Interview with Juliette Harrisson

December 11, 2010

Juliette visits the impressive remains of Roman Thysdrus, now part of El Djem in Tunisia

As part of the ongoing series of interviews with notable art and history bloggers, it was only fitting that the first history blogger to be introduced at 3PP was the author of my favourite history related blog. Juliette Harrisson is a classicist based in the UK. Her blog Pop Classics is an entertaining and informative exploration of classical themes in popular culture. Juliette's mixture of humour and popular subject matter makes her blog highly accessible to readers of all backgrounds.

"Straight into the gory stuff this week, with blood everywhere, swords swung high, tits waving around all over the place. (Seriously, producers, women wore clothes when they went to gladiatorial shows. And they sat in the top row only, where you wouldn’t be able to see them from the sand itself.)" 
-From Juliette's review of Spartacus Blood and Sand: Revelations

Juliette is a shining example of a forward thinking academic - firmly embracing the web to promote not only a deeper understanding of classical learning, but presenting it in a mode and language that can entertain and inspire. I was simply delighted to be able to quiz her on some questions I have always wondered about - such as how a classicist views the Renaissance recycling of classical motifs, and the role of popular media to inspire a career in history.

3PP:  What is a classicist? How does this differ from archaeology or philology?  

JH: The three biggest disciplines in our department are archaeology, ancient history and classics. Archaeology is digging things up, or studying things other people have dug up (and some things like the pyramids or the Colosseum, which don’t need to be dug up!). Ancient History is the study of all sorts of aspects of the history of the ancient world, using all the available evidence – putting together the archaeology and the literature to try to find out how people lived and what happened in the past. Classics is the study of the literature of the ancient world, a bit like English Literature but focusing on Greek and Latin. 

The lines between them can get pretty blurry sometimes! My work straddles ancient history and classics – my work on myth and epic poetry is classics, but although my PhD is in classics and focuses on literature, there are substantial sections in my thesis concerning the history of ancient dreams that belong more under the heading of ancient history. 

Philology is the study of language (and of literature written in that language) and can refer to other languages as well – Tolkien was a philologist who specialized in English and old Germanic languages. As part of classics, it’s the study of Greek and Latin language and literature. We work with other specialist disciplines as well, like numismatics (the study of coins) and epigraphy (the study of inscriptions).

3PP: Like many of my generation, my earliest recollection of the great tales of antiquity was watching the 1981 version of Clash of The Titans. Does the fact that stories such as the Iliad and Odyssey lend themselves to visual depictions in art or film account for their enduring appeal to the public?

JH: Maybe – the combination of plays and great works of art on mythical themes through the centuries certainly helped to keep them alive, and the best known parts of the Odyssey by far are the visually spectacular adventure stories from the middle part of the poem; stories about the Cyclops, the witch Circe and the monsters Scylla and Charybdis. On the other hand, although the Iliad has been adapted into a film more recently(Troy in 2004), it shows up much less often in art and rarely in plays, and even the film felt the need to add the visually impressive (and climactic) Trojan Horse incident, which doesn’t appear in the poem. But the poem has remained popular and been continuously read for three millennia, so I don’t think  a story has to lend itself to art or film to survive, though obviously it helps if it does!

Harry Hamlin as Perseus in Clash of The Titans(1981). Technologically dated, but still a classic

3PP: Your blog Pop Classics looks at the prevalence of classical themes in popular media. When did you first become interested in documenting this?

JH: I started looking into it seriously as a part of my research somewhere around the second or third year of my undergraduate degree, but I think my interest in this sort of work goes back further than that. I’ve always loved English Literature and had at various points thought of taking English Literature or media studies, since I thought they were both fascinating. 

My interest in popular culture in particular really grew during my undergraduate degree. In both my study of the ancient world and my research into reception in the modern world, I find I’m more interested in examining the things that were really popular than in examples of high literature or philosophy that might have had a more limited audience. 

