Popular Culture in the Greco-Roman World

Course Material 2024/25

The aim of this course is to see how far we can approach ancient history “from below”. Can we begin to describe the cultural world of the “ordinary” people? What stories did they tell? What made them laugh? What did they fear? How different were their tastes, cultural preferences even language from those of the elite? Most of the surviving texts in the canon of classical literature pay little more than passing attention to the non-elite, and hardly any were written by those who were not part of a relatively narrow group of the elite or the well-connected. But there is nevertheless a significant body of material that offers us a glimpse of the world and world-view of the ordinary men and women in the street. This includes plays, fables, joke books, oracles, graffiti and visual representations of many kinds. All these will take centre stage in this course.

The course will start by considering what we mean by “ordinary” people. What levels of wealth or poverty do we mean? What living conditions do we imagine? How “multi-cultural” a group were they? And it will go on to explore the character of their culture, from their entertainments to their religious practices. Throughout we shall keep in mind the methodological issues at stake. These popular texts are no more transparent than any others; and some of them may not be as popular as they seem – and, in fact, the very category of “popular literature” or “popular culture” may itself be problematic. Were the cultures of the elite and the non-elite very clearly divided? How much culture was shared?

The course will focus on evidence for popular culture from the Classical Greek world (with Athens as a key case study) and in the first two centuries of the Roman empire. For the Roman period, in addition to Roman popular texts, it will make use of many Greek sources to examine the evidence for a distinct popular culture in the wider Mediterranean world. Some supplementary Greek material will also be drawn from Roman Egypt. The distinction, if any, between the Greek and Roman popular cultures will be one major theme of discussion

Section notice

This material is intended for current students but will be interesting to prospective students. It is indicative only.