News today of a very exciting discovery that suggests that the Romans actually got further west than previously thought. Map of the Roman EmpireThe consensus has been that the most western part of the empire was Exeter, which was a Romano-British town called Isca Dumnoniorum, the principal town of the Dumnonii tribe. They were a tribe hostile to the Roman invasion and the subsequent programme of Romanisation, and it was believed that they managed to hold on to their own territory and so prevented the Romans from moving further west.

However, today the BBC are reporting on excavations that reveal Romanised settlements further west than Exeter. Not enough work has been done yet to date the settlements, or even to make definitive statements about how this changes our understanding of the frontiers of the empire in Britannia.

What was the discovery that started this excavation and new theory about the boundaries of the empire? Two guys with metal detectors and a passion for archaeology who found a bunch of coins.

Read more about this discovery on the BBC website

Book II of the Cambridge Latin course is set in Roman Britain. There is lots of information about life in Roman Britain on their website, as well as Latin stories to read.


One of the most famous ancient Greek tragedies is the story of Medea, the exotic foreigner who marries Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts fame). They adventure together, calling upon her skills as a sorceress to settle his family injustices. They eventually end up in Corinth, where Medea is forever the outsider and Jason swiftly becomes part of the establishment with his engagement to the King’s daughter.

Medea is rejected and humiliated. As a woman and a foreigner, she has little recourse. She decides on the plan that will hurt Jason the most, and she takes actions that have stunned and shocked audiences for two and a half thousand years.

Maria Callas as Medea

Maria Callas plays Medea in the 1969 film.

MEDEA: But he, with God’s help, will pay the price.
He will never see alive again the sons
he had by me;
CHORUS: But can you bring yourself to kill your own sons, madam?
MEDEA: It is the way to hurt my husband most.

(Euripides, Medea 781-783; 795-6)

Medea sends her sons to the princess with a present of a poisoned robe. When they come home, she wavers, but goes through with her plan, and she kills them as the ultimate punishment and revenge against Jason. The princess dies grotesquely when she puts on the robe, as does the King when he embraces her dead body. Jason comes back to take the children away from her, only to discover she has killed them.

MEDEA: I wasn’t going to let you show dishonour to my bed
and live a life of pleasure, mocking me –

(Euripides, Medea 1333-4)

Ever since it was first performed in Athens in 431BC, this has been one of the most discussed and debated plays in literary history. One of the questions people often ask is how realistic is it that a woman could do something so monstrous? What does the fact that Medea is able to commit such a crime say about her – does the fact that she is a sorceress and part divine somehow make her removed from ordinary people?

But every so often a terrible event reminds us that this is not just an academic discussion, but that Greek tragedy tells stories that are still current today.

I was reminded of Medea by reading the news reports of a woman who is on trial for killing her two children. The prosecution is alleging that she killed them to punish her partner, their father. The prosecutor said,

“By any normal standards of human decency it is almost impossible to conceive of using the children as the ultimate pawns by killing them to truly wreak revenge on their father for having rejected the defendant and taken up with someone else,”

But of course that is why Medea chooses it. At the end of the play, she rides off in a chariot given to her by the Sun god, her grandfather.


An ancient vase painting of Medea escaping in her chariot. The bodies of her children are in the bottom right corner.

She has already arranged asylum in Athens and she flies away, knowing she will escape punishment. Jason is left alone on stage. His children are dead. His fiancee and her father, the king of Corinth are dead. Medea’s revenge is complete. As Medea flies off, the audience has to ask what is left for her? She has successfully destroyed Jason’s life, but what is there now for her? They were her children too.

Greek tragedy forces us to ask these big questions and Medea is a play that poses some very big questions…


Euripides lived in Athens, Greece, between about 490/480 and 407/6 BC. He was the latest of the three famous Athenian tragedians, (the other two were Aeschylus and Sophocles) and we have 18 of his plays surviving. Medea was first performed in 431 BC.

Read more about Medea and her life on the Greek Mythology Link an excellent collection of biographies of mythological figures, written by Carlos Parada.

The Cambridge Translations from Greek Drama series has an excellent edition of Medea with an introduction to Greek theatre, a commentary with lots of explanations and things to think about and a lovely powerful but sparse translation of the play.

Barbara Bell, the creator of the Minimus Latin course has a step by step guide to making your own pair of Roman sandals.

