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Retweeting the Romans

Matt Pickles | 21 Sep 2017

As an expert on the literature of the Roman Republic and an avid viewer of the recent ITV show Love Island, Oxford classicist Dr Andrew Sillett was always going to try watching Bromans.

The new ITV programme is billed as a “gladiator reality show” which claims to send “eight modern-day lads back in time to see if they can cope with living and fighting like Roman gladiators”.

As he settled down to watch the first episode last week, Dr Sillett tweeted his reactions.

His tweets went viral – they were retweeted by dozens of other users and media outlets.

At the end of the show, he concluded: "10/10 will watch again."

“The interest my tweeting generated came as something of a surprise,” he tells Arts Blog.

“In all honesty, I didn't come to Bromans from an academic angle, it just followed on naturally from a summer spent in the company of Love Island. “All the responses I've received have been very friendly and supportive (which is hardly to be taken for granted on Twitter...).”

Andrew is evangelical about the importance of public engagement with a wide audience.

“I came to Classics from a bit of a standing start myself, as my school didn't offer Latin, Greek, Classical Civilisation or anything like that,” he says.

“Not that it was anything like Bromans that caught my interest ten years ago, that was a talk from Brasenose's Llewelyn Morgan (who bears only a passing reference to the gladiators of Bromans).

“Nonetheless I think it's undoubtedly important to be aware of what sort of contact the majority of people have with your subject.”

It is unlikely that many viewers of Bromans assumed it was a realistic depiction of Rome - but Dr Sillett says it did capture certain aspects of life in the Republic.

“In the run-up to Bromans airing I encountered a lot of snootiness in relation to the show's vulgarity, but I think that rather misses the point,” he says.

“Rome wasn't all marble, rhetoric and epic poetry, it had a popular culture of its own that was coarse, sweaty and physical.

“I think Bromans captures that as well as, say Ridley Scott's Gladiator; there's plenty ITV2 can teach us.”

Dr Sillett is a lecturer in the Faculty of Classics, specialising in the literature of the late Roman Republic and early Empire.

You can read more of his thoughts on Bromans here, and follow him on Twitter here.

Oh, and because I know everyone reading this blog was about to Google it anyway, you can watch the show here.

Zoology lab

Cutting-edge science research in gleaming laboratories. Undergraduates defending their essays to a world expert in the field in a tutorial. The tortoises who take part in an annual inter-college race.

This diverse group of people – and reptiles – are the stars of a new exhibition of photography by Magnum photographer Martin Parr.

Martin Parr: Oxford is a free exhibition that forms part of Photo Oxford 2017 (8 – 24 Sept) and will run from 8 September to 22 October 2017 at the Weston Library.

As part of the commission, Mr Parr was given access to many of the University’s most iconic buildings and events. He told Vice that he enjoyed the project.

“[Oxford] has everything. It has tradition, it's on the cutting edge of research, it's evolving yet staying still,” he said.

“It was meant to be one year's project; it became two years. I don't know how many trips I made there, 50 or 60. I could have gone on for ten years. Once you start digging, you realise the complexity of a place.”

‘Martin Parr has brought his unique viewpoint to the University and we are delighted to be able to show some of his images opening up Oxford at this free exhibition in the Weston Library,’ says Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian.

‘Martin strongly supported the Bodleian’s campaign to acquire the archive of William Henry Fox Talbot, who made the first photographic journey to Oxford in the 1840s, and I’m sure this new collection, looking at the many different aspects of Oxford life will be of huge interest to Martin’s fans, local residents, visitors and alumni alike.

'This is a rare opportunity to see work of a brilliant photographer who normally only exhibits at larger international galleries.’

A one day symposium featuring talks by the Photo Oxford 2017 artists will run at the Weston Library on Thursday 7 September. The publication OXFORD Martin Parr, by Oxford University Press, is available to pre-order online.

The Roman theatre at Catania, Sicily

An Oxford classicist has worked with Italian secondary-school students to create an award-winning new exhibition in Sicily, cataloguing stone inscriptions from the Roman period.

