Finding the Roots of Graphic Novels in the Ancient World

Recent research on the use of graphic narratives in the ancient world has revealed their value to everyday people in the ancient Mediterranean — similar to modern audiences’ appreciation for such work.

Jennifer A. Rea and Liz Clarke, Perpetua’s Journey: Faith, Gender, and Power in the Roman Empire (2017), scene in which the martyr Perpetua is dragged to the Carthaginian Forum with other Christian prisoners and put on display for the crowd in 203 CE. (courtesy Oxford University Press)

Graphic novels have long been a powerful medium for speaking to the masses, even if they haven’t been referred to as such. The stories told through ancient art have spoken to more people than most ancient authors, and yet they have never received the same respect as writers such as Thucydides or Virgil. In part, this stems from the belief that the written word and literacy are two elements of a refined civilization. However, expanding out ideas of literacy to include a more graphic lexicon not only elevates comics, graphic novels, and other narrative art forms, it allows us to read the ancient world much more successfully.

Comics and graphic novels have a disputed origin story, the features of which depend on how exactly you define the medium. The etymology of the term dates back to the use of comical cartoon strips inserted into American newspapers in the late 19th century. However, if comics are broadly construed as a series of artistic panels that form graphic narratives, one could argue for their birth as early as the cave paintings of Paleolithic France.

A page from the CE Codex Purpureus Rossanensis (ca. 6 century) from the book by G. Pischel, Storia Universale dell’Arte, Vol. 1, Mondadori, Verona (1966) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Recent research on the use of graphic narratives in the ancient world has revealed their value to everyday people in the ancient Mediterranean — similar to modern audiences’ appreciation for such work. George Kovacs, a professor of Ancient Greek and Roman Studies at Trent University, has written extensively on the use of graphic storytelling in antiquity. He emphasizes that while people have often dismissed such storytelling as lower in status than the liberal arts of epic poetry or historical prose, visual works were crucial for building complex narratives that could stand in for alphabetic literacy.

The ancient Mediterranean world relied on oral and pictorial communication — or a combination of speaking, drawing, and writing — as an imminently more effective means of communication than words alone. The literacy rate is estimated at only 10% to 15% in antiquity. However, as many have pointed to, literacy exists on a spectrum and can be supplemented by graphics. Peter Keegan, an expert in ancient graffiti, notes that literacy is more a continuum than a yes or no skill, a fact often revealed in the extensive textual and pictorial graffiti that survive from antiquity.

Perhaps our championing of alphabetic literacy is in part due to our belief that it is shorthand for civilization itself. As ancient historian Rosalind Thomas wrote in her book, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece: “Today, literacy is equated with high culture and literacy rates are assumed to correlate with cultural activity: in other words, literacy is consciously or unconsciously equated with civilization.” In the ancient world, literacy was often the marker of privilege, but illiteracy should not be taken as a synonym for stupidity.

Standard of Ur, 26th century BC, “War” panel(circa 2600 BCE) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Narrative art of antiquity had a similar structure to modern comics. Just as contemporary artists use the strip layout to structure and frame the stories, ancient artisans employed registers, architectural devices, and other visual boundaries in order to set off certain scenes, or indicate spatial and chronological movement within a story. The Near Eastern “Standard of Ur” dates to 2600 BCE and comes from the ancient city of Ur, now in modern-day Iraq. The mysterious wooden box tells a continuous story of banquets and military campaigns over the course of three distinct registers using inlaid shell, stone, and lapis lazuli. Similarly, ancient Egyptian murals in temples and tombs often intermixed hieroglyphs with graphic depictions in order to depict the actions of a particular pharaoh.

In ancient Greece, artists often turned to using temple friezes and ceramics in order to tell stories of religious ceremonies, military victories, or mythological tales. The Parthenon frieze created in the mid-fifth century BCE depicts Athenians participating in a religious procession celebrating Athena called the Panathenaic procession. The frieze is a series of depictions of worshippers moving towards the Parthenon on Athens’s Acropolis. Similarly, Greek vases with various paintings upon them could be set up sequentially to collectively tell the story of Hercules’s twelve labors, or recreate various scenes from the Trojan War.

The “Plaque of the Ergastines” (447-432 BCE) depicts six young Ergastines, young women tasked with weaving the peplos garment given to the goddess Athena during the Panathenaic procession. The plaque is now in the Louvre in Paris, France (image by Bob Hall via Wikimedia Commons)

Many of the ancient graphic narratives that survive today were funded by the state and often ordered by a ruler — propaganda in pictures. The elaborate scenes etched on the Column of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius in Rome were used to transmit a narrative about imperialism and warfare, but also depicted the daily life of soldiers on the frontiers of the empire. However, some narrative art did come from the populace. Pompeii and Herculaneum provide ample evidence for regular people employing graphic narratives at home, in the amphitheater, and in places like restaurants or bars. A series of frescoes and graffiti found in a tavern in Pompeii tell an amusing tale about dice players and drinkers at a local tavern.

