Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The Simpsons: The Father, the Son and the Holy Guest Star

This isn't really a full post, but I just caught this episode on TV and was equal parts amused and reduced to tearing my hair out. In this episode, for reasons unknown to me because I'd stepped into the other room, Bart goes to Catholic school and Bart and Homer nearly join the Catholic Church. I'm going to ignore the digs at my religion (some fair, some less so) because the point is, there were a couple of shout-outs to Classics popped in to the episode.

Bart is initially not impressed by Catholic school, but a young priest gets him interested by showing him a comic book about Lives of the Saints, in particular an issue telling the story of Saint Sebastian, who was killed by a sort of ancient firing squad (using arrows) during the persecutions of Diocletian. In Bart's mind, we see Sebastian burst all the arrows out of his body and back into the Roman soldiers who've just executed him. As one soldier lies dying, he sobs regretfully 'I wish I'd gone to more orgies!'. Ah, the popular view of Roman history It's just a long list of Christian martyrdoms and orgies.

Later, at dinner, Bart starts to say Grace in Latin (he gets as far as 'In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit') and Homer wants to know what on earth he's saying. Lisa tells him it's Latin, but then, for reasons passing understanding, elaborates by claiming that Latin is the language of Plutarch, who wrote Lives of great Romans. Er, what??! Plutarch wrote in Greek and he wrote Lives of both Greeks and Romans! Why choose Plutarch as an example anyway - he's hardly the best known ancient author around (he maybe was in the medieval or early modern period, but not now). Why not use Caesar, or Virgil, or Tacitus, or Ovid, or, well, anyone better known who actually wrote in Latin?! If you want an imperial biographer, why not name-check Suetonius?

I assume one of two things has happened. One possibility is that a writer for The Simpsons has recently read some Plutarch, enjoyed it, and wanted to get it in there without realising that Plutarch wrote in Greek, which is understandable if all you've read is an English translation of some of the Roman Lives. If this is what happened, then they are forgiven. It hardly matters what one line in one episode of The Simpsons says about Plutarch, this won't destroy classical research as we know it and might increase interest (though, thanks to Clueless, I did spend years thinking Spartacus was called 'Sparatacus'...). On the other hand, this could be the result of sloppy research, of a Google search and a quick look on Wikipedia without properly reading it, or reading an inaccurate Wikipedia article. This is more annoying, not because it really matters what The Simpsons says, but because I have a feeling this is what some students do. I've received some first year essays with some odd basic historical errors in them - a common one a few years ago was to think that Cleopatra had written an autobiography, which I eventually traced to a very old novel on Google Books. Sloppy research leads to silly mistakes just like this, which is probably why it bothers me so much when I see it on a TV programme!

And now I await an onslaught of comments telling me to chill, get a life and stop stressing so much about a TV programme...


  1. I think if they're going to include the reference, they should at least get it right. It would've been a super easy fact check. I'd be just as annoyed.

  2. Ok, as per your request I am telling you to "chill, get a life and stop stressing so much about a TV programme..." ;o)

    But if you did that we'd be lacking in fun things to read!!! :p

    Sloppy research and cutting and pasting from the internet without reading what they write seems to be an international problem with students... When I was interning in a high school last Spring I asked students to put answer some questions on the Mediterranean, including looking into a bit of its history... and I had at least half the copies stating that Mussolini was head of Italy during World War 2 in the 19th century. huh?!?!?! I did some digging and found that many had copied and pasted a paragraph from Wikipedia with that incorrect century, but they hadn't bothered to read it! When I asked in class when WW2 was they all knew the correct dates. aïe, aïe, aïe, aïe aïe!!!

  3. :oO (that's a shocked face, right?!) How do they not notice that sort of thing while proof-reading? Oh wait - they don't proof-read either, I forgot! :)

    (I know the blog has a fair few typos, but that's the difference between my blog and more official work)

  4. "And now I await an onslaught of comments telling me to chill, get a life and stop stressing so much about a TV programme... "


    I knew when I saw this on TV that you would be forced to comment on the Plutarch mistake. Perhaps the writers did it on purpose to people up? It is such a fundamental error that I can only assume it was done on purpose and with intent to annoy.


  5. * to wind people up.


  6. "Repeat to yourself, 'It's just a show. I should really just relax.' (la la)". I'm going to be stuck with that all day, now.

    I'm guessing they picked Plutarch, because he's obscure without being too obscure. A name the average viewer might have heard before without really knowing anything. It's a very Lisa sort of choice. Caesar or Virgil would be too obvious.

    As for the language thing, it's sort of understandable. Sometimes I have to remind myself that a given late author wrote in Greek. Look at somebody like Cassius Dio: Roman imperial era, wrote about Roman history, but wrote in Greek. It's a major hassle for tagging.

    BTW, I like the site redesign, though having the sidebar on the left is taking some getting used to.

  7. Thanks! :) I agonised over it for ages but I really liked the idea of having the tabs at the top for publications and links, so I figured as long as I could keep the mosaic it was worth doing

  8. Juliette (long time reader, first time commenter, love the show Steve):

    I reckon the Plutarch reference comes from the fact that a Simpsons scriptwriter was frightened by a Hollywood musical whilst in the womb, specifically "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers", and the song "Sobbin' Women": Thus:

    "Tell ya 'bout them sobbin' women
    Who lived in the Roman days.
    It seems that they all went swimmin'
    While their men was off to graze.
    Well, a Roman troop was ridin' by
    And saw them in their "me oh my",
    So they took 'em all back home to dry.
    Least that's what Plutarch says.
    Oh yes!"

    Therefore the connection was made between "Roman", "historian" and "Plutarch". Simples!

    7B47B (as we cognoscenti call it!) could be another subject for your dissections!

  9. Justin - thanks, that makes much more sense! They probably got it from that and assumed that anyone who wrote about Romans wrote in Latin (which is a fair assumption, and much more understandable than the linguistic issues in The Passion of the Christ, which I'm planning to look at during Holy Week if I can stomach it!). I had a vague notion that 7B47B was based on the rape of the Sabine women, but had avoided it for that very reason, because it sounded disturbing! I didn't realise Classics was actually name-checked in it. I guess I really should go and watch it now...

    And thank you for the nice comments! :)

  10. Actually, 7B47B is based on The Sobbin' Women by Stephen Vincent Benét. Of course that's based on the rape of the Sabines, so there is a connection, just one step removed.

  11. I'm fascinated to know what you do, DemetriosX. Please enlighten us.

  12. I'm just this guy, you know. Erm, anyway, I'm a translator. I worked on Brill's New Pauly, but mostly I do technical stuff and computer games. I just happen to love ancient history.

  13. Thank you for posting this, Juliette. For a while I felt very alone in my frustration with this Simpsons episode. I wrote a snail mail to Matt Groeenig saying, basically, "No! No! NOT LISA! Don't make Lisa screw up like that! WHY?!" He never got back to me.

  14. @ Steve: Lisa also wasn't able to spell "ameliorate" without a sample sentence and didn't even know that Joan of Arc died on the stakes (from the episode when Homer was recounting stories from the overdue library book). She's just a kid, still learning.

    Re: Plutarch. My theory is that the writers chose the even more Greek "Plato" first so that the wordplay with Homer's "Pluto" works, but changed it to the Greco-Roman Plutarch, who gained Roman citizenship. Less of a Greek but still, his books were definitely written in Greek & had to be translated later on by others to Latin.


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