Highlights of 2017-18

OBLIGAMENTUM MAGICUM: Sacrifice and Law in the defixiones of the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire

14 June 2018
Francisco Marco Simón, University of Zaragoza

Bath curse tablet

In the early days of the Roman Republic, the ius had been above all a performative utterance solemnly sworn during the course of the sacrifice. The link between law and magico-religious practice in the Roman world appears clearly when considering the notion of obligatio, so inherent to the execration texts (defixiones), and the language in many of these texts, specially those deposited within the temples, is markedly bureaucratic and quasi-legal. Considering Roman provincial religion as an “open system” with multiple religious options adaptable to local concerns, cursing can be seen as a semi-institutionalized strategy mainly used by people who were unable to access the legal system in situations of uncertainty and risk. Some of these texts, in the tradition of a genuine devotio hostium, not only adapted the standards of votive religion, but also presented the tablet’s target as a sacrificial victim to the gods, in a procedure of persuasive analogy to stimulate the future action.


New films, old drama: an evening with Barefaced Greek

12 June 2018

Athena Posiedon

Barefaced Greek celebrate classical Greek drama in performance by making accessible short films using text from Greek comedy and tragedy. These fresh new films (in the original language, with subtitles), produced for online broadcast, aim to reach new audiences internationally, and to inspire a love of Greek language and drama in the twenty-first century.

The event was generously supported by the John Coffin Memorial Fund.

Barefaced Greek would like to thank Oxford University Classics Faculty and the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama for their support in producing the films.


Socrates, Eros and Magic

6 June 2018
J. P. Barron Memorial Lecture
Angie Hobbs, University of Sheffield

Angie Hobbs

At Symposium 203d Diotima claims that the daimon Eros is a clever magician and wizard, who philosophizes throughout his life. It is a startling assertion, as Plato is usually highly critical of magicians, and the puzzle deepens when we consider that in the Symposium Socrates is portrayed as a partial embodiment of Eros. Most commentators have either ignored the claim or tried to explain it away, but I argue that a deeper engagement with Plato’s views on magic shows that we should take it seriously. I define the magician as a being who or which effects a transformation which the audience cannot initially understand in any way. The key question is whether this transformation is only ever a deceptive conjuring trick, and I go on to argue that Plato thinks that, in rare but important cases, a magician can reveal, rather than concealing or disfiguring, the true nature of reality. The daimon Eros, as described by Diotima, is just such a being, and understanding how this is so will teach us much about the nature of both love and philosophy and their capacity to reveal the normally hidden connections that bind the entire cosmos into a whole.


Mithras in Hispania: new interpretations

4 June 2018
Jaime Alvar Esquerra, University of Carlos III Madrid


A complete re-examination of the Mithraic evidence from the Iberian Peninsula will be presented, including a new account of the first participants in the cult attested from Hispania, individuals closely related to imperial officials of the late Flavian period.

The debate over the role played by the army and the scarcity of documents in Hispania because of the lack of soldiers is now outdated. We should instead now speak of an initial foundational impulse emanating from the network of the governor at Tarraco.

Secondly, a new approach will be taken to the normalisation phase, to the way the cult was passed on among its worshippers, to the absence of local people and to the opposition between towns and countryside. A new phase can be recognised in the late Severan period, prompted by imperial officials, especially in the north west of the peninsula, but it enjoyed very little success.

The third matter to be re-interpreted is the complexity of the conditions surrounding the end of the cult. No explanation has ever been offered for this phenomenon. But the analysis of the archaeological remains, especially conditions of sculpture when it was abandoned, permit various proposals regarding the final phase of the cult in Hispania, only tangentially related to the spread of Christianity.


The Reception of a Roman villain: The story of Catiline

30 May 2018
Mathilde Skoie, University of Oslo

Cicero denounces Catiline

The story of Catiline and his conspiracy has been a popular tale throughout history. As the primary sources of the affair, Cicero's Catilinarian speeches and Sallust's Bellum Catilinae have been on the school curriculum from Antiquity till today, we find Catiline and his conspiracy used in everything from declamatory exercises, Jesuit drama to You-tube reenactments. His name has even been used as a paradigm for nouns in the first declension. And major figures like Ben Jonson, Voltaire, Ibsen and Salieri have found inspiration in his story.

We mostly find Catiline cast in line with the negative presentations of Cicero and Sallust. For instance, when briefly alluded to by poets, Catiline is mostly used as shorthand for villain. But there are also more subversive voices, and ever so often there have been attempts to rehabilitate Catiline, though perhaps not as many as one might expect. One of these more subversive voices is the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in his very first drama, Catilina (1850).

In this seminar I would like to take a closer look at some of the issues that are at stake in the reception of Catiline and use Ibsen´s drama as my primary example. Through this exploration I would also like to focus on some more general questions about the reception of historical figures.


The Goddess and Damned Wrath: How a Linguist reads the 'Iliad'

8 May 2018
Dorothy Tarrant Lecture
Joshua Katz, Cotsen Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Classics, Princeton University

Wrath of Achilles

There is arguably no bit of text in the Western tradition more famous than the opening six words of the 'Iliad', which lay out the central theme of Homer’s great epic: Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆοϛ | οὐλομένην ‘Of the wrath sing, o goddess — the baneful wrath of Achilles son of Peleus’. Despite intensive study since antiquity, there remain things to learn about this poem, and in this talk I will try to explain, in as accessible a way as possible, why a closer look at the words for ‘goddess’ and ‘baneful/damned’ is desirable. Among my conclusions will be that the former tells us something remarkable about actual Homeric performance while the form and meaning of the latter have been repeatedly misunderstood.


Caeciliopolis: A Greeker Rome?

