Classics Evolves

My final LGBT History Month event of 2019 was one that I was not speaking at. It was organised by my good friends Jana Funke and Jen Grove from the University of Exeter to celebrate the launch of their new book, Sculpture, Sexuality and History. It is a niche interest, but it does overlap with the history of robots as fictional entities. I need to read it for a talk I am giving later this year.

As part of the festivities, Jana & Jen invited three graduates students to give a seminar. They provided three great papers.

Rebecca Mellor talked about secret collections of “erotic” objects at museums, and how a museum makes the decision to class something as erotic. Interestingly the decision can often depend far more on who donated the object than on what it looks like.

Mara Gold’s talk was about how Western lesbians from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries used references to Sappho and Ancient Greek culture in general as code for their sexuality. I learned a lot. I had no idea that Hope Mirlees and Sylvia Townsend Warner were lesbians. And there’s another person who deserves a whole blog post of her own.

Finally we had Georgina Barker who talked about the Russian poet, Elena Shvarts, whose Sappho-influenced work scandalised mid-20th Century USSR. That’s less of interest to me, but Georgina and I spent quite a bit of time chatting about Scythians, who also fall into the Russia-Classics crossover.

On getting home I found email inviting me to view a colloquium on Diversifying Classics at the College of Charleston. South Carolina is perhaps not the place that would immediately spring to mind when considering progressive views of the Classics, but it turns out that it is an excellent event. The whole thing is available on Farcebook.

Rebecca Futo Kennedy talked about how the idea of “Western Civilisation” was invented by white people in the 19th Century. This is particularly ironic because at the time both Greeks and Italians tended to get views as “black”.

Arum Park talked about the need for women and people of color to revisit translations of ancient works. The white male bias that the likes of Emily Wilson and Maria Dahvana Headly have identied in translations of The Odyssey and Beowulf respectively are starting to look like the tip of a very large iceberg.

Nandini Pandey talked about the multicultural nature of the Roman Empire and what we can learn from how Rome went about encouraging multiculturalism. I think she let Polemo and the Physionomists off a little lightly on the origins of racism, but other than that she too was great. Romans and Greeks, of course, were Mediterranean people and thus compared themselves to those lighter skinned than themselves as well as those darker. They tended to assume that they were a perfect mixture of the two extremes. A good example is Vitruvius who was an architect. He wrote about how climate affected both building requirements and the people who lived in different parts of the world. According to him (Book 6, Chapter 1) people from hot climates tend to be smart but cowardly, while those from cold climates tend to be stupid and brave.

The final talk by Jim Newhard is also good, but it primarily of interest to people who work in Classics departments.

And finally, while I was watching Dr. Pandey’s talk my Twitter feed threw up links to New Classicists, a very interesting new journal run by post-grad students at Kings, London.

It is great to see Classics doing all of this stuff. Much of it is, of course, prompted by the likes of Steve Bannon and Boris Johnson using the ancient world to prop up their white surpremacist ideas, but it needs doing anyway. Also the more we can learn about the ancient world beyond the narrow confines of Greece and Rome the better. The Roman Empire’s trading links were extensive and all of the cultures that they met, conquered or traded with deserve study too.

One thought on “Classics Evolves

  1. I think you might find The Akeing Heart, a collection of letters between Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland, and Elizabeth Wade White, very interesting:
    “This is the long-lost story of the deep and passionate relationships between acclaimed British feminist author Sylvia Townsend Warner, her lover the poet Valentine Ackland, their friend the biographer and reluctant New England socialite Elizabeth Wade White, and her lover from New York, Evelyn Holahan, a professional woman of business. Their story begins when Elizabeth met Sylvia at a literary lunch in New York in 1929 and ends with Sylvia’s death in 1978. So many thorny passions and so much emotional integrity, this marvellous book is the literary love story of the year.”

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