Asexuality in the Ancient World

by Livy Pillinger

What is Asexuality?

Asexuality is, at its simplest, the lack of sexual attraction to anyone of any gender. 

A key thing to note is that, like with every other LGBTQ+ identity, it is not a choice. It should not be confused with celibacy or abstinence. In fact, many asexual still engage in sex and physical intimacy. What makes them asexual is the lack of sexual attraction. 

Asexuality and the ancient world 

When we look at the ancient world through the lens of our modern view on sexuality and identity, it is important to remember that the terms and definitions we have now did not exist then. Of course, that does not mean that these identities did not exist, it just means that they are harder to find in the literature. 

There is very little scholarship which exists on asexuality in the ancient world, but what little there is seems to focus on the idea of the virgin goddess. This is the argument that I will be following, using my experience as an asexual to judge its validity. 

Athena 

The Athena of Velletri, Lourve.

The first virgin goddess to tackle is Athena. We all know Athena as the goddess of wisdom, war and crafts but what is not talked about is her identity as a virgin goddess.

Athena’s identity as a virgin goddess is not commonly referred to but the most famous temple – the Parthenon –  atop the acropolis in Athens, is dedicated to Parthenos Athena. Parthenos means maiden/virgin and was a frequent epithet of the goddess. Additionally, the Panathenaic festival in Athens was dedicated to Parthenos Athena.

What is important for the other two goddesses I will be discussing is the rejection of suitors, and this is not present in Athena and her surrounding mythology. Therefore, I do not think that she is asexual. Her oath of virginity seems more of a choice than something that she feels is necessary. 

Hestia

Hestia Marble Statue. State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

Hestia as a goddess does not get much attention and I think that she is criminally underrated. She is goddess of the hearth and the home and, of course, is a virgin goddess. Unlike with Athena it is a key component of her identity as a goddess and the practices surrounded her worship. Additionally, Hestia is the oldest child of Kronos and Rhea, making her one of the oldest gods and Zeus’ big sister.

For example, her hearth is always tended by unmarried girls and her priestesses take an oath of virginity. Think the Vestal Virgins, which are the priestess for Hestia’s Roman counterpart.

Furthermore, her virginity was something that she asked Zeus for. There are two versions of the story of how she became a maiden goddess. The first version goes like this, she was being pursued by both Poseidon and Apollo for marriage. Hestia refused both of them and then went to Zeus and swore an oath to remain a virgin forever. The second version is that after Hestia aided in defeating the Titans, she went to Zeus and asked if she could remain a virgin forever.

The problem here is the asking for permission. Of course, once again it makes more sense within the ancient context, but it makes the problem of judging whether Hestia is asexual or not harder. I am inclined to say that she is, for two reasons. 

Firstly, she rejected the marriage proposal of two gods in the first version. This is not to say that asexuals do not want relationships or to get married but in the ancient world marriage was more about the physical aspect and the need to produce an heir. Nowadays, marriage is much more about the emotional intimacy something which many asexuals, myself included, still look for. Therefore, it seems to me at least that Hestia is rejecting the idea of sex with Poseidon and Apollo, which is more in line with the definition of asexuality established at the start.

Artemis

Artemis Statue, The Lourve. Photo by Livy Pillinger.

Artemis is perhaps most known as a virgin goddess. It is an attribute highlighted in both modern scholarship and ancient texts when she is discussed. In fact, the Homeric hymn to Artemis opens with her being called “the virgin profuse of arrows” (Hom. Hymn. Artemis 1 – 2). This is equally evident in the hymn by Callimachus who constantly refers to her as the maiden, another word for virgin.

Additionally, as with Hestia, Artemis actively rejects sexual advances, or anyone who tries to encroach on her modesty. The most famous example of this would be the story of Actaeon. The hunter who came upon Artemis bathing in the forest and decided that he would watch her. In retaliation she turned him into a stag, and he was torn apart by his own hunting dogs. This version of the myth appears both in the Hymn by Callimachus and in the Bacchae by Euripides. This is a very aggressive response to this but in the context of the asexual spectrum it seems to fit into the sex-repulsed end.

There is also the case of Orion, one of the only men that Artemis tolerated and allowed to hunt with her. There are many different versions of this myth, but the one relevant to this discussion is the one where Orion tried to violate either Artemis or one of her followers. This appears in both Apollodorus and Callimachus. Further evidence that Artemis was an asexual goddess. 

Finally, there is the idea of her followers. Unlike with Athena, and sometimes Hestia, Artemis’ devoted followers also seemingly stayed perpetual virgins. Not only where her huntresses made to take a vow of chastity, one she took very seriously as we just saw. The one problem is that there are not many mythological figures that are devout followers of Artemis. There is Orion but as mentioned he clearly did not follow this vow. However, there is also Hippolytus, whose story can be found in the eponymous tragedy by Euripides.

Hippolytus, son of Theseus and the Amazon Hippolyta, was a devout follower of Artemis who shunned the other gods and goddesses, much to his doom. Aphrodite, feeling slighted, makes the opening speech of the tragedy and explains how she will get revenge by making his stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him. In doing so she says how he “shuns the bed of love and will have nothing to do with marriage” (Eur. Hipp. 13 – 14). Of course, this could just be celibacy but to me, given that love and marriage is mentioned, it makes sense to assume that Hippolytus follows Artemis in her asexuality. Why else would Aphrodite feel so angry?

I do believe that Artemis is asexual, simply for all the reasons stated above. Additionally, she fits into the sex-repulsed area of the spectrum. Personally, I have always felt a draw towards Artemis, and this is one of the many reasons. 

Did asexuality exist in the ancient world?

We will never know the answer for sure, especially as our concept of sexuality and identity is different from what there was in the ancient world. 

There are arguments that the stoics and other philosophical schools practised asexuality, but I do not believe that is the case. They chose to shun material pleasures and so they were practising celibacy or abstinence rather than being asexual.

I believe though that asexuals existed in the ancient world. There were inevitably people in the ancient world that didn’t feel sexual attraction, there was just not a term for them and so we have no empirical evidence. Instead, as I have done in this post, we interpret 

the texts in a certain way and perhaps take some liberties. 

Nevertheless, just as we exist today, I argue that asexuals were a part of the ancient world. 

Bibliography

Callimachus, “Hymn to Artemis”, in Stephens, S.A., (2015), The Hymns, Oxford.

Euripides, Bacchae; Children of Heracles; Hippolytus; Andromache; Hecuba, trans. Kovacks, D., (1995), Cambridge.

Homeric Hymns, Homeric Apocrypha, lives of Homer, trans. West. M.L., (2003), Cambridge.

Hard, R., (2019), The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, London.

Mowat C., Queering Hippolytus: Asexuality and Ancient Greece

Petrovic, I., (2012), “Artemis”, in Bagnall, R.S., (2013), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Oxford.

Stonewall article, Six ways to be an ally to asexual people

A Night with the Nymphs

by Jess Ketley  

TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains discussions of sexual violence. 

The stories which feature sexual violence will be highlighted so you can skip those tales if you wish. 

Very soon the Classics Society event of the year, Hadrian’s Ball, will be upon us. If you have bought a ticket you will know that the theme is A Night with the Nymphs (and if you haven’t – get on it! There’s a limited amount of after party tickets left) As part of the theme, all of the tables for the dinner are named after a different Nymph from Greek Mythology. So, to prepare for the grand evening of festivities, I’ve prepared a series of short biographies of the namesakes of our different tables, so you can find out more about the nymphs featured. Without further ado, here are the nymphs of the night at A Night with the Nymphs!

CW: Rape

Echo

If you’ve heard of Echo, it’s likely from the myth of Narcissus. In this tale, Narcissus, so obsessed with his own beauty, falls in love with his own reflection in a forest pool. Echo, a nymph of that pool, also falls in love with Narcissus. However, Echo was cursed by Hera because she helped Zeus pursue affairs with mortals. As a consequence, she cannot speak but only repeat what others say. Narcissus’ self-obsession leads him to reject Echo, who, in her grief, dissolves into air, leaving just her voice  – and is thus the origin of echoes.

