Post-Viva Update

Confession: it’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog. Sorry! I successfully passed my viva with minor corrections in early January (woohoo!), and bizzarely I’ve been kept busier than I was before submission with a mixture of article writing, teaching, job applications, and part time work. On the side I’ve also begun to organise a conference with a colleague that will take place in early May entitled “Trifling Matters: Nugatory Poetics and Comic Seriousness‘ (for which a rudimentary website can be found here, and which will be updated as plans progress). In fact, I’ve effectively become a part time researcher, which feels very strange (I have half a day here and there, a few hours between teaching, that sort of thing), and makes it difficult to feel like I’m getting much ‘work’ done.

But anyway, today I thought I’d discuss the viva itself and how to approach life post-viva.

The viva itself is an arcane beast. After three (or more) years of hard research, thinking, and articulation of those thoughts through writing, the finished piece of work is subjected to two (or more) hours of oral examination. There are lots of self-help guides out there, but it’s hard to know what to prepare for and how. (I read How to Survive your Viva by Rowena Murray on a friend’s recommendation. It’s a bit basic at points, but it does take you through every possible stage of the process, and gives some food for thought.) I think the key issue I found was that I wanted to know what the exam would be like, and how I could ace it – essentially, I wanted to treat it like I’ve treated every other [written] exam I’ve ever taken.

But the problem of the viva is that it’s impossible to prepare for. To an extent, at least. Just as everyone’s PhD is a different entity, everyone’s viva voce involves a different subject and different examiners. Because of this I overprepared in some areas and underprepared in others, as I realised pretty soon into the process! While I had focused quite a lot on rereading the chapters and stitching together the overall argument of the thesis (an important thing to do, of course), my examiners were more intent on teasing out some of the bigger picture/blue skies thinking. And that made things quite uncomfortable at times. That’s not to say I hated the viva – I found it very discomforting emotionally as I dislike being put in the spotlight and poked and prodded at, but I also had the brilliant opportunity to discuss my work with a captive audience (and a very captive me).

In particular my examiners were interested in my methodological chapter, and some of the issues in how I drew several theoretical approaches together. There were disagreements, works I hadn’t read before came up (but I was honest about this), and by the end of the detailed discussion of this section I felt pretty thoroughly worn out. My examiners had told me at the start of the viva that they reckoned I would pass, but I was beginning to panic about major corrections (heaven forfend) by this stage. But everything was fine, and now the corrections have come back the majority of what we discussed is potentially shelved for ideas about The Book (cue dramatic music), which I think is a discussion for another day.

I think the main issue with the viva is that it can feel like a massive anticlimax. Three years of blood, sweat, and tears is compacted into two hours of non-stop discussion. It’s draining. I felt like an idiot for being so nervous I could barely string a complex sentence together. And when I found out it was minor corrections I thought “wait, really? After all that?” But it is what it is, and it should be celebrated for what it represents. It’s the end of a very long road, or at least a major stopping point along the road, because it’s important to note how much work there is still to do to turn the thesis into articles and/or a book project.

So life post-viva has been relatively idyllic. To an extent. I’ve taken up more hours at my part time job, and I teach more often now, and I can focus on other bits and pieces that I’ve neglected (like this blog, *cough*), so I’ve been kept happily busy. I’ve also taken the time out from the thesis to ‘recover’ from the viva, and to get my thoughts into order about the job market, book projects, what to do with this year. That sort of thing.

I think as a final note it’s important to reflect on what the PhD journey has been like. Like many, I was pretty naive when I entered the PhD programme. I thought it’d be like the MA, but more “PhD-y”, whatever that means. It’s been hard. I felt like quitting I don’t know how many times. Most of all it’s felt like I’ve been pulled apart and put back together again multiple times, but with (mostly) positive results. I always give a quick “warning Spiel” to wannabe PhD students about how difficult and isolating a PhD can be, but the positives far outweigh the negatives.

So while the PhD has been up and down I’m looking forward to the road ahead, and where it leads. Fingers crossed someone will pay me to teach and research Latin literature, and soon I’ll be published (woohoo!) in a few places. Here’s to making it this far, and to wanting to carry on.

Locating the Text: Walking Martial Around Rome

Hello, long time no see! I’m afraid I’ve been kept busy finalising my thesis (which I submitted just under a month ago, now. Hurrah!), which left less time for this blog than I’d hoped. I do have a few ideas going forward, though, so let’s see if this can become a bit more regular again.

