From Two to Forty-Two – Classical Reception Studies at the CCC

by Amanda Potter, Visiting Research Fellow, the Open University

Rossana and Jenny have kindly offered me a guest slot on the Democratising Classics Blog to share our mutual excitement that we have not one but two popular reception panels planned for this year’s CCC, offering circa 42 papers across a range of topics. We hope to encourage lots of cross-fertilisation between “Democratising Classics” and “Twenty-First Century Popular Classics”.

This is quite a different state of affairs than my experience at the first Celtic Conference in Classics I attended, in Edinburgh in 2014. I had seen a call for papers from Nancy Rabinowitz and Fiona McHardy on a “Forms of Violence, Forms of Hierarchy” panel, and suggested to Hunter Gardner from University of South Carolina that we could offer a joint paper on violence in Starz Spartacus. I was particularly interested in the way slavery and sexual violence was handled in the series, and I had wanted to work with Hunter on Spartacus since we met at the “Cinema and Antiquity” conference in Liverpool in 2011. Hunter and I had great fun in deciding on the goriest clip we would show (“where was that one where a gladiator’s head got cut off?”) although our paper included a more serious message about how (a small minority of) viewers were reading acts of sexual violence on screen.

Our paper fit in well with the theme, but was incongruous among many analyses of hierarchies and violence focussed on ancient texts. And on perusing the programme I was surprised to find that our paper was one of only two modern reception papers at the CCC (the other paper was Justine McConnell on Wole Soyinka and Toni Morrison). I immediately accosted the organisers and promised a reception panel for Dublin in 2016, which was eventually entitled “Modern (Ancient) Epic”, bringing together scholars from the UK, US and Israel to talk about film, television, children’s books, comics and video games. Many of these colleagues will be returning to the CCC in St Andrews for the “Twenty-First Century Popular Classics” panel.

So why is classics in modern media so important? Classics is experienced by most people through popular media; the fighting pits of Meereen in Game of Thrones, the Amazons of Themiscyra in Wonder Woman and the endless location shots in BBC Civilisations (another place to put on the holiday list…). This is how I came to classics myself, as an avid child viewer of epic films, moving on to re-runs of I Claudius and Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War as a teenager. And as Jenny and Rossana have discussed in their earlier posts, Latin and Greek are not available to many, nor are the languages even relevant to most. Four years after being awarded my PhD in classics, for my thesis on viewer reception of Greek myth on television, I am only just starting to feel at home in the world of classics as a non-Greek or Latin reader. I still wonder whether I am really a classicist, or whether I am a classics fan, or whether actually both of these terms mean the same thing. I have always felt more comfortable at media studies conferences talking to fan studies scholars than at classics conferences, where sometimes I choose the wrong panel and am confronted with a paper handout printed with words in Greek without a translation. This is changing, and the change of content in the CCC is a testament to this!

We should all be interested in why some people become attracted to classics (and why some people don’t), and why film and television producers, theatre practitioners and writers continue to create new texts based on aspects of the ancient world. The future of classics is unlikely to be found in Latin and Greek, but in the mythology underpinning science fiction, in the fan fiction written by classics fans, and in the opportunities we will have to inhabit the ancient world in virtual reality. This future is as exciting as it is democratic!

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