Ancient Classics: A Contemporary View
17 May 2013
When pressed on why the Classics and Ancient History are still meaningful to study, Dr Alastair Blanshard doesn't hesitate in his reply.
"Why do our banks look like Greek temples? Why do we sculpt our bodies to look like a Greek statute? Why is the script in which we write called Times New Roman? From our notions of beauty to where we do our banking, so much of the furniture of our lives is classical in origin. And often, we don't even realise it."
Throughout his academic career, Dr Blanshard has been studying the origins of that "furniture". "What I'm really interested in is the impact of the classical world on the modern," says Dr Blanshard. "The ways in which the classics influence political debates and the ways in which classics can speak to us today."
As a way of looking at these new understandings of the ancient in the contemporary, Dr Blanshard has tracked various classical ideas through history to now. His first book Hercules: A Heroic Life traced interpretations of the figure of Hercules throughout the ages, from the Renaissance to 18th Century France to modern comic books and cinema.
His latest published work, Classics on Screen: Greece and Rome on Film, also looks at the cinematic representations of the Ancient world. "We took ten films, from Cecile B. DeMille's Cleopatra  to Gladiator  and looked at how they interpreted the ancient world to tell the audience something about their own particular context. We were interested in the myths."
It was such myths that originally sparked Dr Blanshard's interest in ancient history as a child. "No one in my family has any background in history," Dr Blanshard recalls. "[But] I loved the Greek stories and legends. And after taking a holiday to Athens I knew that ancient history was something I wanted to study."
After completing his Arts/Law degree, Dr Blanshard won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he pursued a PhD on Greek Law. What started as a passion translated into a career when he took up a teaching position at Oxford. He went on to hold a fellowship at the Center for Hellenic Studies, an institute run by Harvard that is based in Washington D.C. He returned home to Australia and has been at the University of Sydney since 2005.
He believes the Department of Classics and Ancient History is "hands down the best department in the country".
"The Australasian Society for Classical Studies [ASCS] runs competitions for both translations and essays," Blanshard explains, "And for the second year running, our students have taken out every prize. A clean sweep."
Blanshard says that the quality and diversity of his colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences is world-class. 'Ancient History is very interdisciplinary. We look at literature, philosophy, archaeology, art history. I'm constantly in touch with people from other departments, and having great colleagues makes such a difference. The depth of skills that surround me is invaluable."
After studying at some of the most prestigious universities around the world, Blanshard has found the environment at the University of Sydney to be a questioning one. "In England no one asks you 'Why study Latin?' or 'Why study Greek?' I think the Australian academic environment is very egalitarian, which provokes a greater self-reflexivity. I'm put on the spot here, and I'm often asked why I think the Classics are still relevant to study."
And for many of the reasons outlined above, he always answers these questions with ease.
Dr Alastair Blanshard will chair the Sydney Writers' Festival discussion, What the Classics Teach Us on Saturday 25 May 2013.
Contact: Emily Jones
Phone: 02 9114 1961; 0405 208 616