Colloquium Considers Celebrities Over The Centuries

Sumner Ellsworth

Today’s society is a culture obsessed with celebrity and instant fame. Every night of the week, at least one “reality” show can be found on television and “get rich quick” schemes abound as people strive to shine in their 15 minutes of fame. But has this always been the case? What did fame and celebrity consist of before the advent of mass media and instant communication? That is the question that Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics Robert Garland addressed at his”Cult of Celebrity” lecture on Tuesday as part of the Humanities Colloquium. According to Garland, the instant gratification and immediate availability of fame is a recent phenomenon that comes with the advances in communications that allow for instantaneous news. “Celebrity today is obtainable by any jackass,” he said. This was not the case in ages past, however. “Celebrity existed, but a person usually had to be born to it,” Garland said. The upper classes could afford to be celebrities, while the masses did not necessarily have the means. Garland proposed that the search for fame is documented even in one of the earliest texts, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and that Gilgamesh merely mistook immortality for immortal fame – his true goal. The word “celebrity” itself is derived from Greek and Latin roots. Garland proceeded to detail incidents of fame and celebrity throughout the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, from prostitutes to emperors and queens to intellectuals. Standards were different then as to what and who was popular. “Gladiators were the closest thing they had to modern popular idols,” Garland said. In addition, beauty was not as important and was almost never recorded. There are no recorded physical descriptions of Cleopatra, for example. Instead, people were highly regarded for their other qualities. Intellectuals were among the most famous in society. “Celebrities weren’t a class apart,” Garland explained. “They lived in and among the people. [Yet] stardom retained its mystique.” The lecture, which took place in the Ho Lecture Room, was well-attended by an informed and attentive mix of students and faculty.