This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Enduring presence of the ancient on the modern world

Published: June 28, 2007

Reporter Staff Writer

Syracuse. Utica. Carthage. Palmyra. Naples. Rome. A UB classicist pointed out last week that Western New Yorkers don't need to look much further than their own backyard to understand the enduring presence of the ancient on the modern world.


The lobby of the Forum Shops in Caesar's Palace, a modern incarnation of the ancient world in Las Vegas.

Yet the ancient world turns up in even more unexpected places than the names of local cities and towns, says Donald McGuire, adjunct associate professor of classics and director of student advisement and services in the College of Arts and Sciences, who presented "Trashy Tabloids and Vegas Casinos: The Ancient World in Modern Pop Culture" June 20 as part of the UBThisSummer lecture series.

"I want to talk to you about the past and how we use the past in the present," he told the audience. "We live in a modern world where the word 'classic' has taken on a new forms and connotations."

Perhaps most visible is the use of 'classic' to market consumer products—such as Coke Classic or 'classic' potato chips—as well as categorize other popular cultural phenomenon—such as classic cars or classic rock.

But beyond that, he pointed out, local supermarket shoppers who pick up the latest issue of the National Inquirer or Weekly World News frequently encounter absurd distortions of the 'classic' world in the form of headlines about ancient Egyptians who flew airplanes or ancient Greek statues that prove Elvis lived 2,000 years ago.

In fact, McGuire, who purchased supermarket tabloids for more than 18 months in order to investigate the prevalence of such stories, found that the ancient Mediterranean was featured in more than 60 individual articles. "The ancient Mediterranean enjoys a privileged position, even in the realm of broad or absurd cultural stereotype that the tabloids represent," he said, noting not one article about ancient China, Japan, India, Africa or Europe appeared during the same period of time.

"I think [tabloids] reflect a couple key facts about the place of the ancient world in the mind of modern America," he said. "Tabloids regularly imply that these cultures are on some level familiar and important...but are clearly taking advantage of the gap that exists between our perception of the past, our imagination of the past and the reality of the past."

The other modern incarnation of the ancient world under discussion last week was Caesars Palace, the infamous and opulent casino constructed by Las Vegas entrepreneur Jay Sarno in 1966.

"There is nowhere where the modern fascination with the ancient world is more palpable than in the desert sands of Nevada," said McGuire, noting that Caesars' "Circus Maximus Showroom," over-the-top statues of Roman emperors and extravagant executive suites featuring fiber-optic reproductions of the heavens on the night of Caesar's birth evoke ancient Roman decadence in order to encourage tourists to partake in extravagant consumption and consumerism.

The success of "sword and sandal" film spectaculars, which reached their peak in the 1950s and '60s, had no small part in the creation of the casino, he added. "But while 'Spartacus' and 'The Fall of the Roman Empire' present the corrupt and decadent underside of Roman history as ultimately destructive," he said, "Caesars Palace celebrates it [and] encourages visitors to emulate the supposed lifestyles of decadent Romans."

McGuire closed the presentation with a brief overview of cutting-edge technologies that are creating opportunities for classicists to present the public a more realistic view of the ancient world. These include computer software that takes people on virtual tours of the Roman Forum and the "Philodemus Project," in which scientists finally are slowly unrolling thousands of ancient scrolls preserved inside super-heated mud during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

"Who know? Fifty years down the road we may get Ovid's 'Medea,'" he said. "We may get some of the things we know existed...Maybe not in my lifetime, but that's an exciting thing for the future."