If I had a dollar…


“If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me ‘Why are you studying Classics?’ I would be a wealthy woman.” This remark came from one of my students as we had a discussion after class about her career plans and aspirations. Her frustration was so evident, as was her deep enthusiasm for Classics and her steadfast determination to pursue a career in teaching and academia. How does one reconcile what one is passionate about with the oft-held view that what one studies at university should be practical and vocational?

This was a timely remark given that we were just about to have our university Open Day and all of the Classics staff (including myself) were rostered on over Saturday to ‘sell’ our discipline to prospective students. To my delight, we did not have to sell it: the enthusiasm of the school students who approached our stall on Open Day was clear and obvious. Conversations invariably started with “I am studying Classics/Ancient History/Latin and Greek and I really love it”. I have to raise my glass at this point to all of the high school history and language teachers who share their passion for the ancient world; the parents who still diligently read the Greek myths to their children as bedtime stories; and all the relatives and family friends who fill young minds with the great stories, ideas, and teachings from the ancient world. Clearly, the flame of Classics is alive and burning. The problem is how to make sure that the flame is not snuffed out by the increasing emphasis on more vocational, skills-based degrees, whatever they may be.

There are, in fact, quite a few arguments in favour of choosing Classics over other subjects but these arguments vary in their persuasive force.

Argument 1: Study what you enjoy!

Study what you enjoy and what you are interested in and if Classics is one of those things, so be it. With statistics showing a downward slide in university degree completion rates, it seems logical for students to enrol in a degree that they are enthusiastic about. (1) If students follow their interests and passions, they are simply more likely to complete their degree.

Yes, but what about my job prospects after university?

Argument 2: Studying Classics gives you skills!

This is not just empty rhetoric. The skills acquired from a good grounding in Classical subjects can be enumerated and they are real, valuable and widely applicable. They include the ability to think critically; the ability to analyze sources and distinguish fact from opinion; the ability to concentrate and apply one’s knowledge to complex problems and find solutions to those problems; the development of high-level oral and written communication skills; the ability to argue persuasively and present ideas and concepts clearly and succinctly, the list goes on and on…

Yes, but surely those skills aren’t exclusive to Classics?

Argument 3: Classics is the foundation of Western civilization!

The civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome are the foundations of modern literature, culture and politics! Democracy, philosophy, tragedy, it all starts with Classics. If we understand the foundations of Greek and Roman society, we gain a better understanding of the contemporary world. Arguably, we can’t understand our contemporary world without making reference to the classical past! (2)

Yes, but this argument is well-known and obvious. What else can you offer?

Well, here’s another argument. It’s the most persuasive one, in my view.

Argument 4: Can you say in full and complete honesty that you ‘know yourself’? In order to know anything, surely one must start with ‘knowing oneself’? Surely you feel compelled to ‘know yourself’, given that this thing called ‘yourself’ is such a complex and wondrous thing? If so, then the study of Classics is for you.

This argument stems from two simple Greek words emblazoned on the temple of Apollo at Delphi: ‘Know thyself’ (γνῶθι σεαυτόν). (3) This was a command, not a wish, or a suggestion. Socrates refused to rest from his questioning and probing (of himself and others) until he satisfied this demand. And the study of Classics is a gradual progression towards the fulfillment of this simple command, to ‘know thyself’.

If, at the end of a Classics degree, a student can say the following:

“I have journeyed to distant lands, and times and places,

I have risen to the greatest heights of ancient civilization and conquered the world,

I have met kings and queens, generals, heroes, priestesses, slaves, courtesans, wives, poets, philosophers, fools, seers, citizens, foreigners, market traders and fish sellers,

I have walked among the ruins of ancient civilizations, marveled at their grandeur and achievement, and contemplated their fall and the inevitable passing of my own civilization,

I have filled my eyes with masterful works of art and wondered at the pursuit of beauty and the perfect form,

I have fought in battles with the heroes of the great epics and witnessed the glory, despair, tragedy and human suffering of war,

I have heard stories of the gods, worshipped the gods, challenged the gods and suffered the consequences,

I have journeyed, explored, and lost my way, and fought to find my way back home again to my beloved family,

