Remembering Antonia Syson (1973–2018)
As readers may have learned from an earlier posting, Antonia Syson, associate professor of Classics at Purdue University, died on March 25, 2018. Her death was the outcome of inflammatory breast cancer, diagnosed only a few months prior. Here we retrace Antonia’s academic path and describe some of the qualities that made her an inspiring friend, colleague, scholar, and teacher. (Prepared by James Ker, Erin Moodie, Melissa Mueller, and Jennifer William, with contributions from Lucy Gaster, Lydia Syson, Christine Albright, Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, Julia Davids, Nicholas Dew, William Fitzgerald, Katherine Ibbett, Jo Park, Anna Lawrence Pietroni, Josephine Crawley Quinn, Allen Romano, Oliver Taplin, James Tatum, and Christopher van den Berg.)
Antonia Jane Reobone Syson was born on February 23rd, 1973, in Gaborone, Botswana, where her father, John Syson, was private secretary to the President of Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama, and her mother, Lucy Gaster (then Syson), was researching rural development for the United Nations Development Programme. After the family’s return to the United Kingdom in April 1973, Antonia spent her childhood in Islington, London, attending Hungerford Primary School and then Camden School for Girls, imbibing her family’s socialist politics and also the wonderful cultural possibilities all around her. She quickly became addicted to Gilbert and Sullivan, Broadway musicals, and classical opera, and at 14 sang in the children’s chorus at the English National Opera production of Hansel and Gretel in 1988.
Her mother’s second marriage was to Nicholas Deakin, Professor of Social Policy at Birmingham University, and she and Antonia, now 15, moved to join him there. The sixth form at King Edward VI High School for Girls helped open Antonia’s eyes to the possibilities of intellectual and academic life, and one school friend recalls that even then she “knew that her life’s work would center on literature”. Antonia credited her Latin teachers (at Camden, Beatrice Rubens, and in Birmingham, Tim Cooper) with helping her form a lasting attachment to Classics. Her voracious reading, however, went far beyond Latin and Greek literature, and indeed far beyond her beloved English fiction: she also considered pursuing history or politics, philosophy, and economics (PPE). In high school Antonia was a year ahead of her age-cohort, but after securing a place at Oxford to read Classics, she took a gap year to learn French and travel in Europe. She entered Magdalen College, Oxford in 1991 and went on to complete the four-year B.A. (Hons.) in Lit-Hum (“Mods” then “Greats”). Her tutor, Oliver Taplin, recalls her outstanding work on Homer and Virgil and her studies in Greek and Latin literature more generally, and equally her “laughter and vivacity”. Her fellow-students enjoyed her “energy and ... sharp sense of humour” and her “infectious enthusiasm”, not to mention her vast cultural repertoire, such as her “tremendous knowledge of art history”, which a fellow-student recalls from a college vacation spent together visiting galleries and churches in Italy. One friend from Oxford first encountered Antonia not in tutorials but in connection with a charity devoted to reading books with children who had English as a second language—a commitment that reflected Antonia’s passionate and life-long concern for human rights and social justice as well as her never-waning interest in children’s and young adults’ literature.
Immediately upon completion of her degree at Oxford in 1995, Antonia came to the United States to begin the Ph.D. program in Classics at the University of California, Berkeley. There she bonded with students and faculty far beyond her own Classics cohort. She had an extraordinary ability to bring people together, quickly identifying common interests (a specific niche in fiction, film, music, ...) and organizing sumptuous soirees and, as she liked to call them, “frivolous” outings—such as to Fenton’s Creamery and Restaurant in Oakland or the Paramount Theater. In her graduate studies Antonia sought out opportunities for reading Greek and Latin literature in closer dialogue with modern literary history and theory, for example by taking seminars in English literature. Also emblematic of this broader interest was her petitioning to serve as a graduate instructor not only in her assigned Classics courses but in writing-intensive Comparative Literature courses—an experience that was formative for some of her later teaching initiatives.
Her dissertation, completed in 2003 under the direction of Kathleen McCarthy, was entitled “Reading for the Novel: Knowledge, Persuasion, and the Divine Narratives of Vergil’s Aeneid”. The title should not be taken as a back-projection of novelistic dynamics onto epic. Rather, Antonia invoked a comparison between the economies of “fictive knowledge” that she argued to be central in both literary forms. Her interest in the ways in which “novel readers cede control over their perception, yielding to the fascination exerted by stories” (2) licensed in turn a series of carefully contextualized and narratologically sophisticated close-readings of the Aeneid in which human encounters with divine authority could be used to theorize the epistemological experiences of readers drawn into a story. These concepts were to be elaborated in the multi-dimensional analysis of her book (see below).
After receiving her doctorate from Berkeley in 2003, Antonia spent one year at Northwestern University as a Mellon Postdoctoral fellow in Classics, moving on to the University of Chicago as Lecturer in Latin (2004–2006), and then to Dartmouth College as Lecturer in Classics (2006–2008). In each of these institutions she formed close collegial friendships and progressively honed her technique in teaching language and literature, in which she sought to draw students into a more intense and meaningful relationship with narrative. Her Dartmouth students admired her for her learning, and even more for her exceptional sensitivity to their varying needs and levels, both in the languages and in more general courses. Colleagues at Chicago recall Antonia’s “infectious joy, kindness and intelligence”, as well as her key role in bringing faculty and graduate students together for summer concerts of classical music in Millennium Park. In 2008 Antonia received the offer of a tenure-track job at Purdue University, where she joined the Classics specialists within the Department (now “School”) of Foreign Languages and Literature.
At Purdue Antonia flourished on all fronts, and she soon made herself an indispensable member of the faculty, being promoted to associate professor with tenure in 2014. During her ten years at Purdue, she worked closely with colleagues across disciplines, taught on a broad array of topics, influenced and inspired successive cohorts of students, and significantly advanced her research. She also took on a leading role in several of the school’s curricular initiatives and outreach, in which she was in her element.
The classes Antonia taught at Purdue ranged from Latin language and literature classes from beginning through advanced levels, to a “Survey of Greek Literature” class and special-topics classes such as “Literature and the Law” and “Gender and Sexuality in Greek and Roman Antiquity”. Antonia was also very involved with Honors students: she taught a course for the Honors College called “Mythical Reflections in Literature, Music, and Film”, and an Honors section of the Gender and Sexuality course, in addition to working individually with a number of students on individual Honors projects throughout her career at Purdue. At the graduate level, she taught a summer seminar entitled “The Poetics of Dirt,” in which she explored with graduate students from a variety of disciplines her research interests in ritual pollution and memory in Roman literature and society.
One of the things that always marked Antonia’s teaching at Purdue was a true sensitivity to the particular needs of the students there. Before she arrived, Antonia wrote to a friend: “I am excited about the kind of teaching I’ll be doing there—trying to win over engineering students etc to the joys of Latin, and of literature in general! (This is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but of course as always I kind of mean it to a scary degree)”. Most of the students enrolled in Classics and Latin courses were majoring in fields beyond the Liberal Arts, and Antonia was forever tinkering with her courses in an attempt to respond to such students’ deeply felt need to balance their highly regimented plans of study with the Latin and Classics courses from which they derived so much enjoyment. Most recently she led the drive (and secured a grant) to revise the enormous Classical Mythology course as well as the third-semester Latin course, which perpetually features students with a very wide array of translation skills and methods.
Antonia thought through every aspect of her courses before they even began—her syllabi were notorious for their length and attention to every detail of the student’s experience. She also made it her mission to foster community among the diverse constituencies enrolled in Classics courses, and to that end instituted a monthly “Classics CommuniTea”, where students would have an opportunity to drink tea (in her opinion the far superior caffeinated beverage), socialize with one another and with faculty, and expand their understanding of Classics through play-readings and short lectures and demonstrations of topics not often covered by the regular course curricula.
The excellence of Antonia’s teaching was recognized repeatedly, first at Berkeley where she won an Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor award in 2001, and at Purdue with the School of Languages and Cultures’ Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching (2011), then with the Collegiate Teacher of the Year Award from the Indiana Classical Conference / Indiana Foreign Language Teachers Association (2013). She was also deeply involved in the mission of Purdue’s newly founded Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts Program, in which she was a faculty fellow in 2016–17: the new Antonia Syson Cornerstone Teaching Award recognizes “excellence in teaching and mentorship in Transformative Texts” and “instruction, guidance, creativity, and concern for students”—values Antonia lived and breathed. She was its inaugural recipient.
