Ancient Popular Culture in 60 seconds

I had to record a 60 second piece to video this morning, as part of Edinburgh University’s plan to promote the research interests of its staff online, initially via  ‘research in a nutshell’ website. With 60 seconds only this is what I came up with:

We think we know what today’s popular culture looks like – X Factor, Big Brother, football chants, booze culture, but what about popular culture in the ancient world? That is what I am investigating at the moment. I’m an ancient historian, a “classicist”. People tend to think that Classics is about “classics” – great authors like Homer and Virgil and gleaming marble sculpture. But of course the ancient world had its 99% alongside its elite –even if  the culture of this 99% has been consistently ignored by classical scholars. I am looking to change this.  Currently I am putting together the work of a group of international scholars looking at different aspects of ancient popular culture: from x-rated puppet shows, to joke books, from the banter of the barber shop, to the politics of the street. I’m looking to show what this culture looked like, how it made up the identity of the non-elite. I also want  to investigate how far the people had their own culture, rather than the dregs, trickled down, to use a common phrase, from elite culture. Ultimately, I would like to change the way we see ancient culture, and even, perhaps, our own.

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First thoughts on the conference

First thoughts on the Conference

‘Locating Popular Culture in the Ancient World’ brought together a diverse cast of characters from an impressive range of locations, representing the great variety of the classical disciplines: ancient historians, philologists and classical archaeologists. Subjects ranged from board games, through puppets, to skoptic epigrams, from classical Boeotia to late antique North Africa. It remains clear that when talking about “popular culture” in the ancient world we must remain alert to the huge geographical and chronological differences. However, what was really striking was how far we were able to appreciate, understand, and learn from such diversity.

Amongst this great diversity a number of key themes, questions and images struck with me at the end of the three days. Here is a small selection:

Key themes, sites and images

The barbershop as social space… bad jokes… bald men

Musical instruments: from water organs, to trumpets, to vuvuzelas

A wide range of religious practices, from chasing the moon, through tattooing, to divination with asparagus

Performers and puppets with penises

A whole cast of characters from abandoned women to accountants, shoemakers to scholastici

The mind-world from the non-elite as just as complex as that of the elite, though even harder to access: possibilities we considered included numeracy and theology


Do we in fact need a whole new vocabulary for talking about popular culture? (How about “authorised/unauthorised”?

Can we now return to talk, meaningfully, about class in the ancient world?

Does it make sense to talk about society and culture, from “elite” to “popular” on a continuum, rather than as discrete (or interlocking) sets?

Please add questions (answers) images and ideas of your own!

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Locating Popular Culture in the Ancient World: the conference

School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, 4-6 July 2012


13.30-14.30 Registration (tea and coffee) (McMillan Room)

Introduction (14.30-15.40)

Chair: Lucy Grig (Edinburgh)

14.30- 15.40 Jerry Toner (Cambridge) ‘Critical issues in the study of ancient popular culture’

Holt Parker (Cincinnati) Response


Popular Knowledge and Popular Religion (15.40-16.20)

Chair: Simon Trépanier (Edinburgh)

15.40-16.10 Serafina Cuomo (Birkbeck)  ‘Locating popular knowledge in the ancient world: the case of numeracy’

16.10-16.20 Discussion

16.20-1700 Coffee

Popular Knowledge and Popular Religion (continued) (17.00-18.20)

17.00-17.30 Bob Taylor (Birkbeck) ‘Epistemologies at War: Popular knowledge, elite power and the struggle for control at Pydna’

17.30 -18.00 J. Bert Lott (Vassar) ‘Popular religion and a prophet of the Dea Syria’

18.00-18.20 Discussion

18.30 Drinks reception


Popular Performance (9.30-10.50)

Chair: Lloyd Llewellyn Jones (Edinburgh)

9.30-10.00 Edmund Stewart (Nottingham) ‘A Boeotian Phlyax Vase? Representations of popular performance on the Boeotian Kabeiric Vases’

10.00-10.30 Agnieszka Kotlinska-Toma (Wroclaw) ‘‘I do not know if I love you or hate youAncient Greek “vaudeville” songs’

10.30-10.50 Discussion

10.50-11.30 Coffee

Popular Performance (continued) (11.30-12.50)

11.30-12.00 Maya Muratov (Adelphi) ‘With Strings Attached: Puppet Theatre as Popular Entertainment in Antiquity’

12.00-12.30 Ruth Webb (Lille 3) ‘The mime as social critique: Fiction and norms’

12.30-12.50 Discussion

12.50-14.00 Lunch

Popular Literature and its Boundaries (14.00-16.00)

Chair: Calum Maciver (Edinburgh)

14.00-14.30 Lucia Floridi (Università degli Studi di Milano) ‘Greek skoptic Epigram and Popular Literature. Some observations on Book XI of the Greek Anthology and the Philogelos’

14.30-15.00 Pavlos Avlamis (Oxford) ‘Elite and popular voices in Imperial Greek literature’

15.00-15.30 Victoria Jennings (Adelaide) ‘A troublesome bird: divination in popular literary texts’

15.30-16.00 Discussion

16.00-16.40 Coffee


Popular Culture and Material Culture (16.40-18.00)

Chair: Glenys Davies (Edinburgh)

16.40-17.10 Emanuel Mayer (Chicago) ‘Popular or Elite Art? Re-evaluating the Roman Art Industry’

17.10-17.40 Max Nelson (Windsor) ‘Board Games in Ancient Greek and Roman Popular Culture’

17.40-18.00 Discussion


Popular Politics and Communication (9.10-10.30)

Chair: Andrew Erskine (Edinburgh)

9.10-9.40 Cyril Courrier (École Française de Rome) ‘L. Munatius Plancus and the gallnut (Macrobius, Sat., II, 2, 6): Plebeian humour and professional pride serving political action’

9.40-10.10 Cristina Rosillo Lopez (Universade Pablo de Olavide)  ‘Popular culture and public opinion in Roman politics’

10.10-10.30 Discussion

10.30-11.00 Coffee

Popular Politics and Communication (continued) (11-12.20)

11.00-11.30 Alexandre Vincent (École Française de Rome) ‘The sounds of power: part of the popular culture?’

11.30-12.00 Julio-Cesar Magalhaes de Oliveira (Universidade Estadual de Londrina) ‘Communication and plebeian sociability in Late Antiquity’

12.00-12.20 Discussion

12.20-13.30 Lunch

Popular Knowledge and Popular Religion in Late Antiquity (13.30-15.00)

Chair: Gavin Kelly (Edinburgh)

13.30-14.00 Nicola Denzey Lewis (Brown) ‘Popular Christianity and Lived Religion in Late Antique Rome’

14.00-14.30 Jaclyn Maxwell (Ohio) ‘Popular Theology and its Limits in Late Antiquity’

14.30-15.00 Discussion and closing remarks

1500 End of Conference

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Locating ancient popular culture

The idea of this blog is continue the intellectual discussion around the subject of ancient popular culture that this week’s conference ‘Locating Popular Culture in the Ancient World’ aims to stimulate. All welcome!

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