No Game No Gain: Digital space, and the Emergence of the Homo Academicus Ludens

Cross posted from the HUMLab blog

As I recently visited the University of Adelaide, for a conference on ‘Censorship from Plato to Wikileaks’, I came to reflect upon the materiality of space and how it affects our thought processes. Fittingly organized by departments across a vibrant university campus, the conference invitation read: “we invite all scholars and researchers in all areas of the Humanities and all periods of history to explore important themes on the limitations of freedom of expression in act, thought, or speech. How do analogue and digital meeting spaces facilitate, inspire, and enhance our research? In the course of three full days, this question ran through my mind as I attended excellent presentations, engaged in discussion, exchanged ideas, visited art spaces: the social arena a conference signals. The materiality of any social space, let that be physical or digital is central to the composition of new, brilliant ideas.

From an organizational, spatial viewpoint, the University of Adelaide is a lot like Cambridge or Oxford; Every college is composed by a vibrant group of academics who live there: a multicultural community of individuals who pursue their research, dine and socialize in the same (analogue) space. Researchers and students originate from different disciplines and faculties; some people know each other, some others worked together in projects before, some are just about to start on a new promising position, and so on. No wonder so many interesting discussions came up at the dinner table. Indeed. The primal acts of dining together, exchanging information and making plans go well beyond the hunter-gatherer model –and onto the sphere of what I jokingly coin as the Homo Academicus Sedens;[i] the sitting, academic human (let’s face it, we spend most of our time sitting in front of our post-human extensions: screens, keyboards, and the like) and his peers are accounting the day that is over, sharing plans for an academic visit, even congratulating one another on a newly acquired grant. Great ideas come after verbal interaction in a designated meeting space. How do spaces ‘make’ our research and creative thought processes? Has the Homo Academicus Sedensin 2013 evolved since Darwin, Linnaeus, Erasmus?

Just consider the endlessness of global academia: travelling is extremely important for rounding up one’s academic experience. New spaces, new people, new thought processes. The European union indeed seems to support academic exchange from an early stage. Take, for instance, the Erasmus programme that supports academic exchange between European Institutions. In a recent article in La Europa, Umberto Eco spoke about the importance of culture. ‘It’s culture, not war, that cements European identity’. I would like to paraphrase Eco’s excellent point and extend this notion beyond Europe, or any other continent and nationality. It is culture, indeed, that cements any identity, but also the (social) materiality of space, and interactive play that enables communication in both analogue and digital spaces.  Allow me to add, please, that very notion of space as a place for social and physical interaction requires that we take into consideration both human culture and nature alike.

If I am allowed the banality of citing my long-term crush, Aristotle’s well-known passage in the Politics is an important insight into the classical understanding of the normative human condition as one sandwiched in-between these two extremes.

‘It is clear therefore that the state (community) is also prior by nature to the individual; for if each individual when separate is not self-sufficient, he must be related to the whole state as other parts are to their whole, while a man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a beast or a god’.

(1253a 27-29)

For Aristotle, any community is the consequence of nature and culture and it is formed through a delicate equilibrium between individual and the whole. Interaction and communication are the fruit of this crystalline, dainty balance. There are digital meeting spaces where communal identity is discussed, questioned, formed. Academics often share experiences and thoughts in the digital realm, through databases, social media, and so on. Database discussions, blogs, and mailing lists keep us together, from Warsaw to Honolulu, and Darwen to Afghanistan. Beyond the realm of academia.edu our current engagement with technology as individuals, educators, researchers, is stronger than ever. Even our hobbies take place in digital spaces- for example, gaming environments. And there emerges the Homo Academicus Ludens[ii] the young and cheerful evolution of the Homo Academicus Sedens that enjoys dwelling in digital, interactive environments; She (or he) is fully aware that there is an extra technological, artificial space where the lonely or not-that-lonely-really scholar is required to cope with monsters, move libraries, excavate, eliminate zombies, and these may or may not affect her (or his) research. The very engagement with gaming, or even better, game-making itself also ensures that the Homo Academicus Ludens is aware of the basic components of a computer game: space, sprites, events. These elements are key to forming a decent conceptual image of the desired research objective.

