University of Pennsylvania
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CfP: The “Popular” in Classical Antiquity
Graduate Student Conference, University of Pennsylvania, April 26, 2019
Keynote speaker: Jeremy Lefkowitz, Swarthmore College
What is popular culture in the ancient world? How can we study it? Why should we study it? In
recent years the discipline of Classical Studies has sought to move away from its traditionally
elite bias and broaden investigation of the ancient world to include popular culture. From Johann
Gottfried Herder’s work on folk songs in the 18th century to Lucy’s Grig’s recent edited volume,
the “popular” has been variously defined: as folk culture located in the rural tradition; as mass
culture in urbanized centers; as the opposite of “high” or “literate” culture; and as unauthorized
culture expressed as resistance. One of the aims of this conference is to discuss the validity of
such definitions for the Classical world.
Methodological questions are also a central concern; given that most surviving texts from
ancient Greece and Rome were produced by and for the elite, what evidence is available for the
study of the popular, and how do we account for the elite bias? We can look, perhaps, to
popular characters such as Thersites in the Iliad or poets from Hipponax to Martial who engage
with the popular through persona or language; we might consider whether the ancient theater
was a site of popular entertainment or whether genres such as the novel, fable, and mime
communicate a popular sentiment. For the study of the non-elite, material, visual, and historical
evidence can be especially illuminating. What can the archaeology of the poor, “small politics”
(Grey) or the “culture of the plebs” (Horsfall, Courrier) contribute to an understanding of popular
culture? What are the popular lives of images, and how can we understand their place in
popular culture? Finally, can we say that in the Classical World there is a “popular” aesthetic,
either in literature or art, or even a singular definition of the “popular”? We welcome submissions
on both Greek and Roman topics, but would particularly encourage the former.
Possible topics include (but are not limited to):
- Theoretical approaches to the popular across multiple disciplines
- Uncovering the popular in historical, archaeological, and art historical sources
- Graffiti, letters, and non-elite “everyday” writing
- Popular politics e.g. 5th century Athenian democracy under Cleon, or the Gracchi’s
popular land reforms
- Examining popular art through style, motif, or subject matter
- Popular religion
- Identifying popular themes or genres in Classical literature
- Why is the “popular” so often equated with the “bad”?
- Popular audiences
- Comparative work in other fields e.g. can anthropological or sociological case studies
enlighten study of the “popular” in the Classical world?
- The reception of “popular” literature beyond the Greek and Roman world.
Deadline for submission: Please send an abstract of no more than 300 words (plus brief
bibliography) by January 31st 2019 to firstname.lastname@example.org. Papers should be no
more than 20 minutes in length. Please include name, affiliation, and contact information in the
email but not in the abstract itself.