BMCR 2014.08.15

Ancient Greek Women in Film. Classical Presences

, Ancient Greek Women in Film. Classical Presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xiv, 376. ISBN 9780199678921. $160.00.


For many years now, the Classical Presences series has provided important, and often unconventional, contributions to the growing field of classical reception studies. David Hopkins’ Conversing with Antiquity: English Poets and the Classics may come to mind or the challenging Theatre of the Condemned: Classical Tragedy on Greek Prison Islands by Gonda Van Steen. Several of the newer volumes have dealt with filmic reception, among them Greek Tragedy on Screen by Pantelis Michelakis or Joanna Paul’s Film and the Classical Epic Tradition.

In this line, Ancient Greek Women in Film sets out to analyse female figures from ancient Greek myth and history in the context of filmic narrative with its often very modern implications.1 Readers will welcome the chance to contrast the results with those of another recent publication: Screening Love and Sex in the Ancient World by Monica S. Cyrino.2 Of the thirteen essays in Ancient Greek Women in Film, seven focus on the depiction of three central characters: Helen, Medea and Penelope. Two additional sections of three essays each deal with “Other Mythical Women” and “Historical Women”. The first covers a wide range including Iole, Iphigenia, Io and many more; the second one concentrates on the three queens Gorgo, Olympias and Cleopatra VII. The texts are accompanied by eighteen well-chosen film stills, a collective bibliography and an extensive index.

The essays employ a welcome variety of theoretical perspectives,3 and thankfully abstain from lengthy positivistic debates. The most commonly used methodical approach is via single film analysis or the comparative analysis of a small set of films and/or characters. Some contributions such as the one by Bella Vivante even break down sequences of shots, in this case from Michael Cacoyannis and his adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women (40-45). Others continually contrast elements of characterization in classical sources and film, as does Kirsten Day with Olympias in the 1956 Alexander the Great (283-292). Not all of the results may appear inventive; still many of these detailed interpretations offer valuable insights, even for the specialist reader. This said, it feels almost pedantic to point out that most of the authors are not over-eager to discuss or apply modern film theory.

It is sensible for the introduction to ask “why cinema reconstructs the classical past in a frequently eclectic fashion” (1). In this light, one might have wished for silent and early sound films to receive more attention. It is not unusual for these productions to be ignored in the discussion of classical epic films—a fact than can partly be explained by issues of availability. Losses amount to probably more than 80% of the material. Many of the remaining titles only exist in few or even single copies in film archives, often in fragmented form or badly damaged. Even so, these productions still show an incredible variety of topics, and they play a key role in the emergence of filmic traditions (choice of narratives, iconic imagery, national traditions etc.).4 Classical epic films also have to be understood as part of never-ending processes of transformation and transfiguration. In the past, many studies have tended to either neglect this context or narrow their focus too much. The contribution by Edith Hall on more than four decades of (missing) feminist reappraisal of the Odyssey in cinema illustrates what can be done. Her analysis of what she rightfully names “the echoes of Penelope” may contain a few irritating details like the emphasis that a “gay soft porn movie” is “designed to arouse men who desire sex with other men” (174). The general approach, however, makes it clear why it is so important and rewarding to trace these processes of reception across time, genres and media.

Of course it is a pity that the new 300—Rise of an Empire came out too late to be included in Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos’ treatment of the Spartan queen Gorgo, and his findings on the effect of gender roles or on stereotyping in post-9/11 world views are well worth noting. However, parodies of the first 300 movie such as Meet the Spartans or The Legend of Awesomest Maximus could, for all their feebleness, have helped to underline some of the arguments brought forward. Susan O. Shapiro’s essay on Medea by Pier Paolo Pasolini is very helpful in its dissection of the film’s “ethnographic” elements and anti-colonialist cultural criticism. The same is true for Anastasia Bakogianni’s discussion of the poetics and political implications of the 1977 Iphigenia : Michael Cacoyannis’ adaptation of Greek myth as an artistic reaction to the Cyprus crisis and the Turkish invasion of 1974. One may not agree with every detail of such interpretations, and e.g. claim that small visual jokes should not be overemphasized. Nevertheless, these close readings certainly deserve the reader’s attention, as they sharpen our view for the multi-layered nature of classical reception processes.

It is understandable that these contributions—like many of the essays in Ancient Greek Women in Film —focus on “quality productions” by Cacoyannis, Harrison, Pasolini or von Trier: good art house cinema is a rewarding subject. Some blockbusters are present as well. While these films usually do not possess the same amount of intelligence and subtlety, one might argue, they at least have the advantage of familiarity. That they also offer excellent material for a critical analysis seems to go without saying. If, however, ancient Greek women in film are to be interpreted in the context of a larger filmic tradition, it might have been a good idea to have a closer look at other material as well. There is a huge amount of TV movies, adaptations for a younger audience, docutainment, B movies, pornographic films or anime, each production adding a small piece to the larger phenomenon of “ancient Greek women in film”.

