Perseus: winged sandals or petrification?

In my quest to be a better user of Classics Twitter, today I responded to a poll on whether faculty should encourage or discourage their students to use electronic dictionaries. I immediately tried and failed (as it turns out if you reply to a text notification it only shows up on Twitter as a reply to yourself! live and learn) to create a thread on this topic, as I have given it quite a lot of thought.

Since this is an area that I can’t do in 140 characters, even in a string of them, I figured I’d come back to the blog (which has been on hiatus this year while I’m on sabbatical and working on other projects).

First: I would say that in my general embrace of all things metacognitive, I have for some years now asked (upper-level) students to do a little of their own research: a week of Perseus use and a week of physical lexicon use, with some checking to see how well they retain vocabulary and how quickly they read in each case. What has become clear, as you could probably have predicted, is that a) they read more slowly with a real (what’s the term for this? physical? IRL? analog?) dictionary, but b) they retain more successfully the vocabulary they look up the hard way. (This was confirmed for me recently in a really interesting TCL piece language learning and memory which you should read if you haven’t; check out p. 118) So I have come down to just having a meta-discussion with my students about this: sometimes it is beneficial to go more slowly; sometimes you want to read quickly. You need to choose the appropriate mode for your goals.

However: I have a dream. What if there were some kind of browser gateway though which you entered Perseus, which would track all the words you clicked on in a given session… then, at the end of that session, it would generate a little quiz for you. Maybe it would choose, say, five words at random from those you’d looked up. Maybe, if it were a little more sophisticated, it would choose the words most likely to recur in the text you’re reading, and quiz you on those. Or maybe it would use high-frequency lists like the Dickinson College Commentaries core vocabulary lists. Even better: the next day, when you started in to read some more of that text, it would start by giving you a little quiz on what you had looked up the last time. It’s well-researched that testing is a good way to consolidate knowledge: why can’t we leverage that, along with the data that must be recoverable on what words students click on, to make Perseus into the learning machine it could be?

I have spoken to some computer scientists at my institution about building such a thing: they all think it would be perfectly doable. None of them has yet had time to do it, though. If I succeed in goading them into it, I will report back here. And if any of you have the skills or connections to make my dream a reality — please let me know!

Update: There’s now a great blog post from Hannah Čulík-Baird (@opietasanimi) who first posted the Twitter poll on dictionaries — lots more interesting responses to the question!


CJ 111.1: the one about slaves and masters


Christopher Bungard: “Negotiating Mastery: Staging Status in Pseudolus” 67-81

tl;dr an argument for the effectiveness of staging slave-master scenes for getting students to reflect upon Roman social dynamics

undergraduates could certainly read/understand this, although like all the articles in this volume it is aimed explicitly at teachers

stakes: again as with other articles in this issue, this one adds to the new body of research on how performance illuminates texts, as well as how it can function pedagogically

This piece, like the preceding one, describes the way in which performance of Roman Comedy can focus attention on wider issues of status relations in Roman society. As with many of the articles in this issue, Bungard uses the Ballio scene from the Pseudolus as his test-case, and shows how performance of this scene can contrast the dynamic between Ballio and his slaves with the relation between Pseudolus and Calidorus, on view as they comment upon what they are hearing from Ballio.

At this point in the journal the arguments for the benefits of performance are familiar, but the article engages usefully with work on slaves in Roman comedy (especially McCarthy’s 2000 work Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy and Parker’s 1989 TAPA article on torture jokes) as well as Richlin’s suggestive article on assigning roles in a Roman Civilization course (CJ 108 347-61).

The 2012 NEH Summer Institute performance of the scene Bungard describes (you can watch it here) made the decision to play up Ballio’s cruelty toward his slaves so as to elevate him as a blocking figure and increase the satisfaction felt at Pseudolus’ victory over him at the end of the play. Your mileage may vary on how effective you think this decision was, or on the suggested responses to it from the different status-groups in the audience, but in any case highlighting this decision and watching it play out can helpfully force students to confront the prevalence of threats against slaves on the comic stage. Presumably these were funny, but why? How (i.e. other NEH groups chose to make Ballio’s slaves mock or undermine him rather than cower in fear: is this a more or less effective way to milk the comedy)? To whom? And what does that imply about the society that staged these comedies?

