popular culture, modern
popular culture, modern
- Gideon Nisbet
Classical antiquity echoes through everyday life, and is continuously being mediated for and consumed by mass culture and subcultures; these popular representations shape, and are shaped by, non-specialist understandings of antiquity. Empowered by new media, diverse constituencies (including cult media audiences and minorities, but also ethnic-nationalists and hate groups) interrogate antiquity through its reception history to find versions of ‘Greece’ and ‘Rome’ that help develop their own agendas. As a recent and developing specialisation informed by trends in cultural and media studies, the academic study of classical reception in popular culture poses new challenges for, and breathes new life into, the discipline of Classics. After a slow start, such study has embraced mass and ‘cult’ media including television, videogames, popular music, comics and graphic novels, science fiction and fantasy, and children’s and young adult (YA) fiction. Scholarly rebuttals of appropriations of antiquity by hate groups are re-engaging Classics with the politics of representation (of the past, and of ourselves and each other) in the here and now.
Updated in this version
Text greatly expanded to reflect recent scholarship.
Defining Popular Culture for Classics
Dustin Kidd has defined popular culture as “the set of practices, beliefs, and objects that embody the most broadly shared meanings of a social system. It includes media objects, entertainment and leisure, fashion and trends, and linguistic conventions, among other things.”1 It is what is all around us in the everyday, and our values and understandings take shape in constant dialogue with it. As such, it cannot help but be variously parsed and understood. It is often presumed to counterpoint (and perhaps critique the values inherent in) the prestigious and expensive “high” culture enjoyed by a socially privileged minority. This way of viewing popular culture aligns it with the creatively subversive energies of subcultures and minority cultures (including ethnic and sexual minorities, but also fandom) and “counterculture.” There is value in such a model if we accept its intrinsic paradoxes and grey areas (for instance, opera is paradigmatically high in an Anglophone context but was originally popular and still is, in Italy), and balance it with alternative perspectives, including the parsing of modern popular culture through the prism of late capitalism as a package sold to consumers. This article assumes a flexible model of the term’s meaning, in line with its protean manifestations.
The study of classical reception in popular culture typically addresses popular media genres as products of mass culture from the point of view of scholars and students who wish to understand how classical antiquity is being understood in the world at large. Successful popular representations of the past respond to, and in turn help shape, these non-specialist, non-elite public understandings. Popular media texts (e.g., films, novels, comics, videogames) that represent or evoke the past are therefore studied both as instances of reception in their own right, and as moments in a larger conversation within media, and (in an increasingly participatory way) between media and its audiences. This conversation continues to negotiate the character, status, and uses of antiquity in the here-and-now, often fractiously.
How Classics Has Studied Popular Culture
The academic study of classical reception in modern popular culture began tentatively in the 1970s and 1980s, with forays into the study of film by American classicists and film buffs, notably Derek Elley, Jon Solomon, and Martin Winkler. To these, Maria Wyke, in the 1990s, added methodological rigour; thematic case-studies suited to pedagogy within classical studies curricula; and an assertive, even polemical case for the value of studying representations of the classical past in the mass-cultural present, not limited to film. Wyke also drew attention to how the marketing for classical Hollywood epics encouraged audiences to participate in constructing a shared fantasy of ancient Rome.2 Retrospectively, the study of classical reception in popular culture began round about here, though it is noteworthy that Wyke, writing within a Film Studies tradition—specifically, the historic-film criticism of Pierre Sorlin—had not yet adopted the terminology of reception.3 Within classical studies, that term was still the preserve of literary analysis that drew on the Rezeptionsästhetik of Hans Robert Jauss and Hans-Georg Gadamer, reconstructing the “horizons of expectation” of particular historic readerships.4 The groundswell of classical reception study that then developed around popular culture, particularly on the British scene, was indebted as much to interventions by Wyke and Nick Lowe as to conventional Rezeptionsästhetik, and some queried whether it could properly be termed “reception study” at all.