I think you get a much stronger sense of how people really think and live from the things they read or watch for pleasure than from, say, rhetorical exercises, though those can be very useful too. And finally, I knew that I had only initially decided to do classics because I loved I, Claudius and Gladiator so much, and I became interested in finding out why classical stories are still so popular and exploring how different writers and artists manipulate the evidence and what effect that has on someone like my teenage self, who only sees the final fictional product and doesn’t know anything about the historical evidence.

3PP: Films such as Gladiator, 300 and the TV series HBO's Rome have engendered a new interest in antiquity for the current generation. How important is popular media in attracting students to pursue formal study of the classics?

JH: It’s incredibly important – in my first year at university, you’d have had trouble finding a single student in our department who hadn’t been inspired by a film or television programme, usually Indiana Jones. There’s a certain amount of exaggeration going on, of course. It wasn’t just I, Claudius and Gladiator that got me interested – it was a taster lecture from one of the lecturers at Birmingham and the fact that several of my friends were interested that persuaded me to change from history to ancient history. 

And I sincerely hope that none of the others expected to find the Ark of the Covenant, or indeed anything with mystical or magical properties, just because they were doing archaeology. But Indiana Jones makes archaeology look cool and interesting, and films like Gladiator or 300 inspire students to look up the historical story behind the film, which can spark off a much more serious interest in the ancient world.

This scene from Raiders of The Lost Ark(1981) is often listed by archaeologists as a formative moment

The easiest way to prove that popular treatments of classical antiquity generate public interest is by using Google Trends. The search volume for Thermopylae coinciding with the release of the film 300 is staggering

3PP: I am often aware of a deep seated belief that a great spectrum of the human experience was described profoundly by the ancient Greek dramatists. Is there any truth to this, or is the Western bias of titles covered in the education system showing though?

JH: I think it depends on your point of view. As a woman, I’m not sure I could say that Greek drama fully covers the spectrum of my experience, though there are parts that come close (Medea’s speech about the hard life of a woman is great, but would be better if the fact that she murders her children shortly afterwards didn’t undercut it somewhat!). I think the same claim could equally justifiably be made for other bodies of work – I’m particularly fond of Shakespeare, myself, though he isn’t always great at writing women either! 

The problem with the question of Western bias is that I’ve been brought up and educated in the Western-biased system, and my knowledge of other cultures is slim, something I feel must put right at some point. I suspect there are equally impressive bodies of work from all over the world.

 Medea kills one her sons in this ca. 330BCE amphora attributed to the Ixion Painter. The Louvre

3PP: The Romans are often maligned for their assimilation of Greek culture and architectural forms. Would it not be more accurate to describe their contribution as amplifying the legacy of Greek learning?

JH: Perhaps, but I think it’s also important to value Roman culture as Roman, even while acknowledging the overwhelming influence of Greek culture on it. I don’t mean to play down the role of Greek culture in Greco-Roman culture, but I think it’s important to emphasise how the Romans adapted Greek culture to their own interests and needs. We can learn much more about them if we look at what they did with Greek culture and why they did it – much like the study of the modern reception of the Classical world – the Roman reception of Greek culture stayed closer to the Greek original, but it was rarely identical and I think we lose something if we ignore the alterations, however minor.

3PP: My own interest in learning more about Augustus and Cicero came from watching their brilliant portrayal in HBO's Rome. Can you recount a similar experience, where a film or TV depiction led you to a deeper study of particular character from antiquity?

JH: I think I’ve already answered that one! Though I suppose I became interested in the overall history more than in particular characters. Aside from a teenage interest in Caligula, I think I, Claudius really got me interested in the history of the Roman Empire in general – though I suppose Augustus and Livia did grab me more than the others. Augustus, especially, is fascinating and the great Brian Blessed’s performance certainly sparked and fed my interest in him.

3PP: Famous women in history such as Helen of Sparta and  Cleopatra VII seem to be getting a rehabilitation in popular opinion thanks to the work of writers such as Bettany Hughes, Vicky Alvear-Shecter,  and Stacy Schiff. Do you think this signifies an eventual re-appraisal of accounts of other historical women, who were traditionally described in an objectified manner?