It involves cutting out wood for the soles, so you’ll need a power tool and somebody who can safely use it, but you can make a very authentic looking pair of sandals, even though the Romans didn’t have MDF or staple guns…

If you feel more like a Roman soldier than a civilian, you could put some metal studs in the soles. There is a lovely story about a little boy whose father was an army general. He accompanied his father around the army camps when he was on campaign in Germania (Germany). The soldiers were amused that the little boy of two or three was dressed in a miniature soldier’s uniform, even down to his booties. The Latin word for an army boot is caliga and so the little boy was given the nickname Caligula – little boots. He grew up to be one of Rome’s most famous and most bonkers emperors – but his childhood nickname stuck, apparently much to his disgust.

The father was the hugely popular general Germanicus Caesar, and the son was actually called Gaius. He became the third Roman emperor when he succeeded Tiberius in 37 AD.

The ancient biographer Suetonius describes him

“He was tall, of a pale complexion, ill-shaped, his neck and legs very slender, his eyes and temples hollow, his brows broad and knit, his hair thin, and the crown of the head bald. The other parts of his body were much covered with hair. On this account it was reckoned a capital crime for any person to look down from above as he was passing by, or so much as to name a goat. His countenance, which was naturally hideous and frightful, he purposely rendered more so, forming it before a mirror into the most horrible contortions.”

Suetonius, Life of Caligula, 50.

Bust of Caligula

Bust of Caligula

This bust of Caligula has been restored to its original colours by identifying particles of the original paint trapped in the marble. He looks rather more handsome than Suetonius’s description, doesn’t he?! That could be because the bust is especially flattering, as all imperial statues were, and Caligula had a huge number of them commissioned; or because Suetonius exaggerates his looks to go alongside his descriptions of his cruelty…

He ruled until 41 AD, when he was assassinated by conspirators from the Praetorian Guard (the Imperial bodyguard). Although his reign started well, he was extravagant and either insane or psychopathic depending on which historian you read. We will probably never know whether he was mad or just bad – Suetonius attributes his madness and terrible behaviour to his childhood epilepsy; modern historians have speculated it might have been lead poisoning. Caligula allegedly had incestuous relationships with his sisters; intended or actually did make his favourite horse, Incitatus, a Senator and did make him a priest; at some games he was presiding at, had an entire section of the crowd thrown to the wild animals, because there were no criminals to kill and he was bored…

You’re unlikely to grow up to be an emperor, much less a bonkers one, but you could have a very jolly time making and wearing these shoes over the holidays…

I adore ancient comedy. I love the fact that you can share something as personal and awesome as laughter with people and societies from two millennia ago. I love exploring comedy as social commentary and learning about the ancient world by what made them laugh. I like puns, slapstick and obscure references equally. In short, I like laughing. I like laughing at ancient jokes, and I like laughing at modern jokes. When something combines the two, and I can laugh at jokes about the ancient world, then I am a happy chortling munchkin.

However, I have been thinking a lot about modern jokes about the ancient world recently. Last week’s Now Show is an excellent example. The humour relies upon the audience having a basic knowledge of ancient Greek history and myth and civilisation. Without that knowledge, there is simply no frame of reference for the jokes. The throwaway line that being Medusa’s hairdresser would have been very dangerous, is only funny if you know she had snakes for hair and could turn you to stone with a look.

I went to see Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables last week. It is set in the 50s, in a hotel in Bournemouth which is home to a odd collection of characters. There is a scene in it where two old boys discuss Classics. One is ostensibly an old boy of Wellington, the other spent his life teaching in public schools, where of course everyone was a Classicist. That is where the joke I mentioned on twitter – when talking about a pupil, “He once elided a whole word in his Greek iambics” comes from.* Now this is much more obscure than jokes about Medusa’s hair, and in the play its obscurity serves an important purpose – it is a hint to the audience that one of these men knows a lot more about Classics than the other, something that will later prove important.

However, as an audience member it was clear that there were very few people who got these jokes. Admittedly they needed more than a glancing acquaintance with the Classical world, they needed the sort of knowledge public school boys at the turn of the century had, which now comes from rather extended study. But at the time the play was staged in 1954 most of the audience would have had a more extensive knowledge of the Classical world than audiences now. The playwright uses the characters’ differing levels of Classical knowledge to move the plot onwards and reveal more about them both. The playwright assumes that the references he uses will be within the audience’s frame of references.

But jokes about Greek scansion and misquoting Horace are simply not in the frame of reference of most audience members any more – and this means that there are elements of our cultural heritage that many people can no longer fully access. And that is something that concerns and saddens me. So another element of this blog is about illustrating and illuminating elements of the Classical world that are all around us – because everyone should be able to access the richness of our cultural heritage.

