Monday, December 14, 2020

John le Carré, 1931-2020

I was very sad to learn of the death of John le Carré, or at least as sad as one can be about the passing of someone after a long, productive life. Le Carré was one of two writers who almost simultaneously reinvented the British spy novel in the early 1960s, the other being Len Deighton; both were reacting against the fantasies of Ian Fleming, and wrote novels more grounded in reality and less inclined to sensationalism. Like Deighton, le Carré drew on his own experience of government organisations for his depiction, but where Deighton's was a world in which a grammar school boy could progress, le Carré, who had been in the Civil Service and in MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, itself, presented an espionage establishment that paralleled the British establishment, full of public schoolboys and Oxbridge graduates. 

Like Fleming, le Carré was influenced by Graham Greene, but where Fleming drew upon Greene's entertainments, such as Stamboul Train, le Carré looked to the Greene of works such as The Power and the Glory. His early novels were, like Fleming's and Deighton's, tales of British espionage successes, though le Carré often questioned the morality, or rather amorality, of those who directed such operations. But in the 1970s, he explored the penetration of British intelligence by Soviet agents, about which he was no doubt better informed than many in the public at the time. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) is probably his best known novel, thanks in part to an extremely successful BBC TV adaptation in 1979, which hit the screens just before Anthony Blunt was exposed as the Fourth Man in the Cambridge Spy Ring.

Le Carré's first thirty years of novels were, with several exceptions, linked by the fictional intelligence organisation known as the Circus, and by the intelligence operative George Smiley; there are eleven novels in the sequence, though two do not feature Smiley himself, only characters who crop up elsewhere in the sequence—indeed, it only became clear that The Russia House (1989) is part of the sequence with the publication of the next Smiley novel, The Secret Pilgrim (1990). The fact that the time of Smiley's early successes was later revealed to be a time when the Circus was thoroughly compromised was addressed, not entirely successfully, in le Carré's penultimate novel, A Legacy of Spies (2017). 

Smiley was memorably portrayed by Alec Guinness in Tinker, Tailor ... and its sequel, Smiley's People (1982). Le Carré admired Guinness' performance, and the two became friends, though it did cause problems for le Carré—there was a point when trying to write Smiley that le Carré found he was writing Guinness, and he had to back away. (Guinness' performance remains the definitive one, and heavily influences Gary Oldman's in the 2011 movie of Tinker, Tailor ..., though in my view, where le Carré's Smiley is a plain, nondescript, anonymous man, Guinness' is a dapper, handsome man attempting to be plain, nondescript, and anonymous, and I often wish that Patrick Troughton could have played the role.)  

For my money, however, le Carré's masterpiece is the standalone A Perfect Spy (1986). In this novel, le Carré drew upon his own biography, in particular his relationship with his own father. In the central character, Magnus Pym, le Carré draws a picture of a man so enmeshed in betrayal that he barely knows who he is any more.

Le Carré's last novel, Agent Running in the Field (2019) proved that he had lost none of his bite, or willingness to engage in contemporary politics. In it he is openly contemptuous of the Conservative government, and the Brexit project. We have lost one of the great writers of the twentieth century, far superior to some of his more lauded contemporaries. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

My MANCENT course on Ancient Greece and Rome on the Big Screen is available again in January, at a time that is friendly to people who work in the day or are in the US! Please share around. Ancient Greece and Rome on the Big Screen - full course Tickets, Wed 13 Jan 2021 at 19:00 | Eventbrite

Tickets also available for individual sessions. Ancient Greece and Rome on the Big Screen - Individual sessions Tickets, Multiple Dates | Eventbrite

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Cinema and Ancient Greece and Rome - Course coming soon.

Interested in learning about cinema and Greco-Roman antiquity? Coming in July - an online course on cinema and the ancient world, led by me.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Command structures of the Roman auxilia in the early Empire

Roman auxiliary infantry crossing a river, from Hadrian's Wall.
I’m currently studying a FutureLearn course on Hadrian’s Wall, brushing up my knowledge in hopeful anticipation of being able to teach Roman Britain again in the Fall semester. This week, however, I haven’t got much done, as I have fallen down a rabbit hole of the Roman auxilia, the auxiliary troops that sat beside the legions in the Roman military. The following essay is the result of that. I should make clear that, though I have taught the Roman army as part of various courses for twenty years now, and read quite a bit on the subject. I do not consider myself an expert in this field, so all of this has to be provisional, pending the arrival of the better-informed.

