Ancient Greece and Rome in the modern world

Interviewer: Sam Walter (Interviewer, Ideas Lab)
Guest:  Dr Gideon Nisbet
Recorded: 30/04/2013
Broadcast: 13/05/2013

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Sam: Today we’re here with Dr Gideon Nisbet who is a lecturer in Classics and Ancient History, here at the University of Birmingham. Hello, Gideon.

Gideon: Hello. 

Sam: Can you tell us a bit about what you do here at the university and what your research is in?

Gideon:  Well here at Birmingham I teach and research in the literature and culture of the ancient world, that is Ancient Greece and Rome, and also in what we call its reception that is the way that we use and study the ancient world in the present. 

Sam: So it’s looking at how culture and how popular culture interprets the ancient world and all its powers and stories. 

Gideon:  That’s right. The ancient world can only really ever exist here in the present day. We can’t go back there and if we did, we wouldn’t understand it and so really what we do as academics is part of a larger cultural pattern. It’s part of the same continuum as historical novelists, as the makers of TV and film. We play by different rules and we’d like to think that we arrive at a deeper truth but we’re all in a sense playing the same game. 

Sam: So in actual sense, by writing a point of view of the historic past it’s kind of the same as directing a film on Ancient Greece. 

Gideon: Well, perhaps not entirely the same but I think most ancient historians would agree that ancient history is in one sense a rule-bounded activity, that is you have to pick a story, you have to be selective, you can’t cover everything.  If we try to represent the totality of the ancient past, firstly we couldn’t because there are huge gaps in the evidence and secondly, the result would be incomprehensible. We need to tell stories, that’s how we understand the past or versions of the past, but by telling those stories we’re also making up the past. 

Sam: So there's an element of this past just provokes the imagination in that sense. 

Gideon: That’s right.  The past can only really exist for us as stories.  We know stuff happened but we also know that that stuff isn’t there anymore, the past is over. We can only engage with it by telling stories about it in the here and now and as academics, what we try and do is make those stories as richly detailed and as plausible as possible. In other words, what distinguishes us is that the rules we play by, when we tell our stories, are different.  

Sam: So what is it that makes Ancient Greece have an interesting social ideal for the present day? How do we relate to it?

Gideon: Well, I think one of the things that’s interesting about the ways that our culture consumes the ancient world is that we tend to go to Ancient Greece and to Ancient Rome for different purposes and each of those purposes changes over time. For instance, Ancient Rome has tended to be a destination of choice for sex and violence, for bringing on the dancing girls and for the thrill of gladiatorial combat in the arena and that reception of Rome, a use of Rome, that you can trace going back now a hundred years and more.  The Victorians perceived Ancient Rome in just this way and at the end of course, the early Church would triumph, the volcano would explode and that made it OK.  In other words, Ancient Rome and Ancient Pompeii, these doomed cities of Pagan excess, became a kind of holiday park for Victorians to experience pleasures that their own culture disallowed.  They could take a holiday in someone else’s sin, secure in the knowledge that at the end, closure would be achieved and virtue would prevail. Greece on the other hand, because it never had the chance to persecute Christians because most of its interesting history is BC, has been received in other ways and it’s often been looked to as a much more rarefied ideal.  Greek history for instance is rich in bloody battles but you don’t get films about them much, with the exception of Thermopylae, that one honourable exception. We thrill to the march of Roman legionaries feet in any number of films. Rome is great for battles. Greece’s history was every bit as bloody but we don’t go to Greece for that kind of story, we have Rome for that.  Instead, Greece is where we situate particular kinds of ideal, among others of course the ideal of democracy: it’s where we situate philosophy, a concept that translates very poorly into cinema and television, and it’s where we situate other ideals as well which socially, historically, have been problematic. For instance, the idea of the profound and selfless romantic but also erotic love of a man for a youth. Greece has been associated with forms of sexuality, in other words, that have not been accepted in our culture over the last hundred or so years and Greek love has become a by-word for homosexuality and a euphemism I suppose we could say.  So Greece has been problematic in popular culture because of its association with high ideals, with rarefied concepts and with philosophers who were too fond of boys. 

Sam: So there’s a lot of controversy with the media, with perhaps parents being worried about our culture influencing violence in young people. What would you say about that?

Gideon: Well, with regard to the ancient world, the first thing I’d say is that this debate is nothing new and it goes all the way back to classical antiquity itself.  Plato would have banned young people in his ideal society, described in his work ‘The Republic’ from consuming pretty much any kind of media content at all.  In fact he’d have banned pretty much everyone from consuming media content because he thought that taking on a role, especially the role of a bad person, had a bad effect on you as a person.  And so he wouldn’t have let people perform in plays for instance because acting like a particular character might turn you into that kind of character.  Seneca, likewise, the Roman philosopher who tutored Nero was profoundly concerned about the effects of violent spectacle on a mass audience. He wasn’t concerned that criminals were dying in the arena, they deserved it he thought, but he was concerned of the effect that might have on people watching, that it bestialised the audience. These are exactly the same kinds of concern that we’re still working through today and I think we’re no closer really to an answer, except that it’s useful to look at antiquity as a parallel and to see that there too it’s people who identify themselves as above corruption, the philosophers, who latch onto the danger that media products cause for others. It’s never about the danger for them, it’s always about people who aren’t in their position and that again is something we see echoed today.  One of the things I think we’re going to see this year probably with the launch of the new Spartacus-based video game on PlayStation and X-Box and later in the year with the launch of the new X-Box, for which the headline title is likely to be a game called Ryse, set in Imperial Rome, is a resurgence of this debate because Ancient Rome has always been a place we’ve gone to for sex and violence of a pre-Christian or anti-Christian kind and Ryse in particular with its immersive gameplay, I think there's going to be panic stories about that, that it’s teaching people to wander the streets, stabbing and hacking and being Pagan, running riot. 

Sam:  So horrifying scenes then. 

Gideon:  Yes, that’s right, and increasingly the representation of Imperial Rome in modern media has been ramping up the blood – Spartacus Blood and Sand for instance – all over the arena, all over the screen.  Recent game play echoes this, as does recent cinema, for instance 300.  So we’re increasingly experiencing a visceral ancient world, often in a very literal sense. 

Sam: So really with the progression of technology becomes the progression of our immersion with the ancient world. 

Gideon:  That’s right.  It becomes more visceral, more personal, with the new game Ryse for instance. That’s all about the player as an individual entering this ancient world, very richly realised, very detailed, and physically moving within it because the system is tracking what you do with your limbs, with your head, with your body. And so we’re being promised a much more immediate and immersive experience of antiquity. At the same time, one that’s increasingly narrow in terms of its thematic range.  Whereas if we rewind to the great sword and sandal films of half a century ago, or even to Gladiator, there the ancient world is a scene both of violence and of spectacle, but also for instance of religious conflict, of the clash of ideologies between Pagan and Christian, of grand historical processes – the decline and fall of the Roman Empire for the most obvious example. Right now we seem to be narrowing in and turning Rome into purely a bloodbath. As to what we’re doing ten years down the line, if I make predictions today I hope I’ll be proved to be wrong because that’s what will keep things interesting. 

Sam: Dr Gideon Nisbet, thank you very much. 

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Sam Walter.