* Greek poetry is written in a variety of rhythms, which means that each line follows a set of rules about the number and length of syllables and their order. An iamb is two syllables, a short then a long (like the word un-known); and iambic poetry is made up of a number of these iambs in each line (e.g. iambic pentameter is five etc). Scansion is when you analyse a line to figure out how the rhythm works. There are all sorts of rules to work out whether a syllable is long or short, which includes the process of elision, which is where syllables run together. Eliding an entire word, as the pupil allegedly did, is not possible, and is the sort of schoolboy error that teachers laugh about in amazement…

There’s something appealingly timeless about comedy. Laughing together is a very unifying experience. Laughing across the millenia is a mind blowing experience.

One of the best things about the BBC is the output of very high quality topical satirical comedy, often showcased in Radio 4’s Friday 6.30pm slot. This week’s Now Show was no exception. “The Now Show” is a perfectly ironic name for these wonderfully ironic comedians. Satire is one of the most ancient forms of comedy, almost as ancient as the first time anyone laughed when someone else fell over.

The Now Show

Our word satire has an interestingly muddled etymology. It comes from the Latin satira – satire, poetic medley; which in turns comes from the Latin word satura – a mixture, hotchpotch; a word that grew out of the dish lanx satura which is a dish full of a mix of fruits. The root verb for all of these is saturo – fill, glut etc. However, despite not technically having anything to do with the Greek tradition of Satyr plays, the words got sort of conflated, and our words satirise, satirical are derived from the Greek, not the Latin.

Diversion into etymology aside, the ancients were creating satire before they had a word for it. As with almost everything in ancient comedy, it all comes back to Aristophanes, the greatest exponent of what Classicists call “old comedy”. The surviving plays of his that we have are all satires – they are plays that make us laugh and make us think. They poke fun at the world around him – politics and politicians; culture; rich people; poor people; religion…

But back to last Friday. The Now Show always starts with an extended monologue, brought to life by asides and dramatisations from cast members. This week’s was about Greece’s economic situation and was crammed full of Classical jokes and references…

Listen to the Now Show on BBC iplayer

The Now Show, BBC Radio 4 – 1st July 2011, transcribed by gubernatrix ipsa.

And talking of old jokes, it has not been a good week for some of them…

“I say, I say, I say, what’s a Greek urn?”
“Not as much as last week, innit.” [laughter]

Yes it was all going off in Athens. The basic problem of course, is that Greece should never have been in the Euro to start with. Greece’s deficit was supposed to have been not more than 3% of GDP, but when they eventually got round to working it out properly, turned out to be 14%. The French and Germans though hadn’t noticed this as the Greeks cunningly sneaked in to the Euro by hiding their deficit figures inside a giant wooden horse.* [laughter]

For they are of course the founders of Western civilisation and one of the great cultures of world history, which you can tell from the fact that you can take early retirement in Greece if you are in a dangerous profession, and among the professions registered as dangerous is hairdresser. [laughter] Because that is true, if your next client is Medusa.** [laughter]

Other reported perks of the Greek economy are… “train drivers get €420 a month bonus for washing their hands” and brilliantly “in many of Greece’s government agencies, staff receive extra pay for handling photocopiers”. [laughter] So if you’re a hairdresser who uses a photocopier, you can retire the day after your 19th birthday. [laughter]

Anyway, the IMF have now shown their appreciation of the classical past and they’ve insisted that the Greek public sector with its hundreds and thousands of jobs, be reduced to a force of just 300 Spartans. *** [laughter] That joke was originally used by Aristophanes. **** [laughter] [aside: “Come on, Tim!”; laughter]

The Greeks were also responsible for democracy, geometry and the super-injunction, which was invented by Archimedes, to stop people finding out about his screw. ***** [laughter]

They also invented the Olympics,****** and a crude system of seat allocation, in which you prayed to the god of ticketing, LoeCod, only to find out he’d given them all to Pepsi, goddess of corporate entertainment. [laughter]

Although of course, one of Greece’s greatest ancient monuments, can actually be found in London, where he accompanies the Queen on state occasions. [laughter and applause]

There are of course the Elgin Marbles, which Greece would like back as they’d be something really heavy to throw at police cars. [laughter]

The terrible thing is that EU Ministers can’t say they weren’t warned. Allowing Greece to share a currency with Germany was like giving Kerry Katona a joint bank account with Bill Gates… [laughter]

“Oh, go on Bill, just one more shopping spree. Please?”
“Oh ok, Kerry, just as long as you promise to stop pointing out that I sound like Kermit the frog.” [laughter]
“I won’t mention it ever again.”
“Yaaaaaay!”. [laughter]

Both Greece and Habitat bankrupt in the same week – that’s a lot of crockery that could just end up being thrown away. [laughter]

But of course, they could also face their ultimate nightmare…

“We have no alternative but to shut down manufacture of both humous and taramasalata.”

