Connecting Classics to its Wider Context

Figure 1: Huijiao (Photo taken from https://baike.baidu.com/pic/%E6%85%A7%E7%9A%8E/2626692).

We were excited to hear that the Centre of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong has just published an English translation of Shi Huijiao’s The Biographies of Eminent Monks, edited by our PhD student, Edward A S Ross. Tianshu Yang (Jiechuang Institute of Buddhist Studies) was the translator. We asked Edward to share details of this exciting project with us. He reports as follows:

The Biographies of Eminent Monks is a compilation of the lives of over 500 Buddhist figures from 67 CE to 519 CE. This 14-chapter volume became the widely accepted basis for Chinese Buddhist, historical biography literature from the 6thcentury onwards. Extending from China’s first interactions with Buddhism to the Liang Dynasty (502-557 CE), the text of the Biographies of Eminent Monks discusses Buddhist figures well known during the time of Shi Huijiao (慧皎) (497-554 CE), the compiler and author (Figure 1).

Since it does not discuss the Mediterranean world, the relevance of this text to Classics might seem slight, yet there are interesting connections to the west buried in the life stories of these monastics. Since Edward studies ancient Central Asia, he was particularly interested in the monastic figures who came from and visited the so-called “Western Regions.” 47 of the 532 figures mentioned in the text hold ethnic or geographical origins to the west of East Asia, be that Central or South Asia (Figure 2).

 

Figure 2: Estimated places of origin for all 306 biographies with given locations. Points with white borders represent those with connections to the Western Regions (Image created by Edward A S Ross using mapping data from Google Maps (2020))

Shi Huijiao. The Biographies of Eminent Monks. Tianshu Yang, translator. Edward A. S. Ross, editor. Hong Kong: Centre of Buddhist Studies, University of Hong Kong, 2022.

Some come from as far west as Parthia, a region in Central Asia well known in the Mediterranean world. This reminds us how deeply connected different parts of the ancient world were to their wider global context. Whether through trade, war, or religious pilgrimage, people from the Mediterranean and Asian worlds did indeed interact. This is why it is important for those studying ancient history to broaden their source bases to garner a deeper understanding of the nuances of cultural interactions in the ancient world.

From the outset, the goal for this translation project has been to produce an open-access volume of Shi Huijiao’s The Biographies of Eminent Monks, so that these poignant stories and crucial aspects of Chinese Buddhist history are widely available to the English-speaking public, practitioners, and academics. The full ebook is available at https://www.academia.edu/90233933/Shi_HuiJiao_The_Biographies_of_Eminent_Monks_%E9%AB%98%E5%83%A7%E5%82%B3.

 

Lowbury Hill mystery

The work of two of our PhD students concerning the mystery surrounding the remains of two Early Medieval persons buried at Lowbury Hill, Oxfordshire, has come to public prominence this month as we prepare for a full osteological analysis of their remains.  The Lowbury duo were discovered by Donald Atkinson, a research fellow from Reading’s Classics Department, in his 1913-14 excavations at the site, which inspired the Ure Museum’s curator Annie Ure, then a student. The pair—a woman and a man—were then displayed together in a two-part glass case in University College Reading’s Museum of History and Archaeology, a precursor to the Ure Museum.  Since the 1920s their remains fell into obscurity. Subsequent analysis of the male, discovered within an Early Medieval barrow, suggests he was a seventh-century warrior who lived in Cornwall or western Ireland before being buried on Lowbury Hill. Since 2017 his remains, along with his elaborate grave goods—including a sword, shield, enamelled spearhead, knife, shears, a bronze hanging bowl and a bone comb—have been on display at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock. Remains of the woman, who had been buried in line with the wall of a Roman-era enclosure on the hilltop, are normally stored in Standlake. A partial analysis suggests she reached the age of ca. 40 and was buried between 550 to 650 AD. Because she was buried without grave items, little else is known about her.

The Oxfordshire County Council has announced the removal of the male from their museum, in preparation for Summer Courts’ osteological analysis of both individuals, to be undertaken at the Cranfield Forensics Institute, under the supervision of Dr Sophie Beckett, one of her PhD supervisors. Her research is co-supervised by Reading’s Professor Amy Smith and Angie Bolton (Oxfordshire Museum Service) and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council via the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership Collaborative Doctoral Award. Then the team will send samples to Germany for analysis in collaboration with Professor Stephan Schiffels at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Look for another press release in the coming days as Summer begins her analysis.