Dr Jonathan Prag, of Oxford’s Faculty of Classics, worked in collaboration with students from the Liceo Artistico Statale M.M. Lazzaro in Catania, Sicily, to create the exhibition, entitled ‘Voci di Pietra’ (‘Voices of stone’).

The exhibition, which is housed in the Norman castle that now serves as Catania’s civic museum, features artefacts between 1500 and 2500 years old, including funerary inscriptions, sculptures, and fragments of buildings, as well as video installations created by the students.

These texts are important because they are contemporary documents. They very often provide information about specific events and private individuals, of a type that is not recorded elsewhere. Inscriptions provide a vast body of information on religious beliefs, naming practices, language, and much more.

Dr Jonathan Prag

Catania was originally a Greek city, and was re-founded as a Roman colony, so the inscriptions are in a mixture of Greek and Latin. The inscriptions provide valuable information both about economics and diplomacy in ancient Catania, and about the private lives of individuals in the city. 

One intriguing item is a funeral inscription for a Jewish Roman citizen called Aurelius Samohil (i.e. “Samuel”), from 383 AD (pictured below). This is written in a mixture of Latin and Hebrew, and constitutes the longest Latin text from the ancient Jewish diaspora in the Roman world. The inscription contains a triple warning to posterity not to break into the tomb where Aurelius Samohil and his wife Lassia Irene were buried. This and other texts suggest there was a strong Jewish community in Catania.

Funeral Inscription of Aurelius Samohil"The warning against breaking into or reusing the tomb is particularly nice and unusual because it appeals simultaneously to the authority of the Roman emperors, the Jewish patriarchs, and Talmudic law." - Jonathan Prag

The students, who won a prize for their work from the Italian Ministry of Education, worked on the exhibition between 2015 and 2017. They were involved in locating, cleaning and recording the exhibits, as well as presenting them in novel ways – for instance, they designed a reconstruction of a columbarium, a type of Roman tomb. They will use the prize to visit Oxford this autumn.

 “The enthusiasm and engagement of the students went well beyond anything I had seen elsewhere or expected,” said Dr Prag, who undertook the project as a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH). “They did not have a background in classical studies, but they brought serious artistic flair and a very high level of observation and skill. The end result – a highly professional permanent exhibition – is certainly beyond my original expectations.”

He adds that one of his favourite exhibits is “the rather wonderful video of a very elderly retired stone mason from Catania whom the students found and interviewed, in order to learn about the actual practicalities of engraving on stone”. The students used what they learned from him to create their own inscription as a record of the exhibition.

Dr Prag is now working on a larger project called I.Sicily, which aims to create an online archive of Sicilian inscriptions, reflecting the diverse languages spoken on the island in ancient times.


One dinosaur, free to a good home.

This was the call from Oxford University's Museum of Natural History last year, when they asked the public for suggestions for where they should relocate their four-metre long model of a Utahraptor.

The dinosaur has definitely found a good home: it has now been installed at the Children’s Hospital at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital.

The Museum acquired the model in 2000, and it spent time terrorising shoppers at Blackwell’s book shop as part of the Museum’s Goes To Town project in 2014.

But following a reorganisation of the Museum’s collections, it asked for nominations for somewhere to send the dinosaur.

200 venues around the world put in their bids, but the winning one came from Sarah Fletcher, who thought the dinosaur could amaze and inspire the young patients at the hospital.

“The idea of having a model Utahraptor in the hospital seemed like a lot of fun,” she said.

“Having been through the Children’s Hospital with my family, I knew that it would make such a difference to everyone who walks through those doors.

“But I never thought in a million years that we would win it – I am thrilled!”

Hannah Allum, Project Manager at the Museum, is delighted with the outcome. “I hope that the Utahraptor will delight patients and visitors,” she said.

“It’s a nice thought that this Cretaceous character will bring a little piece of the Museum into the hospital environment.”

The dinosaur is now in place, looking down on the entrance to the Children’s Hospital.

Compton Verney

Victorian 'shelfie' goes viral

Francesca Moll | 11 Aug 2017

A Victorian woman’s political statement has inspired a diverse group of contributors, from prison reading groups to UN ambassador Emma Watson, to come together in an exhibition celebrating the value of reading.

