On a recent Tuesday evening, seven members of McMaster University’s classics club gathered in Room 719 of Togo Salmon Hall to watch Disney’s animated movie Hercules. So far this academic year they’ve screened Gladiator, 300 and the 1966 classic A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. When the film ended and the Doritos bags and Coke bottles had been emptied, club president Rebecca Rathbone got the discussion rolling by raising the question of factual accuracy. “If they did what was historically accurate,” she said, “nobody would find any meaning in them today.” “Yeah,” said a student in the back, “And I don’t think Disney could show Hercules killing his wife and kids.” “Twice,” added another.
This group was kind. Movie nights are the bread and butter of classics clubs because that’s when members get “to be obnoxious little classicists,” says Sara Mills, a junior at Harvard and president of their classical club. “It’s very hard for us to watch these movies in silence. It’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, look at that outfit!’ ” And Dale Eadeh, president of NYU’s Classics Club, admits, “We can’t resist! It’s the kind of thing where we’ll make a comment and just apologize right after: ‘I’m sorry for ruining the movie but I have a question.’ ” Questions like: why does Alexander the Great’s mother, played by Angelina Jolie, have a Russian accent in Alexander? Why do the Romans in Gladiator take a catapult into a forest? And why does marble statuary inevitably appear pristinely white?
Classics clubs will soon have a new crop of films to discuss at screenings: Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson and the Olympian Thieves have already hit theatres, while Xerxes, Zach Snyder’s prequel to 300, and Centurion, a film about Roman soldiers splintered from their army in northern Britain, are in production.
There are rumours of a film sequel to the popular HBO-BBC series Rome, and television has “sword and sandal” epics of its own: the Sam Raimi-produced Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Ben Hur, currently on the CBC. Then there are the books: Lost Books of the Odyssey, David Malouf’s Ransom, which explores the untold story of Priam, king of Troy, and John Banville’s The Infinites, narrated by Hermes. If this isn’t enough to convince you that ancient Greeks and Romans are strong contenders to overthrow vampires for the 2010 cultural seat of supremacy, consider this: a few weeks ago, the National Zoo in Washington tweeted the name of its newly acquired octopus: Octavius.
Classics students can be a hard-core bunch. Once a week, members of Harvard’s club, founded 125 years ago, meet at the same restaurant and only speak in Latin. “We’ve become so familiar,” says club president Mills, “that some of the waiters even know how to say thank you in Latin.” Still, students are thrilled by their discipline’s rising pop status. “The more people know about this stuff,” says Justine McLeod of the University of Ottawa’s classics club, “the less I’m given weird looks when I tell people what I’m studying.” Rathbone agrees: “It’s neat to be able to find the errors but I think a lot of people forget that it’s just a movie. Just get over it.”
That doesn’t mean they have to admit Troy into their pantheon of epics. “I just can’t do it,” says Eadeh. “You know what it was actually? The writing credits—they put Homer for the writer on IMDb! I was like, ‘No, no, no!’ ” Paul Murgatroyd teaches a course called “The Ancient World in Film” at McMaster where he screens Troy, among other modern adaptations. “I show them a couple of scenes,” he says, “and we look at the original in The Iliad and versions in the Aeneid. Essentially I point out how crap Troy is. It really is a travesty.”
Disputes are inevitable. (This is academia after all.) “We have a professor,” says Eadeh, “who absolutely hates 300 and another one, one of the leading Livy scholars in the world, who’ll defend it to the death.” Some even object to objecting to historical inaccuracies. “The ancient sources themselves are often incomplete,” says Steven Green, a professor of classics at the University of Leeds. “Ancient historians often invented speeches and imagined what things would have been like, so they’re engaged in the same sort of creative experiments that the filmmakers are.”
And in the end sword-and-sandal films may be the only exposure young people get to the world of antiquity. “It’s the closest thing the youth of today will have to having a classical education,” says McLeod. “No one’s going to read The Iliad or The Odyssey anymore, but maybe they’ll watch the movie.”