Romans & Greeks & History… But Why?!

In my last post I promised a follow up to what Romans wore. However, in the best interests of my sanity and in order that you my good readers have a better quality post, it has been postponed until next time. Rather like the Legions ordered by Caligula to invade Britain, I am instead going to gather the proverbial sea-shells (of the blogosphere) and claim it as  a dramatic victory. Also, in line with Caligula, my thinking will be terribly self-absorbed. Unlike Caligula I can’t get any of you to disappear (courtesy of the praetorian guard) if you don’t at least pretend to like it. But here goes anyway.

When you think about it (and trust me, I often do); the relationship we have with any historical peoples, be they Roman, Greek, Medieval or just beyond living memory is strange. They are the subject of academic papers and journal articles yes. But, if I am onto the right track, they also hold a place in popular imagery and culture too. How many classic other film or theatre roles involve at least a nod towards the Romans… if you start excluding Shakespeare and his contemporaries it certainly becomes more difficult. My question is this: why? For what reason do we as a modern western society seem to turn again to the Romans and the Greeks as a source of historical fascination?

If, along with me… you were one of the 471,000 who went to see the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum, this interest may be something that you can’t quite put your finger on. In the same way that us humans hold groups for people who are into knitting, fishing or sport, an interest in history can be one of those hobbies that you can be slightly involved in or take it so seriously as to get paid to do it full time (watch out for those professional knitters guys).  So, I think it would be fair to say that there is a little more than a fringe interest in these things. The fanatics aren’t just fusty academics with dodgy fitting suits, there are people who are interested everywhere. Indeed, dear reader, you may also be one of them.

For others, who don’t have to deal with a sad addiction to history and watch films with the historical consultants commentary on to see where they ‘went wrong’ or ‘compromised,’ it might be that it is precisely that. Films. Lets be honest, at the end of the day, setting a film in any historical context (much like setting one in the distant future), frees up the writing to be more adventurous, brutal and fantastical than may otherwise be possible. I have a bit of a bias when it comes to such things/ But, I think it would be fair to say that the likes of Spartacus, Cleopatra, Ben Hur, Troy, Alexander and Gladiator, not forgetting the HBO/BBC collaboration that produced the TV series ‘Rome’ are, to put it mildly, reasonably well known.

Visiting the set of the tv series "Rome" produced by HBO in Cinecittà studios - Rome, Italy
The set of the tv series “Rome” produced by HBO in Cinecittà studios – Rome, Italy. Amphorae stacked alongside less Roman seating and heater.

A prime example of Rome in popular culture is the smaller references, rather then the big-budget epic films. Within the living memory of it’s target audience, Doctor Who (in the guise of the energetic David Tennant) has even diced with the idea of Rome and Romans. The episode combines the idea of a decidedly modern nuclear family, who display elements of Roman life that we know from history, caught in the cross-fire of the infamous Vesuvius eruption in 79AD with a good dash of the fantastical and alien for good measure. The fact that the plot of the episode works at all is testament to the way we see the Romans; as familiar and different from us in equal measure. If you remember that the show is intended for children, this takes on extra significance as we pass on a perception of the Romans on to the next generation.

A Roman setting for the Doctor and the TARDIS
A Roman setting for the Doctor and the TARDIS

A more academic-y way of looking at it would be to say that we project our own ideas onto the past all of our own understandings of society, family, government and intrigue onto the canvas of Rome which was helpfully already full of its own society, family, government and intrigue. The melding of actual historical events, the rumour mill of the senate and what we think it must have been all like make for a potent mix. While there may be comparisons to be made, I think it is still important to remember that Romans are still very much alien to us as well. If the popular understanding of Rome moves too far away from what we understand as the historical truth, then we risk loosing the point of history for the sake of the people who existed then and move towards it being used as just another trope of pop culture.

Ultimately, I will still continue to muse on the reasoning behind a fascination for the Romans, and it may well take up another blog post at some indeterminate point in the future (sorry guys). But for the time being, I’m going to re-watch that episode of Doctor Who. Despite all my wrangling about historical accuracy, a bit of messing around with the past and suspension of disbelief is probably good for the soul.

Next week: Picking up where I left off: Women and clothes in the Roman world

Thanks for reading.

Emma pinxit



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