There are two misconceptions about the auxilia that I have come across over the years. The first is easily dealt with; that the auxiliaries were primarily a light-armed force, providing troops that the legions did not. Whilst the Auxilia undoubtedly included light-armed troops and skirmishers, as well as cavalry and specialist units such as archers, many, if not the majority of auxiliary infantry units, such as the Tungrians and Batavians that won the battle of Mons Graupius for the Romans,[1] fought as close-order heavy infantry.[2] They were equipped in a similar fashion to legionaries, though with some differences, such as the use of the oval, flat clipeus as a shield instead of the semi-cylindrical scutum.[3] This would limit their ability to carry out certain manoeuvres, such as the famous testudo (tortoise) formation. The use of the thrusting hasta (spear) rather than the thrown pilum (javelin) would also impose slightly different tactics. At the siege of Placentia in 69 CE (a prelude to the first Battle of Cremona), Tacitus talks about the ‘legions in a dense line, the auxiliaries spread out’.[4] Again, the use of the clipeus rather than the scutum might prevent the auxiliaries fighting in as close order as the legions, being less able to interlock their shields. But Tacitus is only talking about one battle here, not making a general statement.

It is also possible that the auxiliaries were less intensively trained than the legions, though the evidence here is unclear.[5] It is certain that, as (predominantly, at least until the mid-second century CE) non-citizens, the auxiliaries had less status that the legions.

The other idea that persists in a lot of modern sources is the assumption that somehow the auxiliary units were administratively part of the legions. This idea is particularly embraced by writers of fiction, and is expressed in designations such as ‘Fourth Gaulish Auxiliaries of the Second Legion’ (in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth).[6] I know of no inscription in which an individual auxiliary unit is described in these terms.

There are, however, a few bits of evidence that might suggest links with the legions. Simon James in Rome & the Sword cites two passages of Tacitus.[7] The first comes from Annals 13.35, where Tacitus talks of the movement of a legion from Germany to Armenia with (in James’ translation) ‘its alae of cavalry and cohortes of foot.’[8] Unfortunately, Tacitus’ text is a little more equivocal here than James’ translation makes it. The Latin is ex Germania legio cum equitibus alariis et peditatu cohortium. There is no possessive pronoun in there. This doesn’t make James’ translation wrong – Latin doesn’t use possessive pronouns as much as English, and often prefers to indicate possession through implication. But the ambiguity means that this passage could be translated as ‘a legion from Germany, along with cavalry alae and infantry cohorts’, and nothing is explicit is being said about a link between the legion and the auxiliaries, other than that they have all come from Germany. This makes it difficult to base an argument on this excerpt.

James’ second passage, Tacitus Histories 1.59, is more significant. Here Tacitus speaks of ‘eight Batavian cohorts, the auxilia of XIV Legion, but which had, due to the strife of the time, separated from the legion.’[9] Additionally, in Gaius Caligula’s German campaign of 40 CE, legates (presumably of the legions) had responsibility for summoning auxiliary units.[10] There is also epigraphic evidence in which the formula legio … et auxilia eius appears, ‘x Legion and its auxilia’.[11] To this may be added inscriptions showing legionary centurions in (acting) command of auxiliary units.[12]

It must be noted that this sort of evidence is rare, and on that basis it seems safest to conclude with the likes of George Cheesman, Adrian Goldsworthy and Ian Haynes, that the auxilia were in general independent units.[13] The evidence from Tacitus and inscriptions would suggest that at times some auxiliary units were attached to legions, but it seems better to assume with Cheesman that these were ad hoc and impermanent arrangements, rather than the regular system.[14]

