge. In the classical period, it was a large and important city, rivalling Athens and Thebes for wealth and it had involvement in all the significant wars. The Romans destroyed the city in the mid 2nd century BC, but around a hundred years later it was rebuilt, and was a city of note in New Testament times.


What is it about Corinth that appeals to you most?

The site today is stunning and tranquil. At the right time of year, the poppies are exquisite. There is nothing better than pausing on a bench and reflecting on all that has gone before in that very location – and for me, flicking through the account in the book of Acts in the New Testament, and imagining the apostle Paul there, who is said to have been brought to trial at the bema in Corinth.


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

Right now, I’m drinking a lot of coffee and cooking delicious food. I’m in anticipation of news about the return of live rugby, but in the meantime I’m following all the various signings clubs are making! I’m hanging out with my cat and watching previous seasons of Spooks, which are wonderfully all available on iplayer, and I look forward to Sundays and ‘online’ church, which is nowhere near as good as the real thing, but a decent substitute in the circumstances.


Penny studied Classics at Durham before becoming a teacher, first at Durham Gilesgate Sixth Form College, and now at RGS, Newcastle. She teaches classical subjects to students from Y7 all the way through to A level. She loves introducing students to literature texts at GCSE, and teaching Greek tragedy (usually as the Greek A level verse text) and Homer (to Classical Civilisation students) in the Sixth Form. She is also really interested in classical reception, motivated in part by the desire to engage young people with the relevance of ancient texts for today.








Comfort Classics: Flora Kirk


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

There are a few, but I would have to say the Mercury statuette at the Walters Art Museum is my favourite. During my four years in Baltimore I think I saw it about 3 times annually (thank you free admission!).



When did you first come across this statuette?

I first visited the Walters in 2013 and was blown away by the selection of Roman artefacts on display. The Mercury statuette immediately stood out to me due to its workmanship and my own proclivity for Mercury in mythology.


Can you tell me a bit about this object and its context?

It’s a Roman 1st century CE bronze statuette of the messenger god Mercury, identified by the remaining wing on his head. Originally, his left hand would have been holding a caduceus (winged staff with snakes) which is now missing. The statuette is much larger and more detailed than other lares (deity statuettes created for household worship), suggesting that it was used for decoration as well as religion. It’s a beautiful piece of art and would have probably been displayed in a wealthy family’s villa.


Images from The Walters Art Museum


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

For some reason Mercury has always been one of my favourite gods – maybe it’s all the stylish accessories or that I love a good trickster god. The reason I love this piece specifically however is that it was the first museum research I ever did! It was for a class during my ancient studies BA when I was still trying to decide if I wanted to pursue a career in museums. The paper had asked us to analyse the display and how this piece would be viewed in a museum context. I spent a lot of time contemplating the space and how display practices can influence the artefact’s interpretation.



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

I LOVE to draw! I don’t know if it defeats the purpose of this question, but most of my subjects are artefacts or characters from the classical world. It’s a relaxing process and also allows me to study an artefact or part of history in greater detail. Much like the Romans with their statues, I am a big fan of bright and bold colours. I find that muted earth tones are often associated with archaeology, so I like to break that convention by drawing bright and stylised artefacts. Doing this interview even inspired me to make one of the Walter’s Mercury!




Flora is a British-born freelance illustrator raised on America’s East Coast. She loves to create art inspired by her fields of interest, whether that be archaeological artefacts, myths, or pieces that echo the emotions and aesthetics of a time long past.

After a year spent researching third-century AD Roman coin imagery in Transylvania, Flora is now studying for a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Durham. While she plans to pursue a career in museums, Flora sees this as only the beginning of her future with freelance illustration. You can keep up with her work and occasional museum posts on her Twitter and Instagram. A complete portfolio of her work can be found online at






Comfort Classics: James Robson


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

I’m going to say Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.  Because I love it, yes, but also because I’m writing a book on it at the moment, so it’s my daily companion.




When did you first come across this play?

In my first year of university as part of my Greek and Roman Drama module.  I found Ancient Greek comedy frustratingly difficult to get my head around at the time, but Lysistrata was different.  I felt that I got Lysistrata somehow – plus it made me laugh.


Can you tell me a bit about the play and its context?

It’s a comic play from 411 BCE.  This was in many ways classical Athens’ darkest hour: the city had recently lost thousands upon thousands of its men in the disastrous Sicilian Expedition and was now at serious risk of losing the Peloponnesian War which it had been fighting against Sparta for 20 years.  Yet out of these dire times comes this extraordinary, sparkling play – a fantasy about the women of Greece staging a sex strike and forcing the men to reconcile their differences and live at peace.


Lysistrata poster art


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

It’s kind of got it all: an inventive plot, sassy dialogue – and lots of wonderfully dirty jokes, of course – but also lots of hidden depths.  It also feels very modern compared to most ancient drama.  The first time you read it, that’s what makes it accessible.  But the more you read it, the more you understand how it was put together, why it’s capable of giving modern audiences that instant hit and just how innovative it was.  Plus, I’m forever noticing new details or subtle allusions that get me thinking … .


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

Well, with a three-year-old son and a cocker spaniel in the house, there’s not much opportunity to mope.  But I’m also going to give a shout out to good food: making it, eating it, thinking about eating it, that kind of thing. Our lockdown indulgence is high-end ingredients so, yeah, we’re eating well!


Tempura scallops with red sorrel cress
Burrata and sundried peach salad with a tomato and chilli glaze


James Robson is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University.  His publications include Aristophanes: An Introduction (Bloomsbury, 2009) and Sex and Sexuality in Classical Athens (Edinburgh University Press, 2013) and he is also co-editor of Sex in Antiquity: Reconsidering Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World (Routledge, 2015). He is currently working on a book on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata for Bloomsbury and completing a funded project called The Battle for Latin looking at beginners’ Latin teaching in UK universities.


Robson 1




Comfort Classics: Lucia Nixon


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

Well, it’s not ancient, but it is important to me: a picture of 2 icon stands (containers for icons; Greek eikonostasia) near the village of Anopoli in Sphakia, SW Crete.  There’s also a church in the background on the left – you can see its little bell-tower.




When did you first come across these stands?

I came upon these 2 icon stands in the first year of our work on the Sphakia Survey.  We were walking a transect, and I suddenly caught sight of the larger one, and I thought, what is this doing here?  Most modern icon stands mark the scene of car accidents, but we weren’t on a car road.  Unravelling what these icon stands were about, and also what churches outside villages (Greek exokklisia), were about, and how they all fitted into the landscape of Sphakia took me a long time.


Can you tell me a bit about these stands and their context?

Icon stands, and churches both inside and outside villages, are part of the Greek Orthodox sacred landscape of later Byzantine-Venetian-Turkish (BVT) Crete, 1000-2000 AD.  Churches outside settlements are part of the overall settlement pattern, just as churches inside settlements are.  (Icon stands came along a lot later, maybe only in the 19thC.)  I found that outlying churches mark packages of resources which came into use just before the churches were built. A resource package could include one or more of the resources necessary for the kind of agro-pastoral life which prevailed in Sphakia until World War II – land for cultivation; pasturage for animals; water (or the means of procuring it); and connectivities by land and/or by sea, including how visible (and possibly intervisible) a specific site is.  Each church sets a sacred seal on the economic activity in that locality at that time.  If there are a lot of churches in a given area, inside and outside settlements, then that area will be very ‘resourceful’.  You just have to figure out what those specific resources were……….


Back to the two icon stands in the photo:  they’re on the old built mule-track, now overgrown, which linked Anopoli with Khora Sphakion on the coast.  The smaller, newer one (20thC)  faces toward the village; it’s near a dirt road leading to a sheep-pen. The larger, older stone one faces downhill towards Khora; the newer, smaller metal one faces uphill towards Anopoli. The older one, especially when regularly whitewashed, could be seen from some distance, especially from below.  It was the sign that you were approaching Anopoli, before you could see any part of the village.  Only when you reached the icon stands could you see any part of Anopoli itself, in this case the church in the background.




What is it about these icon stands that appeals to you most?

Several things…

As soon as I saw them, I knew that I needed to know more about these icon stands, that this was a thread that I had to follow — even though I didn’t know where it would take me!   And one of the things that I didn’t know when I started was that this particular sacred landscape, that of BVT Sphakia, would teach me also about sacred landscapes of the Prehistoric and Graeco-Roman epochs.

I especially enjoyed talking to women and men in Sphakia about churches and icon stands, some of whom had put up (or commissioned) icon stands and churches.  The outlying church that absolutely confirmed my resource package theory was built in 1994, at the mouth of a gorge.  By then the person who owned the land there had been bringing tourists in his boat to swim at the gorge mouth for a few years.  So the church was built not long after he started using that location to make money — result!

I like this photograph of ‘my’ two icon stands because I took it in February 1997, and it shows the moody, cloudy weather of that time of year, rather than the supposed perpetual summer of the Mediterranean.  You can also see why the White Mountains, in the background, are called white—it’s not because of the snow (there is some in this picture), it’s because the rock of which they’re made is actually white.


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

I’m spending even more time in my garden – and seeing things I never noticed before.  I planted camassia ages ago but this is the 1st time I noticed that the anthers are purple!


Camassia with purple anthers May 2020


Very cheering news: there is a now a Sportula Europe– the Sportula provides microgrants for Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies students and Early Career Scholars.  This is a great opportunity to give back, and I’m now a patron.



Lucia Nixon co-directs the Sphakia Survey, with Jennifer Moody. 

“Our Survey website is under reconstruction, but there’s some Sphakia info on the online archaeology course that Simon Price and I did.

I published my work on churches and icon stands in a book, Making a Landscape Sacred (2006).  I applied this perspective to Minoan sacred landscapes in a conference poster.

As well as archaeology in general, I write about other sacred and economic landscapes; archaeology and gender; and equality issues; more info on my page.

I’ve taught at universities in Canada and the UK, including two very different institutions, one a blue-collar commuter campus, and the other a highly selective collegiate university.  One of the best things I’ve ever read about teaching is Herbert Kohl’s book, ‘I Won’t Learn from You! The Role of Assent in Learning’, written before ‘intersectionality’ (thanks to Kimberlé Crenshaw), and ‘decolonising the curriculum’ came into use; there’s now a 2nd edition of his book.


Kohl, I won;t learn from you! copy


I thought of him when teaching, and more recently when reviewing a book about Nefertiti.

I’m on Twitter, @LuciaNixon.”


LFN on canal w E rowing





Comfort Classics: Peta Greenfield


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

For me it is hard to go past the Ara Pacis Augustae. It’s such a detailed piece of architecture with incredible friezes. The layers of iconographical meaning embedded in something like the ‘Tellus’ panel alone is something that I find incredibly engaging. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful piece.


Ara Pacis


Photo taken by Chris Nas, source Wikimedia Commons


When did you first come across this source?

This source is really important for understanding Augustus’ rule. By the time the Ara Pacis is dedicated, he has ensured his position of power and is very secure. This altar is really famous for its depiction of the familial procession, but the reason it caught my eye initially was as part of my study of the changing role of the Vestal Virgins. There’s one small panel which depicts the Vestals – it’s not a flashy part of the ara by any stretch, but very significant in terms of thinking about the connections between Augustus, who was pontifex maximus, and the variety of priesthoods depicted on the monument.


Can you tell me a bit about the altar and its context?

This ara is an important monument for Augustus. It’s first proposed by the Senate in 13 BCE after he returns from Gaul and is dedicated in 9 BCE, on the 30th of January. This coincides with Livia’s birthday which appears to be part of a plan to ensure she is also connected with the monument.

The legacy of this monument is just as interesting as its origins. The pieces we have now exist as part of Mussolini’s reconstruction so there’s always more questions to be asked about the structure, what it really looked like, the layers of political manoeuvring from Augustus onwards, and so forth.

Today you can find this reconstruction housed in a purpose-built museum and it’s one of my favourite places in Rome.


Ara Pacis2



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

This source really appeals to me on an aesthetic level. It’s easy to dismiss the frieze panels of foliage that make up the lower decorations of the outside of the Ara Pacis, but one moment in front of the monument is enough to convince you that there’s something grand and deliberate in this. Not only are they incredibly beautiful in their own right, but a good deal of study has been done on their iconographical significance as well.

But it’s also more visceral than that. As a viewer, you’re never at eye-level with any of the processional or mythological friezes; they loom above you asking you to put Augustus and his family on the same level as the legendary and divine figures of Rome. The monument really imposes the legacy of Augustus’ rise and domination over the City. You can feel it.


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

Outside of the Classics, I love to paint. I find the universe a humbling thing and I love trying to catch the infinite nature of it as well as the sense of liminality that space suggests to me. The pictures from the Hubble telescope inform most of my work.


Dr Peta Greenfield attained her PhD in Classics and Ancient History from the University of Sydney and currently teaches English literature. Her interests in the classics include women in the ancient world, Latin poetry and the intrigues of the late Republic and Principate. She is the co-host of The Partial Historians podcast which she runs with Dr Fiona Radford.




Dr Fiona Radford (left) and Dr Peta Greenfield (right) in some amazing replica Roman wear made by Dr Elizabeth Smith based on her research into Roman statuary.Cup_of_tea


Comfort Classics: Hayley Merchant


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

For me Trajan’s Column is my classical comfort blanket. A little odd perhaps when you think that it depicts warfare including scenes of torture, enslavement and be-heading. But, as I’ll explain, the monument is very special to me.





When did you first come across this source?

When discussing potential topics for my undergraduate dissertation all the way back in 2003 my tutor suggested I look at Trajan’s Column. At this point I had never heard of it. I spent the next two years analysing the buildings on the column and, quite honestly, became hooked.


Can you tell me a bit about the column and its context?

Trajan’s Column sits within the remains of Trajan’s Forum in Rome. It depicts the emperor Trajan’s two campaigns in Dacia (modern day Romania), the first from 101-102 AD and the second from 105-106 AD, against the barbarian Decebalus and the Dacians. The column is one of the best surviving elements of Trajan’s Forum.





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

Trajan’s Column appeals to me on so many different levels, from iconographical and archaeological to emotional. In terms of the iconography I personally think the imagery is incredibly beautiful, winding its narrative up around the column shaft. I could stare at it for hours. Emotionally, it holds many very happy memories for me. When I was drafting my dissertation I would print out pages, cut them up and lay them on the floor to review the layout (very old-school cut and paste). At the time we had a wonderful dog called Mabel and I remember her keeping me company through the long hours of writing and, in particular, walking on all of those sheets of paper on the floor without a care in the world. Following submission, the day after my graduation my Mum took me to Rome to celebrate, and as soon as we arrived she insisted we go for a walk. My Mum made out that she didn’t know where we were going and then all of a sudden we turned a corner and there was Trajan’s Column. I was absolutely floored. She had planned it all along.

So in essence, Trajan’s Column isn’t just a beautiful and valuable example of Roman military iconography, but also an archaeological monument with which I have incredibly happy and special memories associated.


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

All of my interests tend to align with the ancient world, and Rome in particular. I dabble at running, and was due to run the Rome Marathon for the second time in March, but this has now been postponed to next year. I love watching films, and have a particular weakness for anything (no matter how good or bad) based on the ancient world and antiquity, from swords and sandals blockbusters to lesser known gems (The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc Sec being a particular favourite). I’m very lucky to live on the Welsh border and spend a lot of time with my husband walking our dog Samson in the countryside and on the beach.




Hayley is Head of Collections Care and Management at the Black Country Living Museum and a Trustee for the Clwyd Powis Archaeological Trust in Wales. Hayley’s main interest is the Roman army and iconography and, having left Exeter University in 2005 with a BA in Archaeology, she is now studying for a Masters by Research at the University of Birmingham. Her research topic focuses on the purpose of military iconography during times of stability and instability in the Roman Empire from the first to the fourth centuries AD. And yes, it includes Trajan’s Column!







Comfort Classics: Ian Tompkins


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

The ruins of Cyrrhus in northern Syria.


When did you first come across this place?

When I started studying Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus, for my D.Phil in the 1980s.


Can you tell me a bit about the city and its context?

Cyrrhus was a small city nestling just inside the Syrian border with Turkey. An Hellenistic foundation, named after a city on the Greek mainland, its most famous son had been Avidius Cassius, the second-century usurper.  Theodoret was bishop of Cyrrhus in the fifth century for around 40 years, apart from the brief and unfortunate interruption when he was deposed by the Second Council of Ephesus.  The ruins of Cyrrhus include a theatre, city walls, churches, and a hexagonal tower incorporated into a Yazidi shrine.  The picture I have included was my last shot of the site when I visited it many years ago, so it has a poignancy that marks it out from the others I have of it.





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

Theodoret has been my main research interest throughout my career.  I have continued to read and study him as opportunities allow.  I’ve always sought to understand him in the context of his city and its territory.


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

In the second half of my fifties, I have become a very keen runner.  I ventured outside for the first time at Easter last year, loved it and kept going.  To my amazement, I found I could fairly comfortably run longer distances, and in October last year I ran my first half-marathon, in my beloved home city of Manchester, on behalf of the amazing people at the Christie Hospital.  This was the most wonderful and exhilarating experience, and I knew that I had to keep this going.  “I get up, I get down. Now that it’s all over and done, Now that you find, now that you’re whole.”, as Jon Anderson put it.  I have run a number since then, and had been planning and training for my first Marathons until these were postponed. I try to run most days now.  When I meet friends and colleagues, the opening query usually now seems to be “How’s the running going?”


Ian Tompkins

Manchester Grammar School, 1974-81

Wadham College, Oxford University, 1981-5, MA Lit Hum.

University of Manchester, 1985-7, BD Theology

Wadham College, 1987-90, & Queen’s College, Oxford, 1990-1, DPhil in Ancient History, supervised by Averil Cameron, passed 1993, examined by Fergus Millar and Wolf Liebeschuetz.

Tutor in Classical Studies, University of Wales Aberystwyth, 1991-6.

Administrative Assistant, Academic Registry, UWA, 1996-2003.

Warden, Penbryn Hall of Residence, 1999-2003.

Senior Assistant Registrar, Corporate Planning Office, University of Sheffield, 2003-5.

Classics Teacher, Ellesmere College, Shropshire, 2005-date.

Continuing to work on Theodoret of Cyrrhus, in collaboration with Anthony Bowen in Cambridge, and on Syria in late antiquity. 






Comfort Classics: Fiona Radford


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

My favourite would have to be the aureus from AD 54 – the early years of the reign of Nero. Nero and his mother, Agrippina the Younger, are both featured on the obverse.




When did you first come across this coin?

I really had no particular interest in Ancient History until Year 11 and 12. The teacher I had was amazing and really set my world on fire (no dig at Nero intended) with her stories of the Julio-Claudians. I first came across it in her class and now I get to share it with my own Ancient History classes every year.


Can you tell me a bit about the coin and its context?

Agrippina the Younger fought for power and position her whole life. She was no fool, so she knew that she could not hold an official place herself. Thankfully for Agrippina, her only child was a boy and he would eventually be known by his adopted name of Nero. She survived exile under her brother Caligula when Nero was just a toddler and did not suffer the same fate as her sister Livilla during the early reign of their uncle Claudius. His then-wife Messalina may have been worried about these two sisters due to their being direct descendants of Augustus.

Agrippina was quick to marry and get out of Rome during this risky time. Eventually, Messalina made a foolish gamble, overplayed her hand, and cleared the way for a new wife for Emperor Claudius. Even though she was his niece, Agrippina managed to snag that position for herself. She rose to new heights of power for a woman in ancient Rome and in many ways crafted the role of empress.

Her main objective during this marriage was to secure the position of her son. Within five years, Agrippina had arranged for his adoption by the emperor and marriage to Claudius’ daughter – and then murdered Claudius so that Nero could take his place. Nero was only a teenager at the time and was very aware that he owed his position to his mother and the illustrious connections that he possessed through her. Not only was he descended from Augustus, but the popular military commander Germanicus was his grandfather.