I hope so – I have a particular pet peeve about the extent to which people believe that Livia was the person represented by Tacitus and, following him, by Robert Graves in I, Claudius. It’s fun to imagine her psychopathically murdering half the population of Rome, but I’m not entirely sure it’s likely to be true. Tacitus vilifies her partly as a way of shifting the blame for anything he doesn’t like from Augustus to her, but I don’t see Augustus being led into anything he didn’t want to do by anybody, and I think a fifty year marriage with no children even though he desperately needed an heir suggests they had a genuine partnership. Helen’s a bit of a different case though – she’s mythical, and although I enjoy new, feminist interpretations of ancient myths, it’s important not to lose sight of the sometimes rather misogynist content of some ancient literature.

Sian Phillips' chilling portrayal of Livia in BBCs I, Claudius has all but cemented Livia into the popular imagination as a villainess from antiquity. Juliette's in-depth review of the episode Poison is Queen is highly recommended

3PP: Your posts sometime mention your travels to archaeological sites. Can you describe an experience where the site itself provided a learning experience you could not get from a book?

JH: I think the thing that impresses me most when I visit the actual sites is the sheer scale of things – how steep and high the mountain is at Delphi, or just how long it takes to walk around Pompeii (I felt this particularly strongly as it was chucking it down with rain at the time!). I also like the way you can see places and things that would barely merit a mention in the literature, like the cells underneath the amphitheatre at El Djem in Tunisia, which can be quite spooky. Though I have to confess, my favourite archaeological site is my favourite, not so much because of what I learned, as much as for the atmosphere there. Diocletian’s Palace in Croatia has been continually occupied since Late Antiquity and you can see layers and layers of history all through the streets, from Roman to medieval to satellite dishes. It’s amazing – such a beautiful blend and it really keeps the ancient palace alive in a way that abandoned ruins aren’t always.

Diocletian's Palace is in modern day Croatia

3PP:  Three Pipe Problem has a focus on the Renaissance and the Baroque eras in art. As a classicist, how do you view the re-purposing of classical themes in art. Do they strike you as incorrect, anachronistic?

No, never incorrect – they’re reinterpretations of the story. That’s exactly what classical artists and writers did – there isn’t much evidence for an interest in Hector before Homer and Medea doesn’t seem to have murdered her children before Euripides. That’s the whole point of myth – you reimagine it for your own time. I find it odder when artists represent something that has a firm historical date and location in an anachronistic way, like the death of Jesus or Caesar (though that can be done well too), but myths like the birth of Venus are stories to be reinterpreted for a new audience, that’s their purpose.

 Titian's famous depiction of Bacchus and Ariadne(1520-3) helped popularise this tale from antiquity

3PP: As an academic working in the UK - what is your reaction to the Browne Report?

JH: Well, we’ve got the good, the bad and the ugly in there, and the bad and the ugly are so depressing that it can be hard to see the good. One good thing is that it looks like there will be more support available for part time students, which is long overdue and very welcome, particularly, I hope, to my Open University students. 

Much of the report is also not specific about exactly how these changes will be implemented – if the rhetoric about how students will not have to pay anything until they graduate means that they will receive full living support to cover their rent and living costs, that could be good. There is so much focus on tuition fees, I wonder if we’re missing the point that if your parents can’t or won’t support you and you only qualify for a minimum loan, no matter what arrangements are in place to deal with fees, you probably won’t go to university because you’ll struggle to pay rent (students whose parents are well off but unsupportive are always left out of these considerations – it is simply untrue to assume that all parents who have the means to support their offspring through university are willing to do so and I suspect a lot of young people are missing out because of this).

Then there’s the (very) bad – universities being allowed to charge varying fees. This can only produce a tiered system in which students who are either well off or not afraid of enormous amounts of debt will apply to the top universities, while students who are not so well off or very worried about the debt will go for cheaper options. Students should be choosing a university on the grounds of how good the course is, how much they like the department and the atmosphere at the university, which lecturers they want to work with, and so on – money should not be part of the decision-making process.

