Talking through Dido: the failure of forthright tenderness in Aeneid 6

When Aeneas catches sight of the ghost of Dido, his abandoned lover and the former Queen of Carthage, amongst a group of shades he passes on his journey into the depths of the underworld, he stops to try to talk to her. The conversation does not get off the ground. Hearing Aeneas speak, Dido shows no emotion in her facial features, which are left ‘unmoved, like hard rock’. This is in spite of the fact that we know ‘her mind is burning’. When Aeneas finishes speaking, she avoids all eye contact, staring at the ground, before retreating back into the shadows without saying a word.

Aeneas’ attempt to start a conversation with Dido is a striking failure, not least because Dido’s ghostly reticence stands in stark contrast with the outspoken, though increasingly troubled figure whom Aeneas has known in her earthly life. When he last saw her, she was in a state of furious indignation and deep melancholy at his impending departure from her kingdom. She had certainly had things to say to him previously. Why are things different now?

One reading of her response (or lack of response) to Aeneas in the underworld is that, in light of the devastation he has caused her (devastation which seems not entirely to have subsided), she really has nothing to say to him anymore. Coming face to face with him here perhaps gives Dido an opportunity to show Aeneas that she is now in a new state of mind, detached from the emotions which brought about her premature death. She is showing him that she has moved on from her state of earthly passion; that she has cried more than her share of tears for this man; and that she has perhaps found some peace of sorts in the company of the shade of her prematurely deceased husband Sychaeus (whose presence she seems to retreat toward).

Despite being plausible enough as far as it goes, for me this reading of the meeting of Aeneas and Dido in the underworld misses much of the richness and subtlety of Virgil’s presentation of their encounter. I think we can read more deeply into the dynamics of their responses to one another by looking carefully at the tone Aeneas adopts in his address of Dido and focussing on this as the likely cause of her response to him. Dido’s body language and withdrawal from Aeneas may best be seen, I think, as an implicit rejection – above all – of his tone, and the buoyant self-confidence and forthright and assertive, yet seemingly well-intentioned tenderness, it conveys.

If this is correct, one can perhaps imagine Aeneas’ words not only passing literally through Dido’s ghost, failing to register a physical impact on a phantasmagorical entity now bereft of its mortal existence. One can also imagine him talking through her, in the sense of missing the mark: missing the mark, that is, insofar as he adopts an emotional and rhetorical pose which falls well short of the kind of delicate sensitivity which an appropriate handling of this interaction would have involved.

Aeneas has entered the underworld to try to find his dead father Anchises. His motive is not simply that of a devoted son. He wishes to benefit from his father’s wisdom and foresight. He will rely on these to strengthen him as he strives to find a new homeland for his band of refugee Trojan warriors. His quest for a new home is not simply about finding appropriate land to settle. It is shown by Virgil to link profoundly to the story of the foundation and future greatness of Rome, not least insofar as Aeneas – despite being a Trojan hero – is made to embody many of the paradigmatic virtues of first century BC Augustan Rome.

Aeneas in the Underworld, by Rubens

Part of Aeneas’ problem is that he is so deeply caught up with the serious business of being the hero, leader of men and all-round man of action and adventure that he is. Virgil tells us that Aeneas addresses Dido with ‘sweet love’ in his voice (6.455), but just how much sweetness is this Odyssean swashbuckler capable of?

‘infelix Dido’ (‘unhappy/unlucky Dido’), he begins. This is a phrase which echoes other passages in the Aeneid, but it doesn’t obviously stand out for its sweetness, nor does it speak volumes for Aeneas’ capacity for sensitivity. Dido may indeed be unhappy, though why mention it – especially given that he himself is right at the root of this unhappiness?

He proceeds to ask two questions. The first aims to clarify whether Dido did indeed meet her death with a sword. The second asks if he himself had been the cause of her suicide. Aeneas immediately confronts Dido, then, with two of the most traumatic details of her existence. And, what’s more, he asks with a self-interested tone. Was Aeneas, by any chance, on her mind as Dido experienced her deepest moments of desperation?

One can understand Aeneas’ curiosity, perhaps, but why does he need to know this as a matter of urgency? One might even suggest that it is more than a bit cumbersome and unthinking of him to ask the question at all. He is rather like the person who, although he may have well-meaning concerns for an individual on his mind, just can’t help leaping into a conversation by voicing these concerns directly and straightaway, quite without regard for the emotional turbulence that doing so may cause the other party.

Aeneas continues by protesting that he didn’t want to leave Dido when he did (‘invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi’: ‘I left your shores unwillingly, O queen’). This is not exactly new information. He has already told Dido, right on the brink of his departure from Carthage, that he is not leaving of his own accord. Here he seems to assume that she simply didn’t believe him first time round.

So now he uses emphatic words in a dramatic tricolon to promise that it really is true: ‘by the stars, by the gods and by whatever kind of faith exists within the depths of the earth’. But even if (on a charitable reading) Dido may now be better convinced of something she wasn’t before, what should this matter now? The deed has been done: Aeneas seems more concerned to justify and perhaps exculpate himself to Dido, than he does to empathise seriously with her feelings during her desperate last moments of life.

He then tells her that he cannot believe that such great grief was caused to her by his leaving Carthage. Clearly he was not paying sufficient attention during her extended emotional outpourings in Book 4. While speaking of her distress, Dido had pointedly referenced her own mortality, even claiming she was ‘going to die’ at one point (4.307). Has Aeneas simply forgotten this? Was he himself too distressed to register it when he heard it first time round? Or was he, rather, just insufficiently sympathetic to Dido’s pain properly to grasp it, being rather too focussed (for instance) on his own divinely ordained prerogatives to recognise it?

Toward the end of his speech, Aeneas issues a pair of direct commands, telling Dido to ‘stop’ and instructing her not to remove herself from his sight. Rather than telling her so abrasively what to do, could he not have implored her with soothing words, gently inviting her to share some words with him? The direct language Virgil employs helps, I think, to underscore the fact that this Aeneas is inescapably a forthright man of action who is used to commanding others with a strutting confidence. A less forthright (and more effective) approach would, perhaps, have involved a more delicate appeal to the sensibilities of his tragically jilted lover.

It is a commonplace to point out that Virgil’s Aeneas, as a prototypical Roman, simply tramples over the Carthaginian Dido in a way that represents the later Roman trampling of Carthage itself in the Punic Wars.* Aeneas stands for Rome, then, and Dido for Carthage. Many readers of Virgil sense that he is profoundly alert to the darkness and tragedy of military conquest and (specifically also of) Roman imperialism. In my opinion, Aeneas’ speech to Dido in the underworld sustains this reading. Through Aeneas, Virgil conveys something of the tactless bluster of the conquering Roman mentality, as it comes face to face with the tragic queen it has (seemingly unwittingly) brought to ruin.

TS Eliot found in Aeneas’ address of Dido in Book 6 something rather different from what I find here. For Eliot, Aeneas’ words disclose ‘civilised manners, and a civilised consciousness and conscience’.** Many other readers have found something similar, and some have admired Aeneas for his emotional articulacy in the passage, finding in him something approaching an exemplary figure who plainly and directly speaks his mind in a difficult interaction. My own reading challenges this view, which to me seems altogether too tidy and clipped. Even if Aeneas has to leave Carthage to fulfil his destiny, he still manages to get things wrong with Dido in the way he talks with her, I suggest.

Book 6 of the Aeneid, with its account of Aeneas’ descent into the underworld, enjoyed an extended afterlife as an inspiration for medieval and early modern Christian imaginings of hell. Both Dante and Milton made features of Virgil’s account central to their own epic poems.

Virgil and Dante in Hell, by Delacroix

Contemporary readers are unlikely to look to Virgil as a resource when trying to picture any possible life after death. But Virgil’s characters, and his art as a storyteller, may still hold lessons not only for how to think about human relationships, as I have explored here, but (also, among other things) for contemporary attempts to do theology.

It is a truism of many such attempts in recent Christian writing that God is a God of love who can somehow be found through the experience of love in human relationships. As a rich resource for helping people to think through the meaning of sensitivity, sympathy and love in their relationships, Virgil’s writing could arguably be as instructive to this sort of theology now as it was in stimulating the religious thought and experience of medieval Christianity.