However, there are other versions of the Echo myth. For example, in Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe  a different version is presented, in which Echo is a beautiful singer and virgin, who rejects the pursuits of the god Pan. In retaliation to her rejection, Pan rapes and then murders Echo, ripping her body into several pieces. These pieces are then absorbed by the Earth, out of pity for Echo, preserving her voice, and thus creating echoes. There are versions where Echo is able to escape Pan, however.

You can read more about Echo in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (3.356– 510), Pausanias’s Description of Greece (9.31.6– 9), and Philostratus’s Imagines (1.23).

CW: Attempted Rape

Daphne

Daphne’s story seems very tragic to us modern readers, as it is another tale of a woman being unable to escape sexual violence by gods. She was a wood nymph, daughter of the river god Peneus, and a follower of Artemis. Although she was a sworn virgin, Daphne was pursued by her goddess’ twin brother, Apollo. Like Echo, Daphne rejected these advances, and was then violently pursued by the god. In order to avoid being raped by Apollo, Daphne prayed to her father, who protected her by turning her into a laurel tree – Daphne meaning laurel in Greek. Since he was now unable to marry her, Apollo made the laurel tree one of his attributes. 

You can find representations of Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1.452-567), Hyginus’s Fabulae (203) and Pausanias’ Descriptions of Greece (10.7.8).

Thetis

Thetis was a sea nymph, the daughter of Nereus, wife of Peleus, and, most famously, the mother of the hero Achilles. While she was originally pursued by Zeus and Poseidon, Thetis was forcibly married to the mortal Peleus because of a prophecy that stated her child would be greater than his father.

She is best known, however, for her attempts to aid her son, Achilles, in the Trojan War. In the early books of Homer’s Iliad, Thetis persuades Zeus to turn against the Greeks in order to help Achilles to increase his glory. She also appears in the later books to give Achilles new armour made by the god Hephaestus, after the death of Patroclus. Because of her involvement in the Trojan War, Thetis also appears in Euripides’ Andromache, Hesiod’s Theogony, and Ovid’s Metamorphosis, amongst others. She has also appeared in modern works of fiction, most notably Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles.

There is also the famous myth of Thetis dunking Achilles in the river Styx in order to make him invulnerable, except for the part of his ankle she was holding. This is where we get the phrase Achille’s Heel from, as well as why that part of your foot is called the Achille’s Tendon. This story doesn’t appear in the Iliad, and it is unclear if Achilles is invulnerable in that story, as it is never explicitly stated. Scholars debate where or not this story was thus a later invention or was simply left out by Homer for some reason.

Tyche

Not to be confused with Tyche, the goddess of Fortune and Luck, Tyche was also a nymph, the daughter of Oceanus, the god of rivers. She is mentioned in Homer’s Hymn 2 to Demeter, which details the abduction of Kore, better known as Persephone. When she is abducted by Hades, Kore was playing in a field with several of her companions – including Tyche (as well as a few others on this list). Pausanias also mentions this in his Descriptions of Greece

Amphitrite 

Amphitrite was a Nereid, wife of Poseidon, and the Queen of the Sea. Despite her marriage to one of the most prominent Olympians, we know little about Amphitrite. Her parentage is disputed, with her either being the child of Doris and Nereus, or Oceanus and Tethys. We also have no myths specifically about her surviving to us.

She does appear in Homer’s Odyssey, in which she represents the dangers of the sea, with her breeding sea monsters and controlling the waves. Amphitrite is also mentioned in Pausanias’ Descriptions of Greece, Hesiod’s Theogony, and Apollodorus’ Library.

Minthe

A Naiad of Mount Mintha, Minthe is known from the origin story of the mint plant. Supposedly, Minthe was loved by Hades, and so claimed to be superior to Persephone. In revenge for this, Persephone turned Minthe into the mint plant; although some versions have Persephone turning Minthe to literal ash (a little harsh) and Hades causing the mint plant to grow from the ashes to preserve his love. It is suggested that mint was used in ancient Greek funeral rites in order to mask the smell of the body, and was sacred to Hades. 

Minthe’s story is mentioned in Strabo’s Geography and Ovid’s Metamorphoses

CW : Rape.

Nephele

Nephele was a nymph made of clouds by Zeus to look like Hera (her name means cloud – nobody said the Greeks were creative). This was in order to test the King Ixion of the Lapiths, who Hera claimed hade tried to rape her. This trick did in fact work, and Ixion raped Nephele, who subsequently became pregnant. This pregnancy by Ixion resulted in her giving birth to the Centaurs by raining on the Mount Pelion. In a fresh change from other stories, Ixion was punished (more so for his attempted rape of Hera than his rape of Nephele, but you take wins when you can) and was chained to a fiery wheel in Hades for eternity.

Nephele was also the lover of Athamas, a mythic king of Boeotia (it has been debated whether or not these are two separate nymphs, both named Nephele, but for the sake of this I’m going to treat them as one figure in a world with a shortage of creative names). She had two children with Athamas, Phrixus and Helle, before he married another woman, Ino. Ino attempted to have her stepchildren killed through a ruse, but Nephele saved them by having them carried off by a golden ram, leant to her by Hermes.

As they flew away, Nephele’s daughter, Helle, fell off the ram and into the sea, where she drowned. Her name was then given to the place she drowned (which is a little messed up) – the Hellespont. Her son, Phrixus, survived and made it to Colchis, where he married one of the daughters of the King Aeetes, and sacrificed the golden ram in thanks to Zeus. The skin of this ram is the same fleece sought out by Jason and the Argonauts.

The different stories about Nephele can be found in Pindar’s Pythian Ode, Hesiod’s Catalogues of Women, and Apollodorus’ The Library

Styx

Styx is an Oceanid nymph of the river of the same name which encircles Hades, separating it from the mortal world. She is the eldest daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. She sided with Zeus in the war against the Titans. Styx was also the embodiment of hatred, making her the first known hater.

Despite siding with Zeus, she had several divine children by the Titan Pallas – Bia (Strength), Kratos (Power – and yes, that is the Kratos from the God of War games), Nike (Victory), and Zelus (Zeal). Apollodorus also claims that Persephone was the daughter of Styx by Zeus, rather than the child of Demeter. However, the Homeric Hymn 2 to Demeter claims that Styx was one of Persephone’s playmates present at her abduction.

Calypso

 One of the Pleiades (the star-nymph daughters of Atlas and Pleoine), Calypso is most famous for her appearance in the early books of the Odyssesy. When Odysseus is shipwrecked on the island of Ogygia, where Calypso lived, she fell in love with him and forced him to remain with her for seven years. She only allowed him to leave after being commanded to do so by Zeus. She did bear children with Odysseus, anywhere from 1-3 sons, depending on the source. 

Calypso is also mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony and Apollodorus’ The Library, which give conflicting information on her parentage.

Scylla

Scylla is best known as the sea monster who threatened Odysseus, Aeneas and the Argonauts on their respective journeys. Whether or not she was born as a monster differs depending on the source you read. In older Greek poems, Scylla was born a monster. However, in later sources, she is transformed into a monster. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Scylla was loved by the sea god Glaucus, and thus incurred the jealous wrath of Circe, who poisoned Scylla’s bath and transformed her into a sea monster.

Scylla’s parentage is also unclear – according to Apollodorus, she is either the child of Hekate by Phorcys, or of Trienus and Phorcus. She is described by Homer as having twelve feet, six necks, and three rows of teeth, aka a significantly worse goose. In art, she is frequently depicted with having several dogs attached to her waist.

Ambrosia

Ambrosia is one of the Nysiades, who were the nymphs of the mythic Mount Nysa, a fictional mountain who’s location has been posited as being in Thrace, India, or Libya, amongst others.  Sources are unclear as to how many Nysiades there were, with the most common numbers being 3, 5, or 6. 

Ambrosia and her sisters – who are named Kisseis, Bromie, Koronis, and Arsinoe in Hyginus’ Fabulae 182, although he gives differing names and amounts in both the same story and other works – were the nurses of the infant Dionysos, who was entrusted to them by Zeus to raise of Mount Nysa. When he came of age, they joined him to become the first Bacchantes. So basically, this is the ultimate party table.