The use of technology to convey information, through an interactive, participatory, engaging, even gaming space can facilitate traditional and avant-garde questions alike (See Drucker 2009 and Lindhé 2013). Take for instance my current project on reframing ancient entertainment spaces: the digital ludi- (term coined by Beacham: 2012). The very process of ‘making’ an interactive environment gently pushes the researcher to take into consideration space, sprites, events: arrangements of environment, embodied agents, incidents. In order for one to orchestrate materiality and social realism in a geographically and chronologically remote context, every little chunk of information matters. Tangible evidence (literary, material) is easier than intangible (movement, navigation, sounds) that one has to reconstruct with tender loving care. The Romans and ‘us’ might be the same species yet we are indeed divided by technological progress. To quote Betts (2011)

‘in the Roman period, the loudest sound heard would have been a thunderclap (120 decibels)… Compare this to a city of the early twenty- first century, where constant, average, traffic noise reaches 80 decibels.’

In other words, one can reconstruct a happy dinner at Kathleen Lumley college where Singapore Laksa is served, but they only reproduce its conceptual image. The Homo Academicus Ludens is still a happy baby, crawling about, considering the gamification of knowledge, testing things out, making mistakes, but overall having fun and learning through the process of conceptualizing images for a graphic, digital medium.

Back at the University of Adelaide, the inaugural professorial talk was delivered by professor Frederick Ahl (see caption below), perhaps one of the most influential Latinistis of our times. Professor Ahl’s speech was about his latest translation of Virgil’s Aeneid for Oxford University Press. Professor Ahl tried to incorporate elements of interactivity within the text itself that are identified in Latin but not in English. Puns, anagrams, overindulgence in sounds, were but some of his observations. He rounded up his comment with an interesting, anachronistic simile: ‘modern (and ancient) audiences alike should consider Virgil’s Aeneid an intensively interactive text that unfolds before the reader in the form of an interactive computer game.’ Imagination conveyed through visual media is one thing, however there is no doubt that if Virgil’s readers in 2013 see the parallel between an Epic as old as Europe and an interactive computer game, a toddler Homo Academicus Ludens is reframing old and new questions, and the communication of knowledge altogether through the primal action of playing.

PS: Last week I attended Carl-Erik Engqvist’s seminar on Gamemaker at HUMlabX. Note my mini game (Only two levels! Caption below). I called it Space Debris. It obviously takes place above the Earth’s atmosphere. I never thought it would be that easy. Too much fun…to paraphrase Levi-Strauss: Games are good to think with.

[i] Please allow me to remind you that Linnaeus coined the term homo in Latin to describe the genus that is separated from the earlier hominids because of the emergence of tool use, language and culture. Homo refers to human. Not man, unless you are a 1970s anthropologist who enjoys flying small planes over Borneo. It is 2013: get over it, we are gender-cool.

[ii] Homo Ludens (Playing human) is a book written in 1938 by historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga. He discusses the importance of the play element of culture and society. Huizinga uses the term play theory within the book to define the conceptual space in which play occurs. Huizinga suggests that play is primary to and a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture.

Reflecting on our (first ever) Digital Classicist Wiki Sprint.

 Cross posted from the Stoa Consortium

According to Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert the purpose of an encyclopedia in the 18th century was ‘to collect knowledge disseminated around the globe; to set forth its general system to the people with whom we live, and transmit it to those who will come after us, so that the work of preceding centuries will not become useless to the centuries to come’.  Encyclopedias have existed for around 2,000 years; the oldest is in fact a classical text, Naturalis Historia, written ca 77 CE by Pliny the Elder.

Following the (recent) digitalization of raw data, new, digital forms of encyclopedia have emerged. In our very own, digital era, a Wiki is a wider, electronic encyclopedia that is open to contributions and edits by interesting parties. It contains concept analyses, images, media, and so on, and it is freely available, thus making the creation, recording, and dissemination of knowledge a democratised process, open to everyone who wishes to contribute.