In the early years of his reign, Nero gave Agrippina many honours. No living woman had ever been featured on the obverse of a coin, and certainly not in a way that suggested some sort of equality between her and the emperor. There are quite a few interesting coins like this from the first years of Nero’s rule, but none where Agrippina is quite as prominent. Sadly, she fell from grace sometime in AD 56 and was murdered on Nero’s orders in AD 59.


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

The sheer badassery of Agrippina the Younger. She was the original Cersei Lannister. Even though she eventually went too far and lost her influence over Nero (and thus her life), I find it inspiring that a woman in a patriarchal society still dared to be so ambitious.

Agrippina was not interested in wealth for the sake of luxury or power for mere show. I’m sure there were elements of this, but she seems to have been genuinely interested in politics and diplomacy. Although the sources are a bit sketchy on this point, Agrippina seems to have virtually ruled Rome during Nero’s early reign, along with his advisers. Absolutely unthinkable! It would be hundreds of years before a woman was allowed such influence again.

Ancient sources like this are also interesting because you could interpret them in so many ways. It is possible to see Agrippina as someone who was used as a pawn and a symbol by her male relatives in their own quest for power… but I just can’t bring myself to believe that!


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

I am a huge fan of other podcasts and I listen to them whenever I can – cleaning, cooking, walking my deaf cat (yep)… I currently subscribe to about 400 and have about 650 episodes downloaded on any given day. I am a murderino, so anything true crime grabs my interest, but I particularly love My Favourite Murder. Of course, there are a lot of history podcasts on my list too. The Dollop is a fantastically funny history podcast that mostly looks at crazy episodes from America’s past. I am also an environmental activist. There’s no future in History unless we take drastic action to address the current climate, pollution and waste crises, so I am trying to put more time into advocating for meaningful change.


Lego Partial Historians – image made by the Totalus Rankium podcast


Fiona Radford received her PhD in Ancient History from Macquarie University in 2012 and currently teaches secondary History. Her research interests include women and gender in the ancient world, classical reception (particularly film), and Rome during the late Republic and Julio-Claudian period.  She co-hosts a podcast on ancient Rome with Dr Peta Greenfield called The Partial Historians and together they have appeared on a range of other ancient history shows, such as The Exploress. They have collaborated with Ted-Ed on animated lessons about ancient Roman history, including the Vestal Virgins and Spartacus.






Comfort Classics: Claudio Sansone


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

In the past few years, I’ve found myself going back to the poems (or fragments) of the Greek poet Archilochus. I like to puzzle my way through the Greek, and look at the context in which the fragments were preserved as windows into later moments of Greek literary history. But I also like to read them in Guy Davenport’s translation, which does a great deal of work to make the fragments moving, like aphorisms, in English.

e.g. fr. 20 in Davenport’s translation:


Decks awash,

Mast-top dipping,

And all

Balanced on the keen edge

Now of the wind’s sword,

Now of the wave’s blade.


I like to put this kind of text in conversation with short Sanskrit lyrics, such as the following translated by Brough in his old Penguin volume Poems from the Sanskrit.


‘I see that a little person

Who has obtained a high situation

Very easily falls from it,’

Said the pebble,

As a breath of wind dislodged it

From the mountain-top.


When did you first come across these sources?

I think I first read Archilochus in graduate school, as part of a broader (re)discovery of the Lyric poets—but he stood out immediately. I got a copy of Poems from the Sanskrit during my undergraduate studies, when I was working on modernist poetics and their appropriation of ancient sources. I had no idea I’d be learning Sanskrit one day and that I would be able to read it in the original just under a decade later!


Can you tell me a bit about these poems and their context?

Archilochus lived in the 7thc. BCE, and he was likely from an island called Paros. Some say his poems were quite literally deadly. I think his cutting wit is not quite that kind of weapon, but then again, I was never on the wrong end of one of his invectives. While we have some papyrus evidence for Archilochus, the fragments often survive also in citations by later authors.

The poems in Brough’s collection are drawn from many sources (and in fact they are often drawn from earlier collections of poems extracted from longer prose texts). The shorter poems are really one-verse pieces (in Sanskrit terms, this is often translated as two or four lines for us—or more if the translator is using some poetic license for effect). These short poems are memorized as short songs and can be thought of as not dissimilar to proverbs, but at some point they were integrated in various ancient texts, giving them specific (and often surprising) connotations.


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

I like to translate poetry, usually from odd languages that are considered peripheral by the field of Classics. Recently, I’ve really been trying to work hard on my Old Irish, as I’m preparing a short publication on a really funky piece of Irish verse. Learning languages has a soothing effect on me—however hard it may be, you can always make a little bit of progress, even ten minutes at a time. Even just learning one new word can spark all sorts of creative activity, which is a good bonus for me because I like to write my own poems and stories too.


Claudio is a PhD Candidate at the University of Chicago. His work focuses on poetics and ideology in Greek, Ancient Near Eastern, and Indo-Iranian contexts. During COVID he has been tweeting (@rhetpoet and @cldsnsn) and running a Homer discussion group on Thursday, called #HomericDisputations.

“Feel free to join us—no expertise required!”






Comfort Classics: John O’Flaherty


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

The Aeneid, Book I, lines 624-631, (trans. Robert Fitzgerald, 1992)… The famous “lacrimae rerum” verse.


When did you first come across this?

My father died when I was at school and a teacher read me the verse.  It was appropriate for the circumstances. Bad things happen. They happen to us all.  Each must bear his own suffering but if you are lucky you are not entirely alone. We have the consolation of fellow feeling and what Yeats calls “Spiritus Mundi”.


Can you tell me a bit about this verse and its context?

“A fugitive, this captain, buffeted Cruelly on land as on sea…”. Aeneas, survivor of the Trojan Royal family is in search of a new home-land.  In this verse he and his followers make landfall at Queen Dido’s Carthage. Coming ashore the party come across a Great Temple “…staring amazed at the handiwork of artificers…. He found before his eyes the Trojan battles…”.



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

I particularly like this verse because it sums up so much of what life is often about: there is pain, suffering, misery and death but, by way of solace, there is pathos here communicated to Aeneas through art and to us through this verse. Aeneas realises that here the glory, the splendour, the tragedy of his family and his country is recognised and commemorated.  If we are not amongst friends, we are amongst people who understand these emotions which transcend the banal; we are strangers amongst strangers but we recognise and share a common understanding of the world.





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

Drink, read, travel, plan the damnation of my enemies and fantasise about being freed from the awfulness of having to make a living and deal with cretins all day long!


“I was born 1966 in Aldershot.  My father was a soldier who fought in WWII, Korea and Malaya. He was one of the first Commandos and in 1960 founded 29 Commando Regt, RA. I lived all over the world and, when my father died in 1980, settled in Kent.  My mother was born in India and grew up there.  In 1945 she went to Japan with the occupation forces and that’s where she met my father.  I am the youngest of eight children.

I read History at Durham but was too immature to take advantage of the opportunity (or perhaps had other priorities). I can’ t remember who said education is wasted on the young but there might be something in that remark!

I joined the Navy in 1989 and served in The Gulf, Hong Kong and Northern Ireland. When I left the Navy in 1994 I got a job in shipping in Hong Kong. I’ve been overseas ever since and have lived in Copenhagen, Bahrain, Saudi, Dubai and Singapore.

My wife and I have three children. An 18-year-old boy who is autistic but a wonderful, good natured fellow, a daughter of 15 (who is less good natured but will, God willing, be fine) and a 13 year old boy with cerebral palsy.  My wife is from Cheshire, trained as a nurse and then became a lawyer in the 1990’s. She’s just got a job on the Law Faculty at National University of Singapore (which is an outstanding University) and I am very proud of her. I have a house in Switzerland and, if I can ever afford it, that’s where I hope to retire.”


On board USS JOHN C STENNIS in Bahrain (the one on the left!)





Comfort Classics: Jennie Baillie


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

As I’m still grumbling about not getting to Rome in April, images from there always make me feel happy. But as I guess a city is too big a topic for now, I’m going to choose something which is inspired by antiquity, the 17th century sculpture Apollo and Daphne by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.





When did you first come across this sculpture?

I first came across the sculpture when I was studying the OU’s level 2 module Art and Visual Culture and initially I disliked it. The disorder and soft and intense baroque curves did not sit well with me as I preferred the structure and order found in the artwork and sculptures of the Renaissance. A couple of years later I was studying Ovid’s Metamorphoses as part of the OU’s Myth in the Greek and Roman World module and by chance saw the sculpture in person at the Borghese Gallery in Rome and only then did I appreciate it.


Photo by Architas – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.



Can you tell me a bit about the sculpture and its context?

The sculpture was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 1620s and was inspired by the story in Book I of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Apollo insults Cupid who responds by shooting two arrows, one at Apollo and the other at the river nymph Daphne. Their reactions are very different as Apollo falls madly in love with Daphne, but Daphne does not return these feelings. She is having none of it, as she is devoted to Diana and has vowed to remain a virgin. Apollo chases after Daphne who shouts out to her father, the river God for help. Turning your daughter into her tree is quite an unusual course of action, but that’s what he does and as Apollo catches Daphne she is transformed into a laurel tree.


‘Help me, Father!’ she pleaded. ‘If rivers have power over nature, mar the beauty which made me admired too well, by changing my form!’ She had hardly ended her prayer when a heavy numbness came over her body, her soft white bosom was ringed in a layer of bark, her hair was turned into foliage, her arms into branches.

                                                (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.545)


And it’s this moment which is captured by Bernini.



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

The sculpture appeals to me as what put me off about the style initially is what fascinates me now.

It is located in the centre of the room at the Galleria Borghese but originally it was placed near a wall so the viewer had to approach it from behind. That was very clever positioning, as Daphne is hidden by Apollo and only by slowly walking around the sculpture do you get the full effect of the story and the transformation taking place before you.

You can almost see the two characters moving before you, Daphne’s hair flowing out as it turns into leaves, her smooth skin becoming rough bark, and that bad boy Apollo looking very pleased with himself.


Photo by Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.


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

Like everyone else, life at the moment is a little odd, I’m working from home whilst trying to home school my children and look after three demanding cats so I try to find little moments of pleasure when I can. I enjoy running, which over the years has been a life saver and I have completed a few half and full marathons, I also like reading and watching Italian crime fiction – Inspector Montalbano is at the top of the list (watch all the episodes on BBC iplayer), but I’ve built quite a collection of dvds and books set in other parts of Italy. I probably take too many holidays, but I love travel (and Italy), and always on the look out for a cheap short break. It’s amazing how much you can fit into two days if you plan it properly!


Jennie is a recent MA Classical Studies graduate of the Open University and her main area of interest is the depiction of identity in ancient Roman frescoes, although she is very partial to Italian Renaissance art. Her ambition is to continue researching and she is working on ideas for a PhD proposal. She currently works as a Marketing and Campaigns Manager in a theatre and that funds the study, travel, running and children!







Comfort Classics: Phil Perkins


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

Where I always want to go back to is Etruria. Maybe I’m pushing at the definition of a source, but it is the place where most of the ancient world that I spend time with originated. Just now I can’t go back there, but one day I will.


When did you first become interested in Etruria?

I first went to Etruria in 1982 as an undergraduate in the Summer vacation, working on a research project mapping the ancient landscapes of the Albegna Valley in southern Tuscany. It was hard work – early starts – high temperatures – burning sun – biting bugs, but walking through fields for days and days seeking the broken remains of possessions, homes and lives of people from thousands of years ago made a very strong impression on someone who’d just finished their first year. It also convinced me that classical archaeology still had a huge amount to learn about.


Can you tell me a bit about Etruria and its context?

Etruria is an ancient region of Italy on the central part of the western coast. In modern terms it is the part of Lazio north of Rome, Tuscany, much of Umbria and also parts of Emilia Romagna in the Po Valley. So a good chunk of Italy. It was the homeland of the Etruscan people in the first Millennium BCE. But before the Etruscans, Etruria had a long prehistory although it becomes harder and harder to be sure of anything the further back you go – there’s still a lot of work to be done! After the Romans (the bad guys) demolished 1000 years of Etruscan life, Etruria gave birth to the Medieval and Renaissance cities of Siena, Florence, Pisa and many more.


What is it about Etruria that appeals to you most?

Its diversity and complexity. The landscape is very variable from coastal lagoons through rolling hills to rocky or forested mountains. This breaks the country into many small and distinctive units that reflect the natural environment and human exploitation and settlement, each with its own character and productivity. This means there is always something new to discover from a different place or a different time.


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

Well if it doesn’t involve shiny liquids enclosed in glass or photography it is gardening. Nothing beats planting seeds, helping them grow, enjoying looking at them, harvesting them and then cooking and eating them. Then you can do it all over again next year.





Phil Perkins is Professor of Archaeology at the Open University. His research focusses on Etruscan archaeology and he is currently writing up the results of excavations and artefact studies at the Etruscan sanctuary of Poggio Colla and the sacred lake at Albagino, both to the north of Florence in Tuscany. In 2016-17 he was a Hugh Last Fellow at the British School at Rome. His teaching at the Open University has ranged from Homer to 19th century netsuke.






Comfort Classics: Caroline Lawrence


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

 Strangely, my ‘comfort’ reading is Martial. The first century Roman satirist was a nasty man who produced bitingly funny, not to mention rude, epigrams. He writes the ancient equivalent of a gossip column with a big dollop of Sex in the City, the city being Rome. But although he may have been a loathsome person, he was a brilliant observer. What I love about his short poems is that they put me firmly in the tangible, tasteable, smellable world of Ancient Rome. His short poems are like portholes into the past. You meditate on the object or person described and then a scene expands around it: people moving and speaking and laughing and doing things and eating things and touching things and loving and crying and living and dying. 



When did you first come across Martial?

I honestly can’t remember whether I first met Martial as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley (where I first started Latin) or later at Cambridge when I studied Classics. I have all three Loeb editions as well as T.J. Leary’s excellent commentaries, which have proved to be among my most valuable reference books for writing about ancient Rome.





Can you tell me a bit about Martial and his context?

 Martial was a Roman who flourished in the late Flavian period when my Roman Mysteries books are set. He is perfect for helping me detail the concrete world of late first century Rome. His epigrams have even given me ideas for my books. His first book is an eyewitness account of the opening of the Flavian amphitheatre (AKA the Colosseum) in the spring of AD 80. That gave me tons of material for Roman Mystery #8, The Gladiators from Capua. The villain in Roman Mystery #9, The Colossus of Rhodes, was inspired by epigram 14.212 about a good-looking dwarf. And my mute beggar boy Lupus, one of the four child detectives in the series, was inspired by epigram 2.82 about a master who cuts out his slave’s tongue.






What is it about Martial that appeals to you most?

 These days, thanks to social media and the Damocles sword of Corona-19, I have the attention span of a goldfish. My favourite book of epigrams is therefore the final one: Book 14, The Saturnalia Gifts. These short poems ostensibly meant to serve as gift tags epitomise everything I love about Classics: the pendulum of realisation of how similar they were to us and also how different. The gift of a back scratcher reminds me how like us they were. The gift of a dwarf as a slave reminds me of how unlike us they were.

Each of the Saturnalia epigrams consists of two lines plus a lemma or title. Martial invites the reader to just read the titles but in fact you could read the epigrams as a kind of riddle to which the answer is the title. For instance…


While I am summoned with a snap of fingers and the slave dallies

O how often has a pillow been made my rival!

Answer? A chamberpot!

(Martial 14.119, translation by T.J. Leary from The Apophoreta)


Another fun thing Martial does is to alternate the epigrams so that one gift is something a rich man might give and the next something affordable by a poor man. So an ivory box is followed by a wooden box. Or a gold hairpin is followed by a boxwood comb. Both are for the hair, but one is costly and the other cheap.



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

I used to go to movies, but they have deteriorated in quality recently and no longer offer solace.  I also used to meet various friends for coffee in the afternoon – the time when my brain is ready for sensory input rather than creative output – but that’s been put on hold with the Corona virus. My most lasting and best solution for the blues is to go for a walk. I listen to audiobooks or music or sometimes just pray. I adore London and walking never ceases to cheer me up. Sometimes it even fills me with supernatural joy.





Award-winning author Caroline Lawrence writes history-mystery stories for kids. Her passion for plotting combined with historical accuracy means her books are beloved of children and teachers alike. She has written dozens of stories set in the ancient world, especially the Roman Empire. Caroline says, ‘I want to know everything about the past: all the sounds, smells, sights and tastes. And especially the exciting and surprising things.  I write historical novels because nobody has invented a Time Machine.’ Fittingly, her most recent series, The Time Travel Diaries, is about a London schoolboy who travels back in time to Roman London, Ancient Athens and hopefully more! She has also written a book called How to Write a Great Story, based on the talk she most often does in schools. As well as mythic structure and Classical tropes, it incorporates many of her other interests such as art, imagination, cinema and psychology.





Learn more on her website: or follow her on Twitter: @carolinelawrenc (no E)


Photograph by Ed Miller




Comfort Classics: Greg Gilles


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

There is no one particular item that is my ‘go to’, but if I were to choose something to take with me on a desert island, it would most likely be a book or online collection of frescoes.

Every time I see one, I am awestruck by the beauty of the artwork, the craftsmanship behind the details and the fact that people 2-5000 years ago commissioned them on their walls, walked past them every day, ate a meal dazzled by their beauty, or simply admired them in the same way that I do so many years later.

Probably the reason why I started #FrescoFridays on Twitter, so that I’d have an easy place to find and admire all the amazing frescoes that are out there!


When did you first come across ancient frescoes?

When I first started going to museums, especially the Louvre, as a child, my first imprints were Egyptian tomb paintings. I remember being amazed by the vividness of the colours and the fact that people so long ago could create such beautiful artwork when I couldn’t even colour within the lines. (Sadly, my artistic abilities have not developed much!)

As a result of this early love of frescoes, everything about ancient Egypt fascinated me and inspired me to do a BA in Egyptology and molecular archaeology. These days, Rome is my passion, especially late Republican Rome, and thankfully my love of frescoes is not in short supply of inspirational pieces. Although Pompeii and Herculaneum have an abundance of breathtaking frescoes, it was on a trip in 2015 to Rome that I discovered the garden frescoes from the triclinium of Livia’s Villa, which are gloriously displayed at the Museo Nazionale Romano di Palazzo Massimo.





Can you tell me a bit about these frescoes and their context?

I am no expert on frescoes (although if I could do my studies over again, I would try to be), so I won’t even try to go into the detail of how frescoes are made. All I will say is that these frescoes were discovered in what has been labelled as Livia’s Villa in Prima Porta, just outside of ancient Rome (the same villa that has given us the most recognisable statue of Augustus, in all his glory).

The frescoes were on display in a subterranean triclinium. Imagine the surrealness of knowing you’re dining underground, but being surrounded by these immensely intricate and detailed images of an outside garden! I’m sure the room would also have been bathed in candlelight, just at the right places to accent the images of the frescoes. There would also have been natural essences burning that would have reminded you of the scents that the trees and plants would have produced – scents of oranges, lemons, apples and peaches… There probably would have been live birds in the room too. The (wealthy) Romans sure knew how to live!





What is it about these paintings that appeals to you most?

The sheer beauty of them. The colours are still so vibrant and evocative – I can only imagine what they would have been like in situ, at the time, and whilst the room was being used. And, if it was indeed Livia’s villa, imagine the people that would have reclined on couches in this room and the conversations they would have had… The fate of the Roman world could have been decided in this room!




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

Well, this year hasn’t been the best year. I had a brain haemorrhage in January, so I’ve spent most of this year learning how to walk, use my left arm and talk again. It wasn’t the best time for this to happen, so close to finishing my PhD, but I’m slowly recovering.