But this raises another question, one which isn’t as thoroughly discussed in the literature as might be hoped – to whom were the auxiliary units responsible? Obviously, those units specifically attached to a legion would be commanded by the legate of that legion. But more generally on campaign, the auxiliaries went alongside the legions and under the same commander, rather than be directed by legionary legates. In Britain in 55 BCE Julius Caesar seems to have treated his legates and auxiliary prefects on an equal footing.[15] At the battle of Mons Graupius, Agricola seems to have directed his auxiliary units without reference to any intermediate command structure.[16]

But what of peacetime? To whom did the prefect of a fort on Hadrian’s Wall report? Who decided it was time for I Tungrians to move on from Vindolanda and be replaced by IX Batavians? It has to be said that there is not a great deal of evidence. There are inscriptions that indicate auxiliary units could be brigaded together under a single officer.[17] But these arrangements may, like the attachments to legions, have been uncommon and temporary. It has been suggested that Hadrian’s Wall was controlled from the fort at Stanwix, on the grounds that this was the largest fort on the Wall, and housed the most prestigious auxiliary unit on the wall, the 1,000-strong Ala Petriana, the only ala millaria (‘thousand-strong ala’) in the whole of the province.[18] It is certainly true that the commander of that unit would be the most prestigious commander of an auxiliary unit on the Wall – indeed, in the province. But, as Breeze and Dobson point out, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he had overall command in the area. In any case, that only defers the question – to whom did the brigade commanders report?

Ultimately, of course, the auxiliary commanders were responsible to the governor in the province, who commanded all troops. But was there any intermediate level of command? In a modern army, we would expect so. As a consequence it has been argued, for instance by Laurence Keppie, that even if the auxiliary units were not formally attached to the administrative structure of the legions, nonetheless the legions had a degree of control over the auxiliary units around them.[19] 

The problem is, as Breeze and Dobson point out, there’s precious little evidence for legionary legates exercising such authority. If anything, the evidence is the other way, suggesting that auxiliary commanders communicated with provincial governors directly. A papyrus dated to 103 CE features the governor of Egypt writing directly to the commander of an auxiliary cohort.[20] One might also note an inscription from Rough Castle on the Antonine Wall in Scotland that reveals a legionary centurion in (presumably temporary) command of an auxiliary cohort.[21] The centurion has not come from the closest legion, VI Victrix at York, but from XX Legion at Chester.

In one of the Vindolanda tablets, Flavius Cerialis, commander of IX Batavians, writes to Crispinus to ask the latter to put in a good word for Cerialis with Marcellus, the provincial governor.[22] Unfortunately, apart from his being in a position to do Cerialis a favour, we know nothing more about Crispinus, or the position he held.

It seems likely to me that the command structure of an army on campaign, where the legions and auxiliaries were all independently responsible to the overall army commander, was replicated in peacetime, with the auxiliary prefects directly responsible to the provincial governor, in his role as commander of the army of the province.[23] The governor’s staff must have been considered sufficient for the bureaucratic and administrative needs of the auxiliary units in the province.

This does not mean that the legate of a legion could not order the commander of an auxiliary unit around. The legionary legate was a senator, of a higher social rank to the equestrians from which the auxiliary commanders were drawn, and appointed directly by the emperor.[24] It would be a brave auxiliary prefect who would refuse without very good reason a legionary legate’s reasonable request, e.g. to send a vexillation of troops. But this authority of the legionary legates over the prefects was rather more informal than it has sometimes been conceived as.

Of course, everything changed with the army and provincial reforms of the third and fourth centuries, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.

Works cited
Breeze, David J., and Dobson, Brian (2000), Hadrian’s Wall, 4th edn, London: Penguin
Cheesman, George Leonard (1914), The Auxilia of the Roman Imperial Army, Oxford: Clarendon Press (pagination from 2018 edition, Frankfurt am Main: Outlook)
D’Amato, Raffaele (2012), Roman Centurions 31 BC–AD 500, Oxford: Osprey Publishing
Dobson, Brian, and Mann, J.C. (1973), ‘The Roman Army in Britain and Britons in the Roman Army’, Britannia 4, 191–205
Forty, Simon (2018), Hadrian’s Wall: From Construction to World Heritage Site. A Journey Along the Wall, and Back in Time, Yeovil: Haynes.
Goldsworthy, Adrian (2000 [2019]), Roman Warfare, London: Cassell & Co. (pagination from 2019 edn, New York: Basic Books)
Goldsworthy, Adrian (2003), The Complete Roman Army, London: Thames & Hudson
Haynes, Ian (2013), Blood of the Provinces: The Roman Auxilia and the Making of Provincial Society from Augustus to the Severans, Oxford: Oxford University Press
James, Simon (2011), Rome & the Sword: How Warriors & Weapons Shaped Roman History, London: Thames & Hudson
Keppie, Lawrence (1983), The Making of the Roman Army: From Republic to Empire, London: Batsford.
Sutcliff, Rosemary (1954 [1977]), The Eagle of the Ninth, Oxford: Oxford University Press (pagination from 1977 edn, London: Puffin)

