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Learned Pursuits

Peter Parsons, 30 March 1989

Aulus Gellius: An Antonine Scholar and His Achievement 
by Leofranc Holford-Strevens.
Duckworth, 284 pp., £35, November 1988, 0 7156 1971 3
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... The scene is set in Athens, a mid-December in the mid-second century AD. A group of Roman students meet to celebrate the Saturnalia with dinner and conversation. The host sets a quiz: each man gets a problem – a rare word, a doubtful tense-form, a logical teaser, an antiquarian practice, a debated passage of Plato or some ‘charmingly obscure’ verses from an archaic poet ...

Cornelius Gallus lives

Peter Parsons, 7 February 1980

... and immortalised his title of Imperial Adjutant on the obelisk which now stands outside St Peter’s; in 29 he was made Prefect of the new province, the most glamorous and (so long as Rome depended on Egyptian corn) the most politically sensitive in the Empire. Octavian no doubt expected loyalty and discretion from the man he had made. But Gallus could ...

Old Flames

Peter Parsons, 10 January 1983

The Latin Sexual Vocabulary 
by J.N. Adams.
Duckworth, 272 pp., £24, September 1982, 9780715616482
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Ovid: The Erotic Poems 
translated by Peter Green.
Penguin, 450 pp., £2.95, November 1982, 0 14 044360 6
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Women’s Life in Greece and Rome 
by Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant.
Duckworth, 294 pp., £24, September 1982, 0 7156 1434 7
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Heroines and Hysterics 
by Mary Lefkowitz.
Duckworth, 96 pp., £8.95, September 1982, 0 7156 1518 1
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... elegy, always more concerned with poses than postures, confined itself to metaphor. (Even Ovid. Peter Green’s new version, recommended for its lively and understanding commentary, coarsens the language of the text, as it coarsens style and fabric; Poundian huff-and-puff blows elegance out of the window.) In oratory, statesman charges statesman with the ...

Writing it down

Peter Parsons, 31 August 1989

Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens 
by Rosalind Thomas.
Cambridge, 321 pp., £27.50, March 1989, 0 521 35025 5
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... Orality’ and ‘literacy’ loom large but fuzzy in analyses of Greek culture. The Homeric poems show stylistic features typical of oral composition: but would the large-scale design of the Iliad have been possible without writing? Plato’s arguments show the picturesque plausibilities of conversation: could Aristotle have invented logic without writing? Writing disseminates information and encourages argument: oral society is a society of rote-learning ...

Antigone in middle age

Peter Parsons, 21 August 1980

... Elle s’appelle Antigone et il va falloir qu’elle joue son rôle jusqu’au bout.’ Anouilh’s chorus states, what most readers would assume: there is only one part Antigone can play, and that is the part which Sophocles gave her. The sons of Oedipus quarrel; Polynices, exiled in Argos, returns to attack Eteocles, who rules in their native Thebes; in the battle, the brothers kill one another; Creon, the next king, orders that Eteocles be buried as a hero, Polynices left unburied as a traitor; Antigone, the sister of the dead men, defies the order and symbolically buries Polynices; Creon condemns her to an underground prison; there she hangs herself, and Creon’s son Haemon, in love with her, kills himself at her side ...

How do Babylonians boil eggs?

Peter Parsons, 18 April 1996

Ancient Greek Novels: The Fragments 
edited by Susan Stephens and John Winkler.
Princeton, 541 pp., £48, September 1995, 0 691 06941 7
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... The Greeks themselves had no word for their last and most lasting literary invention. ‘Extended prose fiction’ would describe it; ‘novel’ or ‘romance’ would characterise it. Modern critics used to opt for ‘romance’, with its implication of purple sentiment out in the Mills-and-Boondocks of literature. Nowadays, we hear more about the Greek Novel, with all that implies for a place in the Great Tradition ...

Eels Tomorrow, but Sprats Today

Peter Parsons, 18 September 1997

Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens 
by James Davidson.
HarperCollins, 372 pp., £25, June 1997, 0 00 255591 3
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... He made money by selling his country; he went around spending it on prostitutes and fish.’ So Demosthenes vilified a political opponent, as publicly corrupt and privately depraved. James Davidson’s concern is with those ancient appetites: food, drink and sex in classical Athens. At one level, he provides a guided tour from bordello to Billingsgate; at another, an essay on the politics of consumption ...

