by Caroline Lawrence
(This is the draft of a speech I delivered at the Classical Association Conference in Leicester #CA2018 on the evening of Sunday 8 April 2018)
As an author of over thirty historical fiction books for children aged 8 to 14, I’ve been asked to talk briefly about the current state of Classics Beyond Academia. This suits me perfectly because although my books are grounded in scholarly research, I also get lots of inspiration from non-academic sources like movies, museums and travel.
The past twelve months have been packed with non-academic Classics-themed goodies, but because I have been asked to be brief I will have to resort to praeteritio, the rhetorical trope of mentioning something by pretending not to mention it.
So I will not examine the fun TV shows we’ve been treated to this past year: Plebs (Romans in cardigans), Bromans (Romans in gold speedos), Britannia (Romans on LSD) and Troy: Fall of a City, the grimmest and most ethnically diverse Greeks you’ve ever seen. Whether you love them or love to hate them, they always get you thinking and sometimes inspire revelations about the ancient past.
I will not talk about a strange new movement to depict Classical places and academics using Lego bricks and figurines. I have no idea what that’s all about.* But if it inspires young people, I'm all for it.
How could I do justice to Laura Jenkinson’s fun Greek Myths Comix, including her Odyssey colouring book, Greek Gods playing cards and chart of Iliad death statistics?
Nor will I discuss the tenth instalment of the mega-popular Assassins Creed video game – Assassins Creed Origins – which is set in Ptolemaic Egypt and features jaw-dropping visuals. (Thanks to Philip Boyes for bringing that to my attention.)
Instead, I would like to bring your attention to a few interactive instances of Classics Beyond Academia that will get you out of the house. They require a bit of effort, but in my opinion are well worth it.
Spartacus in Provence - Every April thousands of re-enactors converge on Nîmes in the south of France, not far from the Pont du Gard. There they stage Les Grands Jeux Romains, an impressive Roman-style spectacle in the ancient amphitheatre. I was privileged to attend two years ago. Following the mock sacrifice of a real goat, Egyptian acrobats, chariot stunts and gladiator displays I watched Cleopatra and Mark Antony confront Octavian in a recreated battle of Actium. It was fabulous. Last year the theme was Boudica. This year the show is called Spartacus. It will take place on the last weekend of this month, April 28, 29 and 30. You still have time to book your plane tickets.
Interactive Julius Caesar – You have until April 15th to catch a superb production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at The Bridge Theatre in London. You can either sit in the round, as if you were in an arena, or stand on the same level as the actors, and become part of the Roman mob. If you’re lucky you might get jostled by David Morrissey as Marc Antony or spat on by Ben Wishaw as Brutus. Tomorrow (Monday 9 April) they are throwing a Roman Banquet down in the pit, featuring blood cake, goat curds, quail and pomegranate. (Obviously the play is not being staged tomorrow evening.)
The Classical Now – is an exhibition sponsored by Kings College London which juxtaposes Greek and Roman masterpieces with 20th and 21st century art. Although it’s confusingly split between two sites on the Strand it is worth seeking out. Many of the artefacts are from the superb Musee d’Art Classique in Mougins a museum near Cannes in a beautiful village where Picasso spent his last years. (Maybe you could combine your trip to Nîmes with a visit to Mougins.) The Classical Now finishes at the end of April, passing the baton to another juxtaposition of art when the British Museum opens its new exhibition Rodin and the art of ancient Greece (April 26th and running to the end of July). This idea of getting inspiration from Classical Art was the theme of Artefact to Art, Leicester University’s competition to write a poem or create a piece of art based on a Classical artefact. It inspired some fabulous pieces by children and adults. I was privileged to give the prizes yesterday afternoon.
Living Latin – Of course you know there is a movement to bring conversational Latin into schools and universities. But did you know there is a podcast called Quomodo Dicitur where scholars chat about current events and topics in Latin? There is even the Circulus Latinus, the Latin Circle, which meets at a wine bar near the British Museum for dinner one Tuesday a month. The only rule is you have to speak in Latin. But maybe that’s too academic...
So I’ll finish with my favourite non-academic source of inspiration this year.
London Mithraeum – You probably know that London’s Mithraeum recently re-opened in the basement of Bloomberg’s new European headquarters, in the exact position it occupied in Roman London. There are three levels: the entry, the mezzanine and the Mithraeum. In the street level you can see hundreds of beautifully displayed artefacts all found in the nearby Walbrook, including over a hundred wooden writing tablets and labels, many naming ancient Londoners and one of them featuring the earliest mention of Londinium itself. The mezzanine features a brief touchy-feely explanation of Mithras. When you finally descend to the Mithraeum itself you are treated to an immersive experience, featuring the smells, bells and Latin liturgy of an imagined Mithraic ceremony. It’s free to visit and only requires booking.
So go out and enjoy.
Fly to Nîmes.
Become a member of the Roman mob.
Eavesdrop on the Mysteries of Mithras.
Compare Rodin and Pheidias.
These activities will refresh and inspire the parts that academic research will never reach. And rejoice that Classics Beyond Academia has never been healthier.
*After my speech, a table of Australian scholars enlightened me about the Classical Lego movement. According to Kathryn Welch, (chair of Classics at the University of Sydney), the (then) senior curator of the Nicholson Museum wanted to get every kid in Sydney to come to the museum. So Michael Turner built a Lego Colosseum and sure enough, there was a 'congo line of kids, and their fathers and mothers, going through the museum.’ The Colosseum went on tour so he replaced it with a Lego Acropolis, which then went to live in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Currently on display is a Lego Pompeii, complete with Lego Mary Beard.