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Contemporary Classics

The contemporary has always engaged with the Classical; the Classics has always engaged in the contemporary. As Classicists, the contemporary informs our research decisions: what is interesting? What is challenging? As contemporaries, the ancient world provides us with a space for thinking: how did ancient societies deal with this problem? How did ancient people think about these issues? If they were different then from now, why were they different? Studying the ancient world creates a loop between antiquity and us; by understanding more about the past, we understand more about the present.


Postcolonialism is the critical stance focused on the way in which our understanding of the world is and was shaped by colonialism. The influence of colonial thinking can be seen in attitudes towards nations, empires, and civilizations. Postcolonialism studies the intersection of these macro-political units and the individual. At that individual level, the colonial is felt in racism and ethnic prejudices. Colonialism took cultural differences and saw them as representing the essence of individuals and groups. Such essentialism divided people into categories and imposed upon them cultural norms and requirements which were seen as central to issues of identity.

Postcolonialism intersects with a range of other issues from gender relations to the distribution of resources to imperial acculturations. Classics has always been part of those colonial narrative from the conscious mirroring of the Roman Empire in modern imperial settings to the discussions of cultural change in imperial contexts. The Classics has been used to make colonial mentalities and oppression seem natural since they are detected in a premodern culture. In our research, we unpick those prejudices and render the attitudes, politics and history of colonialism problematic.

Postcolonialism figures in Richard Alston’s work on imperialism and cultural change and its intellectual traditions, particularly his book The City in Roman and Byzantine Egypt and subsequent articles on housing and cultural values. He has also engaged with the how Romans and moderns thought about Empire in work on Tacitus and the Roman City, Gender and Empire, India and development and modern and ancient theories of freedom under Imperial rule. Zena Kamash engages through archaeological debates on the ownership of the past, the legacy of colonialism in the Near East and how it has affected our understanding of archaeology and archaeological heritage. She also works on contemporary impacts of colonial power and how heritage is a source for identity and resilience in the face of suffering. We have had PhDs working on ethnography, particularly the Germans in Tacitus, on cultural change in Egyptian religion and in cultural perceptions of the Roman past and its archaeology.  In teaching, the discussion of colonialism features in courses on the ownership of the Roman Past, the Archaeology of Roman Britain, Augustus, and Tacitus and the Making of the Roman Empire.

A feminist and gender-informed approach to research seeks to turn away from traditionally patriachal forms of knowledge creation and instead prioritises research questions and methodologies which centre women and gender. There is no one fixed way of doing feminist research; rather, the range and flexibility of feminist approaches opens a wide range of possible research projects on texts, objects and historical narratives. The shared goal of this type of research is to break down an understanding of the classical world as mainly a world of authoritative men and the privileged male experience, both as objects of study and as something worth studying. 

The history of Classics has often been written as that of men; feminist research in Classics challenges this narrative and seeks to engage with gendered structures of power in ancient societies, and feminist-influenced literary and philosophical approaches to identity. Feminist methodologies of literary analysis broaden the ways we read ancient texts, the range of ancient texts we study and their receptions. Adopting feminist research methodologies leads to fresh and innovative research questions. Our research draws on a range of theoretical tools to foreground issues, questions and themes which are otherwise obscured and undervalued by dominant patriarchal narratives.

Efi Spentzou's work has always had a feminist angle. Moving from teasing out a feminine anti-establishment voice in Ovid's Heroides to a study of gendered power play against a backdrop of political unrest in Roman love elegy, she has also engaged with issues around precarious subjectivities in Latin literature and with the dynamic interrelationship between individual subjectivities and the making of space in Latin texts. More recently she has turned her attention to nomadic and relational identities, with a study of 21st century Eurydices as an exploration of 'lives in the intermezzo' and a consideration of non-hierarchical subjects and irreducible, untamed difference.  

In her research, Liz Gloyn foregrounds questions driven by a gender-informed approach to Latin literature and Roman philosophy. Her work on Seneca, particularly her book Seneca and the Ethics of the Family, concentrates on issues of domestic life and familial relationships usually neglected in philosophical analysis. She is currently working on several projects exploring the intersection of space and gender in the Roman theatre. She is also working on a long-term research project on pioneering female Classicists in and outside British academia. 

Many other colleagues engage with gender issues. Richard Hawley is preparing a critical introduction to sources on classical gender history intended for teachers and students at school and university levels, drawing on his over 30 years of research and teaching classical gender. Richard Alston works on issues around gender and Roman imperialism, and approaches to the Roman family. Feminist approaches figure in Zena Kamash's engagements with heritage. 

Feminist pedagogy underpins many of our undergraduate courses, including our Latin and Greek language teaching and 'Contemporary Approaches to Latin Literature', while courses on 'mainstream' authors such as Virgil and Ovid have an increased emphasis on a broad range of issues around gender and/in politics. Our courses also often focus on issues of core interest to feminist research, in particular Gender in Classical Antiquity. PhD students have worked on contemporary British women writers' engagement with Homeric stereotypes of heroic masculinity, subjectivity as encounter in Statius' Thebaid, liminal identities in Roman love poetry, gender in the Augustan and fascist era, and many other topics with a feminist focus.

The Classical texts that we have inherited feature an abundance of male authors who enjoyed high positions of political and other authority. Ancient women did write, but only a small fraction of their output has been saved for us through successive acts of conscious or subconscious discrimination. Recent decades have shown an increasing determination by classical scholars to look for a diversity of experience in these male-authored texts. Latin love elegy, in particular, has been a fertile ground for this exploration. Does the female beloved there act and speak only in ways reflecting the dominant perspective of the male lover/poet or can we find in the poetry ‘female’ speech that disrupts the poet/speaker’s perspective? Love elegy is also an apt place to notice other disadvantaged voices and embodied experiences, such those of the household slaves, the non-Roman or the lower-class soldiers and other marginalised figures.

We can find these other voices through a careful and imaginative reading of the texts, paying attention to the disempowered voice in our scholarship. We can also look for it through reception by which later authors engage with the silenced and particularly female voices. Such recuperations offers an engaged perspective on the way in which voices are silenced and authorised and allow an exploration and uncovering of the political structures by which voices are silenced from antiquity to the present.

Efi Spentzou’s first book Readers and Writers in Ovid’s Heroides. Transgressions of Genre and Gender considers gendered ways of writing, establishing a dialogue between Ovid’s ancient narrative and French feminist thought, esp. écriture feminine and arguing for the heroines in Ovid’s collection as anti-establishment writers whose narrations upset established understandings of Greek myth. In recent years, Efi has turned her attention to embodied self-expressions, in general, and the figure of the girl in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as a figure of untamed difference, with a study of Eurydice, Byblis and Myrrha in dialogue with Bracha Ettinger’s understanding of identity-as-encounter-in-the borderspace. She is at the moment working with 3rd year students on a school workshop provisionally called ‘Discovering your voice with Eurydice’: using her story as a myth about silencing or muted voices, the workshop seeks to provide an opportunity in a supportive environment for school children to (role) play with and experience grappling with silencing and finding voice. 

Material Classical heritage, and especially Roman, plays a crucial role in Zena Kamash’s on-going craftivism projects aiming to give voice and a sense of empowerment to displaced members of Middle  East and North African communities in Britain and elsewhere.  Through enabling access to local heritage, e.g. through object handling, and participation in heritage activities, Zena’s projects, recently bolstered by a British Academy Global Challenge Grant, contribute to an enhanced sense of well-being and empowerment amongst the displaced communities.

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