As part of my post-submission relaxation period, which happily co-incided with my university’s reading week (i.e. no classes to teach!), I spent a few days in Rome with a colleague, whom I merrily dragged around the Eternal City. What I hadn’t been expecting was that the trip would put some of my own conclusions within the thesis into sharper focus. In short, the world of the text because more physical for me. One small example is when I discovered that the poet Martial had become monumentalised in the form of the Via Marziale (Martial Way):

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But that’s not all that surprised me.

It is a common criticism of us literary types that we do not ‘get’ the wider context of the literature that we are studying, that we are so buried in our books (and our theory) that we cannot accurately understand the world in which our authors worked. This is, perhaps, an oversimplification, but it is worth acknowledging. I personally try my best to work between various sub-disciplines in Classics (Latin philology, historiography, and archaeology (the latter to a lesser extent)) to reconstruct the most accurate picture of the ancient world that I can. That said, you’d be surprised how much the physical world that the text describes comes back to life when you walk around the modern city of Rome.

Part of the argument in my thesis about Martial’s treatment of Domitian in book 7 is that the poet continues heaping panegyric upon his emperor to create the image of a divine figure (whom the populace fiercely misses) as a thematic hub around which the rest of the books’ themes orientate themselves. One crucial poem is the penultimate epigram in a programmatic series that praises the emperor for his expected triumph over the Sarmatians on the empire’s north-eastern border. The language is hyperbolic, but the central idea is that Domitian is away from the city and sorely missed:

Though the wintry Bear-star and wild Peuce,
And Hister warming to hoof-beats,
And the Rhine now broken by a thrice shameless horn
Hold you, mastering the kingdoms of a perfidious race,
You, the greatest commander of the earth and parent of the world,
You, however, cannot be absent from our prayers.
There with our eyes and minds are we, Caesar,
So utterly do you alone hold the thoughts of all,
That the very crowd of the great Circus [Maximus] knows not
Whether Passerinus or Tigris runs. (Mart. 7.7)

There is a strong emphasis here on the distance of the emperor from his city, and the fact that the chariot-races that normally fill the populace with joy seem meaningless without the princeps‘ presence. I had previously noted that the poet’s decision to focus on the city as one large multitude emphasises this point all the more, but my recent visit to Rome made another point click into place: the proximity of the Circus Maximus to the Palatine palace.

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The Circus Maximus (centre), overlooked by the Palatine Palace (right)

The palace itself overlooks the Circus Maximus, meaning that those attending the races there would be dominated by its presence, and have the emperor’s influence physically constructed before them. When reading this poem, we should imagine a dejected populace sadly reminded of Domitian’s absence by the imposing structure on the Palatine – instead of watching the horses Passerinus and Tigris, the poet suggests, the populace are instead gazing dejectedly at the palace above them and praying for the emperor’s return. For a Roman reader, one used to the city, this backdrop to the poem is a lot more obvious than to someone idly flipping through a Loeb in south-west England.

I realise that this is a bit of a minor point that serves to reinforce my wider argument about Domitian in this poem, but I wonder what else we miss by not reading the physical city into the poems themselves. Martial’s Epigrams are firmly rooted in the city, and at times I feel very divorced from the world that the poet creates for me. I suppose this means I might have to force myself to wander Rome’s streets again in the future, which isn’t the worst thing in the world really, but for now I’ll try to think more carefully about the physical locations within the textual world the poet creates.

Updates: Thesis, Conferences, and the Blog

Hi everyone,

So it’s been nearly a year since I updated the blog – I think we can safely say that things are likely to remain sporadic (but hopefully not quite so spread out!), but I’d like to relaunch the blog on a semi-regular basis. My posts will continue to explore some of the ideas I’m having as I research Martial’s book structure & book culture, but I’ll also try to give more of an idea about life as a postgrad as I go on.

