Survivors: Series 2, Episode 4

A few mentions of Classics on Survivors tonight, though none very flattering I'm afraid. Spoilers below for anyone not up to date with the British episode transmissions.

Two of our heroes have been kidnapped by slavers and put to work in a coal mine, run by a man who still wears a suit and tie while civilization collapses around him. This guy is not a good guy - he is totally immoral and tries to have one of our heroes hanged. He's also rather keen on the Classics.

Our slave dealing bad guy quotes Xenophon at length and bases his justification of slavery on the fact that Athens and Sparta were both built on slavery. He isn't really a Classicist though, by which I mean he isn't someone who is interested in ancient history and classics because it happens to be something that interests him. This guy is pure public school product - Sir Humphrey Appleby to the power of a hundred. His interest in Classics is his way of feeling superior to those around him - he laments the days when all reasonably well educated boys (not girls) would recognise quotes from Xenophon, he sneers at one of our guys for having been to a 'polytechnic' (a university that used to be a polytechnic college) and he generally considers himself to be above everyone around him.

All his classical references are accurate, and his comments about slavery are all accurate too. Slavery is much more common than it is uncommon, and his description of Athenian laws as 'draconian' is particularly appropriate, since the word itself comes from an especially harsh Athenian leader, Draco. Of course, none of that stops everything he says from being utterly and completely immoral.

I don't think we can complain too much about the references to classical slavery here - much as we may hate to admit it, much as it is horrible and shameful to think how many of ancestors were involved in one slave trade or another, it's all true, though seeing nothing but that side of ancient society is a shame. What's more depressing from a pop culture point of view, though, is the image of the unbearably smug, utterly immoral, sexist, racist unpleasant public school boy who is not only the only person who knows any classics, but the only person who values it. This horrible slave dealer dismisses everyone else, criticising them for not knowing Xenophon while displaying his extreme ignorence of coal mining, despite his job running a coal mine. All this serves to reinforce the view that Classics is a useless, dead subject only valued by awful, privileged people (awful and privileged, not awful because they're privileged, though nice privileged people are few and far between on primetime television) and utterly useless in a survival situation.

I don't think Classics is useless, though. Perhaps if our guys knew more about human history, they might be able to see these things coming and do something about them. Knowing about ancient slavery doesn't mean you have to emulate it, like the bad guy - it can help you to avoid it, to see the risks and the dangers, to avoid getting kidnapped by slavers and to fight against it more effectively. The bad guy was absolutely right about human history being built on slavery - it's knowing and being aware of that that can help us not to repeat history, to strive for something better. Maybe Xenophon won't help anyone to run a coal mine, but he does have plenty to teach us about human nature.

I had begun to wonder if the stereotype of the public-school-boy-Classicist was starting to die out, but it seems not - and it's turning evil. We'll have to try to introduce some more positive Classicist role models into popular culture!


  1. I have to say he was the most unlikely classics professor I've ever seen on TV, if he was that is. I'd made the assumption he was yet another of those characters who spend far too much time in public libraries, have no social skills, and yet mysteriously seem to find themselves in charge when society crumbles round their ears.

  2. He seemed like some kind of Evil!Sir Humphrey to me, someone who learned Greek and Latin at school and thinks that somehow makes him better than everyone else. I do wonder how these people keep ending up in charge though!

  3. Of course, one of the main reasons that slavery was so much more prevalent in the past is that we have replaced slaves with machines. The villain here also seems to be using ancient slavery to justify a more modern model. Many ancient slaves had the opportunity to earn a little on the side in the hope of eventually being able to purchase their freedom someday. OTOH, mine slaves had it the very worst and that appears to be the situation here.


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