Then, of course, there’s the really, really ugly – the prioritisation of the sciences over the arts and humanities and, more generally, the prioritisation of work that seems more likely to lead to economic benefit over pure research. The thing about research is, you don’t know what’s going to be economically useful until you’ve done it, because you don’t know where any particular thread is going to lead you. If we only ever research things we think might be useful, we’ll never make any new discoveries. As for the prioritization of certain subjects – the sciences and the humanities need each other. 

Of course it’s important to support scientific research, especially medical research, but without the humanities we’ll end up with a generation who can run a lab experiment but can’t analyse a newspaper report. Just because I teach Ancient History doesn’t mean I’m not teaching anything useful – my students should emerge with a healthy skepticism towards most things and the ability to analyse a news report, or a political manifesto, to see what the writer is really saying and make an informed decision on whether they believe it or not. (I’m not saying scientists are incapable of doing these things, but the more training you have in this area, the sharper your skills will be). The skills the arts and humanities teach are vital and our country will be the poorer if we lose them.

The report also has very little to say about postgraduate study, which is a whole other area, but this answer is quite long enough already!

3PP: Have you ever been involved in any inter-disciplinary projects in the humanities - particularly with art historians? Is this a common practise?

Certainly – I’ve given a paper as part of an inter-disciplinary seminar series on translations and our department’s seminar series on cultural memory included some inter-disciplinary work. The course I’m teaching on Myth at the Open University is also inter-disciplinary and that has connections particularly with history of art, which is especially fun for me as I once (years ago) did a subsidiary module on History of Art and I love the subject, I think it’s fascinating. 

Inter-disciplinary projects are, I think, increasingly popular, and with good reason. If we all stick to our own tiny areas, we can never hope to arrive at a fuller understanding of anything, but if we put all our studies of tiny areas together, we’ll get a much fuller overall picture.

3PP: I recently saw a fascinating description of the use of the iPad in digs at Pompeii. Has your training involved encouragement to engage in new technologies, online collaboration and distribution of knowledge, or does this drive still need to come from personal interest?

JH: About half and half, probably. I work with texts, so the sorts of new technologies I use are searchable online databases and, of course, a lot of e-books and online journals. There are some technological advances we’d be foolish to ignore, things like JSTOR and the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (a searchable database of Greek texts), but it probably isn’t as big a part of my work as for some archaeologists.

A team lead by Dr.Steven Ellis used the iPad to document their findings at Pompeii

3PP: Finally, your reviews of  Spartacus Blood and Sand are beyond hilarious! I think this humorous approach to history is what explains your site's great appeal. To what extent have you been influenced by 80s programs such as Blackadder, who also used humour wonderfully in a historical context? 

Oh I love Blackadder! The inspiration for the blog actually came more from well known snarky TV sites like Television Without Pity, and from the experiences my historian friends and I would have watching Rome and other series, as well old favourites like Star Trek Voyager. We love sitting around and having a good laugh at our favourite characters, and I think this can be even more fun when the characters in question are historical, partly because you can make some mad wild guesses about what really happened (and laughing at some of the odder inaccuracies can be quite fun too).

I also use humour a lot when I’m teaching, because it makes a class so much more enjoyable and more memorable as well. Studying everything with po-faced sincerity all the time can get boring, and you lose the humour that’s often present in the ancient texts. 

I also think that, as you see in Blackadder Goes Forth, which presents some very harsh facts about the First World War in the form of black humour (Baldrick’s war poem that just goes ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ is one of my favourite examples, but there are plenty), humour can sometimes be a more effective way to make your point than a straighter approach. 

For example, when I teach women and medicine, I think it’s more engaging and memorable and the problems come across more strongly if I present it in a humorous way (a list of cures for women: have a headache? Have a baby! Bad periods? Have a baby! Emotional distress? Have a baby! Breathing difficulties? Have a baby! and so on). I think this is more effective than me (a known feminist) sitting at the front and lecturing them on how bad women’s medicine was. And, as my school physics teacher once pointed out when he told us the story of Galileo and his different sized balls, if you can make a (preferably dirty) joke about something, you’ll remember it forever and your revision will be ten times easier!