My thanks to Eric Morse for sharing some thoughts with me on this topic.
[1] Tacitus, Agricola 36.1–2.
[2] Goldsworthy 2000 [2019], 113; Haynes 2013, 274.
[3] On auxiliary equipment, see Goldsworthy 2003, 136. I am oversimplifying here – as Haynes 2013, 239–249 argues, there would have been considerable variety in terms of equipment from auxiliary unit to auxiliary unit.
[4] Tacitus, Histories 2.22: densum legionum agmen, spara auxiliorum.
[5] The suggestion is made in Dobson and Mann 1973, 195.
[6] Sutcliff 1954 [1977], 17 (ch. 1: ‘Frontier Fort’).
[7] James 2011, 303 n. 32.
[8] Cavalry units in the auxilia were termed alae (singular ala), which can be translated as ‘wings’, though it’s more common to retain the Latin term. Infantry units were cohorts (singular cohors), usually anglicized as ‘cohorts’.
[9] octo Batavorum cohortes, quartae decimae legionis auxilia, tum discordia temporum a legione digressae.
[10] Suetonius, Life of Caligula 44.
[11] Cheesman 1914 [2018], 40 n. 146, cites three examples – CIL [Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum] 8.2637: legio III Augusta et auxilia eius, Lambaesis, 158 CE: CIL 13.8017: legio I Minervia pia fidelis Severiana Alexandriana cum auxilis, Bonn; CIL 3.3228: vexillationes legionum Germaniciarum et Brittanniciarum cum auxilis earum.
[12] E.g. CIL 3.1918, a centurion of III Legion in command of I Belgae; RIB [Roman Inscriptions of Britain] 2144, a centurion of XX Legion in command of VI Nervians at Rough Castle (to be discussed later). For further examples see D’Amato 2012, 6.
[13] Cheesman 1914 [2018], 29-31; Goldsworthy 2000 [2019], 112; Haynes 2013, 43.
[14] Cheesman 1914 [2018], 29, 30.
[15] Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars 4.22.
[16] Tacitus, Agricola 35–36. See Haynes 2013, 272, on issues with Tacitus’ account of Mons Graupius, which may affect the reliance we can place on it.
[17] E.g. CIL 11.6344, four cohorts under a single officer in Spain.
[18] E.g. Forty 2018, 114.
[19] Keppie 1983, 190.
[20] POxy 7.1022.
[21] RIB 2144.
[22] Vindolanda Tablet 225.
[23] This appears to be the conclusion of Haynes 2013, 325, though he is not explicit.
[24] Goldsworthy 2003, 60, 64.

Friday, May 01, 2020

Good Omens

It's the 30th anniversary of the publication of Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. For many of my friends, this is a very important and beloved book. I actually only finally read it this year, though I did listen to the radio version from a few years back - I somehow never quite caught the Pratchett bug in the way many others did. It feels more like Pratchett than Gaiman, particularly with the footnotes, but I think Gaiman had yet to find his own voice as a novelist (his first solo novel, Neverwhere, is heavily influenced by his friend Douglas Adams).

It's a perfectly fine and enjoyable novel. But it didn't quite grab me the way it's evidently grabbed others. I feel that perhaps it has suffered, for me, from the weight of expectations built up from what everyone else had said about it.

