Discovering History Through Pop Culture

It all began with my lust for Patrick Stewart.

Many of my interests originate there. Star Trek: The Next Generation led me to Patrick Stewart, but if I hadn’t loved him so much, would I have been as maniacal a Trekkie? The world will never know. Then came the X-Men films, at a time when my knowledge of that canon was limited purely to the 1990s Saturday-morning cartoon, with which I was content. (That cartoon is in fact totally rad, but I digress.) After watching Stewart’s Professor X, I turned into a person who scoured comic-book shops until I had a nearly complete early Claremont run. My curiosity about stagecraft became sharpened after seeing Stewart as Macbeth on Broadway and the ingenious staging tricks used to make the witches appear truly spectral. For all the enjoyment I’ve derived from these things, I must thank him.

But no favor this man did me comes close to the fact that he led me to I, Claudius.

“Masterpiece Theater” reran the famous British series in 1992 in its entirety. TV Guide informed me that this was an adaptation of the Robert Graves novel, set in the Roman Empire. It could’ve been about the inventor of the rubber duck for all I cared. Patrick Stewart played a major role? I was in.

Then they aired the first two episodes in one night, and I was fascinated. (This, despite the fact Stewart wasn’t even in those two.) I avidly watched the entire series, then went back and read the Graves books on Ancient Rome, then went back and read Suetonius, the contemporary historian who served as the source for Graves’ work. By that time, I knew—I was in this for life.

Since then I’ve read books about Rome ranging from dry histories to collections of juicy anecdotes about sex in the ancient world to breakdowns of gladiatorial training. I audited a college class on the early Empire and became the Weird Older Student Who Is Too Into This™, a form of Hermione Granger with graying hair. I play around with websites that allow you to work out travel routes around the Empire, complete with variables for time of year and method of travel (donkey cart or boat?) For my fortieth birthday, I treated myself to an entire month in the city to wander around.

What is it about the Roman Empire that interests me so much? In part, at least, it’s because the Romans were like us in many important ways—we understand their politics, we get their jokes—and yet profoundly alien in others. They were pragmatists who believed in cultic ritual, slavemasters who could be brutally cruel to their human possessions, then free them and treat them and their descendants as friends, and conquerors capable of deeply admiring the same civilizations they destroyed.

To me, the Romans also inspire genuine awe. Their military campaigns everywhere from Egypt to England? The weapons and armor of gladiators? Young Julius Caesar telling his kidnappers he’d be back someday to kill them—and following through years later? Let’s face it: These guys were total badasses.

But it’s too easy to worship power for its own sake. The Romans didn’t only have power; they had strength. They had a legal code that allowed most people to rely on rule of law. Their roads still trace lines throughout Europe. Some of their structures still stand millennia later. We’re not going to leave anything that lasts that long unless it’s our non-biodegradable trash.

Reading my histories is the only way I’m ever going to get to visit this culture. That’s how I attend the chariot races at the Circus Maximus, cheering along with 150,000 other fans, including Augustus himself. That’s how I go to the baths of Agrippa, dunking myself in cold and hot water in turn while surrounded by mosaics of Neptune and the nymphs. That’s how I get to wrap myself in a stola and ride in a litter through the streets. It’s even how I work as a slave in the savage copper mines of Aleppo, or try to steel myself for execution in the Colosseum. Maybe that’s some of the beauty of immersing yourself in a society not your own: You’re able to imagine yourself being anyone, being everyone, exploring every single facet of that world. I escape myself in the past more completely than I can anywhere else—and we all need to escape ourselves once in a while.

In middle school we were taught that the Romans just took the Greek religion and changed the names, which has so little to do with the complicated, fascinating reality. Romans believed in a pantheon, yes, but in addition to the major deities, they believed in countless little gods, forever present. Anytime Romans walked through a doorway, they would’ve been aware of the gods in the doorframe, the gods of entering and exiting, the gods of the door itself. That’s a beautiful lens through which to view the world, one that allows for sacredness and magic literally anywhere.

Thanks, Patrick Stewart. I owe you one.

Claudia Gray is the New York Times bestselling author of many science fiction and paranormal fantasy books for young adults, including Defy the Stars, the Firebird series, the Evernight series, the Spellcaster series, and Fateful. She’s also had a chance to work in a galaxy far, far away as the author of the Star Wars novels Lost Stars and Bloodline. She has worked as a lawyer, a journalist,a disc jockey, and a particularly ineffective waitress. Her lifelong interests include old houses, classic movies, vintage style, and history. She lives in New Orleans.

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