Thalia

The daughter of Hephaestus, Thalia was a Naiad of Mount Etna in Sicily. Unfortunately for Thalia, she drew the desire of Zeus, and ended up conceiving children by him. In order to avoid the anger of Hera, Thalia asked to be swallowed by the Earth, and it, fortunately (?), obliged. Under the Earth she gave birth to twins – the Palikoi, the demi-gods of hot springs and geysers of Palakia in Sicily, in what I can only imagine was a quick birth. Her sons would then go on to have a sanctuary established at Palakia, in which escaped slaves could claim refuge.

We do know that Aeschylus wrote a play about Thalia, called the Women of Aetna, although now it is nearly entirely lost. Only one fragment survives to us through Macrobius’ Saturnalia. We know from the Life of Aeschylus that it was performed soon after the founding of the city of Aetna, and that Aeschylus possibly wrote it in Sicily to manifest good fortune for the new city.

Bibliography:

Theoi Project – https://www.theoi.com/

Roman, L., Roman, M. (2010), Encyclopaedia of Greek and Roman Mythology, New York.

Review: “Stone Blind” by Natalie Haynes

by Jess Ketley

Stone Blind is the fourth novel by classicist Natalie Haynes, who is probably best known for her other retellings A Thousand Ships and Children of Jocasta, as well as her BBC Radio 4 show Standing Up for the Classics with Natalie Haynes. It was also the Classics Society Book Club book for December/January! It – supposedly, as we’ll get into – follows the story of Medusa from Greek myth. I read it, and as you can expect for a very opinionated classicist, I have many, many thoughts.

First of all – this really shouldn’t be advertised as a Medusa retelling. Because it’s actually a Perseus retelling, but from the side of Medusa. And by side I mean the moral side, not the perspective of Medusa. There are very few chapters actually from Medusa’s perspective and she is barely developed as a character. Since she is on the cover and the book is named after her I was expecting her to be the main character, but really she is a side character in the overall narrative. This is my biggest grief overall with the book – I feel like I misled into reading a very different book then what I expected.

However, the book is beautifully written, with excellent descriptions and gorgeous prose. There are several points of amazing descriptions which I loved. I especially appreciate how Haynes wrote combat scenes. The depiction of the Gigantomachy was easy to follow, something I normally struggle with in books. It felt fluid and I felt involved in the action.

Overall, something I noticed and appreciated was Hayne’s commitment to trying to stick to the original myths and use Greek terms in the book. As a Classicist I thoroughly enjoyed how many Greek words were used – there’s also a glossary at the back for readers who may not be familiar. Being able to see so many different myths depicted in the book was great; however, I do think it negatively impacted the pacing of the story, which often felt like we were jumping between several different narratives which were only briefly connected. I felt like some of them could have been cut without impacting the overall narrative while improving the reading experience – for example, the birth of Athena. This is also linked to the fact that there were far too many POVs, many of which are only used for one chapter, which was just confusing.

I also had issues with the ending which felt slightly out of left field, and I felt like it went against a lot of the characterisation that occurred earlier in the book. Overall, however, I felt like most of the characterisation was very lacklustre. Many of the characters felt incredibly one dimensional, even the ones who featured very prominently, like Perseus and Andromeda. The only character who really felt developed to me was Athena. I really liked the depiction of Athena in this book – she’s not presented as a girlboss feminist figure like we sometimes see in media, but rather the flawed, arrogant, but capable and intelligent figure we see if the original myths.

Another thing I really disliked the fact that Haynes continually accuses the reader of sympathising with Perseus, who is portrayed incredibly negatively in the book, to the point where it seems kind of ham-fisted. I understand that in many portrayals of the Perseus myth, he is the hero, but this is not the case in this book. If you had no prior knowledge of the myth before reading Stone Blind, you would likely not think this, however. Hayne’s narrative is very skewed against him – while I agree with the fact that Perseus kind of sucks, the fact that the narrative seems unaware of its own tone and portrayals is very frustrating.

In the end, I didn’t enjoy Stone Blind as much as I wanted to. This was a very anticipated read for me, and I felt like it did not meet my expectations; this is not so much as it missed the target, but that it was aiming for a completely different one than what the marketing of the book led me to expect. I think if it had been advertised more truthfully – namely, as a Perseus retelling – I would’ve enjoyed it a lot more.

I would love to hear your thoughts about Stone Blind! And if you’re interested in reading more mythology-based books, make sure to come along to Classics Society Book Club! We read a book based on world mythology every month – you can find more information in our Facebook group! Our next book, in anticipation of our talk with Madeline Miller on 17th March, is Circe! I hope to see you on 1st March to talk about it.

Classics Outreach in Scotland

By Dr. Alex Imrie

What even is outreach? In technical-speak, it is the term used to describe work by any group, individual or organisation to connect its ideas and values with another demographic or audience. Crucially, good outreach activity is targeted at those who otherwise lack access to said ideas or services normally; it aims to meet the receiving community on their own ground, literally reaching out to them, rather than expecting them to attend upon the provider. This is similar to but technically distinct from public engagement, which shares many of the same goals as outreach work, but is usually more focused on ways of sharing research activity with the public and gathering further data thereafter (this is a key element in many universities’ submissions to the infamous REF – the Research Excellence Framework. For more on public engagement, see www.publicengagement.ac.uk.)

Generally, universities, particularly the self-styled elite of the Russell Group, have been rather poor historically in their outreach agenda. Until relatively recently, efforts have mainly consisted of university departments dispatching scholars to deliver lectures to a small circle of largely independent schools. In outreach terms, this rather feels like preaching to the choir, since these receiving communities are already reliable citadels of Classics tuition. On the one hand, I believe that there is always value to be found in schools and universities collaborating (bringing the best of subject knowledge and pedagogical expertise together). On the other hand, however, many past efforts have felt to me – who attended a large state school with no access to Classics at all – as arguably entrenching the deep class divide at the heart of our subject, rather than mitigating it.

In a Scottish context, however, I cannot be unflinchingly hard on these rather weak past engagements. University departments in Scotland have been faced with a landscape in which Classics collapsed within the state sector throughout the 1980s and 1990s. This is one reason among many why universities such as Edinburgh are so reliant on recruiting students either from beyond Scotland’s borders or from an independent school background. Universities must speak to their primary markets and put simply, the most dependable concentration of students in Classics is to be found in the private sector. While this is understandable, the fact remains that such a course of action will inevitably result in a further marginalisation of the subject, up to an including higher education. This is a dangerous situation when university vice-chancellors have proven themselves only too willing to axe even high-performing Classics programmes.

Importantly, however, this is not an irretrievable situation. Targeted outreach work has already proven itself as a way of opening access to the discipline, enthusing new people to the subject and thereby diversifying the cohort of classicists at school and university alike. There is no easy fix or quick response to the problems faced by a discipline so old and with such ingrained power structures, but the die is not yet cast: I believe that it is a cause still worth fighting for. 

In what follows here, I will offer an insight into my own entry into Classics Outreach, give a sense of what I actually do in this area, and offer some preliminary thoughts on why I think that it is valuable. 

Working in Classics Outreach

Outreach was something which I became increasingly aware of during doctorate. Without any real direction or support framework, however, my efforts were restricted to participating in as many activities during Edinburgh University’s Flexible Learning Week as I could. Following the completion of my PhD in 2015, I spent a couple years on different temporary teaching contracts before I was alerted to a potential job being offered by the Classical Association of Scotland, in conjunction with the charity Classics for All. A survey had been undertaken which identified the dire state of Classics’ survival in Scottish state schools (only 18 respondents offering any Classical Studies, with only 11 offering Latin in any form). Everyone agreed that something had to be done, and so money was ringfenced to support CAS to engage a National Outreach Co-ordinator. I was fortunate enough to secure the position in late September 2017. Since then, I have worked at the forefront of a multi-agency campaign to support and bolster the Classics community in Scotland. 

