Belfast Telegraph

Celebrity culture is all Greek (and Roman) to me

By Robert McNeil

We are turning into the Romans of old. So says Ferdinand Mount, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, but not to be dismissed as a nutter just because of that.

In his new book — Full Circle: How The Classical World Came Back To Us — Ferdie argues that, in our attitudes to recreation, sex, food, religion and celebrities, we have outgrown Victorian times and bounded right back to the classical age.

I must say I’m tempted to agree. Veni, vidi, vici. Or as the poet Roger McGough translated it: I came, I saw, I concurred.

In a newspaper article, Mr Mount compares British cities to “the teeming, voluble world of ancient Rome, where pleasure-seeking was not tainted by sin, where the noisy streets were filled with a mass of migrant cultures, where paganism and astrology prevailed, where the human body was pampered rather than treated as a source of embarrassment”.

Even our fixation with celebrities is echoed in Rome.

By Jupiter, the current trend among them is even for Latin tattoos.

Ferdinand compares the canonisation of the late Jade Goody with the Roman worship of a bloke called Antinous who was famous only for being good-looking and attracting the love of Emperor Hadrian.

On the recreation front, where the twin pillars of classical culture were the baths and the gym, we have spas and health clubs.

We worship the body, where the Victorians were disgusted by it and, at the same time, our obsession with fitness goes hand in crisp packet with our behaviour as couch potatoes, which the Romans were too, except that instead of TV they just gawped at friezes.

Ferdinand compares the Colosseum to our reality television. Rather than watching animals being butchered — what fun! — we watch personalities being torn apart.

Then there’s our obsession with sex and the anything-goes attitude in which it is every citizen’s duty to try and mount anything that moves.

We no longer have Christian strictures to keep us on the straight — as it were — and narrow and, just as the imaginary gods of the Romans have disappeared, the current incumbent in the West is on his way out, having made a spectacular bags of things.

Conventional wisdom has it that the slide into debauchery was what did for Rome. I’m not sure I buy this. It had been debauched before, and came out stronger.

You can’t blame the Goths and Vandals either. Many of them were fairly Romanised — in the sense of being civilised — and, if anyone had let themselves go, it was more the actual Romans themselves, just as many immigrants to Britainshire want to make a go of things while many natives just sit eating crisps.

In his sermon, Mr Mount says that, before the Roman Empire crumbled, an ethos of self-restraint and patriotism prevailed. I’m uneasy about patriotism.

I don’t mind when it’s civic. It’s when it shades into the militaristic that I get the heebie-jeebies. Scandinavia and the emerging new Scotland, I think, get it right.

I agree about self-restraint. Nothing more tricky than restraining the self.

Look at Paris Hilton. In the papers again for relentless partying and appearing to give a Nazi salute. She’s the Cleopatra of our times.

Nice asp, right enough, though I’m still not clear what she does for a living.

Celebrity? It’s all Greek to me.

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