One of Antonia’s strengths and passion was planning things, and helping other people plan things in a way that would enhance their lives. A highly successful and productive conference at Purdue in 2014 entitled “Teaching the Past: Dissenting Histories in the Classroom” was largely a result of Antonia’s superb planning skills that enabled her to both conceptualize a grand vision for a project and to bring it to fruition through meticulous organization. Her strengths as a visionary planner also came through clearly in her contributions to the World Film Forum, a “town-and-gown” initiative of the School of Languages and Cultures that thrived during the five-year period when she chaired it (2010–2015). Antonia had immense expertise in British and Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and 40s, Powell and Pressburger in particular, and she took this opportunity to introduce her favourite of their films, I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)—and also the beloved landscapes of the Hebridean island of Mull—to an Indiana audience. (Antonia often wove film into her teaching in innovative ways.)
Concurrent with these initiatives in teaching and organizing, Antonia completed several longer-term research projects. Her book “Fama and Fiction in Vergil’s Aeneid” (Ohio State University Press, 2013; paperback 2017) keeps one eye on the modern repertoire of the “traditional English novel” that had already provided a frame of reference in the dissertation. Antonia chose to acknowledge openly, rather than to deny, “how hard it is to discern the ways in which our perceptions—and therefore our reading practices—have been changed through our encounters with fictions, realist or otherwise” (186–187). Yet the book’s account of fictive knowledge in the Aeneid is historically and culturally specific, even as it draws analogies to phenomena that “novel readers” (1) are familiar with. “Fama” in the title advertises the book’s fine-grained analysis of the multiple and often incommensurate forms of speech, story, myth, knowledge, and memory trafficked in by epic. “The Aeneid’s narrative structure”, she observes, “never lets it appear a coincidence that the word fama can refer to an ordinary report—a report that may be accurate, mistaken, or deceptive, neutral, positive or scandalous—as well as to the crafting of transcendent fame” (33). The book seeks to offer an anthropologically inflected account of the transaction in which human subjects, whether characters or readers, recognize (in terms taken from Aristotle) that “that” has become “this”—the transaction (the transformation) at the basis of fictive knowledge, of stories. The two large-scale developments in the book involve, first, the role of pietas in this transaction, and then the role of divine authority. Engaging productively with the work of Mary Douglas and Kenneth Burke, Antonia anchors pietas in acts of memory and in its function of ordering and purifying, even sometimes at great cost. Pietas “makes for stories”, because “Aeneas’ attempts to live up to all his obligations to maintain human and divine order often lead to tumultuous results. But the converse is also true: the poem shows that being pius can be memorable and story-worthy by presenting pietas as a principle that stimulates transgression” (89). Turning to divine authority as a distinct but equally powerful and problematic force in the formation of epic narrative, she writes: “It is not just that Aeneid figuratively claims the transformative force of divine imperatives for its fama. The poem also raises the question of whether to imagine such imperatives as reliant on the same perceptual and rhetorical foundations as commands uttered in human settings” (137). Although these analyses have potential implications for the ideology of the epic, that is one question which Antonia did not seek to resolve. Instead, she kept a laser-focus on the novel and epic as “mythmakers” (213), forms that work on the reader’s most basic perceptions of story and reality.
The book was very well received. If some reviewers were unconvinced that a book on the Aeneid needed to take an early turn into Middlemarch, none questioned its ambition, sophistication, provocativeness, and impact. The book’s clarity had been hard won, however. No one who had conversations or correspondences with Antonia was anything less than certain what she felt and thought about anything, and many had benefited from her sharp critical eye and her generous responses to their own writing. Yet in her own scholarly prose, she had initially struggled with the task of unpacking her nominalizations so as to match her subtle ideas with clear language. Through a combination of determined polishing, and through intense and productive dialogues with colleagues and mentors (she credits Ellen Oliensis in particular), Antonia arrived at a truly lucid scholarly mode, which is at work in every sentence of the book. We may add that Antonia had begun work on a second book project entitled “The Poetics of Pietas in Roman Epic”, which was to extend the first book’s insights across a much broader literary and cultural terrain, and with greater attention (in Antonia’s words) to the place of pietas “at the heart of Roman aristocratic ideology”, and to “ethical expectations and social obligations taking shape in particular material forms”.