Primary Education

It was decided early that we would focus efforts in primary schools around Latin. This was for a couple reasons: firstly, Latin outreach efforts had already proven successful for Classics for All across England, and projects such as the Iris Project and Literacy through Latin had shown similar appetite for the subject in Scotland. Secondly, through discussing our ambitions with officers of Glasgow and Edinburgh city councils, it became clear that there was a natural marketing strategy for Latin as part of the Scottish Government’s Languages 1+2 policy (whereby pupils must be exposed to two additional languages before the end of their primary education). Local authorities across Scotland commonly struggle to meet the demands of this strategy, since primary teachers may not be sufficiently confident to deliver new languages even when their busy timetables allow for such classes. 

Our approach has been to assist teachers with materials and delivery. While we value highly the efforts made by voluntary programmes and new initiatives such as the St Andrews Latin Outreach Scheme, all of which add inestimable value to the Scottish educational landscape, we have sought to work on a longer-term model which empowers and trains the class teachers (the pedagogical experts, after all) to lead Latin units themselves. To this end, we initially worked with a small group of teachers in Glasgow, training them in the use of the Minimus textbook. This has grown into a programme now led by Glasgow City Council, which includes Latin as part of its CPD and twilight training programmes for teachers in that authority and those neighbouring. Where teachers with pre-existing Latin have made themselves aware to us, we have also supported them to offer classes more quickly, with a prime example being a school in Aberdeenshire which now offers Latin to over 70 pupils every year. 

This approach requires patience and a commitment to the strategic objective (rather than seeking flashy ‘soundbite’ moments), but it is steadily embedding Latin in schools across different areas, from Glasgow, through the central belt and beyond. 

More recently we have started to develop materials that teachers can ‘pick up and play’ in Classical Studies, too. While it is common for pupils in Primary Five (ages 8-9) to receive a short unit on the Romans, consultation with pupils and parents revealed the massive popularity of classical mythology. With that in mind, last year I worked with teachers from Dundee and Angus to develop Meet the Olympians: a standalone unit which can be taught over 8-10 weeks, and guides pupils through the ancient deities via fun tasks designed to address key competencies in literacy, numeracy, wellbeing and cultural awareness as required by Scotland’s (in)famous Curriculum for Excellence.

Secondary Education

Most of our efforts since late 2017 have been focused on secondary education, since this is ultimately where the subject will live or die in Scotland. It is undoubtedly the area in which there is the most potential for expansion, and yet is simultaneously beset with obstacles and problems to be overcome. 

Like our Primary approach, we decided early on to support teachers wherever we could with materials, although we are obviously more constrained with what we may innovate, since the syllabi in Latin and Classical Studies are fixed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), Scotland’s solitary exam board. My first move was to join SQA’s National Qualification Support Teams for Classical Languages and Classical Studies. These teams, comprising experienced teachers, are responsible for guiding policy on what should be taught and examined. Gaining a place on these committees was crucial to gaining a sense of what might be developed, and being able to talk more authoritatively when liaising between schools and universities (whose expectations of Latin especially have historically diverged in Scotland). 

We next sought to offer a more standardised packet of materials surrounding the Higher Classical Studies syllabus which could be disseminated across schools, to support newer teachers and build in a level of internal consistency regarding the materials on offer to schools across the country. While this was a necessary move, it did not address the stark reality of how few state secondaries offered the subject at all. Simply, we needed to start encouraging more schools to offer the subject.

This is arguably the most important and yet one of the most difficult aspects of Classics outreach in Scotland. The problem we face is that there has been no provider of teacher training in Classics based in Scotland for over a decade. This has made it very difficult to make the case for Classics as a standalone option in schools currently. I was therefore required to investigate an alternative route to augmenting the number of schools in Scotland offering Classics. 

My solution for now has been to focus on teachers who are already qualified in other humanities subjects (primarily History, Modern Studies, Religious & Moral Education, and English) and encourage them to seek dual qualification status with the General Teaching Council of Scotland (since while the subject has no training avenue locally, the GTCS continues to recognise and certify teachers who possess the requisite training and credits). I therefore negotiated a unique support plan with Classics for All to support around half of all training costs accrued by teachers in seeking dual qualification. Starting in early 2019 with this scheme, we have since seen around five teachers achieve dual qualification status. 

This approach is not without its flaws: it is a slow process which requires the teacher to acquire any missing credits in Classics from institutions such as the Open University, a process which can take anywhere from a couple months to a whole year. It furthermore places a great personal load onto the teachers involved, since they must undertake this alongside their regular employment. The benefit of this approach, however, is that school leadership teams are more enthusiastic about supporting the scheme (since this means being able to offer Classics at no additional cost to the schools’ annual budgets). It is also highly sustainable. The teachers who have followed this scheme with us have uniformly made a success of their Classics offering and have proselytised colleagues, moreover. Once again, the landscape in Scottish education has required an approach which demands patience, but which leads to the creation of Classics departments which are hard to shift.

Underpinning all these efforts is something which is integral to effective outreach: community building. When I began work with CAS, there was a small network of predominantly independent school teachers who worked to keep the flame of Classics burning in their realms of influence. After talking with the chair of that group, we agreed to expand to include teachers who offered any form of Latin and/or Classical Studies at bi-annual meetings. This was a moment where my zeal for the subject needed to be tempered with humility. Given the universities’ apparent disinterest in school teaching, I should not have been surprised to be met with no small suspicion and cynicism at the first gathering. ‘Nice to meet you, but universities couldn’t give a shit about what we do in schools’ was the parting shot from one such member… As much as this might have caused me to bristle, it demonstrates that the discipline was, even in 2018, divided in a way which was to everybody’s detriment. Nevertheless, over the course of the last couple years, our network has grown from a couple dozen to over sixty members who either teach classical subjects actively, or who are interested in doing so. 

I cannot claim any special secret or answer here, much of our network’s later success and expansion rests on the shoulders of the same teachers who sustained it for years. I believe my primary achievement here has been to bring school and university professionals together, and thus break down some of the mental barriers which exist in our profession: university academics’ cluelessness about school provision and schoolteachers’ feeling of being ignored by institutions with the wealth and power to assist them. This is not a fait accompli, there is still much to be done, but I believe it shows the value in persistence and consistency as an outreach operative: building personal relationships and then bringing those connections together. 

Other Work

Schools outreach is only part of my varied work as outreach co-ordinator with CAS, with the rest of my time devoted to wider initiatives, designed to foster a general community of classicists in Scotland and beyond. Two key examples stand out for me.

Firstly, I have tried to use my work with schools as a springboard into developing relationships with heritage organisations such as the National Museums of Scotland. We have collaborated in producing videos based on the current collections now available on the CAS YouTube Channel. We hope that this will be the first of many collaborations with institutions across the country, highlighting that Classics and ancient artefacts can be accessed by communities all over Scotland. 

The most significant community project that I have been involved with to date has undoubtedly been the Ancient Voices programme. This began life as an attempt to re-build a Scottish-based languages summer school; there had been Greek & Latin schools in Edinburgh and elsewhere historically, but these slowly died over a number of years. Conscious that Scottish-based learners (whether students, teachers or general enthusiasts) had to travel hundreds of miles to access the nearest summer school, a colleague at University of Aberdeen and I offered the inaugural CAS Summer School in 2019. This was a modest success but hosting any summer initiative in Edinburgh in the immediate prelude of the Festival was always going to be a logistical challenge. We therefore planned for alternative venues in 2020, only to be halted by the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. This proved to be a blessing in disguise. We realised that by offering fully online units, structured to avoid imposing excessively on work/personal schedules, we could offer people a much more accessible experience. 

By embracing a fully online posture, we were able to realise more fully our ambition of democratising access to our tuition geographically. Not only did we engage a more diverse domestic audience, but we found that we tapped into pockets of interest globally for whom prolonged study of Classics was less accessible or practical. It was particularly gratifying to see strong representation from across the Global South, leading to truly interesting discussions about language learning amongst our student cohort. Our 2022 iteration of the programme attracted more than 100 registrations (no mean feat, given the size of our operation and its newness compared to other, more established programmes). 

Final Thoughts

In closing, it goes without saying that the work of an outreach ‘professional’ is nothing if not diverse. On any given day I might be organising materials for a primary school; arranging mentoring for a secondary teacher to offer a Classics Club; organising further education programmes; gathering data on pupil numbers and retention; travelling 200 miles to help a school host a launch event for Classical Studies; participating in committees on the direction of Classics teaching; or liaising with representatives of local government regarding their educational priorities. There is often no established practice (and sometimes not even any precedent) for you to follow, so a willingness to think laterally around a problem is essential. This kind of variety is something that, at least to me, is an appeal of the job. 