Classical studies is still adjusting to the new direction, and early attempts to broaden it beyond film have promised more than they delivered.5 Only in the 2000s did reception study start reflecting the generic diversity of modern popular media and the creative dialogues it enabled among its consumers; the watershed was the 2007 conference, “Classics Hell,” subsequently published in 2009.6 This new wave of classical reception study drew inspiration from the first generation of scholarship on the cultures of fandom, and notably Henry Jenkins’ study of fans as textual poachers who creatively repurpose cult media texts through transformative works (fanfiction, fan videos), thereby also establishing bonds of non-hierarchical community through the intrinsically sociable and collaborative aspects of their craft. It now became possible for classicists to “come out” as cult media fans, and indeed to recognise classics as a species of long-established media fandom. Striking a note of caution, the scholarship on fandom proper was already pointing out that not all aspects of cult-media reception were as liberating and socially progressive as Jenkins had seemed to imply.7
In the meantime, scholarship was opening up resources for studying classical reception in the popular cultures of earlier modernity, notably the 19th century, when Greco-Roman civilisation retained its historic accumulation of cultural prestige and was pervasively mediated: in historical novels, a field yet to attract the full attention it merits, and in popular shows and spectacles, including burlesques that spoofed antiquity’s high-culture mystique.8 In sum, classical themes were woven through the fabric of daily life in myriad ways as an aspirational model that endured well into the 20th century.9 Attention was also paid to the methodological challenges of studying the so-called low culture of marginalised groups, which often circulated orally or in ephemeral print media, raising difficulties not unlike those that fellow reception scholars were encountering as they investigated early film.10 Archival detective work of this kind has produced a new understanding of how classical material was repurposed in this period away from politically conservative high culture, to support activism for a widened franchise and increased worker’s rights.11 Another distinct strand of scholarship investigated how shared familiarity with classical literature and art helped late 19th century homosexuals turn a recently diagnosed medical condition into a new kind of identity for the modern age; over the 20th century, this elite subculture democratised and became a prominent part of popular culture, shedding most but not all of its classical baggage along the way.12
Current scholarship in classical reception continues to chart the wilder edges of mass culture, past and present alike.13 New specialisations have been identified recently, including children’s literature, and emerging trends track how audiences consume and respond to mass media. Phenomena now being taken into account include the democratisation by online media platforms (notably YouTube) of active-audience behaviours previously limited to fan subcultures; the impact of new televisual marketing models (e.g., Netflix) on viewing styles and programme content; and media convergence, the tendency of media properties to spread across platforms (e.g., a videogame is spun off into a comic and a film or TV series).14
Classical Reception across Popular Media
Representations of Greco-Roman antiquity pervade popular culture, often transcending traditional media boundaries. Thus far, and excluding media types with their own entries (see film and television, dance reception, opera, reception in historical novels), classical reception scholarship has investigated various media and genres. Typically such scholarship examines the media text as a work of reception and as a moment in a constantly unfolding reception history, building on past interpretations and laying groundwork for future ones, but also supplying the raw material for audiences active in interpreting, discussing, and creatively repurposing popular media.
Years before the turn to popular culture, the prestigious and already classic, 1976 BBC television miniseries, I, Claudius was the point of entry for studies of reception in modern media beyond cinema.15 In the 2000s and 2010s, capitalising on the impact and iconography of the 2006 film 300, and realising the possibilities for explicit content inherent in the subscription-channel model, miniseries began representing a violent and highly sexualised Roman history (e.g., HBO/BBC Rome; Starz, Spartacus); these have engaged researchers, as have representations of Greek myth in Star Trek, Roman daily life in Doctor Who, and classical motifs in the 2004–2009 science-fiction series, Battlestar Galactica.16 The all-but-inevitable edited volume on BBC/Netflix’s Troy: Fall of a City, in 2018, needs to address the online backlash that attacked the show’s casting of a black Zeus and Achilles (see “Classics and Populist Ideologies”).