 

A Sprint for Digital Classicists

For us, Digital Classicists, scholars and students interested in the application of humanities computing to research in the ancient and Byzantine worlds, the Digital Classicist Wiki is composed and edited by a hub for scholars and students. This wiki collects guidelines and suggestions of major technical issues, and catalogues digital projects and tools of relevance to classicists. The wiki also lists events, bibliographies and publications (print and electronic), and other developments in the field. A discussion group serves as grist for a list of FAQs. As members of the community provide answers and other suggestions, some of these may evolve into independent wiki articles providing work-in-progress guidelines and reports. The scope of the Wiki follows the interests and expertise of collaborators, in general, and of the editors, in particular. The Digital Classicist is hosted by the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, and the Stoa Consortium, University of Kentucky.

So how did we end up editing this massive piece of work? On Tuesday July 1, 2014 and around 16:00 GMT (or 17:00 CET) a group of interested parties gathered up in several digital platforms. The idea was that most of the action will take place in the DigiClass chatroom on IRC, our very own channel called #digiclass. Alongside the traditional chat window, there was also a Skype voice call to get us started and discuss approaches before editing. On the side, we had a GoogleDoc where people simultaneously added what they thought should be improved or created. I was very excited to interact with old members and new. It was a fun break during my mini trip to the Netherlands, and as it proved, very focused on the general attitude of the Digital Classicists team; knowledge is open to everyone who wishes to learn and can be the outcome of a joyful collaborative process.

 

The Technology Factor

As a researcher of digital history, and I suppose most information system scholars would agree, technology is never neutral in the process of ‘making’. The magic of the Wiki consists on the fact that it is a rather simple platform that can be easily tweaked. All users were invited to edit any page to create new pages within the wiki Web site, using only a regular web browser without any extra add-ons. Wiki makes page link creation easy by showing whether an intended target page exists or not. A wiki enables communities to write documents collaboratively, using a simple markup language and a web browser. A single page in a wiki website is referred to as a wiki page, while the entire collection of pages, which are usually well interconnected by hyperlinks, is ‘the wiki’. A wiki is essentially a database for creating, browsing, and searching through information. A wiki allows non-linear, evolving, complex and networked text, argument and interaction. Edits can be made in real time and appear almost instantly online. This can facilitate abuse of the system. Private wiki servers (such as the Digital Classicist one) require user identification to edit pages, thus making the process somewhat mildly controlled. Most importantly, as researchers of the digital we understood in practice that a wiki is not a carefully crafted site for casual visitors. Instead, it seeks to involve the visitor in an ongoing process of creation and collaboration that constantly changes the Web site landscape.

 

Where Technology Shapes the Future of Humanities

In terms of Human resources some with little involvement in the Digital Classicist community before this, got themselves involved in several tasks including correcting pages, suggesting new projects, adding pages to the wiki, helping others with information and background, approaching project-owners and leaders in order to suggest adding or improving information. Collaboration, a practice usually reserved for science scholars, made the process easier and intellectually stimulating.  Moreover, within these overt cyber-spaces of ubiquitous interaction one could identify a strong sense of productive diversity within our own scholarly community; it was visible both in the IRC chat channel as well as over skype. Several different accents and spellings, British, American English, and several continental scholars were gathering up to expand this incredibly fast-pacing process. There was a need to address research projects, categories, and tools found in non-english speaking academic cultures.  As a consequence of this multivocal procedure, more interesting questions arose, not lest methodological. ‘What projects are defined as digital, really’, ‘Isn’t everything a database?’ ‘What is a prototype?’. ‘Shouldn’t there be a special category for dissertations, or visualisations?’.  The beauty of collaboration in all its glory, plus expanding our horizons with technology! And so much fun!

MediaWiki recorded almost 250 changes made in the 1st of July 2014!

The best news, however is that this, first ever wiki sprint was not the last.  In the words of the Organisers, Gabriel Boddard and Simon Mahony,

‘We have recently started a programme of short intensive work-sprints to improve the content of the Digital Classicist Wiki (http://wiki.digitalclassicist.org/). A small group of us this week made about 250 edits in a couple of hours in the afternoon, and added dozens
of new projects, tools, and other information pages.

We would like to invite other members of the Digital Classicist community to join us for future “sprints” of this kind, which will be held on the first Tuesday of every month, at 16h00 London time (usually =17:00 Central Europe; =11:00 Eastern US).

