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A bookish slideshow

From ancient times to the creation of eBooks, books have a long and vast history that spans the globe. Although a book may only seem like a collection of pages with words, they are also an art form that have survived for centuries. In honor of National Library Week, we couldn’t think of a more fitting book to share than The Book: A Global History. The slideshow below highlights the fascinating evolution of the book.



In celebration of National Library Week we’re giving away 10 copies of The Book: A Global History, edited by Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H.R. Woudhuysen. Learn more and enter for a chance to win.

Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H. R. Woudhuysen are the authors of The Book: A Global History. Michael F. Suarez S.J. is Professor and Director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. H. R. Woudhuysen is Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford.

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Sex and the ancient teenager

By Jane Alison


Jane Fonda spoke passionately about teenage sexuality this week on the Diane Rehm Show. (Her new book is Being A Teen: Everything Teen Girls & Boys Should Know About Relationships, Sex, Love, Health, Identity & More.) Fonda’s book and words are very much of our age, yet some of her most moving points evoke the ghost of Ovid and his mythic stories of young sexuality that are over two thousand years old. His tales tell of the awful desire to melt into someone else, or the misery of living in the wrong sexual form, or the terror of first being touched by another. If someone can pierce you in sex and in love, how do you survive?

Here’s Jane Fonda on girls and anorexia:

It’s interesting that the eating disorders start with girls when they enter puberty, which is the time when girls very often lose their voice. Their voice goes underground, and they become what they think other people want them to be.

Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse, 1903.

Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse, 1903. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, UK.

And here’s Ovid, telling the story of Echo and the beautiful boy Narcissus, who is wanted by girls and boys alike but has no need for anyone:

Seeing Narcissus drive frightened deer into nets
was that chattery nymph who couldn’t keep quiet
or start talking herself, poor clamoring Echo.
She still had a body, she wasn’t just voice,
yet could use her mouth then only as she does now:
helplessly repeating the last words someone says. . . .
Echo singsongs back
another’s voice and parrots the words she’s heard.
When she saw Narcissus roam alone in the woods
she was excited at once and secretly trailed,
and the closer she followed the hotter she grew,
as when sulfur is daubed at the top
of a torch and snatches the dancing flames.
Oh, how she wanted to go with sweet words and say
how she longed for him! But her nature stopped this,
would let her start nothing. So she would wait
and do all she could: cry back any words he said.
The boy had somehow lost his close gang of friends
so called, “Is anyone here?” “Here!” called Echo.
He was surprised, looked around, and then shouted
“Come!”—and she shouted it back to him shouting.
He looked again, and when nobody came, he called
“Why stay away from me?”—she called the same.
He stood still, tricked by the sense of an answering voice,
and cried, “Be with me, come!” Never more lustily
would Echo cry any words: “Be with me, come!”
And she herself followed these words from the woods,
rushing to throw her arms around his sweet neck.
But he bolted and, bolting, shouted, “Hands off!
I would die before I’d give you anything.”
Stricken, she could only say, “I’d give you anything . . .”
Then she hid in the woods, kept her mortified face
muffled in leaves, and lived only in lonely caves.
But her love clung, swelled with painful rejection;
sleeplessness wasted away her poor flesh
and pulled her gaunt and tight. Her freshness and sap
drifted into air; only voice and bones remained.
Then voice alone—they say her bones became rock.

Now here’s Jane Fonda on teenagers and sexual orientation:

The suicides, the depression, the cutting, the damage to self for young people who question their sexual orientation is absolutely heartbreaking . . . Some people are born into the wrong apparent gender. They appear to be one gender but everything about them knows that they’re really another gender . . . More and more young people are saying to their parents, I’m not a girl, or I’m not a boy—I won’t wear those clothes . . .

