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Blog: Teaching Roman Daily Life Through Animation: Spotlight on Ray Laurence

YouTube-TedEd screenshot from “A glimpse of teenage life in ancient Rome” animated by Cognitive Media and written and narrated by Ray Laurence (Image under a CC BY -- NC -- ND 4.0 International license).

In order to prepare for the SCS’s upcoming sesquicentennial at the annual meeting in San Diego from January 3-6, 2019, the SCS blog is highlighting panels, keynotes, and workshops from the schedule. Today we highlight the Animated Antiquity: A Showcase of Cartoon Representations of Ancient Greece and Rome workshop by interviewing Ray Laurence (Macquarie University) about his work using animation to teach Roman daily life.



Cartoons and Animated Films written by Ray Laurence:

A Glimpse of Teenage Life in Ancient Rome

Four Sisters in Ancient Rome

Roman Nursing Goddess – The Dea Nutrix

What is Humanities Research at the University of Kent?

How Immigration Shaped Britain – part 1

A Day in the Life of a Roman Client

Q. How was the idea of an educational cartoon first developed and pitched?

I was involved in a community engagement project and the chair of the Canterbury Heritage Partnership, Tim Le Lean, introduced me to Andrew Park, who is the founder and director of an animation studio called Cognitive. He was working with TED.Ed and arranged for me to pitch the idea for the film to them via a conference call.

I originally pitched a film about Rome and Globalization, but had the idea of a 17-year-old in Rome as a back-up. The latter worked, whereas the former did not. I was very concerned at the time (and still am) that males in the UK were far less likely to go onto Higher Education than females (the ratio is c. 44%:56%). Hence, I wanted to make a film that would appeal to teenage boys and work in terms of recruitment of students to my own department. I also have two sons, who in 2012 and 2013 were studying Romans in Year 3 at primary school – so really it was made for them and some of the ideas for the film came out of questions I had from their colleagues in a class I taught at their school. Of course, with time, my sons have become teenagers – one did admit ‘it was kind of cool’ his dad had created a cartoon character.

The script was written and then discussed with staff at Cognitive to form a story board. They had a range of characters in development. I sent them numerous images for apartment blocks, maps, reconstruction images, Lararia, a bulla and so on. These were incorporated into the film. We also met to discuss aspects of the film. This close relationship is quite unusual and was dependent on the proximity of Cognitive to the University of Kent – where I was working.

After making the first film, we reverse engineered the theme to create a focus on younger girls in Rome. The Director of the Animation company – Cognitive – was a father of girls and this simply made sense. The girls all being called Domitia was funny, but deals with the problem of tracing family trees when the girls get the same name in antiquity. The more serious side of the film introduces the dynamics of slavery, for which Cognitive created a torturer who Year 8 students, I am told, can find quite terrifying.

Making these films, you realize the limits to our knowledge. For the second film, there was a concept of it ending with the girls going to bed. I have no idea how to visualize children in ancient Rome going into bed, what rituals would there be equivalent to changing clothes, washing and so on. To resolve the problem, the kids in the film just walk upstairs.

A young girl inscribes graffiti on a column in "Four Sisters in Ancient Rome" animated by Cognitive Media and written and narrated by Ray Laurence (Image under a CC BY -- NC -- ND 4.0 International license).

Q. Do you think the cartoons have addressed the "great man" problem within ancient history that seems to champion emperors over regular Romans?

At the time the cartoons were made, I’d done quite a lot of interviews and consultancy for TV programmes that divided into emperors and daily life in Pompeii. I wanted the cartoons to shift away from these themes and to reveal ‘the everyday’ in the metropolis. The idea was to create a sense of inequality through patronage or revelations about slavery or gender or age (childhood). The key protagonist Lucius is set up not to be super-rich, to live in the Subura, but his father is not poor either. The juggling act to maintain the character’s position as neither rich nor poor is far from simple, but is needed to bring out the main themes of inequality. Lucius social status can shift around a little bit over the course of the film. In contrast, the Domitia sisters have a dad who is stinking rich.

The great man problem is all pervasive and shapes people’s perspective of ancient Rome, alongside soldiers and gladiators. The purpose of the cartoons was to challenge preconceptions. Clearly, we did do that as can be seen from some of the comments on YouTube, which reveal also just how deeply the past is misunderstood or weaponized for misogyny or racism. I was truly shocked by the comment ‘This is wrong, Islam invented arranged marriage’, as well as comments about the skin tone of Lucius – some commentators thought he was ‘black’.  

Being from London, a multi-cultural European city, I was really surprised by such deeply polarised views expressed that were incompatible with the world my own children engaged with in their school lives. There is also a sense that the film challenges these views by just existing. To present Rome as a multi-cultural environment with some social practices that are far removed from those of the twenty-first century, such as the torture of slaves does address great man in Rome imagined through the lens of more recent men of history in history.

Q. How was the choice made to depict you in the cartoon?

The Cognitive team made all those decisions including the addition of a monobrow because that would just be funny. Really, you need to ask Andrew Park at Cognitive [Media]. You may have noticed the shape of noses and detail of ears in the film has a distinctive pattern, which is actually based on geometric shapes found on a Greek vase. It is from Greek vase painting that some of the colours and shapes derive their form. The vase was found in Italy that they were using. Purist academics could get worried about this, but most actually don’t really notice this feature. It is an example of how cartoonists and animators interpret images and draw on the world around them to create new images.  