My first love has always been tennis (I nearly succeeded at making it a profession), so starting to play again has been a huge motivation to getting back to normal. As soon as lockdown was lifted for tennis courts, I was out there hitting balls. I can’t run or serve, but luckily I can still belt a decent forehand. It’s so easy to forget, especially for those of us whose work involves long hours of reading and/or writing, that our bodies actually crave physical activity and fresh air. Even just sitting outside in nice weather, going for a walk or playing your favourite sport can do wonders for your well being – physically, mentally and spiritually.

Maybe that’s another reason why I like these frescoes so much: they immerse you in an outdoor environment even though you’re underground. I really think the Romans, and all other ancient cultures to be honest, had a much closer relationship to nature than we do now, and that’s quite sad for us.



Greg Gilles (@GregHGilles) is a final year PhD student in the Classics department at King’s College London. His PhD is on female agency in the late Roman Republic, using social network analysis. Greg is the founder and chief editor of New Classicists (@NewClassicists), a peer reviewed journal for postgraduate students of Antiquity. He is also the organiser for the ‘Women in Antiquity’ conference (@AntiquityWomen) that will be held at the ICS in May 2021.






Comfort Classics: Flint Dibble


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

Hmmmm…. As a zooarchaeologist this is tough, because much of what I study are not individual objects or sources, but the pattern that derives from analyzing large numbers of things (in my case, mostly trash).

If pressed (pun intended), I’d suggest this image of a dog defecating, painted under the handle of a kylix (in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston)





When did you first come across this image?

Not sure, it’s been floating around for a while. Maybe in Pevnick 2014 “Good dog, bad dog,” but I probably came across it before reading that article.


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

I’m not sure. The MFA website does not give much info. It was supposedly bought in Italy in 1899 and donated to the museum in 1910. The lack of context on many of the more prominent sources we discuss in our field is a big problem. I’ve discussed it before on Twitter (e.g., here), but the lack of detailed context for many important sources means we are missing out on a lot of information. And sometimes it leads us astray.

We need to continue to revolutionize how our field thinks about context and records it in excavations. Part and parcel with this is that we also need to give more priority to understanding information that is often overlooked (like my precious animal bones or even just the dirt our objects are found in). These overlooked sources of evidence provide a wealth of new information on the archaeological context in which our sources are found and the social context in which they operated in the past.


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



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


Just kidding. I like to play guitar. Write fun/funny Twitter threads. Barbecue. Play video games. Listen to music. Watch movies/tv. Take walks. And mostly joke around with friends.


Flint is a Classical zooarchaeologist whose research focuses on animals and food in ancient Greece. He is currently finishing up his postdoc at the Wiener Lab of the ASCSA, and in September will be a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Classics at Dartmouth College.

“If you want to know more about my research, follow me on Twitter (@FlintDibble). Or, a good starting point would be my Eidolon article “In Defense of (Studying) Food” or my recent webinar “Live from the Lab” or lecture “Goats and Other Animals at Azoria” both produced by the ASCSA.”






Comfort Classics: Steve Jenkin


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

I find it almost impossible to pick a favourite anything when put on the spot (not sure what this says about me), and so even this question was tricky. But, I think if there’s one spot in the Ancient Greek world of which even a photograph would bring a smile and wondrous awe, it’s the view from Delphi’s theatre, across the valley to the Temple of Athena Pronoia in one direction and to the Gulf of Corinth in the other. The site of Delphi’s sanctuary nestles in the slopes of Mount Parnassos.


When did you first come across this spot?

Admittedly it was not until I became a teacher and led a school trip to the country that I finally visited Greece in my mid-twenties. Sadly one of the pupils became ill on the day that I would have seen Delphi which I instead spent by a hospital bed in Athens. So when I organised a return trip a couple of years later, the promise of visiting Delphi held more fascination and became something of a pilgrimage.


View to the gulf, shared by Sarah on Twitter


Can you tell me a bit about Delphi and its context?

Mythologically Delphi is the centre of the Classical Greek world, and before Apollo was worshipped there the location was associated with Gaia, goddess of the earth, fertility deity. In respect of the first, the Greeks erected a stone ‘navel’ in the very middle of the site, and as to the latter the very name Delphi alludes to Gaia’s womb, associated with Greek δελφύς.

Delphi became not only a sanctuary predominantly to Apollo, but also the seat of the most important oracle of the Greek world, the Pythia, and the location for the second-most-important games (the most important taking place at Olympia). As a result of all this, the place is chock-full of votive offerings, statuary and buildings, dedicated by generally the wealthiest Greeks from across the Greek nations.


What is it about Delphi that appeals to you most?

The wealth and splendour aside, it’s THE VIEW! Or, as I like to say, ‘A Womb with a View’.

Whatever the reason why those who first worshipped there chose this particular site, if it was simply and initially because there is something incredibly spiritual and awesome about the spot, I would have to wholeheartedly agree. The Greeks did like to place religious sanctuaries on mountain locations (Olympus?) but by no means exclusively, and some dramatic settings just seem to evoke a certain spirituality that urges you find gods there. Is there any better spot for a temple to Poseidon than the cliff’s edge at Sounion, at the very southern tip of Attica as it juts proudly into the Aegean?


A Womb with a View. Pic from Wikimedia.


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

Food, cooking, the countryside and foraging will always be important to me, and enjoying the last two with my beloved dogs, Sophie and Henry. I try to grow as much veg as I can, and, jointly with friends, rear and breed pigs, sheep and cows, which makes for a relatively healthy and happy cooking and eating experience. As for foraging, at the moment I’m trying my hand at elderflower champagne for the first time. Cheers!





Steve has had a near lifelong love of Classics, where teaching in schools has allowed him to share it. Setting up the Classics Library website in 2008, he hoped that other Classics teachers would be brave and kind enough to share their teaching resources and ideas in order to help teachers in other schools and to bring the Classics community closer together. Of course, they were.




Comfort Classics: Georgy Kantor


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

Working on law and epigraphy, as I do, you constantly come across things that are deeply touching or indeed highly amusing: from a legal discussion of who’s responsible if a man gets his chin cut when getting shaved in the amphitheatre during gladiatorial games, to a Thracian father asking the friends of his untimely departed son to bring roses to the grave at the anniversary, or a Cappadocian remembering the flowers of his fatherland in an epitaph far away on the Lipari islands. Or think of the epitaph of the Roman senator Paquius Scaeva and his wife – written inside the sarcophagus, just for themselves, and in that way too telling a story of a municipal man made good, but still perhaps feeling snubbed at Rome. Barbara Levick, who taught me Latin epigraphy, once said to me that this is her favourite Latin inscription – and I think it might be mine, too.

Many of these human stories are disconcerting rather than comforting, of course: I am not trying to idealise the world which accepted slavery, horrible judicial and military brutality, or fights in the arena as normal. They are, however, constantly fascinating – and I think it is important for the historian not to lose the sight of them behind the big structures and processes. For an institutional historian like myself it is a particularly important and difficult challenge.

The texts to which I return more often than to any other, however, are not epigraphic or legal, but the two big works of the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, which we call the Annals and the Histories. Again, not necessarily a comforting text in the most straightforward sense of the word (he talks about tyranny, servility, and decline of freedom, and, as you would expect, shares many of the prejudices of his age), but I find the encounter with how he understands the structures of power and its effects on people intellectually immensely invigorating. It is always challenging, but also reassuring of the human ability to make sense of their society and experience.


When did you first come across these texts?

I first read them in a (pretty good) Russian translation, a present from my grandfather, in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was falling apart, and was gripped. I remember very vividly reading book 4 of Histories on the sofa at my grandparents’ place in Moscow late in the evening, and trying to come to grips with this completely unfamiliar world. In retrospect, that was the moment when I got sold on Roman history, though I didn’t yet realise it then. I read it in Latin only at university (I had only a tiny bit of elementary Latin at school), and then the fascination with the nuances of Tacitus’ language, and how cleverly he uses it to convey complexities of meaning, set in, too.


Can you tell me a bit about the works and their context?

Tacitus was a Roman senator, whose official career took place under the emperors from Vespasian to Trajan (late first and early second century AD). He was from Gallia Narbonensis (modern Provence), not Italy, and his father was not a senator: in that way he was both a political insider and had somewhat of an outside perspective, too. His two big historical works covered the period from AD 14 to 96, the rule of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, and he also wrote a few smaller works, an ethnography of Germany, a dialogue on oratory under the empire, and a laudatory biography of his father-in-law, a general called Agricola. He carefully avoided turning his critical gaze on the emperors in whose time he wrote (Trajan and maybe Hadrian); one suspects they should be grateful for that. Unfortunately, large parts of both Annals and Histories are now lost, but for the years that the surviving books cover, they offer arguably the most detailed and well-informed narrative that exists for any period of Roman history.


What is it about these works that appeals to you most?

Tacitus has the absolutely remarkable ability of seeing human realities of power in all their dread, absurdity – and sometimes, inevitability. He combines the understanding of how structures shape events with a sharp eye for what individuals make of the situation they are in. Famously, the murder of Agrippa Postumus, grandson of Augustus, at the very beginning of the Annals, is ‘the first crime of the new principate’, not of the new emperor, who is prevented from holding a public enquiry by the advice that it will ‘dissolve the whole power of the principate’ – it is a story of power, not biographies of the emperors, as he immediately makes clear. At the same time, a rare word of praise Tacitus bestows on senators who behaved with sense and dignity is made to matter, and individual choices of action and language remain at the centre of his story.

It is no surprise that his works were seen as a manual of political advice in the age of absolute monarchies, that Napoleon could not forgive Tacitus his treatment of emperors, and that Ronald Syme turned to the study of Tacitus in the age of twentieth-century dictatorships. Living in the Soviet Union gave another perspective on why he matters, and I probably need not dwell on why I think him relevant now… Analysis of power, penetrating scepticism towards any official rhetoric, and the ability to take a perspective different from his own, sometimes even a non-Roman one, as in his remarkable treatment of the German leader Arminius, are perhaps the most important things for his standing as a historian. But what makes him such an absorbing read is also his gift for vivid description and telling detail, and the dry humour, which is so often hidden within his text, and that is surely what carried me along as a teenager.

From the unforgettable last scene of Vitellius, running through the corridors of the abandoned palace, to the ridiculous moralising senator Caecina, who had a very happy marriage (and six children) as his wife stayed home in Italy while he was away for forty years of campaign, Tacitus’ writing has an almost cinematic quality, but is also incredibly dense with meaning. On every re-read you discover something new. This can make a reader quite suspicious of him as a rhetorician, and of the ways in which he persuades you before you even notice, and of course, as historians, we should always question his narrative. It would be facile, though, to think that because he tells what he wants to tell so persuasively, we should simply dismiss his emphasis out of abundance of caution. Much more interesting to think what it is that he wants to tell us, and to engage with it – even if we won’t always agree.


Georges Rochegrosse, Vitellius traîné dans les rues de Rome par la populace (Vitellius Dragged Through the Streets of Rome by the People)


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

Go for a long walk with my children, play with the cat, read a book (one day the piles of books next to my bed will collapse, and that will be the end of me), or have a pint with friends. The last one unfortunately has to wait at the moment, but the tiny nature reserve next to where we live has been at its most beautiful this spring, and the children love playing there.


Georgy Kantor teaches ancient history (mainly Roman) at St John’s College, Oxford, and enjoys that a lot. In his own research, he works on how Roman law functioned in provinces, particularly in the eastern part of the Roman empire, and on what Roman rule meant for Greek cities. He also works on inscriptions, both Greek and Latin, especially from Asia Minor, the Black Sea region, and sometimes the city of Rome. He blogs occasionally at, and has several long articles on Roman law and citizenship coming out later this year.


Georgy Kantor




Comfort Classics: Madeleine Perridge


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

It has to be the Attic neck amphora by Exekias of Achilles and Penthesilea. I can stare at it for hours.





When did you first come across this amphora?

As a (clearly already nerdy) child I saw it in the British Museum and thought it was the most wonderful vase. When my siblings and I were little, my father read a lot of Greek myths and legends to us, and the stories of the Amazons seemed so exciting. Wonder Woman might also be slightly to blame.


Can you tell me a bit about the vase and its context?

The Exekias vase of Achilles and Penthesilea is one of the most well-known examples of an Amazonomachy in Athenian archaic black-figure vase painting. The spectacularly armoured Greek heroes are always shown in close combat with Amazons wearing detailed animal skins and high crested helmets. Whilst a vibrant and powerful illustration of a well-known myth, such images can also be seen as a fascinating reflection of the growing identity and ideals of the Athenian polis in the years before the Persian Wars.


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

I love the strength of the image. The compact composition is so well balanced and the finely preserved depth of colour of the black figure and the added red and white paint contrast so powerfully with each other, as well as with the red ground from which the figural scene leaps right out.

But it is of course the romance of the story that is the added kicker. The poignancy of the ending of the story of Achilles and Penthesilea is that at the moment Achilles killed the Amazon, they locked eyes and fell irrevocably in love. The power of Exekias’s depiction of this exact moment, is that the image is solely of the couple, and he so effectively draws the viewer into their connected gaze. Sigh. Swoon.


From the British Museum


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

Right now, it’s either binge-watching The Last Kingdom, or re-reading Lindsay Davis’s The Course of Honour (Vespasian is my favourite emperor), whilst listening to loud Italian opera and slurping a hefty gin martini.



Madeleine Perridge is Gallery Director at Kallos Gallery, a London gallery specialising in antiquities and ancient art. She read Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at Oxford University and has a Masters in History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is a member of the ADA (Antiquities Dealers’ Association) and has been an independent expert adviser for the UK Treasure Valuation Committee at the British Museum.

Kallos are looking forward to reopening on June 16th and will be launching their summer exhibition soon:






Comfort Classics: Emma Pauly


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

I always gravitate towards stories and texts that feature Dionysus—Bacchae has been the focus of my work as a translator for a number of years now but I wouldn’t say that the emotions it evokes are strictly comforting. Validating, yes. Enriching, yes. Rapturous and raging and everything in between, yes. Comforting? Not necessarily. I feel alive when I work with Bacchae, but alive doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with ‘better’. When I need ease, when I need lightness and a little bit of fun, I often find myself turning to Metamorphoses, specifically Book III, lines 580-689 (approximately), the story of Dionysus and the Tyrrhenian pirates.


When did you first come across this text?

Metamorphoses was a huge part of my high school Latin curriculum, but we never touched upon that story in particular. I think I read it in translation in high school, but never in Latin. I came back to it in college when I dipped back into Ovid just for fun, which happened to coincide with when I was discovering my interest in Bacchae and in Dionysus more broadly. I translated it for kicks a few years back (an end product which will not be seeing the light of day anytime soon, at least not until I have the mental wherewithal to edit it thoroughly)!


Can you tell me a bit about this story and its context?

This particular story is told in first person, from the POV of the lone sailor with a brain cell on that particular vessel: the helmsman Acoetes. It comes towards the end of Book III, in which Ovid centers the stories around the house of Cadmus; we have Cadmus slaying the serpent and sowing the teeth, Actaeon, Semele and the birth of Dionysus, Teiresias, Narcissus and Echo, and finally Pentheus. It’s a bit of a different take than Bacchae; here, the priest brought before Pentheus actually is human. Acoetes unfolds the story of how he came to serve Dionysus to Pentheus, half as an honest answer to Pentheus’ questions and half as a clear and pointed warning.  He tells the story of his former occupation as the helmsman of a pirate crew: one day, he relates, they came across a mysterious, well-dressed young man, seemingly drunk asleep on the shores of Chios. Thinking they’ve come across a prime target for ransom, they bind him and bring him aboard immediately. The youth (who Acoetes clocks immediately as ‘definitely not human’) asks politely to be dropped off at Naxos. The pirates scoff at him, Acoetes slowly begins to panic, and chaos unfolds as only Dionysus can bring.



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

This is among my favourite stories of Dionysus and Ovid’s particular version has so much playfulness in it. It’s a bit of a lighter take on the traditional Dionysian motif of rejection and punishment; the god is mistreated or rejected and he takes vengeance, usually in a spectacularly bloody or upsetting fashion. This story is a little more whimsical and extravagant, maybe even a little sensual. If Dionysus is going to let you know you’ve messed up, be sure he’s going to do it in style. The god stops the whole ship in its tracks, tangles the oars in ivy, and adds in some illusory big cats, just in case they hadn’t gotten the message.

And that’s before the dolphins! I’m Los Angeles born and raised and have a lot of fond childhood memories of being out on the Pacific seeing dolphins play in the wake of the boat, so I’m definitely partial.

On a much less serious note, I take a tremendous amount of joy in Dionysus’ fake-crying when he ‘discovers’ that his captors have no intention of dropping him off at Naxos.


…non haec mihi litora, nautae,/promisistis” ait, “non haec mihi terra rogata est./ Quo merui poenam facto? Quae gloria vestra est,/ si puerum iuvenes, si multi fallitis unum?” (III.650-654)

“This isn’t the shore you promised me, sailors! This isn’t the land I wanted. What did I do to earn this abuse? What credit do you earn yourselves by lying to a young boy, if all the many of you lie to poor lonely me?”


It’s so gloriously unnecessary and theatrical, almost camp. It’s just the best.


Toledo Museum of Art


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

I cook quite a bit, and I’m confident enough to say I’m pretty good at it. I’m not very ‘crafty’ and I have truly terrible hand-eye coordination (which takes things like knitting or painting off the table), so cooking is something I can physically make that is productive, creative, and meditative. There’s some of the same ephemeralness in cooking that I love so much in theatre; you can spend hours, even days, on something beautiful that is gone from the world in a matter of minutes. But you can always try again, you can always improve, experiment, invent, over and over.

And sometimes you set off the smoke alarm, but at least you tried!

I also play Dungeons and Dragons! It’s a great medium for collaborative storytelling and building a world with friends. Sometimes Classical themes and motifs even manage to sneak their way in there; I’m currently playing a character named Kalamos, who I named after a figure mentioned very briefly in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca.


Emma Pauly is a Chicago-based dramaturg, classicist, translator and performer specializing in Greek tragedy. Their work centres on performance and reception of tragedy, particularly in the context of queer themes and representation. Their translation of Euripides’ Bacchae has most recently been published in the translation journal The Mercurian and they are currently serving as dramaturg for the Reading Greek Tragedy Online series with the Center for Hellenic Studies, the Kosmos Society and Out of Chaos Theatre. Readings are every Wednesday at 3PM Eastern Time on the CHS Homepage, livestreamed to YouTube.


Twitter: EmmaPauly8

Instagram: @academicmaenad







Comfort Classics: Llewelyn Morgan


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

Yes, Horace’s Odes, and especially 2.10.13-15 (from a poem about the Golden Mean, never going to extremes), sperat infestis, metuit secundis/alteram sortem bene praeparatum/ pectus, “The well-conditioned heart in hostile circumstances hopes for, and in favourable conditions fears, a change in fortune.” Very hard to translate Horace in anything less than twice the word count, on which see below…


When did you first come across the Odes?

I had an amazing teacher at school, Douglas Cashin, who lent to me David West’s Reading Horace, a very short, pocket-sized book I still love (I’ve got my own copy now). I spent a summer when I was 17 trying to convince myself I could read Horace like West could. 25 years later I got a letter from David saying that if he’d seen my theory on one of Horace’s Odes before he produced his commentary on it he’d have binned what he wrote in favour of what I had. Definitely the highlight of my professional life.


Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?

Horace’s Odes are four books of lyric poetry, a three-book collection followed later by a self-standing fourth book. Lyric means drinking parties and dubious sexual interests, lots of irredeemably ancient stuff, but also a middle-aged persona (Horace adopted poetic forms that suited his age at point of writing, and Odes 1-3 came out when he was around 42), and a kind of mature, seasoned perception of life.

Horace’s medium in the Odes, a set of very restricted metrical systems inherited from Greek lyric poets like Sappho, Alcaeus and Anacreon, demands a particular discipline from the poet, hence densely meaningful mottoes like carpe diem (really “pluck the day”, as if the day were an apple, to be eaten before it rots) or aurea mediocritas (“Golden Mean”, but a paradox: a precious ordinariness).


