How to run an excellent INSET¹ day

I attended an excellent INSET day on Saturday. I shall describe it briefly in the hope that others will follow in its footsteps.

The day was organised and hosted by the University of Cambridge Classics Faculty and billed as Teaching GCSE Classical Civilisations. It formed part of their outreach programme and was free to attend.²

The programme comprised two lectures, one from Professor Tim Whitmarsh, the other from Dr Ingo Gildenhard³, both pitched academically and also accessibly so we felt educated and not patronised; lunch (plentiful and delicious); next a choice of either a session on film in the classroom with soon-to-be-Dr Stephen Harrison or a talk/ interaction with the fabulous Cast Gallery in the Museum of Classical Archaeology focused on getting the best out of study visits with the very engaging Jennie Thornber, the museum’s Education and Outreach Coordinator; then a plenary session, chaired by John Taylor of Latin text book fame who was also attending the day, with three five minute presentations from teachers who had volunteered in advance on things that they do in the classroom; finally a feedback session where our comments were listened to and noted.

In short, I believe I speak for the majority of attendees when I assert that the day was excellent. A perfect blend of teachers being educated, sharing expertise, interacting with each other and the leaders, and being listened to.

Thanks and praises to the Classics Faculty’s outreach team and to Max Kramer in particular for organising.

Did you also attend? I’d love you to add any extra comments below.

Do you have further views on how to run INSET days? Please also add your comments.


Image from

¹ INSET just means teacher training. I don’t know why.

² It was explained to us that initially their outreach programme was aimed purely at Sixth Formers as there was no point reaching out to anyone younger than that. The current reachers decided to ignore this protocol and now reach out to GCSE age groups as well as teachers. How revolutionary!

³ I was disappointed to learn from him that he thought JK Rowling had NOT used his name as inspiration for Gilderoy Lockhart. Everything else I learnt from him was positively joyous.



I introduced myself to a famous person today. I say introduced, but in reality I was a bit star-struck so I burbled a little about admiring her work and forgot to say my own name. Dina Asher-Smith is one of the best athletes in Britain at the moment, being the fastest British woman ever over 100m and world junior champion. She is also a historian, currently studying at King’s College, London. We bonded over Charlemagne as she described begging her way on to a German trip in order to visit Aachen. I basically love her.

The cult of celebrity is nothing new. Anyone who has seen Troy will remember the scene in which a young boy tells Achilles he would not be brave enough to go into battle. Achilles replies that that is the reason no one will remember his name. Achilles was famed for heroism in battle. This is no Hollywood addition to the story of Homer’s Iliad, but rather an accurate representation of Ancient Greek obsession with fame and the idea of immortality.

Romans too celebrated their heroes, especially in the sporting world, from the wealthy charioteers to enslaved gladiators. Graffiti found in Pompeii bears witness to the popularity of individual gladiators, one in particular being described as ‘suspirium puellarum’, the girls’ heart-throb. Somewhat more respectably, monuments were raised — often by the charioteers themselves — recording names of charioteers and describing huge amounts of prize money won, teams raced for and sometimes the horses who helped speed them to their victories, their fame, their immortality.

Romans tended to work on the principal of blowing one’s own trumpet as no one else would do the job loudly enough, and this was true not just for sportsmen but also the ruling classes.

Roman politicians would pay people to follow them around to make them look popular at election times and to applaud their speeches in the forum. Cicero, a fine example of someone very interested in his own importance, did himself no favours amidst the senatorial classes during a time of political instability by boasting about how he had saved the whole world (no less!) by averting the Catilinarian conspiracy against Rome years before. He ended up being bumped off during a round of proscriptions. One wonders if he might have escaped had he not been quite so sanctimonious a character, a little more flattering to others, perhaps.

There are many, many, many more records of achievements of justly famous characters throughout the Roman and Greek worlds, and also examples of individuals obsessed with their own fame and immortality. I’d just like to end by saying that Dina was very down to earth — her achievements stand for themselves — but clearly with star-struck people like me and a celebrity obsessed world, she hardly needs to blow her own trumpet. Best of luck, this season, Dina — and my name is Charlie.

Follow the lovely Dina Asher-Smith on Twitter @dinaashersmith

You can stop reading now, but if you would like to read on, Martial wrote this epigram in the first century ad illustrating the very great affection in which charioteers were held:


Let Victory in sadness break her Idumaean palms; O Favour, strike your bare breast with unsparing hand. Let Honour change her garb for that of mourning; and make your crowned locks, O disconsolate Glory, an offering to the cruel flames. Oh! sad misfortune! that you, Scorpus, should be cut off in the flower of your youth, and be called so prematurely to harness the dusky steeds of Pluto. The chariot-race was always shortened by your rapid driving; but O why should your own race have been so speedily run?

(Translation from here

The End

Some tattoos, ancient and modern

My daughter wants a tattoo. She’s three. The pirates in her sticker book have them, so does Charlotte at pre-school. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but Charlotte is a grown up, she’s your teacher. You have to be a grown up to have a tattoo.’ Abject disappointment.

