Ancient Letter Collections Project

We’re delighted to announce that the AHRC is to fund a four-year project at Manchester on Ancient Letter Collections (£500k), co-ordinated by Prof. Roy Gibson (PI) and Dr Andrew Morrison (CI). The project will begin in December 2016.

The Project:

The letter collections of Greco-Roman antiquity dwarf in total size all of ancient drama or ancient epic put together. Yet, unlike epic or drama, they have little visibility as a distinctive area of study. This is due in large part to the fact that no one definitively knows – because no one has thought to ask – how many letter collections actually survive from antiquity. This project will establish for the first time how many such collections survive. More significantly, through diachronic critical review of each collection to survive from the fourth century B.C. to the fifth century A.D., the project sets itself the task of establishing the study of ancient letter collections as a discrete and unified field. Included in that survey are numerous foundational texts of ancient literature and thought, from the letter collections of Plato through those of Cicero and the Christian New Testament to Saint Augustine’s collections in later antiquity. From this survey it will emerge that – like ancient drama or epic – there is significant generic unity across time, above all in terms of formal features, despite differences in content and focus between individual texts.

Alongside the creation of a field of study, it is an important part of this project to establish how ancient letter collections were ordered and read. A good number of surviving ancient letter collections – perhaps the majority – are available only in standard modern editions which have abandoned the distinctive ordering that is found in the ancient manuscripts of these collections. For example, Cicero’s Letters to Friends show a particular ordering by addressee or theme in all ancient manuscripts; but modern editors have re-ordered these letters entirely by chronology, thus obliterating the format in which the letters were read for first 1,500 years of their history. By seeking to establish how each letter collection to survive from antiquity was originally arranged in its manuscript form, we aim to recover, and promote the importance of, distinctively ancient reading practices in relation to letter collections.

The project will result in two substantial books: i) a critical review of each of the c. 70 surviving Greco-Roman letter collections before 500 A.D., and ii) an accompanying synoptic interpretative monograph.
The major component of the critical review is a series of cross-referenced discursive essays. Each essay will include the following information for each surviving letter collection:
a) basic information on authors, dates and other works;
b) total number of letters in the collection and total number of addressees (in the largest surviving version of the collection);
c) a detailed descriptive essay on the main patterns of arrangement visible in the available manuscripts, including key information on the earliest evidence available for an existing collection (and whether the arrangements visible in the manuscripts go back to antiquity or even the author’s hand).
d) an essay-survey of modern editions and short critical bibliography of significant items.
The synoptic interpretative monograph – building on the foundations of the critical review – will look at the field as a whole and ask questions about wider patterns of organization and associated reading practices.

The project will also include lots of impact and outreach activities, one of which will be regular posts on this blog once the project gets under way in December 2016.

Encounter with a Squatting Komast in Athens (aka more on ancient poo)

IMG_0286For a fortnight in April I had the pleasure of a stay at the British School at Athens. As well as digging-in for some serious research time (and eating spinach pies, and tortoise hunting in the garden), I spent an afternoon at the Cycladic Art Museum and their wonderful temporary exhibition, Hygeia: Health, Illness, Treatment from Homer to Galen. Among the many fabulous things on display – including some definitely not for the squeamish – there was this little chap, labelled “Perfume Vase in the Form of a Squatting Komast, 600-575 BC’ (picture below).

IMG_0307Our komast, or ‘reveller’, is about 10 cm tall, and may or may not be naked depending on how you interpret the dots and swirls which cover his body. There are many other examples of similar vases from the Archaic period, thought to have been made mostly in Corinth. Why is he in an exhibition about health and healing? The answer is partly because he’s a perfume bottle, designed to make the body smell nice, but some have also suggested he is squatting to – in non-technical terms – have a poo. In the exhibition, this vase is next to a urinal (amis) from the Athenian Agora. Added to this, excitingly for the linguist, there is a short text scratched across his back and shoulders (drawing below — and of course he was facing forward in the cabinet, so I found myself doing yoga to try to see his back).