CJ 111.1: the one about mute characters


CJ 111.1 Sophie Klein, “When actions speak louder than words: mute characters in Roman Comedy” 53-66

tl;dr version: focusing student attention on non-speaking characters on stage can illuminate the tone/effect of a scene and shed valuable light on more marginal status groups

as with all of the articles in this volume, undergraduates could easily understand/benefit from the piece, but it is aimed explicitly at teachers

stakes: a fuller and more nuanced understanding of how comedy worked on the stage and in its society

The first time I was ever involved in a full staging of an ancient drama, one of the most unexpected things I learned was the power of non-speaking characters on stage. Once you’re reminded of this it seems totally obvious, but as you read a play script your focus is always on the lines you’re reading, so anyone on stage without lines requires an act of imagination to visualize. But of course they will immediately present themselves in any performance, and can have enormous influence on the way the audience perceives the action. It is this insight that Klein develops in this article.

Starting with a general sketch of the benefits of attending to these figures especially when reading Roman comedy, Klein’s article presents three separate levels of focus, with suggested classroom activities for each. First is simply the task of locating mute characters: this can require careful reading, down to noting plural imperatives in Latin. Klein suggests giving students reading the texts in English copies with the stage directions, usually added by translators, redacted, and having them locate mute characters and suggest blocking for them.

This exercise is taken up and expanded in the third section on dramaturgy, where she discusses the tonal shifts that mute characters can effect depending on the ways in which they respond to speaking characters. In the Ballio scene of the Pseudolus, for instance, our reaction to Ballio will be radically different if his slaves are genuinely terrified of his threats rather than mocking him behind his back. Thus in a continuation of the initial classroom activity, Klein suggests having students actually stage the scenes they had blocked, to get a sense of the range of effects possible.

While mute characters and their effects are a core aspect of staging any drama, those in Roman comedy tend to come from lower status groups: slaves, prostitutes, cooks, etc. Thus these figures offer a good opportunity to consider power relations generally in these works, and to think about responses from the different status groups represented in the diverse audiences of the comedies. The central section of the article helpfully points teachers and their students toward good references on these topics and suggests possible assignments to help think through how far the figures on stage actively subvert or reinforce normative social roles.

Again, as with the other articles in this volume, there are nice video examples available from the 2012 NEH Summer Institute collection — a great resource for teachers and students going forward.

CJ 111.1 the one about music: updated!


CJ 111.1 37-51 T.H.M. Geller-Goad and Timothy Moore, “Using Music in Performing Roman Comedy”

tl;dr version: an account of the range of ways participants incorporated music into the performances that came out of the 2012 Summer Institute on Roman Comedy in Performance, with suggestions for using these in classes

as with the other articles in this volume, undergraduates could certainly read and benefit from them, but they are explicitly aimed at teachers

stakes: a compelling argument for attending to a crucial but oft-overlooked component of Roman comedy

Here as in the other articles in this volume the authors introduce us to one aspect of what was involved in the performances that came out of the 2012 summer institute (available here, in case you haven’t read the other posts in this series: This time the focus is on music, and the article lays out five increasingly complicated ways of incorporating music into a class on Roman Comedy. Each of these is helpfully illustrated by one of the performance videos, so if you’re too nervous to actually try getting your own students to sing in class, you can at least show them the exuberant performance of others!

The middle technique in the list, a capella singing to the rhythm of the meter, is one I was familiar with from an APA (aka SCS) presentation by Timothy Moore a couple of years ago. He had the audience sing /chant some of the Latin, attending less to pitch than rhythm, so as to get some sense of the effects of these complex sequences of long and short syllables. Me, I love meter, and as a college student used to memorize chunks of Vergil just to hear the subtly shifting rhythms of the hexameters. I invariably force my students to read hexameters or elegiac couplets in meter, and they (well, most of them) come to appreciate the effects as well. But I still have a rough time with the bewildering range of what even an iambic senarius can sound like, let alone the more complicated polymetrics, and I have to confess that I spend much less class time on this in a comedy class than I do with other Latin poetry.

