Tag Archives: pop culture

MLB PEDs, A-Rod, and Ancient Cheaters

With all of the talk surrounding baseball, Alex Rodriguez, and the seemingly never ending use of the word “cheating” I thought it would be interesting to discuss what happened to the ancient cheaters. So we know Alex Rodriguez has been suspended for essentially cheating; using performance enhancing drugs, although more of the suspension comes from impeding the MLB’s investigation and simply his obnoxious arrogance. While A-rod is just the most recent cheater to join the ranks of Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, and of course Barry Bonds, it is not the first time the question of legacy comes up for a professional athlete. The same questions about remembrance have been brought up about many other athletes such as Tiger Woods, Jim Thorpe, and Lance Armstrong.  We are still waiting to see how most of these will play out (exception being Jim Thorpe, I think he is remembered well, but then his crimes are not considered very serious nor cheating by most people). We can say that McGwire has been passed up multiple times now in Hall of Fame elections and prior to the steroids scandals many were calling him a first ballot Hall of Famer. For the most part, however, it remains to be seen what people will be saying about the steroids era in 10, 20, 50 years.

In the ancient world there were different theories about handling such people. While the Roman example didn’t apply to athletes as much as politicians and traitors, sometimes the same person fit all of those categories I guess, for comparison purpose I will say damnatio memoriae was their method of handling such unwanted stigmas. Damnatio memoriae is a system put in place by the Roman Senate to completely erase someone from history and that was meant in the most literal sense of erase. They would remove inscriptions with his name, remake statues to remove his image, and seize all property. Due to the nature of the practice not a ton of information is known about it, but it was used a few times in the imperial period for emperors who were disliked by the emperor succeeding them or for people who conspired against the emperor.

This is an instance when the Greeks handled things very differently than the Romans. The Greeks would put the story of cheating Olympians everywhere. Yes, cheating happened even in the original Olympic Games. When there are riches to be won and glory to be had, unfortunately if unchecked, cheating will occur; you may say a laurel wreath isn’t exactly riches, but many athletes received rewards either from their home city-state or through other means, but I digress as usual.  The Greeks actually erected statues, using the money of the cheaters, which were to serve as warnings to future athletes. On the statues were elegiac poems, interestingly the same style of poem found on grave markers. These poems extol the values of how the Olympics are to be won, through physical prowess, and criticize other methods of obtaining victory like paying money.

The contrast of the Ancient Roman damnation memoriae and the Ancient Greek example-making tactics are a good chance for history to show us what should be done. Some are saying the MLB should put a steroids era wing on the Hall of Fame to show the history of the game accurately and also to point out the terrible things steroids did to the game of baseball. This is obviously following the Greek example. The voters have consistently left steroid era players out of the Hall, however, maybe preferring the way of the Romans and attempting to erase them from the history of the game. This will definitely be something to watch in the years to come as many steroid era players reach eligibility for the Hall of Fame.

Comment below and tell me if you are for the Roman way or the Greek way? How about outside of athletics like for politicians, celebrities, traitors, etc.?  

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Depletion of Fish Population: Not just a modern problem

After watching an episode of Alton Brown’s Good Eats last night and the recent talk in the news about sushi and fish population depletion, I thought I would take on a less pop culture topic this week and get a little into the politics of sustainable fish. You may be asking yourself what this has to do with anything classical, but I promise you it has as much to do with the Ancient Greeks as it does the modern sushi trend. First let us look at the problem. Alton Brown lays the problem out pretty clearly in his Good Eats episode The Once and Future Fish (see it here). To sum up the problem though, we, humans, like to eat big meaty fish and we overfish them close to the point of extinction. We need to learn to eat smaller more common fish, something the Romans were actually fairly good at.

The depletion of fish populations around the world has been in the news often in the last two years, but it has not caught on as a popular cause yet (you know those popular causes that get beaten to death on college campuses across the nation). Actually it is quite the opposite. Sushi’s rise in popularity especially across college campuses in the US has led to even higher consumption of fish. The BBC reported that a record was set in 2011 for global fish consumption at 17 kg per person per year (for us Americans that’s 37lbs). For comparison the US estimated 57lbs of beef consumed per person per year in 2011. The same BBC article reports, “85% of global fish stocks are over-exploited.”

So again you are asking me what this has to do with the Ancient world. Thank you for staying with me. Here is the payoff. The same thing happened in Ancient Greece! In fact, the Ancient Greeks fished tuna (Greek: Thunnos) to near extinction.  In a great lecture at Temple University when I was there a couple of years ago, Dr. Daniel Levine spoke about the overwhelming popularity of tuna in Ancient Greece and the over fishing of these tuna. It was such a popular food source that even Aristotle mapped out the migration patterns of the fish. The tuna was linked to the god Poseidon and prayers were offered to him by fisherman. Lastly, an important link to today’s problem, the Ancient Greeks fished with large nets which caught not only mature fish, but young fish. This is the problem today. Many fish not suitable for markets are dying instead of remaining in the sea and reproducing.

For more information from Dr. Levine about the Ancient Greeks and tuna see his research here.

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Happy Birthday Douglas Adams: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Greek Tragedy

As Google animated so perfectly, today is Douglas Adams birthday. When I think about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I can only think one thing: DON’T PANIC! I remember my excellent Greek professor using this reference whenever he introduced a new grammar rule. “There are exceptions to the rule, but as The Guide says, ‘Don’t Panic.’” In Ancient Greek if you panic you are screwed. The whole system is based on exceptions. There is only one entirely regular verb and I say that hesitantly. The words “Don’t Panic” kept me going through many late nights with a Greek textbook, but enough of my nostalgia. The reason I am writing about Douglas Adams and this great work is because of the way he composed this work.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker’s Guide from here on) was composed in a way which an Ancient Greek playwright would probably relish. At first Hitchhiker’s Guide was a series of six episodes for the radio. Later a second and third series were released. The work was rewritten many times from many view points and focal points. It was slowly adapted for several different media. This is the part that I find interesting. There are novels, movies, radio series, TV series, LPs. The whole story takes on so many forms and so many different episodes.  This reminds me of Ancient Greek plays. In most Greek plays the audience is given only a small episode in a very large story. The larger story is written episode by episode by different playwrights with different focuses.

Aeschylus was one of the earliest playwrights whose works survive. He wrote an Oedipus play of which very little survives, but Euripides and Sophocles also wrote Oedipus plays, the most famous being that of Sophocles. Euripides’ Oedipus is also a fragmented work, but it is known that there are some major differences like Oedipus being blinded before the truth is revealed that Laius is his father.

Another play covered by all three of these writers is Philoctetes. This compares perfectly to the way Hitchhiker’s Guide was written because Douglas Adams discovered that the central point of his series was the book while writing the first series. The hitchhikers guide comes out of a small plot point made in his original series about an alien looking for a special book. This very minute point was then expanded to become a huge work of its own. The same happened with Philoctetes. Philoctetes was a character mentioned in passing in Homer’s Iliad. Each of these playwrights expanded on the passing mention made by Homer to create a new story, and certainly borrowed from those who had written the plays before them.  It is also important to note that since the plays were performed at a yearly competition they were sometimes rewritten and performed again in order to gain better favor in the contest.

For commentary on the 3 Philoctetes plays see the writings Dio Chrysostom. Aeschylus and Euripides plays are in fragments and most of what is known about them comes from this source.

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Criminal Minds quotes Plato, or do they?

Criminal Minds was definitely one of my favorite shows for a while and sadly I only stopped watching new seasons because of time issues; unfortunately I can’t schedule my life around the TV schedule. I still watch the reruns every time I notice one is on, which is about every hour of the day if you use enough channels. I saw a rerun not too long ago and knew I had to write a post about it. It was season 2 episode 6 The Boogeyman. This is the episode after Elle gets shot and she misses her psych evaluation. The team is after someone who is murdering children in Texas.

One of my favorite parts about Criminal Minds is the quotation at the beginning and end of the show. I always try to catch these and I (nerdy, I know) would actually get mad if I turned the TV on just a minute too late. The quotation at the beginning of The Boogeyman episode is, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” The narrator, Hotch, attributes it to Plato. This like many other quotations said to be from Plato is a misattribution. While the phrase is all over the internet and can be found on T-shirts, there is not one site that gives evidence of where the quotation came from. No one can state the book and line of Plato’s works from which this quotation was pulled. Don’t get me wrong I love the phrase and I think it has so many great meanings in it, but it is not from Plato. If anyone has or can find it, please let me know, but I have been over all of the works I have (which is most of them) and I have searched a lot of scholarly discourse and I still have not found it. Some sites attribute it to Socrates which would mean it is attributed to Plato since all of Socrates’ words are written by Plato.

Criminal Minds is a great show and the quotations add intelligence and depth to many of the episodes which aren’t exactly lacking in those categories anyway. You just missed the boat on this one, Criminal Minds. Research would have allowed you to step further into the light on this one and learned that it is a statement without a source.

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TV’s Bones, Steel, and Urine?

I was watching a wonderful Bones marathon on TV (this show is great for its intelligent jokes about art and the ancient world) and noticed this great little tale about steel in Ancient Rome. One of the scientists says that a certain instrument was made in Ancient Rome because it was fashioned in a peculiar way. He claims that the Romans believed if a red-headed boy urinated on heated up iron it would turn to steel. Obvious it is the chemical properties that make this change possible, but it makes for a great story of accidental science. Something interesting about this story is that it is another example of urination as a tool in the ancient world. The Romans had great uses for urine, my favorite being laundry detergent.

                In Ancient Rome urine was used to make togas whiter. The ammonia in urine has great cleaning properties; ammonia is still a common cleaning product today.  The people who did the laundry were called fullones. Outside the workplace of the fullones sat large containers which served like a public urinal. The people passing by would urinate in the containers and the fullones would have free detergent.    These pots could also be found around town and may be collected by fullones who needed more supplies; they even chose different places because better urine was usually found there. This phenomenon can be seen best in Pompeii where these workplaces and pots have been preserved and displayed in a natural setting. There is also a great deal of graffiti all over the town and some is surprisingly about this process.

                So next time you are out of your favorite stain remover maybe pee in the washer and see what happens. Okay, maybe you shouldn’t do that, but know that it has been done and that urine was a very important part of life in Ancient Rome.

For more reading on the specifics of this process see this paper: http://www.classics.uwaterloo.ca/labyrinth_old/issue89/Pee.02.09.pdf

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Magic in the Woods: Disney Princesses, Once Upon a Time, and Rex Nemorensis

                I recently saw a meme about Disney Princess and it said something like “I need to spend more time in the woods because that’s where all of the good men are.” I thought this was funny because I am a bit of an outdoors man and spend a lot of time in the woods, but then I thought about it and realized that most of the Disney Princesses do find their magic in the woods. This is not a theme only in Disney, however. Since ancient times magic has been found in dark wooded areas and often under great sleep deprivation. Some scholars believe this is due to the effects of sleep deprivation or hypothermia like hallucinations causing people to actually believe they experienced things beyond the realm of daily non-magical life. The following are a few classical examples of this phenomenon some of which you may find to be related.

                The first, and probably most obvious, is that Vergil’s character Aeneas had to go deep into the woods and search for a golden bough in order to gain entrance into the underworld. I have been in the cave in Cumae, Italy that is said to be the entrance to the underworld (my prof kind of ruined the magic for me by saying it was most likely a military defensive establishment to guard the temples at the top of the hill). It is easy to see when on sight that this would be a very dark place and in ancient days would have been surrounded by dark forests.

                A fundamental myth of the forest is the story of the Rex Nemorensis (king of the forest). This tradition, according to Sir James George Frazer, is the basis of many myths (note: some scholars argue strongly against his views). The myth has its roots in Nemi a small town with a very dark lake surrounded by dark forests. The area is sacred to the goddess Diana who has been mentioned before in this blog. Anyway, the tradition is given by Frazer as follows:

“In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or craftier” (Frazer, Golden Bough, p. 1).

While this story is not exactly magical, it has been transformed into many magical myths and shows the roots of our modern obsession with magic taking place in the woods or with characters deprived of sleep. This story is also visited in the show Once Upon a Time as Rumpelstiltskin gains his power from the dark one in a tale almost exactly the same as this one.

                The point is that we often see today, especially in Disney and fairy tale type movies, that magic takes place in the forest. Even the princess from the Princess and the Frog finds her magic and her love in the depths of the woods. This is not a modern invention, but instead a theme that runs deep into ancient times. I hope that having read this, you will look for this theme in a variety of movies and shows and comment on this post with the many examples that exist in today’s pop culture.

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Phineas and Ferb meet Greek Tragedy

Sorry I have been away, but this blog is back and up and running. This is probably my favorite post yet because I am truly a kid at heart.

I was recently watching the wonderful cartoon Phineas and Ferb. For those of you who haven’t seen it you must it is quite funny even for someone who is only a kid at heart. The show is about two kids, Phineas and Ferb, who are constantly building something or having some sort of adventure. They have an older sister Candace. Candace will be the focus of this post. Her role is as a stock character who is never believed, classicists reading this already know where I am going with it. She is always correct in her observation, especially when she is trying to show her mom what Phineas and Ferb are up to, but she is either not believed or whatever they are doing has magically disappeared by the time Mom gets there and she calls Candace crazy.

The connection to classics is the tragic character Cassandra. Cassandra was cursed with the gift of prophecy but the additional problem that no one will ever believe her prophecies. The most famous account of this is in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon where Cassandra gives the account of her curse herself.  She explains that Apollo came to her with desire and she accepted that she would be his if he would give her the gift of prophecy: “I promised I would be his, but I cheated him of that” (Agamemnon, 1208).  She goes on, “Once I had wronged him, I could persuade no one. They believed nothing” (Agamemnon, 1211). Due to this portrayal in Greek tragedy characters have been described as having Cassandra syndrome or a Cassandra complex (note: there is deeper psychology associated with this complex than I am giving here which has to do with the way relationships determine rationality).

While Candace, of Phineas and Ferb, does not see the future she is privy to a select knowledge due to her closeness to her brothers. This knowledge is often unique because others do not have access to it. In this way Candace is a modern adaptation of Cassandra and fits into the pantheon of archetypal characters which have been influenced by the ancient Cassandra.

To become further familiarized with the role of Cassandra you might turn to Homer’s Iliad, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and Euripides’ Trojan Women and Electra. For more information about the Cassandra complex in psychology you can look at studies by Melanie Klein and Laurie Layton Schapira.   

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Salvete!

             I recently graduated from a university with a degree in Classics. This is my answer to the persistent question which all classicists know well. “What are you gonna do with that?” I have spent years studying dead languages, ancient history, and ancient cultures. I am constantly asked how my education is relevant and what I was thinking in an economy like this going into a field like that. I answer this with words attributed to Horace, “Eram quod es, eris quod sum.” This translates into English as, “I was what you are, you will be what I am.” These words have been etched into gravestones in many parts of the world in every point in history. Yes, they come from the same author who brought you the ever mistranslated “Carpe Diem” (that is a topic for another day).

                What I aim to do in this blog is point out things I notice in my day to day life as classical references. Another writer said to me recently that nothing can be completely original anymore; there is only an original way of looking at it.  I agree. The biggest proof is this never ending trend of comic book superhero movies. The world wants remakes and adaptations, but that is not a new trend. Writers have been borrowing from the classics forever. I must write a small disclaimer here before hate mail floods the comments: I am in no way against remaking and adapting anything for a new purpose. I am simply pointing out classical references. No one is stealing, copping out, being a bad artist, or cheating by using classics (sometimes it is not even intentional). I admire it and thus I point it out. 

                This is not simply about movies, T.V. shows, or music. I will write on any, but not all, references I hear, see, make, etc. My point is not to display every classical reference ever; that would be impossible. I will just jot down the things I notice and write about the ones which I find most interesting. I hope you find a love for the classics and will send along topics about which you want me to write.

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Statuary in Jay-Z and Kanye: No Church In The Wild

This video was brought to my attention by a friend who writes the blog musictomyeyez.tumblr.com. For a cinematic analysis of the video check out that blog, it is very well written; he does make mention of the classical references, but his focus is more on the film aspects. Here, I am just going to look at these references from the classical point of view.

My favorite reference is one that Matt also mentions, the use of a statue which is supposed to look like Bernini’s Rape of Persephone. This statue can be found in the Villa Borghese in Rome, Italy and is something that anyone remotely interested in art or mythology must see. I saw it while I was studying in Rome and it was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. The use of it in this video is great as the story behind the statue has a strong link to the message of the song. The story comes to us from The Homeric Hymn To Demeter. The myth is that Hades took Persephone out of the meadow she was playing in as a little girl and brought her to the underworld to be his queen. There are variations of this stories and varying theories about the willingness of Persephone to go, but it is commonly taken as a message of stealing youth and creating the sadness of Demeter which formed the four season year to which a lot of civilizations are accustomed.  The song, to me, is directly about the occupy movement and possibly the struggles in the Middle East and Northern Africa (at least the Jay-z parts are, Matt explains this). The link for me to Persephone, however, is that it is more and more the case that younger generations wish to stay young and protected longer. The occupy movement comprised mostly of recent college graduates is about security and protection in our political and societal system. The link to Persephone suggests that our society is stealing our youth. This is partly my personal bias as I watch kids give up sports, music, theater, and other childhood fun in order to get ahead in their field so they can secure a job in today’s economy.

There are many great uses of Ancient Greek Gods and Goddesses in this video, but I will focus on only a couple more. The use of Nike (goddess of victory) at 2:38 is very tentative as we have just seen an image of a car being flipped over, then a man is hauled down by police and held to the ground, and then back to a car which has been lit on fire by the mob. It is almost as if the question is being posed, “Which is truly victory?” At 3:32 the horses shown very briefly are, in my opinion, the chariots of justice. This is a statue which has been re-purposed all over the world. The video depicts only the horses which could be yet another question, “Who is pulling justice’s chariot?” Later at 4:26 a police officer is kicked off of the same statue which answers this question by saying the people are pulling the chariot and maybe even the people are the chariot of justice. Matt also analyzes the use of Athena so I will not do that here except to add that Athena is often accepted as a goddess of only defensive warfare and therefore she is a better image of this protest because protests are often about maintaining rights not taking them. This image shows that the people are being attacked and simply defending themselves from the brutality of the police. Overall, these references are a great use of Ancient Greek Mythology and Art to convey a modern message.  Huzzah for the survival of the Classics.

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