At the same time the local community has now become interested in the project through a display at the Goring Public Library, accompanied by a series of public events. Seongmee Yoon, another one of our PhD students, co-supervised by Prof. Smith and Dr Rhi Smith (Museum Studies, UoR), has taken this opportunity to study public perceptions of the site, the mysterious duo, and Anglo-Saxons, as part of her museological research. The entire team enjoyed the hospitality of Goring’s Catholic Church this Wednesday night when a sold-out audience heard presentations by Summer and Angie, followed by a poetry reading by Amy. As Summer said, “The study has given us the chance to explore a fascinating site with a thrilling history while applying several archaeological approaches and working with an invested and excited local community.”

More information on the research can be found at the project website: research.reading.ac.uk/mymerian

Congratulations to Alex Winch, winner of Outstanding New Teacher award

Last Thursday we were delighted to entertain some alumni who had come to take part in a careers event.  Every year we invite alumni to come and talk about their careers to our Part 2 students, giving ideas about what paths are possible.  As well as museum and teaching careers, these alumni spoke about the police, archaeology, and clinical trials.

Two of our alumni, Alex and Jon, comprise the Classics Department at Henley College, and Alex has recently won the Classical Association’s award for Outstanding New Teacher (https://classicalassociation.org/classical-association-teaching-awards/).  We could not be more proud!

Alex (right) with two fellow winners

Prof. Rosalind Thomas delivers the 12th Annual Percy N. Ure Lecture

The Department of Classics at Reading is delighted to welcome Prof. Rosalind Thomas to deliver its 12th Annual Ure Lecture. For this annual lecture, which celebrates the work of our first Professor of Classics, Prof. Percy N. Ure, we invite a preeminent scholar to deliver a public address on a topic of relevance to Percy Ure’s wide range of academic interests. This year Prof. Rosalind Thomas – Professor of Greek History, Dyson-Macgregor Fellow, Jowett Lecturer and Tutor in Ancient History at Balliol College, Oxford University – will deliver a talk entitled ‘Polycrates assigns a mother’: Greek Tyranny in proverb, collective memory and the local ‘polis histories’. The Greek tyrannies of the archaic period were the stuff of legend and folktale (or at least that dominates our literary sources), combined with narratives about their downfall fostered by the anti-tyrant feelings of later generations. Polycrates, tyrant of Samos (late 6th c.) was remembered through particularly vivid and colourful tales, vignettes and proverbs (as in the title), through which others were associated with cruelty and indulgent excess. It is hard to understand the social, political or economic impetus behind such tyrannies (Ure offered one famous theory), or to match the magnificence and building projects with the accounts later Greeks wanted to tell about them. This paper examines some of the most interesting accounts in the later ‘polis histories’ of their own local tyrant(s), and – with an eye to Herodotus and other comparisons – asks whether tyrants were an embarrassment or a paradoxical source of price generations later. It also examines what these later accounts might reveal about the collective memories of their archaic past, if not the archaic reality.

The lecture will start be at 4pm on 25th January, in the Van Emden Theatre in the Edith Morley building, on the University of Reading Campus. All are welcome to join us for this public lecture but please register  in advance at https://www.store.reading.ac.uk/conferences-and-events/faculty-of-arts-humanities-social-science/dept-of-classics/12th-annual-percy-ure-lecture. For any further questions, please contact Prof. Amy C. Smith, Joint Head of Department.

New exhibition: Black African Authors in the Roman Empire

In celebration of Black History Month we are delighted to announce the launch of a physical exhibition in the Classics Department hallway (pictured below). Reading University’s Classics Department is committed to decolonising the curriculum and challenging our preconceptions of the non-white world. Our students Chloe Gardner (BA Hons. 2021) and Edward Gregory (current 3rd-year undergraduate) created an online exhibit about Black African Authors in the Roman Empire in the wake of the University’s launch of its Race Equality Review on 24 May 2021. COVID-19 restrictions did not permit a physical exhibit at that time so we have re-animated this project here.

BHThe three authors featured here are ancient African writers: Tertullian, a Berber; Terence, a Libyan; and Apuleius, a Numidian. These authors wrote broadly and across different genres, but each touched on the experiences of their people, even if in a satirical manner.

