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Reflections: Comparisons ancient and modern

Professor Philip Hardie was a Senior Research Fellow and Honorary Professor of Latin until his retirement last year. He reflects on the lockdown.

Not the only planned spring trip to be cancelled had been, for us, a week in Italy in the middle of March, combining academic business with pleasure. Part of the time we would have spent with some Italian friends, who initially encouraged us, as we wavered. Our friends have a big old house just outside the old town of Arezzo. ‘We have discovered a number of remarkable hillside walks’, they emailed, ‘and the weather looks promising. Then we have a walled garden, typical for Italian reactions to epidemics since Boccaccio.’ A couple of days later reports of the Italian epidemic became much more alarming, and both sides quickly got cold feet. End of our Tuscan spring break.

The reference to Boccaccio is of course to the Decameron, in which, during the Black Death of 1348, a group of young Florentines escape from the city to a villa in the countryside, where they while away the time by taking it in turns to tell ten stories a day over ten days. A rate of production made possible by more enforced leisure than the Trinity Fellows contributing these reflections amid their continuing commitments to teaching and research will be able to emulate.

Professor Hardie

It is human nature to seek precedents and analogies for strange and unexpected situations. The most famous plague in classical antiquity was the Athenian plague of 430 BC, in the second year of the Peloponnesian War. As narrated by Thucydides, this natural disaster was a stark reminder of the fragility of the progress of human civilization, proudly embodied in Periclean Athens. The plague carried off Pericles himself. Our own, classically trained, Prime Minister, is said to have a bust of Pericles on his desk. That in one respect, at least, he has come close to emulating his hero has not escaped notice.

For a vivid record of isolation and solitude, and the effects of the suspension of normal activity on the experience of time, a Latinist will think of the exile poetry of Ovid, relegated from Rome in AD 8 to the Black Sea, never to return before his death in AD 17. In order to make sense of what had happened to him, Ovid also reached for analogies, with the fictions of his own poem on wondrous transformations, the Metamorphoses. In exile the city-dwelling sophisticate has morphed into a semi-bestial version of himself. Who could believe it? Ovid tries to maintain some kind of contact with his former world through letters entrusted to the hazards of the ancient postal system, and through flights of the mind by which he conjures up imaginings of Rome. Modern technology at least ensures that we have more immediate forms of virtual contact with our loved ones and with the outside world from which we have been temporarily, and partially, excluded.

Waterhouse, John William; The Decameron; Lady Lever Art Gallery;

The current situation throws up contrasts as well as analogies. Like many others, my wife and I recognise a stark contrast between the lockdown and our travel adventures of the recent past. This time last year we were visiting an old friend who lives in Malawi. It was my first visit to sub Saharan Africa, and much about it struck the jaded traveller to Europe and North America with the shock of the new. As we were driven the sixty miles from the airport to where my friend lives, I was taken by the great numbers of people walking or riding, or pushing, heavily laden bicycles along the side of the road, for mile after mile, the women dressed in brightly coloured fabrics.

‘Ovid among the Scythians’ by Eugène Delacroix / Wikimedia

This was the more striking as we were driving not on a dirt track, but a well-made tarmacked road. But the reason for these crowds of pedestrians was also obvious enough, the almost total absence of motor traffic on the modern road. That contrast with the familiar has itself, however, now diminished. The roads in Cambridge have been almost empty. The banks of the Cam, when we go for our daily ration of exercise, are crowded with walkers (all two metres apart, of course), even if our friends and neighbours are not as brightly dressed as the women of the Malawian villages. Sometimes our daily excursions on foot or bicycle take us in different directions, and we find that we are becoming tourists in our own town, which reveals new or unfamiliar aspects. Sometimes it is a matter of a change of pace. Walking, we notice things that we don’t when hurrying from one place to another on a bicycle – a magnificent wisteria in a back street, reaching across the fronts of three houses. At other times, it is places nearby that I have never properly visited, the new landscaping in Eddington, the not so new landscaping in the Cambridge Science Park.

Missionaries’ graveyard at Bandawe, Malawi

My wife has taken me to walk around some of the cemeteries. I had never (to my shame) been to the Ascension Cemetery, off the Huntingdon Road, the last resting-place of many Trinity Fellows, nor the Mill Road Cemetery, where William Whewell’s two wives lie under the same chest tomb. When we were in Malawi a year ago we had also visited a historic cemetery, the burial place of a sizeable number of young, mostly Scottish, missionaries, who had all died of malaria, before the Livingstonia Mission was moved from the shores of the lake to a healthier location in the hills.

That contrast, between mortality rates in nineteenth-century Africa and twenty-first century western Europe, no longer seems so sharp.

Tomb of William Whewell’s wives in Mill Road Cemetery

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