Updated: Sep 26, 2021
Although rather embarrassing to admit now, the story of Jason and the Argonauts, played out on screen amidst the monsters of the great Ray Harryhausen, undeniably gave my fascination with the Classical world a nudge when I was around 6. But it wasn’t just about creepy warring skeletons (though who doesn’t love that?). My interest accelerated and eventually I had the great fortune to begin Latin when I was 14 and Greek in 6th form. I suppose at first, my interest lay in the newness of the Classical world and how different it seemed. But what so grips me now and what I wish to expand upon today is the fact that this world, from which we are separated by over 2000 years, is a lot more familiar than one might have expected, at times alarmingly so.
The story of the ancient world, I came to realise, is fundamentally a story about human beings how they then lived, behaved, and thought. Therefore, parallels between them and us should not be too surprising. Our tools might have changed, but have we?
I would like to start with modern day celebrities, thinking particularly about musical, artistic, and sporting heroes, whom we admire both as individuals and even nationally. I am sure we can all think of someone famous whom we admire and have ways of showing this, whether it is attending the pop concert of a favourite band or singer, attending the match when your team is playing, or even displaying signed photos on bedroom walls. Well, the Greeks and Romans were no different. Rulers sponsoring Olympic teams were commemorated in poetry, winning athletes received heroic welcomes, honours, and statues in their home-towns. If you think about it, this is not so different from the headlines that celebrated Ben Stokes’ performance in the cricket world cup or those who return victorious from the modern Olympics. The ancients even had their own equivalent of the trinkets sold in souvenir or gift shops. Keen spectators at Rome’s Circus Maximus would sport their team colours (and fight over them), and ladies could sigh over statues over their beloved charioteers or gladiators, and even purchase little bottles that purported to contain their sweat. (how nice?) Human beings no less now than then like to have heroes or heroines to idolise or even to aspire to. Moreover, they like to be entertained.
I would like secondly to move to philosophy. This might seem a little strange at first, as one conjures up an image of Plato and Socrates debating the good or the virtuous, and other abstract concepts in an apparently leisurely manner, a scene that might seem rather more remote than buying gladiator sweat bottles. However, consider…when did you think about an ethical issue of great public even international relevance: was it global warming and its effect on other peoples? Maybe issues of social inequality, whether at home or abroad, have made you question the status quo? Plato might not have debated the melting of the polar ice caps, but his and other philosophers’ preoccupations with how lives should be lived and what a good life required are questions that engage people today and so they should. A particular favourite of mine comes from Socrates’ Apology, his defence speech at his trial. In the second speech, which comes after his condemnation and before sentencing, Socrates explains why he conducted himself as he did towards his fellow Athenians, namely through rigorous cross-questioning of what they ‘believed’ they knew. He states that his aim was to take care of themselves before they took care of their affairs, and to look after the city itself, before they took care of its affairs. What he means is that they should look after themselves first and foremost and human beings, what kind of a person they are, and how they should live life, and never cease to reflect upon this. It would seem in Socrates’ opinion that Athenians have become rather too obsessed with political position, wealth, and public esteem, core aspects of political life at Athens, which Socrates himself eschewed, to the detriment of his own fortunes (and in the end his life). I’d like to suggest that there is a strong parallel here. Have technology and consumerism become our obsession perhaps to the eclipse of things that matter more?
Finally, today, I turn to an area of the ancient world that shows a rather darker side to human beings. If our ability to question and debate the bigger questions about life and people’s needs has not changed, then neither has our ability to be destructive and even cruel. A woman killed her husband and his lover in revenge for the affair. A woman kills her children out of anger towards her estranged husband. A girl is torn between expressing a deep-seated feeling of duty to what she believes her religion demands and obeying the law, which she ultimately decides to defy. These happened in 1989, 2016, and 2004. But I could just as easily have said Clytaemnestra, Medea, and Antigone. These tough, and slightly scary, larger than life mythical women of Greek Tragedy display emotions, urges, and thoughts, which we see in our newspapers, on our tv screens, and to which we may even be able to relate – hopefully not to the point of murder, but certainly in terms of anger at a perceived wrong or humiliation or a strong sense of duty. I once put the following statement before a discussion group: ‘if you take the gods out of tragedy, you are essentially left with the modern soap opera’. A fruitful hour concluded that the parallels were striking, even shocking. So, keen Classicists, if you are ever asked ‘what can you do with Classics’, or ‘what’s the point of Classics’, you can tell the enquirer that this subject provides once of the richest lessons on what it is to be human. I would say it is even more like looking in a mirror.