Our featured researcher - Professor Alastair Blanshard
Professor Alastair Blanshard is the Deputy Head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, and the inaugural Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History. The Chair is named after Dr. Paul Eliadis, a UQ graduate, who established the position through a generous donation prompted by his passion for classics.
Professor Blanshard, who earned a Master of Arts from UQ in 1996, and a PhD from The University of Cambridge in 1999, is an internationally-recognised leader in the field of classical tradition, and a series editor for the 'Classics after Antiquity' monograph series published by Cambridge University Press.
What started as a passion translated into a career when he took up a teaching position at Merton College, 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., before taking up teaching positions at the University of Reading, and the University of Sydney, prior to his return to the University of Queensland in 2014.
As a way of exploring the value of the antiquity in the modern world’, Professor Blanshard has tracked various classical ideas through history to now. He is an important scholar in the field of ‘Classical Reception’, the study of how the world has been shaped and moulded by the ancient past. He sits on the editorial board of the Classical Receptions Journal. He is one of the series editors for Cambridge University Press’ monograph series ‘Classics After Antiquity’ and he is the subject-area editor for ‘Classical Reception’ for the Oxford Classical Dictionary.
Alastair, could you tell us about your research?
Broadly, my research involves looking at the impact that the Greek and Roman world have had post-antiquity, with a particular focus on the effects of Greek culture. How have ideas, artworks and artefacts generated in antiquity impacted on the Modern – from the Renaissance through to the 21st century. My work to date has been largely involved in looking at the impact that has had on sexuality. For example, my book Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity discussed the impact that the ancient discourses of the erotic, the discourse of same-sex love, had on modern notions of sexology and male body image – it is largely a 19th century book because that’s when the discourse of sexuality is really cemented. I have written a book Classics on Screen: Greece and Rome on Film which is a 20th/21st century book. I have also written a book on the impact of Hercules on western culture, Hercules: A Heroic Life. What is it about Hercules? He’s a murderer, he’s a transvestite, he’s a rapist, and he’s the most popular figure that has endured from antiquity.
So the next logical step is to go to the 18th century. The idea is that Romanticism makes Greece accessible with its love of ruins, with its love of the primitive, with its admiration of landscape - all of these things make Greece a fantastic place for the Romantics. If you don’t have Romanticism as a crutch – as was the case for most 18th-Century travellers - Greece is a degenerate barren place. Pre-Romantic Greece was a difficult concept to love. What did ancient Greece have that appealed to that group? What strategies did they employ that made Greece accessible? The argument I’m going to advance is a lot of the strategies they employed - like the reconstruction of things; recreating and imagining what it looked like in its hey-day; imagining that you’re battling the wilderness, so you see yourself as on campaign – were all important strategies which had a legacy in terms of classics and archaeology.
Why do you do this research?
I am really interested in the impact of the classical world on the modern in real ways - the ways in which the classics influence political debates and the ways in which classics can speak to us today. Why do our banks look like Greek temples? Why do we sculpt our bodies to look like a Greek statue? 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.
In one sense, history is a discipline that is about using the past to explain the present and I’m interested in the big story. How did we get here - the genealogy of us. All the links that join us to Plato and the steps in between.
What is the impact of your research?
The real impact of this research comes in helping us to understand ourselves -that is absolutely crucial to understanding where we came from, and also to make explicit what is often implicit in the furniture of our minds. There are so many assumptions we work on about how our world works, what democracy means, how men and women should interact, what is the family. We often don’t stop to assess those assumptions, and I think one of the things my work does is at least bring to light that these assumptions have a history. They show the contingency of what we take for granted, getting us to think about ourselves. Once we start to realise how those assumptions have been created, it gives us the ability to change those assumptions. It’s a liberating position to understand that you are a product of a history and the future can be changed. There’s a real potential to learn from antiquity as well. There’s a reason why, from the Renaissance onwards, people have found inspiration by reading from the works of the Greeks and Romans. Democracy didn’t come about by accident. It has extraordinary lessons for us today. I gave an inaugural speech when I took up my Chair and one of the examples that I used in that lecture was the extraordinary freedom of speech that the Greeks permit themselves. I contrasted, for example, the Greeks during the Peloponnesian War with the position of writers during WWI and WWII. The amazing freedom the Greeks allowed themselves in terms of performing plays that mock military leaders and which sympathise with the victims of war. During times of conflict, they’re prepared to open up debate and not see it as unpatriotic – as compared to what happens during WWI and WWII when so many terrible propaganda films were produced, films that rally around the flag, and its seen as terribly poor form not to be unquestioningly patriotic - yet the Greeks are staging these incredible plays that are indictments of war as the war is going on. This isn’t fringe theatre, this is state-sponsored theatre. The generals are in the audience. It’s a very different kind of moment. That kind of freedom of speech is an example of how we’ve been formed by the ancients, but can we still learn from the ancients too.
How do you communicate your research to the community?
I have a fortnightly radio spot with Michael McLaren that is broadcast in Sydney and in Brisbane on 2GB and podcast too – each week Michael selects something that’s in the news and I discuss how that would be handled in antiquity.
I’ve also been working with Richard Fidler on his Conversations shows. I also write a lot for The Conversation: one of my Conversation pieces was picked up in the Best of the Conversation – a year in the life of the Conversation – I reviewed the latest Hercules film, and had a piece on Greece and body image that was picked up by the NZ newspapers and in Samoa.
As a series editor for Classics After Antiquity, with editorial responsibilities for key journals in the Classics, and involvement in the Postclassicisms Network, I have the benefit of acting as a gatekeeper and actively setting the agenda for this research field.
What if I am a research higher degree student who wants to work with you?
I am interested in supervising anyone in the History of Ideas: any student who wants to think about why or how the ancient world has impacted on the modern in any way – for example, on body image; on film; on neo-classicism in art. I am also happy to supervise anybody who would like to work on any aspect of ancient Greek culture.
For more information about Alastair Blanshard's work, see: