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Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar – 29.11.2013

This week’s GIS was a special session for MPhils and 1st-year PhDs to give short presentations about their proposed thesis topics – because two subjects in an hour and a half just didn’t seem like enough, so why not have six? The talks ranged over Greek and Latin literature, archaeology, and linguistics, with some lively discussion and feedback following each one. 

K Gabriel – ‘Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the anxiety of sexual dynamics in archaic Greek verse’. Foucault’s views are often criticised for being drawn from a narrow range of classical Athenian texts – in particular his view of ἔρως  as essentially to do with relations of control (of oneself or others), and the moral problems that arise from this. K suggests that the roots of this conception may nonetheless be found in archaic poetry, in particular lyric poets such as Sappho and Anacreon and the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, which commonly feature imagery of the lover being ‘conquered’ or ‘broken’ by ἔρως or Aphrodite.

Emma Greensmith – ‘Zero to Hero: the magnetism of anti-heroes in the Odyssey and beyond’. Surprisingly little scholarship has focused on the role of the heroes’ antagonists in epic poetry. Emma proposes to rectify this by focusing on the portrayal of the Suitors in the Odyssey, exploring how their superficial presentation as the ‘bad guys’ may mask a more subversive sympathetic reading, produced through techniques such as individualising language, focalisation from the Suitors’ point of view, and differentation of individual characters amongst the group; treatments of the Suitors by later epic poets might also provide an interesting point of comparison.

Natalie Skorupska – ‘Hephaistos in red-figure Attic vases’. In literary texts, Hephaistos is always described as the ugly, lame god, and yet on red-figure vases he is never portrayed in this way – indeed he is often depicted as a ‘καλός παῖς’. Exploring the possible reasons for this in the specific cultural and political situation of fifth-century Athens for her first essay led Natalie to wonder more generally about conceptions of ‘beauty’ and ‘ugliness’ in the ancient world: how were these conceptualised, what were the origins of standardised portrayals of ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’ people, and how far is this connected to the development of portraiture depicting real, living people?

Tom Foxall – ‘Encounters with Witches’. Witches such as Medea, Circe, or the witches of Horace’s Satire 1.8 exist in a space somewhere between human and non-human, divine and monstrous, while also occupying liminal social spaces (isolated islands or caves, graveyards on the edges of cities). Tom proposes to explore further the way in which, as articulate and powerful females, witches pose a particular challenge to the men who encounter them: how does the particular status of witches affect the way they speak and behave in such encounters, and what effect does this have on the masculinity of the men involved?

Lucy Edwards – ‘Technical Language in Vitruvius’. Although the language of certain ‘technical’ Latin texts, e.g. medical texts, has often been studied, Vitruvius’ work (which encompasses architecture, engineering, and even astronomy) has never been examined from this linguistic perspective, tending to be dismissed as ‘not very good Latin’. Lucy proposes to answer the question of whether Vitruvius does use a particular ‘technical language’, through examination of his ‘vulgar’ Latin features, comparison with other works on similar topics, and investigation of possible differences in style between the different sections of his work: in particular, the high frequency of Greek words suggests that his language may be characterised by a Hellenising style.

Bram van der Velden – ‘Ancient Ideas on Poetic Ambiguity’. Ambiguity is a key concept in modern literary theory, though approached differently by different theoretical schools – but how applicable is this concept to how ancient scholars thought about texts? Commentaries and scholia often list ambiguities, whether grammatical or to do with textual interpretation. Although most of these choose a ‘correct’ reading, some simply offer alternative explanations, and it is here that the concept of ambiguity can usefully be studied. Bram intends to study a range of scholia to explore whether ambiguity is seen as a positive or negative feature of literary texts, and how the ancient reader might have dealt with different types of ambiguity.

We hope that all our speakers found this a useful experience of presenting for all those involved, and that the discussions will be helpful for those writing their thesis proposals – it was certainly an interesting evening for the rest of us, and we look forward to hearing more about all these topics in the future.

Next week will be the last GIS of term, with Josh Pugh Ginn speaking on ‘The Death of M. Claudius Marcellus’, and Hannah Price presenting ‘The archaeologist-mystic: Giacomo Boni and the Forum, 1898-1910’. We hope to see you all there!

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