*For example, Bruno Currie, Epilogue, in Epic Interactions: Perspectives on Homer, Virgil and the Epic Tradition, pp. 351-2.

**TS Eliot, What is a Classic? p. 20

The featured image is a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder of Aeneas with the Sibyl in the underworld.

Must Criticism be Constructive?

There has come into being a widely held view, writes the philosopher Raymond Geuss, that ‘merely negative’ criticism is somehow defective or inappropriate. It’s not so much that I constantly come across enjoinders about the need to be constructive in my life as an educator. It’s more that I sense it’s just generally pretty well assumed – both by myself and my colleagues – that if we’re going to be critical of a pupil’s behaviour or work, then constructive criticism (insofar as this is possible, and in whatever way we care to offer it) is the best way to go.

What, after all, is the alternative? For any educator to refer to a ‘non-constructive’, ‘deconstructive’, or ‘destructive’ criticism they had just made of a pupil or their work would likely provoke misgivings. Aside from being rather unlovely phrases (is ‘non-constructive’ perhaps the least worst?), each of them suggests the kind of negativity whose supposed defectiveness Geuss highlights. For teachers, being negative might involve offering the sort of comment that is not calculated to build up, inspire or encourage; that does not aim to offer any kind of praise at all; and that is concerned only to illustrate shortcomings or problems.



I want to suggest three possible contexts in which, contrary to popular wisdom, criticism of a negative sort can make good sense. The first two will, I think, seem reasonably uncontroversial; the third, perhaps, less so. In each context it would be a mistake to assume (despite appearances) that the negative framing of a criticism – and its consequent lack of ‘constructive’ emphasis – is the end of the story. Behind any given ‘non-constructive’ criticism (at least, that is, along the lines considered here) lies a hidden positive intent.

First, simple rule enforcement. The tie is not on; the shirt is untucked; the mobile phone is out; the teacher is being talked over; the chair is being rocked on. And so forth. Simple negative direct commands in such cases can be just that: negative. There’s nothing encouraging, uplifting or inspirational about telling a child to stop pushing into the lunch queue. Aside, that is, from a hidden positive intent: everyone will likely stand to benefit in some way from the relevant rule being followed; the child needs to learn about how to behave respectfully within a community. This point stands also in respect of more serious disciplinary matters.

Second, a sustained lack of effort. I think there must come a point when an alternative to positive encouragement and gentle supportiveness (most teachers’ default setting) is required in such a scenario. This need not take the form of the old-fashioned rollicking, but it could certainly involve pointing out repeated sloppy mistakes, false promises, opportunities missed, or a generally poor attitude – and doing so pretty pointedly. The general intention behind the criticism here will of course be to make clear that the individual in question could and should be doing a lot better. It needn’t follow, though, that an explicit statement to this effect is required. Leaving the point implicit might in fact have more of an effect.

Third, and finally, in the context of a given piece of written work that just doesn’t measure up (even though some effort may have been made and at least some marks have been awarded). This might seem controversial territory. Shouldn’t the point here be to build on what’s gone well and to suggest ways to address the less good bits? I wouldn’t at all wish to rule out the validity of approaching things in this way a good deal of the time – not least because I do just this myself! At the same time, however, I think something can also be said for adopting a more steadfastly negative line.

Sloppy errors of fact, culled from a notoriously unreliable source, that are presented without much care or thought in the context of an essay might deserve a negative response. So too might an assignment which has clearly been completed in a rushed or haphazard manner. So also work which simply sets down on paper a collection of irrelevant comments (or, for that matter, a slapdash summary of what a pupil happens to know already about a particular topic) which don’t engage with an essay question that’s been posed.

In each of these cases, a resolutely negative response often seems to me justified. I hope this doesn’t just show that I’m making good headway on the path toward an increasingly irascible old age. As already mentioned, the motivation underlying a negative criticism, even in this third category, can remain a positive one. Albeit implicitly, such criticism can make the point that better work could and should have been produced; that high standards need to be met and are attainable. Better this, surely, than airy comments that don’t take the trouble to pinpoint the clear shortcomings in a poor piece of work. Or a saccharine avoidance of any kind of reprimand. As long as praise is (or is known to be) forthcoming when exacting standards are met, it makes sense to employ the judicious use of negative feedback when they aren’t.

Completing any challenging assignment (particularly in arts and humanities subjects) ought to be, at least in part, about helping pupils to find their own voice, to wrestle with tricky and even intractable questions, and to read and write with clarity and insight. Negative criticism is a way of trying to jump-start this process. If a pupil is producing work that doesn’t offer anything by way of critical questioning, thinking outside the box, or self-aware thoughtfulness, the jolt of some negative criticism can offer a useful means of redress.

Bassani’s Etruscans

Language, writes Christopher Hitchens, is the magical key to prose, as much as to poetry. From the magic of the recent English translations of the Ferrara sequence of novels by Giorgio Bassani,* I can only assume that there was a great deal of enchantment in Bassani’s original Italian prose. Certainly, the haunting (haunted?) prologue of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which was first published in 1962, has stayed etched in my thoughts since the day I read it a couple of months ago.

Partly, I think, this is because it touches upon some of the ancient historical scenery around the city of Rome, including – for instance – the Etruscan archaeological remains at Cerveteri (remains about which I know very little). But the passage has mainly stayed with me for a different reason: the luminous way in which it combines topographical description with philosophical reflection about the historical longue durée.

By doing this, Bassani manages to place a subtle melancholy frame around the harrowing events he goes on to describe. He uses historical memory, then, as a way to achieve perspective and to infuse sadness – but also (beautifully) to demonstrate the continuing possibility of an innocent kind of hope, as we witness the exuberance of a young girl’s attempts to grapple with moral questions while engaging in serious historical thinking for what seems like the first time.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis follows the fortunes of some young, upper crust members of the Jewish community of Ferrara in the late 1930s. The youngsters in question have a fondness for literature and discussion, for food, wine and tobacco, and for game after game of summer tennis (singles, doubles, whatever). Against this background, the marginalisation of the Jewish community that is going on in Ferrara over the course of this period, particularly as a consequence of Mussolini’s Racial Laws, gradually impinges in various ways on the characters.

Despite this descent, Bassani wants to show that the atmosphere among his characters of tender young love, carefree innocence, and coming of age discussion had not (yet) been destroyed during this time. He does this by revealing a tremendous level of poignancy, sensitivity and intimacy of feeling among his characters, the effect of which is to keep the reader focussed mainly on the contours of the personal relationships being described: the gathering political clouds which cast their increasingly ominous shadow over the ‘big picture’ landscape of the period are for their part kept mostly out of focus.

In the prologue of the story, Bassani’s characters experience the Italian landscape as a theatre of memory while out on a family day-trip. Driving toward the Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri, not far from Rome, a discussion ensues among the passengers, the youngest of whom – Giannina – asks: ‘In the history book, the Etruscans are at the beginning, next to the Egyptians and the Jews. But Papa, who do you think were the oldest, the Etruscans or the Jews?’ A tricky question for poor Dad, who understandably deflects it – and fortunately for him an attractive double row of cypresses provides a welcome temporary distraction through the window.

Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri

The conversation lulls. Before long, though, another question breaks the silence: ‘Papa, why are old tombs less sad than new ones?’ This time Dad feels confident enough to offer what seems like a competent enough answer: ‘Well’, he says, ‘the recent dead are closer to us, and so it makes sense that we care more about them. The Etruscans, they’ve been dead such a long time – it’s as though they’d never lived, as though they were always dead’.

A pause. ‘But now you say that’, young Giannina gently responds, ‘it makes me think the opposite, that the Etruscans really did live, and that I care about them just as much as about the others’.

This remark, it turns out, sets the tone for the family’s whole visit to the Etruscan necropolis. It allows them to wonder with open minds not just about the Etruscans’ tombs and burial practices, but about the passage of time, and about the fate of this archaeological site which had survived ever since the time when ‘Etruria, with its coalition of free, aristocratic city-states, dominated almost the entire Italian peninsula’. In time, ‘new civilisations, cruder and less aristocratic, but also stronger and more warlike’ had held the field and the Etruscans slid into insignificance.