25 April 2018
T.B.L. Webster Memorial Lecture
Niall W. Slater, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Latin and Greek, Emory University


 Every poet of comoedia palliata fabricated a Greek world for a Roman audience-but it was not always the same Greek world. Caecilius Statius, rated by some in antiquity a finer comic poet than Plautus, seems to have used a few more Greek titles and loanwords than other Roman comedians, but did these elements build a significantly different fictional space? Our brief tour of Caeciliopolis will examine if and how the characters and stories of his city differ from those of his better preserved comrades.


A celebration of the life of Alan Cameron

24 March 2018

Alan Cameron

A celebration the life and work of Professor Alan Cameron FBA (1938-2017) with friends, former colleagues and family.

Alan Cameron read Classics at New College, Oxford and then went on to teach Latin at the University of Glasgow before coming to London in 1964, where he was first a Lecturer and then a Reader at Bedford College and then from 1972 as Professor of Latin at Kings. In 1977 he moved to Columbia University, New York, where he was Charles Anthon Professor of Latin Literature and Language until his retirement in 2008. He wrote many fundamental articles, beginning in the 1960s, and his books include studies of Claudian, circus factions in Byzantium, Callimachus and Hellenistic poetry, Greek mythography, the Greek Anthology, and the magisterial Last Pagans of Rome (2011).

A number of friends and colleagues offered reminiscences of Alan and appreciations of his work. Among the speakers were Arianna Gullo, Gavin Kelly, Oswyn Murray, John North, Peter Wiseman, Dominic Rathbone and members of his family.

The event was sponsored by the Institute of Classical Studies, King’s College London and the Roman Society.


ICS/British School at Rome Lecture

January 14 1506: the discovery of the Laocoon

20 February 2018
Professor Rita Volpe



On January 14, 1506, the statue group of Laocoon was discovered in a vineyard on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. It was almost intact and recognized at once as the same work of art which Pliny the Elder considered one of the most beautiful creations of antiquity. The Laocoon quickly became one of the best known sculptural groups in the world, yet even today we ask where exactly that vineyard was located and precisely where the Laocoon was found.

Our research into the find spot of the statue group began with the owner of the vineyard and the discovery of new archival documents, which have provided a definitive solution to the problem. The reconstruction of a landscape of Rome of the sixteenth century, populated by notaries, innkeepers, doctors and prostitutes throws light onto the ancient Rome in which the Laocoon was admired.

Earthquakes, Etruscan Priests, and Roman Politics in the Age of Cicero

24 January 2018
Dorothy Tarrant Lecture
Anthony Corbeill, Basil L. Gildersleeve Professor of Classics, University of Virginia

Anthony Corbeill

April of 56 BCE brought terrestrial rumblings north of Rome while Marcus Tullius Cicero, orator and statesman, was enjoying his first Roman spring since returning from exile. The senate chose to investigate, enlisting Etruscan diviners (haruspices) to determine their significance. Publius Clodius, former tribune and engineer of Cicero's exile, assembles the Roman people to elucidate how this cryptic priestly response reveals the danger of Cicero's presence in the city. The next day, Cicero offered the senate his reading of the same text in a speech combining harsh personal invective with incisive argumentation about determining divine will through natural phenomena. Cicero’s "On the Responses of the Haruspices" is unique in providing a contemporary account of how the senate assessed a prodigy, and it offers the only complete text composed by a priestly body. My lecture will address the criteria used by the senate in deciding how natural phenomena might reflect Roman politics.

ICS/British School at Athens Lecture

31 October 2017 at 5pm
"Pella, The Great Capital of the Macedonian Kingdom"
Dr. Elisavet Bettina Tsigarida, Director of the Ephorate of Antiquities of the County of Pella


Sixty years of continuous archaeological research have uncovered evidence for many aspects of the life Pella, the second capital of the Macedonian kingdom. The paper will present its history from its origins as a small, coastal city on the NW shore of the Thermaic Gulf, which Archelaos made his capital around the end of the 5th century BC, through its period of glory between the conquests of Alexander and before the Roman defeat of Macedon in 168 BC, until its eventual abandonment around 30 BC. Among the new discoveries are luxurious houses, many named after the famous mosaics that decorated them; the royal palace; and the rapid transformation of the surrounding landscape in the late Classical and the Hellenistic periods.


Why do we need Monsters?

17 October 2017
Liz Gloyn (Royal Holloway University of London), Dunstan Lowe (University of Kent), David Wengrow (UCL), Valeria Vitale (ICS)


Today we worry about chimaeras - organisms created by combining genes from more than one species - and science fiction writers imagine bizarre aliens on other planets, just as nineteenth-century novelists placed them in the Centre of the Earth, on Lost Worlds or in Lands that Time Forgot.

Almost every society has imagined monsters, often as hybrids of humans and beasts. This free public event brings together some of the most interesting researchers on ancient monsters and invites us to reflect on what purpose these nearly humans serve in societies ancient and modern.

Supported by the John Coffin Memorial Fund


T.B.L. Webster Lecture

27 September 2017
'Tragedy: The Art of Facing Death'
Professor Karen Bassi (University of California at Santa Cruz)

Webster lecture image

My paper begins from the premise that Greek tragedy offers readers and viewers insight into the ethical, political, and social effects of mortal existence. Tragic characters "exist" or "live" as visible and audible humans only for as long as a given play is performed. They are thus the literal embodiment of the Greek metaphor of humans as "creatures that live for a day."  As a result -- and as an expression of what Zygmunt Bauman calls "living with death" -- tragedy anticipates current philosophical debates over the possibility of extending life and the relationship of the death of the individual to the survival of the collective. In selected case studies, I argue that tragedy anticipates and contributes to these debates in both its form and content.