The history of the videogame medium is rich in examples of classical borrowing from Greek myths and Roman warfare. Instances of the former include several games themed around Hercules (including a widely panned adaptation of the Disney film of 1997), the Greek-vase-styled platformer Apotheon (2015), and the bestselling God of War series (2005–present, and spun off into comics and novels). Among the latter, Rome: Total War (2004) is evergreen and is being enjoyed by a new generation of gamers on smartphones and tablets. “Classics Hell” put videogames on the reception map; there has been little since in the way of formal publication, but classicists, ancient historians, and archaeologists lit up academic Twitter in late 2018 as they played through and commented expertly on the Greek setting of Ubisoft’s new Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (#ACademicOdyssey).17
Classical referentiality is thin on the ground in mainstream pop and rock music, but allusions have been noted in rap; they cluster in heavy metal (the focus of a CAMWS panel in 2014), where they typically serve a nationalistic ideology (see “Classics and Populist Ideologies”).18
Comics and Graphic Novels
The mass-media impact of the film 300, in 2006, redirected attention towards its prototype, the militaristic graphic novel (first published as a limited-run comic, 1998) by auteur Frank Miller. In turn, Miller claimed classical Hollywood as inspiration (Rudolf Maté’s The 300 Spartans, 1962), though his comic owed more iconographically to the hyper-muscularity of Miller’s own trademark dark superhero comics (most famously, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, in 1986), and ideologically to the Neoconservatism that during the American culture wars of the 1990s sought to package contemporary geopolitical muscle-flexing as an expression of classical Greek virtues, a pose that was to come around again in populist appropriations of the late 2010s.19 The superhero comics that formed Miller’s style, in any case, were already suffused with classicising motifs.20 Conceived as rebutting Miller’s Spartiate triumphalism, a more nuanced graphic response to the Spartan narrative, Kieron Gillen and Ryan Kelly’s Three (2013), sought expert scholarly input from noted Spartanist Stephen Hodkinson in evoking a helot perspective.
Comics and graphic novels are a global medium, diverse in narrative technique and cultural signification.21 France dominates the established scholarship, addressing the French and Belgian bande dessinée (though this critical literature does not yet specifically address classical reception), and sporadic classical allusion can be found even in Japanese manga.22 In the Anglophone sphere, prior to the 1980s, comics were regarded as a low and predominantly child-orientated cultural form, denying them status as art and thereby justifying frequent censorship; a dedicated scholarly literature was therefore slow to emerge. Classical reception study is now at the forefront in redressing this.23
Science Fiction and Fantasy
Classical allusivity is frequent in science fiction. Planets and stars are named for figures from classical myth, and the scientists who study them are often classics fans. What is more, as a species of genre literature, perceived as appealing to a socially marginal niche readership, science fiction (SF) is often snubbed by critics as sub-literary; accordingly the genre has sought to dignify its scenarios through classical allusion, or by detecting a classical pedigree for modern SF in Homer (Hephaestus’ tripod automata in Iliad 18) or Lucian (True History). Prefiguring the pattern later seen in videogames, SF authors turned to Greece for myth and Rome for imperial geopolitics (e.g., the “galactic empire” trope of Asimov’s Foundation novels, made familiar to mass audiences by Star Wars). Classical reception in SF now benefits from substantial scholarship, as do the less well known borrowings of modern fantasy, from Tolkien onwards.24
Children’s and Young Adult (YA) Fiction
There is extensive crossover between SF/fantasy and fiction aimed at children and young adults. YA fantasy/SF centred on teenaged protagonists became a mass-media phenomenon in the 2000s and 2010s, and spilled over into cinema, the most famous instances being J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (1997–2007) and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampire romances (2005–2008). Harry Potter is the best-selling fictional series of all time; in its world, magic and mythical creatures (for instance, centaurs) are real, and Latin is the language of spells. Rowling’s fans have analysed her classical sources (she studied Classics and French at university), and Harry Potter has even been translated into Latin and ancient Greek for students learning the languages. Rowling’s contemporary fellow YA fantasy author, Philip Pullman, alludes subtly to classical tradition in His Dark Materials (1995–2000); Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy (2008–2010) invokes familiar Roman Imperial tropes and names characters for ancient household names. Classical reception in children’s/YA fiction now has a scholarly literature of its own, over and above its existing coverage in the literature on SF and fantasy.25
Classics and Populist Ideologies
Scholarship on reception in popular media and subcultures typically celebrates the persistence of Greco-Roman motifs as evidencing the democratisation of classical tradition and a continuing healthy public interest in the ancient world; this perspective credits the active role of audiences in maintaining the vitality of antiquity. There is thus no one “ancient world in popular culture”; instead, the diverse identities of those constituencies motivated to engage with antiquity generate a nexus of contemporary classical presences, which develop in dialogue with one another. Academics are one such constituency (or subculture); others include media fans and history hobbyists, who engage with primary texts and the products of scholarship as they develop their own visions of antiquity.
