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Study of the Ancient World Throws a Mirror Back at Us

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Why study the ancient world in the twenty first century? This was the question addressed by Michael Scott, Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Warwick University, at his evening presentation to a large gathering in Bolton School Girls’ Division’s Great Hall. “The takeaway” from this lecture, said Dr Scott, is that “this is a fascinating subject and these people got up to some weird stuff. The study of the ancients allows us to throw a mirror back at our own world. It is interesting to think about how we interpret the ancient world and how this directly reflects our own current concerns. It helps us understand ourselves a little bit better and the world we live in.”

He gave the audience a fascinating insight into the ancient world and reminded the audience, comprising of students and parents from several schools across the region, how much our own world owes a debt to this past one. Hurtling through a wide variety of “exports” from the ancient world, he spoke about the Olympics, language, drama – tragedy and comedy, democracy, art, sculpture, architecture and warfare.

Talking about Greek theatre, he reflected how its major concerns are still grappled with today in contemporary theatre – issues that affect the human condition such as love, hate, justice, war, betrayal, right and wrong. Greek comedy he conceded was a little more impenetrable given you had to know the politics of the day – a little like today’s Have I Got News for You or Mock the Week tv programmes. However, he wondered if the fashion of men dressing up as women was coming back given that Mrs Brown’s Boys recorded the highest Christmas Day viewing figures. He reminded the gathering how 40-60% of the English language has a Latin or Greek root.

Dr Scott said we need to treat with caution the concept that democracy was introduced to the world in 508 BC in Athens, remembering that in a city with 60,000 male residents, there were also 100,000 slaves. The Greeks saw slaves as being sub-human, almost animals and in a court of law a slave’s testimony was not believed – unless extracted by torture! The Romans, he said, belittled democracy as 'mob rule' and espoused a new form of government, Republicanism. It was only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the world began to fall back in love with democracy through the likes of philosopher John Stuart Mill who said: “The Battle of Marathon, even as an event in British history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings.” Professor Scott then mused on how the internet could, potentially, enable a more participatory government, where we as citizens can vote on many subjects.

Greek art is perpetually referenced throughout the history of art and was particularly lauded during the Renaissance period; even today the Greek word “kouros” which has come to mean nude male sculpture is used in the eponymously named YSL aftershave. Talking about sculptures, he told the audience that these were originally painted in bright colours such as red, blue, yellow and green – like much else in the ancient world – and that we only imagine they were all plain marble because the paint has worn off with time. Another delusion that he righted was that all Greek tragedy had been sung, a belief which had contributed to the inception of opera.

Dr Scott mused over how different generations had revisited Greek architecture for inspiration. Many American museums and the British Museum - as well as the Capitol and Senate buildings in the US – had all been inspired by Greek architecture. However, these edifices now carry a connotation of imperialism and grandeur and modern museums tend to be built of glass and steel to infer egalitarianism. This reinterpretation of the ancient world and taking from it to suit one’s own needs was typified by Nazi Germany who glorified the Spartans as they sought to introduce their Aryan totalitarian state. Interestingly, the Americans too have reappropriated the Spartans, exemplified in James A Warren’s combat history of the Marines American Spartans.

Dr Scott explained how the Greek and Latin worlds are still causing international squabbles. The UK and Greece continue to dispute ownership of the Elgin Marbles and Macedonia and Greece “barely speak” over a disagreement of who owns Alexander the Great, even though he is a figure from 2,500 years ago! When Oliver Stone portrayed him as bi-sexual in his 2004 film Alexander Greece nearly sued! The film 300 gave the Spartans a global currency but Iran did sue over this film. Greece sued the Economist magazine for a depiction of Venus de Milo with a gun pointing at Germany on their front cover. Interestingly, the original sculpture had been known as Aphrodite of Milos and the French had renamed the original sculpture to Venus de Milo to suit their own needs.

The presentation, which lasted 45 minutes, was followed by a questions and answers session that went on as equally as long.

Without pausing for breath, the professor found himself answering a range of eclectic questions. He sat on the fence when considering the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, seeing that they clearly had a strong claim but worried that their return might spark a whole series of artefacts being returned to their country of origin which would lead to the demise of 'world' museums. He also felt more people would see them at the British Museum given it offered free entry and that the entry fee at the Acropolis Museum is quite high.

The question of the night was probably: “Why do we keep on getting history wrong?” Dr Scott reminded the audience of the quote: “Only the future is certain, the past keeps changing.” One of the reasons why the past keeps changing he said was our lack of evidence and the discovery of new evidence can mean a re-evaluation of that era. Another reason was that everyone has a view on an incident whether it be something that happened yesterday or many years ago and who is to say who is right? People certainly repackage the past to justify the present but there is always more than one story to tell. Whatever is currently prepossessing the world, be it globalisation, ethnicity and identity or the plight of women, this will be reflected in our interpretation of the ancient world and of history itself. No doubt, he reflected, in 50 and 100 years’ time we will reinterpret large swathes of history depending upon what is preoccupying us at that time.  

The speaker was passionate about different mediums 'unlocking the door' to the ancient world and praised the likes of Horrible Histories, the recent spate of films (Greek myths make great video games) and books and improved ways of learning Latin in the classroom such as the Iris Project – Literacy through Latin. He felt that Latin does help with literacy and evidence shows that when it is introduced at primary school level, children do go on to perform better academically. He said he found that employers could not get enough of Classics graduates, believing them to be able to master a difficult but rewarding subject and capable of thinking outside the box.   

Summarising Alexander the Great as “completely bonkers” but also a “complete visionary”, Dr Scott described how he believed he could do anything he wanted to do and would throw himself into battles without having his full strength army. Nevertheless, he carved out an Empire stretching from Greece to India and managed to assimilate different cultures through showing religious tolerance, deference to other cultures and himself marrying a woman from Afghanistan. He was said to have “mixed all these cultures in a loving cup.” After his death, the Empire fell apart.

There was an erudite discussion about Greek historians and whilst the professor admired Herodotus for his "crazy stories" his favourite was Polybius, who would be the person from history that Professor Scott would most like to have dinner with. He felt Polybius’ knowledge of Carthage, the Greeks and the early Romans would have been second to none.

Professor Scott also talked about his burgeoning career as a broadcaster, including teaming up with Alexander Armstrong for a documentary on the invisible world of underground Rome and a forthcoming series called Quizeum, a museum quiz show with Griff Rhys Jones which will air on BBC4. He also spoke briefly about his BBC Radio 4 series Spin the Globe where he considered what else was happening in the world on key historical dates such as 508 BC and 1066. He then whetted the audience's appetite with talk of his book, due out in a year's time, which will consider a connected perspective of the history of the ancient world from Greece to Italy to South America to China.

Thanking Professor Scott for a wonderfully engaging evening, part of the Bolton School Girls' Division's Enrichment Programme, Head of Classics Mrs Julie Hone drew the evening to a close. Professor Scott, whose lecture undoubtedly encouraged students to study Classics further, then answered individual questions over drinks and canapes.

The next evening lecture in the enrichment programme will take place on Monday 23 March at 7.00pm in the Arts Centre and will be delivered by Dr Julia Sarginson, who will talk about her career in the medical world and how she has come to specialise in the facial reconstruction of burns victims. Tickets can be obtained by calling Miss Pealing on 01204 840201.

More can be found out about Dr Michael Scott at www.michaelscottweb.com

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Students, parents and friends of Bolton School were treated to an inspirational presentation from Professor Michael Scott

Students, parents and friends of Bolton School were treated to an inspirational presentation from Associate Professor Michael Scott

Only the future is certain, the past keeps on changing mused Dr Scott