By Jacqueline Grima
Historians and History students gathered at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) this week for the 2015 Whitehead Lecture, the first of a ten-year series of lectures in memory of respected member of the classics community, Anthony Whitehead. The event, part of the University’s ‘Humanities in Public’ Festival, was hosted by the Manchester Classical Association and celebrated the launch of the new MMU BA Honours in Ancient History.
The evening was chaired by Roy Gibson, Professor of Latin at the University of Manchester, who introduced the speaker for the evening, Professor Hans Van Wees. Hans, Grote Professor of Ancient History at University College, London, went on to talk about the battle of Thermopylae, a three-day long battle between the Spartans and the Persians during the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480BC.
Looking specifically at the writings of Ancient-Greek historian, Herodotus, Hans told the audience how accounts of the battle often differ widely. He said: “It is a story that has often been retold, re-imagined and turned into some kind of legend.”
He then went on to discuss how the battle has been misrepresented, for example in the 1962 CinemaScope film, The 300 Spartans, and in the 2006 film, 300, starring Gerard Butler as Spartan king, Leonidas.
According to Hans, however, the writings of Herodotus, dubbed the ‘father of history’ by Roman philosopher, Cicero, dispute many other versions of the events at Thermopylae. His investigations into the Spartans’ journey, for example, as they advanced towards the camp of the Persian king, Xerxes, disprove many other accounts as physically impossible and this theory is supported by our current knowledge of the geography of the area.
Referring to Herodotus’ passion for folk-tales and poetry and to his reputation for story-telling, an audience member asked if the Ancient-Greek’s accounts of the battle could have simply been made-up. Professor Van Wees answered: “No, I wouldn’t say so. There may have been some unreliable witnesses to events that he chose to believe but, on the whole, he is not someone who would make things up. He can be seen more, perhaps, as a historian working with defective materials.”
After Professor Van Wees’ presentation, Roy Gibson addressed the audience again, this time to talk about the Whitehead Prize, which will be awarded every year in recognition of an outstanding contribution to Classics and Ancient History in the North West. This year the prize went to Matt Ingham, who Professor Gibson described as, “a dedicated pioneer in the Latin Outreach programme run by the Manchester Classical Association and the University of Manchester.”
Matt won the award for his efforts to bring Latin to contemporary school children. After the event, he explained more about the project to Humanity Hallows: “Manchester Classical Association had put in a bid for funding to Classics For All, a national charity who are working to ensure that classics are taught in every state school across the country. I was asked if I would be interested in going into a primary school here in the North West and working with the children.”
Asked how he felt about his win, he added: “It’s a great privilege. I did the work because I love it, not for recognition, but it is really nice to be recognised and appreciated.”
To conclude the evening, guests were treated to a wine reception, a chance to celebrate the work of the Classical Association, the MMU History department and the launch of MMU’s new Ancient History degree programme. The BA, the first new classics degree to be established in some years, will explore the fascinating world of Classical Antiquity, including study of Ancient Greece, Republican and Imperial Rome, and Graeco-Roman Egypt.
The programme was jointly established by MMU Lecturers in Ancient History, Dr Jason Crowley, Dr Ben Edwards and Dr April Pudsey. Jason told Humanity Hallows:
“There has never been a degree in Ancient History at MMU before. Ancient History used to be a very distinct subject but this programme was established in response to a demand from MMU students. I was asked to pilot it and, in just three years, it has gone from nothing to a full degree programme. As part of the programme, we are also offering courses in Latin, Greek and Archaeology.”
Asked about the support for the programme shown at the event, he added: “There are lots of former students here tonight who have supported the programme from the beginning. It’s also great to receive support from our colleagues at the University of Manchester.”
The next event in the Humanities in Public war strand is entitled ‘The Sun King and Holy War’ and takes place on Wednesday 28th October from 5pm at No. 70 Oxford Road (the old Cornerhouse building). For more information and for tickets, please see the Humanities in Public website.