Play in Ancient Rome: An Interview with Garrett Fagan

American Journal of Play, April 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Play in Ancient Rome: An Interview with Garrett Fagan


American Journal of Play: Was there anything in particular in your childhood experience in Ireland that drew you to the ancient world?

Garrett Fagan: As a boy, I naturally played at soldiers a lot with my friends. We were inspired by whatever we had recently seen in the cinema or on TV, so it would be cowboys and Indians one week, the American Civil War the next, and World War II the week after that. I suppose my first memory of things ancient is seeing Ben Hur in the cinema with my parents. It was rather long and dragged in parts, but I thought the ship battle scene was cool-and the chariot race, too. Then I remember my devotion to the 1962 film The 300 Spartans when it appeared on television. (I watched it again with my fifteen-year-old more recently and found it very cheesy.) But the fine film Spartacus struck a chord with me then, and I still find its climatic battle scene impressive fifty-five years later.

AJP: Did toys inspire you, too?

Fagan: Yes, indeed they did. In fact, I owned many hundreds of tiny plastic soldiers-Romans and Britons, among others-and I would spend hours setting them up on my bedroom floor. I put the Romans in neat blocks and rows and the Britons in an undifferentiated horde. The Romans always won. This was the 1960s and 1970s, and war and violence were actively marketed to young boys as normal male pursuits. I even subscribed to a comic book entitled, with elegant simplicity, War! But after that, I had to wait until senior school (that would be middle school in the United States) before my exposure to the ancient world really began in earnest. That is where things took off, especially when I began to learn Latin and read about the Roman world. But the roots go back to my running around the garden with a garbage can lid and stick playing Spartacus.

AJP: Can you tell us about your training and the direction of your interests? Why do you enjoy studying and teaching ancient history?

Fagan: I suppose there are a few reasons. First, there are the foundational contributions made and the great level of sophistication reached by the ancients in so many fields of endeavor-art and architecture, engineering, literature, philosophy, drama, rhetoric, law, the rational investigation of the world, and so on. It is enormously impressive, even today, to be confronted by the refined majesty of the Parthenon in Athens or the hulking remains of the imperial palace in Rome, or to travel to any Roman site in the empire and find the familiar buildings, even in remote and isolated places. Similarly it is humbling to read the genius of a Thucydides or a Tacitus, whose works are seminal in several fields today, and to appreciate the political brilliance behind the organization of Italy after Rome had conquered it (which provided Romans with the tools to conquer the entire Mediterranean world). This was a world of great complexity, all achieved with minimal technology when people and ideas could travel only as fast as a horse could gallop or a ship could sail. It is really quite remarkable to think about. All that said, there exists the darker aspects of the classical Mediterranean world, the ones that make it a terrifying place in many respects: all-pervasive slavery that anyone could fall into; high levels of violence and warfare (with some exceptions, of course); horrendous attitudes toward women; individual worth determined by group membership; brutal punishments; and mass spectacles of violence. Looked at from these perspectives, the ancient Roman world seems callous and cruel, not a place for the weak. I find this tension between what is admirable and abhorrent endlessly fascinating. Finally, there is a great advantage in viewing a culture through a very wide-angle lens, from as a great distance as we do the ancient world. You can see how all the constituent parts of the culture work together: how the various systems interlock and how their social and political structures, religious institutions, economy, and value systems all communicated with each other. …

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