I read the novel because the tv series hit the BBC this year. That also came with a lot of baggage in terms of what people who saw it on Amazon last year thought of it - everybody loved it, as the perfect version of the novel that they also loved. Well, I'm pleased to say that I also love the series.  It's mostly a faithful adaptation, but Gaiman, who wrote the screenplay and oversaw the whole project, has at least been prepared to make changes where he felt it was necessary.

Most significantly, the balance of the story has shifted. The novel is fairly well split between the three converging stories of Adam Young and his friends, the demon Crowley and the Angel Aziraphale, and Anathema Device and Newton Pulsifer. Twenty-nine years later, Gaiman has evidently decided that it's actually the Crowley and Aziraphale show. Everyone else still gets their stories, but Crowley and Aziraphale get more. Only they get new scenes, giving their back story, and a new ending to the story.

It helps that both roles are perfectly cast. The radio series did okay, with Mark Heap as Aziraphale and Peter Serafinowicz, but TV gets Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Tennant in particular is on fire, often literally so, and Sheen plays off against him perfectly. There are some good turns in the rest of the cast - an almost unrecognisable Michael McKean as Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell, and a non-annoying performance by Jack Whitehall. And making Frances McDormand's voice of God the narrator is a touch of genius. I could do without Benedict Cumberbatch's voice of an unconvincing CGI Satan, but that's the only slight misstep, and I can forgive that for everything else (including the constant Doctor Who jokes). Very much recommended. And you should also seek out the new 'Lockdown' mini-episode.  

Good Omens was 2020 Books #3 and 2020 Movies #3.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

On suddenly switching to online teaching

Edited on 17/03/20, with a new update at the end

The coronavirus is wreaking havoc across all of our existence at the moment. Events are being cancelled, travel banned, people told to stay at home. Many US universities have already shut down, and it is widely rumoured that UK universities will close down after Easter, leaving students to be taught through online/distance/remote/digital learning.

On Twitter, I wrote a thread with my own thoughts for people preparing to convert at short notice over to online/distance/remote/digital learning, based on eighteen years at the Open University, delivering, and occasionally writing materials, and sometimes being a student, as well as having taken several MOOCs. I thought I'd write it up here, in slightly expanded form.

First of all, it won't work anywhere like as well as it could or should. Doing this properly take a lot of work, and needs time. If there was any slack in the university system, then there might be some scope for people to pull together, go an extra mile and do it a bit better. But there's no slack, no space to absorb the extra workload to do this.* Instead, most academic staff are under intolerable workloads, and getting anywhere close to best practice may well prove impossible. That's not the fault of anyone other than university managers. What universities need right now is more people, and it's too late to take them on.

Secondly, anyone thinking this is a great opportunity to see how digital learning can work is an idiot - the circumstances are not remotely normal. I personally do not believe that online/remote/distance/digital learning will or should replace the traditional face-to-face university, but should be used to support it. Properly-supported distance learning certainly has its place in reaching students who otherwise would have no access to higher education. MOOCs, however, whilst again having their place, cannot replace university teaching, as most of them are simply a more structured way of reading a book - online Teach Yourselfs, in effect.

But let's talk about best practice. You may not be able to achieve it, but it might help if you know what (I think) best practice looks like. Obviously, as in all pedagogy, Your Mileage May Vary, but I hope these suggestions will be of some use.

Your course/module should have a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) - it's been a while since I've taught a module that didn't. You're probably going to be making more use of that than before, for more than just putting up your classroom slides (and if you're not doing that already, why not?). But one small benefit will be that all this material will be there for future teaching.

One of the reasons the OU was, and still is, so successful at distance learning is the quality of their materials, both written and audio-visual. As I say, a lot of work goes into those, but you can at least prepare more written work to distribute to students in advance. (This may actually turn out to be a valuable exercise in actually thinking about what you are trying to get across.) And I hope that there will be sharing of materials across from people teaching similar modules, which may ease the burden.
If you are going to do a lecture via an online medium, I suggest not trying to broadcast it live - rather produce it at your own time and convenience, which will allow students to work with it at their own convenience. (This has the advantage of cutting out unwanted contributions from family or pets - not that those can't sometimes be icebreakers.) You can do this as a written text, or a video, or an audio recording. Audio has the advantage over video that students can listen while doing something that doesn't otherwise engage higher functions, such as housework, or just soaking in the bath. If doing video, find ways if you can of including plenty of visual imagery - I realise not everyone has the skills for this, someone talking about something from behind a desk with nothing to see but their face soon becomes deathly dull. Break your lecture up into smaller units - about 10-15 minutes is the limit before boredom sets in. (This also has advantages if you have to start again - there's nothing like having to redo 55 minutes of recording.)

