Tabloid Treatment of The Ancients Sends Classicist On A Scholarly Chase

Release Date: October 30, 1997

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Never mind Dodi, Di and those tapeworm diets that don't work. What makes Don McGuire really glow in the dark is the way the tabloid press mucks around in the ancient world.

McGuire is an adjunct assistant professor of classics at the University at Buffalo and director of the Student Services Center in the Faculty of Arts and Letters. His areas of study and teaching include the culture, literature -- particularly the poetry -- of the Roman Empire. He has also made a minor study of how supermarket tabs represent the ancient world, lecturing on the topic at classics conferences and currently preparing an article for the Journal of Popular Culture.

"Just remember I do research other issues," he reminded as he trolled a pile of loopy news clips.

The story began when McGuire decided to investigate the popular culture of ancient Rome, an interest derived from the fact that many historical studies, with their concentration on political and literary works, don't convey the fears, assumptions and idiosyncrasies that comprise the popular culture of a historic era.

"I needed to find a semiology of popular culture that could be applied to the Romans," McGuire said, "and decided to review tabloids. They reflect our own popular concerns and I thought they might suggest areas of universal interest."

Here comes the postmodern twist. In using tabloids to suggest popular concerns among first-century Romans, he found that the tabloids cull the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean for stories reflecting the concerns of 20th century Americans.

"They pay no attention to medieval Turkey or 10th-century Indonesia," McGuire said. "but the ancient Mediterranean gets nailed every week." In fact, The Globe, The Star and the rest, he found, are full of strange and hoary tales about Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

"Maybe the ancient era is familiar to us from movies and elementary school, so we assume -- incorrectly -- that we know a good deal about it." McGuire said. "Since the average person doesn't have the information to counter weird stories written about that period, the tabloids have a field day."

Benign tabloid tales simply report "amazing" but well-known facts -- the Romans had apartment buildings, fast-food restaurants, clever unemployment strategies and, when new heroes came along, they just changed the heads on the statues in the Forum.

"Unfortunately," McGuire said, "another way to sell papers is to tell lies that reinforce or subvert connections between the familiar (street violence, Elvis, mental illness) and things that are alien to our reality, like ancient cultures.

In wedding borrowed (or invented) aspects of the ancient world to common obsessions of our own age, the tabloids tend to relieve our anxieties through a kind of empathetic conversion.

"One example here" he said, pulling out a clip, "is this story that trumpets the discovery of the remains of Hercules' gym, 'complete with his primitive Thighmaster.'"

The tabloids also will take one of today's popular events or icons -- a cult figure like Elvis Presley, for example -- and connect it with someone like first century A.D. Turkish king, Antiochus of Commagene.

McGuire pulls out a startling tabloid photo of a 2,000-year-old statue of Antiochus, still imbedded in the sands of western Turkey.

The accompanying story exploits our obsessive love for what UB sociologist Mark Gottdiener calls "Elvis as Other Jesus" by suggesting that he not only continues to live, but was alive 20 centuries ago, as well.

"I just love this stuff," McGuire admitted with a laugh, "some things don't change." He noted the abundance of Roman graffiti that says "for a good time, call Aurelia" and says that long after Nero died, rumors persisted that he'd had been seen in Athens and Asia Minor.

"The ancients weren't so different in some ways," McGuire said. "And apparently, using ancient motifs to exploit our anxieties and obsessions sells papers."

Clips galore: AIDS ("...Found in Tombs from Sodom and Gomorra!!"); life after death ("Egyptian Reincarnated as Morris the Cat!"); then there's health, space travel, miraculous folk cures for serious illness, and so on No matter how creepy the phenomenon, relax! Everything's under control. It's all happened before.

McGuire pulls out more stories: "Noah's Ark Built by Martians!"; "Roman togas Cause Nervous Breakdowns;" "Gay-bashing in Roman Baths" and "Ancestors of Pontius Pilate Slapped With a Wrongful Death Suit" -- by the enraged ancestors of Jesus Christ.

"Jokes aside, stories like this do violence to our understanding of the ancient world," he said. "Although they're amusing and harmless in general, a certain ignorance on the part of readers is required for them to assign whole civilizations to simplistic cultural categories. "

We must think of the Romans as brutish imperialist orgiasts, for instance, he said, to be "astonished" that they "really" poured into to the Coliseum by the thousands to watch chess, as one tabloid story insists.

"We can see that the tabloids play off stereotypes to weave insane and unsubstantial tales that sell papers," McGuire said. "At the same time, the very fakery involved allows writers to weave current subterranean into the story as a subtle hook."

He said, "That's why it's possible to scan these stories over a period of time and measure broad levels of 20th-century popular culture and consciousness."

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