And here’s Ovid, telling (with irony) the story of Iphis, whose mother has raised her secretly as a boy to save her from being killed. Iphis is now betrothed to an unsuspecting girl, Ianthe, and is utterly perplexed:

The two had the same age and same looks; the same
teachers had taught them their letters and numbers.
Love struck each fresh heart and gave each the same
longing—but in hopes they were far from the same.
Ianthe wants her wedding, bridal torches and all,
certain the one she takes for a man will be one.
Iphis loves, too, but can’t hope to savor that love,
and this kindles her hotter, girl burning for girl.
Barely holding back tears, she says, “What will become
of me, smitten with this freakish, unheard of new
love? If the gods had wanted to ruin me, they
could just have given me a natural problem.
Cows don’t itch for cows, or mares for other mares.
A ram craves a ewe; a hind follows her stag.
Birds mate like this, too—in the animal world
no female’s overcome with lust for a female.
I wish I just weren’t! In case there’s some monster Crete
didn’t yet have, Pasiphaë fixed her heart on a bull.
But that was female-on-male, and my love’s truly
more brainsick than that. . . .
If all the world’s cleverness poured down upon me
or Daedalus flew his wax wings right here, what
could he do? Make a boy of this girl with clever
contraptions? Or is it you he’d change, Ianthe?
Pull yourself together, Iphis. Toughen your soul.
Give up this stupid obsession, this hopeless hope.
You see what you are. Or do you fool yourself, too?”

At the last minute, though, Iphis is transformed into a boy: a happily magical ending.

Bodies do change, and who feels this more acutely than teenagers? Ways of talking about sexual changes and encounters—the strange borders of the self when first touching another—change too, from the metaphorical psychologies of Ovid to the popular teachings of a modern icon. But the truths inside both bodies and the tales we tell about them seem indeed to stay the same.

Jane Alison is author of Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid. Her previous works on Ovid include her first novel, The Love-Artist (2001) and a song-cycle entitled “XENIA” (with composer Thomas Sleeper, 2010). Her other books include a memoir, The Sisters Antipodes (2009), and two novels, Natives and Exotics (2005) and The Marriage of the Sea (2003). She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.

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Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Ovid the naturalist

By Jane Alison


Ovid was born on the 20th of March (two thousand and fifty-some years ago): born on the cusp of spring, as frozen streams in the woods of his Sulmo cracked and melted to runnels of water, as coral-hard buds beaded black stalks of shrubs, as tips of green nudged at clods of earth and rose, and rose, and released tumbles of blooms.

The extraordinariness of living-change: this would be the life-breath of Ovid’s great Metamorphoses. In his poem are changes as real as being born, falling in love for the first time, or dying. In it, too, are changes that seem fantastical: a boy becomes a spotted newt; a girl becomes a myrrh. But is it so much more surprising to see a feather sprout from your fingertip than to look between your legs, at twelve, and find a new whorl of hairs? Or feel, growing in your belly, another small body? Many of even the fantastic transformations in Ovid’s poem are equations for natural change, as if to make us see anew. To portray his transmutations, both fantastic and real, Ovid studied closely the natural shifts in forms all around him.

He looked at the effects of warm blood rising within skin, for instance, or sunrays streaming through cloth. Here’s Arachne, caught in a moment of brashness:

A sudden blush filled her face–
she couldn’t control it–but vanished as fast,
just as the sky grows plum when dawn first comes
but with sunrise, soon glows white.

Atalanta, mosaic, 3rd or 4th century. Scala / Art Resource, NY

Atalanta, mosaic, 3rd or 4th century. Scala / Art Resource, NY

Or Atalanta as she runs races to avoid being married:

A flush runs over the girl’s pearly skin,
as when a red awning over a marble hall
suffuses it with the illusion of hue.

Several mythical girls in Ovid’s poem turn into springs. How render this? Byblis cries uncontrollably once her brother has refused her love:

Just as drops weep from the trunk of a pine tree
or oily bitumen oozes from soil
or ice loosens to liquid under the sun
when a warm breeze gently breathes from the west,
so Byblis slowly resolved into tears, slowly
she slipped into stream.

