Calling all filmmakers – Job advert for the project The Ancient World on Film!

This week’s blog is a call for filmmakers interested in working on an exciting new collaborative project between staff and students at Swansea University, local communities. Details below:

The Ancient World on Film is an exciting new collaborative project between staff and students at Swansea University, local communities, and filmmakers. Filmmakers will work with staff and students in the Department of Classics, Ancient History and Egyptology to produce a short film (5-10 minutes) about the ancient world which opens up the subject to new audiences. Staff and students will be responsible for writing the script in consultation with local communities so that the films can be targeted effectively at our ideal audiences. However, we hope that filmmakers will embrace this opportunity to mentor our students and help them explore the creative potential of the medium. We are particularly keen to develop new ways of presenting information about the ancient world which go beyond the traditional documentary format and will welcome suggestions from filmmakers about how to do this. The films will be shown at a big launch at the Taliesin theatre in May 2019, where filmmakers and students will have the opportunity to discuss the production process with members of the public and invited guests.

We are producing four films in total and invite pitches from filmmakers to produce one or more of those films. For each film:

You Will Need:

* Demonstrable experience producing short films; ideally you will be able to demonstrate experience delivering a contracted film on schedule and on budget.

* To supply your own filming and editing equipment.

* Public liability insurance.

* To be prepared to undertake a DBS check if necessary.

* Ideally you will have experience producing films as part of a team, and particularly of working with community groups and/or students.

* Ideally you will be available to attend a workshop with members of the local community in late January or early February 2019. Dates will be confirmed after further consultation with all parties involved.

* To consult with students and staff during the script-writing period (February-March 2019). This can be done remotely if necessary.

* To be able to shoot the film in March or early April 2019. Filming is expected to take no more than one day.

* To provide a rough cut of the film for discussion by mid-April 2019.

* To deliver the final film by 30th April 2019.

* To attend a film screening at the Taliesin theatre on the University’s Singleton Park Campus on Monday 13th May from 4.30 to 7.30.

You Will Receive:

* A fee of £1,500 to be paid in two instalments (the first instalment to be paid after filming, the second upon delivery of the final film).

* A budget of £1,000 to make the film.


* 1 film (5-10 minutes in length) shot in Full HD format (1920×1080)

* Delivered as an MP4 file and one copy on a blue-ray disc

* Deadline for completion: 30th April 2019

* You will also be required to discuss a rough cut of the film with students at an appropriate moment in the process, likely in March or April 2019.

The Film

We are looking to create exciting, new films about the ancient world and we intend to give filmmakers and students plenty of scope to utilise their creative vision and skills to develop the film. In particular, we want to move beyond the traditional documentary format and find innovative ways to communicate information about the ancient world. For an idea of what we mean by all of this, feel free to have a look at an earlier project led by Dr Harrison.


To Apply

Send a brief (1 page max) cover letter detailing your experience and including a link to a showreel or equivalent to Dr Stephen Harrison ( and Dr Joanne Berry ( by 23.59 on 31st December 2018. Shortlisted applicants will be contacted in the first week of January 2019 with a view to further discussion.

We would love to hear from interested filmmakers, so please send informal queries and expressions of interest to Drs Berry and Harrison.

School pupil visit to our Department in March 2017

On the 16th March, we had our annual Classics Schools’ day. Pupils from four local schools attended the day and took part in workshops and talks by our academic staff as well as an object handling session at the Egypt centre. Pupils from Castle School in Pembrokeshire reflect on their experience:

Swansea University

We arrived at Swansea at about 10:30 at the large, phenomenal university. We were a bit late due to traffic and parking problems but that didn’t matter much! On the way to the entrance I couldn’t help but notice the big buildings and the green garden areas. Beautiful. The inside was equally as nice and after getting lost we found our way to the first talk. Sadly we had missed a bit because we were late.

When we got there (a bit late because it takes an hour to get there and there were some traffic and parking problems) we saw lots of people, so it must be a big university.

Classics in Wales

The first talk was taken by Dr. Evelien Bracke. It was about the Romans and some Roman artefacts in Wales. It was very interesting. She talked about some Roman Artwork and buildings in Swansea that were inspired by Roman architecture. The students mentioned many museums in Swansea that held proof that the Romans did play a big role in British society. In fact we had just recently visited Caerleon where there is a theatre and some cool Roman baths. It’s amazing there.



My experience at the British School at Athens Summer School 2016

Guest blog post by Minette Matthews, 2nd Year Ancient History Student

Every year the British School at Athens offers an intensive 3 week summer course for undergraduate students interested in Ancient Greek history. On this course, students are taught by 3 specialists in Greek Ancient history – one of them being Dr. Chryssanthi Papadopoulou, the Assistant Director of the British School at Athens. Approximately 10 days are spent in Athens looking at various archaeological sites and museums (among these the Acropolis, the Parthenon Museum, the Kerameikos, and the National Archaeological Museum), and 11 days in the Peloponnese visiting Mycenae and Tiryns, and Corinth, to name a few. In 2016 I successfully applied for a place on this course.