In the end, the narrator asks, what does this all matter? No direct answer to this question – which turns out to be rhetorical – is ventured. Instead, we are whisked away (not by car, but in our narrator’s imagination), from Etruscan Cerveteri, all the way back to his childhood Ferrara, to its grand old Jewish cemetery – and to the scenes of his youth which unfolded there.

Bassani’s juxtaposition of the Etruscan and Jewish burial grounds enables him to suggest an implicit if ever so slightly unnerving parallel between the two. Both burial grounds – if imaginatively engaged with – present a silent face of Italian history. And whereas his own memories in one of them are fresh, so that he can give voice to them, much in that old world has now gone.

In recalling memories of the recent Jewish past, even while doing so in glorious and complex richness and colour, it seems to make sense to this narrator to set them somewhat in context against the grand and merciless sweep of the peninsula’s wider history. In this way, Bassani hints with gentle knowing that he would like us to broach  the tragedy of the Jews of Ferrara in this story with the unforgiving laboratory of history as our backdrop.

  • The novels have been translated into English (beautifully) by Jamie McKendrick.

Theseus the Democrat

Just as modern theatre, film and costume drama can contain elements of anachronism, whereby storylines are adapted and/or jazzed up to produce a contemporary resonance (or provocation), so the same could be true of the very earliest theatrical productions in fifth century Athens. A good example of one such anachronism occurs in Euripides’ Suppliants, a play first performed in 423 BC.

The play itself tells a largely sorry story. The king of Thebes, Creon, has refused burial rites to warriors from another city, Argos, who have been slain outside his city gates. The families of the dead warriors (the ‘suppliants’ of the title are their mothers) are distraught. They regard a third party, Theseus – the king of Athens, as the only figure who might be able to prevail upon Creon to change his mind, so they approach him and ask him to do so. Theseus agrees to do so but is unsuccessful and, with Creon thoroughly stirred up, battle between Athens and Thebes ensues. Theseus’ Athenians successfully overpower Creon’s Theban army; we then learn that Theseus manages to recover the corpses of the slain warriors. Theseus receives the gratitude of the warriors’ relatives and the lasting respect of Argos: the Argives promise that, in recognition of Theseus’ accomplishments on their behalf, they will never attack the city of Athens.

The plot of the play plays out in mythical pre-history. The remote past of Athens seems to have been a topic of some fascination to the city’s fifth century inhabitants: this was a past in which they could find, among other things, their bearings in the present. What better way for a playwright to evoke this past for a fifth century audience, then, than to present it in ways which addressed matters of contemporary (fifth century) relevance?

Euripides self-consciously adopts just this approach in the Suppliants. The clearest case in point is an interaction between Theseus and a herald who has been dispatched by Creon from Thebes. The central matter at issue in this interaction is the topic of democratic governance – and herein lies the anachronism.

Democracy was a relatively recent development for the Athenians of the 420s BC. The central practices and institutions of what would only later come to be called ‘democracy’ had been a staple feature of Athenian politics only since the reforms of Cleisthenes in the late 6th century BC. Certainly the earlier figure of Solon also stands tall in what would turn out to be the Athenian move toward democracy. But Cleisthenes (depicted below) was the really decisive figure. All of which is to say that, in the context of the mythical pre-history that is depicted in the Suppliants, democracy is but a figment of the fictive world Euripides recreates for his audience.


In suggesting that Theseus, king of Athens, stands for democracy, Euripides is creating not just an anachronism but an additional awkwardness. For is not Theseus a king? And isn’t fifth century Athenian democracy characterised precisely by its lack of (autocratic) monarchy? This self-evident wrinkle is not something that Theseus’ Theban interlocutor aims to exploit, in spite of the fact that Theseus himself surprisingly argues along the following lines:

‘There’s no heavier burden for a city to bear than a monarch. To begin with, a city like that has no laws that are equal to all its citizens’.

And this from a monarch, no less! Clearly, in the Euripidean vision of early Athens, things are a bit complicated and can involve a degree of doublethink on the part of its democratic monarch.

In any case, inserting a debate about the pros and cons of democracy into the Suppliants allows Euripides both to rehearse arguments for democracy and to air scathing criticisms of it. To what extent the playwright himself sympathises with these criticisms, we are left to wonder.

For the Theban herald, one noteworthy danger of democracy is that it can slip into the control of the eloquent but self-serving trickster. A democracy may have

‘men who speak well but who then destroy everything…men who [then] lie to hide all the damage they’ve caused and with those lies escape justice’.

Democracies, he continues, should be criticised for three further reasons. First, they are ruled by ‘mindless herds’. Such herds rush to quick decisions, where it is self-evident that patience and wisdom are required.

Second, many citizens of democracies are far too occupied with mundane affairs and staying economically productive to take a serious interest in governing their city. It is inefficient and unnecessary that such citizens should have a serious political role.

And third (a most objectionable complaint by modern standards), there is the ‘problem’ that humbly born citizens may rise – on account of their capacity to make eloquent political speeches – and surpass even a city’s nobles in their political influence.

Theseus’ response to these arguments is to dismiss them as ‘irrelevant little words’, without in fact directly countering any of them. Instead he extols what he presents as democracy’s attractions.

These include the equal treatment of rich and poor alike before the law; the right of the poor man to speak up in his own defence; the right of any citizen to air ‘good ideas for the city’ to see if he can gain praise for them; and, finally, the opportunity for everyone to flourish and thrive in pursuit of excellence, without fear of offending the ego of an envious autocrat. Under an autocracy, he avers, will not a man’s daughters be always at risk of being involuntarily co-opted into a relationship with a ruling figure? Will not his sons always be at risk of being culled?

It bears repeating that these words are spoken not just anachronistically, but by a monarch. This was an awkwardness Euripides was clearly ready to put up with when writing the play. The debate between Theseus and the herald, with its contemporary fifth century political slant, would certainly have registered with his audience.

Speaking to the deep-seated ideas and thoughts of this audience mattered: for each play Euripides wrote was designed to impress a panel of fellow citizen-judges, with the fundamental aim of winning an annual competition. And ‘doing politics’ in an interesting way, as the devisers of many modern-day productions can surely attest, is one well-trodden route to attracting the plaudits you seek.

  • the featured image is of a 6th century kylix (wine cup) which illustrates Theseus slaying the Minotaur.

Oakeshott on Classical Education

In his 1975 essay, ‘The Place of Learning’, the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott describes the character and influence of the study of Classical antiquity in the Renaissance (and thereafter) in the following terms: learning, he says, came to be ‘identified with coming to understand the intimations of a human life in a historic culture…[and] with the invitation to recognise oneself in terms of this culture. This was an education which promised and afforded liberation from the here and now of current engagements, from the muddle, the crudity, the sentimentality, the intellectual poverty and the emotional morass of ordinary life’. Oakeshott then adds: ‘And so it continues to this day…the torch is still alight and there are still some hands to grasp it’.

To state the obvious, there is a rather negative tone to this summary (not least in its rather glum final image of a dying torch being passed among a few dwindling hands: I hope this image, in particular, is quite wrong). Oakeshott’s words seem to betoken, above all, a profound disappointment with the present: indeed, the need for ‘liberation’ from the present seems, for him, to be the very thing that most underscores the benefits of a Classical education. And Oakeshott seems to assume that, when encountering Classical antiquity, pupils will inevitably find ‘a culture’ which produced the very opposite of muddled thought, crudeness, sentimentality, intellectual poverty and so on.

This is too optimistic. While it is true that the best of ancient writing can indeed offer much that is lucid and intellectually fascinating, this is by no means always the case: moreover, ancient writing can certainly be both crude and sentimental! There is also the issue of Oakeshott’s collapse of the markedly different (and internally diverse and ever-evolving) civilisations of Greece and Rome into the simple phrase, ‘a historic culture’. Certainly, this is a phrase that could – should – have been formulated more judiciously.