TertullianThroughout history, black and African voices have been silenced systematically to forge a narrative of white supremacy. By casting Western-minority groups as savage or uneducated natives, collective memory now recalls groups of people subdued and modernized by the West. Traditional practices regarding research and interpretation in the Classics discipline tend to reaffirm and strengthen the misconceptions associated with this flawed and dangerous narrative. The field of Classics has been dominated by white, male voices. Through telling stories relatable to them they created an echo chamber of information on the classical world. Perpetuating the idea of a white-washed ancient past is harmful, however, to all. In ignoring data and evidence for a society that was far more influenced by the East and South than was sometimes thought, Westerners have lost or hidden a wealth of knowledge, understanding and answers.

To read more about each of these north African authors and a suggested bibliography see our online exhibition at research.reading.ac.uk/curiosi/black-history.

Reading Classics welcomes Dr Sam Agbamu

Next week on October 19th we welcome a special speaker to our regular research seminar series.  Of course all our speakers are special, but Dr Sam Agbamu, who is currently at Royal Holloway, is about to join the staff of the Classics Department at Reading, in January 2023.  We are hoping that lots of students and staff will come to the seminar and welcome him!

Sam did his PhD at King’s College London, researching modern Italy’s use of the history of Roman imperialism in Africa, during its own imperial endeavours on the continent in the nineteenth and twentieth century.  Sam’s current research project, which he will pursue at Reading as part of his Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, is on the afterlives of the neo-Latin epic, the Africa, by the fourteenth century humanist Petrarch.  This poem recounts the history of the Second Punic War, and Sam is studying its role in transmitting ancient ideas about the continent of Africa into the early modern and modern era.  Sam’s other interests include anti-racist and anti-colonial approaches to the literatures and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, and their receptions.  In spring term he will teach on our Part 2 module ‘Roman History: the rise and fall of the Republic’, and a new module on ‘“Race” in the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds’.  Students are encouraged to sign up for the new module if they would like to, as there are still places on it.

Petrarch by Justus of Ghent (public domain)

Petrarch by Justus of Ghent (public domain)

 

 

Autumn Term 2022 Reading Classics Research Seminars

We are pleased to announce the launch of our Reading Classics Seminar Series for Autumn Term 2022, which will boost our Wednesday afternoons with constructive and stimulating lectures and discussions on various aspects of Classics research!

In this series of lectures, starting on 5 October, we welcome a diverse group of speakers from both the UK and abroad in our Departmental seminars. Our Autumn seminar series, ex Africa Semper Aliquid Novi, will explore a variety of topics and periods of Classical studies. All seminars will be livestreamed on MS Teams; tune in every Wednesday at 4pm! Attendance is free and open to all! To attend please follow this link: bit.ly/3BYG7Td! Below you can find a poster with all titles.

 

Full list of titles

5 October

Robert Wisniewski, Warsaw/Reading, ‘Four sermons, some relics, a bishop and a curse: Constructing the cult of saints in late antique Hippo’

12 October

Jo Quinn, Oxford, ‘North African monumental architecture in the Hellenistic period within the frame of regionalism’

19 October

Sam Agbamu, Royal Holloway, ‘Petrarch’s Carthage: Between ‘race’ and religion’

26 October

Elena Giusti, Warwick, ‘Rome’s imagined Africa’

9 November

Jacke Phillips, SOAS/Cambridge, ‘Connecting ancient Egypt, Bubia and Ethiopia and even beyond’

16 November

Timothy Penn, Oxford, ‘The boardgames of Roman and post-Roman North Africa: A regional perspective on personal leisure in the past’

23 November

Elena Chepel, Vienna, ‘Dramatic competitions in Ptolemaic Egypt: New papyrus programme for the royal festival of Theadelpheia’

 

Professor Smith visits the Antipodes

During August 2022 Professor Amy Smith served as R.D. Milns Visiting Professor at University of Queensland, in Brisbane, Australia. Since Australia’s seasons are the opposite of ours, August is a great time of year to find hives of academic energy in antipodean Universities. Queensland’s early Spring feels like a comfortable Reading Summer: Amy’s hosts did a good job of getting her to meet the local flora & fauna and enjoy the watersports!

Classics at Queensland is part of a larger School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, just as we at Reading join with historians and philosophers in a School of Humanities. At Queensland, however, these postgraduates have an open plan work area that includes a kitchen and is surrounded by their teachers’ offices, one of which Amy was allocated during her short stay. And just as we have our Ure Museum, UQ Classics benefits from its own museum, named in honour of Prof. R.D. (Bob) Milns. On her first few days, therefore, Prof. Smith explored the Museum’s immense collection of fragments and spoke to the students—UQ’s Classical Society—about ‘Disiecta Membra or How to find value in fragmentary pots’.