William Morris’ Horace, at the Bodleian.


What is it about the Odes that appeals to you most?

I am middle-aged, I’m afraid, and from the middle-aged voice of the Odes come observations on life, its brevity, right and wrong ways to approach it, which aren’t very original in thought at all, but are peerless in the way he expresses them. Horace selects the right word, combines it with other perfectly chosen words, and positions them perfectly in his miniature metrical canvases. For me his lyric verse is the most subtle exploitation of the intrinsic resources of the Latin language.


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

I find walking our dog, Chester, extremely calming, and we’ve covered a few thousand miles by now strolling round the neighbourhood. I believe he enjoys it, too. Off and on in the last decade I’ve been learning Persian, and at the moment I’m taking some remote classes at SOAS with a brilliant teacher named Alireza Sedighi, who reminds me a bit of Dougie Cashin. Preparing for the classes and the classes themselves are simultaneously very hard work and also, somehow, profoundly relaxing. Simply sitting and puzzling out another language I find calming, for some reason. Something to do with being 17 again.


Llewelyn Morgan teaches at Brasenose College, Oxford, where has been around long enough now to be Vice-Principal. His interests are Latin literature, with a special focus on poetic form, and he has a tangential interest in British bad behaviour in N-W India. He is currently working on the proofs of Ovid: A Very Short Introduction, writing a book about the colonial origins of archaeology in Swat, Pakistan, with Professor Luca Olivieri of the Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice, and pondering whether to make a proposal to OUP for Horace: A Very Short Introduction.


Llewelyn pic




Comfort Classics: Karis Williamson


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

Yes, Book One of Homer’s Iliad; the section in which Hephaestus and his mother Hera are depicted on Mount Olympus debating the pros and cons of arguing with Zeus!


When did you first come across the Iliad?

 I came across it during my first Classics module as part of my O.U. degree; it was also the subject of my first Classics assignment.


Can you tell me a bit about this passage and its context?

This passage is taken from Book One of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, possibly written down in the 8th century BCE (although elements of the poem may have been composed and performed orally earlier than this).  In the immediate context of the poem, Hera has just confronted Zeus for promising Thetis that he will honour her son Achilles by saving him.  After this exchange, Hera’s son Hephaestus reminds her of the dangers of challenging Zeus and refers to his own personal experience when he defended Hera, after which he was ‘hurled from the divine threshold’ and returned to Olympus as a disabled deity in the Homeric version of the Hephaestus myth.  Poignantly, elsewhere, Homer also depicts Hera throwing Hephaestus from Mount Olympus when he was born lame or ‘of shrivelled foot’ as she felt disgraced and ashamed of him because of his physical deformity.


Vulcan, by Guillaume Coustou the Younger


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

I feel a strong connection to Hephaestus as he is one of the few ancient representations of disability and its relationship with society, although it’s uncertain that the actual concept of disability existed in Homeric times (although similar words for it did).  He also seems to possess more human qualities than the other Olympian gods such as empathy and self-sacrifice.  I wonder if this scene is a deliberate social comment by Homer regarding attitudes towards people with physical differences; Homer himself was known as ‘the blind bard’ so he may have experienced some of the social inequalities that Hephaestus has to endure, despite his Olympian status.

The part of this scene which encapsulates all of this for me is when, after warning Hera of the consequences of her actions, Hephaestus has to serve food and drink to all of the other Olympians; the gods then proceed to mock Hephaestus’ disability, laughing and imitating his limp.  Homer does not depict Hera as defending him; she apparently chooses to remain silent.  This piece also illustrates both Hephaestus and Hera’s non-reciprocal relationship and the irony that Hera chooses to challenge Zeus on her own behalf and on the behalf of her favourites such as Odysseus but she does not defend her own son, possibly also due to his inferior social status amongst the Olympian gods.  For me, this represents a microcosm of modern society; most people with differences will experience ‘the Hephaestus moment’ when those they thought they knew, or who should have known better, just look the other way.  The good news is that for those of us who do experience this, it can be like a Spartan training; it’ll make you stronger and armour you like a Greek hero.  I like to think that I’m wearing Hephaestus-designed armour; I will never give up – and, guess what, Hephaestus gets a partner called ‘Kharis’!

The best thing about this passage is that Hephaestus shows it is possible to be heroic and to confound social expectations of disability.  I also wonder if Homer was questioning the Greek concept of what constitutes beauty, as Hephaestus (who Hera claims is very physically unattractive) is, paradoxically, capable of creating such fantastically beautiful artistry embodying the three Greek values of beauty, intelligence and arête. I feel that Hephaestus’ characterisation reflects that he is more beautiful than all the other Olympians.


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

Normally, I would be travelling, going to concerts and theatres etc. but lately, I have been catching up with all the books I meant to read, the films I meant to watch and the plays being streamed online, I’ve also been writing poetry and film-scripts. Most recently, I’ve been setting some of my poems to film.


Karis Williamson is a twenty-one year old disability campaigner, a member of ‘Trailblazers’ and an Ambassador for ‘Euan’s Guide’; she has just finished her O.U. Open Degree studying Creative Writing and The Classics.  Currently, she is challenging issues around shielding; she feels it’s failing disabled people (you can read her thoughts on Feeling Locked Out in Euan’s Guide’s ‘Voices of Covid’)  She is also about to take part in a digital project with the theatre company ‘Birds of Paradise’ and she is going to build up her first poetry collection which will have a Classics throughline. Author and poet Ben Okri has read and requested one of her poems for his next poetry compilation.






Comfort Classics: Jessica Hughes


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

Over the last year or two I’ve been growing increasingly obsessed with South Italian vases. At the start of lockdown I bought a pile of museum catalogues and books about them, so I’ve been working through these during the last few months – often just gazing at the lovely pictures and getting lost in the details. I also ordered Michelin maps of Puglia and Campania & Basilicata, which I’ve been marking up with all the sites and museums I’m reading about. Hopefully I’ll be able to plan a proper trip before too long, but in the meantime, maps and GoogleEarth tours are a good substitute.




When did you first come across these vases?

I first came across South Italian vases when I was doing my PhD on personifications of cities, provinces and nations in Greco-Roman art. One of the objects I looked at was a vase by the Darius Painter which depicts personifications of ‘Hellas’ and ‘Asia’ amongst the gods, while the Persian King Darius sits beneath them on a throne, listening to a messenger. Like many other South Italian vases, this one has been connected with Greek tragedy, and it was intriguing to think about the significance of this scene in relation to its findspot in a tomb at Canosa (Puglia). Since then, I’ve always been drawn to South Italian vases whenever I come across them in museums, although it’s only in the last year that I’ve started to seek them out and research them in a more focused way.





Can you tell me a bit about these vases and their context?

They were made in Southern Italy in the areas of Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Sicily, mostly during the fourth century BCE. At first glance they look quite similar to Athenian red-figure vases; however, as soon as you look more closely, you see that the South Italian vases are really quite different. They have their own personalities, unique styles, and novel subjects. They also have different functions from Athenian vases (which were used in a wide range of domestic and symposiastic contexts), since most South Italian ones were found in tombs, and often seem to have been made especially for the grave.


Apulian volute krater, c. 330-310 BCE, from Ruvo, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.


What is it about these vases that appeals to you most?

There’s so much to like about South Italian vases! I like the extravagance and detail of the painted images, particularly the way that the faces are drawn, and the depiction of landscapes, including rocks, trees and flowers. In the past, scholars have sometimes been quite rude about these vases, calling them ‘vulgar’ and even ‘barbaric’, and focusing on mistakes that the painters have made in depiction of perspective or of the human figure. But to me, this just makes them even more appealing! The place of their production is another reason I’m drawn to these vases. My in-laws live in Campania, and we love spending time there, exploring new places, revisiting old ones, and learning as much as possible about the region’s history.


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

Two years ago we got an allotment, and now spend most of our spare time down there. It’s like a little paradise. The whole allotment site is beautiful – full of wildlife, with a river at the bottom and trains rumbling past in the distance. We’ve got a big plot so we are growing loads of fruit and vegetables, including things from Italy that are difficult to find here in the UK, such as ‘friarielli napoletani’ and Vesuvius piennolo tomatoes. As my neighbour on the next-door plot said to me yesterday, “It’s a place where you can forget all your troubles.”


A late-May harvest.


Jessica Hughes is Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at The Open University, where she currently teaches on the modules ‘Discovering the Arts and Humanities’ (A111), and ‘Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds’ (A330). You can find out about her research on votive offerings and other material religion topics on her website






Comfort Classics: Jennifer Ingleheart


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

Particularly in these times of separation and missing those who are dear to us (and in my chronic insomnia), I find myself turning over and over to an act of classical reception, two poems by A. E. Housman, More Poems X and XI (‘The weeping Pleiads wester’ and ‘The rainy Pleaids wester’).

These are his responses to a fragment supposed to be by Sappho, fr. adesp. 976 P. M. G, which I would translate as: ‘The moon has set, and the Pleiades; it is the middle of the night, the hours are passing by, and I lie down to sleep alone’.

The Housman poems and some other versions of the Sapphic poem can be found here.



When did you first come across these poems?

I ‘discovered’ Housman when I was maybe aged 13. His themes of unhappy love, loss, nature, and sorrow – and his homoeroticism – immediately spoke to my teenage self. I wasn’t then consciously aware of the homoerotic nature of his poems and of my attraction to them, nor of the fact that Housman was a professional classicist, but I loved his poems then and I have ever since, more and more as time goes by.


Can you tell me a bit about these poems and their context?

These are typical Housman poems in many ways: they contain beautiful and sometimes archaic language, and great musicality, and they convey a lot of feeling. They are also apparently very simple, but mask great complexity. They’re also typical of his classical engagement in his verse, in that they are multifaceted and subtle in the way in which they respond to antiquity. And they concern, like so many of his poems, his unrequited love for his best friend, Moses Jackson.


What is it about these poems that appeals to you most?

My first research was on Latin love poetry, and verse about love (particularly unrequited love) remains one of my favourite things in Classics. But what most appeals about these poems is the way in which Housman is so clearly responding to, and expanding, the homoerotic yearning and misery that are only hinted at in the Sapphic original, setting himself in a tradition of queer people who have found in Sappho both an ancestor and some comfort.


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

Walking in nature has always cheered me up immensely. As do friends, tea, music, the sea, novels (preferably novels with no connection to the classical world, although I find classical reception sneaks into my leisure reading despite my best efforts), and beer.


Jennifer Ingleheart is Professor of Latin and (currently) Head of Department at Durham University’s Department of Classics and Ancient History. When not reading emails or spreadsheets, she would like to be reading ancient love poetry and thinking about how the modern world has responded to ancient ‘homosexuality’. She is working on a book project on A. E. Housman. 


Ginny the bunny and some cherry blossom, which cheered up that old misery Housman.



Comfort Classics: Andrew Fox


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

Oh, so many. I love the garden of Livia room in the Palazzo Massimo, like Greg Gilles, and used to take my notebook there on quiet days when I was staying at the British School at Rome. I have fond memories of Herculaneum, after I led a society trip to Naples as an undergraduate: the town was empty except for us, and it was the first place I relaxed after the stresses of getting 30 students around the city (the trains were striking too, which made everything ten times trickier!). There is also a particularly atmospheric Mithraeum in Ostia that I practically fell into a few years ago, while exploring for a risqué mosaic with a friend so we could giggle like errant schoolchildren at it.

But I’d have to say that if I am picking one thing that I keep coming back to, it has to be my way into my current specialism of trees, and the sentence that sparked this six-year trip down a rabbit hole. It is from Livy’s History of Rome, or Ab urbe condita, and it describes the very beginnings of Rome:

They exposed the boys at the nearest point of the flood, where the Ruminal fig tree is now – it has been called the Romulan fig. (AUC 1.4.5)



When did you first come across this passage?

In the first week of my MA, at the University of Nottingham, I was asked to give a five-minute presentation about any myth from any source in any part of the ancient world. I had a lot on that week, and decided I would present a brief summary of Romulus and Remus’ exposure. I had not at that point read much about the exposure beyond brief summaries, so thought I ought to pick up an actual ancient text to show willing. So I grabbed a copy of Livy’s history of Rome, got a private room in the library, and set to work reading. It was within the first ten minutes or so that I came across this sentence, which I thought quite unusual at the time. I got curious, so delved a bit deeper: why was this tree named in an Augustan history of Rome?


Can you tell me a bit about this text and its context?

Livy’s History of Rome was a lengthy history of, well, Rome. It began with the founding of the city (its Latin title, Ab urbe condita, translates as ‘From the city’s founding’), and continued until the death of Drusus, in 9 BCE. It was written under Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, and consisted of 142 books.

As with almost any text from 2000 years ago, we do not have everything, and only 35 of those books have survived in full (or almost full, we cannot be too picky!). The rest are summarised in a collection known as the Periochae, which is particularly useful for some of the work I do in the inconveniently missing books.


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

This source has layers of meaning within it, and its complexity is one of the things that draws me into it every time.


1. The Ruminal fig tree, for Livy, was not present at the time of the exposure, but it is a feature of some visual depictions of the myth, like this coin from 137 BCE, minted by Sextus Pompeius Fostlus:




2. The tree had a name change at some point, from Romulan to Ruminal. Why the name change? What caused the name Ruminal to stick?

3. Rumina refers to an ancient Palatine deity of motherhood and fertility, the fig tree is symbolic of fertility, especially with its milky sap.

4. This tree is a landmark. Livy is referring to it as if everyone knows where it is, there is no further geographic identifier, and how trees are negotiated in the ancient city like this grabbed me from the moment I read the passage.


But the main reason I keep coming back to this sentence is for a bit of a self-confidence injection. This is where I began my specialism, this sentence has informed my future scholarship, and it all happened because of a quick five-minute presentation that I had not planned to devote too much time to. It reminds me that the ancient world can keep throwing up surprises, even in stories that you think you know, and keeps me humble as to the origins of my specialism.


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

At the start of my PhD, I was told in a grad school workshop that we needed something non-academic to keep our minds occupied outside of work. That evening, I bought a very large piece of aida, found a cross-stitch pattern (of Pokémon) and set to work. It’s still not done. I also play field hockey with East London Hockey club (less so now of course), and am slowly introducing my 6 month old daughter to new foods. Today will probably be a cauliflower day.



Andy Fox has spent the 2019/20 academic year as the University of Nottingham Midlands3Cities Next Steps Postdoctoral Fellow, working on turning his PhD thesis, ‘Living Trophies: Trees, Triumphs, and the Subjugation of Nature in Early Imperial Rome’ into a book. During his doctoral thesis, he compiled and published the Roman Trees Database, and has been blogging about Roman trees on his blog. His first article, in Papers of the British School at Rome, was published in the 2019 volume, and explored the 224 trees on Trajan’s Column. His plans for the next academic year are to take some time out and focus on his daughter, with the optimistic target of getting all onesies on the right way round first time.






Comfort Classics: E-J Graham


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

Some of my recent research has focused on terracotta votive offerings in the form of babies wrapped in swaddling bands. There is something about their chubby faces and the hopeful optimism of the ancient parents who dedicated them that is weirdly comforting. One of my favourites comes from the Etruscan city of Vulci, and is now on display in the Villa Giulia Museum in Rome. Even though only the head survives, his/her round cheeky face always makes me smile!





When did you first come across these babies?

It was Professor Maureen Carroll who introduced me to the babies, several years ago now, when she was starting her work on ancient infancy and I was looking for a new project. She had stumbled across them and suggested that they needed some attention so I started looking into them, expecting to go down a route that took me into ancient family and childhood studies but finding instead that it led me into the realm of votives, ultimately opening up a world of ancient material religion that also includes my other favourite type of object at the moment, anatomical votives.



Can you tell me a bit about these babies and their context?

They are terracotta models of newborn babies shown as if wrapped tightly from head to toe in swaddling bands, like this other one from Vulci (also now in the Villa Giulia). They are found in votive deposits at sanctuary sites in central Italy, mainly across Etruria, Latium and parts of Campania, where they were left as dedications to the gods during the third and second centuries BCE. The babies are often found alongside models of fragmented body parts conventionally known as anatomical votives and seem to have been part of the same tradition of petitioning and thanking the gods for good fortune, health and wellbeing, or marking key moments in the life course.




Why parents offered models of newborn babies to the gods has led to some debate. Interpretations range from the idea that they were dedicated by couples who hoped to have a child, to pregnant mothers anxious about their unborn child or who sought divine help with giving birth, as well as parents with unwell infants who were either petitioning or thanking the gods for some sort of divine healing (we have to remember that this was a time of very high infant mortality and limited neonatal medical knowledge so these were very real concerns). My own personal preference is that they were thank offerings dedicated to mark the moment when, under the protection of the gods, an infant had successfully survived the most dangerous first few months of its life and was ready to relinquish its swaddling bands. I talked a bit about this briefly in a short ‘object narrative’ recorded last year.


What is it about these babies that appeals to you most?

Well, admittedly they are not all chubby and cute, and in some lights they can look decidedly creepy! But they appeal for other reasons. One is their personal connection to the ordinary individuals of the ancient world – they were dedicated by actual parents with genuine worries about real babies, concerns that are recognisable today even to someone like me who isn’t a parent. These are the people whose everyday lives and identities we otherwise find it really hard to access using traditional sources. Plus, many of them are life-size and heavy so when you pick them up and hold them it doesn’t half feel like you are holding a real baby, which is quite an odd experience. I’m fascinated by the mixed up sensory experiences that this involves, and how the fact that they are like babies and not like babies at the same time must have been noticed by ancient people too.


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

I like to play tennis, although that has been on pause recently (the cancellation of this year’s Wimbledon is a disappointment because I guess we’ll never know if this really was going to be my year to win). I like getting completely lost in the world of a book and my bookgroup has kept me going over the last few months, even with the switch from the library to online. This month’s book was fondly described by one member as ‘the literary equivalent of rice pudding’ – the pudding you are very happy to eat if there isn’t anything else available, and which is pleasingly comforting when you settle down with it, so a perfect lockdown read! Even if it has now made me crave some good old fashioned rice pudding …


Emma-Jayne (E-J) Graham is Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at The Open University, where she is currently working on a new multidisciplinary Level 1 module on ‘Cultures’ (A112) as well as teaching on ‘The Roman empire’ (A340) and the MA in Classical Studies. Find out more about her work on votives at, and her book ‘Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy’ will be published later this year.






Comfort Classics: Verity Platt


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

Not many features of the ancient world give me solace, I must admit! Especially as a woman. There are several works of art that give me great pleasure (such as this Hellenistic gold bee in the Yale University Art Gallery), but one text that really does give me comfort is Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.





When did you first come across this text?

Like many people I came to Pliny the Elder through his nephew, whose letters were one of my GCSE Latin set texts (my friend Lucy and I even dressed up as Pliny and Virgil for Red Nose Day, geeks that we were!). Then when I trained as a classical art historian, Uncle Pliny was always there as a source, repeatedly mined for the invaluable evidence he provides for lost works of (mostly Greek) art. I began reading the Natural History on its own terms about ten years ago, when I started working on texts about artists’ lives and wanted to understand better how the sections on painting and sculpture related to the rest of the work.


Can you tell me a bit about Pliny’s work and its context?

Written during the mid-1st century CE, the Natural History is a vast work in 37 books that encompasses the matter of the entire cosmos, focusing on geography, animals (including man, the ‘human animal’), plants, medicines, metals, earths and stones. It has been continuously read since antiquity, but most often in excerpted form or consulted as an ‘encyclopaedia’. People have tended to be very sniffy about the quality of Pliny’s Latin and have regarded him as a compiler of sources, rather than an author in his own right. But more recently, he has been read for the invaluable insights he provides into the ordering of knowledge within Flavian Rome and the relationship between imperial ideology and the natural world.