Figure 1. Caryatids on the Erechtheion. Acropolis, Athens



Nero and History: A Clash of Interest


By Oscar Brierley, 2nd Year Classical Civilisation Student
Student Interest Research






The Remorse of Nero, J. W. Waterhouse. 1878. A depiction of Nero lamenting after the assassination of his mother Agrippina in AD59, notoriously by his own command.


I was first introduced to the intricacies of Nero’s reign of AD54-68 in Dr Nigel Pollard and Dr Joanne Berry’s Rome: From Village to Empire module. While I had heard of him before, the interpretation that I had of him was merely superficial, devoid of any historical methodology. What I learned about him in these lectures, however, challenged this view in the most fascinating way: it brought to light the facts of Nero’s reign, with no bias, creating a completely different character from what had been formed in my mind. This is the basis of my fascination with Nero, and, to an extent, my love of history. The fact that there are so many interpretations of Nero, so often exaggerated to draw in an audience, simply reflects that very little has changed since his reign. Some of Suetonius’ more extravagant accounts continue to be repeated today, and filtering through these accounts to find the truth never ceases to entertain me.

The idea that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” has long been rejected by historians. However, the notion that Nero was a debased, merciless emperor to the extent that he would not look out of place in a horror story still remains laced within history. The name Nero has become so synonymous with brutality that if you were to call someone “Neronian” you would most probably follow by offering them a therapist appointment. Most people, when Nero is mentioned, would call back to Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus in Gladiator, and think that he is a close enough representation. If Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, and a number of other works on Nero’s life are taken as fact, this perception would not be far from the truth.

Only recently have we been able to read Roman history with a level of modern academic scrutiny. Before the nineteenth century, sources such as the works of Suetonius and Livy could mostly be accepted as fact, with little notion of the possibility of a personal, ideological narrative within their works. Recently however, there has been an increase of historians looking at history in the context the society in which they were written, and not their own. And yet still there remains a struggle to separate fact from fiction when it comes to modern accounts of Roman Emperors, most prominently those of the imperial era. Else Roesdahl perfectly describes ancient works driven by a personal narrative as “historical novels”, yet documentaries and books continue to disperse them as fact. Nowhere else is this as apparent as in depictions of Nero, which continue to be as sensationalist today as they were almost 2000 years ago.

Nero came at a time when the Roman senate was still adapting itself to a state ruled by a single emperor. The senate and Roman elite began to realise their need to secure influence which was rapidly dissolving under Emperors who noticed the senate was now merely an advisory institution. The pragmatic members of the elite, however, realised that there was still a way to exercise power over the Emperors: through writing. Roman elites had already been writing diaries and cataloguing letters for centuries, but not as extensively as during this time of slow senatorial alienation from imperial power. With loss of power came the rise of writing Roman “history”. Authors began to write with more than the glorification of the Roman empire in mind.

Suetonius’ account of the lives of emperors is wonderfully useful when attempting to discover the ins and outs of Roman society and its elites, but becomes frustrating in its description of details, some of which Suetonius could not possibly have known. He cites “reliable authorities” as his sources, which dissolves any form of reliability his statements have. A particularly far-fetched moment in his description of Nero comes after the assassination of his mother Agrippina by his own order. It states that Nero rushed to his mother’s corpse to examine and assess her body critically, perversely. This certainly does evoke a reaction of disgust in the reader, but this is exactly the reaction Suetonius desires. If he wanted to give his readers a chance to critically evaluate Nero, he would have omitted this moment entirely. Nero’s chapter in Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars is rife with moments like this, but sensationalist stories attempting to dramatise Nero’s life for an audience reaction do not end with Suetonius’ work. You simply have to watch a modern documentary on his life to find that ridiculous examples of imagery still remain. Documentaries begin with wonderful montages of brutality and fire overlaid with the sounds of screaming crowds and a deafening orchestra in the process of a violent fit. While it certainly is attractive to an audience, you could start a documentary on any Roman emperor with a montage of brutalities and remain safe in the assurance that it remains loyal to its source material. Nero’s violence was not unique, simply more public and personal.

Those who did not write history, the common people of Rome, it is harder to predict the opinions of. However, we can probably assume that Nero’s reign, being of such spectacle, was in fact enjoyed by the lower classes of Rome. His love of all the arts and past times of Rome, from poetry to music to athletics, ingratiated him with the Roman people, something an Emperor completely enthralled with the Senate would find nearly impossible. He thrived in this section of Roman society, something which has been difficult to determine due to the colouring of history by the elite. Nero’s obsession with Hellenic, artistic culture benefitted both him and the eastern half of the empire when he brought into effect a “liberation of the Hellas”, exempting Achaea and the Peloponnese from taxes. Upon his return, Nero acquired all manner of divine acclamations, “Nero Zeus the Liberator”, to name one among many others. On one side of this decision is a certain distaste from the Senate due to its removal of a large portion of income to Rome. On the other, however, was a huge increase in support for Nero from the lower classes, marvelling at his generosity.

