I didn’t see Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur when it was at the cinemas (not that it hung around long). Meant to; would probably have had fun; just never got around to it. Doubtless I’ll pick it up on DVD once it’s dropped in price. What’s happened to me?
Back in the day, I would have been there like a shot: professional duty. My way into classical reception studies, way back in the late 1990s, was filling in for Maria Wyke (of Projecting the Past fame), which in part meant teaching Rome in Film. I was a film nut already so it didn’t seem like a big deal. Back then, of course, ‘Rome in Film’ was mostly what we were doing; we were still figuring out, mostly through trial and error, what Classical Reception meant, or might come to mean. Though that gig, I lucked into an invitation to write a book on (daring innovation!) cinematic representations of the other Class. Civ., called Ancient Greece and Film in Popular Culture. I still vividly remember the sinking feeling I got part-way through Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004): ‘I am going to have to watch this TWICE. For Science.’ Let no-one say classical reception is the easy option.
An important part of the preparation of Ancient Greece in… was being laid low with glandular fever one summer in the early 2000s; lounging around on the sofa watching dodgy Hercules videos was all I was good for. Serendipity (in this case, icky serendipity) is probably more a part of many academics’ research and career trajectories than some would care to admit. Our CVs turn our professional life-stories into purposeful narratives: the hero, the quest for knowledge, the goal achieved or homecoming attained. Real academic life and work are rarely so satisfyingly linear. My topple into reception studies was partly a matter of temperament and fan affiliation, partly an accident of employment. Certainly nothing in my academic training (dusty Oxford; in another life I could have been Buffy’s Giles) pointed me that way. Incidentally, or so it seemed at the time, I was president of our university comic-book society and my social life centred round SF and roleplaying; I could never have anticipated that my geek identity would have the opportunity to merge with the day job, when I eventually and by halting degrees acquired one.
I don’t do much with film now, although I’m still a bit of a nut for it. Back then, pre-Gladiator and the rest, ‘Rome in Film’ was pretty much all one could get away with – films such as the Charlton Heston Ben-Hur were already small-c ‘classics’ and there was a critical literature already in place, so we could dip our toes in the water – provided we didn’t mind some strange looks and sniffy remarks from our more traditionally-minded colleagues. Like regular Class. Civ., this late-1990s, early-2000s phase looked back to a safely dead Golden Age (the 1950s were as marvellously ancient to our students, and indeed to many of us, as were Greece and Rome). What’s more, this was still very much a detour into a separate discipline, Film Studies; the words ‘Reception Studies’ (which some other disciplines were already using, to mean something actually quite mainstream and unexciting even by contemporary classicists’ standards) weren’t yet indicating a meaningful specialisation or new direction within Classics itself.
We have come on since then, of course – a long way; I myself have come on, combining reception studies with a history of scholarship and translation as applied to one specific ancient genre, epigram (and again, serendipity and accidents of choice made that happen). Now we can get away with a much wider spread of materials and approaches in the name of Classical Reception Studies. I may never do much with film again; there’s so much more possibility now, that various of us, this blog’s initiator included, have worked hard to open up. That being said, I still wish I’d got round to the new Ben-Hur.
Gideon Nisbet is Reader in Classics at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of, among others, Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture (2006; expanded 2nd edition 2008) and Greek Epigram in Reception (2013).