Review: Hercules (2014)

Hello all,

It’s been a while since my last blog post, as I needed to focus on my thesis. Well, guess what? I submitted this morning! I decided to celebrate by going out to see Hercules. I just needed to do something that wasn’t thesis-related, and I couldn’t bear to look at a sink full of dirty dishes.

What are my thoughts on the film? Here are my immediate impressions.

– Muscle-bound hero who is averse to covering himself? Check.

– Almost bloodless, hyper-choreographed battles? Check. Atalanta is, for all intents and purposes, Legolas. Whether or not this is a good thing, I leave up to you.

– Odd homages to Akira Kurosawa films? Check, check, check.

– Horrible marginalisation of women? You’d better believe that’s a check. I found one scene of violence in particular deeply disturbing. I won’t say what it was for fear of spoilers. Also, I’m not sure how effective armour is if it leaves the midriff exposed.

– John Hurt? Check. Hi, John Hurt! Must have been weird doing this after you played Zeus in Immortals! Actually, you’re in all the epic stuff lately. But you’ll always be Caligula to me.

– Weird slurry of Mycenaean, Minoan, Classical Greek, and Roman stuff? Check– including PG-rated Minoan dresses.

– Gratuitous CGI? It’s there, in spades.

Yep, it’s an epic which is primarily pitched at teenage boys. But there are some redeeming qualities as well. The script is enjoyably tongue-in-cheek. These movies tend to take themselves so seriously, to try and instill the fear of epic into the audience. It’s rather refreshing to find it played as an adventure film that isn’t afraid to laugh at itself a bit. The writers also also play with the source material in quite an intriguing way; this is a story, ultimately, about story-telling. The attention to detail is actually really strong in the sets, props, and costumes– I’d expect nothing less from WETA. They win brownie points for depicting the writing in actual Greek, unlike, say, Alexander or Clash of the Titans. Dwayne Johnson is as likeable as ever in the title role. Still slightly sore that we’ll probably never get closure on the The Scorpion King, though.

At heart, I think it’s a B movie, and that’s what it gets: a solid B.

I just… I guess I’d love for Hollywood to wake up and realise that antiquity isn’t a genre, but a setting. You’re not actually obligated to tick the sword and sandal boxes. You can do bawdy comedies, character-driven dramas, childrens’ films, light fantasy. The ancient world was a diverse place, with a diverse range of stories to tell. I really loved the movie Agora– not for its ‘historical’ content, which was rubbish, but because it was an intellectual film. Why, then, does Hollywood keep churning out these repetitive movies?

The answer, of course, is because we keep paying to watch them.

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Thoughts on Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Films

Salvete, everyone.

It has been a while since my last post– sorry about that. I’ve been committed to a lot of projects, not least of which is raising my kids, and they have taken priority over maintaining my blog.

Tolkien, however, is serious business, and on this balmy Sunday morning I’m happy to break my blogging sabbatical to express my thoughts on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. The films have been subject to a lot of controversy among fans and critics alike for the extensive liberties taken with the source materials. I’ve seen people take to social media to vent their anger over the changes, sometimes personally attacking the film-making team for its perceived failure to remain faithful to Tolkien’s work. Some of the criticisms of the adaptation are warranted, but I feel that others are perhaps unfair. This isn’t exactly going to be an apologetic for Jackson’s work, nor is it going to disintegrate into an obnoxious rant about how it could have been done better. There’s no point; people will react as they will. But watching The Desolation of Smaug a few days ago provoked some thoughts about the nature of adaptation, and what works and what doesn’t.

What makes an adaptation work? Surely it is not simply a matter of fidelity to source material. The first two Harry Potter films were extremely close to the novels on which they were based, but in my opinion they failed to capture much of the sparkle of J.K. Rowling’s story. The third film took considerable risks by making changes to the characters, settings and plot, but in my view it was the first of the series to live up to its source.

A similar conundrum occurs with TLOTR. The fans, by and large, did not seem to have any problem with the immense changes the films made to the narrative. And let’s not kid ourselves, they are very different from the books. Seriously, no Tom? Faramir did what now? I don’t remember them going to Osgiliath in The Two Towers… The Ents, the ENTS! Saruman’s death, guys! And what of the scouring of the Shire? Yet Jackson’s adaptation won a lot of acclaim for its loyalty to Tolkien’s work. So why was it OK to make changes to TLOTR and not The Hobbit? I cannot help but wonder whether part of the problem is that some folks have overly rosy memories of TLOTR as films. We want to remember them as carbon copies of the novels, and we’ll always be comparing The Hobbit against that idealised memory.

But there’s more to it than that. As a novel, The Hobbit is a very different animal to TLOTR. It’s a lot smaller, a lot more personal, and perhaps more whimsical. In my view, it’s much more restrained and less rambling. A lot of us went in expecting to see this children’s novel captured in crystal. What we got was a massive narrative, with loads of characters jostling for room in a world every bit as dark and gritty as that of The Lord of the Rings films. The fear of epic had swept away some of the whimsy. Zounds! The fairy tale had been turned into a prequel! Perhaps people are so upset because the changes Jackson and his co-writers have made are not simply a matter of compressing the narrative as in the case of TLOTR. Rather, it is a matter of expanding the narrative beyond the written word.  I think a lot of people hated it because it wasn’t what they expected it to be.

Wait a minute, though. Do we sit down to experience stories because we want the narrative to play out as expected? Or do we want to be challenged, surprised, taken on a journey? When I read The Hobbit as a child, the thrill was in not knowing what happened next, and wanting to experience the adventure as though I were Bilbo himself. If the film played out exactly as it was in the novel, it would fail to capture everything that made the book special.

Half the fun in an adaptation is in seeing what creative people do with material we love. Film-makers are creative people too. I don’t think we should stifle them or vilify them for doing their jobs. A lot of people declaim on the ‘unnecessary’ changes to the novel. Very well, but I personally don’t think a change has to be strictly ‘necessary’ to be effective. If the only changes were those necessitated by the mechanics of film-making, the result would be rather drab and pedestrian. The Rankin-Bass animated film proved that one can abridge the story into a film lasting just over an hour without any grievous loss of material, but I don’t think that would work on the big screen.

An effective adaptation, I think, is an original creative work that is derived from pre-existing source material. Ideally, it should be able to stand on its own, while remaining sympathetic to its text of origin. It’s a secret Douglas Adams knew well: he personally penned numerous versions of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for a variety of media, each of which is quite different from the others.

Taken on these terms, I actually think Jackson’s film stands up pretty well. For example, I think it makes perfect sense to introduce Bard at this point in the story, rather than following the book. Deus ex Machina is an idiosyncrasy of Tolkien’s that works wonderfully well in his novel, but would be absolutely disastrous in a movie. One of the keys to good story-telling is to show, rather than tell. And since we don’t have the character sketches of Tolkien’s narrator, this really is the best way to get to know Bard. Thus far, there hasn’t really been anything in his characterisation that’s totally at odds with his portrayal in the book, is there?