There are drawbacks to working as an outreach officer just now too, though. Firstly is that, outside one or two university departments, there are simply no steady jobs that are supported and protected by an institution. My own position with CAS is ultimately as a freelancer, reliant on rolling funding from Classics for All, subject to satisfactory job performance and school recruitment. I have to make peace with the fact that the money may one day dry up. If you loathe the idea of doing your own taxes, then you may also have pause for thought… 

Another potential drawback concerns distance from frontline teaching. It has been my experience that the majority of classicists engaged in outreach work are themselves passionate about teaching. When a large portion of the outreach job is concerned more with advocacy work, administration and ultimately salesmanship, however, this can prove a source of frustration at times, stemming from a feeling of detachment from the subject which inspires you to want to share it in the first place!

Beyond the practical and the monetary, it is a fact that outreach work, especially in areas of particular need, can be quite an isolating experience, since you are having to build up your own community around you. This is especially true currently in Scotland since, even with the continual support of colleagues down south, there is only so much value and information that I may extract from collaboration with them. Everything they produce or pilot must be translated, at some point, to fit the Scottish curriculum and vice versa. 

I do not include these points to deter people from pursuing outreach work, but so that they can come to more informed decisions about how much time and energy they want to devote to it. Returning to the positive, I believe that outreach has been some of the most rewarding work that I have done as a classicist. One of the most important things to me about my professional work is that it ‘makes a difference’ in some way. Whether it is changing the way someone thinks about something through my research, helping students understand complex sources via my teaching or bringing the subject anew to diverse communities through my outreach, this value is a primary driver in my professional life. 

The most enjoyable aspect of my outreach work here is that the value I bring via my efforts is tangible. Pupils are offered the opportunity to study subjects that they would never have been exposed to previously, teachers are trained and equipped with skills and subject matter which changes the curricular provision of their school. It is a long road which demands patience and persistence, but it is no understatement to say that we are slowly changing the educational landscape in Scotland for the better by enriching it with a subject once common but now lost, and democratising access for a new generation of young learners.

Dr. Alex Imrie is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh with a special interest on the Roman emperor Caracalla, the process of refashioning the Severan dynasty that occurred during his reign, and the power relationship between the emperor and his elites on the eve of the military crisis of the third century. He is also interested in: ancient historiography, especially Cassius Dio’s Roman History; Roman propaganda; Greek culture under Rome; civil warfare and conflicts during the Principate; and Roman imperial numismatics.

Change will not come from above

By George Connor

Image of a teacher, lecturing a group of boys, with them taking notes. 

The teacher is an old man sitting at the front, in a blue robe, with white hair and a cane. 

The boys are taking notes on papyri.
 
There is a man on the floor hunched over, as though he is cleaning it. He is thought to be a slave in this depiction.

Classics in state schools in Scotland is in the middle of a changing landscape. For so long in the doldrums, and allowed to vanish from the majority of school curricula, there seems to be signs of a turning tide. This is not to say it is vigorous good health, but perhaps we’re going in a different – and improving – direction. 

My school began offering Classical Studies in 2016/17. A small group of S6 pupils gilding their CVs with some unit assessments (not the full-blown examination course). The following year we offered full National 5, and two years later Higher became available. If there was more than one of me, by now we would offer Advanced Higher, too. I’ll explain. 

I am contracted to my authority as an English teacher. Each year my school creates a timetable for which it has enough staff to offer its various courses. The basic tension is thus: if I teach one class of Classical Studies, that is one class of English I cannot teach. Consequently, the school needs to find staff who can take that English class. This year I have four Classical Studies classes and two of English. This division is decided by a number of factors: how much the school values Classical Studies; how many pupils want Classical Studies; how much capacity there is in the English department staff; how the various classes fit together on the timetable. 

This may be dull, but it is the real meat of why Classical Studies is where it is today in Scottish state schools. 

My school has benefitted from having senior staff who see the value of Classical Studies, and are willing to be flexible with the allocation of their finite staffing resources. This is not to say that providing Classical Studies is an act of charity to a dying subject. The school benefits in numerous ways. 

If – for example – the school has 200 pupils selecting History at National 5, but only has the staff to cover classes for 150, then either the school needs to hire more History staff, or those pupils will need an alternative choice of subject. Classical Studies, step forward. 

The more subjects a school can offer using its existing staff provides a greater range of options for pupils, and greater flexibility for timetabling. If having Classical Studies means fewer staff need to be taken on, it will also save the school money. 

Classical Studies serves this overspill problem well for English, History, Religious Studies, Philosophy, Modern Studies (yes, really) and others, being a complementary subject, and thus is coming to be seen as a valuable asset for schools.  

This is not to diminish the inherent value which senior leaders and classroom teachers see in the subject in its own right. Many had Classical Studies when they were at school themselves, and understand the way in which it can inspire pupils, and combine disciplines to develop a huge range of skills.  

Of course, for a long time – arguably for forty years – Classical Studies has declined and then plateaued in terms of pupil uptake. In 2017 only 284 pupils across Scottish state schools sat Higher Classical Studies. In Latin, only 185 did. That’s for the whole of Scotland. 

However, since then, numbers in Classical Studies have started to show signs of increase. In 2021, 371 pupils sat Higher Classical Studies – an increase of nearly 100 in four years. I don’t have the latest data to hand, but based on an SQA meeting I attended last week, we have even more schools offering this year. Word seems to be out in secondary-schools that Classical Studies can benefit school-administrators while increasing options for pupils. It also provides a deep and enriching CPD opportunity for classroom teachers who – like me – see no attraction in promoted positions. 

Because most of these new Classical Studies teachers are not trained Classical Studies teachers. Indeed, it seems Moray House in Edinburgh – where Scottish Classics teacher training was previously done – no longer offers the course. Currently, you cannot train to teach Classical Studies or Latin or Classical Greek in Scotland. 

The new teachers of Classical Studies are English teachers, History teachers, RMPS teachers, Modern Studies teachers, Drama teachers… Teachers who want to offer something new to their pupils, while also stretching themselves. These are seasoned and able classroom teachers; intelligent people capable of learning as they go. Most start with National 5 and build their course knowledge from there. In the absence of official training, it is the only practical solution. 

The story is less cheerful for Latin because, understandably, this represents a very different skillset for teachers. A History teacher teaching about Athenian democracy is one thing; teaching the imperfect subjunctive is quite another. The numbers reflect this, with state school Latinists remaining more or less stable between 150 and 180 per year. (For a subject that was formerly a central part of Scottish education, this is extremely low.) I personally worry for its future. When numbers for Classical Greek tailed off, the SQA discontinued the course. No Scottish state school pupils have the option to study Homer or Sophocles in the original language now. Bearing in mind the retirement rates for Latin teachers, plans need to be put in place to encourage more staff in that direction. 

Classics is in a mixed state in the state sector. There are signs of growth in Classical Studies, and it is to be hoped that this will encourage more schools to take it on. At a time when school budgets are so stretched, it is an excellent – and progressive – way to make the most of staff capacity while enriching curricula. But the absence of official teacher training in these subjects is a worry, and one that must be addressed at a higher level. While Latin numbers are currently stable, the long-term health of the subject is still under a question mark. 

George Connor is a teacher of English and Classical Studies at Monifieth High School. In his spare time, he also runs Working Classicists, where you can find information on classics within the state sector, and a very cool community of Working Classicists online! Find the page here : https://www.workingclassicists.com/

A Classic Anomaly?

By Grace Volante

CW: mention of sexual assault

My first foray into Classics saw me unknowingly sheltered from the wider problems of the discipline.  The enthusiasm with which my teachers delivered A Level Classical Civilisation helped infect me with the same enthusiasm, as did learning Latin with a big outreach organisation led by student volunteers.  In this way, I remained blissfully unaware of the realities of how the field operated.  It was leaving that protective setting that first made me feel like an anomaly.