My favourite reference to tattooing in the ancient world is by Virgil in his epic the Aeneid.

It’s an interesting reference because it subverts expectations. Aeneas in Book 4 is being likened to Apollo, a beautiful and generally well behaved god, but Aeneas is about to be poorly behaved. He is about to embark on an ill-fated love affair with Dido, queen of Carthage in North Africa, when he should be heading off to Italy where he will become the founder of the race of Romans. The subversive reference to Apollo describes a beautiful god striding across mountain ridges, but it uses language and imagery more usually associated with the much naughtier god of wine, dance and general debauchery, Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek). There is a line describing the peoples attending Apollo, ‘Cretesque Dryopesque fremunt pictique Agathyrsi’ which can be translated as ‘The Cretans, Dryopians and tattooed Agathyrsians roar’. It is the tattooed Agathyrsians who first piqued my interest — it is for one thing so pleasing to say aloud — picti Agathyrsi: they were a tribe from the Black Sea coast, far away, with outlandish practices such as colouring their hair blue and tattooing their bodies. Annoyingly, however, ‘picti’ might not actually mean tattooed but just painted. At any rate, the reference is to a foreign, strange tribe, who do un-Roman things with their appearance. We should beware this lovely looking god-like man, then, for he is about to associate himself with an un-Roman liaison which will certainly not end well. Nothing associated with Bacchus ever ends that well, in fact people frequently get torn limb from limb by their own mothers. In short, Dido falls terrifically in love to the neglect of all else, but the gods remind Aeneas that he should be on his way. He leaves without so much as a by-your-leave. Dido, in a fit of rage, burns all his stuff, then throws herself onto the bonfire too. Aeneas sees the smoke from far out at sea and hopes all is well. So much for the association with Bacchus.

Sticking with ‘picti’, you may be thinking that this word sounds a lot like what we call the folk who lived in the north of Britain around the time the Romans were building Hadrian’s Wall, and you would be right. The Picts were the inhabitants of what we would now roughly call Scotland. However, once again, whether or not they were tattooed or merely painted themselves blue (blue again!) is a moot point. The word ‘picti’ comes from the Latin verb pingo, pingere, pinxi, pictum, meaning to paint, but also to embroider, embellish, stain or tattoo. It is a bit interesting to note that while embroidery and tattooing require different media for their colours, both require a needle to apply their colours. Again, the Picts of northern Britain were an outlandish people who so resisted Roman attempts to civilise them that a wall had to be built to keep them out of the way.

Another Latin word which has been taken to mean tattooed is ‘stigma’. In English we understand stigmatised as meaning marked with something somehow downgrading. Annoyingly, Lewis and Short (as mentioned in a previous post, THE Latin dictionary) only gives its meanings as ‘A mark burned in, a brand, impressed on slaves as a mark of disgrace… a mark of disgrace, a stigma…’. So not necessarily a tattoo at all. However, when we look further afield than Classical Latin, we find fourth century references to soldiers being tattooed with pin pricks after having proven themselves fit enough to join up, and also sixth century Latin recipes for tattoo ink, where the word ‘stigma’ definitely means tattoo. Hurrah!

What at all these references to painted, branded and tattooed bodies in the classical world have in common, however, is that the practice was most associated with foreigners, slaves and soldiers. Not suitable, then, for daughters of teachers and accountants, regardless of age. Sorry, Daughter Dearest!

Further Reading/ Viewing

Here is a link to a history of tattooing.

EDITED to include this link to a fascinating article by Sarah E. Bond on tattooing for religious reasons.

My very talented cousin Laura is a tattoo artist in Portland, Oregon; here is some of her beautiful work, just because I like it.

Ingo Gildenhard has written a study guide to Aeneid Book 4 which has a neat discussion of scholarship on the Apollo simile. Other booksellers are available.

This is the Latin passage of the simile from Aeneid IV, lines 143-50, with my translation.

qualis ubi hibernam Lyciam Xanthique fluenta
deserit ac Delum maternam invisit Apollo
instauratque choros, mixtique altaria circum
Cretesque Dryopesque fremunt pictique Agathyrsi;
ipse iugis Cynthi graditur mollique fluentem
fronde premit crinem fingens atque implicat auro,
tela sonant umeris: haud illo segnior ibat
Aeneas, tantum egregio decus enitet ore.

Just as when Apollo leaves wintry Lycia and the flowing Xanthus and arrives at maternal Delos, he renews the songs and the Cretans, Dryopians and tattooed Agathyrsians roar as they mingle together around the altars; he himself strides over the mountain ridges of Cynthus and smoothes his flowing hair with gentle leaves and dresses it in gold, his weapons clang on his shoulder. Aeneas walked no less lightly, such goodliness shining from his beauteous face.

Wikipedia has an interesting discussion of the Celtic etymology of the word Pict here.