I have tried Moore’s method of singing/chanting the meters in classes, though, and can attest that it’s illuminating, and gives students a great sense of what they’re missing without the music of the originals. The video of the Bacchides that illustrates this technique adds actual melody to the rhythms, and this makes a great demonstration for students of what the possibilities are simply of “translating” the rhythms of the Latin into song.

Moore and Geller-Goad also discuss two methods somewhat simpler than this: a rap-style performance with only rhythmical accompaniment, and spoken lines with incidental music in the background; each of these is also illustrated with a video and suggestions for use in classes. If you’re more ambitious rather than less you can go on to two further suggestions for accompanied singing: first, using a repeated melody under a stichic passage (i.e. repeated lines in the same meter); then actual accompanied singing of the more complicated meters of the cantica.

These last two methods clearly would require more of students than a single-day classroom exercise, but could be amazing learning opportunities for musically-inclined students. Even if you can’t imagine ever actually having your students do any of this, though, the illustrative videos area treasure-trove for the classroom. I will certainly be making heavy use of them in future.

UPDATE: I actually did this in class today. I’m teaching the Casina at the moment, and we sang some of the opening canticum (Cleostrata and Myrrhina) and then the beginning of Pardalisca’s mad scene. Fun! Bottom line is, however, that anapests will sound like Bohemian Rhapsody: compare: sine amet, sine quod lubet id faciat, quando tibi nil domi delicuomst with Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango? Anyway thanks to Mr.’s Moore and Geller-Goad for the tips.

CJ 111.1: the one about masks


Michael Lippman: “Embodying the Mask: Exploring Ancient Roman Comedy through Mask and Movement”

tl;dr version: experimenting with masks can shed new light on the effect of Roman comedy in performance, and can be a useful activity in the classroom

again, undergraduates might be really interested in some of this, although it is clearly geared toward teachers

stakes: adds to the new body of research on how performance illuminates texts, as well as how it can function pedagogically

In this very useful piece Lippman discusses work with masks during the 2012 NEH Summer Institute on Roman Comedy in Performance, and makes a strong case for their utility in teaching these texts. (I should admit that I started the article already convinced — again, I have worked with students on mask construction and performance — so perhaps I should say that it reinforced, rather than produced, conviction. But still.)

Lippman opens by outlining the barriers to working with masks (e.g. they are not usually part of students’ experience with theater; they are associated in our culture with the frightening/threatening rather than with the comic; etc) but points out that we expect students to cross boundaries linguistically, and see benefits from this kind of stretching of perspectives. Experimentation with masks is simply stretching of a different kind.

While the piece acknowledges the contention around the use of masks in the Roman tradition especially, there is still a good deal of both ancient and comparative material to draw on that facilitates mask work in the classroom. The article lays this out very helpfully, pointing to resources concerning movement and gesture as well as related traditions like commedia dell’arte.

Lippman recounts the experience of the institute participants in a mask workshop led by C.W. Marshall, and then his own group’s work on the use of commedia masks and concepts in their production of the Ballio scene from the Pseudolus. It is clear that mask work brings out elements of the text that are often invisible to students on a first read. The effects of combining stylized body movements with the character types must have produced its own complex but legible set of indicators to the audience about how to react to a given figure.

The final section of the piece lays out a set of classroom activities around the use of masks that many of us can use to bring this material to our students. So try this at home, as he suggests! And post some pictures!

CJ 111.1: the one about translation


CJ 111.1: Erin K. Moodie, “License to Thrill: Linguistic Accuracy in Translations of Roman Comedy”

The first of the articles laying out the process and results of the 2012 NEH summer institute on the performance of Roman Comedy focuses on issues of translation. Moodie starts by listing the issues faced by anyone setting out to translate Plautus for the stage — that is, seeking to “translate” comic effect rather than literal grammatical constructions. From reproducing verbal effects such as alliteration, rhyme, or word-play of other types, through figuring out what to do with slang and topical references, to grappling with Roman comedy’s use of distasteful subjects like slavery, abuse, sexual exploitation, making the texts work in a new linguistic cultural context presents a wide array of challenges.