To take part in a sprint:

1. Join us in the DigiClass chatroom (instructions at
<http://wiki.digitalclassicist.org/DigiClass_IRC_Channel>) during the
scheduled slot, and we’ll decide what to do there;

2. You will need an account on the Wiki–if you don’t already have one,
please email one of the admins to be invited;

3. You do not need to have taken part before, or to come along every
month; occasional contributors are most welcome!’

The next few sprints are scheduled for:
* August 5th
* September 2nd
* October 7th
* November 4th
* December 2nd

Please, do join us, whenever you can!

Trendy Female Gladiators

cross posted from Umeå University Aktum Online

During the Popular Culture and Comedy conference at the University of Glasgow (popular comedy conference Glasgow), Professor Ralph Rosen, pointed out that, although entertainment in antiquity could be public and institutionalised art forms—therefore in some sense popular—we know very little about their actual aesthetic popularity. Take for example, gladiators. The stereotypical idea that comes to mind is… strong muscular men who fought for glory. Is that, however, all there is to it? Or are we just disillusioned and stuck with a stereotype of ‘ancient popular culture’ that has been misconceived and reproduced over and over through the centuries? To begin with, I wish to elucidate our understanding of ‘popular culture’ models, in history, after the event—as it were. Equipped with this, I will proceed to locate current digital and ancient analogue expressions of the genre and the importance of popular culture trends across times.

Street sign in Rome: Antonio Gramsci road

Current cultural theory begins with the notion of ‘popular’ as a cultural and artistic expression that is widely favoured by many people (Bennett, 1980:20-1). Paradoxically, the difficulty of such a definition is that scrutinizing ‘market figures’ could be inapplicable in a historical context. It also implies a distinction from high culture (Bourdieu: 1984). A less problematic definition draws on the development of the concept of hegemony by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Hegemony for Gramsci stands for the way in which the dominant groups in society, particularly those of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ seek to win the consent of subordinate of society. Those using this approach see popular culture as the struggle between the resistance of subordinate groups and the forces of incorporation operating in the interests of the dominant groups. Popular culture, in that sense, is a force of incorporation between the two groups- dominant and subordinate. Gramsci’s notion of ‘popular’ is applicable for historical genres as it views them within their historical and cultural context; it further recognizes that popular trends require a historical process: popular culture at the moment, and another kind of culture the next. It also requires a synchronic viewpoint- moving between resistance and incorporation at any historical moment.

Most of these definitions are normally applied to post-industrial, contemporary cultural artifacts. In these terms then, the term popular culture applied to a pre-industrial and premodern cultural environment could be considered to be an anachronism. Instead, what I wish to demonstrate is that popular culture is indeed a term that can be applied to premodern performance/ expression as well as contemporary. The ‘equilibrium of hegemony’ can also be employed to analyse different types of conflict. Bennett (2006) for example highlights class conflict, but hegemony theory can be used to explore and explain conflicts involving ethnicity, race, gender, generation, sexuality, religion etc.

Within the cultural landscape of Rome, then, gladiators can be studied as an example of popular culture, as they reflect social conflicts visible in their timely and spatial context of performance. Although our current cognitive tools of defining popular culture are post industrial- the shape or phenomena presents with as much certainty as we can make any historical claims on what is popular and whatnot. Similarly, the same methodological tools can be applied for the gladiators’ contemporary representation.

In the dawn of the 21st century cultural and social paradigms are circulating more rapidly than ever. Thanks to technology, everything is possible. Chroma key facilitates the video reproduction of visualizations of all sorts, digital reconstruction is used in abundance, and ubiquitous technology makes almost every single reconstructive project (artistic or otherwise) globally available as long as there is a screen, and an internet connection.

What is the current trend in gladiator representation? Are there gendered aspects of ancient entertainment as a social and cultural phenomenon? Specifically, how do ancient fighters/entertainers, both analogue, and mediated via screens, communicate trends about the representation of gender then and now? Many Questions! I will only attempt to answer some, here.

So how about contemporary popular culture and representation… of gladiators? Are there any female ones out and about?

