The Classical Association Conference 2013

Where would you find historical novelists, classicists, teachers, ancient historians, and students from all over the world all rubbing shoulders? It must be the Classical Association Annual Conference!

The Classical Association is the biggest classical organisation in the UK, supporting activities that promote understanding and enjoyment of classical culture. They hold a large conference at a different university every year, and this year the University of Reading had the honour with CA2013. As one of the conference organisers, I was in an ideal position to see what was going on at the conference and to ask a few people about their experiences.

First on my list of people to talk to is Dr David Carter, author of The Politics of Greek Tragedy. Dr Carter has been in charge of CA2013 ever since the University of Reading agreed to host it way back in 2011. He assembled a team of lecturers from within the Classics Department, who would each help with part of the organisation, such as finding speakers, planning excursions, picking venues, and ordering food and drink. When I asked Dr Carter about organising a successful conference, he said that the main thing was that it should run smoothly and keep on schedule. ‘Once we’ve set that in motion,’ he said, ‘people will turn up and be brilliant and make the conference.’ And he was absolutely right.

Hundreds of emails, bookings, and meetings later, people began to arrive at CA2013 on Wednesday 3rd April, for a drinks reception in Reading’s beautiful Town Hall. They had the chance to visit Reading Town Hall Museum, before the special event of the evening, a talk by Professor Alan Sommerstein. Professor Sommerstein has translated a huge number of ancient plays, from the comedies of Aristophanes and Menander to the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, so he was well-placed to tell us about his approach to translating ancient drama.

The following morning, 400 people gathered at the University of Reading for a day of talks and excursions. There were ten sessions of three talks on at the same time, with each session exploring a different topic. Conference-goers could decide which session they wanted to join in by picking which topic they wanted to hear about. Popular sessions that day explored the Greek historian Herodotus, oratory in ancient Athens, the Roman military, and teaching classics in schools and universities. The session I joined was called Classics in Museums. Vicky Donnellen of University College London gave a talk about her research into why people visit classical collections and what they think about them. I gave a talk about vase animation in museums, based on a project called Ure View that was done at the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology with animator Steve Simons and local teenagers ( ). There was a third talk on classical sculpture in museums, and one on the Nottingham Castle Museum’s display of finds from the sanctuary of Diana at Nemi in Italy. The talks were followed by lots of questions from the audience of curators, students, and academics, as people shared their ideas about what they’d heard.

A surprise snow storm made life interesting for the hundred or so people who had booked to go on an excursion. Sixty people bravely went ahead with the visit to Silchester, site of the Roman city of Calleva Atrebatum. The trip was led by Dr Matthew Nicholls, who is currently creating a 3-D digital model of the city. A talk was given in the freezing church nearby by Professor Michael Fulford, who has led the excavation of the site for decades. Delegates defied the snow to visit the remains of the city’s amphitheatre and its impressive walls and city-gates. Among these visitors to the site was a secondary school teacher who told me that he had joined the excursion to gather information and photos to use in his classes on Roman Britain; he considered the trip a great opportunity to find something special to share with his pupils. Other excursions took people on a boat trip on the Thames, to the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, and to the Museum of English Rural Life. Those who didn’t venture out took the opportunity to browse books on ancient history and literature at the many publishers’ stands. On returning to the University, everyone gathered for a key note speech from Professor Charlotte Roueché, who talked about the future direction of Digital Classics.

One thing that’s so amazing about the ancient world is how it has inspired people across the ages to create new works of art. There was a fine demonstration of this on Thursday evening, in the form of a concert held at the church of St. Mary-the-Virgin. The music was two or three hundred years old, but the subjects were all far more ancient! Music scholars from the university, including ancient history student Sian Griffiths, gave a tremendous performance of classical music with Greco-Roman themes. We heard a song by Handel which has Cleopatra singing to Julius Caesar, we heard Dido’s Lament, from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and we heard songs from Venus, Juno, Mercury and Pluto all from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. The singing was beautiful, and the reminder that the Greeks and Romans have inspired every age since antiquity went down very well with the classics-loving audience.

After the concert I joined a group of classics and ancient history teachers for dinner. Dr Edward Bragg teaches at Peter Symonds College in Hampshire, where pupils can study Latin and Classical Civilisation. His talk at CA2013 was about ways of using visual images in A-Level classes. Dr Bragg explained why he had come to the conference, saying, ‘I enjoy hearing about new research on the Greco-Roman world and I’m really impressed with the amount of sessions there are on teaching classical topics.’ By attending the conference, he and other teachers and lecturers were able to share their experiences and ideas and to pick up new ideas, all of which helps to keep teaching and learning about classics fresh and interesting. The CA supports the attendance of teachers and students by providing bursaries which cover conference fees and accommodation.

Friday brought a new day of talks. There were sessions on the ancient biographer Plutarch, on ancient tragedy in the music of modern Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, on e-learning, on classics in 20th century US politics, and on religious minorities under Rome. With such a broad range of topics, there was something for everyone, and all with a classical twist. Lots of people had been giving feedback about their sessions on Twitter, and the afternoon saw a big group of tweeters meet in person to have lunch together, giving a new dimension to the conference and the online scene. The different sessions were followed up by a talk for everyone, given by Robin Osborne, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Cambridge and President of the Classical Association.

Friday evening was rounded off by a grand dinner for almost three-hundred people in Reading’s spectacular concert hall. I got talking with historical novelist Lindsey Davis, author of Nemesis, The Iron Hand of Mars, and See Delphi and Die. ‘Sometimes I get ideas for new stories at the CA,’ she explained, ‘but mostly I come because classics people are such good fun.’ Lindsey has been to many CA conferences, so for her, as for many others, conference time is a great opportunity to see friends, make new friends, and enjoy a common interest. After the meal, Professor Mary Beard was awarded the Classical Association Prize. The prize is given at every CA conference to a person who has excelled at getting the public excited about the ancient world. In her acceptance speech, Professor Beard spoke of her enthusiasm for work with the public and her firm belief that the public face to of classics should be built on strong foundations of knowledge and research.

Saturday morning saw a few tired faces, but everyone was ready to get stuck in to a fresh day of talks. Dr Helen Lovatt spoke about Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries, and through a Twitter connection, the children’s novelist was able to join in the session by answering questions over the internet. In the New Theoretical Approaches session, Professor Thomas Harrison talked about religious belief in the ancient world, urging us to be open-minded and to be conscious that belief is not always the same thing in different times and places, not even for the same person. Dr Kostas Vlassopoulos asked us to bring a similar sophistication to thinking about ancient slavery. If we want to understand ancient slavery, Dr Vlassopoulos argued, we should try and find-out how the people involved in each situation were thinking about it, and not just assume that they all thought the same thing all the time. A second session introduced fascinated listeners to the Egadi Project, which explores the sea-floor at the site of the final naval battle of the First Punic War in 241 B.C.E. Their stunning discoveries include ten bronze rams from warships damaged in the battle.

Finally the sun came out as it was time for people to make their way home. First time speakers breathed sighs of relief that their talks had gone well, student helpers directed people towards the station, and people gathered their notes and swapped email addresses as they began their journeys back across the UK and to Canada and the United States, to Ireland and Estonia, to Australia and New Zealand, to Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark, to Nigeria, and to Italy and Greece. Lots of ideas had been shared and lots of fun had been had. When else can you have breakfast with a museum curator, coffee with a philologist, lunch with a historical novelist, and dinner with an ancient historian? Roll on next year’s CA conference...