My first inklings that I was an anomalous classicist arose at lectures and discussions by prominent academics, run by said outreach organisation for their benefactors and beneficiaries.  At the first event I attended, during a panel on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the head of the charity remarked that mortal women being sexually assaulted by gods (as often happens in Ovid) was actually a good thing for the women (though Natalie Haynes was quick to contradict him).  At the second event, he praised Enoch Powell’s oratory, classical learning and character.  

Anyone experiencing this may have concluded that these bigoted opinions were one-offs, and did not represent anything significant about the classical discipline; but the strange power dynamic which operated at these events was part of the reason that I never reached that conclusion.  Being heralded into the pristine Royal Society, where the benefactors look like they’re mates with the royals, and where the benefits of outreach are extolled on a distant stage, is an uncanny dynamic to enter as one of the charity’s beneficiaries.  Encountering the apparatus that funded my Latin experience, seemingly run by and for the most privileged, first gave me the feeling of being one of the odd ones out.  I became acutely aware that many facets of my background did not fit neatly into this oddly specific and prevalent élite atmosphere.

At school, it wasn’t seen as weird that I was applying for History and Classics at uni, and I had no reason to think that it was until I started the course.  I was interested in A Level Class Civ because I liked the stories, both mythical and historical, and I applied to study it at university for the same reason.

When I got to university, I had already been told by a member of the Classics Society that I was “well-spoken for someone from a comprehensive school” within the space of a week.  Looking back, this comment buys into the endlessly erroneous idea that Classics is “for” private school kids who inherit it, and have done so for centuries, and that students from state schools studying Classics are somehow exceptional in getting in and fitting in.

My second personal impression of this idea was formed at a pub in the summer of my first year, when an Etonian who had studied Classics at uni relentlessly quizzed me on why I was interested in Classics if I hadn’t studied Latin from a young age.  I told him why I’d picked the subject, but he just could not get his head around why I might be motivated to study it in the first place.  But what drove you to pick it for an A Level if you hadn’t done Latin before?  I got the sense that, had I started learning Latin from age 11 (and therefore probably have been to a private or grammar school), he would not have felt he had to ask me these questions.  This awkward interrogation only cemented the idea that some people, probably without even realising it, view it as inherently anomalous and just puzzling to be in Classics without having come to it through the “traditional” route.  In this pub conversation, I was evidence of deviation from the norm, not just interested in Classics in the way that other people can be interested in other subjects.  

In second year, this unsettling feeling returned when I encountered the patronising statement that I had “worked soooooo hard to get here” having come from a state school, which was followed by nods and mumbles of “well done” by the other boarding school kids at the party.  I felt instantly humiliated and slightly disgusted by this little incident, in a way that is difficult to describe.  This was the final nail in the coffin, the proverbial coffin being my sense that many saw my state school peers and me as anomalies in our uni setting and as classicists, regardless of statistics.  The statement was said as if university was the natural course for these privately-educated people, and that I had to “work extra hard”, without really knowing anything about me.  To me, this betrays an assumption about state schools and their students in general, despite the multiple facets and intersections of every state-educated classicist’s background.  Just how many of these innumerable factors go into one’s applications and acceptance into Classics at university?  The lack of nuanced perspective here betrays the narrative and ideology that goes into these assumptions.

What is the wider significance of all these scattered anecdotes, I hear you ask, which, fortunately, I can still count on one hand?  For me, they are not just a few dodgy comments from drunk university students and aged patrons of hallowed charitable institutions.  The import for me is that they reflect various realities about the demographics of Classics courses at university, and the experiences of students.  It is true that it is much harder for many state-educated people to go to university, and to even come to know what “Classics” is, let alone study it.  By the time I had compiled the experiences that dominate this blog post, I was becoming more and more aware of the overall situation regarding UK universities and state-educated students, and some of the differences in their experiences and opportunities.  It seems one must have Herculean bravery to take on a new ancient language (don’t worry, all classical references used ironically), considering how the university systems favour those who have already had the chance to learn them at selective or fee-paying schools.  And, of course, the state-private / selective-comprehensive education disparities are by no means the beginning and end of the élitism within Classics, and will combine with many other factors to keep selecting for the Boris Johnsons of the world as long as they exist.

But if I’m an “anomaly” according to this traditional view, then so are my peers at university, and those participating in projects that attempt to celebrate and encourage the diversity of classicists, such as this blog.  In the way that the Boris Johnsons in Classics are a numerical minority in society, they are ever becoming just one group in the field of ancient studies, as opposed to the sole demographic, and that in itself will change the dominant presentation and narrative of the field.  

On that note, we should not rest on our laurels, and we should not forget how far the discipline has still to come, but I do appreciate how antithetical to these élitist comments the rest of my experience at university has been, with its engaged and friendly students, and always welcoming staff.  It is very heartening to witness the increasing transparency of the issues touched upon here, and to see many people engaged in widening access through outreach, research, and public-facing Classics (as much as I have various bones to pick with Mary Beard).  We are finally seeing the presence of more than just a few hackneyed sides of the ancient world in popular culture (cf 300, and Homer and Aristotle as “the founders of ‘Western civilisation’”), this process fleshing out our collective picture of the ancient world and its reception.  These cultural phenomena, from ITV’s Plebs to Lizzo, will hopefully mean that the popular perceptions of the ancient world and those who study it will change, along also with the methodology and practices of the still-exclusionary discipline itself – in so doing, the field will come to better represent and welcome everyone, regardless of background and education.  There is so much more to be done, but I have confidence in the burgeoning movements which are slowly making the plebs feel less like anomalies.

What is LGBT + history month, and why do we celebrate it?

By George Ross

LGBT+ history month is celebrated each year in February. It is a time to commemorate queer activism and reflect on the challenges queer people still face today.

It is an opportunity for both queer people and allies alike, to learn about queer histroy, icons, and important figures in the gay rights movement. Many queer figures have been hidden or eradicated from history because of their sexual idenity. It is paramount that their stories are told and remembered after centuries of being silenced and mistreated.

The gay rights movement teaches people the generosity and resilience of the queer community, and their ability to fight for what they believe in. After the gay bar – the Stonewall Inn – was raided by police in June 1969 – who used excessive violence – there was a series of protests and riots. This lead to the first openly gay & lesbian march being held in New York a month later – a pivotal moment for the queer community globaly.

If you would like to get involved with the LGBT+ and Trans and Non-binary liberation groups on campus, or to find out more about events taking place both this and in future history months, please contact : lgbt@eusa.ed.ac.uk; or transnonbinary@eusa.ed.ac.uk.

Historical Figures:

Marsha P Johnson
August 24th 1945 – July 6th 1992

Marsha P. Johnson (the “P” stands for “Pay It No Mind”) was an African American transgender activist from New Jersey. She was very well-known in New York, and was an icon to those in Greenwich village.
She was a successful drag queen who toured the world with the Hot Peaches.

“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world.”

Marsha had a huge impact in the queer rights movement and community – especially in the 1960s and 70s. Johnson helped to lead the Stonewall protests and riots, which led to the Pride month celebrations that we have today. Due to this and her generosity towards the queer community in New York, she was given the nickname “Saint of Christopher Street”.
Along with her friend Syliva Rivera – also a trasngender rights activist – she founded STAR : Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. This organisation helped to support homeless gay and transgender people, who were often kicked out after coming out to their families.
STAR helped queer people in New York, Chicago, Califonia and England in the early 1970s but was eventually disbanded.

Johnson’s body was found July 6th 1992 in the Hudson River. The police ruled her death as a suicide despite claims from friends and the local community that she was not suicidal. Twenty-five years later, Victoria Cruz, a crime victim advocate of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP) re-opened the case. The NYPD changed her cause of death from suicide to “undeterminded”.

Marsha’s legacy lives on today in organisations such as the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, which says it “protects and defends the human rights of black transgender people”. In February 2020, the Mayor of New York renamed the East River State Park in Brooklyn, The Marsha P. Johnson State Park and created a state in honour of her in 2021.