And yet it cannot be denied that Nero was a man of few boundaries when it came to indulging a more extreme lifestyle. And it is in these indulgences that he simply happened to be on the wrong side of the authors of history. His obsession with art leaked into his political life, ­spawning a number of Hellenistic values being put upon the Senate and people of Rome. The most prominent example of this is the quinquennial Neroneia he introduced to Rome in AD60: a series of artistic competitions, modelling on Homeric contests. This slow merging of Hellenistic and Roman values in the public domain was unsurprisingly disturbing for the traditionalist Senate. While leaking into some parts of his political attitude, his love of art simply replaced and removed other aspects of politics. His apparent lack of reaction initially to Vindex’s revolt in AD68-69 shows his mental separation from some aspects of policy, and a reliance upon others – in this case probably Verginius Rufus, a nearby commander of an army – to solve the issues which he held no concern for.

So why do people love to dramatise his life so often? Part of the problem when looking at Nero’s life comes from the imaginations it seems to have captured. Recently, in Trier, there was an art exhibition using the theme of Nero’s death named Lust and Crime, a rather theatrical name intended to pull in those with less interest. In the same way that Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra twisted the love between its two protagonists to romanticise their situation, this art installation reveals representations of Nero’s life that have twisted him into a figure of mythical debauchery.

The fact of the matter remains, however, that we will never truly know Nero. We can only get two extreme accounts of him-one supportive, and one, more substantial, damning him. Though recently it has been accepted that the truth about Nero’s reign remains hidden somewhere between those two accounts, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly where. Modern romanticising of his reign has not helped this, and many documentaries and books on his reign merely act to obscure the balance between the two opinions. Nero has inspired so much artistic interest in his modern audience that his supposed final words, “what an artist dies in me”, take on a completely different meaning. Though an artist died with Nero, his death generated more works of art and imagination than he could possibly have wished for, transforming his rule into one of mythical proportions.

Written by Oscar Brierley

Reflecting on the definition of ‘cultural heritage’

I took Dr Heather Hunter-Crawley’s Greek and Roman Art and Architecture module last year and was taken on an art historical journey, studying the progression of art from Bronze Age Greece to the Byzantine era. One of the ways in which this module was brilliant was the way in which the students were taught how to ‘look’ at art, which isn’t as passive an experience as one may think (similarly to Alastair Sooke’s ‘Treasures of Ancient Greece’, a BBC Production which I highly recommend watching if you are interested in the art history of the ancient world). Heather teaches her students not only the historical significance of sculptures, pottery, and paintings – the Pergamum altar, and the Jockey of Artemision to name a couple of my favourites – but the ways in which they can be read and interpreted. However, while I could easily continue to write about the merits of this module that is not the purpose of this post. Instead I wish to write about a guest lecture given by Dr Nigel Pollard which was organised by Heather at the end of this module.

One focus of Nigel’s lecture was on the Hague Convention in 1954 which passed the Act on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, a law which made it a crime against human rights to damage or destroy a site or cultural or historical importance. The catalyst for this was the extensive damage done to sites during the Second World War, for example Coventry Cathedral or Pompeii. Now, this Act is enforced by groups such as the International Committee of the Blue Shield, which protect sites under threat and seeks to gain the co-operation of governments or other bodies that can help to implement this.

Figure1: Artemision Jockey. National Archaeological Museum, Athens

However, Nigel noted that while this law is commendable, it is not always enforced (of course some sites are easier to protect than others), and there is a global disparity in the definition of ‘cultural heritage’. For example in 2003 the Iraq National Museum in Bagdad was looted as a result of American forces not stepping into the security vacuum after the Taliban were pushed out. Also when comparing the number of UNESCO sites in Europe and Middle Eastern States the difference is quite staggering; 499 and 81 respectively (I use this example as Nigel’s lecture focused predominantly on the Middle East and the West). This to me suggests a dominant interest in Western sites and Western ideas of culture, perhaps at the expense of those elsewhere.  

Reflecting back on this lecture I can’t help but notice that in seeking to protect sites of cultural heritage, we are simultaneously potentially making them more vulnerable to cultural conflict. In the past, sites of cultural or historical importance have frequently been targeted by opposition parties as a means to demonstrate another culture’s vulnerability or lack of permanence in the world. In 25/24 BCE the Kushites invaded the province of Egypt (now North Sudan), and in a fit of triumph against Augustus, emperor of Rome, they severed a bronze head of Augustus (see figure 2), which they took back to Meroë and buried under the steps of their victory monument. Not only did this demonstrate resistance to Rome as it was never returned, but this symbolically showed the Kushites’ strength and perhaps cultural superiority over the Roman Empire, and would have evoked a sense of disgust from the Romans (if they knew that this had happened). 

