CAI 2018 Summer School ‘Entertaining the Masses’ Review

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On the weekend of 17-19th August, the Classical Association of Northern Ireland was proud to host the Classical Association of Ireland‘s Summer School for 2018 in Queen’s University Belfast. With its range of subjects and speakers, the Summer School promised to live up to its overall topic of Entertaining the Masses.


After the CAI AGM, the 2018 Summer School was kicked off by its keynote lecture entitled ‘Honour among Thebes’ from none other than best-selling novelist Natalie Haynes. The eager audience were immediately enthralled by Natalie’s machine gun delivery and tremendous quick-wit as she covered every possible avenue of the topic that her hour long time slot permitted. Natalie took us back to her days before becoming a best-selling author and classicist, reminiscing about her less-successful stints as a comedian in the Mandela Hall and the Empire, both little more than a stone’s throw away.


That comedic background was in full view with a fast paced, whirlwind but highly entrancing lecture which involved a plethora of (somehow hugely relevant) tangents like The Rock, Fast and the Furious, punching a mega-shark, the Brian Coxes and so many more…

Natalie observed that female characters within Greek tragedy are not the focus of the works, even those named after them – paying particular attention to Antigone who has far less lines than her male counterpart and uncle, Creon. We learned of the interesting consistencies between modern soaps and ancient plays, with both paying heed to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. For them to be tragic, all plots must contain things such as mythos (plot), unity of place (be it in front of the palace of Thebes or on Coronation Street) and unity of time (all things must follow a logical and chronological order).

Focus fell predominantly on Aristotle’s favourite, Oedipus Rex, and how the smartest person in the whole tragedy is Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife/mother. She, above all other main characters (including the male ones) is first to deduce just who has murdered the previous king, ultimately leading to her tragic suicide and all within her minimal 120 lines of dialogue.


Finishing off our fantastic keynote lecture, we are treated to a short reading of Natalie’s book The Children of Jocasta, which showcases the points of view of two of the female characters from the Oedipus stories, Jocasta and Ismene.


The Summer School reconvened the following morning with CANI’s own Helen McVeigh hosting ‘Classics and Modern Culture: in conversation with Natalie Haynes.’ Natalie highlighted that it should be the goal of Classics to make itself less elitist. The days of classical subjects being reserved for those who can afford the education and the appropriate institutions should be gone; those subjects should be made available to study for anyone who wishes to, be it a state school or private one.


“But what got you into Classics?” asks Helen, to which Natalie replies, “a brilliant teacher” – a simple response, but perhaps one that resonates with all of us. Our greatest loves, our greatest interests were perhaps ignited by an inspirational teacher earlier in our lives. We hear of Natalie’s series on BBC Radio 4, Natalie Haynes Stands up for the Classics, a 30 minute show featuring ‘showbiz’ guests, stand up and all centring on characters and people from the Ancient World.

A few more diversions here and there and we round off the conversation with a reading from Haynes’ next work, A Thousand Ships; a compelling story of the Trojan War, from the point of view of the women and the goddesses. Natalie also answers a few questions from the captivated Summer School members.


Dr Laura Pfuntner (QUB) introduced the second lecture of the day, ‘Fun and Games in Ancient Epic’, given by Professor Helen Lovatt of Nottingham University.  The audience was first asked to think about what the epic heroes actually do for fun. “Feasting and games”, according to Professor Lovatt. These were ritualistic, sometimes commemorative and vastly more serious than usually thought. Gladiatorial combat and chariot racing were important spectacles and enormous public events. A key to revealing this information is to look at the architecture of Ancient Rome, especially the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. The sheer size of these carefully constructed places can only suggest that the Romans considered the idea of games and sport as being of the upmost importance, especially as these structures have been able to withstand the test of time.


Professor Lovatt explained that “storytelling is serious business”, with feasting and games playing a major part. Epics such as the Iliad and the Aeneid go into great depth at times to describe fun and games for us. The Iliad 23 gives us the great example of the funeral games held for Achilles’ dear friend, Patroklos. As Professor Lovatt highlights, these games are perhaps fun for the viewer (and reader) but can be very serious for the participants as they quite often argue over results such as when Menelaos in Iliad 23 complains that Antilochos only overcame him in the chariot race by cutting him off.

An interesting question was raised regarding the competitiveness of Ancient Greek society as a whole, with Professor Lovatt reminding us that sport, games and competition were seen throughout Greek life, be it through the work of poets, vase painters or of sculptors.


After a brief interlude, Helen McVeigh introduced Dr Cressida Ryan (Oxford) for her talk asking ‘Why is Tragedy Entertaining?’ Following the Bee Gees’ song ‘Tragedy’ (the Steps version), we follow Dr Ryan through the five things that make tragedy entertaining by using five different lyrics from the catchy song.

Plato lambasts the concept of poetry (especially tragedy) within his Republic, considering it self-indulgent, provoking the wrong emotions. It does not help the grieving move on, leaves us with the inability to reason and so strays us further and further away from his concept of the ‘good soul’. The views of Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, differ drastically. He believes that one must be a genius not a madman to write good poetry. Aristotle suggests we can learn from poetry as it can be relevant within our own lives. Aristotle himself was not sure how to define tragedy, offering four separate definitions in the Poetics. What he does state are the rules which a tragedy must follow and for there to be rules there must be reason – something which Plato believes a tragedy lacks.