C.P. Cavafy
1863 – 1933

Cavay was born in Alexandria, Egypt on 29th April 1863. He lived with his parents and eight siblings. He moved between Alexandris and Liverpool in his early life, before settling back down in Alexandria and working as his brother’s assistant in the Egyptian stock exchange.


He started writing poetry in his teens, and continued up until his death in 1933. He is noted to be one of the most distinguished Greek poets of the 20th century. Only a small collection of his work was published in 1900, with Cavafy circling his works with his friends instead. It is likely that not more of his work was published due to the homo-erotic nature, and how sexually explicit his poetry was. He drew inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman civilisations, with particular inspiration from their gods and myths. The history of the ancient world intertwines with his own work, and is said to have called himself a “Poet-Historian”. His work was eventually published in 1961 by W.H.Auden entitled The Complete Poems of C.P. Cavafy.

Al-Mansur: The Muslim patron of Classics

By Alex Krabbendam

When we think of the Classics, we think of white marble columns, gaudy statues, and purple hemmed togas. Our European languages, science, and even our morals all stem from those ancient people in Greece and Rome. Democracy and imperialism all mashed up into a ball of western brilliance. So it was; so it will always be. Right?

Well, not really. Especially not that “western” bit. While it is true that the Romans and Greeks lived in what is now called Europe (and even that name comes from the Ancient Greek word Europa), the history of these people are not and should not be considered only western. Nor was it only us in Europe, or Christians, that were captivated by the remains left behind by the ancients. Let me introduce you to Al-Mansur, the second Abbasid Caliph of the Islamic Empire, founder of Baghdad, and patron of Science, Philosophy, and yes, especially the Classics. With quite a resume, it’s a surprise that most of us in the western world have not heard more about him, and even more a surprise that his achievements and impact in the field of Classics are not celebrated more. This Islamophobia Awareness Month, we need to look at those who have so often been ignored in the historiography. Islam and the Classics are so often seen as opposites, fuelled by portrayals of a “clash of nations” – but it’s a false narrative. Muslims have always been involved in the study of Classics, and we would not be where we are now without them! So, in an attempt to realign the narrative, let me take you on a quick bibliographical journey through the life of Al-Mansur.

Madinat as-Salaam, the round city of Baghdad which was built on the banks of the river Tigris, in modern Iraq. While it began as a political and administrative centre, it’s strategic location meant it grew quickly, and over time many scholars gathered there.

Born in 714CE under the name Abu Ja’far Abdallah ibn Muhammad (no, not the Disney Jafar), he took the name Al-Mansur meaning “The victorious” as a regal name. Distantly related to the Prophet Muhammad, he emerged at the head of the Abbasid Caliphate in 754CE and reigned for almost 22 years, succeeding the earlier Rashidun and the Umayyad Caliphates. The Umayyad caliphate had been overthrown by popular rebellion just five years prior to Al-Mansur’s ascension; there was little harmony in the Muslim world at this time. Yet following Al-Mansur’s rise to the throne internal peace was largely achieved, especially after quashing a few rebellious uncles (although skirmishes and wars at the Chinese, Spanish, and Byzantine borders were still rather common). With some degree of peace and with relative economic success, Al-Mansur decided that a new capital and administrative centre ought to be built, to better reflect the new empire he was building from the inside out. He named his city “Madinat As-Salaam”, the City of Peace. Today it is known as Baghdad, the second largest city in the Middle East after Cairo. Al-Mansur was fascinated by astrology, and thus brought many astrologers to help design his city. The most influential amongst them was Mashallah ibn Athari, a Jewish man of Persian descent who was himself influenced by numerous Greek astrologers. The administrative centre was built as a circular citadel, with all the most important buildings located inside the walls.  

Having built his city, Al-Mansur invited scholars, doctors, and other “smart people” from every corner of his Empire, to concentrate IQ into one house. With the creative name of “the Baghdad House of Wisdom”, he began to fund and support all types of sciences and scholarly efforts. For us, his most important decision was to kickstart and become the first patron of the Graeco-Arabic Translation movement. This is where his impact upon Classics becomes clear, and ever so valuable. Whilst many monasteries in western Europe were copying Latin and Greek texts, Arab and Persian scholars also took it upon themselves to preserve and transcribe Greek texts, many of which were being ignored or demonised by Christians in the West. The works of ancient astrologers, polymaths, and doctors were transcribed into Arabic and ruthlessly peer-reviewed with their own understandings of the stars, mathematics, and the human body. Attempts were made by Al-Mansur’s scholars to try and understand, and thus improve, Hippocrates’ methods or Galen’s theories. What should be noted however, is that almost every work considered useful by the Abbasids were non-fictional, secular, and also non-political. Arabic translations of works by Homer for example, are hardly worth mentioning, and now offer little use for the discipline of  Classics. This is remarkably different from the work done by western scholars (usually monks), who seem to have been comparatively much more interested in myths, theatre, and politics.

A 13th century painting of the House of Wisdom. While original science and medicine became the main function of this institution, translations of ancient texts were always made throughout its history.

“So what?” – you might be saying. What use is an Arabic version of Euclid, or Aristotle, especially if they were scribbling in the margins with their own thoughts too? With the work that Al-Mansur began and under the patronage of future Caliphs, the House of Wisdom grew to an enormous size, becoming at one point the largest library in the world, and continued as such until 1258 CE when the Mongol Khanate burned the whole city down. Just as the library of Alexandria was burned down by invaders in 48 BCE, history repeated itself, and who knows just how many texts were lost after the fires subsided. Luckily however, the wealth of knowledge collected for the almost 500 year lifespan of the library had attracted the interest of scholars from all around the known world, including Europe. Works which had not been seen by western European eyes for hundreds of years were reintroduced, all from Arabic translations. A great example is the work done by Adelard of Bath, an English scholar who reintroduced Euclid’s Elements to western Europe in 1127– a work that had been translated into Arabic under the orders of Al-Mansur. This is not an isolated case, and many western European scholars made trips into the Muslim world in search for “lost” texts, filling in the gaps of their own knowledge. Admittedly, many did not bother to travel all the way to Baghdad, preferring the closer-to-home libraries in Al-Andalus and Sicily, but the majority of those centres of knowledge were based on and owed much of their collections to the original House of Wisdom in Baghdad set up by Al-Mansur.

Caliph Al-Mansur continued to fund and sponsor translations throughout his reign, not only of Greek works but also of Indian and Persian texts. He died in 775CE, with varying accounts on the circumstances. Some say he died during a pilgrimage to Mecca, while others say he died after reaching the Well of Maimun. In either case he was succeeded by his son, Al-Mahdi (meaning “The rightly guided one” – again a regal name. Being humble was clearly  not a family trait). A long time has passed since Al-Mansur’s death, but his legacy remains, in astrology, medicine, and classics! By laying the foundations for later Caliphs to further the Graeco-Arabic Translation movement, many texts were preserved for those who would later study the ancients as we do today.  We could almost say that the Renaissance would not have been as transformative for western society were it not for the works of Al-Mansur and his translators. Major works of classical medicine, philosophy, astrology, and science were all passed into the hands of Renaissance Europeans through Arabic translations.  

A page from the an Arabic translation of the De Materia Medica, which was written by Greek physician Dioscorides between 50 and 70 CE. It was one of the first Greek manuscripts to be translated into Arabic. This page shows instructions for the creation of an “elixir” meant to heal a patient.

All of this is to say that Al-Mansur’s life shows it was not just Europeans who were interested in preserving the Classics. Whilst many of us have a story in our mind of only western monks meticulously translating texts into Latin in quiet monasteries, it’s not a wholly accurate view. Muslims were always interested in the ancient Mediterranean, but especially in the works they considered useful themselves. It is interesting that political speeches, myths, and court cases were not seen as “interesting” or “useful” by Al-Mansur and his translators, but perhaps that is because they had their own developed legal system – namely the Qur’an and the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet). While it is clear today that western society has been influenced more by Classical civilisations, as seen in architecture, language, and law: the West is not the extent of the Classics. Whenever Classicists thank the monks in monasteries for their efforts in preserving the classics, they really should also be thanking Al-Mansur for his efforts.

