From video games to movies, course underlines classical stories playing out on our screens

By April Hunt | Emory Report | July 2, 2020

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Elements from ancient Greek and Roman myth and culture abound in today’s movies, comics and other media. “Ancient Worlds, Modern Media” shows students how to look for these references and discern what they represent. Here, student Elysia Utech examines images from Lady Gaga videos.

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Emory College instructor Kira Jones was showing students in her Maymester course “Ancient Worlds, Modern Media” how current movies, comics and other media use classical myth and culture when the two worlds truly collided.

Jones, a visiting instructor in Emory College’s art history and classics departments, was streaming the wildly popular Assassin’s Creed Odyssey video game for her students to see a specific statue in the Ancient Greek landscape when her character was ambushed.

She told students in the online class to discuss the sculpture among themselves while she focused on dispatching her attackers.

“Fortunately, I’m at a high enough level to wrap things up quickly and could jump in to explain the academic analysis,” Jones says. “A lot of us grew up with classical history and the stories from Greek and Roman mythology, and understanding how media are using them is a very important skill.”

Jones, who admittedly geeks out as much over video games as she does her scholarly research examining how ancient Romans used religion, myth and images as propaganda, dreamed up the course last year.

Beyond video games, the course examines web cartoons such as Lore Olympus, anime, manga and even pop music videos that incorporate elements from the ancient Greeks and Romans. Jones designed the course to factor in the creative process, bringing in guest speakers such as Lore Olympus creator Rachel Smythe, history professor Anise Strong of Western Michigan University and others.

That such study can take place entirely online is especially helpful, given that Emory and universities around the country canceled in-person classes due to the public health needs related to COVID-19.

The intense three-week academic term, which ended May 29, also showed how much modern society borrows, revises and outright takes from antiquity, Jones says.

“The American narrative is that we are the heirs of Rome, so the idea is to understand how to use the classics and art history to understand what modern refigurings are trying to say,” she explains. 

That streamed video game, for instance, draws attention to the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles by repeatedly using the sculptures in temples and even statue bases and pottery. The sculptures are a source of ongoing dispute, with Greece claiming the British illegally took them during the Ottoman occupation in 1801.

A frame-by-frame analysis of a Beyoncé and Jay-Z music video filmed in the galleries and exterior plaza of the Louvre Museum  –  part of an examination of female pop stars reimagining themselves as classical goddesses – helped to open discussions about African Americans as both outsiders of and heirs to that history.

The scene from another video where Beyoncé smashes a car window with a baseball bat, with a neo-classical building in the reflection, drives home that point even more for rising junior Elysia Utech.

Utech, a creative writing and business double major, had a limited knowledge of the ancient world before the course. The chance to learn how it influences modern media, though, appealed to her as both a creator and consumer of fiction and marketing.

“It’s not just that classical references come up in really unexpected ways,” Utech says. “It’s telling to see what is deliberately included in a book or a video or even an ad and what that representation is trying to say.”

For her final project in the course, Utech put that analysis to work by considering the classical influences that appear in Lady Gaga’s music videos for “Born This Way,” “Applause” and “Stupid Love.”

The most recent video, “Stupid Love,” features the singer dancing on the planet Venus, dressed in metallic pink armor and fighting for love and compassion with other woman warriors. Utech concluded the pop star repeatedly embodies Greek goddesses to position herself as a divine being, even posing as Venus, the goddess of love and power, in other videos.

Other final projects, which required finding and analyzing classical references in modern works, included an examination of the influences of Augustus and Julius Caesar on Tiber Septim in the video game Skyrim and the deeper meaning behind classical sculpture poses and references in the anime JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.

“A lot of times we think of media as just entertainment,” Jones says. “Being able to look beyond that and see what someone is trying to convince you of or sell you is a very important critical thinking skill.”