Cyane is overcome, too, when she can’t save a girl who’s been stolen:

In her silent mind grew
an inconsolable wound. Overwhelmed by tears,
she dissolved into waters whose mystic spirit
she’d recently been. You could see limbs go tender,
her bones begin bending, her nails growing soft.
Her slimmest parts were the first to turn liquid,
her ultramarine hair, legs, fingers, and feet
(for the slip from slender limbs to cool water
is slight). Then her shoulders, back, hips, and breasts
all melted and vanished in rivulets.
At last instead of living blood clear water flowed
through her loosened veins, with nothing left to hold.

And how might new forms come to be? Ovid considered coral:

But a sprig of seaweed–still wet with living pith–
touches Medusa’s head, feels her force, and hardens,
stiffness seeping into the strand’s fronds and pods.
The sea-nymphs test the wonder on several sprigs
and are so delighted when it happens again
they throw pods into the sea, sowing seeds for more.
And even now this is the nature of coral.
At the touch of air it petrifies: a supple
sprig when submarine in air turns into stone.

For a new flower to be born and be a yearly testament to Venus’ grief when her lover, Adonis, is gored to death, Ovid thought of peculiarly animate earth:

Venus sprinkled
scented nectar on Adonis’ blood. With each drop
the blood began to swell, as when bubbles rise
in volcanic mud. No more than an hour had passed
when a flower the color of blood sprang up,
the hue of a pomegranate hiding ruby seeds
inside its leathery rind.

And in the story of Myrrha, Ovid elides psychological, naturalistic, and fantastic transformations. Myrrha has seduced her father and, pregnant, fled into the wilds. When her child is about to be born, she cannot bear to live inside her own skin, so she prays:

“If alive I offend the living
and dead I offend the dead, throw me from both zones:
change me. Deny me both life and death.”
Some spirit was open to her words, some god
willing to grant her last prayer. For soil spread
over her shins as she spoke, and her toenails split
into rootlets that sank down to anchor her trunk.
Her bones grew dense, marrow thickened to pith,
her blood paled to sap, arms became branches
and fingers twigs; her skin dried and toughened to bark.
Now the growing wood closed on her swollen womb
and breast and was just encasing her throat–
but she couldn’t bear to wait anymore and bent
to the creeping wood, buried her face in the bark.
Her feelings have slipped away with her form
but still Myrrha weeps, warm drops trickling from the tree.
Yet there’s grace in these tears: the myrrh wept by the bark
keeps the girl’s name, which will never be left unsaid.
Then the baby that was so darkly conceived grew
inside its mother’s bark until it sought a way
out; on the trunk, a belly knob, swollen.
The pressure aches, but Myrrha’s pain has no words,
no Lucina to cry as she strains to give birth.
As if truly in labor the tree bends and moans
and moans more, the bark wet with sliding tears.
Then kind Lucina comes and strokes the groaning
limbs, whispering words to help the child slip free.
The bark slowly cracks, the trunk splits, and out slides
the live burden: a baby boy wails.

A panoply of metamorphoses, fantastical and real, shifting from life to loss to life again. And the baby just born is Adonis, who, though adored by Venus, will die, and his blood will sink into the earth–but then bubble up as an anemone, and it will be springtime, again, and again.

Jane Alison is author of Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid. Her previous works on Ovid include her first novel, The Love-Artist (2001) and a song-cycle entitled XENIA (with composer Thomas Sleeper, 2010). Her other books include a memoir, The Sisters Antipodes (2009), and two novels, Natives and Exotics (2005) and The Marriage of the Sea (2003).

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Research in the digital age

OSO-Banner2-568x123px

Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO) launched in 2003 with 700 titles. Now, on its tenth birthday, it’s the online home of over 9,000 titles from Oxford University Press’s distinguished academic list, and part of University Press Scholarship Online. To celebrate OSO turning ten, we’ve invited a host of people to reflect on the past ten years of online academic publishing, and what the next ten might bring.

By Adrastos Omissi


As someone who has lived out his entire academic career in a research environment augmented by digital resources, it can be easy to allow familiarity to breed contempt where the Internet is concerned. When I began my undergraduate degree in the autumn of 2005, Oxford’s Bodleian Library, as well as every faculty and college library, had already digitized their search functions, Wikipedia was approaching one million English articles, and all major journals were routinely publishing online (as well as busily uploading their back catalogues). Free and instantaneous access to a vast quantity of research material is, for those of my generation, simply assumed.

The Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. By Kamyar Adl CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. By Kamyar Adl CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Internet’s greatest gift is text, in every permutation and definition of that word imaginable. For research students, one of the greatest obstacles is to acquire the necessary information that they need to make their own work a solid, and above all, living piece of scholarship, in communication with the wider academic world. Text is, ultimately, the sine qua non of this struggle.

Each specialism has its own particular loves, its debts owed to the Internet. Find any doctoral candidate in Britain today and they’ll each have their own version of ‘I couldn’t have completed me doctorate without online product X.’ For me, a classicist, it was the digitization and free availability of an increasing proportion of the written records of the ancient world. Online libraries of Greek and Latin texts, libraries like Perseus, Lacus Curtius, and the Latin Library, or searchable databases like Patrologia Latina brought the classical world to life (and to my laptop).

Of course, it’s not just ancient books that are now open to easy access from anywhere that the Internet can reach. When I was an undergraduate I looked into how much it would cost me to buy the entire Cambridge Ancient History series, which I felt would make an invaluable addition to my bookshelves. The answer – somewhere in the region of £1,600 – was enough for me to go weak at the knee. Now, I have all fourteen volumes in PDF. Google Books and the increasing digitization of the archives of publishers and academic libraries means that paradigm shifting debate can now beam into student rooms and even into private homes.

Just as the automated production line turned the automobile, once a bastion of elitism, into an affordable commodity for the average household, so the Internet is now putting books that would have once been hidden in ivory towers into the hands of any person with the desire to find them. And as hardware improves, these options become more and more exciting. Tablet computing means that this enormous corpus of academic texts and original sources is now available on devices that fit into a coat pocket. Gone – or going – are the curved spines and broken bag straps that were formerly the lot of any student forced to move between libraries.

Of course, not everyone is beaming as barriers of cost and inconvenience are stripped away from academic texts. Publishers still have businesses to run and it will be interesting to see in years to come how sharply the lines of battle come to be drawn. Nor is the marginalization of the book, a thing of beauty in its own right, much of a cause for celebration. But for those wishing to access academic texts, the trend is up, and texts that would once have been found only after a long search through some dusty archive or at the outlay of several hundred pounds are now nothing more than a Google search away.

Adrastos Omissi grew up in Jersey, in the Channel Islands. He recently completed a doctorate in Roman History at St John’s College, Oxford, and now works as a researcher for the social enterprise consultancy, Oxford Ventures.

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Five things 300: Rise of an Empire gets wrong

By Paul Cartledge


Let’s be clear of one thing right from the word go: this is not in any useful sense a historical movie. It references a couple of major historical events but is not interested in ‘getting them right’. It uses historical characters but abuses them for its own dramatic, largely techno-visual ends. It wilfully commits the grossest historical blunders. This is in fact a historical fantasy-fiction movie and should be viewed and judged only as such. But in case any classroom teachers of Classical civilization or Classical history should be tempted to use it as a teaching aid: caveant magistri — let the teachers beware! Here are just five ways in which the movie is at best un-historical, at worst anti-historical.

(1) Error sets in with the very title: the ’300′ bit is a nod to Zack Snyder’s infinitely more successful 2006 movie to which this is a kind of sequel, and there is not just allusion to but bodily lifting of a couple of scenes from the predecessor. But which Empire is supposed to be on the rise here? I suppose that it’s meant to be, distantly, the ‘Athenian Empire’, but that didn’t even begin to rise until at least two years after the events the movie focuses on: the sea-battles of Artemisium and Salamis that both took place in 480 BCE.

300_Facebook_fight

(2) The movie gets underway with a wondrously unhistorical javelin-throw — cast by Athenian hero Themistokles (note the pseudo-authentic spelling of his name with a Greek ‘k’) on the battlefield of Marathon near Athens in 490 BCE, a cast which kills none other than Persian Great King Darius I, next to whom is standing his son and future successor Xerxes. Actually, though Darius had indeed launched the Persian expedition that came to grief at Marathon, he was not himself present there, nor was Xerxes.