Juliette on the historic Greek Island Kefalonia


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Great interview! I LOVE Juliette's blog and you're right--her recaps of Spartacus and Rome are pure gold. I'm a big fan of using humor in my writing too.

Also love her comment on Livia: "It’s fun to imagine her psychopathically murdering half the population of Rome, but I’m not entirely sure it’s likely to be true." Ah, the dry wit. Livia's depiction, though, has always bothered me--my god, if Tacitus was right, Livia was a serial murderer of the highest order and "poor" Augustus somehow never saw her true nature. Please.

How much would I love sitting in on one of Juliette's classes!

Unknown said...

Cheers Vicky! I must admit, when I was writing this up I was also wondering what Juliette's classes would be like. I imagine they would be great fun!

My Renaissance History teacher was a nice lady, but very reserved. I definitely don't recall her saying anything about Galileo's balls!

I also agree Livia needs a Cleopatra style makeover!


Alberti's Window said...

A very fun interview! I'm anxious to follow Juliette's blog more.

The question about dramatists was especially interesting to me. Like Juliette, I think that "Medea" speech about the hardships of a woman is great, too, but I'm continually reminded that the play was written by a man (Euripides). Could a man ever fully understand the plight of a woman (even if he was a Greek dramatist?)? :)

You brought up an interesting question about the Romans being continually maligned for being Greek "copycats." I like what Juliette said about how the Romans simply adopted Greek forms to meet their own needs. Art historians like Winckelmann have affected our modern perception of Roman art as "inferior." I think the Romans should be studied within their own right, instead of always interpreted through a comparative lens (to the Greeks).

Unknown said...

Cheers M! Very interesting what you say about Winckelmann and his biases. I'm only recently snapping out of my Vasari induced haze.

The more I hear about the biases in traditional art history accounts, the less excited I am to make these authors' acquaintances.

I'm starting to realise that bloggers are the least susceptible to imposing these biases because things like a comments system exist for people to point out differing viewpoints and balance things out - something which only the bravest of students would try in a classroom - and which never happens in the realm of publishing.

Truly, another superior aspect of blogging! I'm starting to understand why some old school types avoid the medium.... they're scared they'll have to defend their work.

I'd love Michael Fried to have a blog - I think he'd be rudely surprised that the world is not in awe of him as much as he believes it is!

Personally, I welcome new evidence and insight - even if it overrides some previous viewpoints I shared - Frank's reading of Tempest is a great example of this process.


Juliette said...

Thanks everyone! I've never forgotten that Galileo's balls story - our physics teacher won more respect from us with that than from anything else! (I also appreciated a Deep Space Nine reference he made once, but that's more a question of personal taste!)

Dr. F said...


The Coen brothers, "O Brother Where Art Thou," is a great adaptation of the Odyssey. Set in the American South during the 1930s it also includes a wonderful Country music soundtrack.

Thanks for a fine interview.


Unknown said...

Cheers Juliette and Frank :)

@Frank - I didn't know that about 'O Brother'.. I must check it out! :)


Anonymous said...

Juliet should be wary of calling them "my students". Post-Browne, she is (commercially speaking) increasingly going to be "their" teacher (the balance of power changes as well).

Unknown said...

Dear anonymous -thanks for leaving a comment!

Regardless of the funding realities of TBR, I think commonplace descriptors or figures of speech should be safe!

Until such terminology is forced to change in teachers' position descriptions and contracts, it is unlikely to pierce the public psyche - of which this sites like this blog are a manifestation of!

We went through a similar hoopla in the Health Services, with the higher ups endlessly arguing about whether to refer to users of health services as patients, clients or consumers!

A tremendous amount of discussion, time and money went into it and the popular consensus is 'client' these days, though most members of the public and the media will still still veer towards the word 'patient' because that is what was the norm for so long.


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