With this in mind, it is perhaps not particularly surprising that cultural sites are damaged now, especially with Palmyra in mind (August 2015), and ongoing cultural conflict in the Middle East.

It is noticeable that the West has become increasingly desensitised to the atrocities that have been going on in the Middle East; some may go so far to say as disinterested. Therefore, destroying a place that we have so clearly stated is important to our culture seems an obvious way to attract our attention. Equally though, this Western interest in ancient sites has fuelled the selling of looted antiquities eg. from Apamea. Does that mean that the West is indirectly violating the 1954 Hague Convention?

While I agree that it is important to continue to protect sites with historical importance, I do think that we should be aware that there is a cultural disparity in the consensus in terms of ‘cultural significance’ which may have potentially caused conflict between groups of people. I also would argue that when people set out to protect these sites, it is necessary to be aware that increasing their publicity can have a negative impact. This is a diverse and complex topic, one which ultimately has no ideal solution.

Written by Minette Matthews, 2nd Year Ancient History Student

Here are a couple of links if you are interested in reading more on this:


Dr Nigel Pollard welcomes the new UK Cultural Property Act

On Thursday 23rd February 2017, the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill 2016-2017 received the Royal Assent and so became an Act of Parliament. This was a big moment for me, as I’ve been part of lobbying efforts to achieve this for the last five years as a board member of the UK National Committee of Blue Shield. The key provision of the Act is that the UK will finally ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on the protection of cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and its two Protocols, of 1954 and 1999. ‘Cultural Property’ in this sense includes monuments, sites and buildings, museums, galleries , libraries, archives and their contents ‘of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people’.

The Blue Shield emblem, displayed on the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Military History Museum) in Vienna. (photo by Corine Wegener)

Damage to cultural property has been long-standing feature of wars and internal conflicts throughout history, and has been subject to considerable scrutiny in recent decades, through conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Mali, Libya, Egypt and the former Yugoslavia. This is the result of deliberate, ideologically motivated attacks on cultural property associated with other cultures and religions, accidental damage caused by insufficient care and respect for cultural property when conducting military operations, failure of occupying armed forces to safeguard cultural sites and property for which they are responsible, and looting of unprotected sites and collections in conflict zones for the illicit antiquities trade.

The Temple of Bel at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra in Syria, deliberately destroyed by Da’esh (the ‘Islamic State’) in 2015.

The UK, like the USA, didn’t ratify the original 1954 Hague Convention for political and military reasons associated with its Cold War context, and while the UK claimed to work within the spirit of the Convention (for example, at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq), it is the last country with extensive military involvements abroad to ratify it. Passing of the Act and ratification of the Convention will be important symbolic steps in demonstrating the UK’s commitment to the protection of cultural property as well as having practical implications. For example, violations of the Convention and its protocols will be recognised as offences in UK law, and legal sanctions relating to dealing in ‘unlawfully exported cultural property’ will be strengthened.  The UK is preparing an inventory of its own cultural property for the purposes of protection, and potentially some buildings may be marked with the Blue Shield emblem for protection, already in use in some countries such as Austria. Another requirement of the Convention is that the UK is establishing a special unit within the armed forces for the protection of cultural property, inevitably popularly dubbed the ‘New Monuments Men’ after the Anglo-American Allied Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Sub-Commission of the Second World War, popularised by the 2014 George Clooney film. In addition, the UK set up a £30 million Cultural Protection Fund to fund projects and initiatives in this field in 2016, after consultation with heritage specialists including myself.

A late Roman house at Sergilla, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site ‘Ancient Villages of Northern Syria’, damaged in the course of fighting in the Syrian civil war.

I became interested in this issue through my research relating to damage to archaeological sites such as Pompeii in the Second World War, and the history of the ‘Monuments Men’ organisation. For that reason I played a role in the re-establishment of the UK National Committee of Blue Shield in 2012. However, as an archaeologist, much of my past research and fieldwork related to Roman Syria, so the intensification of the civil war there involved me more and more in contemporary efforts to preserve heritage sites in conflict zones.  I have digitised many of my images of archaeological sites in Syria that have been damaged in the conflict as a contribution to their preservation for research and teaching.

Written by Dr Nigel Pollard

For further information, see:

Epicurean Legacy

Written by Jack Brooker
2nd Year Ancient History Student at Swansea University
Published: February 2017

I chose to write about Epicurus because I think he is important. The world we live in has recently become, undeniably, highly politicised. I see the teachings of Epicurus, generally ignored as the basis for a moral code, as a solid foundation for friendly interaction between people. Perhaps if his philosophy was studied more closely, we would be further from the war of attrition between a myriad of inflexible groups, in which we currently find ourselves.

Epicurean Legacy

When we, the general public, hear the words ‘ancient philosophy’ our thoughts are generally drawn to Aristotle and Plato, the great beardy philosophers of the Greek Classical Period. Perhaps the more well-read amongst us will think of, gods forbid, the Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius (whose morose Meditations have plagued the world of Hellenistic Philosophy with dreariness for far too long).

But the Hellenistic world, fortunately, produced far more than just Stoicism; nor were the Stoics the only school of philosophy to influence modern thought. Indeed, one could argue that modern thought has been influenced more by the chief opponents of the Stoics, and the subjects of this piece: the Epicureans.

Born on Samos in 341 BCE, Epicurus founded his philosophical school – the Garden – outside the walls of Athens in 306. There he lived amongst his friends and fellow members of the school (with Epicurus considering the former the more important qualification) and constructed his philosophy, based upon the attainment of pleasure through the removal of both physical and mental pain. He died there in 270, leaving his school and home to his disciples.

Epicureanism thereafter spread rapidly through the classical world, eventually becoming a major philosophy within the Roman Empire. Gaius Cassius Longinus, the tyrannicide, was an Epicurean (though seemingly in breach of the Epicurean principle of not getting involved in politics). The Roman philosopher Lucretius, writing in the 1st Century BCE, penned the definitive distillation of Epicurus’ philosophy in Latin, De Rerum Natura (‘On the Nature of Things’). Both Cicero and Seneca discussed Epicureanism in their works, and the charred papyrus scrolls discovered in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum are a treasure trove of Epicurean works, including the works of Philodemus.

A series of Stoic emperors and the rise of Christianity, coupled with the general reluctance of Epicureans to engage in public life, led to the decline of the philosophy in latter half and aftermath of the Roman Empire, with its only echo to be found in the monastic communities of the Christian monks (environments which, I suspect, were much less joy-oriented). However, the ideas of the Epicureans would be rediscovered in the early Renaissance, and went on to become the cornerstone of modern thought.

Epicurean atomism, the theory that everything in the universe consists of invisible atoms of a fixed shape, size and weight, would be developed by 16th and 17th Century scholars to develop the heliocentric solar system model of Copernicus into something defensible, and by Renaissance alchemists to develop the theories that would eventually become the science of chemistry.

Epicurean philosophies have also informed some of the greatest historical social thinkers: Epicurus’ view that supernatural entities (like gods) are unable to have any direct influence in the natural world informed the metaphysical views of Kant and Hume, Epicurean ideas about natural law and justice informed the social contract theories of Hobbes and Rousseau, and the principle of maximising pleasure and reducing pain was a driving idea for the founders of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Epicurus’ ideal of living a contented life even informed the walking, talking controversy that was Karl Marx.

The works of Epicurus and his successors have had an immeasurable impact upon the social and scientific thought of the modern world. Their slip back into obscurity, in an age where ever increasing numbers of people report being unhappy or discontent with daily life, cannot be allowed to stand. So, whilst Aristotle and Plato are all well and good, I would argue that we all need to inject a little Epicureanism into the mix. And, yes, I suppose we can study the Stoics too…

For a more comprehensive discussion of Epicurean philosophy and its influence on modern thinking, see Catherine Wilson’s Epicureanism: A Very Short Introduction, in the popular Oxford Very Short Introduction series.

A comprehensive collection of works by Epicurean philosophers can be found in The Epicurean Philosophers, edited by John Gaskin and published by Everyman.






Figure 1: Bust of Epicurus, Roman, 3rd/2nd C. BCE

Politicians ancient and modern in the comedy series Plebs

Note: For the module ‘Classics in Popular Culture’ (CLC315), students were asked to write blog posts on Classical Reception in the TV series Plebs or Once Upon a Time, and on the comics Asterix or George O’Connor’s Olympians. Some of the best blogs are featured on our departmental blog site. (Please note political views are the student’s, not necessarily the department’s.)

A striking result from a class quiz result got me thinking about the political message in the comedy series Plebs. Asked whether we agree that the series is ‘purely for entertainment’, the vast majority of us, including myself, answered in the affirmative. On reflection, though, I think I answered like this because of the show’s close similarity to The Inbetweeners – a sitcom about a dysfunctional group of lads, outsiders to the society they live in, who are thrown together into outrageous situations. But I have now come to the conclusion that underlying the comedy of Plebs is a political message. Tom Basden, a writer on the show, admits that the ‘Plebgate’ scandal in politics, featuring a clash between an MP and the police, at the time of the show’s initial release highlighted a key theme: that people are the same now as they were two thousand years ago. He explains that there is always going to be the angry mob ready to criticise the rich and powerful; and that society will always be obsessed with class.[1] So, with this in mind I am interested in Plebs’ use of Classics and modern politics.


