The odd couple: students and academics


It is the eve of a new university semester. Students are busy sourcing texts like honeybees; academics are hurriedly finishing their research and attending last-minute conferences before teaching commences; and administrators are quietly bracing themselves for a veritable tsunami of enquiries and course changes. There is just a moment to pause, reflect and draw together some light hearted ancient (and modern) reflections on teaching, students, and academia. What was it like for students and teachers at the ancient philosophical schools? The following sources refer to Aristotle’s philosophical school in Athens (known as the Peripatos or Lyceum) which was broadly analogous to the modern university.

First, a note about punctuality and dress code (note to self: don’t be late for class and wear jewellery!). Theophrastus, head of the Lyceum for thirty-six years, seems to have had a great sense of style:

“Theophrastus used to arrive punctually at the Peripatos, looking splendid and all decked out. Then, sitting down, he (used to) present his lecture, refraining from no movement nor any gesture.” (1)

Next, a note about the standard that was expected of students and the teaching methodology (note to self: we are gardeners, not teachers, planting seeds in the minds of our students and expecting abundant crops):

“Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle and Theophrastus, who did indeed preside over philosophy, appeared inclined to anger toward those who esteemed their studies lightly. They did not pour forth a fountain of words ungrudgingly, but set certain principles and seeds before their students and then indeed demanded back much more than what they put down.”(2)

Thirdly, a complaint about the difficulties of finding an audience who will a) listen and b) not ask too many questions (note to self: not to advertise my upcoming seminar too widely):

“Not only is it not easy to get a public assembly, but not even a small company of listeners such as one would like. Public readings lead to revisions. The present generation no longer tolerates the deferring of everything and lack of care.” (3)

Fourthly, a reference to students burning their lecture notes (after the exam, of course!):

“some people say that as [Metrocles] was burning up the lectures of Theophrastus, he chanted: ‘Hephaestus, come hither. Thetis now has need of you.’ “ (4)

NB: I never burnt any of my lecture notes from Classics (quite the opposite actually, I have hoarded them for seventeen years). I did however burn some of my notes from Law school (particularly Constitutional Law) and I am happy to report that they burned very nicely.

Last of all, but certainly not least, I just can’t help including  a very amusing character sketch of a philologist, written at the end of the nineteenth century by German classicists, mimicking the style of Theophrastus’ character sketches. Beware: don’t read this sketch while drinking hot coffee. It’s just too funny.

“The Philologist”

(1) Philology is to be sure an excess of desire for ancient writings and things. The philologist is one,
(2) who will overvalue and revere books and papyri and inscriptions and other such items simply because they are old. And he will be delighted when they are found not intact but rather corrupted by many mistakes and gaps, saying that the restoration and correction of such items is his most pleasant and worthwhile activity.
(3) And when ancient writings are discovered somewhere, if they are written on paper he will be pleased, if on parchment he will dance, if on papyrus he will shout aloud with joy, if on stone he will chant a song of victory, if on bronze he will make obeisance.
(4) And he will admire nothing produced by contemporary craftsmen, repeating always the following verse of Homer: “Such are men now,” but whenever he sees either one of those statues without a nose and mutilated and lacking extremities or a fragment of a worn out old pot picturing the rump of a young boy, he will leap up with pleasure and shout out: “This here, how excellent it is.”
(5) And he will spend more time in the libraries than at home and will have the bedroom, the den, the playroom full of books.
(6) And he will forbid the maid to clean and straighten up his desk.
(7) And meeting one of his many children while walking on the streets, he will not recognize him but will ask kindly: “Child, why do you cry? Your house and your parents where are they?”
(8) He is apt also to compel his children at five to learn epics by heart and his wife the Greek alphabet.
(9) And he will know the ancient laws of Greece and Rome more accurately than those of his own country.
(10) And he will put on old fashioned cloaks and will wear trousers shorter than his legs.
(11) And he will always teach something and will be angry at the individual who is not convinced.
(12) And he will fight continuously and terribly with his colleagues, insisting in a loud voice against the shouts of others that only what he himself said is correct.
(13) And he will use such expressions as: “I don’t believe” and “That’s illogical” and “The day before yesterday I clearly demonstrated the opposite” and “Haven’t you yet read what I recently wrote on these matters?”
(14) And he will go abroad especially to Athens and Rome and will praise the sky there and earth and sea and the men there and women and young girls. And constantly carrying pictures of all these things he will regard them with admiration. And purchasing spurious or base coins and sherds and pebbles and little oil-flasks and trash, he will spend his travel money without noticing it. And returning home he will promise his wife to take her with him in the future. (5)

