Paul Nash and a classical education

Yesterday – actually last week now, but it's school holidays… – I was fortunate enough to visit the Paul Nash exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, originally at The Tate. It was a fabulous exhibition. Many thoughts occurred to me while perusing, but the most pertinent to this blog was to do with, unsurprisingly, the Classics.

Several of Nash's works allude to classical mythology. Lares (1929-30), for example, depicts a twentieth century fireplace. I wonder how many visitors would know without reading the text alongside the picture that the lares were Roman gods of hearth and home? I hope it goes without saying that hearth was once upon a time central to home; also, fascinatingly, our word focus is in fact a direct lifting of the Latin word for hearth.

Paul Nash, Lares (1929-30), Tate.

Knowing a little about the lares adds layers of meaning to this picture. The hearth, here, is overlaid with several objects of Nash's work – notably a set square, presumably to help him with the angles and parallel lines that pervade so much of his work. These items of Nash's everyday when placed in front of a fireplace burning with stylised fire make, arguably, quite a nice picture. The architectural elements incorporated into the picture are engaging and the design of the fire surround is attractive and interesting. The layers of the images are interesting too as Nash has created a trompe l'oeuil with some of the objects, the set square being partially transparent.

However, consider the name of the painting, Lares, and the composition takes on new resonances. The fireplace is transformed into the ancient hearth or figuratively the lararium at which the paterfamilias would leave daily offerings to the lares and penates to keep the family safe. Prayers were said daily and offerings were left, usually some food from the family meal, but given the superstition of ancient romans it is safe to assume that any object could be sanctified at the lararium. Nash's tools of his trade, then, placed in juxtaposition with the hearth and together entitled Lares, have become a kind of sacred offering to the household gods, or perhaps have received the blessing of the household to enable him to be a better artist. Given Nash's interest in mythology and mysticism which pervades the whole exhibition, this interpretation seems, to me at least, to be highly likely. How much richer do we become in appreciation of the art for some classical knowledge.

Image of a lararium from the House of the Vetii, Pompeii

Roman statue of a lar, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

I was going to write more, but as I said earlier, it's school holidays and I have small people to drag me away from pleasing myself at my iPad. I shall end with a gentle reminder that society is richer for art, for learning for learning's sake, and for those who strive to learn, to understand and to share their knowledge with others.

The exhibition ends this week, but you can buy the excellent catalogue here, and see the captions that go with the exhibitions here.

PS I wanted to write about Leda and swans, but even as my kids totally unreasonably nag me for lunch, I can't resist this image from the Nash exhibition. It's by John Armstrong, a friend of Paul Nash, and usually resides in the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.

Sketching the classics, or, I want to be a stone mason

Today I spent an hour or so sketching in the Cast Gallery at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, which is just one of Cambridge University’s many fabulous free museums. Part of the Faculty of Classics, the gallery contains casts of statues and friezes from all over the classical world and is an amazing asset for Cambridge. I love to sketch, but in all honesty have done so only twice in the last twenty years or so that I can recall… What motivated this little excursion from my daily routine of teaching/ school runs/ wondering what to make for supper/ buying stuff to cook for supper/ laundry/ more laundry/ feeding kids their supper etc was that I am going to learn to be a stone mason!!

Or more truthfully, I am attending a long weekend course in September at which I will learn the techniques of stone carving and (hopefully) carve something half decent myself. The course was a Christmas present from my husband, so back in the early spring time I contacted the teacher, Lucy Churchill, and asked her advice on what I should be doing to prepare myself for learning to carve stone. She said ‘look at as much sculpture as you can’ and recommends sketching it too, thinking about what shape block you would need to start with and ‘how you would go about taking away the unnecessary stone in slices and checks’. She has a lot more information in her 15 page document for prospective carvers, but I am tantalised just by these comments.

What initially sparked my desire to become a stone mason wasn’t actually classical statues or friezes, but rather the incredibly intricate carvings found in the churches and cathedrals of England. Regular readers of my blog (are you out there?) might recall that I have been visiting cathedrals with my family with the aim of visiting all the Anglican cathedrals in England, but we have made a few other non-cathedral visits recently too, notably to St Mary’s, Beverley, and to Romsey Abbey which both contain stonework fascinating in itself and historically significant for Britain. For me, the showstopper so far, however, has been Southwell Minster. The attendant there could see my delight at the carvings and took time out from greeting at the door to show me some of the intricacies of the Chapter House — the hidden beasts lurking under stone fronds of oak, the hollow space behind more leaf work extending for several yards over the arched doorway, the master mason himself with his special master mason’s hat atop the serene face of one who knows he has overseen a job well done. I was left speechless and ecstatic by my visit to Southwell.


