Going Through the Motions: The Great Andante Debate 2016

2nd September 2016
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Going Through the Motions: The Great Andante Debate 2016

Now there was a time when they used to say
That behind every "great man."
There had to be a "great woman."
But in these times of change you know
That it's no longer true

— Eurythmics & Aretha Franklin, Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves

On a Friday night in Oxford, the immortal words of a London legend and Memphis’ finest, which first hit airwaves in 1985, echo through the Randolph Sculpture Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum. This time, they are spoken by archaeologist John Shepherd as he approaches the podium, preparing to defend his stance…

It can only be the Great Andante Debate, that one night of the year when archaeologists, classicists, historians, and historical novelists come together to apprehend some of history’s most puzzling dilemmas. The motion this year: this house believes that behind every great man of antiquity was a great woman.

“Women’s own words are like quicksilver”: Dr Denise Allen speaks on behalf of the women of antiquity

“Women’s own words are like quicksilver”: Dr Denise Allen speaks on behalf of the women of antiquity

In the red corner were Roman specialists Dr Denise Allen and Tony Wilmott — in the green, and proudly representing Andante Travels, fellow Roman specialist John Shepherd and Egyptologist Dr Joyce Tyldesley. In case of foul play, fracas, or even fisticuffs, Chairperson and historical novelist Lindsey Davis presided with a watchful eye.


Here she comes now: Tony Wilmott points out one of antiquity’s great women at the sidelines of the gallery

Here she comes now: Tony Wilmott points out one of antiquity’s great women at the sidelines of the gallery


After a strong opening from Dr Allen, John Shepherd was faced with a seemingly impossible task. Unfortunately, despite valiant counter arguments from both himself and Dr Tyldesley – ranging from the female kings of Ancient Egypt to a case study of a wily widow and mother – the deftly-argued motion, enthusiastically backed up by Tony Wilmott, proved tricky to topple.

As the opportunity for audience questions arose, some last minute tensions came to the fore — was the motion actually an attempt to re-write women’s role in history based on the current zeitgeist? And just what do we mean by “great”, anyway? However, these were swiftly and expertly dispatched by Dr Allen, and after a few hushed moments, red cards were triumphantly held aloft as the majority of those present voted in favour of the motion… and how could they not?


The Crowd Holding Their Voting Cards Aloft

And so the night came to a close: with a decisive victory for Team Red, for the motion, and for the great women of antiquity — and only slightly bruised egos for Team Green. One thing remains true of all in attendance, no matter their allegiance: they have been left with some serious food for thought. But will it be enough to tide them over until next year, and the next Great Andante Debate…?

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