What is it about Pliny that appeals to you most?

What I appreciate most about Pliny is the sense of generosity and respect that he applies to all things, from the tiniest of insects (especially bees) to the most refined works of art. Partly this comes from a Stoic mindset that is concerned with the logic of Nature ­– the sense of a consistent rationality to the universe. But for Pliny this isn’t a cold kind of logic: it’s an organic and ever-surprising one that generates wonder at the connectedness yet seeming spontaneity of things. This brings along with it a sense of responsibility and an ethics of care. Pliny is complicit with the predations of empire (he was admiral of the Roman navy, after all!), yet he is also appalled by its excesses. This sense of conflict is partly what drives the Natural History, and I think it’s one that is also familiar to us today as we seek to resolve tensions between consumerism and climate crisis. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Pliny was an environmentalist, there is definitely a proto-ecological thinking at work within the NH. One phrase that I find very comforting is his comment that vita vigilia est – ‘life is wakefulness’. Partly this justifies his famously long working hours (which appeals to me as a working mum!), but also it expresses an attitude of vigilance, not just to one’s work, but to the entire world.


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

I am lucky to live in the Finger Lakes region of upstate NY, where we have beautiful state parks right on our doorstep: as they say here, ‘Ithaca is Gorges’! I’m originally from Cumbria, so trail running in the woods and walks with my husband and our 8 year-old twins have been keeping me sane during lockdown (in addition to cocktail hour). Although the lack of childcare can be tricky, I’ve appreciated the chance to be more present for my sons, and we’ve been enjoying lots of reading together, including Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries (which feature Pliny himself!!!). I’ve also been thinking about just how privileged the idea of ‘comfort’ is and trying to educate myself better about the history and effects of racism in both the USA and UK. I’m about to become chair of my Classics department and we have a lot of work to do…


Verity Platt is a professor of Classics and History of Art at Cornell University. She is the author of Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion (2011) and is trying to finish a book on Imprint and Line: Making and Mediating between Classical Art and Text, which is threatening to become as long as the Natural History. At Cornell, she helps curate the cast collection and teaches on Greek and Roman art, classical reception (including a course on ‘Statues and Public Life’ addressing the contemporary monuments crisis) and environmental humanities. She also has a big ginger cat called Tango.






Comfort Classics: Pippa Steele


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

It might seem a bit corny, but I think my favourite inscription from the ancient world has to be an Etruscan bucchero ware vessel in the shape of a cockerel, with a Greek alphabetic sequence incised around the outside. (For a blog post on this object, see here; the museum listing is here)


Pictures from The Met Museum



When did you first come across this object?

Some years ago I came across a discussion of the alphabetic sequence that was completely divorced from context and failed to mention the spectacular nature of the object on which this important inscription appears. When I looked into it and found a photograph revealing the cockerel, I was delighted!


Can you tell me a bit about this cockerel and its context?

Stylistically the vessel is thought to originate from 7th C BC Etruria, but there is not a lot of information on its context and today the cockerel’s home is the Metropolitan Museum in New York. We are not entirely sure what the purpose of the vessel is (a miniature jug or container of some kind, or perhaps even an inkpot?) but its main importance lies in the inscription incised around the cockerel’s middle, just underneath some rows of similarly incised decorative feathers.


360 Spin Series 36 columns X 11rows


The earliest evidence of the use of the Greek alphabet comes from the 8th C BC, but abecedaria (i.e. inscriptions that give the letters of the alphabet in sequence) are extremely rare, and there are lots of gaps in our understanding of the earliest development of alphabetic writing. The earliest examples of whole alphabetic sequences have been found in Italy – including this cockerel vase – where Greek alphabetic writing was borrowed and adapted by local speakers of the Etruscan language.

One really important feature of the cockerel abecedarium is that it seems to reflect a very early stage in the development of the alphabetic sequence, since it retains signs that were eliminated in attested Greek alphabets. For example, we don’t know of any regional Greek alphabet in the Archaic period that had both sigma (Σ) and san (M) to represent the /s/ phoneme – every attested alphabet has narrowed down to one or the other. But the cockerel abecedarium shows them both in their proper place in the Greek sequence according to their original place in the Phoenician sequence. At the same time, the cockerel abecedarium also contains Greek innovations, such as the supplementary letters at the end. This is an exceptionally important piece of evidence for trying to reconstruct the early stages of alphabetic writing in the Mediterranean.


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

Well I can’t help feeling that this cockerel has such great kitsch value… though bucchero ware was made using special techniques and this object was clearly a product of skilled craftsmanship, so we should probably think in terms of a moderately expensive status symbol object rather than a cheap novelty item. Actually I would definitely buy an object like this. I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to buying unusual and beautiful things!

But when you combine the object’s striking visual appearance with the fact that it is a hugely important early attestation of alphabetic writing in the Mediterranean, well that makes it a very special little cockerel indeed.





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

I love anything crafty, ranging from making my own jewellery to building things in Lego. Recently I had a go at making a cylinder seal (a type of object used in the ancient Near East to authenticate transactions) out of a cylindrical onyx earring, and that was great fun – even if I cheated by using a power tool to do the engraving! I especially enjoy work-related projects in Lego (like the ones featured on the CREWS blog here, or here).

But I have to say that the pandemic, and the lockdown, have been very mentally draining, and I’m not doing nearly as many crafts projects as I thought I might early on. Sometimes it’s all I can manage to try to switch off by playing a computer game (currently Fallout 76 or Civilization VI) or watching a favourite TV series (currently Foyle’s War, The Walking Dead or Dr Who) – I find that a bit of escapism is very good for relaxing and refreshing my brain.


Pippa Steele is a Senior Research Associate in the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge, and a Senior Research Fellow of Magdalene College. She has written extensively on the languages and writing systems of ancient Cyprus, as well as the Bronze Age and Iron Age Greece, and she is currently focusing on Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A and Linear B. In 2016 she was awarded a large grant by the European Research Council to run the five-year project Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems (CREWS), and her research team work on a variety of writing systems around the Aegean, eastern Mediterranean, Near East and north Africa.

“You can find out more from the CREWS blog, where we try to make our research accessible to as wide an audience as possible:

We have recently started to develop some teaching materials and videos related to our research, which can be found here:”






Comfort Classics: Stephanie Holton


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

It’s not quite as neatly packaged as one text, but the fragments of the philosopher Heraclitus are a firm favourite – the fact that they aren’t one straightforward book is part of the fun, though!


When did you first come across these fragments?

As an undergraduate in Edinburgh – one of my final Greek modules was on Presocratic philosophy, and I just loved it. We were quite a small class (so small our lecturer made us fresh coffee for each session!), and we’d meet every week to read our way through everything from Thales to Democritus. It was a lot of fun, and just so different to any of the texts I’d studied before – and as someone who had started Greek from scratch at university, it was probably also a little more forgiving than translating books upon books of epic poetry. It’s something I really enjoy being able to share with my undergraduates now – I snuck some Presocratics into one of our first year survey modules, and was delighted when more than half the students chose a commentary on Xenophanes over Homer in their final exam (Xenophanes would be pleased, too!).


Can you tell me a bit about Heraclitus and his context?

Heraclitus is one of the “Presocratics”, which is an umbrella term for the various early Greek philosophers who are busy with their inquiry into nature throughout the 6th and 5th centuries BC (making a few of them, then, actually contemporary with Socrates). We can’t date Heraclitus precisely, but he seems to have been active around 500BC. He comes from Ephesus, and allegedly wrote one book which he left in the Temple of Artemis there. We don’t have a nice, neatly preserved version of his work – instead, it survives through bits and pieces (or, more formally, fragments and testimonia) which appear in later writings. He has a reputation for being quite misanthrophic, and openly criticises his predecessors – including Homer and Hesiod – as not really actually understanding anything about the world. He also writes in a sort of enigmatic style: lots of playing around with language and intricate layers of meaning. Like the other Presocratics, Heraclitus is interested in explaining nature and the natural world, but he is the first to really explicitly turn his attention to questions about human life and experience, too. He’s probably most well-known for his theory of universal flux – whether through the catchy panta rhei – ‘everything flows’, or his river fragments, which seem to enjoy a renewed life online as inspirational quotes.





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

The challenge of working with it! I like the sense that you are dealing with a quite complex puzzle, not just because of the state it survives in but also because it is written in this deliberately riddling style. It’s tricky, and it’s sort of weird, and it can be very frustrating – but when you finally start to unpack it and see how it fits together, it is really rewarding. Heraclitus’ ideas also pop up a lot in the work of one of my favourite non-classical writers, Philip K Dick: anything that joins together Classics and sci-fi is always a winner.


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

I have a very energetic three year old son, so usually something messy and muddy! We’re lucky to be close to Jesmond Dene in Newcastle which is a huge Victorian landscaped park, full of magical nooks and crannies and ruins to explore. I’m also really enjoying Animal Crossing: New Horizons at the minute as an escape from the realities of lockdown. If all else fails, The Mountain Goats are my go-to source for cheering up: John Darnielle is an incredible songwriter (and there are plenty of classical references in his work!).


Dr Stephanie Holton is a Lecturer in Classics at Newcastle University. Her teaching and research explore early Greek thought – especially the interactions between literature, philosophy and medicine – and she’s also very interested in ancient language pedagogy. She is currently finishing her first monograph Sleep and Dreams in Early Greek Thought, in between teaching everything and anything. She can be found on Twitter as @drstephholton where she is probably just retweeting classics memes.






Comfort Classics: Ian Spoor


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

Now that’s a really hard question – I have so many favourites I return to – Pliny’s Natural History or Gellius’ Attic Nights. I am currently reading Thucydides… but it really has to be Ovid’s Metamorphoses introduced to me by a certain Dr CB Knowles [loud cheer from the Editor!] during my studies with the Open University.




When did you first come across the Metamorphoses?

Actually a long time ago when I was self-learning Latin and Peter Jones’  Reading Ovid was in a second hand bookshop for about a fiver.



Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?

Ovid lived during a time of political upheaval through to Augustus’ reign. This 15 book poem is his major work, popular even in the middle ages and beyond. An inspiration to people through the centuries – it is something…  I cannot really put a finger on it.  I read DE Hill’s translation more than anyone else’s. His succinct commentary (I always like to have a commentary to hand) gives me the opportunity to appreciate how vast Ovid’s knowledge was. I am always interested in seeing where authors like Ovid get their sources from, where they invent and reinvent stories… and why.





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

Ovid to me was a man who composed in various genres – and it seems everything he turned his hand to he was brilliant at. A sort of ancient Mozart! The Metamorphoses moves from origin myth to semi-myth to his present times – and its appeal lies in being able to dip in to any of those stories and read and re-read them. They make me think about Roman attitudes, society, thinking etc. … there really is something for every mood that you may be in at the time!



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

To be honest, this is my hobby – but sometimes I read European detective novels for fun.


“I work in recruitment to put food on the table – but I study the Classics as well as help some students in their Greek grammar…. and I hope to finish off that MA in Classical Studies with the OU!”






Comfort Classics: Abi Buglass


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

I almost want to say Virgil’s Georgics, his ‘farming’ poem , which I have recently begun to appreciate more and more, but I must say Lucretius’ epic poem the De Rerum Natura, which is often known as ‘On the Nature of the Universe’.




When did you first come across this text?

When I was 17 or 18 my teacher Alison Howard wanted to stretch me, and gave me the amazing and terrible passage describing the sacrifice of the young girl Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon. She asked me to write an essay on the passage and what it means for the message of Lucretius in general. The passage is one of the most famous in the poem and arguably in Latin literature, culminating in the famous line tantum religio potuit suadere malorum: ‘this is the evil that religion can cause’. I was astounded to read some Latin poetry that seemed to have such a radical and modern message, and even more to read an author who seemed to so fervently believe what he was selling.  I later chose to study Lucretius every chance I had; I took two courses on the De Rerum Natura during my undergraduate Classics degree at Edinburgh. I feel very fortunate that my daily life now includes research on Lucretius, other poets like him, and their later reception.


Can you tell me a bit about this poem and its context?

The poem was written during the first century BC, during the later days of the Roman republic. It is seen by many as a poetic rendition of the prose teachings of the Greek Philosopher Epicurus. But while Lucretius shows himself in the De Rerum Natura to be a faithful follower of Epicurus, he is also an original thinker in his own right. His poem would go on to be read by some amazing poets and thinkers, who were undoubtedly enthralled: Virgil, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Albert Camus, Caryl Churchill.


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

The De Rerum Natura is one of the most captivating works of literature I have ever read. I think what appeals to me most is that Lucretius seems to believe that with this poem he can actually change the world. Some have seen pessimism in the poem but I think this is quite wrong: someone who has such faith in the power of poetry would more rightly be described as an optimist. He teaches, in thorough (and at times painstaking!) ways, atomistic physics, describing our world and our place in it down to the last atom, and telling how every phenomenon and act is down to the movements and swerves of the tiniest parts of the universe. For Lucretius, Physics is the key to happiness: if you understand the atomistic makeup of the world, you needn’t be afraid of anything: gods, lightning, wolves, death.


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

I do yoga, and knit. Not at the same time.


Abi Buglass is a Departmental Lecturer in Latin at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford. Her research is centered on didactic poetry and its reception from antiquity through to modernity. She is currently working on a book which explores the remarkable repetitions in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and how they ultimately swirl together to reflect the atomistic universe that Lucretius wants to describe. Abi is also translating extracts of the De Rerum Natura for Sad Press in a volume called Particles.






Comfort Classics: Frances Breen


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

While there are certainly many sources that I find fascinating, choosing one that brings ‘comfort’ is an interesting concept. Those that come to mind are mostly objects and places: a visit inside the Curia in the Forum Romanum; my battered Loeb editions of Cicero’s Letters to Atticus; holding an eggshell-thin cup over 4,000 years old on a placement in Santorini; hunching over a drawing board recording a tiny oil lamp in a dusty storage room. They all provoke emotion (I definitely cried in the Curia!).



One that I have tucked away to revisit when it’s cold and rainy (as it often can be in the north of England!) however, is this small fresco of a swan.




When did you first come across this fresco?

Two years ago I was part of a month-long excavation in Pompeii with the University of Genoa. The days were long, hot and physically demanding – permits to excavate within the site are limited so time is of the essence. We were working on the Via dell’Abbondanza, one of Pompeii’s main thoroughfares, and after downing tools each day I would wander slowly back through the cobbled streets picking a different place each day to investigate – until the lure of a shower and cold beer became too great to resist. One day I stepped through a doorway and found myself in a dark corridor; when my eyes adjusted from the intense sunshine I saw this little swan by my elbow. I was lucky enough to have stumbled into the House of Menander in a rare moment of quiet and I don’t think I will ever forget seeing this beautiful, tiny fresco come into focus.




Can you tell me a bit about this house and its context?

The discovery of a ring seal and graffiti suggests that the House of Menander was probably owned by Quintus Poppaeus, possibly a relative of Emperor Nero’s second wife, Poppaea Sabina. The house is so called due to a painting of the Greek dramatist Menander in a small room. The joy and frustration of archaeology (in my opinion!), however, means that this is also ‘probable’, as the figure may in fact be the owner of the property or just someone enjoying Menander’s work. One of my favourite things about studying the ancient world is that we can never be absolutely, 100% certain. The truth lies tantalisingly close at times! The house is a typical example of the home of a high-ranking family and thanks to parts of the roof remaining intact, much of the interior is well preserved. There are many frescoes including the death of Laocoon, scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey and incredible decoration throughout, surrounding a large peristyle flanked by columns. A collection of over 100 pieces of silverware was discovered in one of the cellars during excavation in the 1920s, much of which is on display at the Archaeological Museum in Naples. It is a fascinating place to explore, as is all of Pompeii.




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

It’s a combination of factors. The swan is so beautifully painted, yet in comparison to some of the other highly ornate frescoes in the House of Menander I understand that it may seem rather unassuming. It’s only about 3 inches in height, but that tiny bird contains so many possibilities. It provokes questions – who painted it? How did they live? Were they happy? The author Susan Vreeland writes: ‘That a thing made by hand, the work and thought of a single craftsman, can endure much longer than its maker, through centuries in fact, has always filled me with wonder. The unknown life of the maker is evanescent in its brevity, but the work of his or her hands and heart remains.’ The tangible, human element appeals to me. But mainly when I think of it, I am transported back to that day in Pompeii – hot, tired and very happy.


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

Being outside usually cheers me up, and I enjoy hiking and running. Last year I took up tennis: it is safe to say that I am not a natural. I also love being part of archaeological projects and am a trustee for Epiacum Heritage; we look after an incredible site in Northumberland, which contains – among other interesting things – the highest Roman fort in Britain. In any spare time I can probably be found drawing, playing Lego with my nephews, decorating elaborate cakes or thinking about biscuits.


Frances is a former OU student, having completed modules in Classical Latin and Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds. She works as a charity bid writer and is currently studying for an MRes in Archaeology at the University of Bournemouth, researching how participating in archaeology can benefit the mental well-being of older people. After completing her MRes she hopes to undertake a PhD further investigating the links between archaeology and how it makes people feel. Frances also works with the Strata Florida Archaeological Field School, which provides archaeological training at a site in Wales, as well as serving as a trustee for Epiacum Roman Fort.






Comfort Classics: Matt Myers


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

Perhaps predictably, considering my research interests, I would have to go with the Roman historian Tacitus. Tacitus is often seen as quite a gloomy writer and might not seem like the most natural choice for a “comforting” classical text, given his focus on tyranny and some of the less savoury aspects of human nature. However, just as we often turn to sad music in times of emotional turmoil, I find there is something very cathartic about Tacitus’ pessimistic narratives of decline, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from encouraging this kind of emotional engagement on the part of his readers.


One passage I’ve always found particularly moving comes during his narrative in the Histories of the aftermath of the first battle of Cremona: the climactic battle between supporters of Otho and Vitellius during the year of the four emperors. After the fighting ends and the Vitellians accept the Othonian surrender, troops from both sides come together and poignantly lament the senseless loss of life:


Both victors and vanquished melted into tears, and cursed the fatality of civil strife with a melancholy joy. There in the same tents did they dress the wounds of brothers or of kinsmen. Their hopes, their rewards, were all uncertain; death and sorrow were sure. And no one had so escaped misfortune as to have no bereavement to lament.

Histories 2.45.3 (trans Church and Brodribb)


Obviously there is a significant underlying pessimism in this passage (not least because the reader knows that the war is not over yet and there will soon be a second battle of Cremona), but the way that the soldiers lay aside previous allegiances and unite in their shared humanity is, I think, rather comforting. The complex emotional response to the violence of the battle (sadness at the loss of life mixed with joy and relief at having survived) is perfectly captured by the famous Tacitean oxymoron “melancholy joy” (misera laetitia), which not only sums up the emotions of the soldiers but is also a fitting description of the cathartic release that the passage (and Tacitus’ narrative as a whole) encourages on the part of the reader.


When did you first come across Tacitus’ works?

I first came across Tacitus briefly during my Classical Civilisation A-Level but didn’t really study him in any depth until my undergraduate degree. I was (and still am) really interested in the history of the first century AD, so naturally spent a lot of time with the “big three” sources for this period (Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio). If I’m being honest I initially found Tacitus to be quite heavy going (especially in comparison to the gossipy style of Suetonius), but after a Latin seminar in my second year in which we were encouraged to read the Roman historians not just as historical sources but as works of literature in their own right, suddenly all of the stylistic complexity started to make a lot more sense and I haven’t looked back since!


Can you tell me a bit about Tacitus and his context?

Tacitus was a historian writing in the early second century AD, mostly under the emperor Trajan. His two major historical works, the Annals and the Histories, cover the period from the death of Augustus in AD 14 down to the end of the Flavian dynasty in AD 96, though unfortunately both are missing significant chunks (the Annals is missing the reign of Caligula and some of Claudius, while the Histories as it survives only covers the year AD 69-70). He also wrote three minor works: a biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, who was a Roman governor of Britain; an ethnographic study of the Germanic tribes; and a dialogue on oratory.