Does this remind me, or you, of anyone? Paragraphs 5, 6 and 13 are just too close to the truth in my case! Oh dear. As George Eliot wrote in her Impressions of Theophrastus Such, “It is my habit to give an account to myself of the characters I meet with: can I give any true account of my own?”.

(1) Athenaeus, The Sophists at Dinner 1.38 21A-B.

(2) Michael Psellus, Oration 24.14-18.

(3) Theophrastus, letter to Phanias, recorded in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, 5. 37.

(4) Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, 6.95.

(5) W. W. Fortenbaugh, ‘The Thirty-First Character Sketch’, Classical World Vol. 71, No. 5 (Feb., 1978) pp. 333-339.

Available at:

Header image: The School of Athens by Raphael, (1509-1511), Fresco, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. Source:

The female classicist


I am grateful to Australasian Women in Ancient World Studies (AWAWS) for bringing to my attention a recent article entitled “Found in translation: how women are making the classics their own”. The article was written by Emily Wilson and posted on the Guardian website on 7 July this year (see link below). I thought it would be useful to write a comment on this article, as a female classicist on the ground, as it were.

First and foremost, I welcome Wilson’s celebration of female scholars and translators in the field of Classics. Wilson remarks that in the past, “the study of ancient Greece and Rome was largely the domain of elite white men and their bored sons” and that, in present times, “the legacy of male domination is still with us – inside the discipline of classics itself and in how non-specialist general readers gain access to the history and literature of the ancient world.”

Wilson’s remedy is to point to a smattering of translations of classical works by European women from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She then jumps ahead several centuries to list a growing number of women who are not affiliated with institutions and have been publishing translations of Greek and Latin texts in the last two decades. Wilson applies a number of descriptive terms to these translations : from “wonderfully original”, to “innovative” and “stylish”.

As Wilson anticipates in her article, one is right to query whether the gender of a translator makes a real difference to the translation. In my view, a translation should be judged solely on its accuracy and its literary merits, not on the gender of its translator. It should not be derided simply because it was written by an ‘elite white man’, nor applauded because it was written by a ‘woman at leisure’. This is why, I think, Wilson reluctantly has to admit that “[n]ot all female translators would describe themselves as feminists and many female classical translators…do not see gender as a central element in their work.” I belong to the latter category.

In fact, I think that translations of ancient texts can provide a wonderful opportunity to apply objective standards of merit. A good translation is simply that, regardless of the gender of the translator, and classical scholars and teachers know a decent translation when they see it, be they male or female or other. Nor should a translator set about altering the translation of an ancient text in an effort to apply twenty-first century notions of gender. We have to deal with the text before us, even if the values reflected in it are not our own, and not from our times.

I really don’t know what Wilson is on about when she says: “the position of being a woman translating one of these dead, white men creates a strange and potentially productive sense of intimate alienation”. Apart from being utterly confused by Wilson’s oxymoronic phrase ‘intimate alienation’, I simply disagree. I am currently spending my time translating Theophrastus’ Characters (an ancient Greek text which, by the way, was written by an elite male philosopher of the fourth century who pokes fun at the elite white men who surround him). I am enjoying this work tremendously. I feel a great intellectual companionship with the author and a profound sense of shared humanity, values and social outlook. Gender is irrelevant to this intellectual affinity that transcends time and space.

Thankfully, Wilson is on much firmer ground in her lengthy and very positive review of Yopie Prins’ new book entitled “Ladies’ Greek: Victorian Translations of tragedy”. This book sounds like it might be worth reading as “a study of late 19th– and early 20th-century female translators of ancient Greek tragedy.”