And yet. There is nevertheless, I think, an important truth which Oakeshott manages to give voice to in the words quoted above, even if he does so in a muffled way. The truth in question concerns the vital role of Classical study in opening up space for perspective – perspective which may allow ‘liberation from the here and now of current engagements’, as he puts it. This sort of perspective, argues Oakeshott, is important not only for students, but for the ‘civilisations’ of which they are members. It is a crucial ingredient, as Oakeshott saw it, of liberal learning.

As he puts it in his 1965 essay, ‘Learning and Teaching’, ‘to initiate a pupil into the world of human achievement is to make available much that does not lie upon the surface of his present world….much that may not be in current use, much that has come to be neglected and even something that for the time being is forgotten. To know only the dominant is to become acquainted with only an attenuated version of this inheritance’.

Here Oakeshott is unquestionably on strong ground and he builds toward a provocative, if perhaps somewhat melodramatic, conclusion: ‘To see oneself reflected in the mirror of the present modish world is to see a sadly distorted image of a human being; for there is nothing to encourage us to believe that what has captured current fancy is the most valuable part of our inheritance, or that the better survives more readily than the worse’. In a number of respects, I think, this must be right.

The implications for teaching, he suggests, are clear: ‘the business of the teacher is to release pupils from servitude to the current dominant feelings, emotions, images, ideas, beliefs and even skills’. Doing so is not about ‘inventing alternatives’ but about ‘making available something which approximates more closely to a whole inheritance’.

The point being made here, then, is that a major aim – maybe the major aim – of teaching should be about allowing pupils space to gain a sense of perspective on their contemporary situation by allowing them to get to know the past (interestingly he is keen to exclude any kind of futurology from this process). In getting to know surprising or even mundane truths about what was, what could plausibly have been, and (by implication) what could still be, pupils are better able to appreciate contingencies and to think freely.

Nonetheless, Oakeshott is wary of offering unguarded optimism about the consequences of developing this sort of capacity. Learning of the sort he recommends does not, he insists, deliver a ‘clear or unambiguous message; it often speaks in riddles; it offers us advice and suggestion, recommendations, aids to reflection, rather than directives’.

Elsewhere he writes that ‘the engagement of liberal learning involves becoming aware of one’s intellectual and cultural inheritance not as a stock of information or knowledge to be absorbed and applied, but as living traditions of intellectual inquiry and understanding to which the learner is invited to contribute’. Liberal learning, he maintains, is about ‘learning to speak with intelligence the great languages of human understanding—science, philosophy, history, and art—in order to gain greater self-knowledge as well as to participate in the ongoing “conversation of mankind’.*

This perspective chimes directly with quite a lot of what I try to achieve and emphasise in my classroom. In a number of ways, I think, it neatly summarises what studying Classics – and, from what I can see, the humanities more generally – is like.**

*For a fuller outline of Oakeshott’s views on liberal education, there is a useful discussion here.

**Having said this, I find much of Oakeshott’s writing on the subject of education (collected together in a book, The voice of Liberal Learning, edited by Timothy Fuller) quite opaque. His analysis is often expressed in pretty general terms: for example, in relation to the above, the reader is left to wonder to what extent he thinks study in different fields like poetry, history, art, philosophy and so on succeeds in delivering his desired outcomes. The whole discussion proceeds at quite an abstract remove. And, as mentioned above, his tone can be pretty pessimistic, while his prose is sometimes quite dense. In spite of all this, he can be refreshing to read, not least because he is prepared to make unfashionable arguments.

Ginsberg meets Ovid

The first part of my final lesson today took a somewhat unusual path. It began with an impassioned attempt on my part to argue that the translator of Latin literature should never give in to any temptation (exacerbated though it may be by the necessity of passing public exams) to treat Latin poetry as a jigsaw puzzle; a puzzle in which the only thing we’re really concerned with is how to solve a set of problems, how to spot and decode grammatical detail and structure, how to provide answers to technical questions. Translating Latin poetry is not, or should not be, just like solving an equation.

The immediate inspiration for this diatribe came, I think, from two sources. First, I had fresh in my mind two blogposts (one by Johanna Hanink, another by Joel at sententiae antiquae) which discuss the inanity of having to translate for a teacher who treated the Latin language in a particular way – as a context for exercising their own highly developed penchant for pedantry. Second, my own recent reflections about how poetry (in this case the poetry of Virgil) can offer a source of consolation in times of melancholy were fresh in my mind too.

And so I launched into a brief expostulation. The essence of my point was that (though this can seem unlikely to at least some of the gadget-obsessed teenagers I teach) poetry can and has really *said* something to people over the course of its millennia-old literary career. It can and has undercut and exposed the shortcomings of everyday speech and everyday patterns of thought. It has meant and made meanings that defy easy categorisation – meanings that have created space and freedom for people to be. It has done many interesting things in that strange grey netherworld between acceptable and unacceptable public discourse. And, moreover, it has laboured to draw its audience into questioning the mores of many of those who arrogate to themselves the role of defining what acceptable public discourse is.


The poetry of Ovid (which is what the lesson was about) arguably possesses all of these qualities. Ovid’s is a poetry which can push at various kinds of boundaries, invite heartfelt contemplation, transgress approved social mores, and probe and re-envisage mythical religious stories. It can look at individuals in odd and unexpected ways, as they make their way through remarkable or merely quotidian situations. While doing so, it can establish unlikely juxtapositions, drawing disparate stories and personalities into an unanticipated common thread. Perhaps before anything else (though this is of course my particular take on things), it tries to evoke a special kind of beauty using the richness of words and images.

I try never to lose sight of these characteristic elements of Ovidian poetry in my lessons – and any pupils who are reading this are welcome to take me to task if, on any occasion, they feel the elements in question have disappeared entirely from view.

Today my method of making a point about the way in which poetry can still *mean* in our own contemporary context was to point to the poetry of Allen Ginsberg – specifically his 1956 poem, America. This is a poem which self-consciously pushes boundaries in both form and content. I leave readers to see this for themselves (the poem is available online here).


From my point of view in the lesson, the point of adducing this poem was not simply to show how a piece of poetic writing – in a recent and reasonably familiar, and thus hopefully easily relatable context – could really *mean* and speak very powerfully (even if, perhaps, offensively) to its readers. It was also to show that there is a parallel between the way that Ginsberg foregrounds a deep and dramatic attention to the individual (in this case Ginsberg himself), and their feelings, fears, and subjective consciousness, and the way that similar tendencies are also perceptible at times in the ancient poetry of Ovid.

So that is my story of how – today – an unlikely meeting took place between Ginsberg and Ovid.

Tears for things

Poetry offers many things to its readers and listeners. One thing I have thought a lot about recently is how it offers an important emotional resource in times of hardship. When there is a felt need for reflection, for contemplation, for grief, or – perhaps in response to these – for renewal, as of course there will be in most human lives at some point or other, recourse to a poet’s voice represents a certain kind of therapeutic possibility, a way to heal (or at least to accompany) the troubled or weary spirit.

I have found in my adult life that accessing poetry as a source of consolation can be less a question of painstaking analytical reading (which I seem to recall was the chief characteristic of my experience of dealing with poems while growing up) and more a matter of soothing contemplation. Just a few short verses or phrases, for whatever reason, can resonate, opening the way for meditation. A poignant line can reappear, as if from nowhere, in my (as in others’) consciousness. When it does, I have found, it can help illuminate one’s approach to an area of concern (if one does not become aware that it has already long *been* illuminating said area), or even to the business of life and its vicissitudes more generally.

When Virgil’s hero Aeneas contemplates the destruction of his home city and the terrible deaths of so many of his countrymen and relatives, including the tragic death of his wife Creusa, he understandably experiences – and sometimes attempts to articulate – tremendous sadness. Reflecting in just this fashion midway through book 1 of the Aeneid, Aeneas utters the following plaintive phrase: ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.

The phrase is awkward to render literally, though the translation of Robert Fagles is pretty good. He has it as follows: ‘the world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart’. To capture the essence of what I take to be the meaning of these words a little more closely, I would depart (still) further from their literal sense. My version of a loose but hopefully not unfaithful translation is: ‘there are tears to be shed for worldly things, and the realities of mortal existence touch me in my depths’.