Themistocles, on the other hand, was indeed present, but rather than carrying and throwing a javelin he was fighting in a dense phalanx formation and wielding a long, heavy pike armed with a fearsome iron tip made for thrusting into the Persian enemy hand-to-hand.

(3) From the Persians’ Marathon defeat, which (historically) accounts for their return revenge expedition under Xerxes, the scene shifts to the Persians’ fleet — in fact, a whole decade later. Connoisseurs of 300 will have been prepared for the digitally-enhanced, multiply-pierced and bangled Rodrigo Santo reprising his role of ‘god-king’ Xerxes. (Actually Persian king-emperors were not regarded or worshipped as gods.) Even they, though, will not necessarily have expected the Persian fleet to be under the command of a woman, and a Greek woman at that: Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), who is represented (in the exceedingly fetching person of Eva Green) as the equal if not superior of Xerxes himself, with her own court of fawning and thuggish male attendants, all hunks of beefcake.

Here the filmmakers are indeed drawing on a properly historical well of evidence: Artemisia — so we learn from Herodotus, her contemporary, fellow-countryman, and historian of the Graeco-Persian Wars — was indeed a Greek queen, who did fight for Xerxes and the Persians at Salamis. She did allegedly earn high praise from Xerxes as well as from Herodotus for the ‘manly’ quality of her personal bravery and her sage tactical and strategic advice.

But she was far from being admiral-in-chief of the entire Persian navy. She contributed a mere handful of warships out of the total of 600 or so, and those ships of hers could have made no decisive difference to the outcome of Salamis one way or the other.

(4) For some reason — perhaps because they were conscious of the extreme sameness of most of their material, a relentless succession of ultra-gory, stylised slayings, to the accompaniment of equally relentless drum’n'bass background thrummings — the filmmakers of this movie, unlike of 300, have felt the desire or even the need to include one rather prolonged and really quite explicit heterosexual sex-encounter. Understandably, perhaps, this is not between say Themistokles and his wife (or a slave-girl), or between Xerxes and a member of his (in historical fact, extensive) harem.

But — utterly and completely fantastically — it is between Themistokles and Artemisia in the interim between the battles of Artemisium (presented as a Greek defeat; actually it was a draw) and Salamis. Cue the baring of Eva Green’s considerable pectoral assets, cue some exceptionally violent and degrading verbal sparring, and cue virtual rape — encouraged by Artemisia at the time but later thrown back by her in Themistocles’s face as having been inadequate on the virility front.

300_Facebook_artemisia_2

(5) The crowning, climactic historical absurdity, however, is not the deeply unpleasant coupling between Themistokles and Artemisia, but the notion that in order for Themistocles and his Athenians to defeat the Persian fleet at Salamis they absolutely required the critical assistance of the massive Spartan navy which — echoes here of the US cavalry in countless westerns — turned up just in the nick of time, commanded by another Greek woman and indeed queen, Gorgo (widow of Leonidas, the hero of 300), again played by Lena Headey.

Actually, Sparta contributed a mere 16 warships to the united Greek fleet of some 400 ships at Salamis, and like Artemisia’s they made absolutely no difference to the outcome, which was resoundingly and incontestably an Athenian victory. The truly Spartan contribution to the overall defeat of the Persian invasion was made in very different circumstances, on land and by the heavy-infantry Spartan hoplites, at the battle of Plataea in the following summer of 479. But that is quite another story, one in which the un- or anti-historical filmmakers show not even a particle or scintilla of interest.

Paul Cartledge is the A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge and the author of After Thermopylae: the Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars (OUP, 2013). He hastens to make clear that he was not in any way a consultant on ’300: Rise of an Empire’, as he had been, in a minor way, on ’300′.

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Image credit: 300: Rise of An Empire. (c) Warner Bros. via 300themovie.com

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