Wilson ends her long article with a plea that “more British and American women – including people who are neither “ladies” nor white – will begin to translate Greek and Roman texts into English.” Fair enough, but it’s a pity that Wilson fails to address her plea to Australasian classicists as well. It seems that we don’t exist in Wilson’s view. In fact, her entire article is focussed only on classicists from Europe and America. Wilson: there are many fine female classicists in Australasia too and many of us, believe it or not, are working diligently and productively on ancient Greek and Latin texts and translations. As female classicists, we might be able to dislodge the inherent gender bias in Classics, but what do we do about your geographical bias?

Link to article:

Header image:

Kristin Scott Thomas in Sophocles’ Electra. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian.





Timeless parenting advice


There are few things more heart stopping than watching your three-year old child run straight towards a road. Thankfully, there were no cars – this time. What does a parent/academic do in the face of such recklessness? She consults a parenting book of course! My parenting bible reassures me that this total disregard for safety is completely normal for a toddler. Even worse, it confirms my worst fears and repeated experiences: toddlers, it says, have little understanding of cause and effect, limited vision, limited concentration, an inability to think ahead and intense curiosity! (1)

Once I had caught up to my daughter,  firmly grabbed her little hand and told her sternly to “Stay with us!” it occurred to me that nothing has really changed since the time of Daedelus and his little son Icarus. Daedelus was a master craftsman, the architect of the infamous labyrinth that kept the monstrous Minotaur within its walls. He was in exile on the island of Crete under the rule of King Minos and he was desperate to escape. He reasoned that if he could not escape by and or sea, he would escape by air. By carefully arranging feathers and binding them with thread and wax, he crafted a set of wings for himself and his son. Meanwhile, Icarus was playing in the workshop:

“His son, Icarus, stood next to him, and, not realising that he was handling things that would endanger him, caught laughingly at the down that blew in the passing breeze, and softened the yellow bees’-wax with his thumb, and, in his play, hindered his father’s marvellous work.” (2)

Once Daedelus finished, he fitted the wings to his own back and tested them. Hovering in the air, he gave these words of instruction before fitting the wings to his son:

‘Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes. And I order you not to aim towards Bootes, the Herdsman, or Helice, the Great Bear, or towards the drawn sword of Orion: take the course I show you!’

With his old cheeks wet with tears and his fatherly hands trembling, he fitted the wings to his son and they took flight together. Daedelus called out instructions to his son and looked back anxiously to check on his progress. Soon enough, Icarus’ confidence grew, and we all know what happens next:

“the boy began to delight in his daring flight, and abandoning his guide, drawn by desire for the heavens, soared higher. His nearness to the devouring sun softened the fragrant wax that held the wings: and the wax melted: he flailed with bare arms, but losing his oar-like wings, could not ride the air. Even as his mouth was crying his father’s name, it vanished into the dark blue sea, the Icarian Sea, called after him.” 

Tragedy. Grief. Despair. Daedelus cursed his clever inventions and buried his son in a land forever to be named Icaria.

There is so much in this ancient story, especially for us modern parents: the utter innocence of children and their inability to anticipate danger; the tender care with which parents issue instructions and warn of dangers; the quickly growing confidence of a child and the risks they are prepared to take. Daedelus, who was unmatched as an inventor, was undone by his own little child. Oh, ancient tale, I hear your warning and promise to heed it.

  1. Robin Barker, The Mighty Toddler, Macmillan, Sydney 2009, p. 301.
  2. Text of myth from:

Ovid, Metamorphoses (transl. A. S. Kline) Book 8, lines 183-235, available online at:

  1. Header image:

The Fall of Icarus. Fresco from Pompeii, The House of the Priest Amandus. 40-79AD.


*Many artworks both ancient and modern depict Icarus as a young man, aged 13 or 14 perhaps. Based on my own experience, and my reading of the texts, I’m quite sure that Icarus must have been no more than three years old at the time of the accident! That being said, it is entirely possible that I will publish this same blog again when my children are in their early teens.