Anyway, a few updates people might be interested in:

  1. I’m now in the third year of my thesis. People keep asking “how is the PhD going” and, to be honest, I still have no idea how to begin answering that question. Nevertheless, things seem to be going well, and I have a timeline that looks more or less feasible to adhere to. Can I finish by next September? We’ll just have to see…
  2. I’ve since presented at my first ‘grown up’ (i.e. not solely postgraduate) conference! The Cambridge Triangulationships conference took place in July. The general theme was exploring the relationship between the triangle (hence triangulationships) of author-reader-text. You can check out the website here, which includes a list of the papers presented. I’m hoping to turn my paper (on general readers in Martial and Pliny the Younger) into a published piece within the future. Updates to follow…
  3. I’m booked to talk at two more conferences! The first is the annual Classical Association conference at Edinburgh (6-9th April). I’m taking part in a panel discussing “Audience Interactions” – how audiences are programmed into the text or how authors prepare for their audiences. My paper will consider how the recitatio is programmed into the structure of the Epigrams.
  4. The second conference is June 9-11 in Zurich, and is entitled “The Materiality of Texts between the Lebenswelt and Lesewelt.” I’m very much looking forward to this interdisciplinary event, and I’ll be considering how the shift from ancient form to modern text (i.e. papyrus scroll towards codex and the modern book) radically changes how we interact with the Epigrams. You can find the conference CFP here. Hopefully more updates to follow nearer the time.

So far the upcoming year looks quite busy – I’m teaching in the Spring term on a course on Roman Laughter (which includes Martial – huzzah!), and generally headed towards writing up the thesis. At the moment it looks like it’ll be split into two or three sections, but maybe I can go further into that another time…

At any rate – thanks for dropping by! I hope to upload some more Martial Musings in the near future.

SAM HAYES AD LECTORES SAL.

Greetings, hello, and welcome! I’ve been wrestling with the idea of coming up with a blog for some time now and finally got down and did it. I just wanted to leave this post here to introduce myself and let you know my plans for this project.

Who I Am

While some of you have no doubt looked at my About page I’ll introduce myself here too. My name is Sam Hayes and I’m a Classicist (hi Sam…). I’m currently a PhD student at the University of Exeter working on the epigrammatist Martial. I look at book structure, book culture, and comic books (it makes sense, I promise). I’ve learned Latin since I was 11 years old and I’d like to have a go at doing something interesting with it (besides pointing out the difference between whose, whom, who, and who’s).

What This Blog is For

I’m going to use this space to test out my research ideas, talk about life as a PhD student in the South-West of England, and post up interesting things about the classical world. I’m not going to say too much about contemporary affairs unless they really matter to me, as I don’t think I have the knowledge or wisdom yet to drop weekly essays condemning the actions of this or that politician (though that may change dependent on how ticked off I get, or if I learn anything in grad school).

At present my plans are to give an idea of the direction my research is taking as well as looking in depth at some of my favourite poems by Martial. The literature of the Flavian period (69-96 AD) has been undergoing a scholarly revival over the past couple of decades, but Martial is still somewhat under-represented when compared with Statius.

There are a few reasons for this…

For a start, Statius wrote more (or, rather, more of Statius survived the test of time) and in a couple of different genres. His Silvae (literally ‘woods’ but with a metapoetic sense of ‘poetic stuff’) gives a sense of the social world of the upper classes by covering notable events amongst the aristocrats. His Thebaid and Achilleid (about the Seven Against Thebes and Achilles respectively, the latter is an unfinished work) are both epic poems – and epic poetry tends to get a better press (unless you’re Lucan, who gets a mixed review even today).

While both poets flourished under the emperor Domitian it’s Martial who most flamboyantly toadied up to him, and many of his Epigrams concern themselves with praising him with great gusto. This causes issues for the reception of a poet who praises one of Suetonius’ famous ‘bad’ emperors. Juvenal went so far as to call Domitian a “bald Nero” in his fourth Satire (read it – it’s great stuff). At any rate, whether Martial liked Domitian or not is irrelevant – he’s had a bad press. One of my favourite quotes is from Byron who quips in his Don Juan “and then what proper person can be partial | to all those nauseous epigrams of Martial.” It really doesn’t help that Martial wrote a lot (sc. a great whopping pile) of obscene epigrams. With this in mind you might begin to get an idea of what it means to try to rehabilitate Martial (which in turn begs the question of whether he should be rehabilitated at all).

So yes, while Martial has had a much better press in recent years (another favourite quotation of mine comes from Gilbert Highet’s Juvenal the Satirist in the 1950s, who names Martial “that nasty little man”) he still has a long way to go. I’d like to be a small part of this re-evaluation of a great and (dare I say it?) funny poet.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey, and that you find it entertaining too.