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In last month’s column, I offered an overview of the Greek myth of the Titanomachy, the war between the Olympian gods (Zeus, Hera, and all the rest) and the earlier generation, the Titans; and I discussed some recent media telling of the escape of the Titans from their underworld prison and a second Titanomachy: in Disney’s 1997 Hercules, in the 1998 straight-to-video Hercules and Xena animated movie, in the 2012 movie Wrath of the Titans (sequel to the remake of Clash of the Titans), in the 2013 movie Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, in the 2011 movie Immortals, and in the video game series God of War.
Today I finish the journey by exploring the ramifications of these stories and their thematic material.
There’s a pattern to these stories. In all of them, the Titans are reawakened and they are opposed by a half-god protagonist: Perseus, Hercules, Percy, Theseus, Kratos (sort of). In each, the protagonist has a history of family loss. Perseus in Wrath of the Titans is a widower. The Disney Hercules is estranged from his birth parents, while the Kevin Sorbo version lost his wife and children to a fireball sent by Hera. Percy Jackson feels abandoned by his father Poseidon. Theseus in Immortals endures the death of his mother during the film. Kratos accidentally killed his family and is killed by his own father. Most of the protagonists are soldiers — Percy Jackson, for instance, is a teenager at a “camp” filled with what are essentially child/teen demigod soldiers. The Titans themselves are generally either monstrous or demonic in appearance, in contrast to the ancient Greek depictions of them as essentially anthropomorphic (as in the vase painting to the right).
So what’s the meaning behind all these modern Titanomachies? The surface explanation — that gods fighting gods makes for cool action scenes — isn’t all there is to it.
Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy is often characterised in terms of competitive individuals debating orally with one another in public arenas. But it also developed over its long history a sense in which philosophers might look to an authority and offer to that authority explicit intellectual allegiance. This is most obvious in the development of the philosophical ‘schools’ with agreed founders and canonical founding texts. There also developed a tradition of commentary, interpretation, and discussion of texts—composed by ‘authorities’—which often became the focus of disagreement between members of the same school or movement and also useful targets for critics interested in attacking a whole tradition. Discussing the meaning, force, and even the authorship itself of these texts became a mode of philosophical debate.
This international conference will investigate the twin notions of ‘authorship’ and ‘authority’—the Latin word auctoritas combines these two—in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Topics to be explored include: philosophical allegiance and schism, commentary and quotation, the treatment of anonymous texts or texts of disputed authorship, the collection of authorised corpora of texts and the rejection of spurious or non-canonical works.
More details will be posted on the Faculty of Classics website.
We are very grateful to the nearly 2,500 registrants who overcame difficult travel conditions to attend last week’s joint annual meeting. At the same time, we are aware that some members who had registered in advance were unable to come to Chicago because their initial airline reservations were cancelled, and their carriers could not put them on different flights in time to attend the meeting. APA and AIA carry “convention cancellation insurance” for such events, and next week we will announce a procedure by which affected individuals can apply for refunds of advance registration fees.
Adam D. Blistein, APA Executive Director
Kevin Quinlan, AIA Interim Executive Director
Anna Shaw Benjamin died on July 21, 2013. Dr. Benjamin received both undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Pennsylvania (B.A. 1946, Ph.D. 1955) and at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. At the latter she held two fellowships, being a Thomas Day Seymour Fellow (1948/1949) and a Fulbright Fellow (1949/1950).
Dr. Benjamin commenced her devoted teaching career in 1951, as Instructor in Classical Languages and Humanities at Juniata College, a small institution in Pennsylvania, which she left for the University of Missouri-Columbia after receiving her Ph.D. in 1955. There, over almost a decade, she moved from Instructor in Classics and Archaeology to Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Professor, and Chair. In 1964, she came to Rutgers University as a Full Professor in the Department of Classics from which she retired in 1987. During her years at Rutgers she served at various times as Chairperson and/or Director of Graduate Studies and created an archeology program within the Classics Department. Most summers were spent at digs in Greece with colleagues at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and later at excavations at Aphrodisias in Turkey.
Our colleagues at AIA have once again developed an online scheduling tool that will permit you to develop a schedule of events you want to attend in Chicago. You can develop your schedule from lists of sessions, committee meetings, and special events organized by APA, AIA, and affiliated groups.
