Fame and Ancient Celebrity

An early third century CE Greek inscription recovered from the ancient town of Oinoanda in southwest Turkey reveals that the Roman army relied on the services of Lucius Septimius Flavianus Flavillianus, a champion in wrestling and Pankraiton, to recruit new soldiers to the army. Much like celebrity endorsements familiar to us today, Lucius’ celebrity was able to drum up support and large numbers of volunteers as he eventually became a Roman military recruiter who identified then transported new soldiers to the Syrian city of Heirapolis.

Knight Armor

Ancient Greek and Roman world gave us many individuals who were celebrities in their day and whose careers provide us with what we recognize today as different aspects of the modern celebrity culture such as endorsements, groupies and 15 minutes of fame – albeit without the terminology. The price of fame in the ancient world is also surprisingly, and in some cases chillingly, similar with what we see today.

Although not everybody wants to be famous, it is still a natural human desire to receive, at least, some recognition for one’s talents and for one’s contribution. Greek mythology provides many examples of people who amplified this simple desire for recognition. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles says that he was given the option between living a long but undistinguished life or a brief life that would give him a chance to achieve immortal glory. Achilles chose the second option – preferring to be a subject of song for all eternity. However, a more subdued Achilles reappeared in Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus sails to the underworld and converses with the shades. One of these shades is Achilles who, when greeted as “blessed in life, blessed in death”, responds bitterly that he would rather be a slave to the worst of masters than be king of all the dead.

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Achilles and Ajax playing a board game, belly of an Attic black-figure hydria.

Another hero, Ajax, is said to have been driven mad when he lost to Odysseus in a contest over who is the best fighter in the Greek army. Believing that he is avenging himself upon the judges of the contest, Ajax goes on to slaughter a herd of cattle. Once he returns to his senses, the humiliated hero  commits suicide by falling on his spear. Sophocles’ play Ajax provides a minor variation of this -when Ajax comes to his senses, covered in blood, he realizes that what he has done has diminished his honor and decides that he prefers to kill himself rather than live in shame.

Celebrity and politics, with all its trappings of wealth, sex, and power, were intimately related to late Republican Rome. Julius Caesar was not shy about being the wealthiest and most powerful man of his generation. Evidently, his fame and fortune did no harm to his sex life as Curio the Elder described him as omnium mulierum virum et omnium virorum mulierem appellat (“every woman’s man, and every man’s woman”). Emperor Augustus, however, turned the fascination of the Roman public with his fame to his political advantage by exploiting his celebrity status to project the image of the quintessential public servant. His fame became a factor which enabled him to establish one of the most stable government in the ancient world.

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Portrait of Gauis Iulius Caesar (Vatican Museum).

Arguably the earliest celebrities produced by ancient Greece were its athletes. The first name to enter the Greek historical record of sports is the name of a humble baker named Coroebus of Elis who won the footrace at the first celebration of the Olympic Games in 776 BCE. Although the prize he received was an olive branch, the honor of winning was much more prestigious. Sporting events were an effective way of publicize the achievement of someone who had previously been a complete unknown to society as his name would have been announced and recorded throughout Greece.

For some, athleticism was unnecessary as simply being beautiful can give one fame. Helen of Troy, with her “face that launched a thousand ships” is one example of this as men came to see her all the way from distant lands. Penelope, wife of Odysseus, is another example as she had to spend twenty years for the final return of her husband, during which she devises various strategies to delay marrying one of her 108 suitors. The fourth century BCE Greek courtesan Phryne utilized her beauty in her occupation as her clients visited her from all over the Greek world and showered her with gifts. After she became rich, Phryne offered to use her wealth to rebuild the walls around the city of Thebes which had been destroyed by Alexander the Great with a condition that the walls should bear an inscription recording, or rather promoting, her and her generosity.

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“Phyrne” by William McGregor Paxton, circa 1923

Her efforts of self-promotion were not in vain as rhetorician Athenaeus of Naucratis provides many anecdotes praising her beauty and generosity. Praxiteles, a sculptor who became her lover, was also said to have used her as the model for the statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos – the first nude statue of a woman from ancient Greece. According to Athenaeus, Praxiteles produced two more statues for Phryne – a statue of Eros which was consecrated in the temple of Thespiae and a statue of Phryne herself which was made of solid gold and consecrated in the temple of Delphi where it stood between the statues of Archidamus III and Philip II. This, of course, leads to the question: what did the courtesan do to earn such a privileged place? The answer is quite simply that she was beautiful and  knew how to take advantage of her beauty. The Ancient Greeks saw beauty as the outward evidence of divinity. Much like today’s comparisons of a beautiful actress or singer to a goddess, comparison of a beautiful woman with a goddess has been popular since the Hellenic age.

If one did not have the beauty or the skills that can make them famous, being daring also proved to be an effective way to achieve fame. An example of this involves an arsonist called Herostratus who, in 348 BCE, set fire to the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Turkey –  one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Herostratus later confessed under torture that his crime was driven by his wish to be a celebrity. Hearing this, the Ephesians decided to execute Herostratus and ban all mention of his name – dubbing him instead as “That Who Is Not Lawful To Mention”. However, the ancient historian Theopompus mentions the name of Herostratus in his his book Hellenics and the name appears again later in the works of Strabo. The fact that he is remembered to this day, and the fact that the term “Herostratic fame” refers to Herostratus and means “fame [sought] at any cost”, proves that the tactic was a failure.

