Monday, May 20, 2013

The Four Humours and Classical Networking

communication tablets, old and new
This was my "Presidential Address" to JACT, the Joint Association of Classics teachers in May 2013. JACT has now merged with the Classical Association

As a writer and Classicist, I'm hugely excited about Twitter, Facebook and other internet platforms as vehicles for networking and sharing information. In this address I hope to inspire you to explore these new media.

Last weekend I sent out a tweet asking Classicists WHAT HOOKED YOU ON CLASSICS? Answers ranged from one Tweeter (@ViolentCashews) who first heard Hadrian’s poem Animula, Vagula, Blandula "on the wireless over fifty years ago" to a younger fan (@JennyD_85) who loved Xena the Warrior Princess on TV. The hooks fell into seven main categories:

image sent to me via Twitter
1. Encountering primary sources in translation
2. The Greek myths retold
(Robert Graves almost merits a separate category)
3. TV, movies or plays
(I, Claudius almost merits a separate category)
4. Historical novels
5. Visits to Ancient Sites
6. Inspirational Teachers
7. Enthusiastic Parents

Four archetypal characters
I have a particular affinity for reason #4 because it was a novel set in Classical Greece that set me on the path to Classics. I loved the 1966 film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and a magical afternoon spent in Ostia Antica when I was sixteen. But what hooked me on Classics was Mary Renault's masterpiece The Last of the Wine. (I've written at length about it HERE.) It planted an obsession to know what the ancient world of Greece and Rome were really like. My new-found passion took me to U.C. Berkeley, and from there to the UK, where I studied at Cambridge, then SOAS and finally UCL.

A dozen years later I was teaching Latin in London at primary school level and loving it. In 1999 I had a lightbulb moment: I would write a series of history mystery stories that would transport children aged 8+ back to ancient Rome the way Mary Renault transported me back to 5th century Athens. My original concept was "Nancy Drew in Ancient Rome". (Nancy Drew is the hero of a popular American series of children's books about a girl detective still in high school). I wanted the books to appeal to boys as well as girls, so I decided to give my Roman girl detective three friends, each one based on a mythic archetype. I called my Roman Nancy Drew "Flavia Gemina" and gave her Nubia the ex-slave as a Faithful Sidekick, Jonathan the Jewish next-door-neighbour as the Funny One and Lupus the mute beggar boy as the Wild One.

My newly-invented four characters immediately made me think of the four elements: air, earth, fire and water. I had just seen a film called The English Patient by Anthony Minghella and it struck me that each of the four protagonists in that movie represented one of the four elements. Katharine Clifton, the character played by Kristin Scott Thomas, was always shown in water: the bath, the pool, the cave of the swimmers. In fact the opening image of the movie is her hand painting watercolours. So her element is obviously WATER. Katharine is in love with Count Almásy who will be horribly burnt in a plane crash: his element is obviously FIRE. And of course fire and water don’t mix. Then I noticed Hana, the Juliette Binoche character, was very grounded, in one scene she has her hands in the EARTH.

The fourth main character is the Sikh sapper. Kip must be AIR. Remember the scene where he lifts Hana up to show her frescoes? I was so taken by this idea that read the book by Michael Ondaatje to see if I was right, but there was no sign that the author had assigned one of the four elements to each of the characters. This must have been Minghella’s touch of genius.

I was creating my own characters at this time and I knew that the Ancient Greeks and Romans believed the world was made of four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. I thought it would be fun to assign each of them one of the four elements. I made Flavia AIR, Jonathan EARTH, Nubia FIRE and Lupus WATER. Each of these elements related to their temperament or backstory. I even based their eye and tunic colours on these four elements. I matched their astrological signs to their element, so that Flavia Gemina is a Gemini born in the spring, the season that goes with AIR.

In December of 2000 I visited the British Museum one Saturday – just by chance – and found the newly unveiled Great Court crowded with Romans at stalls: doctors, legionaries, potters, scribes, even an emperor (Vespasian). They were re-enactors in armour and togas, tunics and pallas, the cloth dyed with real vegetable dye. They had fabulous replica artefacts like beauty products, writing materials, and medical equipment.

Chris Lydamore and Nodge Nolan in 2000
I stopped by the stall of a bearded man with a Celtic look and asked what a bronze bell-shaped cup was used for. The re-enactor, Nodge Nolan, told me it was a bleeding cup, a Roman doctor’s most commonly used instrument. If you were walking down an ancient Roman Street and saw one of these hanging above a door you would know a doctor lived and practiced in that house. The doctor would put a piece of burning lint in the cup, clap it on the patient’s back (or wherever else it might be needed). Immediately the burning lint would suck up the oxygen and go out, causing a vacuum. Dry cupping was performed on unbroken skin to draw out vicious humours and especially wind; wet cupping covered a wound or deliberate incision, and drew out blood, pus and other body fluids.

My replica bleeding cup
There is nothing like holding an ancient artefact in your hand for bringing the past alive. I started looking into cupping, which led me to an investigation of Roman medicine. My seventh Roman Mystery, The Enemies of Jupiter, takes place during a plague and fire in Rome, so I took the opportunity to find out about the four humours. The basic theory – first clarified by fifth century BC Polybus – is that each person's temperament is determined by which of the four humours they have in excess.