If you want students to read anything in advance, make sure that they can access it, and if necessary, precirculate and put stuff on the VLE (though unis are getting stricter about doing this with copyright material). Ask some questions about the material that you want the students to consider, and have some answers ready.

Another thought (and this is new material, not on Twitter!) is that you could organise some online audio sessions with some people who are teaching a similar course to you, and have 45 minutes or so talking about a particular issue. This is the sort of thing you'd rarely get to do normally.

You will need to have some live online seminars. In the two years I used online conferencing sessions for the OU I always found these a bit of nightmare - they were frustrating for me, and I suspect for my students. I tended to turn mine into Q&A sessions, as that was the only thing that seemed to work. It's possible others actually manage to make them work better, though one of my former students says not in their experience, and Q&A sessions are the only thing that's effective through that medium. 

Above all, in an online session, TURN YOUR WEBCAM OFF AND GET YOUR STUDENTS TO DO THE SAME. I repeat, DO NOT ATTEMPT VIDEO-CONFERENCING. There are two reasons: (a) No-one looks good over a webcam, and more importantly (b) video uses huge amounts of bandwidth, and potentially will crash whatever app you're using. Videoconferencing is fine if you have industrial-level facilities, but over someone's home broadband, it tends to break up at more than three or four participants. And make sure mics are turned off when not speaking, as the background noise can be terribly distracting.

For actual discussions of topics, you may find asynchronous online forums are better. Online forums are something universities get terribly keen on, and sometimes they can work - but sometimes they can be utterly toxic, so beware. The toxicity tends to be much lower in smaller groups, where there's less chance for some arrogant individual to throw their weight around. But even when non-toxic, it's not always easy for everyone to get involved, and it's harder to notice when someone is being quiet. 

Be prepared to deal with a lot more student emails than you would normally get, and I would say, be prepared to do 1-2-1 sessions through Skype. You probably do need office hours, when students know you'll be available on a first-come-first served basis. But you may not be able to deal with them all in that period, so be flexible about dealing with students outside office hours. In the OU we used to give out phone numbers, though occasionally that got abused. There's probably no need for that now.

Anyway, I hope this has been useful.

There's another good thread from Jess Perriam of the OU here:

Helen King, who knows of which she speaks, has a thread here:, and a blogpost on how OU course materials are prepared here:

Thanks to Becca Sarna-Alexander and Juliette Harrisson, from whom I stole a couple of points here. 

ETA I forgot to talk about assignments! These should be one of the easiest aspects - most universities already have online electronic marking, so this should be business as usual, though you may have to give more feedback.

* This, incidentally, is also why railways in the UK cope so badly with anything out of the ordinary - no spare trains, no spare drivers, no spare routes.

17/03/20 Update:

Here are some new thoughts I've had, and some new links I've found. First of all, I point you to Alison Yang's 'Online Teaching @ KIS' chart, which I'm now using to illustrate the post. It's very, very good advice.

I think the three things I'd really emphasise are:

(1) Do not attempt videoconferencing. The extra data video uses will slow everything down very badly.

(2) My inclination, particularly if you're inexperienced in online teaching, is to do as much as possible in asynchronous format. Asynchronous is much easier for everyone. If things get a bit chaotic with asynchronous materials, it's fairly easy to bring things back on track. It's a lot harder for everyone with synchronous sessions; even in the best of times it can descend into chaos, and it’s not easy to pull it back when this happens. Plus I'm already seeing reports that the servers for synchronous tools are breaking down under the extra traffic.

(3) Do not attempt anything in a synchronous session other than Q & A on pre-circulated materials - despite what proponents tell you, my experience, and that of colleagues and students, is that any attempt at a seminar-style discussion will fail. Asynchronous online forums are much better than live conferencing for discussions. And don't do a full hour's synchronous session - and certainly not the two hours the OU used to advise. No-one's concentration can cope.