Tacitus was also a successful politician who rose to the upper echelons of Roman government. He was a member of the quindecemviral priesthood, became consul in AD 97, and held the prestigious governorship of the province of Asia in 112. His works are therefore informed by an intimate, first-hand knowledge of the political system he was writing about. A large portion of his political career coincided with the the reign of the tyrant emperor Domitian and there is a long tradition of scholars seeing the influence of Tacitus’ experiences in this period on his later writing. Indeed, another of Tacitus’ most famous and moving passages comes at the end of the Agricola and sees him grappling with his own survivor’s guilt and explicitly acknowledging his inaction and complicity during Domitian’s reign of terror.





What is it about Tacitus that appeals to you most?

I think one of the things I find most appealing about Tacitus is his approach to characterisation. His portraits of emperors like Tiberius and Nero and among the finest explorations of tyranny and the corrupting nature of power ever written, but they are far from simple invectives. He allows for nuance of interpretation and directs the readers’ opinion through the subtle manipulation of language rather than overt authorial comment.  Sentences often have multiple meanings and things are not always as they appear on the first reading. This can make Tacitus a difficult and frustrating author to work with at times, but unpicking his dense, multi-layered prose is also incredibly rewarding (a misera laetitia, in fact).




I also really enjoy the way Tacitus narrates warfare and battles. He has sometimes come in for criticism as an “unmilitary” historian due to what some perceive as a lack of specificity when it comes to things like troop numbers, tactics, locations of battles, etc. However, as someone who finds all that stuff deathly boring, I find Tacitus’ emphasis on the inherent chaos and confusion of battle, the emotional experiences of combatants, and the moral implications of warfare (especially in the Histories) infinitely more interesting than the “hard facts” that others might prefer.


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

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy literature (The Wheel of Time series is my favourite) and listening to a lot of music (I tend to alternate between the more sombre side of country, blues, and folk; and anything featuring loud guitars and a rousing chorus). I also really enjoy mountain biking and hiking so am looking forward to being able to travel further afield with my bike as lockdown restrictions begin to ease.


Matt Myers teaches Roman history and literature at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on the role of vision and space in Roman historiography (and Tacitus in particular), especially in relation to the representation of violence. He is currently working on an article on violence and urban space in Tacitus’ Histories and (hopefully!) turning his PhD thesis into a book. 






Comfort Classics: Ben Tanner


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

There are plenty of items from the ancient world that I revisit on a relatively frequent basis. Places such as Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall, or Sorrento in the Bay of Naples are absolute favourites. Authors like Catullus will similarly always hold a special place in my heart.

Teaching in a school, there are some things that come around annually: for instance, I teach an A Level component on Greek Theatre, and examine it for OCR. Whilst I love Greek Tragedy, and – at a stretch – one could call it reassuring in that natural order is generally restored by the end of the play, it’s hardly what I’d call a “feel good” experience overall: it is designed to put the viewer or reader through the wringer, before they get the reward of catharsis.

On the other hand, Greek Comedy – which to all intents and purposes is Aristophanes – generally does have the feel-good factor, even in the relief that an audience member feels from the author’s polemics in the parabases which generally push a feel-good agenda, even if they highlight that Athens is in a pretty wretched state at times. So, my chosen text is Aristophanes’ Frogs (probably to be found in a very battered and ramshackle Penguin translation), not because it’s necessarily my favourite Aristophanes (I studied Wasps in Greek for A Level, wrote my undergraduate thesis on Masculinity in Lysistrata, and my favourite individual vignette is probably Trygeas riding the Dung Beetle in Peace) but because it’s the old-faithful, to which I keep coming back and which, since its return to the A Level Classical Civilisation syllabus, I’m very much enjoying teaching once more.




When did you first come across this play?

My first experience of Aristophanes, and of Frogs, was when my school and the girls’ school across the road [loud cheer from the Editor, who was there!] put on a performance of Frogs in English when I was 15. I wasn’t in the production; as I was studying GCSE Greek at the time, I was pressganged into performing in the other half of the double bill, Euripides’ Bacchae in the original Greek (and can still remember a few words of my section of the messenger speech), but I watched the rehearsals for Frogs avidly, enjoying my friends’ performances* and marvelling at how risqué it managed to be. Can they really say that? Did Aristophanes really write that?


(*another illustrious Comfort Classicist gave a brilliant cameo as Charon, complete with rubber dinghy!)


Can you tell me a bit about this play and its context?

405BC. Nearing the end of the Peloponnesian War and Athens has had a tumultuous few years, following the rise and fall of the oligarchy, the battle of Arginousae, and the departure of Alcibiades. Dionysus, the same god of ecstasy who is revered and reviled in Bacchae from the same year, is ridiculed in Frogs for his effeminate nature, his cowardice, his laziness, and his half-arsed approach to a quest of his own instigation, viz. a trip to the underworld to rescue and resurrect the recently deceased Euripides in the hope that the late, great tragedian will teach the Athenian hoi polloi an important lesson about respect and tradition. Needless to say, things don’t go entirely to plan.

The play represents a development in Old Comedy, relocating the agon beyond the parabasis, and incorporating a pair of distinct comic tropes, the journey and the contest. It’s also an excellent piece of literary criticism, giving us a unique window onto the Athenians’ view of their favourite playwrights.


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

I think it’s the number of levels upon which the play can be read. Every time I read the text or watch a performance, I find something new to appreciate. As a 15 year old, it was just splendidly silly, with the groanworthy puns, the physical humour, the Pythonesque surrealism, and – of course – the eponymous chorus of musical frogs; now, I’m trying to teach it as a product of its context and examine Aristophanes’ underlying message, and examine its portrayals of Athenian institutions… but I hope I don’t gloss over the silliness too heavily. In troubling times, it’s good to see a comedian leading the way, through humour and ridicule, offering a solution to the world’s problems; whilst I might not agree with Aristophanes’ politics, necessarily, I love the way in which he articulates himself.


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

In the last few months, I have spent as much time as possible with my children outdoors, whether it’s just in my garden or wandering around my village, or getting slightly further afield, deeper into the countryside when lockdown rules have allowed. In more normal times, I quench the thirst for Vitamin D and the need for time and space without my thoughts by standing in a field concentrating on a 5¼oz orb of red leather, twine and cork (I like playing village cricket!). And if I have to be indoors, I’m probably at my happiest when eating a pizza!


After studying Classics at Cambridge, Ben Tanner qualified as a teacher in 2003. He has taught in a range of different schools, fulfilling a range of different roles, ever since (taking time out to complete an MA in Classics at KCL in 2010). He is currently Examinations Officer and a part-time Classics teacher at RGS Worcester; he also leads CPD for other Classics teachers, tweets at @eupraxisedu, and makes silly little Latin & Classics videos in his Shed which end up on YouTube under the guise of “Mr Tanner Teaches…”.






Comfort Classics: Andrew Parkin


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

I guess it has to be the bathing Venus relief from the Roman fort at High Rochester in Northumberland.


Bathing Venus


When did you first come across this source?

I first encountered this relief when I was an undergraduate studying Ancient History and Archaeology at Newcastle University.  It was in the Museum of Antiquities on the University campus which, at the time, housed the collections of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne.  It is now in the Great North Museum and forms a part of the archaeology collections I am responsible for.


Can you tell me a bit about this relief and its context?

The relief comes from the Roman fort at High Rochester (Bremenium) which was one of the outposts of Hadrian’s Wall.  For much of its history it was one of the most northerly garrisoned places in the Roman Empire.  The relief, dating to the 3rd Century AD, represents Venus and two attendant nymphs.  Venus is in the process of bathing and one nymph holds a towel while the other has a water jug.  Behind Venus there is a pot turned sideways with a stream of water flowing from it.  Bathing Venus or Aphrodite statues are a common in Classical art and this particular relief appears to be loosely based on the 3rd Century BC Crouching Aphrodite of Doidalsas of Bithynia.


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

Perhaps the thing I find most appealing about this sculpture is the way it merges two worlds.  The subject matter definitely comes from the Classical Mediterranean world, but the execution owes a great deal to a more indigenous ‘British’ artistic tradition.  The figures are not idealised in the Classical manner.  Venus, for example, has an elongated neck, pear shaped body and her hair hangs down in two lifeless bands.  Her bodily proportions are distorted, and her stance is almost anatomically impossible.  Nevertheless, there is a liveliness to this relief that I really respond to and I like to speculate on what Venus and the nymphs are saying to each other.

I also have more personal reasons for liking this relief.  I did some fieldwork at High Rochester in the early 1990’s and it was one of the coldest experiences of my life.  The thought of anyone wanting to indulge in outdoor bathing there totally bewilders me.  I like to think that the glum expression on Venus’s face is because she is bathing in an inhospitable northern outpost of Empire rather than the Mediterranean of her birth.


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

I have been enjoying playing my guitar and catching up on some reading.  Currently I am engrossed in Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music.  I also appreciate spending time with my family and cats.


Andrew Parkin is Keeper of Archaeology at the Great North Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne.  His background is in archaeology and museum education with over 25 years’ experience of working with archaeology collections.  He has also been employed as a lecturer and secondary school teacher, focusing on ancient history, history and archaeology.  He has published on a number of artefacts from the Shefton Collection in the GNM and is co-editor of On the Fascination of Objects: Greek Art in the Shefton Collection (2016).  He developed the current Shefton Gallery of Greek and Etruscan Archaeology in the Great North Museum and has extensive experience of curating temporary exhibitions, including acting as exhibition lead for Lindow Man: Body of Evidence (2009) and The Extraordinary Gertrude Bell (2016).






Comfort Classics: Andrew Sillett


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

At the risk of sounding impossibly weird, I haven’t yet managed to sit down to read Cicero’s letters without becoming completely engrossed in them. I’m not sure that reading them makes me feel better per se, but they do provide an unparalleled distraction (which is sometimes just what you need).


When did you first come across these letters?

There may be a degree of reconstructed memory in this, but I have a very strong recollection of sitting a Latin translation exam in the final term of my first year at University and finding myself confronted with a letter Cicero wrote to his wife from exile, trying to console her (while clearly quite strongly in need of consolation himself). I think this sticks in my mind for two reasons: mostly it’s because I made an absolutely pig’s ear of the translation, but it’s also a result of the fact that, although I was vaguely aware who Cicero was by that point (having come up to Oxford without having studied any classics at school), I had no idea that any personal correspondence had survived from 2,000 years ago, let alone letters written by Cicero himself.




Can you tell me a bit about the letters and their context?

Sure! Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman politician who rose to prominence in the first century BC, a contemporary of men like Julius Caesar, the younger Cato and Pompey the Great. Although he did not come from one of Rome’s great families, he rose through the great offices of state and became one of the main players in the last days of the Roman Republic. After his death at the hands of Mark Antony and the future emperor Augustus, people (probably including his freedman Tiro and his best friend Atticus) began to gather together his correspondence for publication to a wider audience.


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

There are so many individual moments among these hundreds and hundreds of letters (36 books of them survive today!) which I could talk about at length (something my poor students have to put up with every term). But I’ll tell you three aspects that I think make them special:

  • Unlike lots of other surviving letter collections (those of Pliny and Seneca, for example) these were not deliberately written up with publication in mind. As such, they are as good an insight as you’re ever likely to get into the mind of someone from ancient Rome. I was once told that Cicero and St Augustine are the only two people from the ancient world that you can ever get to know – I’m working my way through that short list in reverse alphabetical order.
  • In spite that sense of immediacy, the selection of letters that has come down to us has been carefully edited by person or persons unknown. Each book is like a mixtape or a playlist of letters. They all have a theme; they all have beginnings, middles and ends; they all interact playfully with each other; and they all contain artful juxtapositions of letters written in very different circumstances.
  • In spite of the potential given to them by hindsight, no effort seems to have been made by the editors to make Cicero seem particularly saintly, or wise, or preternaturally far-sighted. The Cicero we meet in these letters can be kind, intelligent and witty, but he can also be petty, arrogant and unpleasant. In short, he seems human. I suppose it’s not a particularly intuitive way to take comfort, but there aren’t many situations that can’t be improved by trying to remember that other people aren’t 2-dimensional, but are just as complex and complicated as you know yourself to be.


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

I watch far too much television. I’m currently reliving Series 3 of ITV2’s Love Island, watching each episode on more or less the same night it was broadcast three years ago. Before that I watched all of the David Suchet adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, and afterwards I think I’ll run through Sex And The City once again. I’m also marking each new week of lockdown by watching Pierce Brosnan’s final James Bond Film, Die Another Day. I’m on viewing 11 now, and it certainly is giving me unique perspective on the passage of time.


Andrew James Sillett is a Departmental Lecturer in Latin Literature and Roman History at the University of Oxford, and a tutor at St Hilda’s College. He also runs a Beginners Latin club for primary and secondary school children who sing in the choirs of St Giles’ Church. He has published on various aspects of Cicero’s political, rhetorical and philosophical life, and is currently in the process of converting his DPhil thesis on Cicero’s posthumous reception in the early empire into a monograph with OUP.






Comfort Classics: Ryan Stitt


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

The Blue Monkeys Fresco from Akrotiri (in the Museum of Prehistoric Thera).




When did you first come across this fresco?

June 2010. It was the summer before my senior year as an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, and I signed up for a three week long study abroad trip to Greece. This was the first time I had ever left the United States. The first stop on our tour was the Aegean island of Santorini (Ancient Thera). Unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity to see Akrotiri (as it was still closed for renovations in 2010), but we did visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, as well as the acropolis of Ancient Thera. I was mesmerized with that museum (it was the first museum I had ever visited in fact), and in particular I fell in love with the Akrotiri frescoes there (and the ones I would later see in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens). The Blue Monkey Fresco was my favorite, though, and I even bought a replica of it that still hangs on my wall to this day.




Can you tell me a bit about this painting and its context?

Due to the volcanic eruption that destroyed Thera sometime between 1650-1550 BCE, the village of Akrotiri was covered with layers of pumice and volcanic ash. As a result, many of the colorful frescoes that had adorned the walls of their buildings have been remarkably well-preserved.




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

Nostalgia and/or centering mostly. Every time I stop and look at this replica on my wall or come across the image in my pictures, online, or in a textbook somewhere, I think about my first trip to Greece. At that time, I liked the ancient world a lot but it didn’t dawn on me quite yet that it would be something that I would spend my life being interested in, even if it’s in a non-traditional manner. So for me the image of the blue monkeys fresco provides a sense of renewal, like I’m that excited undergraduate coming to the ancient Greeks in my formative years once again.


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

I usually workout or spend time with my dog, Rex. We used to go on very long runs/walks, but he is getting older now and can’t do it much anymore. So instead when I need to think about something or center myself, I will either run alone or take Rex on a long car ride in the countryside somewhere, with the windows down and 90s Hip-Hop blaring. Rex is also a fan of 90s Hip Hop!




Ryan Stitt is an officer in the United States Air Force by day, and at night, he is the creator/host/producer of The History of Ancient Greece Podcast.





Comfort Classics: Liz Webb


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

Although he’s perhaps not an author naturally associated with comfort, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War always draws me back.



When did you first come across this text?

The first time I came across Thucydides was as an undergraduate and the connection between us wasn’t immediate. I found his Greek (very) complex and I was more of a Herodotus fan. After a break of 18 years, I returned to Classics to start an MA in Classical Studies and Thucydides was the first text in the foundation year. My heart sank but a bit of distance and the chance to look at The History of the Peloponnesian War from a historiographical point of view completely changed my mind. Now, I am in the middle of my PhD researching audience sensory experience in Thucydides. I would never have imagined that!





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

Thucydides was a fifth century Athenian who fought in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Exiled after a significant military failure during that conflict, he wrote about the war based partly on his own experience and eyewitness accounts. His work is incomplete and, despite its claims to thoroughness, leaves its audience with many questions.


What is it about Thucydides’ work that appeals to you most?

I enjoy the variety of ways in which Thucydides presents his history; there are action scenes, speeches, letters, thoughts about mythology and methodological passages. I love the way that you can consider Thucydides’ text from so many angles, depending on your own preferences. When I’m not working on the text for research, I also enjoy considering how Thucydides might have thought about the afterlife of his text: as one of my MA tutors once said, ‘We might be speculating but that’s part of the fun.’ Speaking of fun, I was lucky enough to see Neville Morley’s all-singing, all-dancing production ‘Do What You Must’, an adaptation of the Melian Dialogue, in London in February of this year. It was so energetic and thought provoking- and I still find myself humming some of the songs! Thucydides really has something for everyone.


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

I love time with my family which includes a small menagerie so that keeps me busy. I enjoy Pilates for relaxation and I spend plenty of time watching West Wing reruns, MCU films and currently The Mandalorian- ‘This is the way.’


Liz is a PhD researcher in the Classical Studies department at the Open University. You can find her on Twitter @WebbEA02.  Here is a short video about her research if you want to find out more.





Comfort Classics: Alex Imrie


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

When I feel down, I often find myself looking over my small collection of Roman coins. Whether it’s the really worn sestertius of Marcus Aurelius (the first ever coin I was gifted), one of the denarii of Caracalla (the emperor who forms the centre of my research interests) or a dupondius of Augustus depicting a crocodile in chains, in reference to the conquest of Egypt (my oldest and most expensive coin by far!), I find that holding these little pieces of antiquity in my hand and scrutinising their surfaces gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling!


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Beyond the purely tactile joy of ancient coins, I find they’ve always fired my mind with a variety of different questions: who were the people who physically produced them? Who decided what images should be struck on them? How much attention did their consumers pay to them? Could they even understand what was struck? How were they stored or lost? Then there’s the whole question of coins as vehicles of propaganda and political messaging. I guess it’s no surprise that my undergraduate and Masters dissertations were focused on different elements of Roman numismatics!

When it comes to textual sources, I find an odd comfort in reading the work of Cassius Dio. While he might be a bit of a curmudgeon with a highly questionable take on democracy, the Roman History is a great read! It has sections of high drama and excitement, and is peppered with little authorial interjections that are genuinely entertaining, even to this modern reader.


When did you first come across Cassius Dio?

I think I had to study a couple passages of the early books of Dio’s Roman History in my first year as an undergraduate. That said, I’m a first-generation university attendee who had no experience of Classics until I arrived, so had to get myself acquainted with many, many sources in those early days!

My real introduction to him, though, came in my third year, when I started studying a module on the Severan dynasty. Dio is one of the few surviving historical sources that is contemporary to the period, so he became something of a constant companion who never fully left. In fact, I became so enamoured with reading him that, from 2016-19, I took part in an international network committed to studying him in greater depth. It was a fantastic experience to meet other Dio fans and make some new friends from all over the world.


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

Cassius Dio (c.155 – after 229 CE) was a senator during the Antonine and Severan periods of Greek origin, born in Bithynia, who wrote a monumental history of Rome from its mythical foundation until his own retirement from public life. The Historia Romana, written in Greek, was comprised of 80 books (many of which survive in varying states) and took the author over twenty years to research and produce.

Dio served his political career during interesting and volatile times. He records, for example, his and other senators’ terror at being threatened with murder by Commodus (73[72].21.1-2); he lived through the bloody civil wars of 193-97 CE which heralded and secured the Severan dynasty’s grip on imperial power; he witnessed an attempted coup d’état by the praetorian prefect Plautianus in 205 and was present in the Senate in the aftermath of the emperor Caracalla brutally murdering his younger brother (and co-ruler) Geta in 211. He held the consulship twice but, in the case of the second iteration (229 CE), was prevented from assuming duties in Rome for fear that the praetorian guard would murder him owing to his reputation as a disciplinarian. It is no real surprise that he writes about his contemporary era in a rather dour way, and returned home to Bithynia upon his retirement, rather than staying in Rome or Italy.