Diary

Peter Parsons: Rooting around Oxyrhyncus, 3 June 2015

... I shall call​ my memoirs ‘Fifty Years a Bag Lady’. That is what papyrologists do: they pick over the written rubbish of antiquity for items of interest. You can learn a lot about your neighbours from their dustbins, and the dustbins of the ancient Greeks bring out all my curiosities. What did the Greeks do about garlic breath? What names did they give their cows? Why did they prefer Euripides to Sophocles? Why did they throw away so many copies of Homer? The last question invites a reflective answer ...

Roman Wall Blues

Peter Parsons, 17 May 1984

Vindolanda: The Latin Writing-Tablets 
by A.K. Bowman and J.D. Thomas.
Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 157 pp., £16.50, November 1983, 0 907764 02 9
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The Christians as the Romans saw them 
by Robert Wilken.
Yale, 214 pp., £12.95, February 1983, 0 300 03066 5
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The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul 
by Wayne Meeks.
Yale, 299 pp., £15, June 1983, 0 300 02876 8
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Life in Egypt under Roman Rule 
by Naphtali Lewis.
Oxford, 239 pp., £15, August 1983, 0 19 814848 8
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... of the first Christian century. At the time it would not have been so clear. Paul quarrelled with Peter and Barnabas, and set up on his own. He and his staff founded and guided, by letter and visit, Christian groups in a dozen cities of Asia Minor and Greece. Jesus had asked his followers to give up home, family, worldly goods: Paul had to temper this message ...

Ancient Greek Romances

Peter Parsons, 20 August 1981

... In 1834, T.B. Macaulay left Holland House to unaccustomed silences, and set sail for Madras, where he was to save £30,000 and draft the penal code. Indian leisure inspired him to reread Greek. Thucydides, Euripides, Demosthenes, all got good marks. Fiction came off less well. Macaulay was a great reader of novels (to his father’s and Clapham’s distress); the Governor-General’s court wept over his copy of Clarissa ...

Glorious and Most Glorious City of the Oxyrhinchites

Christopher Kelly: Roman Egypt, 21 February 2008

City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt 
by Peter Parsons.
Phoenix, 312 pp., £9.99, December 2007, 978 0 7538 2233 3
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... that had remained forgotten and unread for fifteen hundred years. In City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, Peter Parsons sets out to capture the experience of life in an Egyptian town under the Roman Empire. His aim is to reconstitute Oxyrhynchos from its waste-paper, to evoke ‘a virtual landscape which we can repopulate with living and speaking ...

Uncle William

E.S. Turner, 13 June 1991

The Passing of Barchester: A Real-Life Version of Trollop 
by Clive Dewey.
Hambledon, 199 pp., £14.95, April 1991, 1 85285 039 6
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... be edited by a gang of ‘parsonical banditti’ ever ready to fight duels in Hyde Park. Hunting parsons, shooting parsons and wrestling parsons were becoming figures of the past. To be fervour-free was no longer the prime requirement in an ordinand: what was needed, in the belief of ...

At Tate Modern

Peter Campbell: Barnett Newman, 3 October 2002

... instructions and get close: a notice tacked to the entrance of his 1951 exhibition in the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, read: ‘There is a tendency to look at large pictures from a distance. The large pictures in this exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance.’ Then, with your visual field filled to overflowing, see what ...

Unreasoning Vigour

Stefan Collini: Ian Watt, 9 May 2019

Ian Watt: The Novel and the Wartime Critic 
by Marina MacKay.
Oxford, 228 pp., £25, November 2018, 978 0 19 882499 2
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... Lukács in German and Durkheim in French, alongside works by Weber, Troeltsch, Mannheim, Merton, Parsons, Radcliffe-Brown and more. In his preface he thanks Adorno, Henry Nash Smith, I.A. Richards, Talcott Parsons and Peter Laslett, among others. The standard caricature of the ...

Many Causes, Many Cases

Peter Hall, 28 June 1990

Confessions of a Reluctant Theorist 
by W.G. Runciman.
Harvester, 253 pp., £30, April 1990, 0 7450 0484 9
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... in sociology was first inspired, not, as might be expected, by that great systematiser, Talcott Parsons, but by George Homans, a more modest theorist whose own work was firmly rooted in historical enquiry and the insistence on ‘bringing men back in’ to sociology. With unerring instincts and a fellowship to the United States, Runciman sought out the best ...

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