An unexpected figure lurks in the pages of Wonder Woman (no. 48) from 1951 — the 17th-century French Classicist Anne Dacier. She's there as part of the 'Wonder Women of History' feature which promoted historical figures as positive role models for its ...

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Ten tips on how to succeed as a woman: lessons from the past

An unexpected figure lurks in the pages of Wonder Woman (no. 48) from 1951 — the 17th century French Classicist Anne Dacier. She’s there as part of the “Wonder Women of History” feature which promoted historical figures as positive role models for its readership. Her inspirational story tells of her success in overcoming gender prejudice to become a respected translator of Classical texts. Three hundred years after the publication of Dacier’s final translation, Homer’s Odyssey (1716), we too can learn from this figure. Looking back across her career, I can reveal ten tips for women today.

1. Be proactive
The keystone to Dacier’s success was the level of education she gained from her father, the scholar Tanneguy Le Fèvre. She was apparently proactive about securing this opportunity, secretly listening to her brother’s lessons and one day revealing how much she had learnt. This prompted her father to offer her the same education as her brothers.

2. Take risks
After Dacier’s father died unexpectedly, she made the bold decision to travel the 200-mile journey from Saumur to Paris and try to establish a career there. Later in her career, she took another risk when she translated the vulgar comedy of Aristophanes which was completely out of fashion. This daring undertaking is now recognized as a major part of her legacy to Classics.

3. Learn from mistakes
In two letters from 1681, Dacier begs her father’s friend, Daniel Huet, to intervene for her at Court so that she would get paid for the work which they had commissioned, as otherwise she was going to be left out of pocket. In fact, she never managed to resolve this issue, and in another letter, from later in that year, she notes that in future she would be more cautious! We all make mistakes, but it’s learning from them which can be our making.

Anne Le Fèvre, épouse Dacier by Pierre Bonnefont. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Anne Le Fèvre, épouse Dacier by Pierre Bonnefont. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Find your voice
Dacier was working in the shadow of her father who had been a famous scholar, but this didn’t stop her from carving her own path. In part she managed to do this by making her own voice heard — by respectfully disagreeing with some of his views in print. She was also ready to challenge other male scholars of her day, demonstrating that she was equal to them.

5. Make female solidarity work for you
Women were the cultural arbiters of Dacier’s day and could confirm the success of a publication, Dacier therefore wooed the female readership in her first French translation. In the preface, she says she hopes that her translation will delight women (and of course it’s no coincidence that one of her chosen authors to translate was Sappho the famous ancient Greek female poet).

6. Transgress smart
Achieving your goals despite society’s gender boundaries can mean playing the boundary — enforcers at their own game. Dacier offers a textbook example of this when she negotiates her transgression into the exclusively male domain of the King’s Library to consult a manuscript. She gets away with her invasion into male territory by describing her reluctance and timidity in going there. This reassuring assertion of modesty allays any alarm felt at the incursion.

7. Network
A swift perusal of Dacier’s book dedications shows a skilled operator at work. These are not sentimental choices of parents and partners, but rather key figures whose support Dacier needed. She ensures that she’s noticed by the right people through these dedications. They are the equivalent of modern networking.

8. Pick a supportive partner
One of the mistakes which Dacier learnt from was her first marriage (to a printer, Jean Lesnier, in the Loire region). The marriage broke down after the death of their first child. Her second marriage, however, was to last until her own death. Her second husband André Dacier had studied with her father and was also a scholar. He respected her intelligence, collaborating with her on some publications, and supported her career.

9. Work-life balance
It seems impossible, from the stack of publications which Dacier produced, to believe that she could have also managed to have a life outside her books, but that’s exactly what the evidence suggests. Her contemporaries write that she was a wonderful conversationalist and praise her ability to socialise, setting the books aside to talk about hairstyles. Meanwhile her devotion to her family life is vividly recorded through her heartfelt words of grief after the death of her daughter.

10. Attract trumpet blowers
Self-publicity is a treacherous enterprise (and perhaps even more so now than in Dacier’s day). The elegant solution to the trumpet-blowing dilemma is to find someone else to do it for you. Dacier’s friend, who also happened to be a champion of women, Gilles Ménage did that brilliantly for her in his History of Women Philosophers.

The 21st century can seem a world apart from the 17th century: we’ve made significant gender progress over the intervening centuries. Yet gender inequality continues to be an issue. Looking back to the success of Dacier, and other historical female figures, at overcoming barriers is not only uplifting, but can also prove surprisingly instructive. It seems that we need our “Wonder Women of History” as much in 2016 as they did in 1951.