The first part the text may be interpreted as χέζει (chezei), the 3rd person singular (‘he’) of a verb which LSJ coyly translates as ‘ease oneself’, found many times in Aristophanes. So the vase is indeed, it would appear, having a poo, and text and object are in concord. But why? This is an oil flask. It this all a joke…? There is however an alternative interpretation: these letters may write instead the word ψήχηι, ‘rub down’, i.e. instructions on how to use the contents of the flask, so something entirely different and nothing to do with excretion at all. Other ways of reading these letters have also been proposed, each inspiring a different story about the writer of the text and their relationship with the pot. It may however be that our komast isn’t actually doing anything surprising at all, but rather sitting, only in a way which is less familiar to the Western Europeans who first commented on such objects when they were published. Squatting for us is perhaps inherently associated with toilet practices, whereas in the original somewhat alien context of the object’s creation this may not have been the case. Here we have a good example of how latent cultural assumptions can be tacitly applied to an ancient object, and can change what we think about that object. This also reminds us how our early Greek texts are not so easy to read as we might think, and how object and text can interact in ways which radically alter what we believe the original scratcher of his message was saying, and why he or she were saying it.


Copyright © 2015 Amy Coker. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Medical Mysteries & Linguistic Detective Work: the Latin Alexander

David Langslow writes about his work on the ‘Latin Alexander’…

One of my research projects this year concerns an ancient medical text in Latin. It is a long text (500-600 pages) in three ‘books’, or parts. The first two books set out diagnosis and treatment of diseases ordered from head to toe, from hair loss at the start of Book 1 to gout at the end of Book 2; Book 3 gives symptoms and treatment of various types of fever. Like many Latin medical texts, it is a translation of a Greek original. Often the Greek original is lost, but in this case it survives in two Greek works, the Therapeutics and the On Fevers by the Greek doctor Alexander, who lived around AD 500 and came from Tralles in what is now south-western Turkey. We know little of Alexander’s career except that in old age he accepted a high-level public medical appointment in Rome, which may explain why his Greek writings were translated into Latin soon after (even during?) his lifetime, and with less abridgement than is usual in Latin versions of long Greek medical works.

The first folio of the oldest known copy (made in Fleury in France about AD 800) of the Latin version of the medical handbook of Alexander of Tralles, perhaps the greatest Greek doctor of late antiquity (c. AD 500).

The first folio of the oldest known copy (made in Fleury in France about AD 800) of the Latin version of the medical handbook of Alexander of Tralles, perhaps the greatest Greek doctor of late antiquity (c. AD 500).

Who made ‘the Latin Alexander’, when and where, we do not know, but it was something of a best-seller! It was widely copied both in its entirety and in various sets of excerpts, or ‘useful bits’. The Latin Alexander was one of the first medical books to be printed (first in 1504), even before the Greek original! In Greek and in Latin, Alexander remained central on European university syllabuses alongside Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen until the 18th century.

The Latin Alexander interests me for three main reasons. First, it has never been edited. That is to say, we have many hand-written copies (from the 8th to the 16th century), but no printed edition that attempts to capture the original version. No doubt the length and difficulty of the text explain perfectly why it has never been edited! Still, it is a challenge and a privilege to be at work on a first edition.

Secondly, the Latin Alexander is actually a compilation. Yes, it is very largely a Latin translation of the Greek Alexander, but it contains also chunks of other Greek works turned into Latin and inserted among the Alexander chapters. These include bits of Galen on facial and dental diseases, chapters on internal organs from Philagrius and Philumenus (which have not survived in Greek), and others of unknown origin. In other words, there are several different ‘voices’ in this single text.

Thirdly, the Latin itself is fascinating and raises several fundamental questions, including:

  • how many translators were involved?
  • did the translator(s) of Alexander translate also Galen, Philagrius, Philumenus, etc?
  • how ‘correct’ or poorly controlled is the Latin of the various parts?
  • what was the first language of the translator(s)? – Latin or Greek?
  • are there features of the Latin that link the Latin Alexander with other Latin medical texts?
  • are there features of the Latin that allow us to locate the translator(s) in space and time?

In other words, this is a project that satisfies both the historian of medicine and the linguistic detective!

Manumission and Sexuality in Ancient Greece, and a Friendly Visitor to Manchester

This week we bid farewell to our friend and colleague Deborah Kamen. Professor Kamen, of the University of Washington, Seattle, was our Simon Visiting Professor in Ancient History. Taking time out from her sabbatical at the American Academy in Rome, we had the pleasure of her company for a fortnight, during which she offered us a wonderful array of contributions.

