by Steve Lancaster 2/28/14
Almost 100 years ago, Oswald Spengler postulated that the West was in a death spiral leading to the violent end of American and European civilization. After the 20th century, that prediction seems more likely than it did in 1918. Well-respected scholars have addressed this idea, among them Victor Davis Hanson.
In 2001, Victor Davis Hanson published, Who Killed Homer, lamenting the end of classical education, not only in the United States but in Western Europe. From my personal experience in the wildernesses of academia, the lament is accurate and, from an academic viewpoint, VDH’s thesis is correct.
Classics are taught in most schools of arts and science as an obscure subtext of languages, almost never as literature and seldom as history. If you go looking for the classics department on most campuses, be sure you take a lantern; you are going to be digging in the dark. Should you find and actually enroll in a class, the odds are that it will be taught by a classicist who is more interested in the historiography about Cassius Dio than the events and people that shaped Western civilization.
I am not attempting to disparage scholarly study but, outside of a small group of professors, the conjunctive use of a Greek verb is of little interest to students. What is of interest to freshmen and graduates is the history of the era from about 1200 BCE to 1000 CE. This is a rich history that is full of myths, legends and stories that continue to have relevance in 2014.
In 2000, Gladiator was released. It was a huge movie that garnered critical and financial rewards around the world. More people now know more about Marcus Aurelius and Commodus than classists ever taught in the previous 50 years. Yes, I know that:
1. It’s a movie and made to make money
2. A lot of license goes into the story
3. It is not academic history; it is popular history, maybe low culture
While not formally a part of Western myth and culture, during this same time (2001-2004) three blockbuster movies did bring essentials of classical thought into the common culture worldwide. This is, of course, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. These movies, and the books they are based on, set the stage for movies that expanded popular knowledge of our history.
In 2004, two movies arrived that continued to push change of the paradigm. Troy and Alexander, as movies, were not huge blockbusters. Both did well enough at the box office had big name stars. And although very loosely tied to Homer’s epic poem and the history of Alexander, they presented a picture of classical times that stimulated interest in Western history.
During this same time HBO released a television series Rome. Perhaps, we Americans have a soft spot for failed republics but there are at least a dozen books on Caesar’s commentaries at Amazon and there are copious pages of reference to Rome also. There is renewed interest in Suetonius history of the Caesars, at least in part because of the television series. Herodotus, Tacitus, and Pliny (both elder and younger) are better known today than when I was in school—Pliny the Elder due to interest in Pompeii in both new archeology and in the movies. It seems that classical education is sneaking in by the back door on television and not the class room.
The next year, The Kingdom of Heaven, was released, not a classical story but relevant to our history and again loosely based on actual antiquity. There really was a King Baldwin in Jerusalem who was a leper and the larger events did happen. A Christian army was destroyed at Hattin and Saladin took control of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Again, a classical itch seems to be scratched with a movie.
In 2006, the movie 300 was released. Based on the valiant stand at Thermopylae by Spartan King Leonidas and his 300 warriors, it was a popular success. Purists panned the movie as comic book with lots of violence and stereotypes. Yet, again, the important aspect is the exposure to the values of our culture which are given to the world. In about a week the sequel to 300, Rise of Empire, will be released. The somnolent heads in the progressive and arts establishment, and in modern day Persia, Iran, will be offended by the unabashed statement of freedom, violence, and the depictions of the Persians as degenerate thugs. (How little the world has changed) The battles of Plataea and Salamis will be better known by millions of people who had never given it a thought and for that we have to thank a capitalist economy not tedious lectures in academia or PBS. We are all the better for it. Leonidas ain’t dead yet.
“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.” • (4686 views)