In other publications Antonia continued to pursue the themes that interested her, in the Aeneid and beyond. “‘Fictive knowledge’,” as Antonia explains in her book, “refers to what imaginative texts and artifacts know, or invite their readers to imagine knowing. It is a pointedly inclusive term, which takes in forms of knowledge not always associated with fiction, like ‘historical’ and ‘cultural’ knowledge. The term’s inclusiveness borders on paradox: can one ‘know’ something that is made up? It leaves open the fertile question of what it means to assign the status of ‘knowledge’ to the communication of epic fama” (2). And it also invites us to question whether “fiction” deserves to be set in opposition to “reality” or “truth,” as it often is. In her article “Filthy Harpies and Fictive Knowledge in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy” (in Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy, eds. B. Stevens and B. Rogers [Oxford, 2017], 233–249), Antonia explores the seeming paradox that fictions can be more or less truthful. In The Amber Spyglass (the third novel of the trilogy), “No-Name” harpy attacks Lyra as a Liar for retelling a romance when what was needed was a real memory, a story drawn from her lived experience. And this, Antonia argues, introduces readers to the “prescriptive authority governing what kinds of storytelling” are to be regarded as ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ (247). What matters to the harpies, and by extension to us as readers, are the tangible experiences, the “fictions that expand knowledge via the imagination” rather than those that “distort or neutralize experience” (241).
Antonia’s reviews of two major edited volumes, A Companion to Ancient Epic, edited by J. Foley (2005) (Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.09.41) and Memoria Romana: Memory in Rome and Rome in Memory, edited by K. Galinsky (2014) (Classical Philology 111  300–304), are more than just reviews: they are critical appreciations of whole fields of study. On a seemingly separate topic, Antonia produced a pithy article on Tacitus entitled “Born to Speak: Ingenium and Natura in Tacitus’s Dialogue on Orators” (Arethusa 42  45–76). The article had its genesis in some of the first courses she taught after graduate school; the Dialogus was, she said, one of her favorite texts to teach. There was also a fama-connection. In the article Antonia deftly considers (among other things) the trickiness in the explanation offered, at one point in the work, that imperial orators are not as famous as those in the past. Rather than let such a claim stand, Antonia sought larger conclusions about the relationship between human talent, human nature, and the role of reputation and report in the shaping of identity. The article also exhibits Antonia’s characteristic awareness of how and why a given narrative might appeal to a specific audience. Just as the Dialogus, she remarks, “probes the strategies and assumptions at work in the search that it narrates and asks its readers to join in puzzling out what is at stake in the attempt” (46), so too the result is “a text whose complexities must surely have special appeal for classicists, as we … establish a dialogue between the modes of thought that we perceive as transhistorical and those beliefs or practices that we see arising from the concerns of a particular generation or of a specific political system” (74).
Antonia was deeply concerned, too, with how research and teaching could not simply cohabit in the life of a scholar but inspire one another reciprocally. With Christine Albright she co-organized a workshop at the 2016 meeting of CAMWS-SS (in Atlanta, GA) entitled “The Academic’s Dilemma? Integrating Teaching and Research”, in which her own contribution chronicled how a 2012 visit to Constitution Hill, the former prison building in Johannesburg which is now a museum of South Africa’s journey to democracy, had inspired new directions in both her teaching and her research. As a consequence of that trip, she devoted a two-week component of her course on “Literature and the Law” to “The Aesthetics of Justice in South Africa” and, at the time of her death, she had conducted interviews in South Africa as part of a project entitled “South Africa’s Constitution Hill: the Role of Museum Education and Outreach in Realizing Socio-economic Rights”.
