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.

Politicians

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.

Flavia

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, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/comedy/features/plebs-a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-the-colosseum-8547754.html. Accessed: 26/10/2016/.

[2] Graham, G. (2014). ‘Ed Miliband’s weekly shopping bill? Er… £70? More?’, The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/ed-miliband/10842953/Ed-Milibands-weekly-shopping-bill-Er…-70-More.html. Accessed: 27/10/2016

[3] Thelwell, E. ‘FactCheck: party donors—who funds Labour and the Tories’, http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/labour-funding-party-donors-tories-factcheck/13899 . Accessed: 27/10/2016

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

Charon doesn’t have a great job, but he Styx with it – the representation of Charon in O’Connor’s graphic novel ‘Hades’

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.

I’ve always been a fan of comic books and graphic novels and was surprised to find that someone had created a  series about the Greek gods. Finding out that the target audience of the Olympians was young children I was worried that I would not be able to fully enjoy them; how wrong I was! After reading Zeus I decided to read Hades as I view Hades as the most underrated Greek god. I call him a Greek god instead of an Olympian because just as O’Connor says in his author’s note that ‘He cheated. Hades is not an Olympian.’ That being said I had expectations before sitting down to read Hades of a quite morbid and dark visual novel and my expectations were fully met by O’Connor.

 At its core the Hades novel’s primary purpose is to teach its reader about how Hades came to be married to Persephone. But any piece of work writing about death and the underworld contains deeper meanings. O’Connor chooses to describe the journey into the underworld as if it were you yourself embarking on the journey. This not only allows him to fit as much information about the underworld as possible in a short period of time, but also allows him to touch on much more existential meanings

The Hardworking Ferryman

The ferryman Charon is one of the staples of the Underworld in the ancient world. He did not have to be included in this visual novel as O’Connor’s focus is primarily on the Olympians. However O’Connor has him appear in 8 panels throughout Hades with most of these appearing at the start of the visual novel. We can say that by including Charon at the start of Hades, O’Connor bases the structure of this graphic novel on the journey a dead person would take as they enter the underworld. Charon also acts as O’Connor’s ‘tour guide’ as he ferries the soul past all the noticeable criminals in the underworld allowing O’Connor to describe them to his reader.

Sullivan sums up Charon’s depiction in Greek literature as ‘the busy, impatient ferryman, anxious to get the shades aboard’.[1] It is important to look at the depiction of Charon in Greek literature as O’Connor himself revealed he used Hesiod’s Theogony as a model for his Zeus. Euripides mentions Charon in his Alcestis as Alcestis says ‘the ferryman of the dead, Charon, has his hand on the quant and calls to me now: “Why delay? Hurry! You’re holding me up”.[2] This is further evidence of O’Connor taking his model of Charon from Greek literature, much in the same way he modelled Zeus on his representation in the Theogony. O’Connor has clearly gone to great lengths to create an authentic depiction of his characters, even minor ones such as Charon.

Charon as the grim reaper: O’Connor’s hybrid ferryman

  

Figure 1: Charon and Hermes Psychopomp, Athenian red-figure lekythos C5th B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art

Figure 2: Detail from Athenian red-figure white-ground clay vase circa 450-400 BC. Munich, Antikensammlungen 2777. © Antikensammlungen, Munich

Looking at these two images we can see that O’Connor’s inspiration for his Charon was not just limited to literary descriptions as there were many vases depicting Charon. Sullivan speaks about this saying that Charon was ‘glorified in Greek art’ often depicted with Hermes guiding the soul of the dead.[3] This means that O’Connor had many ancient literary and visual depictions of Charon as a base model. But we can see a break from the ancient visual depiction of Charon as when looking at his clothing in O’Connor’s Hades we see a very dark and cloaked old man. The vases above show Charon as wearing a tunic that barely covers his body whilst also looking more approachable to the dead person he is ferrying across. What O’Connor has clearly done here is move away from the Charon of the ancient world. Instead he creates a hybrid of the modern interpretation of the Grim Reaper with the dark cloak and the animal skull on the front of his boat. Neither of these elements is present on the Greek vases.

Importance of the Coin

The coin to pay the ferryman is a very prominent concept that is found in many literary works. The most notable of these are Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, and the story of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.[4][5] Stevens speaks of the custom of putting a coin in a deceased person’s mouth as being found in Greek and Latin literature from 5th Century BC to 2nd Century AD.[6] At first glance it is just a simple coin but Stevens writes that ‘the low value of the coin is a symbol of the poverty of death’.[7] What this can also mean is that no matter how rich or poor you are when you die, it is the same low amount of money that lets you pass on.