Featured image credit: Minerva and the Nine Muses. Painting by Hendrick van Balen the Elder. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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“An infernal journey” – an extract from Homer

Homer, despite being the author of the hugely influential The Odyssey and The Iliad, remains a bit of a mystery. We know very little about his life, but what we can see is the huge legacy that he has left behind in art, music, philosophy, literature, and more. By examining both of his epic poems, we can begin to understand more about this mythical figure. In the extract below, Barbara Grazosi takes a closer look at Odysseus’ journey to the Underworld.

Of all his many adventures, Odysseus’ journey to the Underworld is his most extreme. He manages to reach the place most distant from home, and from life itself, yet return even from there. His nekyia in book 11, his ‘dialogue with the dead’, is arguably his greatest feat, and one that has been replayed again and again in literary history. Still, Odysseus is not the only ancient hero to have visited the Underworld: Heracles, Theseus, and Orpheus also made their descents, and the Babylonian epic hero Gilgamesh learnt about that realm from the descent of his friend Enkidu. Conceiving of death as a journey to a darker realm is, in fact, a common trope in many different mythologies, and the possibility of returning to tell the tale, even from that ‘place of no return’ (as the Babylonians called it), has been explored in many different traditions.

Each visit to the dead offers its own specific insights and atmospheres. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu first visits the Underworld in a dream, and learns that our common fate of death erases secular differences of wealth and power: even those who could once share their banquets of meat with the gods now ‘eat dust’, while their discarded crowns are piled up in a corner of the Underworld. What matters to the dead, Enkidu discovers later on in the poem, is a proper burial and having had many sons in life. Gilgamesh himself crosses the waters of death in order to discover the secret of eternal life from the one man, Utnapishtim, who managed to avoid death altogether—but then falls asleep, and is therefore sent back to his mortal existence. Still, through that expedition he learns the crucial story of the flood from his antediluvian host.

A mosaic depicting Odysseus, from the villa of La Olmeda, Pedrosa de la Vega, Spain, late 4th-5th centuries AD. CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There are also lessons to be learnt from other stories of travel to the world beyond. The myth of Orpheus, for example, offers a clear warning about the urgency of love, and the damage it can do: when Orpheus disobeys the orders of Hades, and turns to look at Eurydice as she follows him out of the Underworld, he consigns her to the murky world of the shades, and loses her. Odysseus’ own expedition seems, as ever, more ambiguous: he learns something specific about his own future, from Tiresias, but as for what we learn, the message seems less clear. The emphasis is squarely on storytelling—its pleasures and advantages, as well as any insights it might offer.

Odysseus tells the story of his journey to the dead while enjoying the hospitality of the Phaeacians, just before securing his passage home. Circe, he recounts, insisted that he needed to consult Tiresias before sailing home, so he and his men embarked on their mission, ‘weighed down by anxiety and shedding many tears’. They arrived at the murky land of the Cimmerians by the banks of the river Oceanus. There they pulled up their ship and walked upstream, until they reached a specific place indicated by Circe, dug a trench, and sacrificed to the dead. Immediately, the shades began to swarm up from the Underworld, eager to taste the blood of the slaughtered animals, and ‘pale fear’ gripped Odysseus.

Still, he managed to keep the shades at bay, and did not let them drink the blood. At that point, the shade of one of his companions stood before him: Elpenor could still recognize Odysseus and talk to him, because he had not yet been properly buried—indeed, he had fallen off Circe’s roof the night before, stone drunk, and broken his neck. Odysseus addressed himwith open curiosity, asking him how he had made it there so fast, faster even than his own swift journey by ship.

As ever, our ‘man of many turns’ does not seem to take death too seriously, and considers it almost an affront that Elpenor could travel to the Underworld faster than him. Elpenor himself, however, plaintively begs to be buried. Odysseus then spots his own mother among the shades, and yet she does not seem to recognize him. Finally, Tiresias appears, and delivers his prophecy. At this point, Odysseus has accomplished his mission and could therefore leave— but he is curious, wants to interrogate the dead. He lets his mother drink the blood of the sacrificial victims, and she suddenly recognizes him, asking how on earth he made it there while still alive. She then reassures him that Penelope is still faithful, and urges him to tell his wife some good stories when he gets home: ‘Go now, make for the light as quickly as you can, but remember | all this, so that some day you will be able to tell it to your wife.’

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Brexit, Marmite, and brand loyalty in the Roman World

One of the early and somewhat unexpected effects of Brexit in the UK was the threatened ‘Marmageddon’, the shortage and subsequent price rise of the much-loved – and much-hated – Marmite.  Yet even when supermarket stocks of Marmite were running low, a variety of other yeast extract spreads were available. The shortage related to one particular brand.  As I fall into the category of those who hate Marmite, I am not well placed to comment on the suitability of the substitute spreads, but clearly brand loyalty is strong among Marmite consumers. The development of such commodity branding and consumer loyalty is often seen as a relatively modern phenomenon, reflecting the rise of consumerism in Western Capitalist economies; the Museum of Brands in London, for example, only displays artefacts dating from the Victorian era onwards.

