Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Roehampton Classical Student Research: A Celebration. Event Report.

Mike Edwards, not me, introducing the event.
CUCD Bulletin has just published a report I wrote up of a student research event at Roehampton, which we've published as a possible example of best practice. Of course, I have immediately thought of the thing I should have added but didn't, which is that if anyone has examples of similar practice, they should let us know!

Anyway, the report is here.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Urgent call for paper on Star Wars and Classics

Classicists (and possibly SF people around Canterbury): I am putting together a proposal for a Star Wars and Classical Antiquity panel for the Classical Association in April (, and have just had a speaker drop out. Would anyone like to be part of this? If so, please send me ( a 200-word abstract by close of play tomorrow (30 August), as the deadline for submitting panels is 31 August. Please note speakers must register for the conference, and I have no funding to support attendance.

ETA: Solved now.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My Mancunicon Schedule

It's the British National Science Fiction Convention coming up this weekend, and I'll be doing some stuff at it. (Note that Mancunicon memberships are now closed, so if you're not a member you won't be able to attend any of this.)

This lecture focuses on how Victorian cultural critic John Ruskin uses the making and wearing of textiles to discuss political economy and to inspire change. It pays particular attention to craft and making, and the way we make and define ourselves through the clothing we wear.

A lecture sponsored by the BSFA.

[I shall be introducing and chairing this - the last time I'll do this for a BSFA Lecture]

1980s Trailblazing Comics

Sunday 11:30 - 12:30, Room 6 (Hilton Deansgate)
The panel discuss lesser known comics and creators from the 1980s that paved the way for the big names that came later.
Glyn Morgan (M), Tony Keen, Eric Steele, Karen Brenchley

[I will be trying to talk about comics other than Watchmen and Dark Knight.]

Science Fiction Criticism - Mini-Masterclass 1

Sunday 19:00 - 20:00, Room 10 (Hilton Deansgate)
Every Summer the Science Fiction Foundation holds a Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism with world-renowned critics, academics and authors. This session provides a taster. Participants are required to sign up in advance (at Ops)  and should read the short story assigned for the session. There is a limit of ten participants.
Kari Sperring will lead a discussion of Liz Williams, "The Banquet of the Lords of Light"

Science Fiction Criticism - Mini-Masterclass 2

Monday 11:30 - 12:30, Room 10 (Hilton Deansgate)
Every Summer the Science Fiction Foundation holds a Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism with world-renowned critics, academics and authors. This session provides a taster. Participants are required to sign up in advance (at Ops) and should read the short story assigned for the session. There is a limit of ten participants.
Andrew M Butler will lead a discussion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "If I were a man".

[I'm facilitating both of these. Participants are limited to ten each, and will need to sign up in Ops.]

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Dragon Blade (China & Hong Kong, dir. & scr.: Daniel Lee, 2015)

Dragon Blade, an epic tale of Chinese and Romans on the Silk Road, has been an enormous hit in China. In the UK, it's come out with little in the way of publicity, in a very limited cinema release, and been largely ignored by any critic who isn't Mark Kermode. Sure enough, when I went to see it, I was the only person in the cinema. Which is a shame, because whilst being utter, utter nonsense, it's actually rather fabulously enjoyable, if you like Jackie Chan movies and/or wuxia, Chinese historical martial arts epics. Which I do.

Jackie Chan is Huo An, head of the Silk Road Protection Squad, a sort of Han Dynasty UN peacekeeping force. After an encounter with a Hunnish force in which he accidentally ends up married to Lin Peng's Cold Moon (that's her character's name), which is awkward as he is already married, he and his team are framed for smuggling and condemned with other prisoners to rebuild the destroyed city of Wild Geese Gate, on the western edges of China. Then, out of the mist, comes a Roman legion led by John Cusack's Lucius, fleeing Tiberius Crassus (Adrien Brody), with Tiberius' young nephew Publius in tow.

Let's get this clear - though the movie is heavily indebted to Gladiator in the way it represents Romans, for some of its shots, and for elements of its plot structure (and has one obvious steal from the third Lord of the Rings movie), this is not a Hollywood East-meets-West film such as Shanghai Noon or Rush Hour. It is very much a wuxia epic, and is steeped in the grammar of Chinese, rather than Western, cinema. This particularly shows through in the the way it is very unsentimental about its cast, a feature of the genre I had forgotten. Very few named individuals are still standing at the end, and there are at least two things that happen to major characters here that I just can't imagine taking place in a Hollywood movie.

Historically, of course, the movie is complete rubbish. It begins with a series of captions that places the action in the context of Marcus Licinius Crassus' disastrous Parthian expedition of 55-53 BC (a prologue that featured modern archaeologists finding a Roman city on the Silk Road has been cut for the UK release), and claims to be inspired by true events - but the inspiration is clearly very loose. The mise-en-scène is that of the Roman Empire rather than the Republic - one of the interesting things about this movie is seeing how Chinese cinema represents Romans, their cities and their armour, which is not quite how Hollywood does it. And there's even a moral, which is that all ethnic communities of China are capable of working together, and can achieve great things when they do, a message bound to go down well in Beijing. (It is to be noted that everyone speaks in their own native dialect, except the Romans, who speak English, though they do sing Latin.)

There are some ... interesting performances by the western actors involved. Adrien Brody chews the scenery like it's coated in addictive substances. And then there's John Cusack. Cusack is one of my favourite Hollywood actors, and he's made a number of great movies - Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity leap to mind. This, however, is not his finest hour, and he seems thoroughly miscast. I can only assume that he is a massive fan of Jackie Chan and really wanted to be in one of his movies.

And absolutely this is a Chan vehicle, and full of all the sort of things that one has come to expect from Chan's Chinese movies - much martial arts, quite a lot of humour, some tragedy and a story that does make you care about the fates of the main characters. It's not as good a Chan movie as, say, Who Am I? Nor is it anything like as good a historical epic as Zhang Yimou's Hero, and bears no comparison to the newly-released elegaic, atmospheric, and partly plot-free The Assassin. But I was smiling all the way through Dragon Blade. I mean, how can you not like a movie in which an Indian cavalry force attacks to the sound of massed dutars? Catch it on DVD (where perhaps the prologue will be restored) or Video On Demand, if you can.

Friday, January 01, 2016

The democratization of Classics: an incomplete process

Happy New Year, readers!

There's an article by Daisy Dunn in today's New Statesman, 'Revenge of the Greats'. Overall it's a reasonable summary of the state of play in the study of Classics. The summary for the article includes a question, "would we understand the world better if we read and studied classics?", which is thankfully not really raised by the article (I suspect the hand of a sub-editor). It's a question that implies that we should be go back to the years of compulsory Latin, which in my view would simply recreate the problems that have dogged the subject since the 1960s. Classics should be available for those who want it, not imposed upon those who don't.

The article does include the following section:

Anyone who wants to go on to teach in a university classics faculty is likely to come unstuck if he or she lacks proficiency in both Latin and Greek. Departments depend on their junior staff and doctoral students for language teaching. As things stand, the next generation of classics scholars is likely to be drawn predominantly from those who have had the opportunity to excel in the languages.
Sadly, this is true. I say sadly, because it means that departments are still tending, when appointing their new staff, to make the needs of a small minority of their students a priority. It means that ancient history is often taught by people who are trained as linguists rather than historians (and are, as a result, not always very good historians). It means that brillaint scholars will continue to be dismissed because 'they haven't got the languages'. It means that the next generation of scholars will continue to be primarily drawn from students of élite schools, which will reinforce the élitist image of the subject, an image which has done Classics no favours at all.

If there's hope for progress here, I suspect it lies not in the traditional Classics departments - I've been waiting for them to change their attitudes for twenty-five years, and though there are hopeful signs in places (such as what Ray Laurence is doing at the University of Kent), they are few and far between - but in Classical Civilization programmes that have grown out of History department where Latin and Greek have never really been taught, such as at Winchester, Manchester Metropolitan University, and one of my own employers, Roehampton. These programmes are massively important, making teaching about the ancient Mediterranean available to students who traditionally have had little or no access to it (this, of course, has also always been provided by another of my employers, the Open University). This is the way forward for further democratization, of the subject, which is necessary if we want Classics to regain a place at the heart of the nation's cultural life.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Paper in Canterbury

I'm giving a paper in Christ Church Canterbury next week (and it's followed by what looks like a cracking paper on The White Album).

Canterbury Christ Church University
School of Media Art and Design
Research Seminars 2015-2016

25 November 2015

A Wild West Hero: Motifs of the Hollywood Western in four movies about Hadrian’s Wall
Speaker: Dr Tony Keen (Open University)

One notable phenomenon of the boom in ancient world movies post-Gladiator is the relative dearth of Roman settings, as opposed to Greek, especially in comparison with movies of the 1950s and 1960s. However, some Roman movies have been made, and this paper focusses upon four of them: King Arthur (Antoine Fuqua, 2004), The Last Legion (Doug Lefler, 2007), Centurion (Neil Marshall, 2010) and The Eagle (Kevin McDonald, 2011). Though not produced as a series, these form a convenient thematic set. Not only are all four set predominantly or entirely within Roman Britain, but the most significant portion (and in some cases all) of the action takes place on Hadrian’s Wall or in the barbarian territory beyond. Three of them also involve the Ninth Legion – the exception being King Arthur.

