239 out of 410 days: Lessons Learned, Again

simon-price

This morning I started weeping as I read about the Agonalia.

Simon Price was an amazing scholar, a brilliant teacher and one of most kind and humane men I’ve ever known.  He gave me my first teaching job.  Back summer term of 1997 I had a series of undergraduate tutorials with him on Roman religion.  I’d been to his lectures the previous term and was in awe of all the rich materials, tidbits of evidence from here and there he marshaled together into a captivating narrative, a narrative that showed something of all the questions left to be asked.  He’d stand by the window in his black robe and look out of the room as he talked, making sense of the patchwork quilt of sources he’d assembled on a single handout.

The tutorials were good, but it was summer and Oxford was full of distractions.  I found the way of thinking about the history of religion, very different from reading Polybius.  The Isis essay was fine, a novelty really, but boy did I struggle the week on Ovid’s Fasti.   He wanted me to answer the question what use is this poem to the historian.   I thought I’d never read anything quite so dull.

This morning I started by reading the Fasti.  I love every bit of it.  Like a sibylline book, every time I read it, it seems new  again and perfectly relevant to my project at hand.   I never seem to be able to see or understand or remember a passage of it until the moment I need it.  Simon was right, of course.  He tried to teach me to read it.  At least I got there eventually.

I regret most fervently never writing to him before he passed away about what he meant to me. Or just to say thank you.  If there is someone you should write to, trust me it will be better to do it now, than redraft the letter over and over again in your mind for all the years to come.

67 out of 410 days: Poetry and other Evidence

Reading for leisure is complicated when one reads as a primary professional obligation. As early as my undergraduate days I rationed novel reading by imposing strict rules: 1) only on weekends or school breaks, 2) never, ever start a book after 4 pm [to avoid being up all night]. Now, I read fewer novels, and usually old “friends”, sometimes from childhood, who’ve been read many times before. When I read something new, I like a guarantee of plot resolution. Somewhere in grad school I picked up poetry as a means of leisure reading that stands repetition and is low on time commitment. My tastes run highly rhythmic: Fenton, Auden and honest: Sexton, Addonizio.

What I haven’t read enough of is Greek or Latin poetry. Somewhere the ‘historian’ label interfered with my perception of such literature as particularly useful or engaging. A old well-grooved prejudice. One that protects poetry as a modern pleasure thoroughly divorced from my professional concerns. This is ridiculous. Ovid, Martial, Propertius and their friends tell us far more about the landscape of Rome itself and the attitudes and preoccupations of the people who inhabited it than Cicero. Or, if not more, than differently, with nuance and layers of meaning. Rich depths for the historian to plumb. With playful and pleasurable language to boot. Heck, Cicero in the pro Archia even tells us the value of the poetic perspective on history. I even like such literature, as literature.

I think, perhaps, a graduate seminar ‘Latin Poetry for Historians’ would be a fabulous course to develop post sabbatical. Something that honors the genre as an art form, while also exploring the diversity of the evidence it offers, and the complications of deploying such evidence.