We all know that politicians are basically untrustworthy. Nigel Farage exemplifies this, for example in his promise that there would be £350 million for the NHS once we voted for Brexit. In Plebs, there is no greater archetype for the untrustworthy politician than Victor in the episode on The Candidate. He is clearly depicted as the ‘conservative’ candidate for the election week. He hires ‘clappers’ (people to support his campaign trail) and wears a Donald Trump type toupee. What is more worrying is that he has no idea about the common people. When visiting a poorer district, the Aventine, Victor declares that the people would like a “biscuit based brawl”. This is a clear dig at our out of touch politicians, such as Ed Miliband who guessed that a weekly shop for a family of four would be £70 or £80, which is £30 short of the national average.[2] Even though his representation is exaggerated, Victor’s cluelessness about the Aventine does seem to be plausible because there was no real ‘middle class’ in Ancient Rome.

Victor (middle) with Marcus (left)

Julius Priscus, who represents the opposition, is also worth a mention. He has laudable socialist ideas about renewing the Aventine and stopping corrupt landlords. Ironically, at the end of the episode, the game of politics seems to have changed him. He wins the campaign, but only with the support of the landlords he so desperately wanted to get rid of. Grumio dubs him a “slippery sod”, and I must say, on the whole, that this is the prevailing feeling about all politicians by the end of this episode.

“A tiny cog in a big wheel”

Key targets for satire are ‘the landlords’, a mafia-esque consortium, working together to keep themselves rich and the poor, even poorer. As Landlord states, as he raises Marcus and Stylax’s rent, “I’m just a tiny cog in a big wheel”. But this does not ring true for the rest of the episode. In fact, Landlord has a sinister hold over the politics in Rome and ultimately Davus, his henchman, assassinates Victor. Earlier in the episode the group of landlords have an informal meeting with Victor at the baths, ominously remarking: “we think you’ve forgotten who your friends are.” The parallel between the personal relationship between endorser and endorsee, common in modern politics, is difficult to miss: in the Tory party, reportedly, the highest donation from an individual was from the businessman, Michael Farmer, who is also co-treasurer of the Tory party.[3] It seems that manipulation in politics has been true throughout time, and scholars such as Staveley explore how voting was rigged in Rome.[4] It occurs to me that the disparity between the classes is really apparent in the context of Plebs. The show uses this to highlight the failings of our own politicians.

Alright, Landlord?!

Marcus climbs the social ladder, becoming a ‘wigman’ cum political advisor to Victor’s campaign. He suggests a cap on rent in the Aventine to Victor; and in desperation for the crowd’s applause Victor supports it and Marcus’ and Landlord’s roles are then reversed. This is displayed perfectly when Marcus delivers the line back to Landlord: “I am just a ting cog in a big wheel”. Reversal of class is something we also witness in the episode Jugball, when Marcus takes on Flavia’s job. Both times though, the role reversal is restored as Victor is assassinated and Flavia becomes manager again. By the end of The Candidate and Jugball the main characters in fact end up in a poorer position than they were previously, and in The Candidate, Aurelius informs the gang that they will be fined if they do not clap at political speeches.


On the whole, Plebs criticizes the corruption that surrounds politics, the way in which it is used as a game simply to be won. It undermines the two main modern ideologies of Labour and Conservative by displaying the representatives, Victor or Julius Priscus, as easily bought. Nothing changes at the end of the episode; there is no revolution of the people, no fair representation for the Aventine. The status quo remains the same, and there is a feeling that history repeats itself. And, I must say, a similar feeling comes every five years after an election.

Written by Rebecca Elms


[1] Basden, T (2013) ‘Plebs: A funny thing happened on the way to the Colosseum’, The Independent, Accessed: 26/10/2016/.

[2] Graham, G. (2014). ‘Ed Miliband’s weekly shopping bill? Er… £70? More?’, The Telegraph.…-70-More.html. Accessed: 27/10/2016

[3] Thelwell, E. ‘FactCheck: party donors—who funds Labour and the Tories’, . Accessed: 27/10/2016

[4] Staveley, E. (1972) Greece and Roman Voting and Elections. London: Thames and Hudson.

Chocolate, death, and St Valentine

You’ve probably all seen the St Valentine’s meme on social media:

(Image from:

It is a pretty good joke, pointing out the incongruity of celebrating the violent death of an early Christian martyr at Rome with a consumerist frenzy dedicated to love and romance. Moreover, the meme is quite well-informed: the basic outlines of the story derive from an anonymous Latin account of Valentine’s torture and death.

Of course, the whole story is pretty dubious. The text itself is late, dating to the sixth or seventh century, and so to some 200-300 years after the Romans had stopped persecuting Christians. Many of the details it contains push the limits of historical credibility. The persecution in which Valentine supposedly died happened “during the reign of Claudius” but it is not clear which Claudius is meant: the Julio-Claudian emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) is too early, given that Roman persecution of Christians didn’t begin until the reign of his successor Nero; and the later emperor Claudius II (268-270) is not known to have suppressed Christians. The historical situation is confused further by the text’s mention that Valentine was a priest at Rome when the pope was Callistus, whose dates of 217-222 coincide with the reign of neither emperor Claudius. If you like your history full of “accurate facts”, this story will have you pulling your hair out.