Any reader of Virgil will know that a melancholy mood suffuses much of his writing. But, for me, the Latin phrase ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’ captures more than any other that I can call to mind something important not just about Virgil’s depiction of the psychology of Aeneas, but about Virgil’s own poetic temperament. For this is a phrase, I think, in which Virgil tries to tell his readers about something more than just how Aeneas, his lead protagonist, is feeling.

The tone of his words also suggests that he wants to intimate to his readers that their/our own contemplation of human affairs may engender a tearful response. A cautious interpretation of such a sentiment might be that Virgil is pointing toward the sad presence of unfortunate realities (such as death, misfortune and injustice) in the world, and suggesting that tears are indeed a fitting response to these. A bolder interpretation than this, though, would be that Virgil is hinting that there is something to lament and mourn in the very nature of human affairs per se. From this perspective, he can be taken to be suggesting that tearfulness must lie at the heart of any genuine response to our human predicament itself, and that this is so particularly in relation to the awful brutality of the military and political realities we may find ourselves confronting.

One does not need to find in the phrase ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’ a precursor to Christ’s tears in the Garden of Gethsemane (as did the German critic Haecker)* to identify an area of possible commonality between Virgil and Christianity here. If (for Virgil) a tearful response to human affairs may be a fitting one, then how far are we from the Biblical world of the Book of Lamentations? And how far from the notion (one that is of course fundamental to the doctrine of original sin) that there is something utterly broken and flawed (and, thus, presumably lamentable) in our all-too-human world? Having said this, however, it ought still to be conceded that the Christian tropes that Virgil’s readers in the Middle ages purported to identify in his pre-Christian poetry appeared most clearly in other areas of his writing.**

The subjects of melancholy and lamentation are broached in literature in many ways I have yet to discover. One author I have come across recently who handles them with considerable tenderness and depth of feeling is Giorgio Bassani, in his beautiful series of novels about the Jewish community in Ferrara in the run-up to the second World War. I intend to write something soon about this writer and the heartrending ways in which he deals with sadness and tragedy (amongst other themes) in his novels.

For the time being, though, I will conclude with the admission that, if there is a single short phrase more gently expressive of the simple reality and sorry experience of human melancholy than that of Virgil, I have not yet found it. For this reason, the phrase which offers the go-to point of contact for what melancholy means to me remains ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.

*As described by Philip Hardie, The Last Trojan Hero: A Cultural History of Virgil’s Aeneid, pp. 143-4.

**As identified by P. Hardie, op cit. I recommend Hardie’s book, which I read and greatly enjoyed a few months back, to anyone interested in this topic.

***The featured image is from Ingres’s Virgil Reading the Aeneid.

Discovering some Cognitive Psychology

One feature of the history of Classics that I sometimes allude to in my classes is the crucial contribution which the stories of Classical myth made to the development of modern psychology through their influence on Freudian psychoanalysis. On hearing about this, pupils’ ears tend to prick up. Perhaps before anything else, it may be the very mention of the word ‘psychology’ that piques their interest. I sense that many of them have a clear notion that Psychology is the discipline, before any other, that can explain how people’s minds work. If I am correct about this, I would probably appear a bit unusual, if not something of a sceptic, to them, since I take it as an uncontroversial given that, alongside psychology, literature, philosophy, anthropology and the history of ideas (among other disciplines) all have equally important things to impart about the workings of people’s minds. I think this is the case because, rather than in spite of, the fact that my mother was for many years a practising child psychologist. Any temptation to assume a great deal about the overarching or ‘meta-‘ significance of her academic discipline and its methodologies was one to which she did not yield. My general picture of her approach to psychological research is one in which data and experiment can present interesting and important information, but that wider generalities need to be arrived at only tentatively – and provisionally.

A similar approach to psychological research to that espoused by my mother was evident yesterday, over the course of a day of training at the Quarry theatre in Bedford. Some recent findings in cognitive psychology were presented and its relevance for school education discussed. The presenters go by the moniker ‘The Learning Scientists’ and they had travelled from the US to speak to about 200 of us (which they did, very engagingly). The Learning Scientists introduced cognitive psychology as a relatively new field of research with roots in cognitive science (by no means an ancient discipline itself!). My familiarity with the latter field is pretty much limited to my having read a couple of Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker books (one of which – The Blank Slate – I particularly enjoyed), and to the fact that the philosopher Bernard Williams expressed severe misgivings about some of the bolder claims made by cognitive scientists like Pinker before he died. It was safe to say, in any event, that Cognitive Psychology was pretty unfamiliar territory for me.

The emphasis of the day’s session was on enabling pupils to retain information better, and we were introduced to a series of techniques which can be used over the course of a period of study (a school year seemed to be the model we were working with) to achieve this aim. The big three techniques were Spacing, Interleaving and Retrieval Practice, to use the appropriate terminology. By contrast with these, ‘Mass Learning’ was introduced as a technique which different studies have shown leads to comparatively poorer pupil memory retention.


Massed Teaching was the first concept to attract my attention: this is where pupils are presented with information, all in one go, or over a strictly delimited time period and then tested on it. They will only encounter it again in the context of the exam room at the end of the year. I asked if this style of learning, which we were assured has serious drawbacks, in fact works best for some learners: from the limited data available, I was assured, it doesn’t! It was impossible not to reflect as I found this out that my own preparation for exams in the past has very likely been sub-optimal in just this way – particularly in the context of my legal training, where short-term ‘memory dumping’ was the norm (at least for me).

Happily the technique of Spacing – which involves returning to topics already covered on an occasional basis, and reaffirming what has been learnt – is one I already employ in my classroom. I cannot claim any great insight here: it’s more a matter of necessity. I find it difficult to imagine a version of effective language teaching which does not involve returning periodically to grammatical concepts and vocabulary that have already been introduced. Still, it was interesting to learn that this is a technique that seems to hold clear benefits in other settings.

Interleaving has a similar underlying idea. It involves incorporating material that has already been covered alongside material that is currently being covered as part of the learning process. So, in Maths, it might mean putting a simultaneous equation next to a differential equation as part of the same piece of classwork, even if the two are covered formally as separate topics. This again is something that language learning more or less necessarily involves as a matter of course: however, I came away with some thoughts about how I might try to incorporate this technique into my teaching of historical subject matter.

Retrieval Practice is buttressed by the finding that the more pupils are asked to attempt the task of ‘retrieving’ information they have encountered over the course of a given time period, the more likely they are to remember it. This has implications for testing. Lots of small periods of study and practice testing leads to better memorisation than do long periods of study and only very few tests. Long periods of reading, or taking notes on exactly what is written in a textbook, is also not an effective approach. ‘Retrieving’ effectively entails picking out core ideas, which involves having done this multiple times previously and (ideally) in a range of ways.

A key overall aim of the session was to enable teachers to help pupils remember more of what they’re taught, so that they are more likely to perform well in their end of year exams. This is surely a laudable aim, given how many children struggle to do just this. At the same time, however, I think there is room to question the extent to which certain kinds of memorisation (particularly rote-learning) are being required by our current exam systems.

In some subjects, there may be a perfectly good argument that a lot *more* rote learning might be desirable (the geography pupil who can score top grades without knowing their capital cities comes to mind here). In others (and here I think primarily of the sciences, given that cutting edge science is increasingly focussed on niche areas), less memorisation might be an attractive way forward.

More might be done, perhaps, to test general knowledge across broad areas of a whole academic field (and this necessarily involves at least some rote learning), rather than focus exclusively on a few key topics, at school level.  It might be that school pupils would be more enthusiastic about their studies if more *general* knowledge of this sort, and less memorisation and testing of applied understanding of specific topics, were required for their exams. I wonder how far this sort of proposal might find wider support in the UK.