Brands were, however, also a part of much earlier economies. In ancient Rome, for instance, consumers placed their trust in a number of brand markers, which signified reputation and quality, and very often carried a certain prestige. This was particularly the case with food and drink, especially wine. A wide range of wine of all qualities was available in Rome, from that drunk in the taverns and street side bars, to the expensive vintages served at the most lavish of elite dinner parties.  It was at this upper end that brands mattered most. The famous Falernian wine, for example, was prized by connoisseurs. This wine was produced from grapes grown in the ager Falernus in Northern Campania, and for Pliny, it was second only to Caecuban among Italian wines. By the mid first century CE, ‘Falernian’ was such a popular brand that it had become a byword for good wine.  A graffito from the entrance to a Pompeian bar told customers ‘With a single coin you can drink here; if you pay two coins, you will drink better; if you pay four coins, you will drink Falernian wine’.

Garum Mosaik Pompeji
Garum Mosaik Pompeji, picture from the villa of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, Pompeii by Claus Ableiter. CC BY-SA 3.0 by Wikimedia Commons. Detail of a floor mosaic from the atrium of VII.16.15 at Pompeii. The inscription reads G(ari) F(los) SCO(mbri) SCAURI EX OFFI(CI)NA SCAURI (Flower of garum of mackerel from the workshop of Scaurus).

Most Roman wines were best served young, but Falernian was unusual in that it improved with age. Trimalchio, the boorish fictional freedman of Petronius’ novel Satyricon, claimed to be serving aged Falernian wine to his guests, bottled in the consulship of Opimius in 121 BCE, a year that was renowned for its excellent vintages. Yet although small amounts of this vintage survived to the mid- first century CE, when both Pliny and Petronius were writing, it was so old that it had the consistency of honey and a rough flavour (only really suitable for adding to young wine for flavouring).  Older was not necessarily better, and Falernian was best drunk after being left to mature for just fifteen to twenty years, not for nearly two hundred years!  Trimalchio’s wine may have been rare, and for that reason, an impressive novelty, but if it were genuine, it would have been undrinkable.

It was, however, almost certainly fake; Trimalchio was either deliberately trying to deceive his guests, or he himself had been cheated by a crafty salesman. In fact, the Roman physician Galen questioned quite how much Falernian wine was actually genuine. Corinthian bronze statues too – much sought after by collectors – were sometimes faked, and Pliny the Younger was at great pains to emphasise that a Corinthian bronze of an old man that he donated to the Temple of Jupiter was a genuine antique. The problem of fake brands appears to be age old.

Falernian wine was stored and transported in clay amphorae, often marked with the brand name and sometimes a variety of other details, such as the name of the producer, the date, the shipper, and the intended recipient.  Examples of such labels have been found as far afield as Roman Britain, where the shoulder of an amphora was marked with red painted letters reading FAL LOLL, abbreviations indicating that the vessel once contained Falernian wine produced from the vineyard of one Lollius. Such painted markers were originally found on most amphorae, although the majority are no longer visible today.  They enabled producers to brand their products quickly and effectively. Umbricius Scaurus, a producer of fish sauce at Pompeii, even made a permanent record of such branding in a mosaic on the floor of his home (see image). The name Umbricius Scaurus – or that of another member of the Scauri family – appears on numerous fish sauce containers found in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and must have been a trusted marker of quality.  People in Roman Campania may have been as loyal to Umbricius Scaurus’ range of fish sauces as fans of yeast extract in the UK are to Marmite.

Featured image credit: “Trajan’s Market” by Zello. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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A literary Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has many historical roots in American culture. While it is typically a day spent surrounded by family and showing appreciation for what we are thankful for, we would all be lying if we did not admit that our favorite part is consuming an abundance of delicious food until we slip into a food coma. This Thanksgiving, celebrate the tastes of books by incorporating dishes from your favorite Oxford World’s Classic novels. This slideshow provides a complete literary-based Thanksgiving dinner menu for those that are looking for a bit of a twist on the traditional Thanksgiving meals.


Featured Image: Thanksgiving by Wokandapix, Public Domain via Pixabay

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Hillary and history: how powerful women have been maligned through the ages

The 2016 United States presidential election has been perhaps the most contentious contest in recent history. Some of the gendered stereotypes deployed in it, however, are nothing new. Powerful and outspoken women have been maligned for thousands of years. Ancient authors considered the political arena to be the domain of men, and chastised women who came to power. Correspondingly, ancient Greek authors considered intelligence, courage, and outspokenness to be characteristics of men. Yet such traits were noted in women, women who were called masculine by some of the same authors.