In 2017, I spent a day with a student animator – Malachi James – he drew all day – everything from what he saw out the train window, me, other people on the train, buildings to images he found in books in my office. This illustrates the difference between our academic world in which we write/type words constantly; whereas as animators are drawing everything. Just as we as academics shape things through words, animators/cartoonists create images. Malachi later created the film A Day in the Life of a Roman Client. He actually drew the storyboard in front of me, as we read through each sentence of the script. It was incredible to watch as he transformed my words into pictures that anticipated the movement of the final film. There is a sense in which I realised watching Malachi drawing that my ideas about ancient Rome were being brought to life through drawing. This is something which TV documentaries can’t do even with the most sophisticated forms of 3D visualization. Cartoons paradoxically are more real, but at the same time as cartoons are not real.

Q. Were you surprised by how popular these videos became?

To be honest, I had no idea that these would be so popular. Naively, I thought once I got the script written and recorded that would be it. In some ways it was, after the second film Four Sisters in Ancient Rome. The uptake of viewers was relatively slow by the end of 2013 about 350,000 for both films. Once they reached the million-viewer mark, the rate of increase significantly speeded up and, as they got more views, they became more popular – people on the internet choose the most viewed films on Rome.

Their popularity is also increased through translation. Ted.Ed added an innovation that caused subtitles in the local language of your computer to appear on screen. Thus, in Brazil, high school students could access the films. This stretches their appeal way beyond the target audience I was originally contemplating. A translator contacted me recently with a query on meaning of ‘clients’, which was coming up as customers and making no sense to him as he created the Belarussian translation. 

So, we need to think of the films as having a worldwide appeal beyond the English-speaking context of their creation. Once we think our subject on a global scale, then, the popularity of globally available cartoons becomes unsurprising. This sums up my own shift in thinking about Ancient History and Classical Studies, these are a subject or subjects taught in every continent from countries as varied as Malawi and Finland or Japan and Brazil.

Q. What is on the horizon? What are you doing next?

I moved to Macquarie University in Australia in 2017, so work thousands of miles away from Cognitive. I think I was involved in making an animated film every year from 2012-2017, so was taking a break to settle into living in Australia and a new job.

However, recently in London, I met Andrew Park and we have a couple of ideas for new films. The next stage will be to pitch one film and to work out how we might fund the other film. I’m hoping this will get defined by the time of the Annual Meeting in San Diego in January 2019. A full write-up of the making of the films will appear in the book Teaching Classics with Technology edited by Steve Hunt and Bartolo Natoli and published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.

Q. What books and research did these cartoons draw on? Is there a full bibliography for teachers wishing to do larger units in the classroom?

I was tasked to write a script, something that I had never done before. Hence, I did not really think through the idea of a bibliography – but drew on what I was teaching and what research I was thinking about. The intention was to pack the script with content, whilst providing an account of a day in Rome seen through the eyes of a teenage boy and then girls under the age of ten. I privileged my own publications for the simple reason that the film was a deeply personal view of ancient Rome.

The central research topic behind the cartoon is that of betrothal and arranged marriage, that was based on a paper written by Mary Harlow and myself. Also embedded in the cartoon are many of the themes from our book Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome. This created the means to look at both teenage males and younger females. However, there is also an ideal of time and the point in the day – you might notice a sundial in some of the scenes that indicates the time of day. This draws on a chapter in my book Roman Pompeii: Space and Society. Then there are issues around traffic in the city and topography of Rome and sneaking in some Paul Zanker Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, whilst visiting the Forum of Augustus. If there was one it would be as follows:

Erdkamp, P. 2013. The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome, Cambridge.

Harlow, M. and Laurence, R. 2002. Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome: A Life Course Approach, London.

Harlow, M. & Laurence, R. 2010. Betrothal, Middle Childhood and the Life Course’, in L.

Larrson-Lovén and A. Stromberg (eds) Ancient Marriage in Myth and Reality. Newcastle.

Harlow, M. & Laurence R. 2010. The Cultural History of Childhood and Family, Volume 1: Antiquity, Berg: London.

Huntley, K.V. 2011. ‘Identifying children’s graffiti in Roman Campania: a developmental psychological approach’, in J.A. Baird and C. Taylor (eds) Ancient Graffiti in Context, London: 69-89.

Laurence, R. 2007. Roman Pompeii: Space and Society, 2nd edition, London.

Laurence, R. 2009. Roman Passions. A History of Pleasure in Ancient Rome, London.

Laurence, R. & Newsome, D. 2011. Rome, Ostia and Pompeii: Movement and Space, Oxford.

Rawson, B. (2011) A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds, Oxford: 1-12.

Sears, G., Keegan, P. & Laurence, R, 2013. Written Space in the Latin West, Bloomsbury: London.

Wallace-Hadrill, A. 1993. Augustan Rome, London.

Please feel free to attend the “­Animated Antiquity: A Showcase of Cartoon Representations of Ancient Greece and Rome” workshop (organized by Chiara Sulprizio, Vanderbilt University) on January 4, 2019, 10:45 am- 12:45 pm at the annual meeting in San Diego (Room TBA).


Figure 1: Ray Laurence and Andrew Park pose next to cut-outs of animated characters drawn for their TedEx series.

Ray Laurence and Andrew Park pose next to cut-outs of animated characters drawn for their TedEd series on Roman Daily Life (Image by permission from Ray Laurence) 

Header Image: YouTube-TedEd screenshot from “A glimpse of teenage life in ancient Rome” animated by Cognitive Media and written and narrated by Ray Laurence (Image under a CC BY -- NC -- ND 4.0 International license).

Sarah Bond's picture

Sarah Bond is an associate professor of Classics at the University of Iowa and chair of the SCS Communication Committee. She writes on Roman law, marginal peoples, and ancient geography, and is an associate editor for the Pleiades Project and Co-PI for the digital Big Ancient Mediterranean (BAM) project. Her first book is: Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean (University of Michigan Press, 2016). sarah-bond@uiowa.edu

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