Minority audiences (sexual, religious, ethnic) also construct such ancient worlds. The most famous example is the Afrocentrist reception of ancient Greek philosophy as a stolen legacy out of Egypt; by this account the cradle of Western civilisation was formed by Africa.26 This therapeutic mythology attracted mainstream media attention when taken up by the sinologist Martin Bernal, in a series of trade books under the running title Black Athena.27 Classicists comprehensively rebutted the pseudohistory of the later volumes, thereby drawing accusations of complicity in repressive agendas; while admitting the cogency of, and continuing to grapple with, the important challenge that the first volume had posed in drawing attention to the racialist assumptions of some of the discipline’s founding figures. The ensuing debate threw into relief the deficit of ethnic-minority visibility within classical studies.28 The academic debate around Afrocentrism has thus been salutary and revitalising, while Afrocentrism as an empowering minority reception of antiquity continues to feed into popular culture in forms as diverse as YA fiction, street art, and music video.29 Its continuing mass-culture visibility also makes it a target for the Internet’s numerous white-supremacist trolls.
The emergent populist ethno-nationalisms of the 2010s pose a more serious challenge to the presumptively liberal perspective of classics academia. Through appropriated imagery and selective quotation from ancient texts, far-right organisations have long asserted spiritual continuity with a classical antiquity that they represent in racially essentialist terms; for instance, the Golden Dawn party (Chrysí Avgí) of Greece parades an Aryan Hellenic tradition alongside neo-Nazi symbolism. However, technological and social change are now enabling a much wider dissemination of these reductive representations of the ancient past. The early Internet (1980s–1990s) was principally an international research tool, and its youngish, highly educated, technically skilled, and cosmopolitan demographic inclined toward liberal perspectives; the Internet thus became instrumental in popularising, for example, LGBT rights as well as in mainstreaming cult-media fan practices. The Internet’s subsequent metamorphosis into a vector of mass-cultural communication has opened it to every ideology and made it easy to disseminate extreme views. Notably, from a classical-reception perspective, the so-called alt-right, an amorphous US white-nationalist movement centred on vehemently anti-minority, anti-feminist, and anti-diversity agendas, frequently appeals to Greek or Roman precedent (e.g., to a hyper-masculine Sparta recognisably indebted to Miller’s 300); these online rewritings of antiquity’s default narrative incite real-world discrimination and violent repression. Methodologically, they are fanfiction’s dark mirror.
American classicists in particular are actively challenging the new populist appropriations of the ancient world; the online journal Eidolon and the blog Pharos debunk them where it matters most in representational terms—in the sphere of the new mass culture, where their critical analyses of alt-right misrepresentation of antiquity are attracting positive media attention. This determined resistance to the alt-right’s misrepresentations may point toward a renewed role for the discipline of classics as an informed and engaged participant in contemporary social and political debates.
- Gray, Jonathan, Cornell Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, eds. Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (2nd ed.). New York, NY: New York University Press, 2017.
- Hall, Edith, “Navigating the Realms of Gold: Translation as Access Route to the Classics.” In Translation and the Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture. Edited by Alexandra Lianeri and Vanda Zajko. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Kovacs, George, and C. W. Marshall, eds. Classics and Comics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Lowe, Dunstan, and Kim Shahabudin, eds. Classics For All: Reworking Antiquity in Mass Culture. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.
- Morley, Neville. Classics: Why It Matters. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2018.
- Nisbet, Gideon. Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture (2nd ed.). Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2008.
- Rogers, Brett M., and Benjamin Eldon Stevens, eds. Classical Traditions in Science Fiction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.
- Rogers, Brett M., and Benjamin Eldon Stevens, eds. Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.
- Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. (7th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge, 2015.
- Zuckerberg, Donna. Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.
2. Maria Wyke, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History (New York, NY: Routledge, 1997); and “Classics and Contempt: Redeeming Cinema for the Classical Tradition,” Arion 6, no. 1 (1998): 124–36.
3. Pierre Sorlin, The Film in History: Restaging the Past (New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, 1980).
4. Charles Martindale, Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
5. Sandra R. Joshel, Margaret Malamud, and Donald T. McGuire Jr., eds., Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture (Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
6. Dunstan Lowe and Kim Shahabudin, eds., Classics For All: Reworking Antiquity in Mass Culture (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009); Gideon Nisbet, Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture (Exeter, UK: Bristol Phoenix, 2006); and on toxic behaviours in fan culture, see Matt Hills, Fan Cultures (London, UK: Routledge, 2002).
7. Notably Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992); and Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2006).
