While Joan hikes along the South Downs Trail, I have been staying for a few days in Barnes with old and dear friends, John and Fiona Smith, whom I see far too seldom. John and I were up at Oxford together half a century ago. He made his career in the Classics Department at St. Paul's School, of which he was long the distinguished head. It would be hard to imagine a more distinguished post for a classicist than that of "John Colet's Successor," as John could claim to be.
John and I had a high old time yesterday in the British Museum, where he gave me a private tour of and lecture on the wonderful relief sculptures.from the Temple of Bassai. They are kept in a special room off the beaten track in the museum, and they are not always available to view. We were doubly in luck. Not only was the room open, but only four other people (out of the potential forty thousand or so swarming the museum) found it during the half hour or so we spent there.
The carvings are not of the very highest quality of their period, but they are remarkable in the completeness and state of preservation. The chief theme of Greek political iconography is pretty easily identified: Greeks are good; barbarians are bad. Good Greeks fight bad barbarians and win; bad barbarians fight good Greeks and lose. Hence the recurrent subject matter of the combat against Amazons and the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs.
For many decades I solemnly misinformed my students with the etymoligical myth that derives the word "Amazon" from the Greek for a woman's breast prefixed by the negative a, as in a+theist and so forth. The idea was the these women warriors amputated the right breast in order to facilitate the use of the bow and arrow. It is really quite amazing that one can believe utter nonsense and teach it with gusto. If I had spent a little more time with the macromastic warriors of the Bassai sculptures--I refer of course to iconographic study--I would have known better. My only regret is that the primitive technology to which I find myself temporarily indentured do not allow a visual demonstration. Like it or not, you'll have to imagine that this is an actual blog essay.