FINDING MY VOICE AND HELPING OTHERS FIND THEIRS

Collection: University of Edinburgh; Persons: N/A; Event: N/A; Place: McEwan Hall; Edinburgh; Scotland; UK; Category: University Buildings; Description: Details from the ceiling spaceof the McEwan Hall during the 2016 refurbishment of the building.

By Dr. Alex Imrie

My route into Classics is one that has been deemed ‘non-traditional’ by some. I never had the chance to try ancient languages or Classical Studies at school; and beyond a unit on the Romans in Primary 5 and a couple weeks on the Egyptians in secondary school, I didn’t get to study any ancient history either. My interest in antiquity was nevertheless present from an early age, spurred by two distinct inspirations: watching films like Jason and the Argonauts and Spartacus with my parents, and the fact that my grandfather became a porter with the National Museum of Scotland in my hometown of Edinburgh in the years before his death. I spent nearly every weekend of my early years in the museum, finding out about some object or another.

Despite this interest, I didn’t know about the existence of Classics as a distinct discipline until I reached university. I had arrived as a student enrolled in French (the subject I’d been best at in school) although, beyond a vague notion of becoming a translator, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to get out of my university experience. I was the first in my working-class family to stay on at school and thus I had no frame of reference regarding what to expect in higher education.

I remember the moment which set me on the path to becoming a professional classicist vividly, when I chose Ancient History as an elective course in my first year. Looking back, I am relieved that I went with my instinct and subject passion rather than doing what so many first-gen and marginalised students do, which is to try to craft a degree on what they are told is ‘useful’. Within the space of a year, I’d changed my Honours specialisation to Ancient History and never looked back, graduating in my new degree subject in 2007.

By the time I’d graduated, I knew categorically that this was the discipline in which I wanted a career. There followed a couple years working in retail (selling kilts, no less!) to support my wife through the final year of her medical degree and to raise money for me to commence postgraduate study. I started a Masters by Research programme in 2009, since I was aware already that I wanted to apply for a doctorate, but was terrified at the prospect of writing to such a volume. The MScR programme I undertook was fantastic for proving to myself that I did have ideas and that I could write to scale, but it also gave me the flexibility to start a steep learning curve with the ancient languages.

After completing the Masters, I was lucky enough to secure funding to support my moving on to the PhD immediately. The years of my doctorate were some of the most challenging and yet rewarding that I have ever experienced. If I lacked a frame of reference for my undergraduate degree, it’s fair to say that for a sizeable portion of the PhD I felt similarly out of place: impostor syndrome, which has stalked me for many years, was at its most brutal during this period. With the love and support of friends, family, excellent colleagues and stalwart advisors, however, I endured. Graduating in my doctoral robes remains one of the proudest moments of my life, showing that a boy who had grown up watching Spartacus and playing Rome: Total War could have a voice in a discipline that seems to many as being designed to be impenetrable to those with a just such a background as mine (and many others even more so).

It is in part that realisation which has informed much of my work and professional effort since graduating in 2015. In my research, I endeavour to use language in as simple a way as I can, so that my work is accessible to people regardless of how long they have been submerged in classical scholarship. It pains me to see interested people turned off by writing that is unnecessarily complex or wilfully pretentious. My research concerns the history of the Severan Dynasty: one of the most dysfunctional families to ever occupy the Roman imperial throne (and that is saying something!) If I cannot render this period exciting and accessible to anyone who might want to know about it, then I’m failing as an academic.

I am similarly motivated when it comes to teaching. I was fortunate enough to be taught by several lecturers who are excellent at their craft, and so I aspire to engender the same level of engagement I felt as a student in their classes. Classics is a subject which should inspire and challenge in equal measure. It is full of enthralling stories but would probably have been utterly horrendous to have lived through for many. The ancient world is simultaneously familiar and completely alien on a human level. The discipline is valuable in that it offers (among other things) a lens and filter to discuss subjects and issues which have real contemporary relevance, and yet the discipline itself is plagued by its own historical inequities and more recent misappropriations, both of which require to be challenged openly and robustly. For these reasons and more, the subject is a privilege to teach and a responsibility I take very seriously.

Dovetailing some of these themes together, some of my most important work over the last three years has been in the field of Classics outreach. In Scotland, Classics in schools imploded in the 1980s, and was at real risk of disappearing from the curricular map altogether, were it not for the stubborn ingenuity of teachers keeping the subject alive in a handful of state centres. In late 2017, I took up the position of National Outreach Co-ordinator with the Classical Association of Scotland, in partnership with the charity Classics for All. Since then, we have successfully brought Latin or Classical Studies to around 50 schools nationwide, with others preparing themselves to join our growing network. With each passing month, we are proving that there is an appetite out there for the ancient world, be it spurred by Percy Jackson and Horrible Histories, or simply by the enduring draw of subjects like classical mythology.

We have also been active with initiatives designed to render the ancient past accessible to as wide an audience as possible: running free online sessions through the COVID lockdown period, and offering friendly and accessible summer language programmes designed to fit in with work, childcare and other life responsibilities. I want our global Classics community to be more than simply those who win the crapshoot of securing permanent positions in self-styled ‘elite’ universities.

For me, this is something of a mission, bringing my personal and professional journeys within Classics almost full circle: offering young learners at primary and secondary levels an opportunity to engage with the subject I was denied the chance to experience as a child, in the hope of enthusing a new generation of classicists in Scotland who don’t feel ‘other’ or out of place if they decide that they want to pursue the subject further. We are still at the start of a very long road if we are to see Classics become a legitimate subject option for the majority of Scotland’s pupils but, in spite of the difficulties and issues we face, I remain dedicated to the cause and remind myself that Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all…

It’s all Greek to Me: Life at Uni for a Tick-Box

Image credit: The Scream 1895/Edvard Munch

By Molly McDowell

Arriving at university was for me, as for everyone else, a very overwhelming experience. New city, new flatmates, new responsibilities, new friends, new experiences (so many Big Cheese nights), the list goes on.

No one really quite knows what they sign up for in terms of their degree until the first week but I had the added pressure of having picked a subject I knew only from reading fiction books as a young teen (take three guesses as to which American demi-god had inspired me…). Now, this was slightly more stressful than what I imagine the average uni experience for many other people looked like, who already knew the basics about the subject they chose.

However, I didn’t really notice how much I didn’t know in comparison to my peers until quite far into first semester. I took Latin 1A with a bunch of other beginners (I met my best friends and flatmates in this course) so we all knew nothing pretty much; all in the same boat. My other 2 modules were both ‘world’ courses, Greek and Roman World 1A. This is where I suddenly noticed a difference.

Unlike most of my peers, I didn’t go to private school. I should preface this with that this is not a criticism of people who do come from this background, it is just not my personal experience. I had not read the Iliad and the Odyssey (still haven’t finished the second, I’ll be honest). I didn’t have basic foundational knowledge of anything Classics related really- if it hadn’t been in Horrible Histories or Percy Jackson I was stumped.

At no point in the uni application process had it occurred to me what my teachers had warned me about would be correct- that I would be competing with people who had been learning this since they were 11. The only time this was brought up to me was almost a joke: a teacher was trying to tempt me into Oxbridge application and when I said I wanted to apply for Classics replied, ‘well you’ll be a great tick-box for them!’. This was meant in the greatest sincerity I’m sure but it didn’t affect my desire to do the subject or my lack of motivation to go through the Oxford application process (sorry Miss Bryden!), in fact I did not think about this at all until approximately two years later.

This makes it sound much more dramatic than it was, like I suddenly had an epiphany and everything stopped around me as though I was in the movies. Obviously this didn’t happen and it wasn’t that big a deal, which is precisely the point. Whilst I was aware sometimes of my knowledge deficit (not always helped by some lecturers’ implicit assumptions that if they referenced Homer, for example, we would all understand), very rarely was I actively at a genuine disadvantage in first year. You do manage to catch up pretty quickly even if, like me, you did very little of the supposedly compulsory lecture reading (not recommended!).

Don’t panic! Whilst people with private school backgrounds may seem to have this amazingly in-depth knowledge of all these stories/concepts/events you’ve never heard of, it actually matters very little in the long run. You will all be equals by the time you get to honours when you start to specialise. Although, keeping up with the language courses are another matter altogether…