This episode of Classics Confidential was recorded at the 2017 Classical Association conference (hosted in Canterbury by the University of Kent and The Open University).

One of the most well-attended panels at the conference was entitled ‘All of it. It’s all true.’ Star Wars and Classical Reception. Convened by Tony Keen (University of Roehampton), this panel featured papers by Tristan Taylor (University of New England), Benjamin Howland (Louisiana State University), Joanna Komorowska (Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University) and Sonya Nevin (University of Roehampton).

You can read the abstracts for the papers further down this page. Thank you very much to Tony and all the speakers for recording this episode!

You can listen on iTunes, or on our Open University podcast channel. The episode is also available on Soundcloud.

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‘All of it. It’s all true.’ Star Wars and Classical Reception

Theme: Classics in the Contemporary World

Convener and Chair: Tony Keen (Open)

In May 1977, the first paying audiences experienced an Imperial Star Destroyer soaring over their heads, as the original Star Wars opened on general release. George Lucas’ fictional creation is awash with different influences, from Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces to Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. One of these is the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the imperial system that replaced it, albeit filtered through Hollywood versions of events. In this panel we celebrate Star Wars’ fortieth anniversary by looking at various aspects of its relationship with the ancient world: the Emperor Palpatine as symbolic of concerns also expressed about Octavian’s rise to power; parallels between the attempt of Oedipus to defy prophecy and that of Palpatine and Darth Vader; Jedi Masters as di ex machina; and images that depict the events of Star Wars in a mode drawn from antiquity. 

From Republic to Empire – Rome and Star Wars, Octavian and Palpatine, from Roman Empire to evil Empire

Tristan Taylor (New England, Australia)

As the Roman Empire appears as paradigmatic for modern European colonial powers, so the Star Wars’ Empire can be seen as paradigmatic for post-colonial views of imperialism. The lessons that can be learned from comparing Octavian and Palpatine extend beyond parallels between their rise to sole power: both manipulated circumstances of crisis and emerged from the ashes of civil war as effective sole rulers; both clothed their precipitous rises in powers granted by the very republican systems that they brought down; both skilfully built and manipulated alliances with others during their rise, and ultimately turned on many of these very allies. Furthermore, the figure of Palpatine can be seen as an intense reflection of twentieth and twenty-first century anxiety about dictatorship and imperial regimes, such as that of Augustus that has shaped more negative interpretations of the first emperor from at least Syme’s Roman Revolution. Such anxiety has also shaped interpretations of Augustan literature, including in particular reactions to Vergil’s Aeneid in such scholars as, inter alia, Parry, Putnam and Boyle. At the same time, the very intensity of the negativity of Palpatine’s representation provides a touchstone for reaching more nuanced readings of history: all is not black and white.

‘He could destroy us’: Oedipus, Palpatine, Vader and the self-fulfilling prophecy

Benjamin Howland (Louisiana State)

Upon learning his fate from the Pythia, Oedipus attempts to escape the damning prophecy given to him; this directly positions him to do the opposite. Throughout Oedipus Tyrannus, Sophocles incorporates a common classical theme: fate is inescapable. Sophocles also introduces a paradox found within this theme which begs the question: had Oedipus not known his fate, would he have accomplished it? Just as in Sophocles’ tragedy, George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy contains this paradoxical theme of fate and how the knowledge of that fate drives characters unknowingly towards it. The clearest example of this is Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader’s attempt to prevent their own destruction at the hands of Luke Skywalker. Rather than preventing Luke from destroying them, they give him the tools by which he brings about their destructions. This paper discusses how the Emperor and Vader parallel Oedipus in their attempt to avoid fate. I argue that, through Lucas’ incorporation of Campbell’s archetypical heroic model, the Emperor and Vader’s destruction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy accomplished only through their attempts to convert Luke to the Dark Side, just as Oedipus’ fate is accomplished only through his attempt to escape it. 

‘Go to the Dagobah System’: Or Obi-Wan between epic and tragedy

Joanna Komorowska (Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University, Warsaw) and Aneta Kliszcz (Jesuit University Ignatianum, Kraków)

The authoritarian tone of many divine interventions remains one of the more troubling features of Euripidean theatre (see discussions concerning Orestes or Ion): faced with nearly unbearable anguish, gods of tragedy all too often appear to issue long series of instructions and commands seemingly – at least for the modern sensibility – at odds with the tone of staged events. This troubling quality appears to be shared by some appearances of Obi-Wan Kenobi, particularly as featuring in The Empire Strikes Back: this seems of particular interest given the fact that for the most part the old Jedi Knight, a mentor to Luke Skywalker, appears to resemble the figure of Athena as portrayed in the Odyssey. Further questions may be raised should one reflect on the function of the ‘arch-master’, Yoda, particularly given the latter’s superior knowledge. Effectively, what we propose to explore is the portrayal of the Jedi Masters as depicted in the original trilogy – in considering it, we would like to draw attention to the possible ancient models and parallels manifest in both in the role these Masters have within the plot and the actual way their role is fulfilled. 

Greek vases from a galaxy far far away: An examination of Star Wars–ancient Greece fan art and what it suggests about the public perception of classical culture

Sonya Nevin (Roehampton)

This paper analyses the use of classical motifs within the substantial body of Star Wars fan art. It will focus on exploring the strand of fan art that depicts Star Wars scenarios as ancient Greek vase scenes. These works include an imitation of the Rhodian plate, an imitation of Exekias’ Achilles-Penthesiliea amphora, and many more imitating the colour scheme and patterned borders that are distinctive elements of Greek vase decoration. After discussing individual examples and trends, the paper will consider this mode of fan art within its wider genre (including the inclination for cross-over/mash-up art), and will explore what this style of art indicates about perceptions of the classical world, with emphasis on the concept of ancient history as fantasy.

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