A lot of the ‘prequel’ stuff in Jackson’s films has its footing squarely in the appendices too, as discussed here. I love the attention to details derived from the appendices, such as the way Thorin carries an oaken branch for a shield throughout the first film. 

Of course, there are things in the film which I think are counter-intuitive to Tolkien’s novel. The level of violence, for example, is very high. And it’s not just violence, it’s a choreographed ballet violence. Often, the dialogue seems a little jarring, and totally incongruent with anything resembling the middle ages. Sorry, but the word ‘mutant’ doesn’t bear any semblance to medieval parlance. Neither do the words ‘nervous system.’ But to be fair, neither do tobacco or potatoes, both of which are straight out of Tolkien. Anyway. The characters sound like they’re from an action-adventure film.

And that’s because they are. As deplored by Christopher Tolkien, Jackson has given us ‘an action movie for young people aged 15-25.’

For better or worse, Jackson is assuming the role of story-teller here, and not the master of Middle-Earth himself. Quite simply, this is not Tolkien’s story, but Jackson’s. It’s not Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but a cinematic interpretation of it. The two universes stand as discrete entities. And I get the impression that Jackson loves big action set-pieces and slightly silly dialogue.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what happens next. To a story-teller, I can give no higher credit.

Posted in Books, Fiction, Movies, Musings, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Doing a PhD in your early 20s

Futurus Essay:

A post I can really relate to… That said, doing your PhD in your early 20s with kids is no cakewalk.

Originally posted on The Thesis Whisperer:

This post is by Ben Wilkie who is a (nearly finished!) PhD candidate at Monash University in Melbourne. His research has been focused on Scottish migrants in Australia during the 19th and 20th centuries. He also lectures in Australian Studies at Deakin University in Warrnambool. Ben blogs occasionally at The Scottish Australian and you can find him on Twitter as @historyben.

Ben was kind enough to offer to write this post after a conversation on Twitter after a discussion about average PhD student in Australia. You might be surprised to hear it is around 34 years of age, but the age profile in the sciences is younger and those in the humanities. Ben tells us what it is like to do a PhD in your early 20’s in an area where there are not many younger students – I think you might find it interesting even if you are…

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The Questions Academics Ask: Conference Edition

Futurus Essay:

Doesn’t matter what discipline you’re in, you’ll have encountered all of these at some point.

Originally posted on Allan Johnson:

Steve Macone, The New YorkerI have always been a fan of New Yorker cartoons, and this Steve Macone piece from 2010 seems to hit closer to home than most.   Macone’s cartoon perfectly captures one of the several strange things that can happen during a conference Q&A.

In addition to the ‘shorter speeches disguised as questions’ there are also a number of other distinct flavours of questions–some good, some bad, but all of which we have seen before.

  • The Courtesy Question: There is always someone willing to fill the awkward silence when no one has a question to ask.  The Courtesy Questions is flimsy at the best of times, and asked merely as a kindness to the presenter.  Thank you and moving on.
  • The Tell-Us-What-You-Want-To-Tell-Us Question: This might be only one step above the Courtesy Question, but it is a question everyone is thrilled to receive.  The Tell-Us-What-You-Want-To-Tell-Us Question is so broad that you can…

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The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas

It has been a while since my last post. Unfortunately, I got home from England to discover an e-mail informing me that my thesis is now due a lot earlier than I had originally been advised.

Oh dear.

Long story short, I’ve been working my tail off over the last couple of months, and I’m pleased to say that the thesis is about 90% of the way there– all the substantive chapters are done and proofread, so now it’s time for the introduction and conclusion followed by a last round of editing. (Huzzah!) But this morning I felt the urge to post something to my blog, so here it is!

This is actually the script of a presentation I put together for my Classics postgraduate reading group on The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas– it’s all very informal. I’m going to be a good Classicist and open by declaring how unworthy I am to present on this topic. Also, this is an incredibly complex text, a bit of an anomaly really. I’ve read it a few times and I’m still not sure I’ve got my head around it… There’s a huge amount of secondary literature on Perpetua, of which I’ve barely scratched the surface. What you’re about to read is based on a combination of my thesis research, my general knowledge, and close reading. I haven’t had time to come up with my own translation, unfortunately, so all translations come from that of the late Rev. R. E. Wallis, in the Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. 3. The full text of the public domain translation may be found here.

EDIT: I would like to direct readers’ attention to the very helpful comments below by Professor Thomas J. Heffernan of the University of Tennessee, writer of “The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity.” Oxford University Press, 2012. Prof. Heffernan is a far greater authority on the text than I am.

The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas narrates the martyrdom of a 22 year old Romano-African Christian, Vibia Perpetua, along with her companions. It’s a really interesting text for a few reasons. It provides a fascinating snapshot of ante-Nicene Christianity, the phenomenon of martyrdom, and in particular it sheds light upon the reasons for persecution of Christians in North Africa. But more than that, it contains (as far as I’m aware) the only ancient example of a woman’s diary. It gives us good insight into her response to patriarchy. It’s especially valuable for me, because it’s the only source on childrearing written from a female perspective.

The date of the action is a bit muddy. The games at which Perpetua and Felicitas met their demise were held in honour of Geta’s birthday. Ostensibly, this would seem to put the action of the narrative sometime in the years 209-211, between Geta’s assumption of the title ‘Augustus’ and his murder by Caracalla. The problem is that Tertullian mentions Perpetua’s martyrdom in his De Anima, and it looks suspiciously like he may have actually read the text. If we accept Timothy Barnes’ chronology of Tertullian’s work (and no-one’s come up with a convincing reason not to), De Anima was written sometime from 206-207, which situates the martyrdom sometime before Geta’s accession. I wonder if maybe Geta was being celebrated as the heir rather than as ruler—he is, after all, referred to as ‘Caesar’ rather than ‘Augustus.’

The names of the governors don’t really help us to provide a more precise date. The text mentions that the proconsul of Africa, Hilarianus, had recently taken over from the late Minucius Timinianus. This Timinianus is not attested in any other source, and Hilarianus is mentioned on inscriptions from 198-209. It’s possible that Timinianus’ name is actually a corruption of ‘Opimianus,’ the proconsul of Africa who served until 203, but your guess is as good as mine.

The martyrdom is often placed in the so-called Severan persecution of 202-203. However, the basis for this date is the SHA’s record of an imperial edict Severus apparently issued in the tenth year of his reign, which illegalised conversion to Christianity and Judaism. There’s been considerable debate over whether this edict or the resulting persecutions were genuine. The jury’s still out on whether it’s true. I’m personally not inclined to believe it.  There is no contemporary evidence that similar persecutions occurred outside of Africa, at least not in any systematic way. What we have are isolated examples of mob violence against Christians, rather than a state-sponsored religious pogrom; there is no firm evidence that such occurrences were regular or particularly well-organised. In North Africa we have a real problem of sample bias, in that our only texts on the Severan persecution—Tertullian, the Passion of Perpetua, and the Passion of the Scillitan Martyrs—came from ecstatic, rather more severe sects. We can see this throughout the text, as it’s filled with apocalyptic visions under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the persecutors targeted only the most uncompromising and ecstatic branches of Christianity.