Antonia also took part in a panel at the 2016 meeting of CAMWS (in Williamsburg, VA) entitled “Teaching Vergil’s Aeneid at the College Level: Studies and Strategies”, for which she spoke on “Aeneids in English”. The talk’s title refers to “Aeneids” in the plural because, as Antonia herself puts it, her “central goal in the classroom is to make space for a plurality of readings to emerge”. Antonia was always highly attuned to her students’ perspectives. After providing brief lectures and prompt-questions which were designed to alert students “to those thematic continuities that are less apparent in varied English translations”, they would then proceed to “track central characters, ideas, and socio-political categories”, using the blackboard to map out “the various forces that seem to drive the poem’s narrative through polarized conflicts”. And as for the recent turn to all things digital, Antonia valued effectiveness over innovation. She was refreshingly unapologetic about her classroom strategies, owning up to the fact that the method described “is hardly new, and the approach is indebted to ’80s style (loosely) deconstructive approaches”. Yet, she concludes, “for undergraduate student-readers it makes no difference whether their teacher brings new methods to the classroom. What counts is whether students themselves innovate by questioning their own assumptions, and whether they discover qualities in the poetry and thought that feel fresh to them—worth reveling in, and worth thinking deeply about”.
One derives a vivid sense of Antonia’s approach to teaching Latin literature in the original from reading the two articles she published (in 2012 and 2016) in Teaching Classical Languages. In the first piece, “Reading the Aeneid with Intermediate Latin Students” (TCL 4.1  44–63) Antonia reviews several Aeneid commentaries from the Focus series, as well as one from Cambridge. But she begins by taking a broader view of what it means to teach Latin at this level, where the central aim must be “to help students at a transitional stage…learn to read—in the fullest sense—and enjoy the poem”. She appreciates the notes on individual lines, or particular Latin words, which open up further avenues of exploration. She also appreciates the commentators (such as O’Hara) who are willing to acknowledge the ambiguities of Virgilian language, as in a note at 4.2 where venis is glossed as “probably instrumental (‘feeds with her veins/ blood’), but could also describe place (‘in her veins’), with the preposition omitted as often in poetry”. Antonia reflects that “this acknowledgement of uncertainty right at the very beginning of the book will begin sensitizing students immediately to the ways that translation into English prose demands decisions that Latin poetry leaves open” (58). Her second article, “Close Readings in a Latin Dictionary” (TCL 7.1  1–16), helps Latin teachers transform intermediate-readers into savvier users of their Latin dictionaries. Taking as its primary focus a dictionary exercise Antonia developed for a course at Purdue in the spring of 2015, it captures her excitement at seeing students of grammar blossom into astute readers. By focusing on clusters of words (e.g., libertas-related words, or pudor and pudicitia words, or pietas vocabulary) and teasing out their context-specific meanings, students learn how to choose between different dictionary entries. The dictionary, in such an exercise, “becomes one of the objects of analysis, rather than a mechanical vehicle hurtling a bewildered passenger towards a confused translation” (5). By increasing awareness of what dictionaries leave out, the exercise nudges students to assume greater responsibility as readers and translators of Latin, while helping them negotiate the difficult balance between open-endedness and closure.
Antonia’s energy and engagement on the topic of teaching were simply a reflection of what she was like with everyone around her. She formed friendships easily, she facilitated friendships between others, and she also kept her old friendships alive or renewed them if they had lapsed. As she wrote to one delinquent friend: “The upside of the fact that we’re all so middle-aged that time disappears without us noticing [a classic Antonia nominalization] is that it’s incredibly easy to slip back into friendships once the opportunity arises”. But “easy” belies Antonia’s intentional approach to friendship: nothing was left to accident. She often referred to herself as a poor correspondent, but this was only because her standards for a proper missive were impossibly high—yet she often met them all the same, and her eloquent “wittering” made the wait worthwhile. She would regularly make a point of catching up out of the blue, driven by her sense of a friendship’s ideal rhythm. She devised itineraries, often a year or more in advance, that would allow her to visit several friends and family members at one go, sometimes on multiple continents—adventures in which she was spoiling herself (always calculating ways to squeeze in a few extra hours of conversation) even as she gave to others. During her visits, she would frequently end up on the floor playing with her nephews, nieces, or her friends’ children. She was sensitive to each child’s interests and temperament, and always knew what books to recommend. Judith Kerr was one favorite author, Antonia Forest another. “‘Kicked Out’: Guiding in Antonia Forest’s Marlow Novels” was the title of a perceptive chapter she wrote for True to the Trefoil: A Celebration of Fictional Girl Guides (Girls Gone By, 2010) and Antonia’s contributions to the longstanding ‘Girlsown’ online forum for period children’s fiction are fondly remembered by many for both their insight and warm generosity to other members. As well as collecting Forest, she sought out books by Monica Edwards, Geoffrey Trease, Noel Streatfeild, Rumer Godden, Honor Arundel, and Joan Aiken.