One noticeable thing about these movies is the degree to which they employ the plot structures and mise-en-scène of the classic American western. The villa north of the Wall in King Arthur, which makes no sense in terms of Roman settlement patterns, becomes comprehensible as the equivalent of the isolated homestead that needs rescuing by the US Cavalry. Centurion, as Neil Marshall freely admits, steals substantially from the prolonged chase of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, including a virtual recreation of that scene’s climax. The Seal People of The Eagle are visually coded in costumes and make-up reminiscent of recent cinematic depictions of Native Americans, such as that seen in Dances with Wolves. Only The Last Legion avoids that approach, choosing instead to appropriate the mysticism of Star Wars (which has itself been described as a Western in disguise). Why are such elements so attractive to makers of Roman movies that they want to use them to supplement the more traditional tropes of the epic? Why does The Last Legion choose a different route? If moviemakers are so keen to make disguised Westerns, why are they not making real Westerns? Perhaps there is a certain portrayal of the Other that is no longer acceptable when applied to Native Americans, but can be applied on a different continent and at a greater chronological remove.

Tony Keen is an Associate Lecturer and Honorary Associate with the Open University, and Adjunct Assistant Professor with the University of Notre Dame London Global Gateway. He writes on reception of Greece and Rome in modern popular culture, in particular in cinema in science fiction. He is planning a co-authored book on the depiction of Roman Britain in cinema and television.

Powell Building – Pf06
North Holmes Road Campus
Email Dr Andrew Butler – – for further details

— All welcome —

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Simonides poem that possibly isn't

For the University of Roehampton this semester I'm co-teaching Introduction to Ancient History. We're just covering the Persian Wars at the moment, and the epigram of Simonides (F 22.a Page) for the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae has come up. You almost certainly know it. In William Lisle Bowles' translation, which is probably the most familiar form (other translations often model themselves on this), it's
Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
I describe this as 'the epigram of Simonides', and there are plenty of modern accounts that assert this unproblematically, but it's more accurate to say that it is 'attributed to Simonides'. The problem is that Herodotus, our earliest source for the epigram (7.228), doesn't actually say that it is by Simonides. This is what Herodotus says, in A.R. Godley's Loeb translation (which I use largely for convenience).
All these, and they that died before any had departed at Leonidas’ bidding, were buried where they fell, and there is an inscription over them, which is this:
Four thousand warriors, flower of Pelops’ land,
Did here against three hundred myriads stand.
This is the inscription common to all; the Spartans have one for themselves:
Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That here obedient to their words we lie.
That is for the Lacedaemonians, and this for the seer:
Here fought and fell Megistias, hero brave,
Slain by the Medes, who crossed Spercheius’ wave;
Well knew the seer his doom, but scorned to fly,
And rather chose with Sparta’s king to die.
The inscriptions and the pillars were set there in their honour by the Amphictyons, except the epitaph of the diviner Megistias; that inscription was made for him for friendship’s sake by Simonides son of Leoprepes.
So, the only text that Herodotus associates with Simonides is the third of these inscriptions. And even there Herodotus only says that Simonides had the text inscribed (using the verb epigraphō). After that, there is then a series of assumptions, set out in J.H. Molyneux' Simonides: A Historical Study (1992), first that if Simonides had an epigram inscribed, he probably wrote it, which seems a fair assumption, and secondly that if Simonides wrote one of the epigrams, he probably wrote the other two, which seems to me to be rather more tenuous.

There are, however, other ancient testimonia. The Greek Anthology (7.248-50) attributes all three epigrams to Simonides. Moreover, Cicero also attributes the text to Simonides (Tusculan Disputations 1.49.101). But I also note that other testimonia for the epigram, Lycurgus, Against Leocrates 109, Strabo, Geography 9.4.16, and Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 11.33.2, do not mention Simonides' name in connection with it. I wonder if perhaps Cicero and whichever of the many editors of the Greek Anthology first attached Simonides' name also went through the same chain of assumptions mentioned above.

It doesn't mean that Simonides didn't write this epigram; but perhaps we should be more open about the chain of assumptions involved.