Ever since the 1990s we are bombarded with pictures of ‘ancient’ action girls. First, it was Zena. Then, the 2004 pepsi commercial featuring Pink, Beyonce, and (of all people) Britney Spears. Obviously, Pepsi, for the sake of sales went beyond the macho and (very) heteronormative paradigm of Maximus in Gladiator (2004) See relevant video:

Ouch! We will rock you? Enrique Inglesias as Caesar? If Cicero could see, he would perhaps scream ‘O tempora O mores’ twice, thrice, a thousand times!

To paraphrase the most influential popular culture/ classical reception scholar, Professor Monica Silveira Cyrino, Rome in popular imagination projects a variety of visual interpretations and meanings, and it has been reproduced for screens across different and disparate times and cultures. Within mainstream popular culture, historical fantasy inspired by antiquity was popularized after the cinematic trend of the Italian pepla of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, within the context of Sword and Sandal, as well as computer games, the main action hero has been, until recently, traditionally Caucasian and male with females largely cast in a supporting role. Very recently, however, the producers of Spartacus (Starz 2010-3) speculated (and attempted) the incorporation of a gladiatrix; in their own words ‘we want more strong women, fighting’. Here are some ancient action chicks… they might not fight in the arena, but are quite fierce and, oh yeah, they do take down some Romans, one way or another….


Saxa in the TV series Spartacus

And there is of course a marvel comic character called Gladiatrix!


Gladiatrix

Of course, female action girls are, in contemporary terms, by-and-large highly sexualized (Surprise, surprise!!)… but how about ancient ones? Did female gladiators exist? Were they also trendy? Were they also sexualized and subject to the spectator’s gaze?

Female gladiators indeed, become a ‘trend’ in the Arena around 100 years later than the time of the historical Spartacus. Ancient literary sources mention a handful of female gladiators, some of them brave to fight to a standstill: Cassius Dio (62.3.1) Juvenal. 1.22-3 on “Mevia” a fighting (slave?) with exposed breasts. Also a munus between women and dwarfs (Suet. Domit. 4.2). A strong condemnation against female gladiators of the Flavian and Trajanic eras can be found in the Satire 6 of Juvenal, decrying the fact female gladiators were typically from upper-class families and seeking thrill and attention.

‘Who has not seen the dummies of wood they slash at and batter

Whether with swords or with spears, going through all the manoeuvres?

These are the girls who blast on the trumpets in honour of Flora.

Or, it may be they have deeper designs, and are really preparing

For the arena itself. How can a woman be decent

Sticking her head in a helmet, denying the sex she was born with?’

Obviously, not everyone was favourable of women in the sands. Yet a lot of literary evidence is against men in the sands also. With the advent and popularization of Christianity, these shows are rapidly declining. Female fighters were officially banned around 200 CE (Dio Cass. 75.16) but some of its components slapstick (in the form of comic physical abuse) and bare breasts has survived until later, under the term mime, in the Hippodrome of Constantinople.

Moreover, material, archaeological evidence proves further the image we have from literary sources. A marble relief from Halicarnassus shows reveals two honoured female gladiators, curreg Achillia). They are depicted in loincloths and wearing traditional gladiator equipment such as. greaves and a manica. Each is armed with a sword and shield. They are bare-breasted, as in their contemporary sculptural depictions of amazons but perhaps also implying a degree of sexual titillation.


Marble relief from Halicarnassus

Discovered in 1996 and announced in September 2000, in Southwark area of London, England, the Remains of Great Dover Street Woman provided physical evidence to back up the substantial literary evidence we have from antiquity. The woman’s pelvis is all that remains of the body after the cremation but the abundance of expensive oil lamps, together with other evidence of a large and luxurious feast and the presence of pine cones (burned at the arena to cover the smell) all contribute to possibility that this was the grave of a revered gladiator – who was a woman. Most experts believe the identification to be erroneous but the Museum of London states it is ‘70 percent probable’ that the Great Dover Street Woman was a gladiator. Hedley Swain, head of early history at the Museum, stated: ”No single piece of evidence says that she is a gladiator. Instead, there’s simply a group of circumstantial evidence that makes it an intriguing idea. She is now on display at the end of the Roman London section of the Museum of London.

