We just can’t stop talking about those Romans

Why, if classic studies are on the decline, do novels about the ancient world remain so enduringly popular? Progress Magazine has a nice essay on the curious appeal of Greece and Rome in pop literature, and academia’s general ambivalence towards such pop culture artifacts:

…what’s clear is that the classical world still holds attraction for both authors and readers. Some of this interest may be “superficial,” but by no means all of it is. In any case, it is natural that there should be such interest. There is still an appreciation in our culture of the fact that our civilisation has its roots in Greece and Rome—as well, of course, as in biblical Israel—and that Greek and Roman history, legend and myth are part of our inherited culture. […] Some awareness of the ancient world has been transmitted even to those ignorant of the languages, often, indeed, by men who were not themselves classical scholars.

In other words, the classical world for some reason holds an attraction for people outside the formal academic field of classical studies–unlike, say, the Hittite empire or Byzantium, which have formed the bases for far fewer popular novels than their Greco-Roman colleagues. The non-academic novel-reading movie-watching public has an interest, however superficial, in the Greek and Roman world that sometimes confounds the literati.

I used to joke with friends in grad school that when I graduated, I was going to take my knowledge of the ancient world and use it to write trashy romance novels set in ancient Rome. I can’t say the prospect isn’t still a bit tempting….

Long-lost secrets of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri! (or maybe not)

The big news earlier this week was the recovery of a huge number of ancient writings penned by authors like Sophocles and Euripedes. It’s tremendously exciting news… assuming it’s not just hype or exaggeration. At least one skeptical voice is getting some attention; if nothing else, many questions need to be answered before we should accept the original story at face value.

This case is a good reminder that we must meet extraordinary historical or archaeological claims with healthy skepticism. It’s often difficult to determine at first glance whether the “expert” quoted in a media story is a respected scholar, a hype merchant, or an attention-hungry fringe theorist. The more extraordinary the claim, the more careful we need to be about embracing it.