Many of these pots were—unsuprisingly—late black figure Attic (Athenian) fragments, which fed into Prof. Smith’s presentation to UQ’s ancient history research seminar, on ‘The search for ancient Greek women at the feast’. The R.D. Milns Museum and perpetual endowment fund, which funded Amy’s visit, were created in large part with support from the Friends of Antiquity, a group of alumni, scholars and other teachers, who meet at UQ on a monthly basis to hear from local and international speakers. A highlight of Amy’s visit therefore was her public talk to the Friends of Antiquity, on Festival ware for Athenian women’. This and her ancient history seminar talk relate to research she’s preparing with Katerina Volioti (Roehampton) for a book to be published by University of Wisconsin. At her last public lecture, for something completely different, however, Prof. Smith spoke on ‘Hercules: dancing queen’, bringing together her research interests in Herakles, myth, & dance.

On her way to Queensland, Amy took time out of her NZ holiday to catch up with colleagues & collections in Auckland and Christchurch. The University of Canterbury in Christchurch has restored its James Logie Memorial Collection of antiquities, much of which was broken in their 2011 earthquake and redisplayed in the Teece Museum of Classical Antiquities in UC’s Arts Centre, just around the corner of the Canterbury Museum and on the same block that the (jn)famous Wizard of New Zealand could be found during her visit.

Winthrop Hall, University of Western Australia, flanked by statues of Sokrates & Diotima

After her travels to Western Australia, Amy found herself on the doorstep of University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth where, as in Reading, Classics and Ancient History is ensconced in the School of Humanities. She was kindly welcomed to their Friday seminar, with excellent presentations of current work from two of their postgraduate students, while Emeritus Professor John Melville-Jones, a numismatist, regaled her with stories about ‘referential’ style of the University’s Hackett Buildings, graced even with busts of Sokrates and Diotima. And the next week Reading and UWA postgraduates come together in a conference and exhibition on Monsters: From ancient to modern. Stay tuned for the upcoming release of the Monsters video tour and the online exhibition!

Reading Classics at Rome: A review of the first post-covid study trip

Our undergraduate student, Kieran Evans, shares their experience from the first departmental study trip to Rome after the pandemic—in April 2022—along with a series of exciting and wonderful pictures of Rome! Thank you to everyone who participated to this trip, and particularly to Profs Amy Smith and Matthew Nicholls who organised it and led the tour!   

It started with a 2:15am meetup at the Sports Park building on campus to catch a coach for Heathrow. We left extra early just to make sure we had enough time for any delays or queues caused by COVID-19 restrictions at the airport. Despite being early hours of the morning, everyone was raring to go to Rome, bags packed, and the anticipation of getting to the airport was at a high. We just had to get through security then a rather long wait for the flight at 7am.  

The arrival into Rome, after the flight and coach journey, was only the start of the day in the ‘Eternal city’. We checked into our hotel in the afternoon, to get set for the first trek of the trip. Matthew Nicholls, our tour lead who came over from Oxford University, but in his role as Visiting Professor at University of Reading, walked us through some parts of the southern part of the city, checking out Roman building remains, seeing what remained of the concrete. One major theme of the trip was the material left behind in buildings, mostly the concrete that the marble would have covered up. From the first tour we saw how the massive structures, like the Porticus Aemilia, a long series of arched warehouses for food storage, or acting as a naval dockyard. They were impressive to look at, considering the size and how long they’ve been around, but like many Roman buildings the concrete lost the marble exterior, looted for other construction, or turned into lime. That same afternoon we came across one of the best views of the trip. From the top of the Aventine Hill, you could see across the city with St. Peter’s Basilica to the north peeking above the buildings before it. It became somewhat a preview of what to expect for the coming days, just spectacular. 

On day Two we visited monuments fitting the theme ‘Landscape of Victory’. Amy and Matthew had organised entering the Mausoleum of Augustus, very recently opened to the public. Such a grand monument which held the first imperial dynasty, was left in a state of ruin for years and recently restored for visitors to re-enter. Walking through the crypt we saw how the material again was laid bare, and how the diamond patterns bricks were organised into in the concrete. Some marble—the only marble left—greeted us at the entrance telling of how this place held the ashes of Augustus and his family. The building was remarkable to walk through. Like at all sites on the trip, Matthew and Amy told us everything there was to know, the way it looked when constructed, a wedding cake style of tiers of earth and trees planted on top and the history following. Somewhat surprising to hear was that, when the top tier collapsed, it filled the interior to create a new ground level above the original entrance and a space for a bull fighting arena. 16th-century entertainment turned it into a stage for the sport, then a theatre in the 20th century. It’s restored and the grand entrance is the only way in now, not the archway some 30 feet above it. 