In conversation with her adult friends, Antonia was one part childlike exuberance and one part cultured urbanity. She recognized that life was a calling, an opportunity to experience passions, to laugh without restraint (her hallmark), to weep with abandon (another hallmark), and to live frivolously and seriously at one and the same time. She was equally curious and empathetic about each person’s unique experience of life, tolerant of different beliefs and perspectives.
Antonia’s home life was a world of its own, anchoring both her solitariness and her sociality. At her home’s heart were her cats, flowers, music, fine food, and treasured books (she was a frantic re-reader, with decided favorites). In West Lafayette she grew a garden with roses and other favorite plants—all nourished with manure (she swore by it)—and friends will continue to be reminded of Antonia by the appearance of certain spring flowers. In and around West Lafayette her preferred mode of transportation was to go on foot, after she decided that driving and cycling were not her thing (she had only taken up driving briefly in order to lessen the stress to her cat during a cross-country relocation!). Music was everywhere in her life, whether she was whistling, singing to a child, crooning showtunes in a karaoke bar, blending into a church choir and leaving her atheism at the door (as she did for three years at St John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette), or planning a musical rendezvous with friends at the Lyric Opera of Chicago or at Glyndebourne in Sussex—or for one of the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts at a local cinema.
Antonia learned of her illness in fall, 2017, and it soon became clear that she had only a short time to live and also that she was facing significant discomfort. She approached the uncertainties and challenges of those final months with clarity, courage, compassion. She knew what was most important to her. She wanted to have as much contact with friends and family as possible and to keep them fully informed (a representative subject-line, from a group-message sent to dozens, is: “still fairly cheery but a bit of a setback”). She wanted to continue to live life on her own terms, and her own turf, as much as possible (she opted for what turned out to be top-class home hospice care). She sought out the things that gave her the most pleasure, such as her garden and her studies—she took up German lessons with a Purdue graduate student, and a German-English dictionary and German texts were by her bedside to the end. Her concerns for the future were mostly about how her family, friends, and students would find comfort. For although Antonia had for much of her life been stridently humble, self-effacing, even apologetic, she freely recognized how much others valued her and depended on her. During her final months, numerous family members and friends visited her at her home, and many more corresponded with her or made plans to visit. This contact continued right up until the end, including group-messages in which she shared observations of nature as seen from her windows—nuthatches in the oak trees, and a rare harrier. Antonia died on the afternoon of Sunday, March 25, 2018, surrounded by family. A memorial service was held on Sunday, April 8 at St John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette, and a second service will take place on Saturday, June 9 at The Mill at Buckland St Mary in Somerset, where Antonia spent many happy holidays. Her ashes are to be buried under a rose bush there. The service in Lafayette, planned by Antonia herself, included readings from scripture, a reflection by Antonia’s school friend, Anna Lawrence (delivered by her sister, Lydia Syson), and an arrangement for violin and piano of “Der Abschied” from Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”:
Wohin ich geh? Ich geh, ich wandre in die Berge.
Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz.
Ich wandle nach der Heimat, meiner Stätte.
Ich werde niemals in die Ferne schweifen. (Wang Wei)
Where am I going? I go to travel in the mountains.
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I’ll turn toward home, where I belong.
I will never stray far. (trans. Larry Rothe)
Antonia is survived by her mother, Lucy Gaster, her step-father Nicholas Deakin, her siblings Luke and Lydia Syson, her brother-in-law Martin Finn, and her niece and nephews Phoebe, Adam, Rufus, and Solomon Finn. Her father, John Syson, died in 2006. It is hoped that an endowment fund in Antonia’s name will be set up in the near future to encourage post-graduate students to aspire to and love teaching as she did.
(Photo: Journal & Courier, Lafayette, IN (https://www.jconline.com/