Moodie’s group, tasked with presenting a performance of the Ballio birthday scene near the beginning of the Pseudolus, decided to base their translation on the commedia dell’arte tradition for “tone and inspirpation.” The second part of her article outlines the principles they followed: making the (threatened) violence in the scene cartoonish and light-hearted, focusing on incorporating English word-play, alliteration, rhyme and double-entendres for the Latin, and (as Plautus himself did) freely omitting, expanding or re-arranging the text for maximum comic effect.

In practice this meant replacing Roman cultural references with American ones, finding equivalent significant names for the prostitutes, and adding “witty metatheatrical commentary” (although the reference to Plautine textual criticism felt to me a little like a stretch here). Moodie illustrates each of these with sections of the final translation, many of which are really very clever. I especially liked rendering pernam callum glandium sumen facito in aqua iaceant (166) with “See to it that my finest Spam, jerky, bologna, Twinkies, Velveeta, Cheez-its, Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos, and Ho-hos are placed precisely on the presidential platter.”

Moodie’s final section reflects on the pedagogical promise of having students engage a process like this, and lays out some possible assignments. As I said in my last post, this is already a regular requirement in a couple of my classes, and as I’m having students do it at this very moment, I’ve given them this article for inspiration. I may post the results of their efforts here if they let me!

CJ 111.1: Performance of Roman Comedy Issue!!


Housekeeping note: My plan going into this article blogging project was to go through different journals, and having (finally) just finished with CJ 110.4, I was going to move along to Arethusa or AJP. However the new issue of CJ showed up and turned out to be devoted to the performance of Roman Comedy, and since this term I’m teaching a performance-oriented course on Roman Comedy I thought I’d selfishly just go ahead and do this one now. So get ready for more CJ blogging — regular spread will resume soon, I promise.

“The 2012 NEH Summer Institute on Roman Comedy in Performance: Genesis and Reflections” by Sharon L. James, Timothy Moore and Meredith Safran, CJ 111.1 1-9

tl;dr: This is the introductory essay, explaining the goals and outcomes of the institute, and sketching some preliminary conclusions about the values of performance for understanding a range of issues in Roman Comedy. If you want to cut to the chase, you can see video of the performances that came out of the Institute here:

undergraduates could certainly read this; I’m going to recommend this and most of the articles in the issue to my current class, and require the next one (on translation). I’ll post updates on how that goes.

stakes: another forceful argument for performance as pedagogy — not the first by any means, but the more of this we get in our field the better, I think.

Anyone who has read much Roman Comedy, or taught it, or had it assigned for a class, will know all of the impediments to appreciating it. I should say up front that I’ve published on Plautus, and am currently working on Terence, and even my own sweet husband refuses to read my stuff because he hates the material with such an entrenched fervor. Besides the sense it’s hard to avoid that the texts just aren’t that funny (“why would you produce the Menaechmi,” a colleague in theater once remarked to me, “when you could do Comedy of Errors?”), there’s the whole rape-as-plot-device thing, or threaten-the-slaves-with-torture thing, neither of which on first sight strike us as true knee-slappers.

It was precisely these problems that motivated the 2012 NEH summer Institute on Roman Comedy in Performance. This initial essay in the journal sets out the structure of the institute and discusses briefly some of the insights that came out of the exercise of putting a selection of scenes from Roman Comedy (mainly Plautus) on stage. Mornings the 25 participants discussed aspects of performance in a traditional seminar environment: e.g. space, masks and movement, music, women and rape, slavery and ethnicity, metatheater, etc. An all-star cast of Classicists was on hand to guide these discussions (besides the organizers, who authored this introduction, Amy Richlin, C.W. Marshall, Sander Goldberg, Mary-Kay Gamel, Niall Slater, and Northfield’s own Anne Groton!). Afternoons the participants worked in groups of 5 first to all produce versions of one scene from the Pseudolus, and then (in different groups of 5), to each produce a different scene from a different Plautus play or Terence’s Eunuchus. I’ve given the link to videos of these performances above — clicking through to even a couple minutes of this material gives you a good idea of the range of strategies the groups tested.

The authors list an impressive number of insights gained from the process; as a long-time advocate for the pedagogical use of performance in drama classes I wasn’t surprised by any of them, but it’s great to have these amplified for an audience of classicists! Most interesting to me was the discussion around the effects of performance (primarily physical action and silent characters’ antics, but also music and dance) on scenes where the words alone may be disturbing or violent.

