Professor of Media and Society Linda Robertson has received a Research Fellowship from Oxford University. Robertson will collaborate with Rhiannon Ash, a professor of classics at Merton College, exploring the influence of classical literature on the cultural understanding of warfare and empire.
“I am very excited for this opportunity,” says Robertson. “Dr. Ash is a wonderful colleague to work with, and I anticipate meeting many interesting people who will have much to say on the subject.”
The focus of the study will be the epic poem of the founding of Rome, Vergil’s “Aeneid.” Ash is widely recognized for her study of how the variations in translations, particularly of the texts dealing with war and warfare, influence how the Classics are understood.
Robertson has done extensive research into how war propaganda has shaped America’s cultural understanding of warfare. Her book, “The Dream of Civilized Warfare: World War I Flying Aces and the American Imagination (2005),” traced the influence of the medieval tales of knighthood and chivalry on how both society and the young men who volunteered for war imagined the nature and glory of warfare.
“I am now turning my attention to the influence of the classical literature on the ways that the purpose and glory of warfare were celebrated and taught in Great Britain.”
Written between 29 and 19 B.C.E., Vergil’s “Aeneid” traces the wanderings of Aeneas, a nobleman and warrior who flees Troy as it burns, until he arrives on the Italian peninsula and becomes the progenitor of Rome. The epic has been widely understood to celebrate the warrior spirit tempered by a strong sense of duty and piety. In particular, it has been understood as propaganda supporting Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, as chosen by the gods to be the heir of Aeneas. The English translations of the epic, particularly from the 18th century forward, had a considerable influence on shaping the values of the British aristocracy during the rise of the British Empire.
Today, there is scant toleration for any other interpretation of the epic. The most recent translation is by Classics Professor Frederick Ahl of Cornell University, and is published by Oxford University. “When a press carrying the prestige of Oxford publishes a translation of a major classical work by a renowned Classics professor, it would in the normal course of events attract considerable scholarly attention,” says Robertson. “Yet the critical reception of the translation has been notable for its silence. Professor Ahl’s translation does not support the conventional understanding of Aeneas as exemplary of the noble warrior, nor does it support the interpretation of the “Aeneid” as propaganda in favor of an Augustan empire.”
“One of the most important questions I want to consider is the scholarly silence that has met Professor Ahl’s translation,” says Robertson. Perhaps most importantly, Robertson will be asking the question: “Who owns history?” Universities play a key gate-keeping role in deciding what it is that students learn about the past, and how the past is understood. When what is at issue is how a nation understands the cultural symbolism of warfare, examining that gate-keeping function is critically important.
Robertson will reside in Merton College from mid-April to mid-June. She plans to produce a documentary as a result of her research, tentatively titled, “The Vergil Wars,” which Robertson hopes can be shown in classes in order to encourage critical dialogue.
Robertson is the founder of the HWS Media and Society program and has taught at the Colleges since 1986. She received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Oregon. Her scholarly interests include the rhetoric of economics, feminist issues and politics. She has also written on the representation of U.S. and other air powers during the bombing of Belgrade and the Persian Gulf War, including “From War Propaganda to Sound Bites: The Poster Mentality of Politics in the Age of Television.”
She has also published scholarly articles on the news coverage of the human catastrophe in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and on the representation of warfare in film. She is currently at work on a feature-length documentary about Harriet Tubman’s biographer, Sarah Bradford