Professor Kamen, Visiting Simon Professor of Ancient History, November 2014

Kamen’s work is characterised by its readiness to tackle broad-reaching, interdisciplinary, questions in a critically-informed way, and its re-assessment of the role of groups traditionally perceived as peripheral. Her publications have concentrated on slavery and status in classical Greece; her work on slave-prostitution, manumission, slave agency and slave invective constitutes an important contribution to the history of non-elite groups in classical Athens. Her most recent major publication is Status in Classical Athens (Princeton University Press, 2013), which has been heralded by Professor Sara Forsdyke (Michigan) as an ‘important contribution to scholarship’. Kamen challenges the widely-held belief that questions of status in classical Greece can be reduced to the tripartite division between citizens, metics (resident foreigners), and slaves, a division which is predicated largely upon the high valuation of citizen-male-oriented civic and political freedoms. The book has wider implications, too, leading its readers to ask whether Greek thought (about status, and other subjects too) was as binary as it is presented by modern scholars.


While she was with us only for a short time, she made great contributions to our teaching and research, and, admittedly we worked her very hard. She gave a lucid and informative lecture to our first-year students on slavery in archaic Greece, introducing them to sources, scholarship, and problems with the topic. Deborah and I co-taught an MA core module on Greek epigraphy, with Deborah introducing and opening up discussion of three epigraphic documents important for research into status and status-dynamics in ancient Greece; this was followed up by a Friday-morning seminar for our graduates and undergraduates. Last but not least, Deborah gave our Research Seminar an excellent paper, entitled ‘Prostitutes, maidservants and slave boys: manumission and sexuality in ancient Greece’.  Sex with slaves – including slave-prostitutes, beloved maidservants, and attractive slave boys – was commonplace in ancient Greece. Deborah explored  the role that sex and sexuality played in who was freed and why, drawing on inscriptions, literary texts, and legal evidence. In particular, she drew upon the texts inscribed upon the ‘Manumission Wall’ at Delphi, which documents the manumission process of several hundreds of slaves, many of whom were freed through the process of a fictive sale to the god Apollo. The evidence of these records strongly suggests that sexual relations may well have played an important role in the selection of individuals for liberation.Her paper went down a treat with the audience, and after the paper and she was joined for dinner at Zouk by 18 colleagues and postgraduates.

Thank you, Deborah, for all your work while you were here; we look forward to seeing you again soon!

Epic and Tragic Performances: What’s On

Upcoming Performances

Emma Griffiths offers some news on forthcoming performances of tragedy…

If you want Greek tragedy, 2014-2015 promises to be a bumper year. As well as regular productions by As part of a classical education, I’d encourage you to see as many productions of drama as you can: many theatres offer cut-price tickets for students. If you want Greek tragedy, this one promises to be a bumper year. As well as regular productions by the Oxford Greek Play, London Festival of Greek Drama etc, there are some major productions scheduled. The National Theatre’s  ‘Euripides’ Medea‘ starring Helen McCrory is now available to a wider audience  – the NT live scheme is screening performances in cinemas, including the Printworks NEXT MONDAY. The Barbican in London has announced that Oscar-winning actor Juliette Binoche will play Antigone in March of next year, and, closer to home, a version of Antigone by Pilot Theatre opens in Derby on FRIDAY. Roy Williams’ translation transfers the action into a modern setting with his heroine ‘Tig’ confronting authority and her own personal demons. The production will tour and move to Stratford next year.

Tune in next month for thoughts on The Lightning Child at the Globe, dramatisations of the Odyssey and a gender-reversed Hamlet…

Emma Griffiths

Epic and Tragic Performances, Ancient and Modern (part 1)

Epic and Tragic Performances, Ancient and Modern

Emma Griffiths reflects on some resonances between ancient and modern in contemporary performances of epic and drama.

Earlier this year a group of students came with me to see Simon Armitage’s new play Last Days of Troy. After the show, conversation touched upon many subjects (Was Paris completely naked under that sheet?  Was Priam really in ‘Only Fools and Horses’?), including the ethical issues raised by the story, the relationship between ancient and modern, and the problem of creating satisfying drama from epic poetry – Sophocles’ plays may have been described as ‘scraps from Homer’s banquet’, but the Greek tragic playwrights tended to focus on small, discrete episodes from the Trojan War, With this in mind, it seemed like a good point to take stock of some of the productions I’ve seen this year, and reflect on how each play has informed my own view of the ongoing dialogue between ancient and modern worlds – this is part one.


