Midway upon the journey of our life

Hello, I’m Lauren Murphy and I am a PhD candidate at La Trobe University. At the invitation of Aimee, I have come to blurt out my winding and hazard-prone path into studying a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. I’ve chosen the opening line from the Inferno because I was in the middle of my life when I found myself a bit lost. Unlike many of my peers, I did not have any particular interest in the ancient world when I was young. I did have an interest in becoming a palaeontologist but discovering that I would have to take biology classes and dissect animals put an end to that dream. Oddly though, I grew out of my squeamishness. I can thank horror movies for desensitising me, I suppose.

My family are working class and we did not have many books in the house. We did have an encyclopedia set that was already dated when I was a young child – my mum said that there had been an offer in the newsagent where you bought one volume a fortnight until you had the whole set. Anyway, I had little interest in history at home or at school besides what I needed to get very good grades. Most history subjects taught in the early years of high school are focused (rightly or wrongly) on Australia, and I did not take any history subjects during VCE. What I did take was art classes: Art, Studio Art, and Graphic Communication. I loved it. I loved it so much I threw all my energy and funding into studying art and spent my days, nights, and weekends drawing and painting. My nan gave me a small amount of money towards my first car or anything else I needed, and I bought myself a very cool long coat and then spent the rest on art supplies and life drawing classes. And then I wrangled myself a spot in art school and spent three years painting and having a wonderful time.

Large red-figure volute crater on right with Lauren next to it on left.
Me with a rather large volute krater in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, 2019

All good things end, seemingly, and after art school I had to find a job if I wanted to buy more art supplies and pay bills. Oh, how I loathe bills. I found an okay job in retail selling fabric and that is how I spent ten years. By that time, I had developed the soulless dead eyes of many other people who spend their lives working in customer service. I still made art and I read everything I could get my hands on. At one point I printed a list of the top 100 books of all time and carried that in my wallet so that I could look out for them in second-hand bookshops. You would think this would be my introduction to the classical world, but nope.

My reason for returning to university was two-fold: I was dying inside from my job, and I had a lovely friend who lived in Italy that I wanted to visit. I figured, why not go back to university to learn Italian, maybe learn a few other cool things and become a more interesting person. My worst-case scenario was that I would come out the end and end up right where I started, but having had a few more years of fun in the interim. There was nothing to lose.

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I will break in here and make it clear that my situation is very much unique to me. I suffer from mental illness and a consequence of that is the only pressure I have on me to succeed is my own. My family are very supportive of me doing my own thing, whatever that might be. I am glad for that, although I am sure they are disappointed that I am not curing cancer. Coming from the working class, our marker of success is that you are able to do, so you should be either working or studying, just doing something. I get a bit (lot) angry when people talk about the poor being lazy because it is just not true.

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Back to the story. I enrolled in university, picked Italian as my major and picked some electives in Archaeology to use up some spots on my study plan. My motivation was that they sounded interesting and that I had been watching Time Team in the afternoons with my mother not long before I enrolled. The thought of digging holes and finding things, whether that was a treasure or otherwise, was quite appealing. I have since decided that digging hurts my back and that I like climate-controlled libraries with comfy chairs. But back then, it seemed like a good idea. There was a subject about Ancient Greece that I thought would work well to prepare me for a future like Indiana Jones, so I chose that too. In the end, that subject was what hooked me on the ancient world. I struggled with the literature at first, I had never encountered the Iliad before, but I got back into the swing of studying and essay writing. It was the art that snared me though. A vase-handling session was my first time getting to touch the ancient stuff and I have found that my art background and my love of books and libraries have combined so that I can spend my time researching and writing about ancient art.

I’ll admit that my entry into this field is a bit different to most people. Others have family that were interested in history, or they had their own interest in mythology. Some people read one of the ancient texts in translation and that was it, they had been captured by Classics. For me, it was holding a little ancient lekythos with some very rough designs on it.

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Lekythos, photo by author
(I smelled the contents and it just smelled dusty and old)

It is not a dream come true for me because I never dreamed about doing anything like this. I did not find my way into this field until I was in my mid-thirties, and it was entirely by accident. However, it is a very pleasant way to spend a few years and to contribute my insights and perspectives so that others can benefit from them. If I had better luck studying Italian (my Italian is still a work in progress), I would have wound up on a completely different path.

Anyway, that’s my journey into Classics and Ancient History.