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Artemis of Ephesus. Terracotta figurine of Smyrna, 1st century BC

Like today, another way to ensure fame is to hire a publicist or a promoter. Nicias (c. 470 BC – 413 BC), an Athenian Politician and General in the Peloponnesian War, engaged the services of a publicity manager named Hieron to help him cultivate the image of a hard-working and self-sacrificing public servant. According to Plutarch, it was Hieron who helped Nicias to act out this part by investing him with an air of solemnity and self-importance.

The chariot races were the oldest and most popular spectacle of Ancient Rome. Roman charioteers, most of them were slaves, could become celebrities throughout the Empire simply by surviving, since the life expectancy of a charioteer was low. The most famous charioteer of all was Diocles who won 1,462 out of 4,257 races. After a 24-year career, Diocles retired at 42 years old with winnings reportedly totaled 35,863,120 sesterces ($US 15 billion), making him the highest paid sports star in history.

The devotions of the fans of the charioteers were reportedly quite intense. Pliny records a fan who threw himself unto the funeral pyre of a charioteer known as Felix. He added that the opposing fans tried to prevent this story from being recorded by asserting that the fan fainted and fell in the fire. Furthermore, fans could in engage in chanting, activities, and sneers together. Some extreme fans became an issue in the Empire when their favorite charioteer lost as they would incite riots.

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Gaius Appuleius Diocles

Like charioteers, most gladiators did not have a choice in the matter in which they were thrusted in to the public eye. Gladiators were mainly drawn from the ranks of convicted murderers and slaves. Most of them would only appear in the Colosseum once as they would be killed in the match. However, the best of them achieved great fame. Such was the attention that they received that others, including freeborn women, senators, even the Emperor Commodus (161 – 192 CE), offered their own services as gladiators.

Incidentally, gladiators were thought to be exceptionally potent. The poet Juvenal scorned a woman named Eppia, the wife of a senator, who eloped to Egypt with a gladiator called Sergius. “What was the attraction? The fellow was a physical wreck”’ Juvenal demands. “Ah, but he was a gladiator.” Eppia replied. A certain degree of self-validation through sleeping with someone famous also emerged in Euripides’ play, The Bacchae, when Dionysus became angered after his aunt Agave claimed that his mother Semele had never slept with Zeus and slept with a mortal man instead – thus denying Dionysus’ divinity and the high profile he would have gotten by being the son of Zeus.

For most of its history, the Roman Republic was governed by old political families and reliable power brokers who knew how to influence and discipline the masses. Elections were designed to give the ruling classes the lion’s share of the popular vote. Angry farmers and tavern owners would sometimes rise up and press their rulers for debt relief and a real voice in government. However, these revolts were put down quickly with promises of a better future and by hiring a few off-duty gladiators to threaten the chief troublemakers.

The man who brought down this system was a wealthy nobleman named Publius Clodius Pulcher (c. 93 BC – 52 BC). Well-known in Rome even before his foray into politics, Clodius had always shocked and amused the Roman public by his eccentricities and unpredictable ways. In fact, the more audacious his behavior, the more the public loved Clodius for it. An example of Clodius’ antics was when he committed sacrilege by dressing up as a woman and infiltrated the female-only religious festival of the goddess Bona Dea, with the aim of seducing Pompeia, Julius Caesar’s wife. The scandal led Caesar to divorce Pompeia.

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Clodius Pulcher, dressed as a woman, introduces himself into the house of Julius Caesar during an annual ceremony of Bona Dea, and is discovered. National Library of the Netherlands

After escaping punishment through a large legal team and generous bribes, Clodius entered politics  to secure the acceptance and respect of the ruling class who quickly dismissed him as a buffoon. After the elite rebuffed him, Clodius positioned himself as the leader of the angry Roman working classes. With his simple yet fiery rhetoric, Clodius pushed through legislation establishing the first regular handout of free grain in Western history – a move which provided him with a huge following among the common people, especially those who had lost their jobs in recent economic upheavals.

This surprised Rome’s ruling classes who continued to despise Clodius. Rome was so divided during Clodius’ campaign for the praetorship that the elections had to be postponed twice due to fighting in the streets between his followers and the faction of his opponent, Annius Milo. When Clodius happened to meet Milo along the Appian Way, a fight broke out between their guards and Clodius was gravely wounded until Milo ordered his men to finish him off with a consideration that a popular dead opponent was less harmful than an alive and angry one.

In the 1934 Hollywood movie Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo, through her character Grusinskaya, made the line “I want to be left alone” become one of the 100 most famous movie quotes in American cinema. At this point in time, Garbo’s own aversion to fame was also well known and MGM capitalized on it by bolstering her image as the silent and reclusive woman of mystery.

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Greta Garbo

This strategy was considered unique in its day and perhaps a good strategy for some celebrities to note as over-exposure is a danger for celebrities of any age. An early fifth century BCE Athenian politician named Aristides was popularly nicknamed ‘the Just’ because of his reputation for undeviating uprightness and integrity. Aristides became so well-known that, later in his career when he was threatened with exile for 10 years, an illiterate farmer who had seen him in person before approached him and asked him to write Aristides’ name on a shard of broken pottery in favor of him being ostracized. Without revealing his identity, Aristides asked the farmer if the politician in question had done him any personal injury. The farmer replied, “No. It’s just that I’m sick and tired of hearing the name Aristides the Just.”

Classic stone sculpture of resting male

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