Latin and Greek versions of the work have survived, the earlier of which is undoubtedly the Latin. The text is divided into three sections. Chapters 1-2 consist of introductory remarks by the editor. Then the text launches into what purports to be Perpetua’s own first-person account of her suffering in prison, and the visions she experienced there. Then the text provides Saturus’ account of his visions. Finally, the text reverts to a third-person perspective, where the editor narrates their deaths in the arena.

Who is this editor? We don’t know. Once upon a time, around the turn of the century, it was often attributed to Tertullian, but there’s no real evidence to support the idea. The text gets bundled in with some of his works in several of the manuscripts, but I think we can all agree that’s pretty shaky evidence. If it was by Tertullian, he would certainly be stepping outside of his comfort zone; Tertullian wrote polemics, not martyrologies. Let’s go through the text.

Chapter One opens with a prologue, an exordium in which the editor tells us that he is publishing the Passion because he wants to inspire future generations in their faith by providing them examples to live up to, and so that non-Christian readers might be inspired to convert. And this will be a running theme throughout the text. Pagans are continuously amazed at the piety of Perpetua and her companions, and are moved to either convert or treat them with dignity. However, the editor also seeks to make a theological point, that the charismatic inspiration of the Holy Spirit was not confined solely to the earliest days of Christianity, but continued to his day. He argues that his intended Christian reader should thus embrace new prophecies, and not just ancient ones.

Chapter Two introduces our protagonists: the slaves Revocatus and Felicitas, Saturninus and Secundulus, and of course, Perpetua herself. All of these people were catechumens, that is to say, recent converts under instruction in preparation for baptism. They’ve just been apprehended. What they’re being charged with, we don’t actually know, at least at this stage. Perpetua, we are told, was:

‘…a woman well born, liberally educated, and honourably married, who had a father, mother, and two brothers, one of whom was also a catechumen. She had an infant son still at the breast, and was about twenty-two years of age.’

Straight off the bat, this tells us that upper-class Romano-African women could receive a good education, particularly in rhetoric, I think. Perpetua continually makes convincing arguments to her captors.

But there are a couple of issues, too. Throughout Perpetua’s narrative, her husband is conspicuous by his absence. It’s her father who attempts to convince her to renounce her Christianity; if she were in a manus marriage, then patria postestas would have normally passed onto her husband. As it is, he’s nowhere to be found. Maybe he was away on business, maybe he was dead, maybe he just wanted to wash his hands of the whole thing. Maybe she didn’t have a manus marriage, meaning her father was still her nominal paterfamilias. We just don’t know. I also think it’s worth asking about this Christian brother. Given how much grief her Christianity causes her dad, surely that of her brother would have come up somewhere. If her brother was, in fact, a Christian, it makes me wonder if Perpetua and company weren’t actually being charged with Christianity per se. I do wonder if maybe the editor got confused by the Christian habit of referring to each other as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in Christ.

Chapter three launches into Perpetua’s narration. She starts the story in medias res, telling us how her father, because of his love for her, tried to convince her to give up her faith. She uses the rhetorical exemplum of an analogy to convince him to leave her alone.

‘Father,’ I said, ‘do you see this vase lying here, for example, this small water pitcher or whatever?’ ‘I see it,’ he said. And I said to him: ‘Can it be called by another name other than what it is?’ And he said: ‘No.’ ‘In the same way, I am unable to call myself other than what I am, a Christian.’

At this point, her father is so enraged that he attacks her, trying to gouge out her eyes. This leaves Perpetua understandably upset, but unswayed in her resolve. I think this is a good illustration of the relationship between the paterfamilias and his adult children. He obviously has a lot of affection for his kids, in fact, he even tells Perpetua later on that she’s his favourite. He feels responsible for her wellbeing. Despite this sentimental attachment, it’s also clear that their power relationship is unequal. When she steps out of line, he resorts to intimidation, manipulation and violence. It has quite an effect, too; Perpetua is unafraid of torture and getting ripped to shreds by wild beasts. Her father is the only thing which causes her distress. It’s clear that she too has a lot of love for her father, but when forced to choose between her God and her dad, she chooses God. I think this is a good illustration of why there was sometimes friction between Christians and Pagans; among zealots, faith could overturn the normal pecking order of the Roman family, and arguably of Roman society.

Perpetua is now baptised, and a few days later the groovy gang are moved into prison. She tells us that her number one concern is for her baby. The deacons Tertius and Pomponius slip a bribe to the soldiers guarding the prison, and they are released from the dungeon and sent to a nicer part of the jail. There, they are allowed visitors. This jail does seem to have a bit of an open door policy: people wander in and out throughout the story. Perpetua meets up with her mother and brother, who have been looking after the baby. The baby is by now weak from hunger. The child is clearly not neonatal—it has to be at least a few months old. A newborn would have died after days without milk of dehydration and starvation. It has to be at least old enough to take water. Perpetua takes the baby and feels a great deal of relief as she can now nurse it in prison. But here, we have a problem. If she has been breast-feeding, then surely a few days off from breastfeeding would have been enough for her milk to dry up. This does actually happen later on in the story. In the meantime, it seems that she got her milk supply back, before it mysteriously vanishes again; one possible explanation is that she was expressing by hand to keep the supply going.

In Chapter 4, Perpetua’s brother (whether it’s her biological brother or a brother in Christ) asks her for a vision, whether there will be any end to their suffering. Perpetua has a dream-vision where she and her teacher Saturus (who has apparently turned himself in) are ascending a ladder to heaven, (not a stairway!). There are bladed weapons of various sorts affixed to it,

‘…so that if anyone climbed up carelessly, or not looking upwards, he was torn to pieces and his flesh clung to the iron weapons. And there was a serpent of great size lying at the foot of the ladder, which would lie in wait for those who climbed and deterred them from climbing.’

Saturus goes up before her, and Perpetua interprets this as a sign that he’s going to die first. (As it turns out, she’s right). Perpetua crushes the serpent underfoot (I think the editor might have had a foot fetish, as feet seem to be something of a preoccupation for him). Perpetua reaches the next world: a bucolic garden. There she sees a kindly old shepherd, who offers her welcome and gives her a piece of cheese—actually some traditions have it as a small cake. Some have suggested that this may be an early representation of the Eucharist. Perpetua wakes up, and immediately she and Saturus conclude that they will soon be martyred.

Why exactly? For the answer, I think we need to go to Perpetua’s contemporary, and fellow North African, Tertullian. In his De Anima and De Resurrectione Mortuorum, Tertullian tells us that only martyrs have immediate access to heaven. All other souls descend to hell, there to await the resurrection of their flesh in the last days. Christian laypeople would only reach heaven upon Christ’s return. As proof, Tertullian points to the fact that Perpetua sees only fellow martyrs in her vision of heaven. I think this might give us a good clue as to why Perpetua and co. appear so eager for martyrdom. On the other hand, the incentive of heaven didn’t work on everyone—Tertullian didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry to become a martyr himself, much to the ire of Gibbon.

In Chapter Five, word gets out that Perpetua and co. are going to get a public hearing before the proconsul. Her dad comes to her as a supplicant, and begs her again to change her mind.

‘My daughter, have pity on my gray hair, have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called father by you, if with these hands I have raised you to this flower of youth, if I have preferred you to all your brothers, do not shame me among men. Think about your brothers, think about your mother and your mother’s sister, think about your son who will not be able to live without you. Give up your pride; do not destroy us all. For, if you are punished, none of us will be able to speak freely again.’

I think it’s interesting that he’s as much concerned for his own reputation and that of his family as he is for her life.

Next, the Carthage Five are whisked off for their trial, which her father attends, begging her to reconsider. Hilarianus, the proconsul, gives her the chance to offer sacrifice for the emperors, and she refuses, instead proudly confessing her faith. Hilarianus condemns them to die in the arena, and they cheerfully go back to prison. Perpetua’s dad weeps and begs her for the last time, and Perpetua is very upset as Hilarianus orders the lictors to beat him.

Here, I can really see why people might have seen Christian ecstatics as being politically subversive, and anti-social. Christianity was a closed society, which (as far as outsiders were concerned) refused to give due homage to the leader of the state. This might be construed as treason, but the implications are a lot deeper. The Emperor was the guarantor of the pax Romana. He provided the provinces security and stability, and ensured prosperity throughout the empire. Refusal to participate in the Imperial cult would have seemed an open abrogation of all the benefits of civilisation. I also detect a note of hesitancy in the governor’s decision to execute the Christians; Perpetua and co. had numerous opportunities to get out of the death sentence, but their zeal for martyrdom prevented them. It takes a certain kind of crazy to march off to your execution with a big grin on your face.

A lot of commentators, starting with Augustine, seem to feel that Perpetua was somewhat callous in the fact that she was not moved by the needs of her infant. I think that is really rather unfair. At the end of the chapter, she asks Pomponius the deacon to bring the baby back to her, but her dad refuses. This was not a matter of her abandoning the baby; also, Perpetua tells us that by this point her milk supply had dried up, and the child had stopped suckling.

‘And as God willed, the baby no longer desired my breasts, nor did they ache and become inflamed, so that I might not be tormented by worry for my child or by the pain in my breasts.’

As my wife will tell you, it really does rather hurt to give up breastfeeding, as the breasts become engorged and swollen; I can imagine why Perpetua was relieved. What became of her child? We don’t know. Very frustratingly, we don’t know how old it was, since Perpetua uses the generic term infans, which is applicable right up to the teens. In rare cases, it can even be applied to mute adults, since it literally means ‘unspeaking.’ If the baby was old enough, it could have been put onto solid food. If it was too young for weaning, then Perpetua’s father ensured its death by keeping it away from her.

In chapters 7 and 8, Perpetua has a vision of her younger brother, who had died of natural causes some years previously. She sees that this entire time he has been suffering in hell. The next day, as she is put in the stocks, Perpetua prays for his soul, and experiences another vision, saying that his soul has been sent to heaven. I find it intriguing from a theological perspective that one could pray for the dead; there does seem to be a bit of a loophole in the idea that only martyrs saw heaven straight off.

In chapter 9, Perpetua tells us that Pudens, the military overseer of the prison, has by now come to admire the martyrs and treat them with respect, recognising that ‘there was some great power in us.’ He lets in many visitors for the prisoners. Included among them is Perpetua’s father, there to see her for the last time. She grieves for him even as he grieves for her. But by this point, it’s too late to change the outcome of the trial.

In chapter 10, Perpetua has her last recorded vision. In her vision, Pomponius leads her to the arena. Here, she has to fight an Egyptian, under the watchful eye of a giant gladiator trainer dressed in royal purple. The Egyptian grabs her by her feet and lifts her up into the air, but she manages to crush it like she did the serpent. The big gladiator trainer (God) congratulates her.

‘And he kissed me and he said to me: ‘Daughter, peace be with you.’ And I began to walk in triumph to the Gate of Life.  And then I woke up. And I knew that I was going to fight with the devil and not with the beasts; but I knew that victory was to be mine.’

It’s not surprising that she interpreted the vision of the Egyptian as a matter of contending with the devil; Egypt is the Biblical pasture of demons and the possessed; it was the site of Israelite enslavement (at least in Exodus).

But I’m not entirely sure what to make of this part, where Perpetua tells us that before the match, she is stripped naked. This whole episode foreshadows her final end, where the editor tells us she and Felicitas are indeed stripped. This might simply be reportage—I don’t think it’s inconceivable that people were sent into the arena naked. But I can’t help think of the symbolism of nudity in Judeo-Christian literature. Depending on the context, the unclothed body is often constructed as an object of erotic desire, especially within marriage. To appear naked in public is often (not always) a source of shame. But nudity could also represent innocence, rebirth, and very importantly, baptism. The text twice describes martyrdom as a kind of second baptism—I don’t really have any conclusions to this thought, but it is interesting.

Here, we leave Perpetua’s perspective, and move to Saturus’ vision. He sees himself and Perpetua lifted toward heaven by the angels. In an idyllic garden, angels greet them enthusiastically and clad them in white robes. Then they meet God, a white-haired but youthful man, clad in long robes—Saturus makes sure to tell us that he couldn’t see His feet. The juxtaposition of youth and old age almost strikes me as Dionysiac. Saturus and Perpetua meet fellow martyrs, and also their local bishop Optatus and the priest Aspasius. Apparently these two had some sort of falling out, but prostrating themselves, they somewhat cryptically say, ‘Make peace between us, for you have gone away and left us in this state.’ Perpetua and Saturus embrace them, and gently rebuke them for arguing among themselves; an angel tells Perpetua and Saturus to leave them alone, and to resolve any quarrels between themselves. It doesn’t surprise me at all to find that there was some kind of local division among the Christian communities of Carthage at this time; there were numerous sects living in close proximity. And moreover, Tertullian seems to have made a career out of bashing every Christian under the sun.

Anyway, the text finally reverts to the third-person perspective of the editor in Chapter 14. He tells us that Secundulus apparently died in prison. In Chapter 15, we get our first real mention of Felicitas, who was pregnant at the time of her arrest. She gives birth in prison, and rejoices that she was able to bring her child forth in time for her to be martyred with her friends. Very weirdly, the text tells us that pregnant women were not allowed to be executed in the arena. This does seem to corroborate a law Ulpian mentions in the Digesta of Justinian (48.19.3, if you want to look it up), and it does help explain something Tertullian says in his letter to his wife, admonishing her that she couldn’t serve very effectively as a martyr if she had a child. Anyway, I can understand Felicitas’ feelings, as the alternative was to be executed with the next batch of criminals; better to die among friends, I guess.

Chapter 16 contains a couple of interesting tidbits—apparently in the lead-up to the games, the tribune mistreated them by denying them food, because he was under the impression that they might escape via sorcery. I tend to think the Romans’ association of Christianity with witchcraft might have been another reason for persecution in North Africa. (And this is hardly a new idea). Perpetua manages to convince him to give them proper food, so that they’re looking their best for Geta’s birthday. The tribune is properly ashamed of himself. Here, the theme of pagan conversion re-emerges. The text tells us that by this point Pudens has converted to Christianity. Very similarly, in the next chapter, Saturus manages to shame the jeering gawkers who come to mock the prisoners into converting.

Our heroes are led into the arena, heads held high and singing hymns. They are forced to put on costumes—the men are expected to dress as priests of Saturn, and the women like priestesses of Ceres. Perpetua ‘that noble-minded woman’ saves her friends from this indignity, invoking an agreement she had struck with the tribune whereby the martyrs would be permitted to wear their own clothes into the arena, so long as they came quietly.

The games begin in chapter 19, and they are quite visceral and bloody. Saturninus and Revocatus fight a leopard and a bear, while Saturus fights a wild boar, which promptly goes wild and kills the bestiarius tending it. Saturus is then tied down on a platform to be slaughtered by the bear, who, very awkwardly, refuses to leave its cage. One might almost think there’s someone looking out for him! Meanwhile, Perpetua’s vision comes true, as she and Felicitas are stripped—but the crowd is ashamed of itself at the sight of a young girl and a lactating mother. So they are recalled and dressed in simple robes and face their beast—a monstrous cow. The mad cow tosses Perpetua into the air, (rather like the Egyptian) and crushes Felicitas, but both survive. Perpetua has now entered a trance-like state, and is barely aware of her wounds. With one bite, the leopard finally finishes off Saturus, who in his last moments tells Pudens not to forget what they have died for.

 ‘”Farewell, remember the faith and me; and do not let these things trouble you but strengthen you.” At the same time he asked Pudens for the small ring from his finger, and dipping it into his wound, he returned it to him as a legacy, leaving it to him as a pledge and a memorial of his blood.’

As Perpetua predicted, he’s the first to snuff it. The survivors of the games move into the middle of the arena for execution. Saturninus and Revocatus must have lived through their fight with the leopard and the bear. The martyrs share the kiss of peace, and are finally stabbed. The gladiator who kills Perpetua is new to the job and a little unsteady of hand, so after checking her hair is straight, she guides the sword to her throat herself.

‘Perhaps such a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not have been killed unless she herself had willed it.’

The editor then finishes off with his rousing conclusion, where he reaffirms his point that the Holy Spirit continues to act through the Church.

 ‘Bravest and most blessed martyrs! O truly called and chosen for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ! Anyone who praises, honors, and adores his glory surely should read these deeds, which are no less worthy than the old ones for building up the church. For these new deeds of courage too may witness that one and the same Holy Spirit is always working among us even now, along with God, the Father almighty, and his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, to whom is glory and endless power forever and ever. Amen.’

Amen indeed. More posts soonish.



Posted in Ancient History, Gender relations, Musings, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My Little Odyssey

Hello all,

I have spent the last few days in the UK for the Classical Association’s annual conference in Reading! It has been a pretty tremendous experience, all round. I was really looking forward to watching Doctor Who in my hotel room last night, but unfortunately the TV in my room died. Instead of moping about, I thought I would try to record some of my experiences and impressions of the place while they are still fresh in my mind; I tried to make the most of the trip, given the time and budget that I had.

People often express incredulity when they hear that I had not traveled to Europe before now. Surely EVERY Romanist has been to Rome, and every Philhellene has been to Athens? Alas, no. Australia is very remote from the rest of the globe, and for some of us trips down the road seem expensive, let alone journeys halfway around the world. I would not have been able to afford this journey if not for the generosity of the University of Queensland’s school of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, which funded my airfare and accommodation.

My first impression as my bus pulled into Reading station was that it was a nice, quaint town. The locals apologised profusely for the weather, at an unseasonable five degrees Celsius. Still, every day bar one has had blue skies, and that’s something for which to be thankful. Reading isn’t quite like the little villages we see on TV, but it’s hardly a sprawling metropolis like London—it has a lot of cute shops, quite a few pubs (actually, an alarmingly large number given how small the population is!), and a couple of nice eccentric historical sites. I had little money for my trip, so shopping wasn’t really an option.

Hell, I was counting every jangling penny I spent on food and bus fares. This is my first experience of visiting a country with an unfavourable exchange rate, so every pound I spend here empties the bank account of $1.50 back home. There’s something about travelling that makes you feel so aware of poverty. Our family’s finances are very precarious, since my scholarship is our primary source of income, and it doesn’t stretch very far when it has to support two adults and two toddlers. Please don’t misunderstand me, our situation is not as desperate as that of many others. We don’t have a mortgage, and thanks to Kelly’s amazing budgeting skills we have never been in debt at all. Still, there have been many occasions where we’ve had $10 to see us through a week. Sometimes I haven’t been able to afford to travel to campus, which is pretty miserable. My wife had been looking for work for a long time, but the employment situation in Queensland is pretty dismal, thanks to the austerity measures implemented by our state government. Kelly and I have been scrimming and saving every dollar I’ve earned through my extra work—teaching, museum, freelance stuff– to get me here. Every free tea and coffee has been a blessing. The breakfast buffet also provides lunch surreptitiously smuggled out in a napkin.

The first person I met in Reading was a beggar at the bus stop. I was jetlagged, exhausted light-headed. I’d spent the last two days awake. He was bedraggled, thin, shivering, and there was a real desperation in his eyes. He asked me for a handout. I hesitated, but I gave him a few coins, as I knew from bitter experience what it felt like to be starving. We hear news reports all the time about how dire the economic situation is over here, and all in all, I come from a rich country. I handed over a few gold coins, thinking that would be the end of it. But I was alarmed as he got angry seeing how much cash I had in my wallet.

‘Gimme that tenner! Give it to me, I can see you got a tenner! Come on mate, you’re loaded!’

I refused, and he got angry, shoving his face into mine. He started shouting, and I walked off. Fortunately, he didn’t follow. I only realised when I got back to my hotel room that I had given him 2 pound coins, not 1 pound as I’d thought. I’m used to Australian currency, where for whatever reason $2 coins are half the size of $1 coins, but here it’s the opposite. I felt kind of stupid, especially realising that there was a good chance I’d just given him money for drugs or alcohol. In a space of seconds, I had gone from feeling compassionate to feeling that I was being taken advantage of. When I told this story on Facebook, my friends assured me that most of England’s homeless are actually mostly decent people, and warned me to avoid putting myself in that situation again as I could have been mugged. This sort of thing doesn’t happen very often in Brisbane.

I decided to kill time before checking in to my hotel by hanging out in the local museum, and that cheered me up a lot. It was fascinating, and free. I was actually kind of surprised at the size of the space and collection, and I was impressed at how effectively they used the gallery—I thought they had struck a good balance between being a tourist spot, being a place where locals could bring their families for an afternoon out, and being an avenue for public education. I’ll admit that I bypassed some of the material from the modern period and went straight to the cabinets of ancient and medieval artefacts. There was an infinitesimally miniscule collection of Egyptian artefacts, and a lovely little collection of Cypriot and Apuleian pottery displayed on the ground floor.

"St. Lucia's Bane"

“St. Lucia’s Bane”

O hai Hapy!

O hai Hapy!

There was also an amusing little animation playing on a loop, which showed some of the figures on black and red-figure vases coming to life. I smiled, but little did I suspect the full significance of the animation until the next morning.

You can find the animations here…

I ambled up to the second floor, which was entirely dedicated to displaying a magnificent recreation of the Bayeux tapestry—a medieval French tapestry which narrates the Norman conquest of Britain through sequential art. It’s kind of like a comic book, only with less tights (but not much less) and more Latin. It felt nice to be able to read it by sight! The reconstruction was created in the late 19th century by a group of ladies in Reading. Perhaps this accounts for the covering-up of the squatting nude man in one panel, but I’m a little bemused that they didn’t think to do something about this.

I guess he's just really, really excited to be fighting the Angles! Either that, or it's the dog's leg.

I guess he’s just really, really excited to be fighting the Angles! Either that, or it’s the dog’s leg.

On level three, though, I was amazed by their permanent exhibition on the nearby archaeological site of Calleva Atrebatum, better known as Roman Silchester. There was a lot of love put into this display, and the signage displayed a deft knowledge of the Roman world. I had difficulty containing my excitement, much to the bemusement of the staff and bored-looking children looking over the display. Basically, my reaction was that of the Eleventh Doctor looking over objects from the Apollo missions.


You don't see this very often in Aussie museums.

You don’t see this very often in Aussie museums.

About two millenia ago, a kid walked in the clay while it was still wet. For me, it's a reminder that when we're talking about ancient history, we are dealing with the lives of real people.

About two millenia ago, a kid walked in the clay while it was still wet. For me, it’s a reminder that when we’re talking about ancient history, we are dealing with the lives of real people.

This Eagle was the inspiration behind Rosemary Sutcliff's classic novel, 'Eagle of the Ninth'

This Eagle was the inspiration behind Rosemary Sutcliff’s classic novel, ‘Eagle of the Ninth’

Anyway, it was at last time to check in, call home, and finally sleep. Kelly mentioned that she’d gotten a second interview for a job, and I did my best to be encouraging without getting our hopes up too high.

The next day was the formal opening of the conference, but it mostly consisted of welcomes and annual meetings which had nothing to do with me, and I was a bit out of it, so I decided to hold off attending for a day. Also, and very importantly, I was planning to catch up with my mate Chris, who was going to introduce me to his girlfriend, Joanna. Chris and I survived undergrad together, but we sort of went our separate ways in academia as he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a novelist via a Masters of creative writing. We still meet up once a month or so for coffee, but we hadn’t really hung out for a long time. We were both looking forward to spending time together, as he delivered a paper at the conference too. (Incidentally, it was excellent!) I hung out in the hotel room and did some thesis work (‘cos that’s how I roll!) and then headed into town to meet them for a meal and to do a spot of exploring. I was pleased but not remotely surprised to find that Joanna was charming and lovely, and in no time at all we were talking like old friends over steaming bowls of sensibly priced Chinese food. I almost literally jumped for joy when Chris told me that they are now engaged. Actually Chris said it was quite literal. I really couldn’t be more thrilled for them!

I woke up early the next morning and took a stroll around the suburbs. I don’t know why, but I always find walking around areas where people actually live is more interesting than going to tourist sites. I love finding people to talk to when I go travelling. I suppose that you get more of an idea of a place’s culture, rather than the glamorous face it wants to show the world. I thought it was really interesting to notice how different it was from my homeland—the houses usually adjoin, tiny little houses which we’d probably call flats, and often with three or four cars parked out the front. It gives you a good idea of how spread out we really are in Australia, doesn’t it? I was also amazed by the diversity on display—I saw Hindu shrines in windows, and Christian and Masonic symbols built into the very brickwork, all on one street. There’s a small church which has been converted into a block of units. I assume it’s been deconsecrated. I wandered over to the public soccer field, perfectly tended and manicured on public coin. My first thought was that this is a strange country, where tax dollars maintain the soccer fields like they’re holy ground while some people sleep without a roof over their heads.

Then I remembered Australia is no different, and checked my sanctimony.

Time to go to the conference! I attended some amazing papers concerning the work which some of the antiquities museums in the UK are doing. Here, I discovered that the animations I had seen in the Reading public museum were the result of a public engagement program spearheaded by the university of Reading’s Ure museum, where schoolkids were invited to observe the pots in the museum’s collection—really observe, and not merely look—and devise narratives from the scenes depicted, which they themselves storyboarded. Their storyboards were then sent to a local animator, who worked with the kids to create the scenes. It was, in a word, beautiful. It really got me thinking about the possible applications of similar projects at the RD. Milns Antiquities Museum, where I work. I think a lower-tech version with shadow-puppets might work brilliantly, on the budget we have. I also asked a question in that panel about the potential for opening a similar project for children who experience difficulties with literacy, and I was delighted to discover that such an idea is already in progress. I wonder if this might be a good way to engage with special schools at home. I also saw an excellent paper which mentioned some excellent public engagement programs at the University of Leeds, which offer an annual evening public festival known as ‘light the night.’ I told the speaker about a similar event our museum offers, the ‘carpe noctem’ series of evening events.

My remarks caught the attention of the Ure Museum’s director, Amy, who invited me to come visit the museum to share ideas about the possible applications of the new technology of 3D scanning. I would not make it there until the next day, and I skived off a couple of papers to get there. It was absolutely worth it, though! I had an amazing conversation with Amy and the Ure museum’s education officer, and steadily we realised that our museums have very similar resources and aims—we hope to forge a closer relationship in future. It felt great to act as an ambassador for my museum, and I look forward to reporting it all to my bosses back home.

Anyway, I saw lots of papers, so many that it all wound up being a bit of a blur. I attended some excellent ones on teaching, and reports on what works and what doesn’t. I was particularly fascinated by one paper which advocated an experiential teaching method for the teaching of dead languages—I can’t say I would have thought of that. It felt wonderfully weird to attend papers which had practical applications, and were not as esoteric as the usual fare. My mind was buzzing with ideas, and I can’t wait to try them out in my own teaching practice.

I saw some great academic papers. I loved every second of the panel on narrative description in the Greek novel, amazed at a paper on the portrayal of Nero as the anti-Christ in late antiquity. The plenary lecture by Robin Osborne was, quite simply, breathtaking. The whole conference was like a revolving door of academic celebrities, and I felt simultaneously over-awed and ebullient to be among such high and mighty company. The CA isn’t like other Classics organisations. As a postgrad, I felt welcome, that this is simultaneously a learning opportunity and a chance to shine in our own right. I relished the opportunity to talk to European PhD students, to spend time among young people so full of optimism for their futures, more or less secure in the knowledge that they could and would walk out from their doctorates into academic jobs. Well… Maybe not in Greece, sadly. Still, it made a heck of a change from the latent anxiety so prevalent among early-career Classicists in Australasia. I feel I have made new friends even in the few days I’ve been here. I’ve also reconnected with old friends I haven’t seen in a long time, which is an experience I’ll always cherish.

And then, of course, there was the moment of truth, when I had to deliver my paper. I was a bit nervous. I delivered the paper, stumbled once or twice, but mercifully nobody seemed to notice. I made light of the fact that they had misprinted the title of the paper in the conference booklet, made as much eye contact as I dared. It was over before I knew it. Question time. Stunned silence. Oh dear. Make a feeble joke saying this means I’ve convinced everybody. Scattered laughs. Finally, an older professor whose name I sadly neglect to write down asks an intelligent and helpful question. Then gradually the questions start to flow. They’re not hostile, not attacking me for neglecting a vital aspect of the topic. They’re interested in my research, and they want to know more. Over the next couple of days, there are requests for me to e-mail copies of my powerpoint presentation, people asking if I have contacted Professor Such-and-Such of the University of Thingummy to let them know about my research, because they would find it really interesting.

I wonder why I was so bloody nervous.

I walk out from the conference with this music on my ipod, as I feel like I’ve just destroyed the Death Star using the power of the Force.

I visited some really interesting places while I was here. As part of the conference, I joined Chris and Joanna on an excursion to Roman Silchester, which was pretty astounding. I may make a post about the historical side of the site, but mostly I loved being on an actual Roman site, to see the wall of the town with sections torn away and recycled during the middle-ages. I loved being able to have an intelligent conversation with the archaeologist heading up the excavation about the interpretation of a small Third Century structure on the site which is suspiciously reminiscent of a Church, but probably isn’t one. There is a small medieval chapel on site; it really hit me to see the juxtaposition of pagan and Christian, as the church is possibly built upon the remains of an ancient Celtic temple, and incorporates the Roman wall as part of the outer perimeter. I loved having jammie dodgers and sipping tea with my friends in this ancient structure.

Chris and I! Photo courtesy of Joanna. It would seem that my beard is even redder in England.

Chris and I! Photo courtesy of Joanna. It would seem that my beard is even redder in England.

Eurotrip 807

We just don’t have buildings that old in Australia, and we likely never will, so long as we keep tearing them down before they have a chance to grow old. I overheard a couple of people sniff at the site, as it’s not as spectacular or as well-preserved as, say, Pompeii or Herculaneum. But standing in the remains of arena, I felt fortunate indeed. It was snowing, and there were more profuse apologies for the weather. I’ll admit, I was freezing, as I hadn’t dressed properly (that’s a learning curve, I think!), but I was so happy. This was so much more beautiful than the wet slush I’d seen in New Zealand. I’d never seen snowflakes properly, never been able to appreciate that each one is unique; holding one in my hand for a few seconds before it melted was precious, and I felt that something tiny and special had passed out of the world, never to be seen again. And it would never be appreciated by anybody but me.

My phone camera sucks, so you can't see that it is snowing lightly.

My phone camera sucks, so you can’t see that it is snowing lightly.

Today I found the mouldering ruins of Reading’s original abbey, which are now sadly closed off. I considered jumping the high, spiked fence, then decided it wasn’t worth risking serious injury to read the Latin inscription *just* visible from the gate. Apparently Jane Austen went to school near this Abbey.


I wandered along the Blake River toward the Thames, found another little museum mostly dedicated to the river, showcasing things they’d dredged up. There was a fifth-century BC Greek Kylix. Your guess is as good as mine how it got there! There was also a 19th Century gypsy wagon behind glass, which was fascinating.

I made my way to the Oscar Wilde memorial walkway, which is situated at the prison where he was incarcerated for his sexuality. It was sad, but kind of beautiful at the same time.

Oscar Wilde Memorial

Yes indeed.

Yes indeed.

There were a couple of blokes sitting quietly holding hands. I guess it makes sense that it would be a kind of pilgrimage destination for a lot of people. Once upon a time, the sight of two men openly expressing their love, even in a perfectly innocent way, would have revolted me. It doesn’t now. I’ve spent too much time among people, and had too many people question my own relationships on religious grounds to discriminate like I once did. It was a painful realisation that I was hurting others, but now I realise it I can try to make amends. I think it’s good to see how far we’ve come in our recognition that love exists in so many ways. I thought of my friends who are part of the queer community, or at least have loved ones who are. Actually, that’s pretty much everyone I know. I can only hope that we continue to move forward in our acceptance of change and difference. Maybe this means I’ve grown up? I don’t know; I hope so. If I can change, society can.

I gotta get me one of these!

I gotta get me one of these!

I found a few people to chat with along the riverbank. I talked to a lovely old guy who travels around the country’s canals and rivers in a narrowboat. I also talked to another fellow about our work—he’s a soccer coach, but he took Latin in school. I was surprised at how much we had in common—turns out he’s an actively involved dad too, and his job mostly involves working with kids. He was worried about his eleven-year-old son, who is enjoying history at school but seems to struggle with source analysis. The guy asked me for advice from my museum work, because he wants his son to do well. It felt great to think I was helping to make a difference, however small.

Ah, children, family. My mind keeps turning homeward. I’ve only been away a few days, but I wish I were home. My children miss me, and I miss them. Noah, my oldest, has been asking where I am. Though I carry Kelly in my heart always, I want to hold her now. I want to go back to our little Narnia, to the family we’ve made, the family I was born into, the family I chose.

The best part of the trip was hearing that Kelly was accepted for that job. She is now the second in charge at a small department store. Our financial worries are over, now, and I suddenly feel like Christmas has come early. We’ll no longer have to worry if there will be enough to pay for groceries, if we’ll be able to pay rent. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it alleviates a lot of burdens. I’m so glad that Kelly will be happier, being out in the world and making a living.

But I’ll never forget what I’ve seen and experienced here in England. This morning, I got into an unexpectedly wonderful conversation with a stranger. It all started when we were on the bus toward London, and we were swapping our stories. I asked where she was from, and she unexpectedly started shedding silent tears. She is from Bosnia, and is on her way to her war-torn home. We ended up having tea together, and sharing a packet of shortbread I’d bought to munch on in London. It felt much better to share food with someone than to eat it alone. She poured her heart out to me. I won’t share her story, as it’s not mine to share. But let’s just say I have never felt more… privileged to live in Australia. She’s an amazing person, fighting to better her life and change her country, to end the cycle of violence which has plagued the region for so long. We swapped e-mail addresses, and she hugged me goodbye. I feel like that one conversation with a near stranger has affected me deep in my bones. It certainly helped to put my problems in perspective.

Right now, I’m sitting in a Starbucks across the road from the British Museum. My planned pilgrimage to the museum, my own personal Mecca, has failed. Alas, I had not counted on the fact that my luggage would prevent my entry.

But I have visual evidence that I was there at least!

But I have visual evidence that I was there at least!

As was my faithful hat, with TARDIS pin.

As was my faithful hat, with TARDIS pin.

Still, as I sip horrible coffee and shiftily pick at the sandwich I made at the buffet this morning, I can’t say I care that much. The experience of poverty, and hearing the horror story of civil war has sharpened my resolve to continue fighting poverty and inequity back home. Life is good in Australia, for most of us. It should be that way for everyone; I never want to see my land become what I’ve seen and heard of here. I have resolved to start volunteering at a homeless shelter, to provide more aid to our society’s most vulnerable members.

I can’t save the world, but I’ll do what I can.

The conference is over, and I have various German and Swiss academics’ email addresses scrawled in the margin of my conference booklet, and I’m ready for the final stretch toward home. I’ve only been here a few days, but I feel that my little adventure is a turning point in my life. It all brings to mind a poet favoured by one of my old teachers, UQ’s Emeritus Professor Bob Milns… ‘Ithaca’ by Constantinos Cavafy. I’ll leave it to James Bond to read it for me.

Vale for now,


Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Medieval History, Museum Work, Musings, Philosophy, Poetry, Real life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Write Like a Roman: Your Thesis Introduction

Hello all,

Over the last several weeks I have been immersed in the world of Classical rhetoric. I’ve been reading the advice of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian and the anonymous author of Rhetorica Ad Herrenium on the construction of persuasive speech. Trust me, it’s not my usual choice of reading material, but it is extremely useful for my thesis. I’m analysing the early Christian author, Tertullian. I’m interested in his adherence to the principles of Classical rhetoric in his construction of the human embryo. To be honest, it’s a little dry– rhetoric simply is not as juicy a topic as, say, Hippocratic theories of sperm production (see my last post). Nonetheless, I feel that rhetoric is one of the many areas where the Classics demonstrate their usefulness to contemporary society, and to academia in particular. If there was one thing that the Greeks and the Romans were good at, it was persuasive argument. That’s a pretty integral component of all aspects of academic writing, no matter the discipline. Indeed, the very word ‘thesis’ comes from the Greek word θέσις, ‘something put forth.’ What can we learn from the ancients?

As I get down to the crunch time on my dissertation, I find myself subconsciously making plans for writing my thesis introduction. It’s a little way off yet, as I still have one chapter left to write. Nonetheless, it’s important to start thinking about it early. As we all know, a solid introduction is absolutely crucial to writing a pass-worthy thesis. Everything ties into this chapter. If your intro is weak, the thesis won’t hold together. Writing the introduction can be one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the thesis process. I certainly found it so on my previous dissertations. How to structure it? I’ve been looking over the dissertations of academics whose work I admire, trying to figure out the key to writing a good introduction. And then it hit me: perhaps I’d had the answer all along in Cicero and Quintilian.

The key to a good thesis introduction may just be to write it like a Roman. Oh, I don’t suggest that you should drape yourself with a sheet and call it a toga as you tap away at the keyboard. Though if you do, you’re officially my hero. And chances are that you don’t have a helpful Tiro dutifully transcribing your words on a tablet, of the wax or touchscreen variety. I’m suggesting that one could write the thesis introduction effectively by structuring it like that of a Latin speech. Different academic disciplines have different requirements, of course, so feel free to adapt and modify as needed. The Romans themselves certainly had no real qualms about mixing and matching the sections of their speeches, when it suited their rhetorical purposes.

A Latin forensic speech was divided into three parts, roughly analogous to the introduction, body, and conclusion of an essay. Or rather, how an undergrad’s essay should read, in the ideal world. The introduction consisted of two parts: first, there was the exordium, a preamble where an orator was expected to set his audience in a sympathetic frame of mind. It often featured an emotive plea to listeners’ senses of justice or ethics.

Now, I don’t think it’s a great idea to write a thesis emotively. At all. It’s not good academicese, and emotive language will straight away set alarm bells going off in the marker’s mind. Still, it is not uncommon for a thesis to open with some general observations or remarks which serve to let the reader ease into the thesis, rather than jumping into the argument. But keep it short and sweet, because the next part is a doozy. In the great scheme of things, the exordium is not the most important part: even for the Romans, it was not uncommon to either drop it altogether, or slot it in after offering more substantial arguments.

The next part, the narratio, was essential. It was in the narratio that the speaker narrated the circumstances from which their topic emerged, and gave some indication of their plans to deal with it. According to the anonymous rhetorical handbook Rhetorica Ad Herrenium, and confirmed by Cicero, the narratio chiefly consisted of a partitio, which explicated the main point of contention. It was here that the speech-writer stated the central thesis which he was trying to prove. In the partitio, the speaker was also expected to demarcate the points on which he agreed with his opponent from those with which he disagreed, and then summarise the content of his speech. Of course, Quintilian relabelled the partitio as the propositio, but we’ll leave that to one side.

This is where one explains the problem the thesis is tackling, and why it is necessary to do so. How did the problem come up? Moreover, one must review the current literature in one’s area, and explain how your method is similar, or different. You can explain where you think previous research is lacking, and explain why that has happened. What are you going to do to compensate for the existing problems in the literature? It’s important to write one’s lit review critically, I think, rather than it simply being a catalogue of your readings. The most effective lit review is narrative, tracing the development of theory over time, as well as applications of the research. Believe it or not, the art of story-telling is a powerful skill, with a wide range of applications.

Now is probably the time to state your thesis and provide a summary of the thesis content; some say the thesis statement should be earlier, and that is fine too. Either way, the introduction probably won’t be the first time the reader has encountered the thesis, since they’ll have read your abstract. It is also absolutely essential to summarise the body of the thesis effectively, in perspicuous language. It is going to be your reader’s guide to the remainder of your thesis. That’s why it’s usually a good idea to write it last, after you have formed your ideas… Otherwise, it’s really easy to wind up contradicting yourself.

Anyway, thinking about the thesis introduction in these terms has certainly helped me. I’m going in with a greater sense of confidence, knowing that in crafting my thesis, I’m engaging in an academic tradition which is literally thousands of years old. I hope it is helpful for you too.

If you’re looking for more advice on constructing your discussion chapter, I heartily recommend the thoughts of the Thesis Whisperer here:

I may yet make more posts in future about the relevance of ancient rhetorical theory to today’s world.

Vale for now,


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