In Greek tragedy, when Clytemnestra, the queen of Argos, killed her husband in revenge for his murder of their daughter, Iphigenia, her actions were called “monstrous.” Only a century later, Aristotle wrote that it was nobler for a man to take vengeance on his enemies than to reconcile with them. Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander III the Great, who followed Aristotle’s advice upon his accession to the throne of ancient Macedonia. He had those who rebelled against his authority, or, at least, were alleged to have done so, killed. Alexander’s “cleaning house” included the execution of his cousin, Amyntas. Alexander also achieved revenge for the Greeks, by avenging the Persian invasion of Greece some 150 years earlier with his own invasion and conquest of Persia. While Alexander would be called “the Great” for his exploits, his excessive use of force has raised the eyebrows of very few historians, and only recently at that.

Some six years after Alexander’s untimely death, his mother, Olympias, came to power as the regent for her grandson, Alexander IV. When Olympias killed her son’s alleged murderers in revenge, in addition to other enemies, she was not held to the same standard as Alexander had been. The historian Justin wrote that she had acted “more like a woman than a ruler.” Olympias has been gauged as instituting a reign of terror by ancient and modern historians alike, whereas her son was and is still called “the Great.” Both mother and son engaged in the same behavior: eliminating their rivals upon acceding to power. Yet history has judged them by different standards.

Hillary Clinton speaking at the Brown & Black Presidential Forum at Sheslow Auditorium at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, 11 January 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Hillary Clinton speaking at the Brown & Black Presidential Forum at Sheslow Auditorium at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, 11 January 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The same can be said for the queens and kings of the Ptolemaic family. The Ptolemies became the rulers of Egypt after Alexander the Great’s conquest of that land. Ptolemaic queens became very powerful, and one in particular, Cleopatra VII, has left her mark emblazoned upon the ravages of time itself. Cleopatra VII took the same prerogatives as her male counterparts; she chose her own consorts, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and she eliminated several rivals who just happened to be her siblings, Arsinoë IV, a sister who had usurped Cleopatra’s throne and openly declared war upon her, and Ptolemy XIV, a younger brother who may have done so as well. Cleopatra had both of her siblings killed to preserve herself. Cleopatra’s actions were not unlike those of her male predecessors. Her ancestor, King Ptolemy IV, for example, killed his own brother, Magas, and his mother, Berenice II, upon his accession to the throne. He was then dominated by his mistress, Agathocleia, and her brother, as well as other unsavory ministers at whose hands he himself was killed. Cleopatra was a far more successful monarch in many respects. She was ultimately defeated by Augustus, but she managed to stave off the Romans, an invincible power, for seventeen years, whereas Ptolemy IV could not even stave off his own courtiers. Yet, instead of being given credit for her skills, Cleopatra is ‘diagnosed’ as having had “histrionic personality disorder with psychopathic tendencies.” Cleopatra’s sexuality lies at the center of such accusations. According to WebMD, one who has histrionic personality disorder may tend to “dress provocatively and/or exhibit inappropriately seductive or flirtatious behavior.” Was it inappropriate for Cleopatra to seduce Julius Caesar or Mark Antony to save her country from the onslaught of Roman legions? She is not recorded as having sexual encounters with any other than these two men, and each of her seductions began with political motives.

By the same token, was Cleopatra exhibiting tendencies of psychopathy when she ordered the death of her sister, Arsinoë IV, who had openly rebelled against her? Was Cleopatra demonstrating mental instability when she eliminated her brother Ptolemy XIV? Perhaps it would be better to simply note that Cleopatra killed Ptolemy XIV before he could attain majority and eliminate her. Cleopatra did the same things as countless other male monarchs. Yet she is still singled out as a psychopath rather than given credit for being a capable individual. Cleopatra was a woman in power, who knew how to stay in power.

While it may seem that we have advanced a million miles from the misogyny of our ancient counterparts, in some ways, nothing has changed at all. When Hilary Clinton used a private server for public business, or deleted emails from that server, she apparently did nothing that her male predecessors in previous administrations had not done. Yet she has been singled out as a “criminal,” whereas one never hears this of former male US leaders who took similar actions. While I wish neither to condone nor criticize the actions of any US presidential candidate, it is nonetheless important to insist, as November 8 approaches, that women in power no longer be treated by a double standard. As the world watches US citizens cast their ballots, it is my hope that US voters will bypass misogyny and make an informed choice.

Featured image credit: Painting of Cleopatra by John William Waterhouse, c.1887. Photo by Ángel M. Felicísimo. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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