ClAH students at The Last Days of Troy

ClAH students at The Last Days of Troy

Last year, I gave a talk for the School’s programme of WW I events, looking at mud. We’re familiar with images from the trenches, where the mud sucked down men and animals, but my focus was on an equally deadly, literary mud: In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles rages over the death of Patroclus, and we see the only genuine threat to Achilles in the poem so far – the river Skamander prepares to overwhelm him – it will pour forth such a stream of mud that Achilles will be obliterated, forgotten and deprived of glory.

Juxtaposing this passage with the imagery of the trenches, my talk explored ideas of glory, heroism and the dangers of nature which characterise much modern understanding of the First World War. It’s well known that classical literature had an impact on a generation of men who were inspired to fight in 1914 (see Elizabeth Vandiver’s excellent book, Stand in the Trenches, Achilles), but ideals of glory derived from the Iliad cannot incorporate this threat of nature overwhelming civilization – my question for the audience was this, ‘If the powers-that-be had really known their Homer, and had really understood the warnings about the power of nature, might reports from the trenches have given them pause? Might the war have ended sooner or differently?’

Discussions with the audience after the talk provoked some lively debate about modern education and Homer’s intentions, before eventually  we came to ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ – has the final scene of poppy fields ever been bettered as a visual image to provoke tragedy in the midst of comedy?  This final point, about translating history and epic poetry into a dramatic form, with its limitations and new potentials, was clear in my mind as I went straight from the talk to the cinema that evening. This rare trip out on a school night was to see the RSC live broadcast of Shakespeare’s Richard II at a central Manchester cinema.  For the record, I should say that I love the immediacy of live theatre, and I was initially sceptical about the idea of seeing a live production beamed into a cinema – would the popcorn, and strange lighting make this seem more like seeing ‘Star Wars’ rather than gut-wrenching, tear jerking Shakespearean tragedy? I was also hesitant about seeing this particular play, because I saw Kevin Spacey’s version many years ago, and came out completely unmoved and rather confused.  However, I was lucky enough to see David Tennant as Hamlet at Stratford, so I was willing to trust his Shakespearan credentials.  And it was magnificent. Yes, you miss the spine-tingling buzz of being in the theatre, but on the other hand, you have more comfortable seats and the benefit of close-ups.  Seeing a play in a cinema is a completely different experience, but once you accept it for what it is, it’s wonderful. I have nothing but admiration for the minds who conceived and executed this programme of live broadcasts – it was flawless.

As for the production itself – amazing. Tennant was a terrifying and tragic king, Henry Bollinger was both plausible and a monster, and there wasn’t a single weak performance in the play. During the interval there was an interview with Jane Lapotaire, returning to the stage after a long illness, which provided a perfect example of the love and intelligence that goes into producing theatre. Although the play stayed with Shakespeare’s words and period costumes, it was a wonderful model for how drama can touch a modern audience without the need for explicit modernisation.

Go to the next post for some news on forthcoming productions of Greek drama…

Captains and Collectors: Epigraphic Updates from Liverpool

Last week, Peter Liddel and I were back at the World Museum, Liverpool, for another bout of research into their Greek inscriptions. On this visit, we weren’t looking at the actual stones, but at the Museum’s archives, to see if we could uncover a bit more information about the origins of the collection. (We were also catching up on the plans to put some of the inscriptions on public display: from this week, you will be able to see the Phrikyladai decree, and some other inscriptions, in the Museum’s Ancient World Gallery . Admission is free, and the cafe is excellent: do visit!)

We (or rather, Dr Gina Muskett, the indefatigable curator of Classical Antiquities at the Museum) have now located thirteen Greek inscriptions in the collection. (We know that there used to be at least one more, but it can no longer be found: it was probably destroyed when the Museum was bombed in World War Two.) The origins of some of these inscriptions are well-documented – particularly those which came from the collections of Henry Blundell, a figure who fits quite neatly the model of a ‘typical’ antiquities collector of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Blundell deployed his (extensive) personal wealth both to fund a ‘Grand Tour’ to Italy, and to purchase (there and elsewhere) significant numbers of Greek and Roman antiquities (as well as more modern work), which he used to adorn his mansion, Ince Blundell.

One of the very interesting features of the Liverpool collection, though, is that it throws light on another route by which ancient antiquities found their way from the Mediterranean to the Mersey. Readers of this blog will (perhaps) remember that one of the Liverpool inscriptions – the decree of the Phrikyladai – came from the collections of the MacIver family, Liverpool ship-owners of the nineteenth century. Another one (IK Ephesos 2269A: a funerary monument for Herodotus), is recorded as having been donated by ‘E. Bibby Esq.’, who seems very likely to be connected to another great Liverpudlian shipping dynasty. But the Museum’s accession registers and guard books reveal that it wasn’t just the ship-owners who were interested in collecting Greek inscriptions, but also their employees, the ships’ captains. We have found records of inscriptions being presented by three such men: Captains Fothergill, McNab, and Ferguson.

The S.S. Aleppo (picture from

Capt. Ferguson’s ship: the ss Aleppo (picture from

We don’t (yet) know very much at all about these men, nor about their reasons for collecting these inscriptions. Captain McNab, at least, seems to have stumbled across his specimen by accident (the register records that the inscription which he presented to the Museum in 1885 was ‘dredged up on the fluke of an anchor’). But it seems as if at least one of these sea-captains had a more active interest in epigraphy (or, at any rate, in Greek and Roman antiquities). Working through the archives last week, we discovered that four of the inscriptions in the collection – which are now scattered around the stores, and which we had been treating as quite separate items – all came to the Museum as part of a single gift, and were all donated by one man: Captain John Ferguson, employee of the Cunard Line, and, according to the Liverpool Mercury’s ‘Nautical Jottings’ for 16th July 1892, ‘one of most well-liked commanders of the Cunard fleet’. In the late 1880s, Captain Ferguson sailed to the eastern Mediterranean on the S.S. Aleppo. While passing through Cyzicus (on the south side of the Sea of Marmara – also known as the Propontis), he collected (we don’t know how, or from whom) an excellent epigraphic variety-pack: a small altar; a decorated gravestone; a late-Roman inscription wishing sporting (or other) success for a particular faction at the Circus; and (my favourite) a large slab inscribed with the outlines of pairs of feet, each foot (or pair of feet) recording the name of its owner. In 1890, Ferguson gave all of these to the Museum (together with three other, uninscribed, antiquities, which he had collected on the same voyage).

Inscribed ancient feet from Cyzicus (and some uninscribed modern feet from Manchester), being studied in the World Museum's stores this summer.

Inscribed ancient feet from Cyzicus (and some uninscribed modern feet from Manchester), being studied in the World Museum’s stores this summer.

For now, we can only speculate about why Ferguson chose to collect these inscriptions – and why he then chose to give them to the Museum (I won’t expand here on my favoured, and entirely unsupported, hypothesis, which involves an irate Mrs Ferguson, an unfulfilled expectation that a good souvenir from Turkey might be a carpet or some spices rather than a pile of rubble, and a furiously-brandished rolling pin…). We know that Ferguson was elected a Corresponding Member of the Liverpool Literary and Philosophical Society in 1890, the same year as his donation to the Museum, and it’s tempting to see a connection between that honour and this act of epigraphic philanthropy. But we haven’t yet found any evidence for antiquarian activity after 1890 (or indeed before it): in the last stages of his career, Ferguson seems to have been primarily involved in Cunard’s prestigious Atlantic routes. His death in August 1900, at his modest residence in Norma Road, Waterloo (just north of Bootle), was announced in the Liverpool Mercury, but did not warrant an obituary. It is possible, then, that his epigraphic legacy consists only of these four inscriptions, which have been lying unpublished in the Liverpool storerooms for over a century now. If so, that makes us even more pleased to be able to bring them back out of the shadows: working on a proper publication of these four texts (and the other unpublished material in the collection) is one of our next big tasks. Another is to continue to build up our picture of patterns of epigraphic collection, in Liverpool and elsewhere in the UK: this is the focus of our long-term ‘UK Epigraphy’ Project, whose initial results we are collecting on this website. More about that in a future blog!