My personal highlight of the trip was later in the day on visiting another monument, the Pantheon. Despite looking majestic from the front with the granite columns and inscription to Agrippa, it took a second to realise what I was looking at when we approached it from the south, only seeing the circular, brick building. Of course, when I finally recognised it, I got a little giddy. About an hour and a half before entering we had a lunch break and some of us found a restaurant on the piazza of the Pantheon. It was somewhat surreal sitting there eating proper Italian pizza and looking at the entrance of this building less than a hundred metres to my left.  

 

The group that went on the trip were great, insofar as everyone got on so well with each other, making meals out easier and so much more fun. Especially the final evening we all had in Rome, dining at Il Matto and drinking plenty of red wine with the excellent food. Amy and Matthew organised an amazing series of tours across the 6 days we were there. I cannot think of how that trip could have been better… maybe if we had another day there?

Musings of an Admissions Tutor and Outreach Officer and the reawakening after the pandemic

Our Departmental Admissions Tutor and Outreach Officer, Mrs Jackie Baines, shares her experience on arranging and running Open Days during and after the pandemic. You can read below her account on the various events and innovative methods undertaken in such a challenging period.

When taking on the role of departmental Admissions Tutor in 2016, and more recently Outreach Officer, little did I know of the enormity of the challenges which lay ahead.  We were about to be faced with the double blow of a fall in the number of 18-year-olds and then a global pandemic. Undergraduate numbers had remained relatively stable up to that point but now we were going to have to work much harder to recruit similar numbers of undergraduates in subsequent years.

The greatest of the challenges came with Covid-19.  Having run most of the 2019/20 recruitment cycle in-person—except for one Visit Day—we were obliged to complete the whole of the 2020/21 cycle online.  How, I wondered, were we to ‘sell’ our department and the Classics department student experience when nobody was in the building on campus.  It focussed my attention on showing our very best attributes in the online environment, with a small numbers of colleagues, current students and alumni.  At first, online presentations and using MS Teams were so very unfamiliar.  MS Teams Live also increased the difficulties.  We were not able to see our applicants, they were simply able to ask us questions in the chat function.  We rose to the challenge, knowing that we needed to portray our own personalities, our desire to support our students, our variety of modules, the wide-ranging scope of our research, to give a platform to our articulate, knowledgeable students and to show off the Ure Museum and even handle objects when we were not in the building.  We learnt to be ourselves in front of the camera and to cope in the online environment, even if sometimes sharing slides was a tricky hurdle.  It worked.  Our student numbers were good and we met our targets.  Our new students arrived in Reading and coped with an online Welcome Week and very little face-to-face teaching during the year.

Gradually we have now returned to in-person admissions processes.  We started with some very small-scale Open Days in July and then Open days with more visitors in October.  Our Visit Days were in person, but one Virtual Visit Day has been retained, allowing those unable to get the campus to have the opportunity to ‘visit’.  It has been wonderful to be back in person, to have the conversations which are impossible to replicate online.

Outreach too was thrust into the online world during worst of the pandemic.  The return to welcoming schools back into the department was an emotional experience.  I ran an alumni teachers’ event, linked to the Troy exhibition in the Ure Museum, in November. Three of our alumni, Niki Karapanagioti, Alex Winch and Jonny Herman, brought school groups.  Not only was it so gratifying to see children back in the building learning about the ancient world, but it was also very heart-warming to see our alumni renew their bonds with the department. Future teacher alumni events are in the planning.

We also enjoyed a Classics for All day on May 19th. Classics for all is the UK based charity which promotes the teaching of classical subjects in state schools. We have been overwhelmed by the interest and the thirst for events such as these.  Ninety Year 8 and 9 pupils signed up to come with their teachers and participate in a wide range of sessions, including learning about Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Roman maths and Ancient Greek language. This was a much larger scale event than on previous occasions. It was an event with wide ranging impact, involving sessions for the teachers where we could promote the teaching of classical civilisation and the ancient languages in schools, particularly for those whose schools are in areas of social deprivation. It gave some of our PGT and PGR students the opportunity to teach on the day and our current students the chance to act as student ambassadors. Above all we hope to have inspired the school pupils themselves and encouraged them to aspire to be our students, widening their horizons and giving them a glimpse of the delights of the ancient world.

Jackie Baines, Lecturer in Classics and Departmental Admissions Tutor and Outreach Officer