[laughter] Double dip recession, Ladies and Gentlemen. [laughter and applause] Round of applause for Aristophanes again.

The austerity measures are opposed by 80% of the people, but not introducing them would bankrupt the country. There’s no telling how they think they can get out of this mess, although there is a rumour that the entire Greek government have been spotted off Hartlepool, in an enormous canoe. [laughter] For while one ancient civilisation is collapsing, another is rapidly becoming the only country still funding the debts of the west….

* Odysseus’s cunning and very successful plan to finally defeat Troy in the Trojan War is to hide soldiers inside a wooden horse, ostensibly left as a peace-making leaving present… The Trojan Horse

** Medusa – a mythical gorgon with snakes for hair and a gaze that turns those who look at her into stone…
Medusa head frieze of 2nd century A.D. from the architrave, Didyma, Hellenistic Temple of Apollo; Photograph by Don Keller, summer 1991. From the Perseus art and archaeology artifact collection.

*** 300 Spartans defended the pass at Thermopylae in 480BC, despite the inevitability of their death at the hands of the Persian invaders. Find out more about the movie-inspiring events…

**** Aristophanes doesn’t make this specific joke (as far as I can recall…), although he does have lots to say about bloated governments and civil servants who cream off the public purse (for example, the return of the envoys in Acharnians). This is a joke about how ancient jokes are still funny and nothing changes when it comes to politics…

***** A very clever piece of engineering to move water around. Archimedes’ Screw

****** in 776BC. The Ancient Olympics.

Now those are some seriously ancient jokes. But they do say the old ones are the best….

The Secret History by Donna Tartt is that one novel that almost all Classicists are pretty much guaranteed to have read, primarily because those in which we are the central characters are few and far between. It tells the story of the small hand-picked group of Classicists at an exclusive college in Vermont through an outsider who gradually joins them. But this is a Classical novel in more ways than their choice of subject, and that is why so many Classicists love this book. The prologue sets the scene with a murder, albeit ambiguously, and the novel tells its story. Because we (think we) know the climax of the tale, it is with a crushing sense of inevitability that we watch events unfold.

The Secret History front cover

And that is why this is such a Classical novel, the theme that draws together the myriad Classical elements and threads in the story. The audience watch events unfold knowing they will end tragically and feeling there is nothing that can stop them. It is just like reading (or watching) a Greek tragedy. At one early point in the novel, our narrator asks “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

The idea of a “fatal flaw” is misunderstood and misinterpreted to explain why events in tragedies unfold so horrifically and inevitably. But this is too simplistic. There is no fatal flaw that overrides choice and character and deliberation and all the ideas that tragedies explore. We watch events unfold that are a combination of choices and circumstances. The tragic ending is not inevitable. It is the choices of the characters that make it so. And that is the power of tragedies, now and in the Greek world. When we watch characters make bad choices and we see the horrific results that those bad choices, when combined with circumstances, and the gods, and questions of fate and destiny, and prophecy, and all of the other complicating elements, we reflect on the choices that we make.

When the narrator looks back on the situation, he can see moments where he could have made different choices; where they all could have made different choices. His tragedy, the Secret History of that group of Classicists was not inevitable after all. And that is an authentically Greek tragedy.


The Secret History by Donna Tartt was her debut novel, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1992.
I would suggest it is suitable for those in Key Stage 4 (years 10 & 11) and above.

The ship of state is a common metaphor in the classical world. Probably first used by the elegiac poet Theognis,  it is often found in Aeschylus and used in mocking tones by Aristophanes. The Athenian philosopher Plato extends the metaphor to describe how the governance of the state is like that of a ship. Much later, the Roman poet Horace uses it about the Roman state. Its usage is found in sources as varied as the authors I’ve mentioned, just as we use it now.

The modern fascination with the ancient world permeates our culture. It is part of our frame of reference, our entertainment, from blockbuster swords-and-sandals epics to novels. I will steer this sea-worthy blog around the ancient ship of state, docking at assorted points of interest along the way.

I’m your gubernatrix, helmswoman. I’m a classicist and when I’m not sailing metaphorical boats, I’m teaching classics in secondary schools.

Theognidea I. 667-682, LOEB Greek Elegy and Iambus I

Plato, Republic VI.488a-489b.

Horace, Carmina I.14.