The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

July 11, 2017

July 11, 2016

Elaine Fantham (May 25, 1933 to July 11, 2016) was a classical scholar with an engaging public persona that captivated many and cast a fresh light on Roman antiquity. She was the go to authority for questions involving the ancient world, for National Public Radio.

Fantham was the Giger Professor of Latin at Princeton the first time NPR called, looking for an expert in the field, and this resulted in a round of publicity and acclaim from the world beyond academe for her. In the words of one obituary:

"The outrageously gregarious woman who answered to this title turned out to be a natural: In her brisk, bantering Oxford style, she reconnected [an] NPR cliché with the irrepressible wonders of the ancient world she loved.
From 1996 until 2010, when extended speaking became too difficult, Dr. Fantham was classics correspondent for NPR’s Weekend Edition, blending irreverent erudition with witty topicality on such timeless subjects as death by poisoning, Brad Pitt’s pecs in Troy, the meaning of a sneeze and the invasion of Iraq.

A trained soprano, she’d break into song despite her failing lungs, and offer Nero’s aria from the film
Quo Vadis or a gibberish chant recited by Roman priests to placate the god of war (which, she maintained, had been her preferred drinking song at Oxford).
Her great gift was to recognize the connection between Roman literature and social history, which allowed her to ask (and answer) penetrating sociological questions beyond the reach of most specialists.

Her expertise was vast, extending from the bawdy Roman comedies of Plautus via the oratory of Cicero, the poems of Virgil, Ovid and Lucan, and the plays of Seneca, to the scholarship of the Renaissance humanist Erasmus, whose works she co-edited – a range of 1,750 years.
But for years,
[before] she [had] languished in a male-dominated profession, trailing her mathematician husband Peter Fantham as he moved from post to post, raising their two children, Julia and Roy, scraping by in a series of low-level jobs and easily dismissed as a “wife of” in the casual misogyny of the academic status quo.

“There were some hard lessons behind her professional shock and awe. She was confident and eloquent in meetings and brilliant at cocktail parties when recounting anecdotes or delivering repartee. Doubtless these arts had once been acquired as a survival strategy, but one day she discovered she was better at these verbal games than anyone else. The fact that this academic banter was held to be a masculine virtue just added to her pleasure.”

Rosamund Elaine Crosthwaite was born in Liverpool, England...For all her brash brilliance and refined delivery, she was very much a self-made scholar, and her upbringing was much humbler than that of her Oxford contemporaries.

Her parents, who she described as “ill-paid but educated,” skimped to send her to a good school where she began Latin at the age of nine.

The wartime bombing of Liverpool affected her deeply. Studying the fall of Troy, she couldn’t help but see Britain under siege. Her talent for treating the past as a living thing began with her astonishment that she could experience ancient hexameters as if they were written for her.

She later said that Britain’s wartime isolation gave her a lifelong sympathy for underdogs – she railed against bullies and tirelessly promoted clever students who lacked the easy social skills prized on the job market.

She studied at Oxford’s Somerville College ...and perfected her scholarly manner in a class with a celebrated professorial refugee from Nazi Germany. ....

She returned to Liverpool for her doctorate, married [that refugee] and followed her husband when he took a post at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland.

Despite her credentials, she had to settle for a job at a girls’s school, where she mastered the art of classroom control: Speak softly and they will go quiet trying to hear you. (The technique, she reminded NPR listeners, was a favourite of ancient orators)

When Peter Fantham moved on to Indiana University, she followed. In 1968, they relocated to University of Toronto, where she taught at Trinity College, in those days a small Anglican institution whose priggish High Church types[were] offended [by] her inclination for straight talk.

The power-brokers in the university’s classics hub disdained her, and saddled her with courses no one wanted to teach. But less-rigid undergraduates adored her disruptive outspokenness.

Much of her research was practical rather than theoretical, even in the years when theory ruled academe.

A detailed commentary she wrote on Seneca’s Trojan Women elevated her status and in 1986 she was recruited by Princeton. With Ivy League schools now desperate to hire women, Dr. Fantham observed with a characteristic arched eyebrow, being female was suddenly an asset.

“Princeton was a liberation for her,” Prof. Inwood says. “She was surrounded by brilliant graduate students, and acquired the freedom and flexibility to do her work. She was worshipped for her integrity and vivacity and sheer interestingness.”

.....Students thronged her IKEA-filled house (her husband continued to teach in Toronto until his death in 1992)....
Returning to Toronto in retirement to live with her daughter, she began working with University of Toronto graduate students, which for her meant non-stop socializing, frequent concert-going, lengthy lunches and irreverent conversations fuelled by tumblers of Scotch.

Though her health was in decline, these were halcyon days (in the modern sense of happy and prosperous – Ovid’s beguiling version, she would point out, described a loving couple turned into sea-birds by the gods, who calmed the blustery winds so they could breed in peace).

She roamed the world on lecture tours, travelled with her son, a pilot, kept up NPR duties from a CBC studio, produced books non-stop and made yearly trips to Cambridge, England, where everything a non-driving scholar could need was steps away.
Elsewhere we read Fantham was
....The author of seventeen books (including scholarly monographs, commentaries, editions and translations, and an omnibus of her selected articles) and over a hundred articles and book chapters, she also co-authored the standard textbook on women in antiquity and served as Associate Editor in Chief of the seven-volume
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (2010). Many of us encountered Latin literature through her scholarship – the comedies of Plautus and Terence in her first book Comparative Studies in Republican Latin Literature (Toronto 1972), the plays of Seneca and poetry of Lucan and Ovid in later commentaries (Princeton 1982; Cambridge 1992 and 1998) respectively), and of course her magisterial Roman Literary Culture from Cicero to Apuleius (Baltimore 1996), expanded in a second edition (2012) to cover Latin letters from Plautus to Macrobius.

It must have been NPR where I heard her relate this story. I found a transcript:

FANTHAM: What happened was that they [Hippomenes and Atalanta], were so in love with each other that they actually made love in front of the statue of the great mother goddess Cybele in her shrine. And she was absolutely outraged, of course, and turned them both into lions and forced them to become the lions that brought her chariot. So it's a sad story in the end.

[Scott] SIMON: I can see why they have no-fault divorce laws now.

FANTHAM: (Laughter).

SIMON: It's a lot easier than this chariot-pulling stuff, isn't it?

FANTHAM: Well, you really do have to be careful where you make love. I think this is the other message.


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