Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar

A (belated) GIS report: 13/2/15

Belated salutations! At last, I get round to writing up last week’s GIS. Technically it’s before today’s has happened, so I call that just about acceptable. The timing may be indicative of a general busyness, and with three (yes three!) papers to cover, I fear that my standard flowing prose shall forcedly be somewhat curtailed. Alas. You really can’t get the staff these days…

Opening up Friday’s scholarly extravaganza was Mattias Gassman, with, “Captive to Pagan Rhetoric? A New Look at the Ad Donatum of Cyprian of Carthage.” The Ad Donatum dates (probably) to the early part of Cyrian’s episcopal career in the mid-third century. To date, its study has been clouded by the reaction of Augustine of Hippo, who describes it as the work of a man yet to discover the simple style which Christian theology (and indeed Cyprian himself) espouses. The story then has been one of a recent convert to the religion, still lost in the florid rhetoric of his pagan past. Mattias, as the title of his paper would rather suggest, argued for a different interpretation. His paper questioned the very principle of simplicity in his later writings, seeing this claim as just as rhetorical as the supposedly inexperience neophyte’s flamboyance in the Ad Donatum.

The sheep/goat – a common sight in Roman Britain.

A marked shift in tone and evidential form was brought about by Julia Hurley, the second of Friday’s American trio, with her paper, “From Soup to Nuts: Reconstructing Diet in Roman-Period Britain.” Here Julia provided us with an introduction into a world which is for many classicists quite alien. Her current studies are directed towards foodways in Roman Britain, the cultural processes involved in the selection of food and the manner of its consumption. A quick romp through the histories of zooarcheology and palaeobotany (among other variations on the names) summarised some of the methodological issues with this kind of research. It is not infrequent, for example, for digs to simply ignore the biological evidence which is present, and even when it is recorded there is only so much material that remains – large herd animals, for example, dominate the bone record, including the mysterious and intriguing sheep/goat. In response, a new digital approach was proposed, using “database-based data” (I do like a good chiasmus) to build up layers of comparison between different sites, and the different foodstuffs consumed there.

In a week which broke away from our usual format, it was perhaps fitting that the final paper had its own experimental twist on the idea of the GIS. Charlie Northrop offered us “Quamquam quem potissimum Herculem colamus scire sane velim  (Cic. DND 3.42): how can we say a character is ‘the same’ as another?” There are many cases of characters with the same name appearing in different contexts, but Charlie asked the basic question of whether or not we can really say that the character was the same individual. Her Ovidian background provided the first case in point, in the figure of Lycaon. Ovid’s version (in the Metamorphoses) kills a man and attempts to feed him to Zeus; for his impiety, Zeus turns him into a wolf. As you do. But, Charlie asked, is this Lycaon the same as the others from the ancient world? To answer that question, she provided a theory in which character and personality are distinct properties. Character forms the underlying traits which make an individual recognisable; personality meanwhile accounts for the immediate actions of a character. The latter may change – sometimes Lycaon kills a baby, sometimes he attempts to murder Zeus – but the former stays the same. At this point, the experiment kicked, as Charlie treated us all to some good old fashioned audience participation in a bid to define specifically the character of Hercules/Herakles. The point she made was an effective one: character can be built on a selection of different traits associated with an individual, some of which can be seemingly mutually exclusive. Whether this makes characters the same remained up for question, but it was one way into the problem.

And with that, another GIS concluded. This week – today, that is, as the self-flagellation for sloth and distraction continues – we are back to the standard format, with two papers from the Greek world. Dan Unruh, fresh from submitting his PhD, will be presenting on the sexual perversions and infertility of Herodotean tyrants, followed by Max Leventhal looking at Ptolemaic symposia. I can’t promise a prompter report, but I think it would be a struggle to delay it much longer than this one has been. Peace out, and such.


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