Historically, Dio’s reputation has been somewhat spotty at best. He is often spoken of in the same breath as Tacitus or other imperial historians, and usually comes off unfavourably from the comparison! He is viewed as being entirely too fond of injecting omens and portents into his work, and for allowing his contemporary prejudices to bleed into his coverage of Rome’s earlier history. Even the late-great Fergus Millar (in his 1964 A Study of Cassius Dio, OUP) was decidedly muted in praise for the senator. The reception of Dio’s writing has been further hindered by the heavy hands of epitomisers in a number of the surviving books (most famously by the 11th Century scholar, Xiphilinus), a feature that only adds more ambiguity to the question of how far we may trust or engage Dio as a writer.

In more recent years, however, efforts have been made to reassess this view of him as little more than a second-rate historian. These have been spearheaded by the international Cassius Dio Network (2016-19), in which I was delighted to take part. Studies have paid greater attention to the literary ambitions underlying the Roman History, as well as identifying a far more independently-minded author behind the prose: not simply a shade or spectre of Tacitus. In fact, the more one reads into Dio’s work, the less any such comparison seems appropriate.

Dio’s work, as a whole, is a musing on the ideal form of government. It offers a detailed account of the failings that led to the collapse of the Roman Republic, and insights into why Dio thought that some emperors were more successful than others afterwards. In short, while he is no fan of democracy (associating it with instability, unbridled competition and mob rule) he views the ideal monarchy as one in which the emperor provides necessary stability to the state but also receives advice from the ‘best men’ in the state (no surprise that he thinks these are from the senatorial class!). His characterisations of Caesar and Augustus are multi-layered, and while it is true that Dio often elaborates his history and projects his contemporary era backwards into the events of earlier periods, he nevertheless offers a work which is remarkably internally consistent for its scale.

For these reasons and more, I think he’s well worth studying and represents much more than some value-brand Tacitus. I’ve noticed, however, that anyone who interacted with the Dio Network tends to defend him more vociferously than others… perhaps it’s just that we’re championing our favourite!


What is it about Dio that appeals to you most?

Part of the initial appeal for me was that, as I noted above, for many years Dio was considered a pretty second-rate historian, usually compared unfavourably to the likes of Tacitus. I wanted to explore if and how this was the case and, in so doing, I got hooked!

The sheer scale of the Historia Romana also appeals to me since, whatever period of Roman history I might feel like dipping my toe into, chances are that there’s a Dio passage or quote that deals with it. This is not to say that I always find him to be an agreeable literary source (I certainly don’t support his views on democratic government, for example!) but it’s rare that I close my volumes of Dio without reading something entertaining or something that I hadn’t picked up on before.

Beyond his stylistic appeal, though, his reportage of the period through which he himself lived is often simply fun to read. He never shies away from offering little insights and conjectures about the intrigues within the Severan imperial court, making him as entertaining here as any I, Claudius or the like. I dare say I’d have hated to have lived through the period that he describes, and I do sometimes feel sorry for the hint of melancholy that permeates his contemporary history, but from nearly 2000 years distance, it’s undeniably entertaining.


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

At the moment, much of my week is taken up with looking after my little one-year old, when my wife is at work. This has been quite an adjustment in my life, but it’s one that I’m adoring. Every new development or cheeky little smile just makes it worth it! When I’m not reading ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ or something similar, though, I have a variety of hobbies and pastimes that I enjoy.


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I am shamelessly addicted to boardgames. My wife and I have so many of the things that we had to convert the airing cupboard into a games storage… I have a growing collection of boardgames with ancient themes, and have a variety of half-written posts for a blog that I am long overdue in updating ( where I join together my paired loves of antiquity and gaming!

It doesn’t all have to be about Classics though (much to the relief of my medic wife!) and when the world is not in virus-stricken lockdown, I love to eschew my usually introverted nature either at karaoke or ceilidh dancing. A lot of my life has been defined by kilts, Highlandwear and dancing: I met my wife at a ceilidh; I worked in Highlandwear to raise money to undertake my Masters; I’ve danced in displays at places from Edinburgh to Maribor, Slovenia; and in 2017 I was honoured to have a tartan design I’d made chosen to be the civic tartan for the city of Kraków in Poland – something that I never tire of telling people!

Finally, I suppose I’m a bit of a Trekkie. My wife and I enjoyed bingeing ‘TNG’ together and were working our way through Deep Space Nine before our son was born. He’s nearly a year old and we’ve only just got around to finishing it!


Dr Alex Imrie is presently navigating the world of a portfolio career. He is a Tutor in Classics at the University of Edinburgh, and a Research Associate at the University of St Andrews. Alongside these posts, his overarching focus is currently Classics Outreach. For the past three years, he has worked as the National Outreach Co-ordinator with the Classical Association of Scotland, also acting as the Scottish network contact for Classics for All.  As a first-generation university goer who never had the chance to study Classics at school, he is determined to make the discipline more accessible and welcoming to young learners all over Scotland. If you would like to know more about efforts in Scotland, please email

His research has focused on the history of the Severan era, with a particular interest in the reign of Caracalla. He has published a number of articles and chapters in this area, and on the work of Cassius Dio. His first book The Antonine Constitution: an edict for the Caracallan Empire (Brill, Leiden & Boston) was published in 2018, and he is currently working on his second, The Emperor Caracalla: Common Enemy of Mankind (working title), for Bloomsbury Academic.


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Comfort Classics: Tony Keen


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

Not really something direct from the ancient world. There are lots of places I like to go, such as forts on Hadrian’s Wall, though I can’t go there regularly. But my comfort reading tends to be non-classical—non-fiction or science fiction/fantasy (I revisit Lord of the Rings a lot), and comics. Even what is probably my favourite writer from the ancient world, Catullus, isn’t someone I read often for pure pleasure. So I am going to pick something derived from ancient Rome, specifically a movie, since that’s what I’m an expert in these days. And that movie is Carry On Cleo—a great opportunity to sit down, have a good laugh, and call it ‘research’.




When did you first come across this movie?

I guess I first saw it in the early 70s, when I was still a primary school kid. The Carry Ons were shown constantly on tv through that period, and I was certainly very familiar with it by time I went to university.


Can you tell me a bit about this movie and its context?

Carry On Cleo was the tenth Carry On. The Carry Ons had begun by making fun of various British institutions (National Service, the NHS, schools), but had recently switched to genre parodies. Cleo, of course, parodies the ancient Roman epic in general, and the 1963 Cleopatra in particular. It’s also interesting for how it shows the Carry Ons as an evolving process. We think that we know the Carry On cast, and the roles they play, but Bernard Bresslaw and Peter Butterworth hadn’t done a Carry On yet, Barbara Windsor and Hattie Jacques are missing, and Jim Dale’s still playing heroic straight men rather than the idiotic heroes he’s best known for now.





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

It’s just plain funny. It’s easy to point the finger at the Carry Ons for being vulgar and unsophisticated, but they’re very representative of British working class humour, and I think there’s a degree of snobbery in how some people talk about them. There’s marvellous interplay between Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar and Sid James as Mark Antony, who had been working together for a decade. And everyone else—Amanda Barrie as Cleopatra, Joan Sims as Calpurnia, Jon Pertwee as the soothsayer, etc.—are on top form. (Though I confess, it’s not quite my favourite—that’s Carry On Up The Khyber.)



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

These days, I do model railways. Not been able to do as much since lockdown started, as I can’t get to the clubs, but I’ve been making a few card locomotives.


Tony Keen is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame (USA) in England, where he teaches Roman Britain. He also is currently teaching a course on Cinema and Ancient Greece and Rome for the Manchester Continuing Education Network. Over a thirty-year career, he’s taught mythology, Greek and Roman history, Latin language, Greek and Latin literature in translation, and has written on ancient Lycia, the Achaemenid Persians, Doctor Who, science fiction, and a number of other subjects. He is currently working on a book on Roman Britain on screen. He lives in Nottingham, with his wife and two huskies.






Comfort Classics: Jo Ball


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

One of the things I have most enjoyed going back to during the lockdown has been Roman letters, particularly military and family letters, such as the Vindolanda tablets, the Vindonissa tablets, and papyri from Egypt. They are such chance survivals – usually surviving for the sole reason that they were thrown away – and yet they give such an amazing insight into the daily lives of ordinary people (both military and civilian) in a way that more formal historical sources just don’t. So since the lockdown I have been working my way through various databases of letters, just reading through them – in some cases, it is almost like reading snapshots from (very good) historical fiction.


When did you first come across these letters?

I first came across these as an undergraduate and have worked on them slowly ever since, gradually building up a database of my favourite letters. There is a certain language and form to them that builds up in your head as you read through them, realising which parts of the letters are generic inclusions (the equivalent of starting a letter “Dear XXX, I hope this finds you well”, as I was taught in English classes…) and which give real insight into the issues and why the letter is being written.


Can you tell me a bit about the letters and their context?

The letters tend to survive in pits and ditches where they had been thrown away – none of them were preserved because they were important, which for me makes them much more important than the things that were deliberately saved! They have largely been found during archaeological digs in settlements and (less often) military bases, where they had been thrown away after receipt. They were exchanged between people who lived at often quite a significant distance from one another, and provided a vital way for people to stay in touch across the miles – probably a reason why I have found them so helpful to read during lockdown!

Many of the letters were written by public scribes rather than the letter-sender themselves – literacy levels in the Roman world are difficult to reconstruct, but most suggestions hover around 10% literacy, perhaps 20% in some areas (although many more people would have low functional literacy e.g. could recognise a few words) – and may well have been read out to the recipient.


What is it about these letters that appeals to you most?

What I love about these letters is the humanity that they reveal, and the individual voices of ordinary people which in most cases are completely lost from the ancient world. They are often about fairly mundane matters – but at the same time, things which were of great importance to the writer. A lot of the themes would be familiar to people today – to soldiers and the families they are parted from, or anyone who lives a distance away from their family & friends.


Tab. Vindol. 291

A well-known example (but one of my favourites) is this birthday invitation from Vindolanda, sent by Claudia Severa (the wife of Aelius Brocchus, the commander of an unidentified fort near Vindolanda) to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina (the wife of Flavius Cerialis, commander of Vindolanda) inviting her to Severa’s birthday party on September 11th, sometime around AD100. She asks Lepidina to come to make the day more enjoyable – the tone of the letter suggests that the two women saw each other fairly often. It is a very informal letter, and sends best wishes to her friend’s family from her own. The majority of the letter is written by a scribe, but the last 4 lines are in a different, much less practiced hand, which is probably Severa’s own handwriting – if so, this makes it one of the earliest known examples of female handwriting from anywhere in the world. The sense of friendship that comes through this letter is wonderful, from two women living in a very male and military environment (there would be few other wives there), taking every opportunity that they could to socialise together.


Vindonissa 40
Vindonissa 40: an image of a reproduction as my photo of the real thing is inaccessible right now!


Another particular favourite is Vindonissa tablet 40. It was written by an unknown soldier back to his comrades in his cohort (military unit) after he had been sent on leave (something which was not common as standard, at least according to the formal sources, although decent commanders seem to have recognised the advantages of letting their soldiers have a break when necessary). While the soldier is clearly happy to have a break from his military service (‘Finally on vacation! I am completely free from military life!’) he clearly misses his fellow soldiers, asking twice that they write to him with any news from the camp, and asking that they don’t forget him. I find this a particularly nice letter because it shows the bonds that built up between Roman soldiers, and reminds us that they were people beneath the intimidating uniform and brutal battlefield tactics. We have here a man – we don’t even know his name – who even as he went on leave wanted to ensure that he kept in touch with his comrades.


From Aurelius Polion


A third and final letter that I love is one sent by a soldier named Aurelius Polion, a soldier in the Roman army who was originally from Egypt but posted elsewhere, probably Pannonia, back to his family in Tebtunis. In it, Polion complains that he has written six letters back to his family but has not received any reply, leaving him to worry about the welfare of his family – from such a distance, he would have no way to know whether his family was still alive or not, and therefore whether it was misfortune or lack of consideration that held up the reply. He is clearly wondering if he has done something to upset his family, and heads off a few of what were clearly causes of tensions in families where one member became a soldier – he makes it clear he has not asked them to send too many supplies to him (soldiers frequently asked their families to send both basic equipment and treats to them), and seems to want to reassure them that his joining the army was not a rejection of his family. He adds that he will try to obtain leave to visit them as soon as he receives a letter; we don’t know if he ever did.

What is clear is that Polion is desperate for news from his family, showing that even though he was far from them, and part of a new military community (that, as the above letter shows, could produce very strong bonds of friendship), he still had a degree of homesickness. The situation of one party in a written correspondence being more keen than the other will not sound unfamiliar to many people in the modern day (sadly, in my childhood pen-pal days, I was probably the one who forgot to write as often as I should have…), and the desperation to hear from beloved and missed family is one that I think many of us sympathise with, maybe a bit more now than we ever have.


There are countless other examples of letters like this, exchanged by people throughout the Roman world – millions more have not survived. It has proved a great comfort to be able to read them during these difficult times, and realise that many of our struggles are universal ones – we miss distant family and friends, and lose something when they cannot be part of our daily life and special occasions. We all know we should stay in contact more than we do – something which many of us have been able to address during lockdown. These letters remind us that we are not alone in our loneliness – not just today, but throughout history, we walk in steps well-trodden by those who came before us.



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

I love to travel (although as much of this is themed around historic sites, I am not sure it counts!) Otherwise, it comes down to vastly over-elaborate cooking, preparing dishes from my far-too-extensive collection of cookbooks – a way to travel-by-proxy when you can’t leave the house!


Dr Jo Ball is an Honorary Research Fellow and University Teacher at the University of Liverpool, offering courses themed around the Roman military, the frontiers and provinces (particularly Britain), and (as something slightly different) the American Civil War. Jo is also a contributor to Ancient Warfare magazine, & slightly obsessed with Twitter (@DrJEBall).

“I would classify myself as a battlefield archaeologist / Roman archaeologist (depending on my mood on the day), and my research interests centre around the Roman army, Roman warfare, and the frontier provinces – my current projects include the treatment of the enemy in Roman warfare, the disposal of the battle-dead, ambushes in provincial warfare, Roman military letters, and the sieges of the First Roman-Jewish War (all very cheerful stuff, obviously!) I love being out in the field, and hope one day to discover a previously-lost Roman battlefield, preferably the site of Boudica’s last battle.”






Comfort Classics: Matt Simonton


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

I would say Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae (Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria).


When did you first come across this play?

It wasn’t on the reading list in grad school, but I read it in translation and later the University bookstore happened to be selling C. Austin and S. D. Olson’s excellent commentary, which I snatched right up. I’ve been periodically returning to that edition for the last ten years.


Can you tell me a bit about this comedy and its context?

The Thesmophoriazusae is one of two comedies of Aristophanes we have from the year 411 BCE, when, in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, an oligarchic government briefly took over Athens (the Lysistrata is the other play). That was after the production of the play, but some political tension is noticeable throughout. The plot of the Thesmophoriazusae concerns Euripides, the famous tragedian. He gets wind of the fact that the citizen women of Athens are going to declare him a public enemy at the women-only annual festival of the Thesmophoria in honor of Demeter and Persephone. (The women are mad at him for creating so many scandalous female characters, like Medea and Stheneboea.) Euripides gets a relative of his to dress up as a woman and infiltrate the festival in order to intervene on his behalf. As the saying goes, hijinx ensue.


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

To me, the Thesmophoriazusae is hands down the funniest of Aristophanes’ extant comedies. Others, like the Birds, may have more brilliant central ideas, but in terms of successful jokes the Thesm. can’t be beat. Beyond the sheer enjoyability of reading the text, though, it’s a crucial document for a lot of Athenian cultural and political history. For example, it affords some (but, frustratingly, nowhere near enough) information about the actual three-day festival of the Thesmophoria and the cult to Demeter and Kore/Persephone at Athens. Politically, it features a parody of a typical meeting of the ekklêsia or assembly at Athens, which the women recreate when denouncing Euripides. The words Aristophanes puts in the mouths of his female characters (all of whom were played by men, of course) contribute to our picture of the misogynistic, male-driven discourse around citizen women: basically, they must be closely monitored lest they get drunk and take on lovers, resulting in supposititious and illegitimate children. But this being comedy, the sheer amount of gender play and destabilization raises as many questions as it purportedly answers. (Froma Zeitlin’s essay “Travesties of Gender and Genre in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae” remains a classic on this front.) You’ve got politics, gender, the politics of gender, paratragedy (through many quotations and parodies of Euripidean speeches, many of them otherwise lost), and, of course, the poor relative of Euripides’ being depilated with hot ash.

On the material culture side of things, the Thesmophoriazusae is one of the only ancient comedies that can be securely identified in a scene from a so-called Phlyax vase (fourth-century BCE vessels from Southern Italy depicting Old Comic scenes). The episode is this: Euripides’ relative has been found out at the festival, and in the resulting confusion he snatches the “baby” from a nearby woman and seeks asylum at an altar. There he threatens to kill the “baby” if the women don’t release him. (The plot is lifted from the myth of Telephus, who similarly abducted the infant Orestes and used him as a bargaining chip.) It turns out, however, that this “innocent child” is none other than a wineskin that the woman had snuck into the festival, complete with little booties for realistic effect. On the vase, a masked actor playing the grieving “mother” approaches the altar holding a sphageion, a vessel used to collect the blood from sacrificial victims. The joke is that the “mother” laments the death of her “child” while still insisting she collect every last drop of the wine for personal enjoyment.




Overall, the Thesmophoriazusae represents, to me, the single best introduction to fifth-century Athenian society, with all its fascinating, familiar, alien, and problematic aspects.


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

It may sound weird, but I’ve been taking immense comfort in horror movies during the pandemic. Some people will never have the stomach for horror, but to me it represents a genre, like ancient epic or jazz, where the possibility of combining formulaic elements to produce something new and exciting means endless fun. If readers haven’t checked out Snatchers or After Midnight yet I definitely recommend them––but also absolute classics like Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989) are streaming for free on some platforms!


Matt Simonton is Associate Professor of Ancient History at Arizona State University. His research focuses on political and cultural institutions in ancient Greece. His first book, Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History, was published in 2017 by Princeton University Press. He is currently working on a history of ancient Greek democracies from the Classical to Imperial periods and on a history of ancient demagoguery. Further information can be found at:






Comfort Classics: Arlene Holmes-Henderson


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

I find it hard to derive *comfort* from the ancient world but I do derive entertainment, encouragement and motivation from various sources. I could have chosen Cicero’s oratory or letters, ancient numismatics or polychrome marble as these have variously featured in my research to date (and I think they’re all a bit special). Instead, I have done what a good number of #ComfortClassicists have chosen to do and that is – gone back to school – and selected one of the first ‘proper’ texts I studied pre-university. This decision has been influenced by the particular (pandemic) circumstances in which we find ourselves and the unsettling nature of ‘work’ for so many Classicists currently.


Seneca Moral Letters 3, 5-6

On finding the balance between work and leisure

Similarly, people who never relax and people who are invariably in a relaxed state merit your disapproval — the former as much as the latter. For a delight in bustling about is not industry — it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind. And the state of mind that looks on all activity as tiresome is not true repose, but a spineless inertia. This prompts me to memorise something which I came across in Pomponius. “Some men have shrunk so far into dark corners that objects in bright daylight seem quite blurred to them”. A balanced combination of the two attitudes is what we want; the active man should be able to take things easily, while the man who is inclined towards repose should be capable of action. Ask nature: she will tell you that she made both day and night.


When did you first come across this passage?

I first encountered it when I studied Advanced Higher Latin at school in Scotland. The specification offers two literature options: Love Poetry which includes a selection from Ovid, Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus and Horace OR Letters and letter-writing which showcases the epistles of Seneca, Cicero and Pliny. Only about 50 candidates sit Advanced Higher Latin in Scotland each year and Love Poetry is the option taught in most schools. My teacher made the choice for me (she had the resources to teach epistolography, but not love poetry) and so I encountered Seneca’s ideas for living.