The master mason in the Chapter House at Southwell Minster, identifiable by his hat


The entrance to the Chapter House, Southwell. It’s hard to make out without a torch held under it, but the leaf work around these arches is hollow behind. Much of the stonework in Southwell Minster is too intricate to be adequately restored, despite being in grave need of restoration after water damage


From underneath you can make out these two pigs snuffling for acorns in the Chapter House, Southwell Minster; they are hidden at eye level by the oak leaves


The White Rabbit at St Mary’s, Beverley, was apparently inspiration for John Tenniel’s illustration to Alice in Wonderland


Fabulous faces overseeing entry to St Mary’s, Beverley

But Southwell and Beverley are both a bit too far away to nip off to for a quick sketch, so I returned to the cast gallery in Cambridge. Then I had to decide what to sketch — so much choice! Not a human face — too tricky, certainly not a god’s face — too hubristic, not a frieze — too flat, aha! A lovely deer!


Detail from Diana of Versailles

This young deer, apparently a companion to Diana, surely not an imminent victim (in her hand above its head is the remnant of a bow; her other hand reaches for an arrow, presumably for a different prey somewhere in the direction of her gaze), has all the serenity in its face, it is so graceful, and yet is so full of flow and movement in keeping with the whole composition. It is so slender of feature, so beautiful. I will not do it justice, but I will try!


Diana of Versailles. The original in the Louvre, a Roman work from the 1st or 2nd century AD, is believed to be a copy of a Greek bronze by Leochares from the 4th century BC. A bronze copy was given to Charles I and is now in Windsor Castle

This being my first attempt at sketching in a lot of years, and never having done any art seriously at school, I found it fascinating to note how I looked at the sculpture, and how wrong I was in interpreting what I saw. I would look, then I would make a mark on the paper, then I would look again and wonder why what I had done looked so wrong. My line would, I realised, be going in the opposite direction from where it should have been going. I had looked and perceived all wrong! I did this a lot of times. Not to mention scale, proportion, perspective… However, I had a good go at it, but my time was up all too quickly and I had to leave to pick up my youngest from pre school. Looking at it later with fresh eyes I was pleasantly surprised to see what resembled a deer on my page. None of the serenity and flow of my sitter, granted, but a deer nonetheless, recognisable!

Next task, to carve it in stone with a weekend’s tuition under my belt!

I am grateful for the advice to go and look at sculpture in order to figure out how to carve it, but the best advice in order to really look is definitely to sketch. Now, school holidays start tomorrow — do you think I will be able to get my kids to sit still and sketch with me, just for an hour or so?


I forgot to take a rubber with me

I am also grateful to the Classics Faculty at Cambridge University for having such a wonderful and free museum.

My photos don’t begin to do justice to the incredible carvings both in stone and wood at all the places I have mentioned in this piece. I urge you to go and visit them for yourself:

St Mary’s, Beverley

Southwell Minster (it is properly a cathedral, but the name ‘Minster’ has stuck)

Romsey Abbey with its Saxon carvings and especially its rood

Should you wish to learn to carve stone with Lucy Churchill, her courses are booked nearly a year ahead. I will aim to write about my experience when I have something to show for it.

Here are some more images from Southwell:

And some more from St Mary’s Beverley:

Did Homer invent robots?

Everytime I read Homer I fall in love a little bit more. Here I shall share some excerpts from one of my favourite passages from The Iliad (as translated by E.V. Rieu, in the updated version by Peter Jones with D.C.H. Rieu).

To set the scene, Thetis has gone to Hephaestus to ask him to make a replacement set of armour for her son Achilles. Most characters in Homer have a formulaic nick name — you’ve possibly heard the one about rosy-fingered Dawn — but consider also the wine dark sea, ox-eyed Lady Hera. These names indicate something of the appearance of the subject but not much more. We are left to make up our own minds on the defining characteristics from the behaviour of the individuals in question (though on the wine-dark sea, see this wonderful piece on colours by Caroline Lawrence). In the same way, the poet gives away nothing of the skill of Hephaestus in his nick name – he is merely ‘the famous lame god’. However, after these descriptions of the wonders of Hephaestus’ workshop, no one can be in any doubt:

Thetis found Hephaestus hard at work and sweating as he bustled about at the bellows in his forge. He was making a set of twenty tripods to stand round the walls of his well-built hall. He had fitted golden wheels to all their feet so that they could run off to a meeting of the gods and return home again, all self-propelled — an amazing sight.  (Iliad 18.370-379)

One wonders what the twenty tripods were up to at the meeting of the gods, and whether or not anyone saw them travelling there under their own steam… Anyway! Thirty or so lines on and we are offered this next marvel:

Waiting-women hurried along to help their master. They were made of gold, but looked like real girls and could not only speak and use their limbs but were also endowed with intelligence and had learned their skills from the immortal gods. While they scurried round to support their lord, Hephaestus moved unsteadily to where Thetis was seated. (Iliad 18.418-422)

Although it does not say that Hephaestus made them himself, the implication is clear: The famous lame god has invented robots, and hired the other gods to teach them useful skills, as well as compassion and general helpfulness.