Last but certainly not least: a (roughly) 2,000-year-old artwork, on display at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbein in Hamburg, shows a bare-chested woman in a loincloth brandishing a an object in her left hand that looks like a sica, a short, curved sword associated with a type of gladiator known as a thraex, or Thracian, just like Spartacus! Thracians typically fought in plumed helmets, with small shields and metal leg guards called greaves. Their unarmored backs were particularly vulnerable—and were likely ripe targets for sica.

pic-5.jpg

 

Statuette Museum für Kunst und Gewerbein in Hamburg

Experts had previously interpreted the curved implement as a strigil, which Romans used for scraping the body clean. There again… a bare breasted woman cleaning and not performing/fighting yet another (sexist) misconception about female roles through the centuries. The woman’s victory pose, though, does not support the housewife explanation. Reporting his findings in a recent issue of the International Journal of the History of Sport, Manas wrote: ‘No doubt the particular appearance of female gladiators would also cause an erotic impact on viewers’. (see full text here)

So, were female gladiators a trend? A product of shifting hegemonic power? An arousing, sexy spectacle? The reasons for the presence of women in the gladiator scene are largely unknown to us. Some potential explanations could be that spectators were in need of something saucier than the male ludi (gladiatorial games) or that the presence of women was corresponding to the increasing role of women in the emperors’ court. So what is going on there? The argument that females tend to be objectified more males throughout the history of performance, although reductionist, describes accurately certain features of female gladiatorial fights. However, at the same time, in associating and interpreting physical power through the centuries exclusively with males and passivity exclusively with females, if anything, we sadly reinforce binary gender models- certainly not always the case. To bring it back to contemporaneity, the fact the very character of Xena has been received by popular culture as a feminist icon, a female action heroine, creating almost a new genre: altfic, alternative i.e. non-heteronormative fiction puts gendered action heroes into perspective while also perpetuating traditional stereotypes.

Swords and shields, anyone?

 

When in Rome: Swedish Institutes, Myth, Historical Culture, and Contemporary Marketing

Cross posted from Umeå University, Aktum Online

My residential stay, originally planned for the whole month but then sadly postponed (due to a random and rather acute lung infection) offers me the great opportunity to study Roman entertainment in its birth place and original geographical context.

That said, I will start my blogging sessions with a rather ‘small’ entry on the academic, cross-disciplinary and transcultural experience of conducting research at the Swedish institute in Rome, and post a few more research-related posts later, before I hand the blog responsibility to someone else.

So, good morning from sunny Rome! Goodmorning from the Swedish Institute! It is the primavera season, the Italian spring, and the sun is slowly returning, shining bright, warming the city up. The wetness of February rejuvenates the surrounding nature. Everything is green, blooming, and fragrant. The benevolent sun accentuates the Eternal City’s details further; sculptures, fountains, majestic, old, adorned buildings that stand shamelessly gorgeous through changing seasons and countless centuries. Here in Rome, every morning feels like a new beginning, yet at the same time, deeply rooted in a dominant, glorious past.

The morning sun reveals some of Europe’s most dominant historical and cultural standpoints that are located in the city of Rome. In the same breath, the visitor experiences every day how contemporary technology shamelessly incorporates itself into the historical landscape. Smartphone sounds, cars and traffic, impatient Mediterranean drivers (like me) who signal one another by blowing their horns. In this rich fair of the senses, and in the very vibrant centre of the city, in via Omero, there is a quiet cluster of buildings, intended for deep thought and academic research: the foreign institutes.

The Swedish Institute in Rome, located near by the Belgian academia, the Dutch Institute, the museum of Modern art, behind Villa Borghese and nearby the Etruscan Museum, feels like a quiet shrine dedicated to research. In terms of infrastructure, it is very Scandinavian and proper, in fact subordinate to the Swedish Ministry of Education (Utbildningsdepartementet). It is the base for scientific research and excavations in Italy. It pursues academic instruction in archaeology and art sciences as well as arranging conferences, workshops, summer schools that hold interest to the institute. The Institute is in fact an attractive building in central Rome with a relatively well-supplied library, archaeological laboratory and around twenty rooms and smaller apartments for the use of visiting researchers and holders of scholarships.

The daily activities of the institute are led by a director. The institute’s premises in Rome include a library, archaeological laboratory and rooms for researchers. There is a supportive society (Föreningen Rominstitutets Vänner) with five sections in Sweden.

In fact, there are also five institutes around the Mediterranean sea: Rome, Athens, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Alexandria (see map below).