But there are many other insights suggested in this opening essay, and I’m looking forward to reading through the essays that fill them in.

The one about Claudian: CJ 110.4


“Love or War? Erotic and Martial Poetics in Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae” Ruth Parkes (CJ 110.4 471-492)

tl;dr version: an extended interest in the relation between love and violence underlies this poem and darkens its potentially lighter aspects.

undergrads might well be interested in this topic, and the article is a nice example of one sort of methodology current in the field, but I’m not sure how many undergrads regularly encounter Claudian.

stakes: I guess expanding on the ways we think about this poem, or perhaps just getting it onto people’s radar?

This is a fairly straightforward and interesting account of intertextual effects in Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae, a poem I have to admit to never having read. (Was it on my PhD reading list? I kind of think not!) The first half of the article establishes Claudian’s (from here I’ll call the poem DRP) interest in generic play (epic v elegiac); the “epic” poems of both Ovid and Statius consciously examine at what points erotic and martial elements are appropriate. Claudian’s persistent reference to these two poems sets up his own investigation of this theme. Parkes concludes that DRP is appropriately referred to as “alternative epic” blending as it does elements of traditional epic with the amorous genres of elegy and epithalamium. This section of the article is a straightforward exemplar of this kind of work, and overall it makes a pretty convincing argument. I find myself increasingly hungry for more statistical evidence in this kind of project, however. I heard a fascinating paper at last year’s CAMWS meeting by Neil Bernstein of Ohio University, in which he used data generated by the Tesserae website from SUNY Buffalo to think about rates of re-use of phrases of early poets in later Latin hexameters. This kind of evidence would go a long way toward strengthening arguments about what words are and are not “epic” as opposed to “elegiac.”

The second half of the piece shows how the story itself investigates the similarities and differences between love and violence (symbolic as well as literal). Thus, for example, Parkes shows that the union between Dis and Proserpina can be interpreted as at once an abduction (force) and a legitimate marriage (love). Money quote: “Claudian is interested in bringing love and force together, on the level of action, genre and symbolism.” The final paragraph implies that the significance of this is to darken what might potentially be lighter (elegiac/epithalamic) aspects of the myth. Interesting stuff.

Back again!

Apologies for the blogging silence over the summer. One would think that summer would be an ideal time for this sort of project, but I had a kind of crazy travel schedule this year and blogging was a casualty. Now term is nicely started though and I’m eager to get back to it. Especially because new issues of everything have just come out! So here comes the end of CJ 110, and on to newer things…

CJ 110.4: the one about Seneca’s Medea


Chiara Battistella, “Medea reaches maturity: on Ovidian intertextuality in Seneca’s Medea 905-915”

tl;dr some language in Seneca’s Medea may indicate that he is placing himself in agonistic relation with Ovid’s Medea. I guess.

I would not recommend this to an undergraduate audience.

stakes: ? unclear

Sorry to have been silent; Carleton term has been finishing up. Summer soon to begin! But also this was just a difficult piece to get through, and I’ve had to read it a number of times. The author’s abstract starts “This article offers some thoughts on Seneca’s Medea…” and that’s pretty telling; it is not easy to extract a unified argument here.

Disregarding the “thoughts” for the moment, the title refers to what I take to be the main idea of the paper: that (part of) the speech in which Seneca’s Medea declares her intention to kill her children evokes Ovid’s Amores 2.18, in which Ovid makes reference to his (lost) tragedy Medea. The key line in Seneca is Medea nunc sum; crevit ingenium malis (“Now I am Medea; my talent has grown by means of evils” 910); Ovid also uses the words ingenium and (separately) crevit in Amores 2.18 11-16.

Your mileage may vary on this; I am convinced by the artful use Seneca makes of elegiac language (outlined by Chris Trinacty) and it would be odd if Seneca were not writing his tragedy with Ovid’s in mind along with Euripides’ (and Ennius’, for that matter). But ingenium and cresco are both reasonably common words. Sometimes I feel like our extended focus on the few surviving texts makes us a tad myopic about seeing references. On the other hand Seneca’s working memory for Latin letters will have been massively larger than our own. So maybe my skepticism is misplaced!