Many new faces in our Greek Section these last couple of months: one of them is Theofanis Tsiampokalos, who recently started working as a postdoctoral researcher on the ERC-project “The meaning of language. A digital grammar of the Greek taught at schools in Late Constantinople” (MELA). Anne-Sophie Rouckhout caught up with him to ask about his first experiences as a new member of the Greek pack at Ghent University.
Hi Fanis! You started working at UGent a few months ago, on a brand new ERC-project called MELA. Can you tell us something about your research context and your own role in it?
Hi! Yes, I joined the Linguistics department at the Ghent University in February and I am really excited to be here, in this very beautiful city, and be part of this wonderful community. MELA, the project I am involved in, is – as you already said – a brand new ERC-project of Andrea Cuomo, hosted at the University of Ghent. The project brings surviving grammatical textbooks of the late Byzantine period to the fore. Throughout the whole period from the early sixth to the mid-fifteenth centuries CE, knowledge of a high-register variety of Greek, one which was modeled on a selection of ancient canonical authors and the church fathers and, therefore, differed from the contemporary vernacular, would mark in the Eastern Roman Empire a young adult for a promising career in the administration of the state or church, pretty much in the same way as in later times knowledge of Latin would mark someone for a post within the British Empire. MELA’s main aim is to achieve a deeper understanding of this language by means of producing a digital grammar of the Greek taught at schools in Late Constantinople, from where several textbooks survive that have not received so far the attention they deserve.
Within this broad context, my work focuses on a number of grammatical textbooks written by Maximus Planudes, a leading scholar of the late thirteenth/early fourteenth century. I try to shed more light to the sophistication that these textbooks show in particular, especially in terms of what we nowadays call “information management”.
Our Greek section hosts many international researchers, but not many of them are actually … Greek! How has the Ghent life been treating you?
The truth is that people expect a researcher to be detached from the object of their study, which is obviously not my case. I am joking. It was actually somewhat of a coincidence that I decided to study Greek in the first place – I was showing a similarly great interest in Latin as well as in Ancient History, and I think I would be as happy as I am now, had I chosen any of these subjects instead of Greek. I guess, what fascinates me in these subjects is the potential they show to help us overcome – as Hugh Lloyd-Jones eloquently put it – “the provincialism of those who know only their own period”. In other words, Greek and Latin literature as well as the ancient world in general could serve as a mirror for our contemporary world.
That said, I cannot but admit that the interest that people in Ghent show in both the Greek language and Greece really touches me – I am not talking about the Ancient Greek language and Ancient Greece. The activities organized by the “Griekenlandcentrum” at Ghent University focus on the Early Modern, Modern, or even Contemporary Greece . Last week, for example, I visited a fascinating talk on Greek children’s adoptions to the US and Netherlands during the 50es and 60es. These events attract not only people from the University, but also people who simply live in Ghent and show an interest in Greece, of whom many even learn Modern Greek – and needless to say, they grasp the opportunity to practice their Greek with me. I have been really impressed by their language skills by the way. My resolution for the next years is to master Dutch as well as they have mastered Modern Greek.
I guess, what fascinates me in these subjects is the potential they show to help us overcome – as Hugh Lloyd-Jones eloquently put it – “the provincialism of those who know only their own period”. In other words, Greek and Latin literature as well as the ancient world in general could serve as a mirror for our contemporary world.
If you have to name one weird habit of your Belgian colleagues, what would it be? No worries, we can take it! 😁 Also, for which reason are you most happy to be working here?
I haven’t spotted a particular habit of my Belgian colleagues. Is there something I should be aware of? I am joking. The only funny thing that has happened so far concerns the language. Before moving to Belgium, I was living in Germany, and even before that in Switzerland. But even though German and Dutch have much in common, there are still some “false friends” – my personal favorite is “bellen”; in German, it means “bark”.
The reason I am most happy to be working here is definitely the people. On the one hand, Ghent is a very beautiful city, full of super-friendly people. On the other hand, my colleagues at the University, be it from the MELA project or from the department in general, have proved themselves not only extremely friendly, but also very supportive. They are also very open to exchange and share insights from their own research and are always interested in hearing about my own work and giving me feedback. They have created a very fertile environment here and I am very glad to be part of it.
The reason I am most happy to be working here is definitely the people. On the one hand, Ghent is a very beautiful city, full of super-friendly people. On the other hand, my colleagues at the University, be it from the MELA project or from the department in general, have proved themselves not only extremely friendly, but also very supportive.
Now, let’s be serious again. This year, your PhD thesis was finally published as a monograph – congrats! You must be very proud … and maybe relieved?
Thank you very much! Yes. Soon after my defense in 2018 I started editing my thesis, so that it may be published as a monograph. My book is about Plutarch’s attitude towards rhetoric, an attitude which earlier scholarship had interpreted as rather ambivalent. My approach amounts to the first attempt to see this attitude within the broader context of the traditional conflict between philosophy and rhetoric in antiquity, while paying particular attention to the role that a subject so loaded as rhetoric might play for the construction of a distinct philosophical identity by Plutarch.
The first edition of my book in Modern Greek is about to appear in Athens – the book will be released within the next few weeks –, while a second edition in English is currently in preparation. I am indeed very relieved that this circle is gradually closing, also because the preparation of my thesis for publication had been a side-project for me over the last years. I was fortunate enough to begin my first postdoc in Trier, in Germany, already a month after receiving my PhD. It lasted for three years. This postdoc was on a different topic than my thesis – it was on the reception of presocratic philosophy –, which represented for me a unique opportunity to delve into a new area and, thus, broaden my research profile. But this also meant that the time I could invest in editing my thesis ought to be limited. Nevertheless, I managed to cope with the situation and I am now very happy.
Summer is coming! Will you stay in the Blandijn office or venture out into the world? Any particular plans that classicists might find interesting or inspiring?
I guess, the ideal for summer vacation for every classicist involves a combination of culture, culinary delights and the Mediterranean. In August, I am going to spend some days on Crete. It has been ages since the last time I visited the island. I would like to visit the new Eleutherna museum.
Sounds wonderful – don’t forget to send us pictures! 😉 Thank you for the interview, Fanis, and good luck with your research!