I have participated in all the myriad forms of human emotion from pride to piety, from wrath to revenge, from love to hate,

I have conversed with some of the greatest of human minds, heard their words, challenged their arguments and ideas, and concluded that I too know nothing,

I have heard stirring words, passionate words, persuasive words, harsh words, words of praise and blame, warning and exhortation,

I have laughed and rollicked, and revelled, and mocked and poured scorn on public figures and intellectuals all in the name of comedy,

I have lived among cultures with practices and beliefs utterly strange but yet so familiar in their thoughts and feelings,

I will never be alone again, for the ancient people I have met represent so much of human thought and experience that they will be constant companions and reference points for me for the rest of my life,

I have begun to understand the full breadth and depth of human experience in all of its myriad forms, and so, I have begun to know myself.”

then it’s not a bad choice of degree, I say.



(1) ABC news article on rising numbers of unfinished uni degrees:


(2) Why every state school should teach classics:


(3) Why study the classics:


(4) Header image sourced from:


Capturing time

Turin, Museum of Antiquities. Kairos. Marble bas-relief. Roman c

Time eludes us. We never have enough of it when we need it. Good times with dear ones pass quickly. Dull times pass slowly. A day rushes by in a flurry of activity, an hour is lost on a hopeless task, a sweet moment, like a kiss, lingers and then melts away. What is this slippery thing we call ‘time’?

The ancient Greeks had two quite different concepts of time: chronos (χρόνος), referring to a period, season or space of time; and kairos (καιρός) referring to the right time for action, the critical moment. Chronos is linear and can be measured, in days, months and years. Kairos, however, is an altogether different concept. It refers to recognition of the significance of the present moment.

In Greek mythology, Chronos is described as great, crafty and cunning. He was one of the Titans, the earliest generation of Greek gods and one of the twelve children of Heaven and Earth. He is a portrayed as a destructive force and his power is characterized by violence and the violation of proper order and hierarchy. Initially, he had no consideration, obeyed no rules, and was seemingly wild and uncontrollable.

Chronos is said to have ambushed his father (Heaven) as he lay with his mother (Earth) and castrated him using a sickle with jagged teeth. He then took his father’s place as ruler of the cosmos and married his own sister, Rhea. Interestingly, ‘Rhea’ means ‘flow’ or ‘ease’, a gentler concept of time passing, often linked with the female menstrual cycle and with motherhood. But even after marrying Rhea, Chronos’ nature did not change.

In an effort to protect himself from being usurped, Chronos swallowed each of his children as Rhea gave birth to them:

These great Cronos swallowed as each [460] came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, [465] strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus. Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea. (1)

Rhea sought help from her parents and they devised a plan, as retribution for Chronos’ violence toward his father, and for swallowing his children. Rhea gave birth to Zeus in a secret place on the island of Crete and, with the help of her mother, Zeus was hidden away.  A stone wrapped in swaddling clothes was presented to Chronos and Chronos duly swallowed the stone:

Then he took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! he knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled, [490] and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honors, himself to reign over the deathless gods. (2)

Zeus grew up and gained strength. With the help of the other Olympians, he waged a ten year war against his father Chronos and the other Titans, eventually defeating them and driving them into Tartarus. Zeus (representing law, order and proper hierarchy) eventually brought Chronos under control; the era of chronos without logos had passed, and chronological time began.

In Greek mythology, Kairos is a completely different figure to Chronos. Lysippos is said to have made a bronze statue of Kairos in the fourth century BCE. Unfortunately, the statue has not survived, but we do have a marble relief that is said to be a copy of Lysippos’ work (see header image above).

Kairos is depicted as a youthful, athletic figure with wings on his back and feet. He is balancing on a stick, whilst holding a sharp blade in his right hand and a set of scales. There is tension, concentration and complete focus in the moment. In ancient Greek history, the ‘kairos’ refers to the turning point in the battle, the moment at which the outcome will be decided. In literature and drama, the ‘kairos’ is the critical moment for the protagonist, the point in time at which his choice of action will determine his fate.

In the third century BCE, the poet Posidippos composed the following epigram to accompany Lysippos’ statue:

“Who are you? Kairos, subduer of all.

Why do you stand on tip-toe? I run quickly.