But that is probably to approach the text about Valentine in the wrong way. It was never meant as straight history, but rather as a celebration of a Roman saint and martyr. In fact, it is one of dozens of Latin romances about martyrs composed at Rome between the fifth and seventh centuries. These texts reflect the popularity of martyr cult, and were themselves so popular that their use in Christian services had to be restricted by the Church.

The Valentine story shares many features with these other romances – and not just a cavalier attitude to historical “accuracy”. The scenes of Valentine curing a magistrate’s daughter of blindness, of his subsequent arrest, torture, and death, as well as of the recovery of his body by a Christian matron who then buries it in a Christian cemetery – all of these are features that can be found in countless Roman martyr romances. Moreover, the story of Valentine appears in a connected narrative that contains the stories of other martyrs too, such as the Persian pilgrims Marius, Martha, Audifax, and Abbacuc who came to Rome to visit the tombs of the martyrs and ended up as martyrs themselves.

In other words, the story makes perfect sense in the context of Christian Rome in Late Antiquity. This was a time when the flourishing cult of martyrs created a demand for stories to explain who these martyrs were. These stories often papered over cracks and uncertainties in the historical record, or simply invented details where none survived. For example, from a calendar of saints’ days that dates to the same period as the story of Valentine, we learn that 14 February was associated with not one but two martyrs called Valentine: one from Rome, and the other from Interamna, modern Terni in Umbria, but confusingly buried at Rome. (And there are other Valentines besides: the name was relatively common.) Were these two Valentines the same person? Scholars usually assume that they were, but disagree on which came first. In any case, the story told in the martyr romance about Valentine is plainly the Roman one mentioned in the calendar. It records that he was buried on 14 February at the Via Flaminia leading north from Rome, where a church dedicated in Valentine’s name is known from the fourth century. (Barely anything remains there anymore, although a skull allegedly belonging to a St Valentine is now on display in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the centre of Rome.) And that is essentially what the story is all about: an explanation of how a Valentine celebrated on 14 February ended up buried on the Via Flaminia, and to which various details of his heroic Christian resolve in the face of persecution have been added.

So did St Valentine suffer as horribly as the meme suggests? Probably not: the story was invented to tell a compelling and inspiring story to a receptive audience. But then he has nothing to do with the celebration of romantic love either: that association seems to have come about only in the later Middle Ages. So far as St Valentine is concerned, Tina Turner got it absolutely right when she sang: “What’s love got to do with it? What’s love but a second hand emotion?”

In other words, you can send each other chocolates, and gobble them up too, with a clear conscience.

Written by Prof. Mark Humphries

Hail Caesar? Asterix and dictatorship

Note: For the module ‘Classics in Popular Culture’ (CLC315), students were asked to write blog posts on Classical Reception in the TV series Plebs or Once Upon a Time, and on the comics Asterix or George O’Connor’s Olympians. Some of the best blogs are featured on our departmental blog site.

Asterix in Belgium is a French comic book released in 1979 by Uderzo and Goscinny as an instalment of the Asterix comic series. This comic centres around a clever, pint-sized Gaul named Asterix living in an unconquered village of Gaul in 50BC, who goes on an adventure to Belgium, and has super strength when downing the potion created by Getafix for a limited time (kind of like the Hulk in Marvel just less green). Along for the ride is Asterix’s best friend Obelix, a dim-witted warrior with immense strength and an appetite for both boar and fighting (the brawn to Asterix’s brain). Their other companion is the loyal Dogmatix, who is coincidently also a dog. This story revolves around Asterix’s village attempting to re-establish who the bravest of the Gauls are, a reference to Caesar’s claim that the Belgians were “the bravest of the Gauls” in De Bello Gallico).[1]

The series’ humour revolves around stereotyping of ancient cultures and includes various references to both modern and historical pieces of literature and art to enhance the comedy of the series.

However, comics, especially ones that have a political undertone, must be looked at carefully: how representative is the comic of antiquity or is there an underlying criticism on the way society is run? Asterix being set in this time and the decision to take the point of view from the outside is to showcase the idea of resistance against domination.[2] Here the Gauls are resisting Caesar and the Roman rule. One way the comic achieves this is through the way Caesar is portrayed. Whilst not many people seem to hate him, his portrayal is that of every authoritative, narcissistic leader out there. These can be seen through his treatment of the senate (and his own people), his treatment of the Gauls (barbarians) and the way in which others view him. Is Caesar a representation of political leaders in the modern era?

Hail Caesar?

