Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar

GIS Report: 22/05/2015: Blessedness in Sophocles and (Bi)lingual Pompeian Graffiti

Sophocles: has much to say on the most 'blessed' life

Sophocles: has much to say on the most ‘blessed’ life

GIS continued this week with a pair of speakers from Peterhouse. We kicked off with a presentation from Rob Thompson on ‘Paradigms of blessedness in Sophocles’, a study of how Sophocles’ tragedies explore the idea of the best possible human life (an idea captured in Greek by various different nouns, including εὐδαιμονία, εὐτυχία and ὀλβία). After a thorough methodological introduction, Rob examined how Sophoclean characters envisage the best and most blessed human existence, and the relationship of such a life to assumptions in Greek thought about humanity’s place in the world. He found that Sophocles’ tragedies present various conflicting paradigms of the ‘good life’, with some characters focusing on money and pleasure, and others on virtue and judgement as its key secrets. Instead of engaging in a biographical fallacy by attempting to reconstruct Sophocles’ own views, however, Rob was rather interested in exploring the effect of these conflicting voices and their interaction with broader trends of Greek thought. Although he has yet to reach a final conclusion, it seems that Sophocles’ plays raise many central questions about the human condition without offering any easy or direct answers. The discussion that followed focused on Sophocles’ relationship with other literature, especially Theognis, Herodotus and Homer, as well as Rob’s choice of the overarching term ‘blessedness’ for his project, given its strong Judeo-Christian overtones and the potential risk that it might iron out the nuances between the various Greek words for this concept. Rob responded that it was the best English noun he could find to incorporate the range of overlapping connotations that the original Greek words evoke.

As has become traditional this term, Rob’s presentation was followed by a brief intermezzo from Patrick Cook on his Museum Favourite, the Venice Tetrarch Group, whose purple-coloured cast stands at the corner of the Cast Gallery’s first and last bays (the alpha and omega of the gallery, as Patrick would have it). A written version of Patrick’s thoughts can be found here. A lively discussion followed his talk, focusing especially on the viewer’s response to the artwork (both then and now) and questions surrounding the messy boundary between the classical and the postclassical (should such a late antique sculpture even be placed in a Museum of Classical Art and Archaeology?).

Our second paper of the afternoon was delivered by my co-chair Olivia Elder, on ‘(Bi)lingual games in the graffiti of Pompeii’. From the very start, Olivia made it clear that her goal was to correct the unexamined assumptions of earlier scholarship which tends to dismiss Pompeian graffiti as examples of clumsy or vulgar language that is of a fundamentally different character to the classical norm. Whilst acknowledging the methodological difficulties and imperfections of the graffiti, Olivia demonstrated how many of them can be taken more seriously as playful and carefully-considered acts of communication. To do so, she focused on specific examples which show considerable exchange and interplay between Latin and Greek, as well as script-switching between the two alphabets. She argued that the distinction between the Latin and Greek scripts was far more fluid than Quintilian and others make out (take, for example, CIL IV 4950 ΒΑΧΧΙS ΔΟΜΝΑ, which has one certainly Greek letter (Δ), one certainly Latin letter (S), while the rest are shared by both alphabets), and that the bilingual phenomena visible in the Pompeian graffiti are not too dissimilar from what we find in Latin literature. Graffiti and Roman literature, she concluded, though often segregated pieces of evidence, can help to shed much fruitful light on one another. The following discussion focused on the physical material context of the graffiti, whether Olivia’s argument would fit with evidence of other graffiti beyond Pompeii and whether we need to stratify and distinguish between different kinds of graffiti.

GIS returns next Friday for its fifth instalment of term, where Graham Andrews will be discussing ‘Maximinus Romanus? The Barbarisation of Thrax’ and James Cahill will be introducing us to the ‘aesthetics of fragmentation’ in ancient and contemporary art, alongside Eleri Cousins filling the ‘Museum Favourite’ slot. What better way to spend a Friday afternoon?

           PS Livvy’s report of the previous week’s GIS (15/05/2015) should be appearing on here soon!

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