Coinciding with this, when looking at the picture to the right, O’Connor writes that ‘hopefully a loved one placed a coin in your mouth’. This at first glance can mean that you physically cannot put the coin in your mouth when you’re dead, which is true. However it has much more weight behind it in a modern view, as you are made to think about your own family and loved ones. They are the ones who decide what happens to you when you die, such as what coffin you have and whether you are buried or cremated.

What I personally take from this comic is that when we die we are all worth the same value, except to your family and loved ones who will mourn your loss. This is emphasised by the comic itself as Hades no longer wants to be alone in the underworld.

Written by Adam Smith

[1] Sullivan, F. A (1950) ‘Charon, the Ferryman of the Dead’, Classical Journal, 46.1, 12.

[2] Euripides Alcestis 252-63.

[3] Sullivan, F. A (1950) ‘Charon, the Ferryman of the Dead’, Classical Journal, 46.1. p.12.

[4] Virgil Aeneid 6.299-317.

[5] Apuleius Metamorphoses, 6.18.

[6] Stevens, S.T. (1991) ‘Charon’s Obol and Other Coins in Ancient Funerary Practice’, Phoenix, 45.3, 215.

[7] Stevens, S.T. (1991) ‘Charon’s Obol and Other Coins in Ancient Funerary Practice’, Phoenix, 45.3, 219-220.

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.

The devil you thought you knew: Hades in Once Upon a Time

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.

Greek mythology has a tendency to be misrepresented, as apparently ‘many of its heroes transfer very badly to the screen…even Homer proves surprisingly intractable as Hollywood material’.[1] Deviations of the original myths thus abound[2]. There is one figure however, who has (literally) been demonised over the centuries to the point that he is often associated with the Judeo-Christian devil and his area of influence with notions of hell. This figure is, of course, Hades.

  [3]   [4]

See the difference?

Hades, as the Greeks knew him, was the brother of Zeus and Poseidon, and ruled over the Underworld, the realm of the dead. I could list multiple instances in popular culture where Hades is portrayed in a devilish light, but instead I will limit myself to a few episodes of the fantasy series Once Upon a Time (OUAT), in which several fairy-tale characters go to the Underworld to bring back Captain Hook, and find themselves opposed by Hades. This depiction of Hades is based on that of the Disney children’s film Hercules.

[5] [6] [7]

The first episode of interest is ‘The Brothers Jones’, which shows Hades making a deal with Captain Hook’s brother Liam, to allow the ship they are on to sink and the crew to die, in exchange for the lives of Liam and his brother. This does not reflect the actual myths and beliefs about Hades held by the Greeks, as there are no myths involving him orchestrating events that lead to the deaths of humans. The only myth where he makes any sort of deal with a human is when Orpheus asks Hades to allow him to take his wife Eurydice back to the land of the living. This request backfires but only because Orpheus himself broke the terms of the agreement by looking behind him. In any event, Hades would have lost nothing if Orpheus had not looked back, as everyone went to him when they died. The OUAT version of Hades, however, appears to want the souls of mortals and he is angered whenever people attempt to escape the Underworld (to the point of beating Hook bloody in an earlier episode). It is even stated by Hook that Hades prevents people from going to a better place: “Hades has the game rigged so no one can leave. My brother’s proof of that. Never did a bad thing in his life”. To compound this seemingly diabolic image, when Hades reveals his non-human nature (picture 4 above), Liam reacts by crying out “You’re a demon!” to which Hades responds “Technically I’m a god, but a lot of people make that mistake”. Hades does make a good antagonist in this episode, as when Hook escapes Hades’ prison and Liam stands up for him, Hades attempts to throw them both into a fiery pit that is said to lead to a place worse than the Underworld (a really subtle allusion to hell).

 

But there is some justification in ancient literature for such depictions of Hades. In the Iliad, Hades is referred to as ‘of all gods most hated by men’[8] and ‘loathsome’[9]. There is also his portrayal in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when the author recounts his abduction of Proserpina (Persephone) thus: ‘Proserpina desperately cried for her mother and friends…poor innocent girl! Her abductor was off in his chariot, urging the horses forward’[10]. While these do make Hades appear malevolent, they are to be expected, given the innate human fear of death, as he was feared to the extent that even mentioning his name was avoided. But, many other gods tormented humans and abducted or forced themselves on women, and far more frequently than Hades did!

A more sympathetic version of Hades does appear in the episode immediately after ‘The Brothers Jones’, ‘Our Decay’, in which we witness the first meeting of Hades and Zelena/The Wicked Witch. In this episode, Hades and Zelena bond over their shared dislike for their siblings, in Hades’ case for his brother Zeus. Hades declares that “[Zeus] got everything he ever wanted…while I’m trapped ruling the Underworld…Love, happiness, joy, they’ve all been taken from me”. He goes on to state that he plans to overthrow his brother someday, and wants Zelena’s help to do it. This depicts Hades as someone who became what he is due to feelings of being treated unfairly by his family, resulting in him lashing out at the rest of the world. This bond with Zelena blossoms into romance, showing not only that Hades is capable of love, but also that he is someone capable of being loved. This is a sentiment echoed in a poem from the Late 1800’s, As Persephone tells us “I knew no terror while the God o’ershadowed me…My mother came too late to seek me. She had power to raise life from out Death’s grasp, but from the arms of Love she might not take me, nor undo Love’s past for all her strength’.[11] This poem, while not a classical work, does show that the idea of someone loving Hades is not a recent development. As for him loving someone, Ovid tells us that the abduction of Persephone was motived by love, albeit love brought on by a mischievous Cupid: ‘no sooner espied than he loved her and swept her away’[12]. Hades is presented more accurately in ‘Our Decay’ than in most depictions. It even points out that he is not demonic when, in response to the Wicked Witch asking if ‘the Devil’ is flirting with her, Hades responds, “I’m not the Devil. People are always conflating us”. This is itself a critique of most of his depictions.

 

In conclusion, this version of Hades is multifaceted, and not entirely inaccurate. While it does perpetuate the image of Hades as a malevolent figure, it does have some classical basis, and depicts him as having some positive characteristics as well. All of which forms a rather interesting character and a successful villain.

Written by Charlie Wade

 

[1] Nisbet. G., (2006), Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture, Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 18

[2] See also: C. Martindale, & Thomas, R (eds.) (2003) Classics and the Uses of Reception, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

[3] Statue of Hades and Cerberus, Archaeological Museum of Crete. Image sourced from ancient.eu

[4] Image of Hades in Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief (2010 film). Image sourced from riordan.wikia.com/wiki/Hades

[5] Modern illustration sourced from www.greekmythology.com

[6] Image sourced from disneywikia.com/wiki/Hades

[7] Image of Hades sourced from buddytv.com: 12 Emotional and Unsettling Moments from the 100th Episode of ‘Once Upon a Time’

[8] Homer, Iliad; trans. M. Hammond (1987), London: Penguin Books, 137

[9] Homer, Iliad; trans. M. Hammond (1987), London: Penguin Books, 127

[10] Ovid, Metamorphoses; trans. D. Raeburn (2004), London: Penguin Books, 193

[11] Morris. L., (1879) The Epic of Hades, London: C. Kegan Paul & Co, 166-168

[12] Ovid, Metamorphoses; trans. D. Raeburn (2004), London: Penguin Books, 193

Persephone: a coming-of-age story: the representation of Persephone in George O’Connor’s “Hades: Lord of the Dead”

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.

The idea of a ‘Queen of the Underworld’ has always appealed to me, and so I was delighted when I found out that George O’Connor’s graphic novel ‘Hades’ (see http://olympiansrule.com/) centred around just that. O’Connor’s Olympians series was created by drawing on ‘primary documents to reconstruct and retell classic Greek myths’[1], so it is surprising that O’Connor felt the best way to convey the story of Hades, was by telling a coming of age story concerning Hades’ wife, Persephone. The fourth instalment to the series has proved a run-away hit with critics, many making comments such as ‘I loved the twist on this myth of how Persephone became the Queen of the Underworld’.[2]  One of the key things to explore in reading this, is to find out why O’Connor took a character so ostracised in her own mythology, and made her the star.

Kore! A traditional classical woman

Persephone is first introduced in the comic as Kore: an awkward and seemingly minor character. O’Connor emphasises this by placing her in a small, side panel, of which Kore only occupies a fraction. She is shown in an awkward position, and due to her innocent reaction to Apollo, her naivety is emphasised. The Homeric hymn to Demeter uses the word ‘playing’ to describe Persephone before her abduction, which Debloois argues shows her to be ‘like a child’ (1997,248).[3] Kore seems to personify women commonly found in classic tradition: as a young woman, she is submissive to those around her. Dowden notes that in myth, ‘women may be maidens, or matrons, but not unmarried women’ (2002, 46),[4] and so it is easy to see that Kore fits straight into the mould of ‘maiden’. It is also notable, that in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Persephone and her thoughts occupy very little of the narrative, and is instead filled by Demeter. By showing Kore to be awkward and pushed aside, he is symbolically representing the traditional way which Persephone has been depicted in antiquity, and the model he is going to challenge.

Becoming Persephone- a modern feminist statement

Later in the comic, Kore adopts the name Persephone, officially accepting her role as Queen of the Dead. Gone is the awkward youth, now we see a woman single-handedly occupying a whole page. O’Connor’s choice to have her fill the page shows she is no longer pushed aside, but knows who she is. A smile plays on her lips as she speaks her new name, emphasising her metamorphoses. This page tells the reader two major things: this is a coming of age story, and Persephone is the real protagonist in this graphic novel. The bold colours which O’Connor elects to use shows that this is not the same maiden we were introduced to, picking flowers in a bright field, and thus illustrate her change as a character; she is sure of herself.

By having her so readily break free of the bonds of her mother, and embracing such a drastically different path, O’Connor is creating a feminist statement. We should not view her as a meek character, but as a strong and powerful woman in charge of her fate. The tradition of Persephone being powerful is even reflected in some ancient Roman sources; Ovid calls Persephone ‘the queen, the most powerful woman in the underworld’ (5.507).[5] Nixon argues that the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is an example of feminism in the ancient world, as it ‘focuses on a harmonious mother-daughter relationship, rather than a violent father-son dyad’ (2002, 92). In this way, O’Connor can be seen to take on the original intent of the Demeter/ Kore relationship, and show it through the lens of modern feminism.
The Happy Couple- Persephone and her sweetheart (200)

O’Connor does not fail to explore the relationship between Hades and Persephone either. As the images below show, there is an accuracy to showing the two gods ruling harmoniously side by side. In fact, a number of ancient sources which deal with Hades and Persephone show them to be equals. Odysseus ensures that he makes offerings to ‘the powerful Hades, and to revered Persephone’ (11.47),[6] while the Iliad names her ‘dread Persephone’ (9.457).[7] There is no doubt that throughout antiquity literary tradition, Persephone was viewed just as formidably as her husband.

     

O’Connor discusses this in the epilogue to his graphic novel; he comments ‘maybe Persephone likes being the Queen of the Dead. It would certainly explain why she’s apparently always hanging around the Underworld.’ O’Connor’s exploration of Persephone as a willing and eager Queen of the Dead definitely shows her as a woman in control of her fate. Indeed, it is notable that in the panel shown above, they are shown to mirror one another; they wear the same colours, their body language is exactly the same, and they sit on equal thrones. It seems Persephone is completely comfortable with her position of power.

Conclusion

In ‘Hades: Lord of the Dead’ O’Connor achieves a coming of age story, which details the awkward and forgettable Kore’s transformation into the formidable Persephone. He draws from a number of ancient sources, but ultimately he tells the story through the veneer of feminism. He explores the famously female lead story, and updates it in order for his audience to see a powerful woman in control of her own fate. Persephone is definitely someone his younger audience is portrayed as a role model.

Written by Sarah Hartill

[1] http://www.olympiansrule.com.vhost.zerolag.com/the-books/

[2] https://thebookmonsters.com/graphic-novel-review-hades-lord-of-the-dead/

[3] Debloois, N. (1997). ‘Rape, Marriage, or Death? Gender perspectives in the Homeric hymn to Demeter. Philologicial Quarterly. 76.3. 245-62.

[4] Dowden, K. (2002) ‘Approaching women through myth: vital tool or self-delusion?’ in Hawley, B, Levick, R. (eds.) Women in Antiquity: new assessments. 44-57.

[5] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Raeburn, D. (London: Penguin, 2004).

[6] Homer, Odyssey, trans. Lattimore, R. (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 1967).

[7] Homer, Iliad, trans. Lattimore, R, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951).

 

Manner Maketh The Man: Displays of Masculinity in 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.

Plebs is a 2013 ITV2 sitcom, created by Tom Basden and Sam Leifer.  It centers on Marcus (Tom Rosenthal), his roommate and best friend Stylax (Joel Fry), and their slave Grumio (Ryan Sampson) and their misadventures in Ancient Rome. The show is a clever mix of Ancient Rome and the 21st century, trying to show audiences that “over the course of 2000 years, people haven’t changed.”[1]

Of course, the creators acknowledge that the show is not always historically accurate, with episodes focusing on Grumio’s never-ending quest to try all the food at the market with the help of a friend’s gold credit card, or a group of rowdy Thracians introducing our protagonists to “Bananae”.  Because of the show’s interaction with modern themes, a viewer with only casual knowledge of Ancient Roman society might assume that much of the interpersonal relationships and personalities of the characters are strictly based on the 21st century. On the contrary, Plebs uses classic theater archetypes and gender norms as well as modern character influences to analyze the way we view masculinity today.

Masculinity

In the second episode of series 1, Cynthia, Marcus’ crush, introduces Cassius, a gladiator and her new boyfriend.[2]  Marcus has already run into Cassius, as it happens, at the Roman Baths, and was intimidated by Cassius’ masculinity.  Later, at work with Stylax, he calls Cassius’ manhood “fearsome, like a boa constrictor,” whereas he had just gotten out of the plunge pool, looking less than daunting.[3]  Marcus, our main protagonist, is less than traditionally masculine, falling more in line with the “adulescens, the youthful romantic hero,” in Ancient Roman comedy.[4]  In Plautan comedy, the “more farcical the comedy gets […], the sillier the young lover is shown to be.”[5]  While Plebs is not exclusively a farce, it does lend itself to farcical situations.  Early in the series, Marcus’ actions are often motivated by his attraction to Cynthia, leading to comic situations like trying to sneak Grumio into an orgy in a paper thin disguise. But unlike his ancient counterpart Marcus does not always get the girl, in part because he lacks the self-confidence to see himself as a viable option for the women he fancies.

The episode The Gladiator also features an unexpected example of a man with softer characteristics. Cassius, the titular Gladiator, is introduced as representing everything the stereotypical alpha-man should.  Brash, tough, and muscular, he is even employed in one of the manliest occupations you could have in Ancient Rome. However, throughout the episode, he is slowly revealed to be surprisingly sensitive. He is kind and friendly to Cynthia’s friends, acts very caring to her, and he is heartbroken to the point of apathy when she dumps him. Cassius’ presence offers an interesting antithesis to Marcus in this episode. While Marcus’ sensitivity and unmanly characteristics make him self-doubting and ultimately keep him from winning Cynthia’s love, Cassius embraces these aspects of himself, making him much more confident in his masculinity, and therefore more successful with the girl.

It is Cassius’ acceptance of all aspects of his masculinity which makes him more than just a one-off romantic foil to Marcus. He becomes an example of what Marcus could be, someone who represents the modern notion that it is okay for men to want herbal tea or to feel emotional after a break-up. Modern masculinity has started to reject the traditional, macho definition of manliness, making the (on the surface) barbaric gladiator perhaps the most progressive character in the episode. Unfortunately for Cassius, Marcus is not ready to accept these aspects of his character, making Cassius’ death in combat perhaps symbolic of Marcus’ belief that the sensitive man is not ready to survive in society.

Hyper masculinity and The Beast

The opposite then, of Marcus and Cassius’ masculinity, is the hyper masculine, seen in Plebs in the form of The Beast, a gladiator that Landlord hires to help Marcus stack Cassius’ next fight against him.

The Beast doesn’t have an apparent stock character equivalent, but his character can perhaps be linked to another monstrous character from ancient times, the Minotaur. Though Greek in origin, the Minotaur has several apparent parallels to The Beast that Cassius must face.  Both lack a human face, and both appear larger than life and threatening to our heroes. The Beast, like the Minotaur, is also shrouded in mystery, to heighten his fearful reputation and almost inhuman nature. When Marcus asks whether The Beast is actually a beast or not, the Landlord even responds “I’d say he’s of mixed heritage.”[6]

All of these factors make The Beast decidedly disagreeable to the audience, which is not surprising, as we often view this kind of toxic hyper-masculinity as unappealing or even dangerous. While ostensibly the Beast would be seen as the peak of manliness, we instead see him as a grotesque monster.  He epitomizes the type of toxic masculinity that we, as a society, have tried to begin moving away from, as we become more accepting of varied representations of maleness in society.  If we accept that Cassius’ death is due to Marcus’ insecurity in his own masculinity, then the Beast is the tool with which it is done, the idea of the hyper-masculine man.