8. Though see now Simon Goldhill, Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011). For popular entertainment, see David Mayer, Playing Out the Empire: Ben-Hur and Other Toga Plays and Films, 1883–1908: A Critical Anthology (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1994); and Laura Monrós-Gaspar, Victorian Classical Burlesques: A Critical Anthology (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).
9. Margaret Malamud, Ancient Rome and Modern America (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
10. Siobhan McElduff, “Fractured Understandings: Towards a History of Classical Reception among Non-Elite Groups.” In Classics and the Uses of Reception, ed. Charles Martindale and Richard F. Thomas, 180–191 (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006); cf. Pantelis Michelakis and Maria Wyke, eds., The Ancient World in Silent Cinema (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press).
11. Henry Stead and Edith Hall, eds., Greek and Roman Classics in the British Struggle for Social Reform (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2015).
12. See e.g., Alastair Blanshard, Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015); Jennifer Ingleheart, ed., Ancient Rome and the Construction of Modern Homosexual Identities (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015); and Gideon Nisbet, Greek Epigram in Reception: J. A. Symonds, Oscar Wilde, and the Invention of Desire, 1805–1929 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013).
13. Edmund Richardson, ed., Classics in Extremis: The Edges of Classical Reception (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2018) pursues several such reception micro-histories.
14. Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2008).
15. Sandra Joshel, “I, Claudius: Projection and Imperial Soap Opera,” in Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome, 119–161.
16. Monica Cyrino, ed., Rome, Season One: History Makes Television (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), and Rome, Season Two: Trial and Triumph (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press); Antony Augoustakis and Monica S. Cyrino, eds., Stars Spartacus: Reimagining an Icon on Screen (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press); Fiona Hobden, “History Meets Fiction in Doctor Who, ‘The Fires of Pompeii’: A BBC Reception of Ancient Rome on Screen and Online,” Greece & Rome 56 (2009):147–163; and Vince Tomasso, “Classical Antiquity and Western Identity in Battlestar Galactica,” in Classical Traditions in Science Fiction. ed. Brett M. Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 243–260.
17. Thea S. Thorsen, ed., Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age (Trondheim, Norway: Akademika, 2012).
18. Rap: Dan el-Padilla Peralta, From Damocles to Socrates. Heavy metal: Osman Umurhan, “Heavy Metal Music and the Appropriation of Greece and Rome,” Syllecta Classica 23 (2013): 127–152; and Osman Umurhan and Kris F. B. Fletcher, eds., Classical Antiquity in Heavy Metal Music (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).
19. Thucydides Project helps illuminate how the Neoconservatives looked through a glass darkly at Greek history and saw an anti-liberal tract. Page duBois’ Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2001) passionately counters Neocon favourites including Victor Davis Hanson and Donald Kagan.
20. Luke Pitcher, “Saying ‘Shazam’: The Magic of Antiquity in Superhero Comics,” in New Voices in Classical Reception Studies, 4(2009).
21. The best introductory guide is itself a graphic novel: Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (Northampton, MA: Tundra, 1993).
22. On bandes dessinées, see notably, Thierry Groensteen, Système de la Bande Dessinée, 2 vols (Paris, France: Presses universitaires de Paris, 1999 and 2011).
23. George Kovacs and C. W. Marshall, eds., Classics and Comics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); and Kovacs and Marshall, Son of Classics and Comics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015).
24. Brett M. Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens, eds., Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); and Rogers and Stevens, Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017).
25. Katarzyna Marciniak, ed., Our Mythical Childhood: The Classics and Literature for Children and Young Adults (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016); Lisa Maurice, ed., The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016).
26. George G. M. James, Stolen Legacy: The Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, But the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians (New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1954).
27. Beginning with Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Vol. 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785–1985 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987); and on therapeutic mythology, see Clarence Johnson, We Can’t Go Home Again: An Argument About Afrocentrism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001).
28. Mary Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers, eds., Black Athena Revisited (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); and Daniel Orrells, Gurminder K. Bhambra, and Tessa Roynon, eds., African Athena: New Agendas (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011).
29. Gregory S. Walker (as ‘Brother G’) Shades of Memnon (3 vols) (Posen, IL: Seker Nefer Press, 1999–2005); and “Apeshit,” Everything Is Love, directed by Ricky Saiz (New York, NY: Parkwood Entertainment, 2018), video, 6.05 min.