And why you have wings on both your feet? I am as swift as wind.

Why do you hold a razor in your right hand? As proof to men that I am sharper than any sharp edge.

Why does your hair grow over your face? For one who encounters me to grasp.

And why, in Heaven’s name, is the back of your head bald? For once my winged feet pass by, even if desiring to, no one can grasp me from behind.

Why did the artist fashion you? For your sake, stranger, and he set me up in the porch as a lesson.” (Anth. Pal. 16.275.7).

I am coming around to the view that kairos, the critical moment, is more important than chronos. I think my children have taught me this. I used to be beholden only to the concept of linear time, particularly, the past and the future. Little children live only in the present moment. They are wonderfully free of the burden of chronological time. They seize kairos by the hair and they don’t let him go.

The two Greek concepts of time illustrate to me that I will never have any control over chronos, but with kairos I have a chance. If one is present now, in this moment, and awake to what is required in this moment, then one has a chance to realize something, to bring something about, at this critical juncture between linear time and opportunity.

(1) and (2): Hesiod, Theogony available online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu

Header image: http://ancientrome.ru/art/artworken/img.htm?id=2638


Dramatis personae


Going to the theatre this weekend? What better way to escape the winter blues! If so, you might like to slip this very short guide to theatre etiquette into your back pocket. It is a little dated (by around 2,300 years) but it’s remarkably apt.

Don’t go to the theatre only when admission is free.

Don’t go to a performance again and again just to learn the songs.

Don’t take the cushions from your friend’s slave and spread them out on the theatre seat yourself.

Don’t stop others from enjoying the performance because of your constant chatter.

Don’t clap after others have stopped clapping or hiss the actors that others enjoy watching.

When the audience is silent, don’t sit back and burp just to make the other spectators turn around.

Don’t take interstate guests to the theatre but expect them to pay for the tickets. And don’t reuse those tickets the next day for your children.

Don’t fall asleep and be left behind alone in the theatre. (1)

It was terrific seeing an audience of students from English and Drama enjoying this material from the fourth century BC and seeing its continued relevance for modern times. In fact, the highlight of my working week was ‘teaching into’ two courses on comedy and drama run by the English program at the ANU. I was delighted to present a lecture on one of my favourite topics: ancient Greek drama. Collaborative teaching is inspiring and tremendously rewarding and I am grateful to my colleagues, Bec and Kate, for the opportunity.

  1. The guide to theatre etiquette (above) draws on excerpts from Theophrastus’ Characters, numbers 2, 7, 9, 11, 14, 27 and 30.
  2. Header image: Photo of Epidauros Theatre. Source: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/12/amazing-acoustics-epidaurus-theatre/

Surviving the plague


July in Canberra has seen a run of freezing cold nights (with temperatures dropping to minus 8 degrees) and mornings so thick with fog that I can’t even see the end of my street. In an effort to avoid incurring steep university parking fees I ride to work but, on one particularly cold (and wet) morning last week, the nasty wind chill got to me and before long I felt that awful ‘razor blade’ feeling in my throat. No amount of vitamin C tablets would be enough to avert it.

This week, I can hear the coughs of colleagues (and students) rattling up and down the corridors along with my own. I admit, it’s not ideal teaching (or studying) amidst a cloud of tissues, lozenges, antibiotics and hot drinks. But whenever I am feeling particularly sorry for myself for being brought down by the latest mutant germ, it cheers me up immensely to read Thucydides’ account of the plague of Athens. So here we go:

As a rule, however, there was no ostensible cause; but people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. [3] These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. [4] In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. [5] Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. [6] Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. [7] For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; [8] for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.(1)

I’m feeling better already. I only have 2% of the symptoms just described, so it mustn’t be the plague this time. I cannot imagine anything worse than suffering through the overcrowding in ancient Athens only to contract this hideous disease. Death must have been a welcome prospect just to avoid the excruciating symptoms. Remarkably though, Thucydides survived the plague (he was one of the lucky few). Right, time to cheer up, have another cup of tea folks, and Περαστικά everyone!

(‘Perastika’, Greek expression meaning ‘may it pass quickly’, or ‘get well soon’).

(1) Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 2.49 available online at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

Header image: Caduceus symbol from Ephesus, sourced from: