Sunday, April 19, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Dunstan Lowe, Kim Shahabudin (ed.), Classics for All: Reworking Antiquity in Mass Culture. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Pp. xviii, 287. ISBN 9781443801201. £44.99.
Reviewed by Maria Beatrice Bittarello, Rome

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This remarkable volume of collected essays originates in a conference held at the University of Reading in April 2007. The book offers a good overview of the current state of reception studies (particularly in the UK), of its purposes and methodologies. The volume is a welcome addition to the growing number of studies examining the reception of the classics in contemporary culture, especially because it examines areas rarely explored until now (such as, for example, videogames, Internet newsgroups, radio or children's books), thus witnessing the continued presence of the classical world--distilled, diluted, selected, and re-crafted in a number of different ways--in our contemporary culture and everyday life.

Classics for All is divided into four sections that explore a variety of either representations of the classical world or translations and adaptations of classical works. The first section (Chapter 1 to 3), focuses on TV documentaries, radio, comics and children books; the second (Chapter 4 to 6) examines videogames, classical antiquity in the press and information media; the third (Chapter 7 to 9) analyses genre films and Internet newsgroups; the final section (Chapter 10 to 12) explores 'fantasies' of the classical world in genre films and TV series. The book is completed by a (perhaps too selective) index that condenses a geographical, a thematic, and a name index.1 The introduction, written by the editors of the volume, Dunstan Lowe and Kim Shahabudin, outlines the development of classical reception (ix-x), discusses the current state, aims, and methodologies of this relatively recent branch of classical studies, and takes the opportunity to reply to objections often moved to the discipline (xi-xii). The book well illustrates two main methodological tenets of classical reception,2 since it offers insights into our contemporary society; at the same time, several essays help to re-focus investigation on ancient texts and to ask new (and different) questions of ancient texts--as the editors point out: "Our modern concerns shed light on areas neglected by previous generations" (ix). It is also particularly concerned with the (anti-elitist) educational potential of classical reception, which has the ability to attract the interest of younger generations. In other words, videogames, the Internet, radio and TV series may be a starting point for non classicists, and contemporary re-workings of classical themes may help classicists to gain a fresh look at ancient materials.

In the first chapter, Bettany Hughes, author of several successful documentaries on the ancient world, offers a lively account of the challenges she encountered as a classicist attempting to bring classical antiquity on TV.

In Chapter 2, Helen Lovatt examines how the myth of Jason and Medea is 'adapted' in books for children and young people. Her study highlights the deep differences between different adaptations of the story; the comparisons between earlier adaptations (such as that by Nathaniel Hawthorne) and contemporary re-tellings are particularly enlightening with regard to unchanging attitudes towards violence and gender relationships in modern societies.

In the following chapter, Amanda Wrigley brings to the readers' attention some examples of translations of classical works for the radio. Wrigley explores the multiple political implications of the poet Louis MacNeice's translations and adaptations for the radio of Aristophanes and other classical authors during WWII and in the post-war period. The chapter is especially fascinating as it presents us with the issue of the written word coming alive and stimulating the imagination of listeners; it also highlights the ability of classical texts to capture the interest of the masses (as the BBC Listener Research Reports quoted and commented upon by Wrigley show).

Dunstan Lowe is the author of Chapter 4, which offers an introduction to the use of the classical world in videogames. Lowe examines various types of games, showing how classical history is used in games based on strategic empire building, but classical myth in games based on an individual character's exploits. Lowe's study points out how "every manifestation of the classical tradition in mass culture in some way reduces antiquity to a simplified code of signs" (74), an aspect that emerges also in other contributions to this volume.

In Chapter 5, Joanna Paul examines how American media have used Pompeii in news comments on natural disaster (such as Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans) and the 9/11 events. Paul succeeds in analysing and unravelling the cultural layering present in such uses of the ancient world; she highlights how Pompeii's image today recalls, in contemporary mass culture, two different images--that of catastrophic destruction, and that of 'sinful' place. Because of the established connection made in American thought between the USA and Rome, Pompeii along with the multiple meanings it conveys, strongly resonates with American contemporary culture.

Chapter 6 deals with the appropriation of videogames by communities of players interested in the classical world. The authors present and evaluate their own experience in re-crafting a popular videogame set in ancient Rome by making it as historically accurate as possible. The way they have proceeded and the principles that have inspired their work present several elements of interest for readers interested in the educational potential of videogames in teaching classics.

Susanne Turner's analysis of 300, a low budget film representing the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae, which gained an unexpected success in early 2007, uncovers the cultural layering that underpins the director's choices in his portrayal of Sparta. Turner's exemplary analysis compares the ancient Greek male nude statues to the representation of the Spartans' bodies in the film, highlighting the ideological differences between the two.

In Chapter 8, Gideon Nisbet examines how a stylised and diluted idea of Rome, resulting from a series of stereotyped representations of Rome rooted in Victorian readings and, even more, in gladiator movies of the 1950s and 1960s , is used in hardcore and softcore porn films.

In their piece, Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands focus on Internet chat discussions of the explicit content of the famous frescoes in the so called brothel of Pompeii. Classicists have the opportunity to be confronted with the reactions of the public to material popularly perceived as not needing translation. Among the many interesting aspects of this paper--including the variety of reactions and the struggle in so many visitors, to deny the harsh reality of exploitation that took place in the brothel--is the attention paid to the different public spaces in which visitors experience, consume, and comment on the frescoes (i.e. the ancient location and the Internet).

The final section opens with Kim Shahabudin's analysis of the 'pepla', the epic films drawing on classical mythology produced between the 1950s and 1960s in Italy. Shahabudin's re-evaluation of these films shows how they are potentially rich texts, re-fashioning ancient materials to serve contemporary concerns.

Amanda Potter's article examines how two American TV series, Charmed and Xena: Warrior Princess, both specifically aimed at young adults (and, especially the former, at young women), represent the Furies and what viewers--whether classicists or not--make of such representations.The attention paid to viewers' reactions in the paper is especially interesting.

Paula James' article is an exciting exploration of the resonances between Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an American series created by screenwriter Joss Whedon, and the Aeneid. This is far from a futile exercise in 'comparative literature'; the paper highlights analogies between the use of narrative structures in the series and in the ancient epic, between themes, character construction, and even re-workings of myths, and reveals substantial connexions between the construction of Buffy and of Aeneas as heroes.

One of the most interesting aspects that emerge from reading such diverse articles is that in the reception of the classical world accretion and selection are simultaneously at work: interpretations accumulate in time, but only some may end up being selected by contemporary users.3

As already noted above, the variety of topics and approaches is one of the winning points of the book, even if the presence of Internet-focused studies is limited to Fisher's and Langlands' article and to some mentions of videogames played online. Re-craftings of the classical world on the Internet are indeed a potentially rich field of study: from Google Earth's offering reconstructions of ancient Rome online, to websites devoted to classical mythology and religions, to the presence of the ancient world in Second Life.4 It is to be hoped that future works will focus also on such issues.

Like all ground-breaking studies, this too raises some questions and sometimes perplexities: for example, at some points (particularly in Nisbet's and Ghita's and Andrikopoulos' chapters) it is not always quite clear if (and how) authors assume common (or universal) reactions in viewers (or players). Also, the analyses of the work of contemporary TV writers could have taken into account the fact that they do not work in isolation, and that, at times, the development of a series may be influenced, to an extent not easily measurable, by fan responses and even by academic evaluations. Finally, apart from some relevant considerations in Wrigley's and Shahabudin's work, the book lacks any sustained attention to socio-economic issues of access to cultural resources; it would probably have been worth reminding readers that the percentage of the global population with access to the Internet, or to videogames, and thus to new media re-workings of the classical world, is still very low.

On the whole, the book is true to its title (Classics for All), as it is one of those happy cases in which a text succeeds in being worth the attention of the academic community, of readers interested in approaching the classical world, and of students interested in classics.


List of Images vii

Preface viii

Introduction ix

Part I: Ancient Worlds, Modern Audiences

"Terrible, Excruciating, Wrong-Headed And Ineffectual": The Perils and Pleasures of Presenting Antiquity to a Television Audience
Bettany Hughes 2

Gutting the Argonautica? How to Make Jason and the Argonauts Suitable for Children
Helen Lovatt 17

Louis MacNeice's Radio Classics: "All So Unimaginably Different"?
Amanda Wrigley 39

Part II: Re-Purposing Antiquity

Playing With Antiquity: Videogame Receptions of the Classical World
Dunstan Lowe 64

"I Fear it's Potentially Like Pompeii": Disaster, Mass Media and the Ancient City
Joanna Paul 91

Total War and Total Realism: A Battle for Antiquity in Computer Game History
Cristian Ghita & Georgios Andrikopoulos 109

Part III: Classica Erotica

"Only Spartan Women Give Birth To Real Men": Zack Snyder's 300 and the Male Nude
Susanne Turner 128

"Dickus Maximus": Rome as Pornotopia
Gideon Nisbet 150

"This Way to the Red Light District": The Internet Generation Visits the Brothel in Pompeii
Kate Fisher & Rebecca Langlands 172

Part IV: Fantasising the Classics

Ancient Mythology and Modern Myths: Hercules Conquers Atlantis (1961)
Kim Shahabudin 196

Hell Hath no Fury like a Dissatisfied Viewer: Audience Responses to the Presentation of the Furies in Xena: Warrior Princess and Charmed
Amanda Potter 217

Crossing Classical Thresholds: Gods, Monsters and Hell: Dimensions in the Whedon Universe
Paula James 237

Bibliography 262

Contributors 282

Index 285


1.   Not all ethnic or geographical names are included in the index: for example, Mossynoeci is in the text p. 123, but not in the index. On the whole, the editorial work is very good; I could find only a couple of typos: n. 29 p. 75 ('Gita' for 'Ghita'); and p. 142 (',.' for '.').
2.   Cf. Lorna Hardwick, Reception Studies. Greece and Rome New Surveys in the Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, 4-10.
3.   For example, Ridley Scott's Gladiator, mentioned in several articles, heavily draws on Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), a point that adds to the panorama of re-craftings and cultural layering so carefully outlined in this volume.
4.   On 3D ancient Rome in Google Earth see Bryn Mawr Classical Review (BMCR) publishes timely reviews of current scholarly work in the field of classical studies (including archaeology). The authoritative archive can be found at

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