Ancient and new

Plebs is, at its heart, a show about “taking three 21st-century lads, with all the hang-ups and foibles that entails, and hurling them into history.”[7]  The show achieves this with ease, cleverly twisting elements of 21st century comedy and Ancient Roman archetypes.  It also does one of the things comedy does best, masking social critique in humor, delivering important themes alongside laughs.  “The Gladiator” suggests we reassess what it means to be masculine by deconstructing the established character archetypes. Indeed, at their most basic descriptions, these stock characters “cannot stand up to serious criticism, nor is it intended that they should.”[8]  They’re meant to be analyzed and critiqued, to hold up a mirror to our real life.  Plebs does an excellent job of critiquing the 21st century through its unique combination of the ancient and the new.

Written by Kelley Bennett

 

[1] Basden, Tom. “Plebs: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Colosseum …” Independent. March 25, 2013. Accessed October 24, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/comedy/features/plebs-a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-the-colosseum-8547754.html.

[2] Basden, Tom, and Sam Leifer, writers. “The Gladiator.” In Plebs. ITV2. March 25, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Segal, Erich. Oxford Readings in Menander, Plautus, and Terence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. pg. 276.

[5] McCarthy, Kathleen. Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000, 117.

[6] Basden, Tom, and Sam Leifer, writers. “The Gladiator.” In Plebs. ITV2. March 25, 2013.

[7] Holland, Luke. Plebs: ‘Ancient Rome Allows Us to Bring in Gladiators and Orgies’. The Guardian. September 20, 2014. Accessed October 27, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/sep/20/plebs-roman-comedy-tom-rosenthal.

[8] Marples, Morris. Plautus. Greece & Rome 8, no. 22 (1938): 4.

E Tenebris Lux: Thoughts on the reopening of the Glynn Vivian Gallery

This is a guest blog post by Dr Evelien Bracke, who is currently working on the reception of Classics in Wales.

 

A month ago, I went along to the reopening of the Glynn Vivian gallery, Swansea’s main art gallery, which had been closed for a £6 million refurbishment since October 2011. It was a lovely event and I felt like a child in a sweet shop exploring the collection.

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The gallery was the brain child of Richard Glynn Vivian (1835-1910), who bequeathed his art collection to the city of Swansea, together with £10,000 to create a gallery to house it. The collection is really eclectic: there are such diverse pieces in the permanent collection – from Swansea pottery and Welsh paintings (particularly nice to see a number of female Welsh painters represented), to European and oriental art – that you really get drawn in walking from room to room. Apart from the permanent collection, there is also a temporary exhibit with Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings which is worthwhile visiting.

 

An influential family

I was excited to find out that Richard Glynn Vivian, the gallery’s founder, was in fact part of the Vivian family who lived at Singleton Abbey before it became part of the university, about which I have blogged before. The Classical education of the Vivians greets you at Singleton Abbey with a ‘salve’ (‘hello’ in Latin) when you enter the building, and likewise, Classical influences can be found in the Glynn Vivian collection.

While his older brothers studied science and looked after the family copper smelting business, Richard studied arts at Cambridge and travelled extensively all around the world. By means of his share of the family fortune, he started amassing an extensive art collection during his travels. It must have come as a terrible blow when he started going blind in 1902. He wrote and published a collection of poems (which I’m yet to get my hands on) called E tenebris lux, ‘out of darkness, light’, with the sub-heading ‘scattered leaves gathered together during hours of blindness’.

Richard Glynn Vivian
Richard Glynn Vivian

The Latin title, which refers to Genesis 1.4, expresses the strengthening of his Christian faith – already running deep in the Vivian family, as the Latin quotes on the walls of the council chamber of the Abbey reveal – because of his blindness, and it was to the cause of shining a beacon of light in the darkness of humanity that he dedicated the rest of his life.

Apart from opening the Glynn Vivian gallery which gave access to international art to people from all economic backgrounds in South Wales, he also became a patron of miners – which will have had a profound impact on local communities – through the Glynn Vivian Miners’ Mission and established a home for the blind on Gower. Upon his death, his will further divided his fortune between charities.

 

Dialogue of past and present

Walking through the gallery, Glynn Vivian’s personal taste and philanthropy really speak to visitors through his collection. While Wales plays the leading role in his collection, Classical influences can also be spotted, at times very obviously, other times in a whisper. The statue of the sleeping Pan by French artist S.J. Brun (1832), given a prominent space on its own between two rooms and cleverly juxtaposed with views of the long glass windows and the Swansea street, is a beautiful example.

Sleeping Pan        Sleeping Pan with Swansea view

Less obvious, tucked away among other pieces, is the Dillwyn pottery with Greek-style red-figure vase paintings, inspired by 18th and 19th century archaeological excavations in Etruria. This pottery stands in similar contrast with the contemporary styles of other vases which surround them.

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While the building itself has a Baroque style, its interior – and particularly the neoclassical busts – stand in stark contrast with the (awesomely disturbing) postmodern Matrix-like installation on the ground floor.

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The present curators have obviously created clear boundaries between past and present through their choice of pieces that are very different in style. While they sometimes jar visually, all pieces live harmoniously within the building itself which embraces both its Baroque past and utilitarian extension. I particularly like how part of the building has been opened up onto the street, like a Greek theatre looking out onto the polis while the plays were being staged within.

I can’t wait to go and explore all the pieces further – you might find me sitting in front of the Turner painting for quite a while… In the meantime, though, I’m happy to report that the reopened Glynn Vivian gallery, outward looking and inviting visitors to consider the dialogue – or is it a clash? – between eclectic pasts and present, continues Glynn Vivian’s humanist quest to give everyone access to art and create e tenebris lux!

Classics at Swansea University between copper business and tinplate worker: Ceri Richards’ Rape of Europa

Blog post by Dr Evelien Bracke, Senior Lecturer in Classics, on CLC315 (Classics in Popular Culture).

For my new third-year module, Classics in Popular Culture (CLC315), I decided to take students on a walk through the Singleton Campus, to get them thinking about the ways in which Classics have been appropriated to convey messages about status and ideology in their immediate context.

The walk was a short and straightforward one, along the mall from Singleton Abbey to Fulton House. I have previously blogged about the use of Classics (particularly Latin) in Singleton Abbey. This building, now part of the university, was once the home of the Vivian family who made their fortune from the copper-smelting business.

The contrast with Fulton House, which forms the end of the mall on the other side, could not be starker: juxtaposing the Abbey’s neoclassical abundance, Fulton House earned its Grade II listed status on the basis of its post-war modernist style, designed by architect Percy Thomas. (The students gave Fulton an average of 0/10 for looks.) The building was named after John Fulton, VC of the University of Wales, who had studied Classics at Balliol.

Singleton Abbey
Singleton Abbey
Fulton House
Fulton House

Because of its austere modernism, I had never gone looking for Classical influences in Fulton House – until we had an Open Day in the refectory last summer, and, while I was talking to a prospective student, my gaze suddenly fell upon the large painting of the rape of Europa on the wall. I had never paid attention to it before, even though it has been hiding in plain view since I arrived at Swansea.

Ceri Richards' Rape of Europa
Ceri Richards’ Rape of Europa

The artist is Ceri Richards, born in Dunvant (part of Swansea) in 1903. I can’t but love the way in which his use of Classics contrasts with the wealthy Vivians in the Abbey. Raised in a working class family as the son of a tinplate worker, he was nevertheless brought up surrounded by culture: his mother came from a family of craftsmen, and his father wrote poetry and directed the local choir.

It was in 1921, when Richards went to study at the Swansea College of Art, that he became immersed in Classics while drawing classical casts. A week’s study at Gregynog Hall in mid Wales, the centre for excellence in the arts established by the Davies sisters, must have further sparked his interest (I will write about the Davies sisters in a future blog post).

The theme that intrigued him the most, to the point of obsession, in the years 1945-‘49, was the rape of the Sabine women, a well-known story from Roman foundation myth (‘rape’ here signifies ‘abduction’ by the way).

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As Livy (Ab Urbe Condita 1.9) narrates, Romulus (Remus’s brother and founder of Rome), unable to find wives for his male followers, tricked the neighbouring Sabines into attending a festival, at which the women were abducted while the men were busy fighting. It is a well-known artistic topos, which has been depicted countless times in art throughout the centuries. To find it in Richards’ repertoire is thus, to a certain extent, not that unusual.

Richards’ wife, Frances, however, says his immediate inspiration came from the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, a poem by fellow Swansea artist Dylan Thomas whom Richards admired greatly. The first two verses give a flavour of the content:

 

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees

Is my destroyer.

And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose

My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

 

The force that drives the water through the rocks

Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams

Turns mine to wax.

And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins

How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

 

Dylan Thomas’s harrowing poem laments the destructive action of time on nature and mankind. Similarly, as J.R. Webster argues, Richards’ depiction of the Sabine women represented a ‘violent consummation of his wartime preoccupations with birth and death’. The connections between the story of the Sabines and Dylan Thomas might at first seem tenuous: while Thomas’s poem concerns violence enacted by time onto all mankind, Richards focused rather on violence done to women by men. It is unnecessary, however, to look for any logical connection: both pieces reflect on violence through an emotional response and mood rather than logic. Richards thus amalgamated Welsh and Classical influences into one strong image.

In 1964, Richards was invited to create a painting on a similar theme, the rape of Europa, for the Hotel Europa. Thus he embarked on a series of paintings on that theme, one of which now adorns the Fulton Refectory.

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While the Sabine story derives from Roman myth, the story of Europa was ancient Greek in origin: the god Zeus has fallen in love with Europa and had transformed himself into a bull in order to get close to her. Ovid narrates (Metamorphoses 2.833ff.):

 

And gradually she lost her fear, and he

Offered his breast for her virgin caresses,

His horns for her to wind with chains of flowers

Until the princess dared to mount his back

Her pet bull’s back, unwitting whom she rode.

Then—slowly, slowly down the broad, dry beach—

First in the shallow waves the great god set

His spurious hooves, then sauntered further out

’til in the open sea he bore his prize

Fear filled her heart as, gazing back, she saw

The fast receding sands. Her right hand grasped

A horn, the other lent upon his back

Her fluttering tunic floated in the breeze.

 

Ultimately, Zeus made Europa queen of Crete, and her name became used for the continent of Europe.

While many post-Classical depictions retain the Ovidian image of Europa holding on to the horn of the bull, Richards’ has her swung back, similarly to the Sabines, held by her waist by the bull/Zeus.

An interesting innovation is that, in each of the paintings, Zeus is in fact taking off a bull-shaped mask, suggesting he had somehow disguised himself rather than transformed, which renders him more human, somehow less capable of divine transformation. One of my students first likened him to a centaur, and it is not unreasonable to discern a centaur-like aspect in his representation. Indeed, the connection between male and horse/bull – present in both rape of the Sabines and rape of Europa – may represent the animalistic aggression by war and time, contrasted starkly with the innocent women, whose accentuated female forms accord with nature. Already in antiquity, both centaurs and (of course) Zeus were depicted as lascivious beyond the norm, violating innocent mortals. Zeus’s representation as part animal, part anthropomorphic, emphasizes the worrying impact of mankind’s animalistic nature on his surroundings.

Ceri Richards’ painting can be interpreted at two levels. First there is Richards’ own use of violent Classical myth in order to cope with and express his feelings about WWII, during which he taught at the Cardiff School of Art. The concept of mankind’s animalistic aggression clearly resonated with him, perhaps – if read through Dylan Thomas’ poem – as random acts against which there is no defense.

A second level of interpretation, however, concerns the context in which the panel was placed (it has apparently been in Fulton House from the moment the building was put to use). The obvious reason is that this was a celebrated Welsh, local artist, whose work deserved displaying. Interestingly, however, the painting also adds an element of Classical heritage to a building which is otherwise devoid of it, thereby connecting Fulton House with the Abbey.

Ideologically, however, the Rape of Europa contains a contradiction: those who decided to display it in Fulton House – perhaps in honour of Fulton’s own study of Classics – did so to lend an air of eminence and status to the building. Richards’ own application of Classics, by contrast, derived from his working-class background, depicting the horrors of war rather than status. In this capacity, the painting by the tinplate worker’s son forms a stark contrast with the Latin mottos adorning the coal-funded Abbey, and invites the viewer to question the links between education, class, and ideology.

At this point in time, moreover, this image takes on a whole new meaning which no one would have anticipated: in Brexit times, the placement of the rape of Europa in a Welsh context suddenly asks poignant and urgent questions regarding identity and ideology. Who might we cast as Zeus now, who as Europa? We were only able to touch upon layers of Classical reception on our walk, so we’ll look forward to discussing these in our next lectures.

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