Too much blood = sanguine (energetic, optimistic, friendly, flighty)
Black bile (often in stool) = melancholic (pensive, pessimistic, perfectionist, sensitive)
Phlegm or mucus = phlegmatic (calm, loyal, steadfast, passive)
Yellow bile (often in vomit) = choleric (hot-tempered, leader, impatient, driven)

These four humours didn’t just tell you why you were the way you were. They linked you to a world of four seasons and explained why you were susceptible to different diseases. An illness or malaise was caused by an imbalance of humours.

So you could take away the excess humour by purging from above (a vomit) or below (an enema). You could bleed the patient (phlebotomy) or you could do wet or dry cupping. This is where the "bleeding cup" comes in.

a dermal or "plum-blossom" hammer
In the name of research, I decided to try a modern version of wet-cupping. I went to a Chinese acupuncture doctor in Wimbledon. In the modern version of bleeding you take off your shirt and lie down on your stomach. The doctor will tap your back with a so-called "plum blossom hammer". It has seven little nails protruding. Then he will place glass cup over the holes, attached a pump and suck out a small amount of blood from several places. I was fine when I went in but the next day I came down with a fever. So maybe there is something in it!

dry-cupping in San Francisco, 2005
As well as blood, you can us wet cupping two draw out pus and other fluids. Then there is “dry cupping” which sucks out the invisible humours. I was in San Francisco a few years ago, walking down Market Street and I saw a practitioner treating people right out in the open. Celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow have also had it done and tabloids love to show the results.

It's all about balance. So in addition to TAKING AWAY an excess of humour via vomit, purge, dry-cupping or wet-cupping, you could also ADD to the mix through diet. Hippocrates famously said, “Let food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be food.” The ancients assigned every type of plant or animal food its humour. For example, if you are feeling listless and depressed have spatchcock, or grilled rooster! This bird is choleric (dry and hot) and will balance your excess of black bile or phlegm.

In the ancient world, even non-food animals were assigned temperaments. For example, cats were thought to be "melancholy" in the medieval period.

More recently, an American counsellor named Gary Smalley renamed these classifications in a more kid-friendly way. According to Smalley, otters are sanguines, beavers are melancholies, golden retrievers are phlegmatics and lions are choleric.

the quiz
If you are still not sure which temperament you are, take my Roman Mysteries quiz: Which Temperament Are You?

Of course the truth is that we are often a combination of all these humours. But this pervasive philosophy of balance and the four humours might be part of The 10% Surprise we would get if we could really go back to Ancient Rome. This concept of four humours permeated the whole world.

The four humours even made it into the Circus Maximus where each of the four factions had four colours and represented a season.
Greens = spring = AIR = sanguine
Blues = autumn = EARTH = melancholic
Whites = winter = WATER = phlegmatic
Reds = summer = FIRE = choleric

With that in mind, I’d like to share the four elements of the internet, which invisibly permeates our modern world.

one of the many delights of Twitter
AIR = TWITTER. I reckon sanguine "otters" with their flighty, friendly, optimistic, sometimes superficial nature are the best users of Twitter. It is an amazing way of communicating instantly. I have sometimes tweeted the exalted Queen of Classics, @WMaryBeard, and had an answer back in under a minute. Twitter is a great leveller. When people tweet me I don't know where they are, how old, what gender, how educated. I treat them all the same. Thanks to Twitter I have made contact with teachers like @McClure_Anna at Gordonstoun in Moray or professors like Sara Owen @ssorn10 of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge who have invited me to speak at their schools or colleges. I also discovered Cumberbatch Otters via Twitter.

Four Classical tweeters out of hundreds you should follow on Twitter:
1. @Classical_Assoc
2. @AdrianMurdoch
3. @RogueClassicist
4. @ClassicsColl

Aeneas on the Tabula Iliaca
EARTH = The foundation of social networking has got to be FACEBOOK. It will have links to blogs, websites and articles. You can tailor make it to your liking. Through my personal Facebook account I’ve been able to put names to the faces of my re-enactor friends I see every two years or so. They’re interested in what I’m interested in: the concrete reality of living in another world. We exchange photos, ideas, news of events. Through Facebook I first heard of a first century Roman graphic novel – the Tabula Iliaca – on marble of the Fall of Troy. This was via a post on Facebook by Steven Saylor who writes the fabulous Roma Sub Rosa mystery series for adults with a detective called Gordianus the Finder.

Four of my favourite blogs are:
1. Pop Classics - Juliette Harrisson talks about Classics in pop culture
2. Bestiaria - Latin Proverbs and Fables Roundup
3. The Classics Library with it’s Latin Qvarter zone
(featuring readings of Latin poetry like this lovely Ghost of Creusa)
4. Mary Beard’s A Don’s Life

Christopher Francese recites Latin
WATER = PODCASTS aren't strictly social networking, except that I can put myself in a Stanford classroom, recite Latin poety with Christopher Francese, exclaim OMG! to Melvyn Bragg and listen to my Facebook pal Natalie Haynes enthuse about Juvenal. Whenever I am feeling frazzled, I put on a podcast and go for a walk. It's as refreshing as a plunging into a swimming pool full of water!
(*phew!* I worked in the element.)