Comic relief


Spending years at home with my children, I grew accustomed to hearing their bubbling laughter every day. Now, having returned to full-time work, I can see how enormously important it is to introduce comedy into the workplace. It can brighten a dull day, breathe new life into our working relationships and renew our energy to work. Starting a new job this week has involved considerable adjustment on the home front, a mountain of administration, attending induction sessions, teaching preparation and madly trying to finish a book chapter before the university semester commences. It’s time for some comic relief! Here are three ancient Greek fables that always make me laugh:


Hermes wanted to know how much people valued him, so he assumed a human form and went into a sculptor’s workshop. He saw there a statue of Zeus and he asked how much it cost. The man said that it cost a drachma. Hermes smiled, and asked how much the statue of Hera would be. The man named a still higher price. When Hermes saw a statue of himself, he expected that he would be reckoned at an even higher price, since he delivered the messages of the gods and brought profit to mankind. But when he asked how much the statue of Hermes would cost, the sculptor replied, ‘If you buy those other two, I’ll throw this one in for free!’


There was a woman who had a middle-aged man as her lover and although she was no spring chicken herself, she concealed her age with exquisite grace. There was also a beautiful young girl who had caught the man’s fancy. Both women wanted to seem a suitable partner for him, so they began plucking out his hair in turn. The man imagined that his looks were being improved by their attentions but in the end he went bald, since the young girl plucked out every one of his gray hairs, while the older woman plucked out all the black ones.


There was once a doctor who knew nothing about medicine. So when everyone was telling a certain sick man, ‘Don’t give up, you will get well; your illness is the sort that lasts for a while, but then you will feel better,’ this doctor marched in and declared, ‘I’m not going to play games with you or tell you lies: you need to take care of all your affairs because you are going to die. You cannot expect to live past tomorrow.’ Having said this, the doctor did not even bother to come back again. After a while the patient recovered from his illness and ventured out of doors, although he was still quite pale and not yet steady on his feet. When the doctor ran into the patient, he greeted him, and asked him how all the people down in Hades were doing. The patient said, ‘They are taking it easy, drinking the waters of Lethe. But Persephone and the mighty god Pluto were just now threatening terrible things against all the doctors, since they keep the sick people from dying. Every single doctor was denounced, and they were ready to put you at the top of the list. This scared me, so I immediately stepped forward and grasped their royal sceptres as I solemnly swore that since you are not really a doctor at all, the accusation was ridiculous!’

Now that we have had some comic relief, it’s time to consider what exactly comedy gives us relief from. In the Poetics, Aristotle described tragedy as ‘bringing to an end’ the emotions of pity and fear and he called this process ‘cathartic’ (1). Does comedy also bring to an end certain emotions and if so what are these emotions? On this topic, Aristotle is less forthcoming. There is a curious little work attributed to Aristotle with a hideous title (the Tractatus Coislinianus) that offers the following: “[c]omedy is an imitation of an action that is absurd and lacking in grandeur…through pleasure and laughter achieving the purgation of the like emotions” (2). Mmm, not exactly satisfactory is it? The observation that comedy targets the absurd and mundane is fair enough. But is Aristotle really suggesting that comedy frees us from pleasure and laughter because those emotions and reactions are undesirable? Surely not.

When I think about my favourite comedians and comediennes, I can see how they tap into everyday situations that usually provoke feelings of annoyance, anger, indignation, irritation and/or contempt. Comedy reveals the absurdity of these situations and redefines them within new parameters. Through the act of laughing, I am purged of these negative emotions as part of a cathartic process. There is no greater relief from negativity than having a good laugh (well, actually, that’s not true, there are other great forms of relief!). It is simply impossible to feel annoyed and amused at the same time. I think comic catharsis is a real phenomenon but the definition we have been given is inadequate. However it is defined, I am certainly grateful for it at the end of a long working week.

Fables (no. 562, 584 and 587) sourced from:


  1. Aristotle, Poetics, 1449b24-28. See the mention of catharsis also in Aristotle’s Politics 8.7.1341b32.
  2. Tractatus Coislinianus, IV.

Further reading:

  1. R. Janko, Aristotle on Comedy, Duckworth, London, 1984,
  2. L. Cooper, An Aristotelian Theory of Comedy, Kraus Reprint Co. New York, 1969.

Header image:

Terracotta figurine of a comic actor with tympanos: Greek, 375-350 BCE
Paris, Louvre Museum.