(4) Break everything up into smaller chunks - 10-15 minutes seems to work best. Students are much more likely to engage with smaller chunks.

For those considering using ordinary chat platforms, the problem with them is that you end up with the issue that everyone has where you’re typing and the person you're speaking to is typing, only multiplied. You can end up with a multiplicity of threads, and it can get very confusing. For synchronous sessions, I actually prefer some form of audio conferencing tool where students can indicate that they want to ask a question, and you can then address them one at a time.

I didn't talk much about specific tools and platforms. This is because I'm not sure that specific tools matter that much. Go with whatever your local IT dept can advise on and support. I used Blackboard conferencing for the OU, did online supervisions through Skype, and my current institution has Teams in the Office package. I wouldn't say that Blackboard necessarily 'worked'. It was pretty clunky, and the OU was moving away from it when I left. In any case, I think methodological approach is more important than choice of platforms, which tend to be much of a muchness.

Remember that it's all online teaching, and you are under no obligation to do big online sessions because you think that's closest to your normal method of working.

Virtual whiteboards are good, if you have them.

It is all very time-consuming. Don't try to replicate the full classroom effect. (a) You can't, & (b) even if you could, you can't in the time available. Rather, approach it from the direction of what you can achieve in the time you've got. It's going to be awful, whatever you do - you just don't have enough time to prepare properly. Don't beat yourself up about that.

Students, you'll have fewer resources with which to write your assignments, but your markers will understand the conditions under which you're preparing the work, and make allowances accordingly.

New links: -
- from a Classics perspective, but valuable for other disciplines. Includes lots of links, and will be updated.

An excellent thread on helping students prepare:

This is a good idea for keeping student morale up:

This is a brilliant idea:
(And I'll add, if any one wants to have a multi-teacher online chat for their students about a subject on which I have expertise (classical reception, ancient history, film, science fiction, comics, The Beatles, WWII military aircraft), I'm available. DM me.)

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Two dramatic productions

Remember when I used to write theatre reviews here? Unfortunately I'm not going to be able to get down to see the UCL Frogs or KCL's Dionysus in the Underworld, but I did see a couple of things in January.

I felt a bit of an interloper at Fragments of Divine Ecstasy - almost everyone else in the audience was a student. I really only went along because my friend and colleague Lottie Parkyn was interviewing another friend, David Bullen, at the end of the event (you can see some snippets from the interview on the King's Greek Play Twitter account). But I was very glad I went.

I've had variable experiences with student productions - some have been quite poor. But when they get it right, they can be really on fire. Through a series of vignettes, some adapted from ancient or modern sources, some written by the cast, the production examined aspects of Dionysus. They succeeded in presenting the god in all his forms - intoxicated, ambiguous, sexy, dangerous. A good evening, and I hope those involved go on to do more in this vein.

The other thing I saw was George Eugeniou's production of Oedipus the King at Theatro Technis in Camden. I've seen quite a few productions of Greek drama there, and this was one of the best. Small in scale, it punches well above its weight in emotional terms. The audience are involved from the start as part of the Chorus - when the Chorus is addressed, people turn to the audience. Leigh Hughes' Oedipus conveys all the unnecessary arrogance of the character, and the production is clearly not sympathetic towards him. He is ably supported by the rest of the cast. At the end, the production remembers, as not every one does, that the fall of Oedipus means the lifting of the curse from Thebes.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

2020 books #1-2

A couple of books reread in preparation for teaching Roman Britain.

Peter Salway, Roman Britain: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn, 2015

Does what it says on the tin - basically condenses Salway's History of Roman down to just over a hundred pages. There are aspects of Salway's approach that don't appeal - he's quite positivist in the way he approaches the evidence, and post-colonial readings of Britain as a province are clearly not for him. But I don't know of any other work that can give students an overview in an afternoon.