Can you tell me a bit about the letters and their context?

Seneca, first tutor then advisor to the emperor Nero, wrote this letter to Lucilius who was procurator of Sicily. It forms part of a larger work (we have twenty books but believe that others are missing) in which Seneca offers advice on how to live well. The letters are intended to help Lucilius to become a good Stoic, and to make progress in philosophical thinking, but Seneca is always open about his own struggles and difficulties. Seneca wrote these letters in his retirement (probably during 63-65 AD) and includes personal experiences in his exploration of moral and ethical questions. Themes include friendship, modesty, anger, forgiveness, pleasure, old age, retirement, fear and death. My chosen extract comes from a letter about friendship which (elsewhere) includes an examination of what it means to be a friend, both emotionally and behaviourally. I continue to find the content of the letters fascinating.


Nero and Seneca, 1904


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

Although this letter was written almost 2000 years ago, it still feels relevant. I am an active person. I work on three research projects and provide advice to a number of charities on a pro bono basis. My days currently include far more work than leisure and my mind can become restless as I check multiple email inboxes. Where possible, balance between activity and repose is desirable. Perhaps it is even necessary. Perspective matters. This echoes current wellbeing advice being shared in bestselling books and on twitter:




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

I buy flowers. If I weren’t a Classicist, I’d like to be a florist. I love flowers. I enjoy gardening (the good bits: not the weeding, obviously) and spending time in the sunshine. Cooking helps me relax – I enjoy cooking recipes from all over the world.


Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson is the Outreach Officer of the Classical Association and Chair of the national Classics Development Group. She is a member of the Schools’ Committee of the Roman Society, the OCR Consultative Forum and the National Qualification Support Team at the Scottish Qualifications Authority. She holds board positions on the British Curriculum Forum and the US-UK Fulbright Commission.

She now specialises in the academic study of Classics education, but is a fully-qualified high-school teacher of Classics and has experience of leading departments in a range of schools across the UK.

As Research Fellow in Classics Education, she leads the Classics in Communities project at the University of Oxford, co-directs the Advocating Classics Education project at King’s College London and is Senior Research Fellow on the AHRC Speaking Citizens project at the University of Sussex.

She is co-editor of Forward with Classics: Classical languages in schools and communities (Bloomsbury, 2018) and author of numerous chapters and articles on Classics education.


AHH with book


Arlene is currently writing ‘Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in British Secondary Education’ (Liverpool University Press) with Prof Edith Hall and Dr James Corke-Webster.

You can find out more at

She tweets at @drarlenehh


Arlene at Giverny




Comfort Classics: Gavin McCormick


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

There are a few. My experience has been that quietly working through an ancient text can be a calming, absorbing and mind-expanding activity in a busy and noisy world. Ancient writers can move and educate me, just as modern writers can. I often find myself returning to little phrases I’ve read (for example in Virgil) and using them as a stimulus to reflection. One text I often come back to, which (unlike Virgil) might not be known to many readers, is the Octavius of Minucius Felix. This is the text I’d like to talk to you about.




When did you first come across this text?

I first came across the Octavius as a Masters student while I was developing a research interest in the history of early Christianity. I ended up writing an essay about it.


Can you tell me a bit about this text and its context?

The Octavius is one of the earliest surviving texts of Christian Latin. Its exact provenance is uncertain, but it seems to have been written between the late second and mid-third century, probably in Italy or North Africa (according to St Jerome, Minucius Felix was a lawyer at Rome). Parts of the text suggest a literary relationship with the work of another Latin Christian writer, Tertullian. In various ways, the text is also influenced by the writing of Cicero.

The text presents a debate between two men (Caecilius, an advocate for traditional Roman religion, and Octavius, who makes a philosophical case for Christianity). The debate is narrated by a mutual friend of the pair whose name is not specified but who seems to be Minucius Felix himself. It takes place on the beach at Ostia.

The Octavius is fascinating for the picture it presents of Roman religion, of a philosophically literate Christianity, and of educated elite figures engaged in religious argument. One further interesting detail about the text is that it makes no reference to Christian scripture or ritual. Instead its author wants to show that a forceful case can be made for Christian ideas using arguments from Graeco-Roman philosophical tradition itself, particularly Stoicism, and to claim on this basis that Christians are true philosophers.




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

I like several things about the text (its generous and charitable tone; its tidy structure; its portrayal of an intellectually developed Christianity that can deal intelligently with trenchant arguments), but what I love most are some of the details mentioned at the outset of the dialogue.

Octavius’ children – whom he’s left behind to stroll the beach at Ostia – are described as being now at an age where they speak innocently and endearingly in half-formed words.

As the three men walk together along the beach, they enjoy feeling a gentle breeze blow against their bodies and they sense the sand sinking away beneath their feet.

And then they see a gathering of small boys skimming stones across the sea water, competing to skim their own stone the furthest.

These details (and others) are beautifully observed in a way that helps me step right into the scene.


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

Quite a few things: spending time with my wife and looking after our own small speaker of half-formed words; seeing friends; reading and writing; playing cards; world cinema; driving. I broke my ankle last year so I haven’t been able to play football recently, but doing that would usually be on the list.


Gavin McCormick works at North London Collegiate School, where he is Head of Classics. He has broad interests in ancient history and literature, which he enjoys sharing with pupils and other interested parties. He maintains a blog covering topics in Classics and education and he is currently writing a play, ‘Dionysus in North London’.






Comfort Classics: Michael Loy


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

The Nikandre kore — I am unashamedly in love with this sculpture. She is modest, discrete, and exceptionally beautiful. At only 0.17m deep, she is (rather unfairly) called ‘plank-like’. Her poor face has all but eroded away too. But she has an important story to tell both for the history of ancient Greek sculpture and about ancient society more generally.



When I worked at the Museum of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge, a plaster cast of Nikandre stood across from where I would sit at the enquiries desk. She was also the first sculpture that visitors saw when they came in the door, quietly welcoming them in. Now, the original marble statue is my neighbour, a few streets away in Athens at the National Archaeological Museum. We’ve got to stop meeting like this…


Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge


When did you first come across this sculpture?

I think I met Nikandre in the first week of my undergraduate degree, when I checked out of the library James Whitley’s The Archaeology of Ancient Greece. I remember being captivated by ancient Greek material culture, and by the history of its discoveries. I read the book cover to cover, then went out to buy my own copy when the library loan was over. In a neat ring-composition, my university education ended with James Whitley as external examiner for my PhD thesis.




The statue on the front cover of Prof. Whitley’s book is the Auxerre Goddess, a close relative of Nikandre’s. This particular statue was found in the store cupboard of the Museum of Auxerre in the early twentieth century (!), and is stylistically very similar. They both stare ‘frontally’ outwards, they wear heavy chitons, and their braided hair falls evenly across both shoulders.


[Here is a 3d scan of the Nikandre kore plaster cast (from the Museum of Classical Archaeology), created by me in late 2018.]


Can you tell me a bit about Nikandre and her context?

Sculpted around the mid-seventh century BC, the Nikandre kore is made from marble that comes from the island of Paros. She was dedicated on the nearby island of Delos, given as a gift to the goddess Artemis. Greeks of the Archaic period would sometimes set up statues like these as votives, thanking the god for something that the dedicator had received or maybe asking for something else in prayer.


Looking across the island of Delos

On Nikandre’s left leg, there is a neat three line inscription that runs back-and-forth. The first line is written left-to-right, the second is written right-to-left, and the third is left-to-right again: this is a ‘boustrophedon’ (‘ox-turning’) inscription, so called because the lines of text weave one way and then the other just like an ox ploughing a field. Roughly translated, the inscription says: ‘Nikandre dedicated me to the goddess, far-shooter of arrows, Nikandre, the daughter of Deinodikos of Naxos, distinguished among women, sister of Deinomenes and wife of Phraxos.’




What is it about this statue and its inscription that appeals to you most?

The Nikandre inscription is written in a ‘local’ form of the ancient Greek alphabet (known as the ‘Naxian’ alphabet), and so this inscription gives us evidence of the sorts of letter shapes people on these islands would have used and recognised. The text also tells us that ‘Nikandre dedicated me’ — it is actually the statue itself that is speaking. Locked down, and kept away from friends and family, this is a comforting sentiment to hold on to: objects themselves speak to us and tell us their stories.

Art historians put Nikandre at the start of a story in which over the next 150 years the artists of Archaic and Classical Greece began to sculpt kore statues that were lighter, fleshier, and a little more lifelike. But Nikandre is more than just a bookend to me. Made from Parian Stone, commissioned by someone from Naxos, and dedicated on Delos, Nikandre shows how these three Cycladic islands were tightly networked in the seventh century BC. She is truly cosmopolitan: a real material girl, living in a material world.


Entering one of the marble quarries on the island of Paros


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

I enjoy waking up very early to go for very very long hikes. Double points if sunrise is involved; triple points if the hike ends down by the sea with octopus for lunch.

During lockdown I passed the time jamming on my saxophone. And —like every other ancient historian around— of course I played through Assassin’s Creed Odyssey…


Michael Loy is Assistant Director at the British School at Athens, where he co-ordinates the undergraduate and graduate teaching programmes and manages the hostel for visiting researchers. He is a Classical Archaeologist with a particular interest in GIS. He is currently writing a book called Connecting Communities. Economic and Political Networks in Archaic Greece— spoiler: the Nikandre kore will be in there!

The British School at Athens has instigated a whole range of digital initiatives to keep in touch with the research community during this age of physical distancing. Be sure to check out or follow on social media for more details.






Comfort Classics: Lily Mac Mahon


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

During my lunch break (at least pre-lockdown!), I occasionally pop over to the British Museum and I always make sure to go up to see the Fayum mummy portraits. They never fail to awaken my imagination, even though so little is known about the artists and their subjects, and it’s not certain if the portraits were painted during the sitter’s lifetime or after their death.


When did you first come across these portraits?

I used to visit the British Museum quite often as a child and I was drawn to one portrait in particular which shows a young woman adorned in fine jewellery. As I come from quite an artistic family, I was fascinated to see a method of figurative painting which exists from the ancient world. The Fayum portraits look strangely contemporary and it’s this quality which makes them very accessible to a modern viewer.


From Wikimedia


Can you tell me a bit about this portrait and its context?

This particular portrait is said to be from er-Rubayat (Egypt) and is dated to c.160-170 AD. It was painted in encaustic on limewood, with gold leaf used for the jewellery. The Fayum portraits are an interesting synthesis of the Egyptian and Greco-Romano cultures, where you have the painting attached to the face of the mummy coupled with the realism of classical art. A few years back, I read a great book by Susan Walker, Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits in Roman Egypt, which I highly recommend.


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

Not only is this portrait a beautiful painting, especially given that it is the oldest extant form of portraiture, but it’s also an artefact which represents the combination of two very different artistic traditions coming together.


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

For the last couple of years, I’ve been building up a collection of first edition books from around the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Nothing gives me more pleasure than looking through the catalogues of antiquarian booksellers or visiting second-hand bookshops to find my latest addition! I also enjoy attempting to master French cuisine and exploring hidden corners of London.


Lily Mac Mahon read Classics BA at King’s College London. She is currently the Editorial Assistant of the Classical Studies and Archaeology list at Bloomsbury Publishing.

You can find her on Twitter @lilymacmahon1






Comfort Classics: Carey Fleiner


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

Not any one specific image, but I’ve always liked depictions of the Capitoline Wolf, the surrogate who nurtured the abandoned Romulus and Remus.


When did you first come across this story?

Very early doors as a kid – the story shows up in kids’ books about history, and then when I was a lot older at school, and started to study Latin, the story of Romulus and Remus showed up as one of the stories to work on for translation. It’s not the story of R & R that draws my attention, but the classical (as opposed to later or modern) depictions of the wolf that draw me in. So many of them remind me of derpy dogs! I used to have dogs growing up and before I moved to the UK; I miss having one around.


Can you tell me a bit about your favourite version and its context?

Two of my favourite depictions include the very famous wolf in the Capitoline Museum. Here is one of my photos from Sept 2019. Look at that expression!


Capitoline Wolf1


The  context for the story is, of course, that the twins Romulus and Remus were abandoned by their mother, the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silva, out of fear that they would be killed. They were sent down the Tiber in a basket and rescued by first this she-wolf, who nursed them, and then a shepherd, who raised them. Given that their father was Mars, you get embodied in the boys everything that the Romans held dear – family, home & hearth, war-like spirit, the group/pack mentality of the wolf, and the love of the land from the shepherd.

The wolf in this group is thought traditionally to be c. 8th C BC bucchero (a type of clay) of either early Roman or Etruscan make, although the twins are 16th century. It shows that even from Rome’s earliest days this myth was part of their social consciousness. She’s housed currently in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, in a room decorated on the walls with consular fasti. There is only one guard in the room, and nothing to hold you back from walking right up to the statue. It’s beautifully rendered and very detailed – keep in mind, this statue dates from about the same time that the earliest surviving scraps of written Homeric poetry survives (to put the dating into perspective). Rome at this time was still a pastoral (sort of collection of) village(s) on the Tiber, its marshes recently drained and ringed in with a boundary wall called the pomerium.


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

The age of the piece, but also that fabulous expression on the wolf’s face. Plus, if I’m looking nose to nose with her, then I’m also standing in the Capitoline Museum.


Also: dog toes.


Capitoline Wolf2


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

Bother my cats; spin & knit. I’m looking for someone to lathe-to-spec a spindle stick for a 1st-2nd C AD Roman spinning whorl I have.


Dr Carey Fleiner is a Senior Lecturer in Classical (Roman) History at the University of Winchester.

“I’m interested in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, especially the women at the Neronian court; sport & fun in the Roman world; reception of Rome in modern pop culture. My most recent book is A Writer’s Guide to Rome (Manchester University Press, 2020). I’m on the very start of a project about Pompeii and WWII tourism, with my father’s collection of photos from 1944 as the starting point. I’m also working on a book about Classical reception in the work of Carolingian poet Ermoldus Nigellus.”






Comfort Classics: Owen Rees


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

I have never really found solace in the ancient sources . . . is that a bad thing to say as an ancient historian? Most of my research looks at moments of great difficulty in the lives of ancient people, of highly emotional moments that, at best, offer a sense of a shared experience – but this would only be in my head, we are not the same. However, I have often used ancient history the same way others use fiction, as a way of escaping. Escaping into another world, a realm of imagination that takes me away from the issues of the everyday, for a short moment at least.

For this my go to source, other than the beautiful funerary monuments of classical Athens (I’m looking at you, monument of Demokleides!), is usually Xenophon’s Anabasis.


When did you first come across this text?

Oooh, I am not really sure to be honest. I think it would have been at BA level, but I never studied it or anything like that. In fact, I never read it cover to cover until after my MA and have now lost count of the number of times that I have. I have to use it a lot for research, so it is useful to remind myself that it is a complete work, rather than an item to dip into for references, quotes and examples.


Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?

It is amazing! Basically, it is Bravo Two Zero of the ancient world. Xenophon has written a memoir/history of his time as a mercenary in the Near East. The first two books cover the experience of being in the Persian-led army of Cyrus the Younger, the wannabe ruler of Persia, up to the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC. The Greeks, famously known as the Ten Thousand even though there were more than that, were on the losing side but in a strange twist of fate did not consider themselves to be defeated . . . it is a long story to unpack that one! The rest of the book follows the Greek mercenaries as they perform one of the most exceptional fighting retreats in human history. For over a year, they marched through hostile territory and even more hostile terrain, all in the pursuit of one goal, getting home.


Adrien Guignet, Retreat of the Ten Thousand


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

The humanity within the stories. Xenophon has an amazing ability to cover both the mundane, and the personal. The hardship these people faced is not exactly inspiring, but certainly worthy of appreciation. It was not just the mercenaries, but the women and children who followed or were forced to follow as well.

Xenophon, as a writer, gives prominence to emotion and personal experiences. He gives insight into what people were thinking and doing. He is not afraid to portray the negative aspects of the human psyche, including those he held in high regard like Clearchus the Spartan. He also reveals himself and his experiences, such as the horror he describes feeling as he watched a mass suicide performed by the Taochians as they jumped from the cliffs to get away from the Greek force.

I suppose that is what draws me most to the Anabasis, the uncensored humanity on display, warts and all.


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

Usually, I would be down at my judo club getting thrown around a room for hours on end pretending that I was getting better. Also, I love to garden, walk the dog, walk the kids, and generally be outside. If there is a world-wide pandemic, and it is raining outside, I can usually be found drinking a cup of tea while binge watching something on the telly with my wife.


Dr Owen Rees is an ancient historian, lecturer, and author of Great Naval Battles of the Classical Greek World (2019). He is also the founder of, a fact checking website that scrutinises common perceptions, dodgy claims, and some outright pseudohistory, about the ancient world.






Comfort Classics: Julian Morgan


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

I’d like to mention two, if I may. First up, Thucydides I.22, where an astonishing insight reaches forward through centuries of human achievement. Every time I come back to it, I am amazed at the clarity and understanding both of the writer’s own mission and of humanity in general.

My second text is Horace Odes III.30, where the poet talked about establishing his own monument and placed his personal achievement in the context of a long history going forward. It’s something we can all aspire to, even if we won’t all achieve it in the same ways.

Both writers seem to understand that they should still be providing wisdom and comfort in these strange times.


When did you first come across these passages?

I first met the Thucydides passage in the early 1970s, when the wonderful James Eggleshaw taught me at Pocklington School. Once I got to Bristol University, I realised how lucky I had been to have been taught so well by him and I always retained a fascination with the history of the Peloponnesian War.

I suppose I must have met Horace quite a few times along the way but the stand-out moment with exegi monumentum was when I was working on the Horace Trail CD-ROM, originally commissioned by OUP for first release in 2002. The project involved me visiting pretty much every location mentioned in the poet’s body of work, so the idea of Horace’s monument became very real to me at the time. I came to love his authenticity, modesty and sense of place in the world.


Can you tell me a bit about these sources and their contexts?

The passage from Thucydides is set at the start of his history and explains why he thinks his account may be of use to future generations, as he realises that patterns of human behaviour will be repeated in the future. He sees himself as creating a sort of user manual by which we might interpret future events. It’s extraordinary how true this actually is in places, as for instance when he writes about the plague and its effects on society in general. He also talks about the difficulty of establishing an accurate record, given the distortions of memory or bias. Fake news, anyone?

Horace’s poem was originally set to be the last one of the three books (though of course, he added a fourth one later). He is talking about his work and about how he created it to be a lasting memorial of himself which would outlive even the pyramids. It’s inspiring as a writer to think this might be the case and that we could in some way avoid a part of death. In the early days of using Perseus and looking at frequency of word usages, I uncovered that the name Libitina is very rarely used in literature and I began to realise how unusual some of the words of this message were.


What is it about these sources that appeals to you most?

The fact that both texts have been proved to be true in such powerful ways. If studying Classics is just about dead people and what they left behind, then why bother? In truth, it’s the fact that people from these times can still speak clearly to us today which matters most.


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

 Listening to the Rolling Stones is helpful, as are my daily walks with my beloved dog Ursa, often after a tootle about in my recently self-restored 1968 Morris Minor. Walking with two grandsons through our beautiful Yorkshire countryside is pretty uplifting too.


Julian Morgan is the author and publisher of the Imperium Latin Course, which has been downloaded free of charge by thousands of users via TES Resources. For details, see

Julian loves the challenge of making something entertaining out of his classical knowledge: he writes and publishes a range of puzzle books on classical themes, including Latin, Greek, Roman Britain and the classical world.

His most recent publication was written during lockdown and is a collection of 100 puzzles written entirely in Latin, called QUARE ID FACIAM. The title says it all, really: the book’s aim was to provide comfort classics for the author as well as his readers!




To find out more, please visit:

Julian tweets at this link: @imperiumlatin