Dr Ryan then raised Hitchcock’s concept of suspense versus surprise. In one scenario there is a bomb under the table between two people but the audience has no idea until the bomb explodes. This is surprise. Suspense is where the bomb is under the table, the audience know it is going to go off soon, while the people at the table may not. In many ways, suspense is perhaps more effective as the audience then gets to participate in the action of the play. Classical tragedy offers similar journey – quite often the audience know what is around the corner: the audience know Oedipus has married his own mother; it’s just a matter of time until he finds out.

It should be said that during this lecture we almost had a tragedy of our own when the wind breezed through an open window causing a banner to fall right in front of some unsuspecting CAI Summer School attendees! Dr Ryan was on the case however, and swiftly moved the banner out of the way.


Dr John Curran then introduced QUB’s own Barry Trainor, who presented his paper on ‘All War and no Play: Entertainment at Sparta.’ Barry highlighted that what we generally think of when we think of the Spartans – militarism, social order, austerity – is a somewhat narrow idea of what they were really like as a people.

Their frequent festivals not only carried heavy religious connotations – famously causing Sparta to fail to arrive in time for the Battle of Marathon – but may also have been important ‘holidays’ from the usual day-to-day austerity of Spartan life.

Barry then focused on Spartan laughter, a concept that could be considered ‘unspartan’ but was actively encouraged. The legendary lawgiver Lykourgos believed that laughter was also a way for Spartans to escape from the austerity of their everyday life, to relax and unwind. Sosibius also mentions the prevalence of the divine personification of Laughter amongst the Spartans, who built sanctuaries to this emotive god. Barry also spoke of how the Spartans taught their youth what kind of laughter was acceptable and encouraged them to mock one another. The butts of these jokes quite often were the Helot slaves who would be systematically humiliated as a means of mental subjugation and thus demonstrating the superiority of the Spartans.


The final talk of the 2018 Summer School was introduced by Amber Taylor, as CANI’s Helen McVeigh asked ‘Who Read Ancient Novels?,’ with significant focus on the Callirhoe of Chariton. This tale features apparent death, long journeys, love at first sight (many times!) and reuniting all as prevalent themes throughout its length. But who read this fantasy story?

Ben Edwin Perry suggested that the novel was intended for the uneducated and women; perhaps he believed it was intended for a kind of ‘Mills and Boon’ readership. As Helen points out, this is not necessarily the case. At one point in the text, Chaireas, the narrative’s male protagonist, is compared to Achilles. It is well worth noting that if the readers of Chariton’s novel had not been taught Homer at school then this comparison within the middle of the text would have been for nothing. Therefore, Chariton would have been inaccessible to his supposed readers.


Helen asked us to think about the women who could have been reading this tale. Greek vases depict women reading and studying – clearly educated and literate, while Herodotus spoke of a mother teaching her child Greek language and grammar. Chariton’s Callirhoe was polite, intelligent and cultured. Could this in turn mean she was literate?

After the projector decided to switch itself off, Helen took a few questions from the enthralled Summer School delegates, speaking of (potentially rude) monks, the influence of Dickens and if Chariton’s text survives in full.


And with that the 2018 CAI Summer School lectures came to a close, allowing delegates and speakers to adjourn to nearby watering holes for further discussion and refreshment, before reconvening at QUB for a splendid dinner. This may have been the end of the weekend’s festivities, but not its opportunities for learning.

Patrician Journies


Early on Sunday morning, a group of Summer School attendees departed QUB with their tour guide Dr Therese Cullen, an expert in early monastic Ireland and Patrician studies.

The first stop was Nendrum monastery on the shore of Strangford Lough.  Founded by St Mochaoi in the fifth-century, Nendrum was a sizeable monastic settlement that held a significant influence over the local area. It is one of the best preserved cashel sites in Ireland and continues to use a tide-mill, which dates back to the early 7th-century; possibly one of the oldest in the world.

The group then travelled to Saul church, which tradition holds was the location were a local chieftain granted St Patrick a barn for shelter – Saul being the anglicised word for Sabhall, Irish for barn.


After a soup and sandwich lunch at Paddy’s Barn, the next stop was Downpatrick cathedral – the traditional resting place of St Patrick. Much to delight of all, Dr Cullen had liaised with archaeologists from QUB who agreed to show us the excavations that were taking place at the cathedral. There was some artefact handling and shown the actual dig sites.

Just outside Downpatrick, the final stop of the day was the well-preserved Inch Abbey. Dr Cullen rounded off a very pleasant and informative day by showing off the various areas within the Abbey, such as the cloister, the altar and even the oven!


There are many who need to be thanked for their contribution to what was a fantastic weekend.

– the Classical Association of Ireland for allowing CANI to host the Summer School at QUB once more

– the staff of QUB who looked after us so well over the weekend

– Dr Therese Cullen of Irish Monastic Tours for sharing her expertise on the guided tour

– all of the delegates who attended the Summer School, offering insightful questions and intriguing discussion

– the speakers for their insight and expertise on the classical world

And special thanks to Helen McVeigh and John Curran for all their efforts in helping bring together such a fantastic event.

Amber Taylor and Barry Trainor

Canada Room, Queen's University BelfastFriday 17th August 2018'Honour Among Thebes'Natalie HaynesSaturday 17th…

Posted by The Classical Association in Northern Ireland on Saturday, July 21, 2018

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