The way in which Caesar treats his senate can be seen through his disregard of the other magistrates and the senate rules as he allows the interruption of the meeting (not that the interruption of the cabbage talk was unwelcome, though it was a great use of a Belgian stereotype) but the way in which he goes about it shows the amount of importance he places on himself (or just his desperation for a subject change). Did Caesar himself go against the rules in antiquity also? As Gardner tells us, he has done so with intimidation tactics against opposition and carrying through legislation in defiance of fellow colleagues.[3] The importance of portraying this here, whilst it may have been an accurate depiction, is to question the ways in which political leaders may also use these tactics: the dictator is still seen in modern society; hence this serves as a criticism of how society is run. Caesar’s exaggerated body language shows he is bored with matters of everyday life: he is a man of action and a military leader. This presupposes his reaction to the Gauls’ quarrel (i.e. not peacefully.). His body language (the hand gestures) may also indicate a hidden violence if he is denied: they are unpredictable much like the man himself which makes him more of a dangerous figure.

The hand gesture could come from iconography however. In some statues Caesar (Augustus) is depicted as hands outstretched, which may represent his stance as a dictator and leader of armies, perhaps to indicate movement in giving a powerful speech. In Asterix, Caesar also partakes in a lot of shouting when denied, shown with bold lettering and the dialogue bubble extending over the border to show just how irate Caesar is: the panel cannot contain this anger. His words are generally accepted: his megalomania is never questioned.[4] This characterization goes against Caesar’s self-portrayal in his own writings. Caesar’s character here is to give us the view of a dictator: he is to be obeyed and his will is to be carried out. If not, he will turn his anger inwards towards his allies.[5] However the way this is drawn is to add a humorous turn whilst dealing with the uncomfortable issue of having an influential time bomb in charge of the country. (To modern audiences now, the likeness of Caesar and his behaviour can be likened to that of the president of the US, who also tends to shout and interrupt others, looks orange, and believes himself to be of a higher standing.)

Brave Caesar?

In Asterix in Belgium, instead of creating peace between the two Gallic factions over who is the bravest, Caesar instead tries to subdue both sides and claim he is the bravest! This disregard for the Gauls, and the arrogance that Caesar is confident he can crush them in battle is rather scary. Anyone who disagrees with his point of view will be annihilated. To soften this, the writer has mimicked Caesar’s literary style in De Bello Gallico, in which he speaks of himself in third person. The irony of Caesar’s claim is brought to fruition when he loses in the ensuing battle, which is likened to Waterloo (the masterful parody of this is to create irony).

By using this image, with Caesar as Napoleon, the readers are already aware that Caesar will lose this battle over the Gauls. In reality, of course, he succeeded in crushing the Gauls; therefore the ideological statement here is that the underdogs (or the ‘others’) can overcome the doctrine and domination of the dictator.[6]

Trouble in Paradise?

The mocking of the senate towards Caesar’s campaigns and the draining of money and resources show dissent amongst the elite against Caesar. The clerk is told not to include some points in the missive (Caesar’s less than cordial treatment of his other magistrates being the example here).[7]

This shows the reader that every literary text they read, they must take with a grain of salt due to the underlying ideology and hidden agenda that these pieces may contain. Caesar wrote a whole book on his conquest of Gaul. Bias and propaganda are used in these to show one side as more cultured and the opposing side as barbarians. This is a very political statement to make in a comic: it asks readers to question every motive behind the political movement. A modern-day example would be the Brexit campaign’s claim that the money spent to the EU would be instead spent on the NHS (as advertised on buses). Now the NHS funding has been cut. A similar scenario can be seen in this scene.

Caesar: A Political Statement?

In conclusion, the Asterix in Belgium comic, while the focus of course lies on comedy, reveals an underlying political ideology. Its creators ask its readers to question the political agendas of the overarching power. By including an exaggerated dictator, one whom the ‘barbarians’ have managed to resist, it gives its readers something to aspire to. Especially as the dictator Caesar was assassinated for having too much power. It is a very clever use of the famous classical figure to showcase the struggle that all nations have had with charismatic dictators.

Written by Alice North


[1] Caesar. J, The Conquest of Gaul, trans. S.A.Handford (1982), Penguin Classics: London.

[2] Barnett. S, (2016), ‘Asterix and the Dream of Autochthony’, chapter 8 in Kovaks. G, and Marshall. C.W, Son of Classics and Comics, Oxford University Press: New York.

[3] Gardner. J.F, (1982), ‘Introduction – Roman Politics in the Late Republic’, in Handford. S.A (trans.), Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul, Penguin Classics: London.

[4] Almagor. E, (2016), ‘Reinventing the Barbarian: Classical Ethnographic Perceptions in Asterix’, chapter 7 in in Kovaks. G, and Marshall. C.W, Son of Classics and Comics, Oxford University Press: New York.

[5] Gardner. J.F, (1982), ‘Introduction –Caesar the man’ in Caesar. J. trans. Handford. S.A, The Conquest of Gaul, Penguin Classics: London.

[6] Caesar De bello Gallico book 2.

[7]Gardner. J.F, (1982), ‘Introduction –Caesar as author’ in Caesar. J. trans. Handford. S.A, The Conquest of Gaul, Penguin Classics: London.