Some contributions try to react to this fact by taking wider aim: Arthur J. Pomeroy traces the depiction of the women of Heracles through Italian peplum and links its elements and function to the Hercules and Xena TV series. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones’ essay compares the visual design of Cleopatra films from the 1910s, 1930s and 1960s to identify mechanisms of stereotyping and their influence on popular imagination. Yet any 20-page treatment of these topics can only result in a cursory overview. Diana Wenzel’s seminal work on Cleopatra in film needs more than 400 pages to identify all the facets, based on over 30 films from a century of cinematic history and without claiming completeness.5 The more compact contributions to Ancient Greek Women in Film are still very helpful additions, but the volume’s strength lies more in its detailed analyses of single films. The unavoidable cost for this is the reduction of topics, of examples and of structural comparison. On the other hand, it could have been worthwhile to at least glance at female figures outside the chosen focus. The rich filmic tradition of Lysistrata, who is probably absent due to her falling outside the scope of “women in myth and history”, comes to mind in this regard.6 Female chimaeras and monsters like the Harpies or the Gorgons might also have made for an interesting counterpart, especially in the discussion of stereotypes of female beauty.

Ancient Greek Women in Film is a most welcome addition to classical reception studies, and I find it hard to criticise this otherwise very sound book. Even so, a few issues have to be mentioned: while the literature in English is extensively cited, research in other languages receives rather little attention.7 The film stills are of mixed quality and would have deserved to be reproduced in a larger form. The index is extremely detailed and generally reliable, even though sometimes slightly misleading: The entry “ 300 (Snyder)” lists a set of pages different from that given under the entry “films— 300 (Snyder)”. The 300 graphic novel by Frank Miller is not included in the index, while “Miller, Frank” receives four entries (three of them leading to a mention or discussion of the graphic novel). The historical novel The Life and Times of Cleopatra by C. M. Franzero on the other hand can be found under the title as well as under the author’s name.8 The interpretations are only rarely linked to a timecode as happens on page 42, and even if this is the case, the film version used is not explicitly stated. This makes checking details of the analysis unnecessarily difficult. Also, depending on the number of different cuts, film issues and formats available, author and reader might—unknowingly—be seeing rather different movies.9 All this said, Ancient Greek Women in Film is a valuable contribution to our understanding of “transformed antiquity” and a solid basis for future research in this important area.


1. In compliance with the rules of good scientific practice, the author of this review declares that he will be participating in a book project supervised by one of this volume’s contributors (Arthur J. Pomeroy).

2. Monica S. Cyrino (ed.), Screening Love and Sex in the Ancient World, New York 2013.

3. The project took its origin from a panel at the fifth Feminism & Classics conference, Ann Arbor 2008, so certain priorities are hardly surprising. Two essays are reprinted (Ruby Blondell) or largely enhanced versions (Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos) of earlier publications.

4. See now Pantelis Michelakis, Maria Wyke (eds.), The Ancient World in Silent Cinema, Cambridge/New York 2013.

5. Diana Wenzel Kleopatra im Film: Eine Königin Ägyptens als Sinnbild für orientalische Kultur, Remscheid 2005.

6. I am grateful to Martin M. Winkler for sending me his illuminating essay on Aristophanes in the Cinema or The Metamorphoses of Lysistrata (from Ancient Comedy and Reception, edited by S. Douglas Olson, Berlin 2013, 894-944), which made me realize that the numbers surpass even my optimistic estimates.

7. One might think of Diana Wenzel’s Kleopatra im Film, mentioned above, or of Claude Aziza’s Guide de l’Antiquité imaginaire. Roman, cinema, bande dessinée, Paris 2008, Silke Schulze-Gattermann’s Das Erbe des Odysseus: Antike Tragödie und Mainstream-Film, Alfeld 2000, Frédéric Martin’s L’Antiquité au Cinéma, Paris 2002, or of several of the contributions to Martin Korenjak, Karlheinz Töchterle (eds.), Pontes II: Antike im Film, Innsbruck 2002.

8. Also, “Penelope” apparently refers to the mythical figure and her transfigurations, but it is puzzling to see only parts of the essays devoted to the study of Penelope included under this entry. “Beauty” merely exists as “beauty, stereotypes of female beauty”. “Femininity” or “self-deprecation” are only indexed when the precise term is used in the text, not when the concept is described.

9. For the technical details see Martin Lindner, Rom und seine Kaiser im Historienfilm, Frankfurt am Main 2007, 22-27. The problem is most obvious in Italian peplum such as the various Hercules/Heracles movies, many of which were shortened, reframed, recut or distorted by dubbing in localised versions. ​