Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar

GIS Reports: 1/5/2015 and 8/5/2015

The start of a new term means the return of the Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar (GIS), chaired this term by Livvy Elder and myself. As undergraduates retreat to the library to revise, the postgraduate community here at Cambridge continues to flourish, and we’ve had a question-packed opening two weeks, summaries of which you can find below.

We kicked off this term with a talk by Rebecca Lees on “A Love Story Without Men?: Ovid and constructionism in the Iphis episode, Met. 9.666-797,” a trial-run for her presentation of the same paper later this month at the Classical Association of Canada, on the Women’s Network panel, “Gender b(l)ending in antiquity”. Iphis is a girl from Crete, raised as a boy by her mother, and betrothed to her classmate Ianthe, for whom she contracts an intense and reciprocated passion. Finding her sexual desire for another female bizarre and unnatural, Iphis despairs of the impending wedding, but her mother prays to Isis for a solution, and Iphis is transformed into a male. Iphis and Ianthe marry, and gifts are donated at the temple. In her paper, Rebecca examined Ovid’s deconstruction of Roman gender norms in this episode: although Iphis herself does not question or challenge the gender norms of her society, which mirror those of contemporary Rome, Rebecca argued that Ovid presents Iphis’ viewpoint as culturally constructed, thereby underscoring the inadequacy of these norms to encapsulate the possibilities of sexual desire and gender configuration. Through comparison with Greek predecessors, Indian folklore and hormonal conditions which cause sex changes during puberty, Rebecca produced a nuanced and engaging reading of the passage. The questions that followed expanded Rebecca’s reading out to other Ovidian characters, such as Tiresias, while also exploring how Iphis’ transition from female to male was also associated with the transition from childhood to adulthood. Discussion especially focused on Rebecca’s exploration of the ambiguities at the end of the episode, introducing questions surrounding the historical reality of inscriptional practice and dedications to the gods.

In a new addition to GIS this term, Rebecca’s paper was followed by a brief interlude in which Ruth Allen introduced the postgraduate community to her ‘Museum Favourite’, the Belvedere Torso. A write-up of her thoughts on the piece can be found on this very blog, but in her talk, she focused especially on the differences between the original statue and its insubstantiality as a cast, as well as contemporary artists’ ambivalent responses to the sculpture, hovering between homage and parody. The brief discussion that followed raised issues of truncation, materiality and the absence of identity and narrative.

The Emperor Julian: “Beard-Hater”? A bit of a hypocrite…!

The second main presentation of the afternoon came from Lea Niccolai, a visiting student from the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, with a paper entitled “ ’It was in my power to punish you, but writing seemed to me better’:  Emperor Julian’s strategies for self-promotion between Ep. 82 BC and Misopogon.” Lea examined Julian’s self-presentation as an enlightened emperor in two works of a similar purpose and date: his epistle 82 reproaches the Senator Nilus for his reckless behaviour, while the Misopogon (“Beard-hater”) is a satirical essay on philosophers addressed to the people of Antioch. In both texts, Lea explored Julian’s manipulation of his literary heritage, employing parodic and iambic topoi, as well as systematically subverting and inverting the rhetorical precepts of Menander’s Basilikos Logos, while (she suggested) following those of Plutarch’s De se ipsum citra invidiam laudando (“On praising oneself”). Julian, she argued, employs a peculiar mix of self-deprecation and self-praise, while also breaking from his parodic mode when celebrating the Celts as figures of ‘noble savagery’ and praising the value of philosophy. Her paper as a whole offered a convincing defence of the emperor from accusations of stylistic “sloppiness” and ineptitude and was thoroughly enjoyed by all. The questions that followed focused on Julian’s use of literature more generally, especially his implicit hierarchies of literary status (setting the lowly comedy against the loftier epic and philosophy), as well as the target audience and original reception of these texts: who precisely was he showing off to? In both cases, Lea suggested, it is the larger senatorial elite.

Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome.

Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome.