If research in the Mediterranean is what floats your boat and you are indeed a researcher employed by a Swedish institution, then you should totally have a look at this webpage

There, one can find courses organised by the institutes around the aquamarine waters of the Med. The Swedish institutes are in fact a very thoughtful Swedish government agency with the responsibility to facilitate Swedish (or Swedish based) researchers outside of Sweden. They exist to promote Swedish interests, and to organise exchanges with other countries in particular in the spheres of research, culture, and education.

The board of directors and the chancellery have their seat in Stockholm. The latest statute was stipulated in 1993. The San Michele foundation on Capri is also subordinate to the institute’s board of directors. The institutes are a meeting place for Swedish researchers. In the course of three days, I have met old friends from Göteburg and Lund and even some of our very own premods; young researchers, graduates affiliated with the Umeå Group for Premodern Studies. Our big, fat, academic family makes the entire cosmos feel like a tiny little dot on the map, and the most interesting discussions take place in the sunny balconies, with espresso and <i>pan di stelle</i>.

What is it that makes Swedish institutions in sunny, warmer locations so special? Is it overdosing in vitamin D in combination with the early Mediterranean spring? Is it the ‘other’, so very evident in the incoming Italian Carnevale? The latter concept once inspired Bakhtin’s work on Rabelais and for some, it still signifies the reversal of the normal social order, the power of the mask, transformation, transgression, stepping out of ourselves and comfort zones. The same thing applies to research abroad.

For those of us who conduct our research in academic institutions across Sweden, the Swedish institute offers a great opportunity to engage in pure research, novel and intersting, often unspoiled by teaching or administrative duties… like true zealots of humanities/sciences. We hang out at the institute, we drink lots and lots of Italian espresso in the sun, we read, we write, we exchange brilliant ideas, and we take long walks in the city. We attend wonderfully organised seminars within the institute or particularly interesting and innovative exhibitions in other, nearby institutions, such as this one
<a title="Hadrianus.it" href="http://www.hadrianus.it/about" target="_blank">www.hadrianus.it/about</a>

We spend our luncheon discussing complex concepts such as historical culture, or the importance of an interactive, participatory, and multisensory display of cultural heritage with archaeologists, historians of art, cultural theorists and museologists who are also residents here. But most importantly, we are granted the opportunity to engage first hand with fragments of myth and history as they are embedded in the culture, on an everyday basis, to experience remnants (or, even, the evolution of) the culture we normally try to comprehend through secondary sources and often colourless, sensory-less academic works in print.

And I shall end this post with an interesting example, a remarkable display of historical culture in a popular/ marketing context, which, I reckon, is indeed as Roman as it can be. Let me just simply clarify first that by the term historical culture I mean the expression of a new way of approaching and understanding the effective and affective relationship that a human group has with its past. <i>Historical culture’s scope</i> is to examine of all layers and processes of social historical consciousness, paying attention to the agents who create it, the media by means of which it is disseminated, the representations that it popularizes, and the creative receptions (originally in German: Geschichtskultur, a term coined by Erdmann: 2006-7). With this in mind, I mean to examine a popular (re)construction and (re)presentation of historical/mythical topos The example below displays a paradigm of a European identity that is inspired by classical myth.

So, my case study is a poster that aims to advertise Lavazza coffee. This is in fact a weird ad. Borderline kitsch, almost everywhere in Rome. Provoking, raw, especially if one has lived for 2,5 years in a very gender-equal, moderate, timid, and rather historically sensitive Scandinavian setting.


What first attracted my attention was the background- as it is my current field of research. Here is the Colosseum: a trademark building for Rome. Every city has its trademark buildings: The Parthenon on the Acropolis hill in Athens, the Opera House for Sydney, and so on. The Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre is an elliptical amphitheatre in the centre of Rome. Built of concrete and stone, it was the largest amphitheatre of the Roman Empire, and still the largest preserved amphitheatre in the world. Construction began under the emperor Vespasian in 70 CE and was completed in 80 CE under his successor and heir Titus. Further modifications were made during the reign of Domitian (81–96 CE). The Colosseum is situated just east of the Roman Forum-the historical centre of the Imperial Rome (see map below) a meeting point for Romans, where news and goods were traded and notables were commemorated.


