Connection lies in the story
Stories from Antiquity console us and connect us as humans through the falling in love, the heartbreaks, the sorrow and the celebrations.
Marguerite Johnson, Senior Lecturer in Classics says it is her professional responsibility to research, preserve and share the great works and ongoing legacies of the ancients.
"The myths, legends and historical events of antiquity connect us all as humans, even if it is at times a tenuous thread. These stories touch us and remind us that we are not alone – the same emotions were experienced by people eons back and we may find a deep sense of comfort in reading the works of poets such as Sappho and Catullus, and the dialogues of philosophers such as Plato, all of whom speak with such clarity and beauty about the human condition" Johnson says.
"Take the words pain drips for example. That is all that remains of a poem by Sappho and in this instance I don’t want to know what would have come next. These fragile, fragmented words, coming to us from thousands of years ago, cut straight to the heart."
Johnson's academic journey began at The University of Newcastle when she was awarded the University Medal in Classics. She later completed a PhD on the Latin poet Catullus and his representations of his lover 'Lesbia.' Since then she has worked here, inspiring others to engage with ancient lives – their beliefs, pleasures, pains and passions.
Johnson considers herself a feminist scholar, having been inspired by certain female Classicists of the 1980s and 90s who opened up antiquity in new and exciting ways by discussing women’s lives and interrogating Greece and Rome through various feminist lenses.
"I'm very grateful to these women. They were, and still are, courageous and brilliant. They have mentored me without really knowing it and have given me a voice as a female Classicist. In many ways, their work shook up Classics because they looked at gender, sexualities, the representations of women and the lives of the dispossessed," Johnson says.
"I now strive to pass on their significant legacy to my students as well as the general public," she says.
Johnson has been involved in several public lectures and workshops, including a talk about love and lust in the ancient world (delivered on Valentine's Day), evenings where she shares ghost stories of the Greeks and Romans, sessions on myths and legends as well as writing articles for the print media. “Once I wrote a piece on love and framed the piece by retelling the tales from Plato’s Symposium. It was wonderful to receive so many comments about how people enjoyed reading it – it’s a testimony to the power of antiquity and how it can still speak to us."
Johnson says, “There is a yearning for history in society. A hunger to connect. And it is through the literature, the myths, the tales that much of the beauty of antiquity is kept alive. The past is brought into the future and we learn from and connect to it and its people."
Johnson is involved in various projects, particularly research on the influence of antiquity on Australia’s colonial period. "You would be surprised by just how many classical interpretations are embedded in the early years of Australia’s white history. The first colonial pictorial accounts of Indigenous peoples, for example, actually resemble Greek sculptures. Why has this been overlooked? Why did this happen? These are important questions that exemplify how recourse to antiquity shaped the colonial past.”
Johnson argues that the value of antiquity can be witnessed “everywhere” in the modern world. "How nations were moulded, how the rhetoric of national identities evolved regularly have their beginnings in antiquity – the ideas, ideals, philosophies of the Greeks and Romans were often evoked to articulate nationhood, imperialism, politics, colonialism and by recognising this, we can contribute to current and future debates, pose questions, and look to antiquity for some answers.”
Johnson is also writing a book on the Latin poet Ovid and his work Medicamina Faciei Feminae, or ‘Cosmetics for the Female Face.’ "It's an odd project actually, but something I'm really looking forward to. I am providing a new translation on the piece, a commentary and also looking at ancient as well as modern ideas and ideals of female beauty.”
Johnson's academic career is marked by many successes and highlights. A pivotal moment was in 2005 when a new complete poem by Sappho was discovered. Except for one other complete poem, Sappho’s literary genius remains fragmented. "The American Philological Society organized two panels of experts to discuss this precious discovery and I was invited to present a paper. The poem is about growing old and the organizers thought it would be appropriate to invite me as I was one of the youngest scholars in the world working on Sappho at that time." In 2012, Johnson was also invited to present a paper on Sappho and Reception Studies at Oxford University, an invitation that brought together two of her research passions – the Greek poet and research that focuses on retellings and reuses of ancient icons and literature. “I spoke about female playwrights, beginning in the 1800s through to contemporary times, who structure works around Sappho, reinventing Sappho, breathing new life into her and claiming her for their own.”
Johnson is also preparing for a trip to Beijing where she will be an invited speaker at a conference on Plato. Before that she is hosting a two-day conference and think-tank on Classical Reception Studies in Australia and New Zealand, which will bring together scholars and practitioners to discuss artworks, architecture and literature. “Once again, the ancient world is present everywhere here, and the conference will be the first of its kind to bring together people interested in discussing the ancient legacies in Australasian literature, theatre, film and architecture.”
"Through my research, I always aim to articulate the debt of antiquity in the post-ancient world – particularly the modern world – bridging the gap between the past and the present. Sometimes, you think very little has changed, and in some ways that’s true. We are all still human with the same desires, confusions, hopes and dreams. The ancients are our teachers, reminding us that we too are teachers to future generations, leaving our own legacies behind."