When did you first learn about ancient Greece and Rome? Think back to when you were a kid; I think most of us would answer that it was from a movie or a television show. For most people in the Western world I think that’s a fairly common experience. Maybe it was watching Xena or Hercules, or Disney’s animated Hercules movie. Or maybe it was a television show completely unrelated to Classics, but they had that one episode where the characters go back in time, or visit a planet with a strangely Greek culture, or face off against monsters from mythology. This is how we have become familiar with these ancient cultures.
I just wanted to explore this topic briefly on here as I am doing research into Classical Receptions right now for my PhD work. The fact that children today, and all of us who have grown up with access to television and media, first access the Classics through these venues is a really significant thing. What kind of impression of the ancient world is given through these mediums? And how have the stories and characters from Greece and Rome — the gods, Cyclopses, Medusa, Atlantis — gone from being the subject of dusty mythologies to being common media tropes?
In part we have literature to thank. There’s a long history in the English lit tradition of including references to the ‘pagan mythologies’: just look at Milton, writing such a strongly Biblical text as Paradise Lost. He makes references to so many myths in order to evoke a particular feeling, a lesson, or an image. For a long time this is how the Classics were carried along to the general public – often not even the general, but the educated public. It wasn’t accessible to everyone.
But it seems around the mid-1900s (and an argument can be made for earlier) things really started to take a turn with Classics in media. Of course there are the films Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, and I, Claudius. Films and shows that are set directly in Rome or Greece with characters from that time are definitely interesting and worthy of study in Classical Reception. But I’m really interested in the other instances — the original Star Trek, in the episode Plato’s Stepchildren, when the crew visit a planet of telekinetic beings who have adopted Greek culture and the teachings of Plato as their own, for instance. Doesn’t it seem strange that in a series set in the distant future, where they travel space and see impossible sights, strange alien cultures, and other fantastic things, that they would look way back to the Greeks for a plot? Why look back and forward in history at the same time?
That’s a big question to try and answer. And I would encourage everyone reading to give it a thought. Why would science fiction so often use the ancient world in stories? What does looking back and forward simultaneously give us that is so appealing? It happens in so many shows and movies, and not just ones meant for adults or for children. It’s across the entire spectrum.
I’m really interested in having this discussion. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think about it!