Four of my many favourite podcasts are:
1. Susanna Braund’s fabulous Stanford iTunesU course on Virgil’s Aeneid
2. Christopher Francese’s Latin Poetry podcast from Dickenson College
3. Melvyn Bragg and friends on The Four Humours
4. Natalie Haynes on Juvenal for Great Lives

FIRE = Instead of watching a flickering fire, we've got YOUTUBE. This is hugely popular with young people: your students and my readers.

Here are just four of a huge selection of YouTube clips:
1. Roman Mysteries TV series episode 1 opening sequence
2. Horrible History sponge-stick sketch
3. computer-generated reconstruction of Ostia Antica
4. Boris Johnson reads Armand D'Angour's Olympic Ode in Greek

Alongside virtual networking, there’s also real networking.

Caroline, Mattia and Andrew W-H
Try Andante Travels. They aren't cheap but you will get to see parts other tourists never reach with guides like Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill. They also have a "Bare Bones" budget programme. I travelled with them in January and am now friends with Mattia, a Pompeii-born guide who has shown celebrities like President Clinton, Leonardo di Caprio and "Mary" Streep around the ruins.

Mary Beard is now a fixture of at many literary festivals. Tom Holland is charmingly ubiquitous. Writers of Classical Historical Fiction attend to promote their books and talk about how they do research and get ideas. One festival I would like to plug is the Heffers Classics Festival. Martin Brown and his helpers have put together a fabulous line-up of Classicists and historical authors for a one-day Classics festival full of short and pithy talks. Contributors include Classicists Mary Beard, Charlotte Higgins, David Mattingly and William Fitzgerald, just to name a few. Historical fiction authors Simon Scarrow and Lindsey Davis will share a platform for the first time. And there will be a Balloon Debate to determine which character from Classical Mythology should be tossed from a hypothetical balloon. This features the outgoing JACT president Paul Cartledge as Argus, the incoming JACT president (me) as Andromache, and also Ruth Downie as Dido, Harry Sidebottom as Hector and humorist Natalie Haynes as Oedipus! You can see the lineup HERE.

Caroline in costume at the BM
There are museums with Classical collections all over the country. I am particularly familiar with the British Museum and the Museum of London. Both provide a cornucopia of lectures and exhibitions, not just for adults but for children. A few weeks I ago I was at the Museum of London, helping introduce a new Romano British Archaological website called Romans Revealed to kids in year 3. Next week at the British Museum I will be giving two free talks geared to families with kids aged 7+, one on Animals in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the other on Children in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Zane with Horace Ode
I have probably derived more inspiration from talking to re-enactors and playing with artefacts than through any other medium, except books. Nodge Nolan told me about bleeding cups and gave me my talisman, the notorious sponge-on-a-stick. Sally Grainger showed me how to cook. Zane Green demonstrated all sorts of writing implements and gave me Horace's famous Carpe Diem Ode on papyrus. Especially for children at primary level, there is no better way into the subject than to let them handle a replica Roman artefact (or a real one if it is possible), guess what it was used for, and then discuss it. Artefacts have inspired several storylines in my Roman Mysteries series of books.

Finally, I need to mention the best Classics apps I have found for iPhone , iPad and iPad touch: they are all in the stable of Paul Hudson's SPQR range.

Stories console us and transport us to other worlds. History teaches us who we are. The discipline of learning Latin and Greek prepares us to learn any language and trains our mind to other ways of thinking. Classics combines all three of these aspects. This is probably why so many of us love it.

Our calling as teachers is to introduce others to the world of Classics and to give them the resources they need to teach themselves. But to do this we need to keep being inspired and enthusiastic ourselves. So let's embrace the four elements – and more! – of Classics networking to keep in touch, to encourage and inspire one another.

This is a tweaked version of Caroline Lawrence's Presidential Address at the JACT AGM on Saturday 18 May at Manchester Grammar School. JACT merged with the Classical Association two years later in 2015.


  1. I'm excited to have stumbled across your blog. I too fell in love with Ostia Antica when I was young, and recently was able to bring my two sons to see it. I enjoyed your "A Day in Ostia" page. We still read aloud together on the sofa - what age would you say your books are aimed at? They are 10 and 12.

    1. My books are for kids 8+ so perfect for your boys! If you live in the UK, Canada and Australia you should be able to get them no problems but you might have to resort to Amazon in the USA. Start with book 1, The Thieves of Ostia!

    2. Great, thanks. Yes, Amazon has them. I'll want to get the Vesuvius one too as I've just been researching Pompeii myself for a blog I've started, that looks at historical events from a first-hand perspective. Partly to make history interesting for children, partly for curious adults who might find out stuff they never knew, but mostly because it's just damn fun to write. Thanks again.