Richard Hobbs and Ralph Jackson, Roman Britain: Life at the edge of empire, London: British Museum Press, 2010

A nice introduction to the province. This is particularly good at using objects from the British Museum's collection to illustrate various points about the ways people lived.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

2020 Movies #2: Boadicea

Boadicea. UK; dir. Sinclair Hill; scr. Anthony Asquith and Sinclair Hill; starring Phyllis Neilson-Terry, Lillian Hall-Davis and Clifford McLaglen; British Instructional Films; 1927

This is, at the moment, the earliest screen depiction of Roman Britain of which I am aware. It very much presents itself as 'authentic' - an opening caption proclaims that '[M]any incidents in this story were reconstructed in the neighbourhood where they actually occurred.' But this is misleading. Many incidents presented in this short movie have been invented for dramatic purposes, and sometimes flatly contradict the sources - so, for instance, Colchester is depicted with walls and gates, which Tacitus explicitly says it did not have.

It's still interesting (though clearly done on a shoestring budget). Phyllis Neilson-Terry, niece of the famous Ellen Terry, plays a more matronly Boadicea than some later portrayals. As is often the case with Boadicea/Boudicca narratives, the Druids are closely associated with the Queen. And clearly the viewer is meant to sympathise with the defeated Queen of the Iceni, even at the time when the identification of the British empire with the Roman was a major cultural theme. But because this is an 'educational' movie, the rapes of Boadicea's daughters are very much underplayed, to the point where no rape actually takes place - instead a daughter is roughly manhandled, causing Boadicea to strike the Roman. The Queen's flogging then follows.

Monday, February 10, 2020

2020 Movies #1: 1917

1917. UK; dir. Sam Mendes; scr. Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns; starring George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman; DreamWorks Pictures/Reliance Entertainment; 2019

Unsurprisingly, 1917 has been compared with all the great First World War movies of the past - All Quiet on the Western Front, La Grande Illusion, etc. But the movie it reminded me of most is the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou? It has the same sense of a picaresque, episodic journey through the landscape, with encounters that can border on the surreal and transitions that can sometimes seem dreamlike.

There's a lot in 1917 that's very good indeed. There are two strong performances at its heart from Mackay and Chapman, even if individual episodes are sometimes over-burdened with celebrity cameos - look, it's Andrew Scott! And there's Mark Strong! Can Benedict Cumberbatch be far behind? (Spoiler: he doesn't turn up until quite near the end.)

The screenplay is clever, and doesn't play out the way you anticipate. People you expect to die live, and people you expect to live, at least until much later in the movie, die. Most unexpected, perhaps, is the treatment of the British officers. They are all incredibly reasonable - not a General Melchett or even a Captain Darling among them. Of course, it's good that there's a corrective to the typical Blackadder presentation (Richard Holmes' The Western Front is useful on this topic), but the lack of any venal glory-hunters at all makes 1917 feel a bit like Saving Private Ryan; this is a movie that pays lip-service to the idea that military commanders don't necessarily know what they're doing, but doesn't really tell that story.

It is, of course, a bravura technical achievement. The various long-shots are put together seamlessly to give the impression that this is one take, and it thoroughly deserves the Oscar for Cinematography (and it's a travesty that it wasn't even nominated for Best Editing). I am not in the least surprised that it won the Golden Globe and BAFTA for Best Picture, as it is the sort of technically impressive movie that seems to be saying something profound that appeals to those who vote in such awards.

But there's the nub of it. What actually is 1917 saying? What's it about? One might say that it's about comradeship, about taking on a task that you don't really believe in because it's important to someone else. Or it might be about the horrors of war. The trouble for the latter is that the dreamlike nature of parts of the movie distance the viewer from full engagement. Yes, there are dead bodies of men who have been buried by shellfire, or French civilians who have ended up in the river. But these scenes don't feel as affecting as they should. And the transitions from one episode to another, whilst clearly delineated, are sometimes done in such a way as to override logic (Mark Strong's company, for instance, appear out of nowhere, and disappear back into nowhere). A cynic might suggest that the prime motivating factor in making this movie was that Mendes enjoyed shooting the opening sequence of Spectre (the Mendes Bond movie that isn't mentioned in the publicity), and wanted to see if he could do that at full movie length.

In the end, beneath the extremely impressive surface gloss, 1917 feels a little bit hollow.