In my final letter to the membership, I would like to give you all an idea of where we are headed as an organization in the near future. Our organization is evolving in an exciting way. We are the heirs of a distinguished history of developing and supporting research and teaching in all the areas of our discipline, and we shall continue to foster those goals as energetically and creatively as we can. In my last letter I referred to some of the most conspicuous ways in which we are fulfilling this vital part of our mission, in particular with support for L’Année philologique and development of the Digital Latin Library. At the same time, we are taking seriously the commitments we made in the Gateway Campaign to making the world of classics and the work of APA members valuable to a larger audience, both within and outside academia. We are in the process of journeying through that Gateway – including evolution of our name, our logo, our web site, our annual meeting, our organizational structure, and our advocacy messages. No part of our new orientation involves abandoning our history and mission. In fact, without the foundation of the scholarly and teaching work of our members, we would have little to offer.
Garrett Fagan recently posed an interesting question in his very useful discussion of the crisis in the humanities: “should we embrace the competition for students in a marketplace of majors?” That my answer is “yes” is probably evident from my last post, in which I urged classicists to participate in public discourse in order to insure that the public image of Classics is both attractive to our students and acceptable to their parents. Not everyone shares this view. Many scholars cringe at the economic and corporate metaphors that often cluster around this issue (“competition,” “marketplace”) and worry about the dilution of rigor and intellectualism they connote. But in my view we do not need to choose between “giving the students what they want” and our core values as humanists. We do, however, need to give ourselves permission to reconnect in our classes with the reasons most people are drawn to the humanities in the first place.
During the New Year’s Day edition of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, writer Frank Deford will report on a discussion he had recently with Professor Sarah Culpepper Stroup of the University of Washington about her 'War Games' course. A University publication gives details of her course here. After the broadcast, Mr. Deford's report will also be posted on the section of the NPR web site that archives his presentations.
Last week I saw something that I never thought I’d see: a new Greek tragedy. I don’t mean an adaptation of a Greek play or a modern drama inspired by a Greek myth. This was a new play, with no direct overlap with any ancient drama, but which was structured and written exactly like a fifth-century Athenian tragedy. The staging itself was in many ways very modern, but when you stripped that away and looked at the script itself, it was stylistically almost perfect. Okay, one could quibble: I’m not sure they could have staged it with just three actors; the choral odes were split across episodes (though they were composed in strophes and antistrophes). But everything else was pretty much spot on. We got formal features such as prologue, agôn scenes, stichomythia, messenger speeches, and sung monody. Even on the level of language and metaphor, there was little that would feel out of place if you tried to pass it off as a translation of an ancient text.
Why has the Titanomachy been so fascinating a subject for movies, TV, and video games in recent years?
In Greek myth, the Titans were the gods who ruled the cosmos in the generation before the ascent of the Olympians (Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, and the like). The king of the Titans, Kronos, came to power by castrating his father Ouranos and held onto that power — in view of a prophecy that his son would overthrow him — by swallowing each of his children at birth. But his wife, Rhea, replaced baby Zeus with a rock and hid him on the island of Crete until he grew strong enough to force Kronos to regurgitate his siblings, whom he then led in battle against Kronos and kin. This battle, the war of the Olympians against the Titans, is called the Titanomachy, and can be considered the first war of Greek myth. It takes up a full fifth of (what survives of) Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem about the birth of the gods (old-timey translation here), with a vivid description of the effects of Zeus’ prodigious use of the thunderbolt:
The land boiled, and every stream of Ocean, and the uncultivated sea. The hot blast surrounded the earthborn Titans, unspeakable fire approached the bright sky, and the gleaming bright light of the thunderbolt and lightning blinded their eyes, though they were strong. [Theogony lines 695–699, translation mine]
The Titanomachy ends with a victory for Zeus and the Olympians, thanks to the strongarm help of the hundred-handed monster-children of Mother Earth, who imprison the Titans in Tartarus, the deepest part of the underworld.
So much for the myth. There are a number of treatments of the Titans in modern popular media. And in almost every single one, the story is not the Titanomachy itself, but rather the reawakening or escape of the Titans from their prison, and the commencement or threat of a second war between Titans and Olympians. It seems to me that this basic storyline, and the set of other plot elements that seem intrinsically associated with it, touch on a number of social/political anxieties in America today, as I’ll talk about in next month's column. [Mega spoilers starting in the next paragraph!]