The Colosseum could hold between 50,000 to 80,000 spectators and it indeed composed the landscape of popular culture in ancient Rome. It was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas.  Although the Colosseum is an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome, it ceased to be used for entertainment in the early medieval era. Like other ‘organic’ structures in large Mediterranean capitals were later reused housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress, a quarry, and a Christian shrine. Obviously, The said Italian coffee brand used it as a location of raw ‘power’, a symbol of Roman identity, a glorious component of landscape of the Roman popular culture, of the people, of cultural exchange, of bread and circuses, and so on.

Obviously, the poster’s direct connection with Roman historical culture does not end there. In front of the Colosseum, there is a semi-naked woman on her hands and knees, like a She-wolf with a wolf pelt on her back, two babies in front of her, holding a cup of espresso. Oh dear- too much going on. A few (Scandinavian and otherwise) friends laughed about it. ‘OK, so this the message: Roman mothers, while taking your children out on a Sunday walk to the Colosseum, please, do not hesitate to make a fashion statement by wearing your fur coat over nude-coloured underwear, and make sure you give your babies some espresso’. Please let me repeat: oh dear.

The famous coffee company, in a bold display of patriotism towards the national drink of Italy- espresso, aimed to target the historically conscious audience. But in a Roman context, even if one is not a trained historian, they sure know their foundation myths. All around Rome, one finds similar images if a She-wolf and babies. Even on rubbish bins.


Rubbish bin near Piazza di Spagna. Detail: A She-wolf with suckling human twins

The She-wolf, Romulus and Remus are a deep-rooted mythical reference that dates a long way back in time. Romulus and Remus are the twin brothers and central characters of one of the most important foundation myths of Rome. According to the myth, Rhea Silvia, daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa conceived the twins by the god Mars (or by the demi-god Hercules, in other versions of the story); once the twins are born, Rhea-Silvia’s evil uncle, Amulius has them abandoned to die in the river Tiber. They are saved by a series of miraculous interventions: the river carries them to safety, a She-wolf (<i>Lupa</i> in Latin) finds and suckles them, and a woodpecker feeds them. A little later, a shepherd and his wife find them and foster them to manhood. The twins, still ignorant of their true origins, prove to be natural leaders. Each acquires many followers. When they discover the truth of their birth, they kill Amulius and restore their grandfather Numitor to his throne. Rather than waiting to inherit the Kingdom of Alba Longa, they choose to found a new city: Rome.

<a href="http://playground.screenmediasolutions.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Screenshot-2014-03-17-12.58.13.png"><img class="aligncenter size-full wp-image-78" alt="Screenshot 2014-03-17 12.58.13" src="http://playground.screenmediasolutions.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Screenshot-2014-03-17-12.58.13.png" width="446" height="286" /></a>

<em>Lupa Capitolina: She-wolf with Romulus and Remus. Bronze, 12th century AD, 5th century BC (the twins are a 15th-century addition) – Musei Capitolini.</em>

There you go. So the message is clear. Espresso is as iconic (and intense in flavour!) for the Italian nation as the Roman amphitheatre, as beloved as the affection of the Lupa for the young twin grandsons of the King of Alba Longa, the sons of Mars. Still though, as a humble researcher of culture, I am still in awe of the connection, and furthermore how advertising and marketing can utilise these historical representations and narratives for the sake of the consumer. Obviously, the audience is never neutral in the process. Successful marketing requires that consumers get the message that the advertising poster aims to convey.

Most importantly, Italy’s microcultures, the Lombardians, the Vatican, the Southerners, the Islands, somehow, still relate to the glorious past of the Roman Empire [sic]; let me just add that after a small survey at the institute, I realised that its Italian employees have a totally different opinion. Cultural stereotypes, based on historical culture may still indeed have an appeal on the international consumer, who, unaware of the complexities of cultural identities in Europe, sees the Colosseum as a symbol of Rome, and therefore (somehow) of the Italian nation. It does not matter that the Italian nation as we know it today is a much debated (and certainly much later) construct and creation. History can be a very complicated issue… but I guess even this, last phrase, is infact banal. Such ‘a 500BCE’ statement…