Finally, in case any reader has glossed over those first miraculous creations, Homer offers us a third: Hephaestus also appears to have invented voice-controlled intelligent bellows to aid him in his work.

Hephaestus went back to his forge, where he turned the bellows on the fire and told them to get to work. The bellows — there were twenty of them — blew through the nozzles and gave healthy blasts from different directions, fast or slow to suit the needs of the busy blacksmith, depending on the stage the work had reached. (Iliad 18.468-473)

The famous lame god, indeed!

If you know of any robots from literature earlier than Homer, please do let me know in the comments.

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.

Burglar alarms and crepitu alarums

I bravely saw off a burglar last night. I glared at him through my bedroom window and he stopped trying to steal my bike, which pleased me. The sophisticated alarm system which alerted me to the attempted pillaging of property was my squeaky front gate. Ancient Roman alarm systems relied on something only arguably a touch more sophisticated: the flappability of their geese.

It is the early fourth century BCE. Rome is under attack from Gauls. The Roman infantry have fought as hard as they can, but the night watchmen have failed in their duty. The Gauls, under cover of darkness, believe they are heading up the Capitoline Hill to the Roman citadel and an easy victory. But a Gaulish invader puts a foot wrong: he disturbs a goose.¹

My favourite thing about this story of the geese saving Rome is not the geese per se, but rather the vocab surrounding the geese. Livy tells us that it was the ‘alarum crepitu’ of the geese which roused the Roman commander Manlius just in time for him to see off the wrong footed Gauls and save the city.² This phrase translates as ‘by the beating of the wings’, alarum being the word for wings. Whilst alarum has come to be a perfectly good English word for an alarm or call to arms, it has also lost a vowel to become the word — have you guessed it yet? — alarm!

So, whilst I have no sophisticated anti-bike-theft alarm system, if a wing beat was good enough for Ancient Rome, then a squeaky gate is good enough for me. And perhaps an extra chain on my bike.

¹ Not just any old goose, but one of a gaggle sacred to Juno.

² Livy Ab Urbe Condita V, 47.

Why Latin? You’re asking the wrong question

I have noticed the question Why Latin? being asked a lot on social media lately and there are plenty of good answers out there. However, I put it to you that the wrong question is being asked. Since the people asking it are usually already engaged with Latin in some way or another, either as pupils, parents of pupils, school employees, politicians, people who were forced to study it and hated it, people who didn’t have the opportunity of studying it and hate that, they have an agenda in asking the question. The agenda may be to wind up the teacher, sound precocious to the rest of the class, squeeze more diversity into the busy school timetable, find funding for other worthy causes, just to be contrary. Occasionally the asker may even be asking with a sincere desire to know the thoughts of the person they are asking. It should be noted, in any case, that most of those askers already have a fair idea of the sorts of things their interlocutor might say.

This is why I am about to propose a radical new approach based on my experiences of chatting to people. Now, I like to chat to people — all sorts of people — and being a teacher I regularly get asked what I teach. I do not shy away from saying that I teach Latin and Classical Civilisations and I am not surprised when the reaction is a puzzled face. The follow up question is often, What’s that then? And I have to say, I far prefer this reaction to either of the other frequently reported reactions — ‘Urgh! I hated Latin’ and the rather happier exclamation of ‘Caecilius est in horto!’.

The reason I far prefer this question is because the answer comes easily. Latin is the language spoken by the ancient Romans, and in which they wrote poetry, history, love letters, shopping lists, graffiti, business letters, plays, death sentences, school lessons; it became the European language of religion, politics, science, law, medicine, philosophy, everything in any way academic — as well as plenty of things mundane; its literary output informed a huge amount of what we today consider important literature; in its spoken form it became French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese. I could go on, but I have some self awareness and I don’t like to be too dull to friendly strangers who have consented to chat to me. I might sometimes pad my answer out, for the sake of sounding a little more down with the kids, with interesting facts about films like Gladiator or Harry Potter.

In any case, the next question is never Why study that then? Now, I hope this is not because they would prefer that I stop talking. In fact, I like to think it’s because that answer is obvious. All the other points about it being helpful in learning grammar, syntax, and so on become less immediately significant, though of course still entirely valid and appropriate. Depending on whom I am burbling on to I sometimes even add these points in myself, though if the person has never heard of Latin, I would probably leave out the word syntax.

And so to my conclusion! The next time you get asked Why Latin? change the question and answer instead What is Latin? I’d love to know how this goes down. Perhaps you have even tried this already — please let me know in the comments below.