‘Unsilencing the Library’, the award-winning latest exhibition at Warwickshire stately home Compton Verney, began life with a mystery: who had created the unusual false bookshelf which forms part of the original decoration in the so-called Women’s Library?

False bookshelves, used to disguise the door to a library, are often associated with Victorian whimsy.

But the Compton Verney example, which is composed exclusively of female authors and shows a deep concern with self-improvement, seems to be saying something rather serious.

Puzzled by this, the curators of the stately home called in Dr Sophie Ratcliffe of Oxford's English Faculty and Lady Margaret Hall to help figure out who might have commissioned it.

According to Dr Ratcliffe and her team, Dr Ceri Hunter and Dr Eleanor Lybeck, everything points towards Georgiana Verney, Lady Willoughby de Broke, who was mistress of Compton Verney in the 1860s.

She was a noted local philanthropist and anti-poverty campaigner and was later described by one of her descendants as having ‘notions of progress’ and being in favour of women’s suffrage.

Dr Ratcliffe describes the bookshelf as a ‘quiet feminist statement’ announcing something profound about Georgiana’s self-image.

Georgiana’s ‘shelfie’ inspired the Oxford team, together with Professor Steven Parissien, director of Compton Verney, to invite a group of ‘guest curators’ to fill out the library by choosing the books that mean something to them.

The shelves make a statement about a range of political issues as well as the importance of reading.

Among these curators is UN Ambassador Emma Watson, herself a visiting fellow of Lady Margaret Hall.

She has chosen feminist classics such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi for her collection. She is joined by writers Margo Jefferson and Alys Fowler, as well as members of reading groups from several local prisons, and students from the nearby Kineton High School.

Inspired by the schoolchildren’s feedback that ‘we don’t like exhibitions we can’t touch’, the installation will be fully interactive.

Visitors will be free to take the books off the shelves and examine the bookmarks placed inside them, explaining why these titles were chosen.

For the technologically-minded, there will be tablets to consult about the history of the room and the guest curators.

Books were chosen for many reasons; Margo Jefferson’s bookshelf focusses on race and coming of age, while Alys Fowler uses her shelf to make a statement about the environment.

Prisoners tended to choose escapist narratives, with swashbuckling adventure stories such as Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and fantasy classics such as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings proving popular.

But there was also a turn towards the practical; self-help books or funny books such as Bridget Jones’ Baby to help cope with the everyday realities of prison life.

One prisoner describes how James Clavell’s Shogun, which describes an English sailor’s adventures in feudal Japan, helped him with its description of a stranger adapting to a culture entirely unlike his own.

‘I see it as a kind of How-To Guide in dealing with some of the problems prison can generate,’ he says.

Books were also chosen for sentimental value. One particularly moving account relates how Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, a book he remembered his teacher reading to him in school, helped one reader in HMP Bullingdon to connect with his young son.

‘I think one of the surprises about this exhibition is how similar all the shelves are, and I think that shows how much we’ve got in common,’ Dr Ratcliffe says.

The project, partially funded by a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship from TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), has also brought together a small army of local artisans and academics.

Bookbinder John Richards helped recreate two missing panels of imitation books, while fabric makers Rapture and Wright designed a special fabric to decorate the room, inspired by Georgiana’s patronage of the Coventry ribbon weaving trade.

Important supporting research was done by art historian Pip Shergold and local historians Peter and Gill Ashley-Smith.

According to Dr Ratcliffe, the project’s success (‘Unsilencing the Library’ recently won a Vice Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Award) has been entirely down to the cooperation and generosity of many different people.

‘I see myself very much as the curator of other people’s brilliance; their knowledge, their expertise and the precious things they’ve shared with me.’

‘I think of this project as a celebration of the small things. Just one small detail in one room in the 1860s has sort of rippled out.

'It has gone to the heart of UK prisons, and to an academic in America, who we consulted with on the project. What’s surprising about this story is how you can unfold a really fascinating narrative from something small.’

‘Unsilencing the Library’ is now open at Compton Verney. You can find out more about the exhibition, and read the guest curators’ reasons for choosing their books, here.