Certainly, the extent to which children (and university students) should be – and are – expected to remember detailed compendia of information for their exams is an area of debate which is not going to disappear from sight. Within this debate, the kind of remembering pupils are doing (and the Learning Scientists made clear that we see very different *types* of remembering happening in our schools) surely matters a great deal. It matters, for example, whether students are remembering in a certain way (like the brain-dump, in which they are primarily learning in order to leap hurdles, and then forgetting), or whether they are learning to retain information more permanently with a view – eventually – to becoming members of an informed adult population. I anticipate that the insights of Cognitive psychology may help pave the way toward a more satisfactory future status quo in this regard.








Educating the whole person in Victorian Oxford

It has been a quiet Christmas with family this year. I did find a chance, though, to do some (admittedly not-so-light) reading – and recently I came to the end of a very interesting book dealing with the topic of academic life in nineteenth century Oxford. I wanted to jot down a few findings and arguments I came across while reading it, as it certainly left an impression.

The book is a kind of biography – its subject the Oxford scholar Mark Pattison, a major figure in the academic and administrative life of his university – which offers also a history of ideas and debates about the aims of education in the Victorian university. It’s written by HS Jones, a History professor at Manchester, and I was fortunate to find a cheap copy used on Amazon, as it’s an expensive – if excellent – book only available as a hardback (as here). From reading the book, I think Pattison is a figure whose ideas deserve attention in the context of debates that continue to surround the subject of education today.

The Victorian period was a time of much pioneering activity and growth in British education, and this was true too of Oxford. It was, for instance, a time when many Oxford dons found a way to bring the benefits of university education to workers, putting together extension courses and classes for those of limited education and limited means to attend university in the conventional way (link here). This is just one example of the commitment to extending the field of operation of the university that characterised the thinking of many leading Victorian educationalists. The world of Victorian education could be (and was – and sometimes continues to be) crudely – if not unjustifiably – caricatured as one of punctilious strictness, brutal corporal punishment and endless, mandatory Greek and Latin to be learned by rote. Certainly it was one in which significant economic, educational and indeed religious barriers blocked many from receiving a higher education altogether. However, it is demonstrable that this world was also characterised by the thoughtfulness, lucidity and intellectual courage of many of its leading denizens.

Mark Pattison was one such case. I warm to Pattison partly because, for him, academic teaching was less a matter of pedagogical technique and more a matter of personal encounter, whereby the student comes to see the character and intellectual interests of a teacher and is formed by this experience. This might sound a bit like the beginning of an argument in favour of amateurism or some kind of cult of personality. But Pattison – in the words of his contemporary John Henry Newman, whom he admired but later dissociated himself from – saw it rather as an important guarantor that the process of educating a mind could not resemble ‘a foundry, a mint or a treadmill’: it must be personal rather than simply mechanical.

I like Pattison’s sceptical view of ‘mechanical’ instruction, and his insistence on the necessary human element that must lie at the heart of true education. That instruction may run the risk of being mechanical, he suggested, is partly a consequence of examinations. Formal university examinations in Oxford had been introduced only recently, in 1800. Pattison feared that ‘the ascendancy of the examination was creating a new formalism in which outward attainments…would be valued at the expense of the real intellectual qualities the examinations were supposed to test’. The love of learning, he thought, ‘was degraded if it depended for its operation on the offer of external rewards’. Love of learning, of self-improvement, should be its own reward: ‘to enforce study by examination is much on a par with compelling morality by public discipline, or restraining private extravagance by sumptuary laws’. The principal defect of examinations, he argued, is that ‘the best contrived examination can only reach knowledge and acquirement; it cannot gauge character’. True enough.

Knowledge, he went as far as to say, should be sought ‘not for itself, but as a means for enlarging and building up the character’. This statement represents a clear and thought-provoking clash with a prevailing tendency in 21st century educational thinking, where knowledge of what is on a particular syllabus is presented virtually as a ‘good’ in itself, offering a means to secure exam-based qualifications.

In common with many Victorian educationalists, Pattison thought that an overriding aim of an education was to build character. Unlike a good number of his contemporaries, however, he didn’t think this could be straightforwardly achieved through the cultivation of ‘manly virtues’ in the context of athletic activities. For Pattison, it was intellectual life (properly conceived as the love of learning for its own sake) that did most to build character – and in advancing this view, he knew he would have to make his case. On the one hand, he saw that athletic pursuits do indeed help cultivate some honourable virtues: ‘keenness, vigour, boldness, skill, enterprise, readiness, hardiness, determination, solidity’. These he regarded as ‘the manly virtues of a trading and speculating people’. On the other hand, he suggested that these virtues were in danger of being ‘too exclusively honoured’, that they tended to thrust out of sight the softer virtues of ‘humility, patience, self-abnegation, prayer, devotion, charity’. (Pattison later disavowed his Christianity). Here too, I think, he has something important to say.

A final point about Pattison’s perspective on education that struck me is his view of research. Pattison is known as a key Victorian figure who threw his weight behind the (German) model of the research university, according to which a primary focus of academic life is on producing original academic studies and publications. It was therefore surprising to find out what Pattison thought the point of academic research actually was. Research, he thought, is what enables scholars to be ‘actively engaged in a process of self-culture’. This ensures the presence of a ‘philosophical temper’, which in turn is a prerequisite for meaningful teaching. In short, the point of research, he thinks, is self-development with a view to being the best sort of teacher.

Clearly this is a vision that differs profoundly from some of the standard ways in which the raison d’etre of academic research is now conceived: that is, as a means to add to, or to dispute matters relating to, the common stock of knowledge; as a means to obtain professional status; as a means to discuss or solve real-world problems. These common ways of thinking about what academic research is for belie an underlying scientism (and presentism). But this scientizing (and presentist) lens, one might insist, is not the only valid way of conceiving the point of research: in the humanities, for instance, it is arguably a cause of ongoing damage. Pattison – while stressing the importance of research – offers a different perspective on why it might be of value, both to the researcher themselves and to their pupils.

Quiz Answers from the last post:

  1. B – no donkey is mentioned in the New Testament accounts of the nativity.
  2. C – the arch was that of Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian, who became emperor briefly himself from 79-81.
  3. D – Hercules is the correct answer.

The last lesson of term

One activity I seem to find myself doing a lot (and taking some enjoyment in) as a teacher is setting quizzes. Quiz-setting offers an opportunity to revisit less well-remembered areas of my own subject knowledge; it’s also a chance to facilitate some out-of-the-box thinking. Earlier this term I set the questions for a school-wide general knowledge quiz. Then, ahead of last week, I prepared another quiz – a Classics Christmas quiz – for all my classes to have a go at in their final lessons of term.

The quiz was multiple choice. Using this approach is good, I think, for three main reasons. First, it helps to guard against disaffection: the pure guesser always has, in theory, a 1 in 4 chance. The pupils who know little will never be required to conjure answers out of thin air: they will also sometimes see that they knew more than they thought. Second, a range of possible answers encourages the use of a process of elimination. Rather than testing established knowledge directly, I am generally trying to get pupils to reason their way – via a red herring or two – to a correct answer using both their knowledge base and their powers of deduction. Third, the multiple choice format enables me to ask more searching questions, dealing with a broader range of subject matter.

This term’s quiz followed a, by now, pretty familiar routine. Boys formed teams of 3 or 4 members and had fun making up team names (‘Team See Me After Class’ was one that generated some amusement). They then considered the four categories of question they would have to answer. With Christmas in mind, this term’s quiz had a religious theme: the four categories were Ancient Christmas, First Century Judaism, Greek Religion and Roman Religion. Teams had to pick one of these as their joker round, which would count double. When they had done this, we would move straight into round one.

Having done a number of these quizzes over several terms now, I find it easy to see why early evening TV schedules are so full of quiz shows. In my classroom, the big 3 elements of quizzing that seem to make it enjoyable are: 1) the friendly competition; 2) the chance to work as a team; 3) the chance to impress peers with already existing knowledge, and/or to find out new and interesting things. Presumably it’s these sorts of things which combine to make shows like Pointless, Eggheads and others so popular.