After a great first week, the second GIS of term had much to live up to, but it did not disappoint. We started off with Mattias Gassman on “Debating Local Religion and Classical Literature in Roman Africa (Augustine, Epistulae 16-17)”. Mattias used the epistolary exchange between Augustine and Maximus of Madauros to compare educated pagan and Christian perspectives on traditional religion, Christianity and their shared classical literary heritage. In response to a now-lost letter from Augustine, Mattias explored how Maximus used Classical literature and philosophical ideas to assert the primacy of traditional civic cult, presenting the Christian rejection of Jupiter in Lucanic and Vergilian terms, and conflating the Punic martyrs with the Egyptian gods at Actium and the gods of Madauros’ forum with those of Rome. In response to this letter, Mattias then examined how Augustine aimed to unsettle Maximus’ confidence in the Classical tradition and his gods’ Romanitas by attacking the cults of Madauros on all three levels—civic, philosophical, and poetic—of the Varronian tripartite theology. Invoking Ennius, Vergil and Cicero, Augustine emphasised the gods’ hostility and Maximus’ need, as ‘an African writing for Africans’, to remember the Punic features of his own religion. As Mattias convincingly demonstrated, this exchange shows two ways in which educated, late fourth-century Africans could appropriate and debate Classical literature in order to justify their religious adherence, and shows that Christian polemic focused on that literary heritage was not, as sometimes alleged, out of touch with contemporary pagan religiosity. The discussion that followed touched on various point, including issues of African identity and patriotism, questions over the correspondence’s reality or fictionality, as well as how these letters’ use of Roman literature fits into larger trends in late antiquity.

Following the new trend of GIS this term, Mattias’ paper was followed by a brief ‘Museum Favourite’ snippet from Josh Pugh Ginn on the Farnese Hercules. A written version of Josh’s thoughts on the statue can be found here. The lively discussion that followed focused especially on issues of scale and the different contexts of the statue’s reception (Naples museum, Baths of Caracalla, Cast Gallery).

The Emperor Justinian in all his splendour.  Detail of a mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.

The Emperor Justinian in all his splendour. Detail of a mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.

Our final talk of the afternoon came from Halycon Weber on the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian’s approach to the ius antiquum (“antique law”) in the sixth century AD, exploring Justinian’s attempts to clarify disagreements which had been left unresolved in the writings of the jurists of the second and third centuries AD. To achieve this, Justinian issued 50 decisiones (“decisions”), which explicitly tackled these disputes, while also producing the ‘Digest’, a single work which compiled and sorted the writings of the classical jurists. As Halcyon explained, a central question of her research is whether the decisiones were incorporated into the body of the Digest. To reach a preliminary conclusion, Halycon examined extant evidence from the decisiones and Digest on the loss of usufructs (life interest in another’s property). Although she found that there seems to have been a conscious effort to achieve a basic consistency between the Digest and decisiones, some inconsistencies remain and the Digest seems to have avoided replicating the final opinion of the decisiones, perhaps due to Justinian’s avowed hatred of repetition. Although Halycon is wary of reaching premature conclusions before analysing all our evidence, her argument is a strong challenge to the current academic consensus that the decisiones were fully absorbed into the Digest. A lively discussion followed Halcyon’s paper, touching on the difficulties in identifying the original 50 decisiones; the status of the Digest (was it ever finished? – such encyclopaedic projects often aren’t); and Justinian’s own self-presentation in emphasising his ability to complete such a gigantic project so quickly. The paper nicely rounded off the first two weeks of this term’s GIS series, and we all left feeling better educated in a field of study into which few classicists dip their toes.

GIS returns this coming Friday for its third instalment of term, where I will be talking about the relationship between Attic Old Comedy and Hellenistic Poetry, followed by Robert Sing on Demosthenes’ “Rhetoric of Reconciliation” in the Fourth Philippic. George Watson will also be introducing us to his Museum Favourite and discussion will continue afterwards, as ever, in the pub –  hope to see you then!


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