BMCR 2007.02.49

Celebrity in Antiquity: From Media Tarts to Tabloid Queens

, Celebrity in antiquity : from media tarts to tabloid queens. Classical inter/faces. London: Duckworth, 2006. ix, 177 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780715634486 £12.99.

In this recent addition to the Classical Inter/Faces series, Robert Garland (G.) sets out to prove that the idea of celebrity not only existed in the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but that it indeed played a similarly integral part of everyday life as it does in our own times. True to the intent of the series, which is to explore how the ideas and ideals of the Classical world have had an important impact on the modern one, G. argues that in many ways the ancient Greeks and Romans created the ideology behind celebrity and have heavily influenced our own ideas of what celebrity is and means.

In his introduction, G. argues for the importance of studying what might seem to some to be a frivolous topic by claiming that much can be learned about ancient Greco-Roman society by examining their conception of celebrity, from what character traits they esteemed, to how information spread, to the motives behind public spectacles. Each of the ten chapters that follow the Introduction deals with a different category of ancient celebrity, and G. literally takes his reader from Media Tarts (chapter 1) to Tabloid Queens (chapter 10). G. employs not only literary texts in his discussions, but also coins, portraits, and building programs to show how ancient “attention-seekers” used all materials at their command to achieve celebrity status. Each chapter ends with a section entitled ‘Afterlife,’ in which G. describes how the celebrity of those discussed within the chapter fared after the demise of the superstars themselves.

Chapter 1 deals with what G. terms the Media Tart, his label for the political celebrity in fifth-century Athens. G. lists several candidates for the title, including Aristides, Nicias, and Themistocles, but spends the majority of the chapter on Alcibiades. Alcibiades is described as someone who used his sex appeal to help gain the fame he enjoyed, and as one who sought celebrity for celebrity’s sake and not for any particular political agenda.

In chapter 2, G. pegs Alexander the Great as the Royal Icon. Alexander had to overcome the prejudice of the Greeks toward the Macedonians, who were thought to be more barbarian than the Greeks, and he did so by heavily marketing himself as Greek through and through. G. states that a true sign of Alexander’s celebrity is the fact that subsequent rulers, including, of course, Augustus, modeled themselves after him, especially in their propaganda.

Chapters 3-10 are structured in a similar way: G. describes a type of celebrity usually through the example of a particular ancient figure. Chapter 3 (The Consummate Populist) chronicles the way Julius Caesar negotiated the favor of the common people to his advantage through his Commentaries and his building program. Chapter 4 (The Imperial Superstar) portrays Augustus as the master of cultivating the image of a modest citizen through avoiding political over-exposure and strictly controlling his self-promotion. In chapter 5 (The Sports Star), the reader encounters not a particular celebrity, but the superstar group that consisted of Olympic victors (and the winners of other games as well) and Roman charioteers. Chapter 6 (The Celebrity Guru) examines poets and philosophers as the first celebrities who achieved such status without the help of birth or privilege. As in chapter 5, no one figure dominates this section, although the likes of Socrates, Aeschylus and Vergil share the limelight. Chapter 7 (The Religious Charismatic) deals with, among others, Pythagoras, Jesus, and the stylite saints. It is interesting to note that G. includes Jesus in this list, claiming that although he was not famous during his lifetime, he certainly fits into the category of charismatics. The inclusion of the stylite saints is of interest as well, since, as G. points out, their fame is a result of their immobility, a fact which sets them apart from other types of ancient famous figures. Chapter 8 (The Showbiz Star) describes the lower ranks of celebrity, including actors, musicians, and gladiators. This class of stars, despite their fame, was generally regarded with a certain amount of contempt. In fact, G. points out that a career as a gladiator was the only way for a member of the lower classes to achieve celebrity in Rome.

The last two chapters are devoted to the feminine side of celebrity in the ancient world. Chapter 9 (The Sexually Liberated Female) focuses on women who broke the code of social invisibility = respectability. In order to accomplish this, a woman had to be either of high birth and become famous through attachment to a powerful male figure, or of lower birth, in which case, becoming an entertainer or a prostitute was the path to stardom. Of notable mention in these categories are the daughter of Scipio Africanus Cornelia, who gained respect by staying loyal to her deceased husband, and Aspasia, Pericles’ mistress. The final chapter (The Tabloid Queen) is devoted to two women, Cleopatra and Theodora. G. describes Cleopatra as a master of self-promotion and exploitation of politically powerful men, yet she turns out to be no match for Octavian’s propaganda machine. G. discusses the possibility that Octavian may have created the Death by Asp story for his own purposes. Theodora, Justinian’s wife, is hailed as the ultimate rags-to-riches story: a former prostitute turned emperor’s wife who, like Cleopatra, knew how to market herself, in this case as the perfect First Lady.

In his Conclusion, G. stresses how difficult achieving celebrity status had to have been in the ancient world, in which word of mouth was the primary means of gaining said fame. The Conclusion is followed by a list of Primary Sources, which include dates and a brief description for each author cited; a brief timeline, reaching from 776BC-527AD; a section on Greek and Roman coinage; endnotes; a chapter-by-chapter bibliography; and an index, mostly listing ancient personalities.

As stated on the back cover of this addition to the Classical Inter/Faces series, the intended audience is “anyone thinking about the Classical world for the first time and…all who welcome the challenge offered by new perspectives on Classical culture.” G. makes an effort to make Classics hip, from the cover of the book, which depicts a bust of Nero sporting sunglasses, to the chapter titles and his playful tone (one example of this should suffice: “If Serengeti sunglasses and hair plugs had been available, Caesar would, I suspect, have invested in them” (p.43)). G. does an excellent job of placing ancient celebrity in a modern context; for example, he starts each chapter with a quotation from a modern celebrity appropriate to the chapter’s theme (including Jay Leno, Muhammad Ali, and Britney Spears). Although his light tone will no doubt appeal to Classics students, scholars of the discipline may quickly tire of G.’s flippant style, which includes chapter subtitles that mimic tabloid headlines and in nearly every case end with an exclamation point (example: “Fat old philosopher rebuffs drop-dead gorgeous poster boy!” (p.18), in reference to Socrates’ relationship with Alcibiades). G. also tends toward biographical summary, in places simply listing anecdotes without any critical assessment of the reliability of his sources or the context in which these anecdotes are found.

Overall, G.’s work is, I believe, best suited for students beginning their study of the ancient world. The writing style, along with the appendices, seem particularly helpful for those just starting out in Classics. Like Lucretius’ honey on the medicine cup, G. provides a fresh and alluring package for his collection of important figures and events in the theme of celebrity. However, this is perhaps not the book for Classics scholars, who, although intrigued by the notion of an ancient concept of celebrity, may be looking for a more in-depth explication of what ancient notions of fame can tell us about Greek and Roman society.