Vox Populi: Populism and Popular Culture in Ancient Greece and Rome
23rd Annual Classics Graduate Student Colloquium
University of Virginia
Saturday, March 30, 2019
Keynote Speaker: Kathleen Coleman (Harvard)
Despite – and sometimes because of – the elite authorship of our literary sources, the dēmos and populus loom large across genres in all periods of Greek and Roman antiquity. Whether with apprehension or admiration, ancient historians recognized the people as a powerful political force: Thucydides, for example, praises Pericles for having led, and not having been led by, the “crowd,” while Livy offers a more positive view of the people, casting the secessio plebis as a check on patrician abuses. Meanwhile, oratory not only represents an important source of information on daily life, including that of non-elites, but can also offer a unique opportunity to observe elite speakers attempting to win the support of popular audiences. Similarly, the question of how broad a cross-section of the populace was in the audience for performances of Greek and Roman drama has been an important issue of scholarly debate. For instance, the interpretation of slave characters in Roman comedy – whether they represent figures to be laughed at or with and by whom – has hinged on different reconstructions of the social status of audience members and authors/performers.
At the same time, recent work in a number of disciplines has offered new possibilities to reconstruct non-elite perspectives and agency more directly by moving beyond canonical literary sources. A variety of other media offer potential avenues to study non-elite self-representation: for example, the funerary monuments of Roman freedmen and women; statue and relief dedications made on the Acropolis by painters and potters; or the vase-painter Smikros’ inclusion of himself in an aristocratic symposium scene. More diffusely, the linguistic study of slang or colloquialism can reveal innovation in language that moves from the bottom up, while new archaeological investigations of space help us imagine the lived experience of women and slaves. Non-literary forms of popular entertainment, such as the spectacle of the Roman arena, as well as religious practices and movements also represent important areas of inquiry.
In a contemporary political moment in which populism is a topic of debate worldwide, resonances with ancient discussions are not far to seek: Who speaks for the people? Who are the people – and, consequently, who doesn’t count? Are populist appeals genuine or demagogic? How can unpopular groups or individuals be protected from a hostile majority? How and why do contemporary populist movements use or abuse antiquity? We are interested in papers that address any aspect of popular life or agency in ancient Greece and Rome as well as comparative approaches or examinations of the reception of antiquity in this area. We welcome submissions from Classics, Anthropology, Art History, Archaeology, History, Medieval & Renaissance Studies, Philosophy, Political Science, Religious Studies, Women & Gender Studies, and other related disciplines. Possible topics could include but are not limited to:
- the people in politics and popular or non-elite movements
- religion and the people, including popular religious movements
- defining the people
- the language of the people and language about the people
- the archaeology of public or non-elite space
- the visibility of women in public spaces and in popular movements
- the people in material culture
- gender and sexuality in popular culture
- elite reactions to or against the popular
- conceptions of the people or the popular in philosophy
- the appropriation of classical tropes concerning the people from Late Antiquity to the present, by writers using Greek, Latin, or the vernacular
- the contemporary relevance of ancient populists and conceptions of populism, especially their reception and/or appropriation
Papers should be 15–20 minutes in length. Please send abstracts of no more than 300 words (not counting bibliography) to Michael Fons (firstname.lastname@example.org) by no later than January 15, 2019. Any questions may be addressed to colloquium organizers Adam Gross (email@example.com) and Rebecca Frank (firstname.lastname@example.org).