A series of frescoes from a bar on the Via di Mercurio in Pompeii depicts some amusing bar scenes intermixed with amusing graffiti called dipinti (image by Wolfgang Rieger from John R. Clarke’s Ars Erotica (2009), public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to fresco, elaborate marble sarcophagi could relate well-known stories. They could also thread the biographies of the deceased into the stories of heroes. With the onset? of Christianity, the religious stories that underpinned the new religion also became important to tell through graphic narratives. In the Venerable Bede’s Lives of the Abbots, he noted that a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon abbot named Benedict Biscop working in Northumbria intermixed scenes from the New and Old Testaments in order to show their agreement. A picture of Isaac carrying wood for his sacrifice was followed by a painting of Christ carrying his cross. The art was important for speaking to the newly converted in early England about how the older Jewish stories complimented newer Christian ones within the belief system.

Perhaps another reason that graphic novels and comics have received a reputation as a lower form of literature is that they are more democratic media in terms of accessibility. Yet democratic doesn’t inherently mean simplistic. Into the early middle ages, narrative art continued to allow people to access both new and old stories. They also frequently related the stories of martyrs and saints, many of them were women and slaves (i.e. not the most common subjects of ancient art). The famed Lothair Crystal tells the story of Susanna, who was harassed and blackmailed by voyeurs. Early evidence for a #metoo moment for a woman who was not believed until a young man named Daniel defended her.

The Lothair Crystal (855-869 CE) is a product of the Carolingian Empire and tells the story of Susanna, as transmitted in the Book of Daniel. It now resides in the British Museum (photo by Ashley Van Haeften via Wikimedia Commons)

There are countless other examples of narrative art speaking to the masses that populated the premodern Mediterranean. During the middle ages, illuminated manuscripts, woven narratives like the 11th century Bayeux Tapestry, and many other artisan works combined text with pictures. However, it is notable that the field of Classics is now turning towards graphic novels in order to reach similar audiences. Text and image are again being combined to transmit the stories of antiquity.

Scene 19 of the Bayeux Tapestry (image on web site of Ulrich Harsh, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Books like Classics and Comics have recently shown a light on the fact that since the 1940s, comics have often referenced Greek mythology and employed classical figures like Julius Caesar. However, the modern graphic novel trend has also allowed a number of classical stories with an historical basis to be told through the medium as well. Some have been historically inaccurate, while others have been more successful in recreating ancient events and peoples.

Rather infamously for most classicists, Frank Miller’s 300 limited series did indeed tell the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE. Miller’s popular depiction was also wildly inaccurate. It overlooked the Spartan use of slaves called helots and took an xenophobic look at the Persians. But as academics have begun to lend their expertise to graphic novels, we have seen the historical accuracy increase.

A number of graphic novels have begun to establish the value of graphic novels in teaching students and the rest of the populace about the ancient Mediterranean. The Age of Bronze series uses Homer’s work to visualize the epic events of the Trojan War for a new audience. Still others have delved into later Greek history of the Archaic and Classical eras. In 2015, the graphic novel Democracy recounted the political events taking place in Athens in 490 BCE, at the beginnings of the conflict with the Persian Empire. Abraham Kawa, a professor of Cultural Studies at the University of the Aegean, worked together with established animators Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna to tell a much more poignant and authentic tale than what is typically told. It graphically explores how the Athenians were torn between tyranny and democracy.

Panel from Bloomsbury Press’s Democracy (courtesy Bloomsbury Press, copyright Bloomsbury Press)

A further correction to 300’s egregious abuse of history was also provided through the comic series Three which tells the story of rebelling helots in Sparta in 364 BCE and Sparta’s fall to Thebes. Many of these stories notably view the ancient world through the lens of regular men and women in antiquity and lean on academics for expertise. In return, artists are helping to drive new readers to learn about antiquity — and maybe even seek out original texts from the likes of Homer and Herodotus.

Much as they did in antiquity, new graphic novels recount religious tales as well. Tom Gauld’s rich depiction, Goliath, tells the biblical story from the point of view of Goliath in the Valley of Elah. Additionally, the recently released Perpetua’s Journey recounts the story of the martyr Perpetua, who was killed in the amphitheater of Carthage in 203 CE along with her slave, Felicitas, and many other Christian companions. Oxford University Press, one of the most prestigious academic presses in existence, chose to print the tale by Jennifer A. Rea, a professor of Classics at the University of Florida, and professional illustrator Liz Clarke as part of a new graphic novel series. Together the two authors used ancient texts to make a poignant tale even more vivid.

While graphic novels and comic books focused on antiquity may seem to be part of a new and revolutionary genre within academic publishing, the mixing of text and image would have been familiar to the people that lived in the ancient Mediterranean. These visual tales are no doubt stunning to read and certainly hold the potential for introducing new, younger, and more diverse readers to the past. However, if the trend is to continue, the literati will finally have to give them their due and put graphic novels and comics on par with the literary genres of poetry, drama, fiction, and historical prose that have been championed within the academy for hundreds of years.

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