I can’t finish this post without including a few questions from last week’s quiz in case anyone wishes to give them a go…answers will be given on a forthcoming post…

1. Which of the following does not feature in the accounts of Jesus’ birth and infancy in the New Testament?

a. wise men (magi)

b. a donkey

c. shepherds

d. a star

2. Which Roman emperor’s arch, which can still be seen near the Roman Forum, depicts Romans taking plunder from Jerusalem after the sacking of the city in 70 AD?

a. Augustus

b. Nero

c. Titus

d. Trajan

3. The Ara Maxima (‘Greatest Altar’) was set up in the Forum Boarium to honour which figure in Roman myth?

a. Remus

b. Tarquinius Superbus

c. Cato the Elder

d. Hercules

Rugby Time

2018 rugby

A major feature of my school week this term is rugby, out on the school playing fields, come rain or shine, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons (for training) and Saturday afternoons (when we usually have our fixtures). For the past two years, I have been coaching the U15C team (pictured above, after a recent hard-won victory). It’s a role I’ve enjoyed, even as I’ve struggled at times with travel sickness on trips to away games. My own brief career as a rugby player ended at 16, up until which point I’d played as a flanker for my own school team. Twenty years later, I’ve discovered that coaching the game is not just fun, but a good learning opportunity too.

Sociologists of sport suggest that team sporting contests play out in microcosm the dynamics of war between the competing participants. Team sport can thus be conceived as a training in soldiery – the quip that ‘the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’ being just one well-known illustration of the point.

The Victorian schoolmasters who oversaw the introduction of large-scale team sporting contests into the timetables of their public schools appreciated this. But, for many of them, there was a good deal more at stake in team sports than the development of reliable soldiers for the British empire. Participation in a sport such as rugby was widely thought also to offer an education in ‘character’ – an elusive but cardinal nineteenth century British virtue. Something of this ethos, albeit in a transmuted form, lives on in my own twenty first century training sessions and match days out on the rugby field.

Rugby time is not just an opportunity for the boys I teach to do some exercise, but to develop some understanding of rugby tactics and strategy, while mastering the basic skills needed to play the game. Linked to these is the question of teamwork (an echo, perhaps, of the Victorian esprit de corps) – and this is where I think the meat of the matter vis a vis ‘character’ really lies.

For teamwork involves appreciating one’s role and responsibility as an individual within a group, while being realistic about what you have to offer in terms of skills, accepting what you need to do in terms of duties, and appreciating what you are reliant on others for. At its heart, then, is the need for a sense of realism but also of recognition. Team members must recognise that no one can stand apart as an island (if things are going to work well for the team), and to recognise also that everyone in the team has something of value to bring to the table. Sometimes, this might involve the humble recognition that others have more to offer than you do in a particular area. Always it is about learning to see and to trust the good in others. Meanwhile, learning to appreciate that your own desire for personal glory should only be realised if it best serves the interests of the group is, for some boys, a challenging (not to say ongoing) experience.

On match days, I try to ensure that victories are an occasion not just for congratulation but for calm and constructive feedback. There’s plenty of scope for improvement in an U15C team, just as there is in most teams: matches aren’t just about getting the win – they are an opportunity to learn and reflect. Equally, I aim to offer equanimity in the face of defeat (admittedly there haven’t been many of those this season!): defeats usually happen because of a mis-match of quality or some bad luck. Best to appreciate this as objectively as possible, calmly learn from the experience, and move on.

Even if the Victorian language of ‘character’ no longer comes naturally to many, then, it seems clear to me that the psychological and educational benefits of participation in team sport still matter. It’s a privilege of my working week to try to foster these.

Reading the Aeneid with teenagers

Since first being introduced to it as a teenager, I have loved Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. The experience of studying the Aeneid was what made me want to continue studying the ancient world at university. My enthusiasm for the Aeneid remains undimmed today as I find myself teaching the poem to my own pupils. This said, it’s a genuine challenge to try to get a class of teenage boys interested in reading ancient poetry…

It’s helpful, therefore, that the storyline of the Aeneid is far from dull. Aeneas is the strapping warrior who flees Troy, his home city, after a debacle involving audacious Greek cunning and a large wooden horse. He washes up on the North African shoreline, where he falls into the lap of Dido, captivating queen of Carthage (modern Tunis), who puts him up in style in her not-so-humble abode. Dido, listening to Aeneas tell of his Odysseus-like wanderings since his escape from Troy, is struck by Cupid’s bow. Aeneas, for his part, is enchanted by Dido – but, tragically for both Dido and himself, he has bigger fish to fry (or so says Jupiter, king of the gods). He must leave Carthage immediately and press ahead to Italy, where his arrival will ensure the foundation (in the distant future) of the city of Rome.

This is the situation that confronts the reader in the first four books (of twelve) of the poem. By leaving Dido, Aeneas discards romantic love in the name of duty, eschewing the queen of Carthage’s luxurious court and its exotic African location. He thereby ensures that an as yet undistinguished patch of Italy will one day be not just the home of a few clueless sheep and a sentimental, rambling old monarch (Evander, whom he meets in book 8), but the centre of the greatest empire in the world, a war machine, and the bringer and self-appointed standard bearer of ‘civilisation’.

Much of the excitement of this story lies in its sweeping scale, its coverage of vast territories of space and time. In its geography, the Aeneid traverses the Mediterranean, navigating both physical space and the boundaries between neighbouring cultures. In terms of history, the poem famously blends material relating to the mythical past, and indeed the mythical future (insofar as Virgil integrates allusions to the emperor in his own contemporary Rome, Augustus), together with its tale of Aeneas.

If its vast scope is so central a feature of the poem, the value of a GCSE paper which focuses on only a few lines of the poem can reasonably be doubted. How could pupils preparing to take this paper gain a sense of the vastness of the canvas Virgil is using, when their eyes are trained only on a few dozen verses?

One answer here is that they can’t, and that they should just get on and read the whole 12 books of the poem by way of compensation. Knowing what I do about the reading proclivities of teenagers, I think it’s fair to say that this sort of recommendation would be unlikely to be acted upon by everyone. It’s fortunate, then, that numerous passages of the Aeneid present in microcosm several of the poem’s main overarching themes.

The passage I’ve been covering in recent weeks with my GCSE class fits this description. In it, Aeneas faces up to the reality that he needs to leave behind Carthage – and his lover, Dido – in order to continue his journey, over the Mediterranean, to Italy. Doing so is about fulfilling his own personal destiny, and acting in accordance with the wishes of Jupiter, king of the gods. The passage raises questions about determinism and free will: is Aeneas really ‘free’ to act as he wishes, when he has a destiny to fulfil and the demands of the king of the gods to obey?

When Dido learns that Aeneas is preparing to leave, she’s distraught (it is her emotional state, not Aeneas’, that Virgil dwells on). Virgil likens her to a deranged follower of the god Bacchus, god of wine, drunkenness and orgiastic ritual, and he uses different poetic effects to illustrate her disconsolate, fluttering state of mind. On a superficial reading, the comparison to a Bacchus worshipper is profoundly unflattering to Dido – yet isn’t Bacchus (like Jupiter) a god? And isn’t his divine expertise concerned with precisely those energies and experiences which ordinary ‘civilised’ society can’t cope with? On this reading, Dido’s experience as a quasi-Bacchant looks authentic and human. Why should she acquiesce humbly to the diktats of Jupiter, as Aeneas does? This involves breaking off a special love affair and, as a matter of grim duty, repressing true feelings (Aeneas for the most part maintains a stoical silence), while setting sail for a dimly apprehended future – because he’s assured he must. Aeneas puts the political above the personal: must this be the essence of genuine heroism?

Virgil often highlights Aeneas’ religious piety in the Aeneid, but there’s a sense that this ‘piety’ often amounts to little more than doing what he is told by a powerful agent: on the contrary, Dido, by giving full vent to her true thoughts and setting enormous store on the value of her human connection with Aeneas, presents a threat to Jupiter’s designs. She is emotionally alert, passionate and communicative of her feelings, even as her character suffers a forlorn and tragic demise: she ends up killing herself as Aeneas leaves her city.

One kind of teenage boy will incline, at least initially, to a misogynistic interpretation of this episode, finding in it evidence of male mastery, strength and control and contrasting it with a pitiable instance of female weakness and desperation. But arguably it is Aeneas, not Dido, who comes closest to being a puppet on a god’s string (he leaves for Italy ‘not of his own accord’) and it is he who might stand accused of emotional inarticulacy: is this really a case of male strength and control in action? And is a masculinity constituted by strength and control here something a reader ought, in the end, to admire?

Lots of big themes swirl through Virgil’s writing in the Aeneid – and this is just one such case. My experience has been that, even if pupils are focussed on only a few dozen lines of the poem, there is plenty of exploring to do. It crosses my sceptical mind to wonder whether it would be equally possible to get as much from a few dozen lines of a Dickens or a Steinbeck.

Siena, Genoa and St George

Hanging up on my childhood bedroom wall for a longish period, alongside a multicoloured map of the world, and a small, framed picture of a red Lamborghini, was a rather more obscure decoration: a Tartuca (tortoise) flag from the Italian city of Siena. This flag represented a southern district of the city which I (aged 6) had for some reason decided to adopt as my own when, on a family holiday, we paid it a visit near the time of its famous annual Palio (horse race). This horse race takes place each year in a grand, medieval square in the centre of Siena. Each horse in the race represents a district of the city and competes in the colours of that district’s flag: something of the excitement of this year’s race is tangible here.

I remember the yellow and blue flag I took away with me that summer – and Siena – vividly, even though I haven’t since been back to the city. My abiding memories are of the city’s grand and spectacular architecture and of its many flags – bright, striking and vibrant flags – which adorned the walls of the hotel and restaurants I saw, among other places. (Alas I have no memories of the horserace itself which, for reasons of safety, my parents didn’t allow me or my brother to attend). Of my flag, I have no clue as to its eventual fate: by the time I was a teenager, after a couple of house moves, it had disappeared from my wall.

Last week, the topic of Italian flags was thrust upon me from a different and unexpected direction in the context of a year 9 Latin lesson. I had just finished delivering a carefully crafted 2 minute speech to my class of 13 year olds on the ways contemporary textbooks can present a mollified, incomplete and deficient picture of the lives and experiences of ancient slaves. The sheer physical brutality and cruelty to which so many slaves were often subjected, in lots of different ways, is rather skimmed over by school-level treatments of the topic of ancient slavery. This, I suggested, is something a good pupil would do well to remember and reflect upon.

It was an important point (well made, I had thought) and the class was now quiet. Pleasingly, a hand went up from the back row. Good: someone had got the message. In teaching, however, there are times when, in spite of your best efforts to hold their attention, pupils’ minds drift to different and faraway places. Here was one such case. Giving the appearance of deep perplexity, with quizzical tone and furrowed brow, this pupil asked: ‘Sir, why does Genoa use the St George’s flag? My family was in Italy over the summer and we saw it everywhere there’.

Not exactly on topic, to be sure, but here was a good question – and one (to my slight embarrassment) I couldn’t answer. I had a pre-existing sense that there was something funny and particular about Genoa and its flag(s), but absolutely no clear idea of what was going on here. So I promised to try to find out the answer and moved on.

The answer I discovered was, in essence, that the pupil’s question was wrongly formulated: we ought rather to ask how it is that the English came to adopt the flag of the medieval city of Genoa. I will leave readers to research this for themselves – there is a recent Guardian article which touches on the subject here (though if there is a particularly good treatment of the subject available to read free online, I am yet myself to find it!). Meanwhile, I cannot resist remarking on an irony: that, in an age when the red and white flag of St George is sometimes used to symbolise the essential separateness of the English from other peoples, including those living on the continent (and throughout the EU), the ‘English’ flag’s own origins lie precisely in mainland Europe.

A Tragic Sequel

DfurTsKXcAIQiElSchool holidays during the lead-up to summer exams are an interesting time for British teenagers. For the canny teenager, these holidays are a chance to stay productive and focussed on exam revision while enjoying a break away from school. Even for pupils without onerous GCSE or A-level exams to face, the task of putting in good performances in the summer exam room, either with a view to impressing universities they intend to apply to later on, or simply in order to consolidate a year’s work ahead of their GCSEs, tends to be seen as a vital one.

This being the case, I did not expect much interest when I advertised a trip to see the performance of two Greek plays during the June half-term break last term. Maybe, however, I had underestimated two significant factors. First, the Greek plays in question were going to be staged in a very special location: beneath the dreaming spires of Oxford University, outdoors in the beautiful gardens of one of its colleges. Second, the headline character of one of the plays – Oedipus, as depicted by one of Greek theatre’s most brilliant playwrights (Sophocles), is among the most famous and fascinating characters in all Greek tragedy. Perhaps, though, another factor more elegantly explains the attractiveness of the trip: the tickets were refreshingly affordable!

At any rate, as you can see above, there was sufficient interest in the trip for it to go ahead, and what an evening’s entertainment we enjoyed. The encounter with Oedipus – in the lesser known sequel to Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus – was striking and memorable, played as he was by a talented North American student actor who was supported by an excellent cast. The idiosyncratic historian Robin Lane Fox has an interesting review of the play’s performance here, in which (among other things) he wonders how the lead character of the play could ‘strike a chord with readers of the Financial Times’. This was not, I have to say, a question I had in my own mind as I watched, and reflected on, the play…

Closer to my own thoughts was the happy knowledge that for all the pupils who came on the trip, it was their first taste of Greek tragedy in the flesh, and their first (though hopefully not their last) encounter with the story of Oedipus. As a new school year is about to begin, and the cycle toward a fresh batch of summer exams begins to churn into motion, I am struck by the feeling that, although their summer exam performance would probably not have stood to benefit whatsoever by going on this trip, the ‘real’ education of the students who came really did benefit in a way no day spent revising could ever have paralleled.

Armenian Apricots

Perhaps the most enjoyable moments in the classroom are those when everyone in the room (teacher included) learns something new. This in turn can set off a chain of new and interesting questions and thoughts. This first blog post is about how learning about the uncertainties around Roman apricots did this for me and some year 7 pupils a few months ago.

It doesn’t seem to take the 11 and 12 year olds I teach each year long to work out that their Latin teacher doesn’t know *every* word of the Latin language. A favourite question of 11 year olds studying Latin for the first time is ‘What is the Latin word for…?’  They ask this question while they’re acclimatising themselves to the finding that much of the English language itself derives from Latin. I don’t tend to fare too badly in the spontaneous vocabulary tests that ensue, but sooner or later a gap in my knowledge tends to emerge and I have to reach for the dictionary (cue, usually, much amusement from squealing 11 year olds).

Last academic year, the moment that provoked this reaction was when I was asked what the Latin word for ‘apricot’ was. I had no idea, I said, and wondered straight away if apricots even featured in the Roman diet. The basic Collins dictionary I consulted first gave a simple answer: the Latin for ‘apricot’ was ‘armeniacum’, it suggested – so, presumably, they did. Better dictionaries later clarified that there is evidence also of ‘malum armeniacum’ (i.e. Armenian apple) and ‘prunum armeniacum’ (Armenian prune). Later that day, I searched around a little further.

The name armeniacum, as you might expect, has a geographical connotation: the Latin language associated apricots with Armenia, a territory on the Roman empire’s eastern boundaries, parts of which were controlled by Rome and Constantinople in the first to fifth centuries AD. The term armeniacum was certainly used in the 1st century AD: Pliny the Elder uses it more than once in his Natural History. I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to assess the evidence, but I encountered various claims that the apricot’s more ancient origins lie further east than Armenia, in (perhaps) India or China. I did, however, come across a fascinating blogpost on the OUP website detailing outlines of the etymological development of ‘armeniacum’ into ‘apricot’. To any readers out there, please do comment with any further interesting info on the topic!

Back to the 11 year olds, to whom I reported some of these findings in their next lesson. I think some of them left the classroom that day having learnt that fruit and veg in the ancient world could be imported from far and wide, from across the empire (and beyond). Some may also, perhaps, have established a connection between apricots and Armenia. More still, probably, will remember the experience of finding a question their teacher couldn’t answer, and the patchwork-like nature of the information that I presented to them by way of response: perhaps that, rather than the detail of my research, provided the best lesson of all.