5 Times Classical Memes LIED To You (2023)

As with many popular things on the internet, memes are not a great tool for providing nuance and making fine academic distinctions. Therefore as a result, what can be popular sometimes isn’t always technically correct. Sometimes… the memes lie to you! Here are 5 times that Classical Memes led you down the garden path.

5 Times Classical Memes LIED To You (1)

1. Achilles and Patroclus… are cousins?

If you have followed my page for any length of time, you’ll know a very common joke in the Classical Meme world is about our favourite paring of Achilles and Patroclus - namely that they are reduced to mere ‘cousins’ as a form of… conservatism? homophobia?? laziness??? This mainly stems from the distinct portrayal of the pair in the film Troy (2004) in which they are firmly established as cousins and have absolutely no romantic interest. Many of these use the ‘cousin’ element as the core of the joke, or similar terms like ‘room-mates’ or ‘friends’. Here’s an example":

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Except, here’s the thing… Achilles and Patroclus are cousins. Although, just how is quite complicated. There are at least five different versions of his parents in Greek texts, although they all agree that Menoetius is his father. The family link, as far as the mythological family trees make sense, is as follows: Aegina, a beautiful nymph, was ‘abducted’ by Zeus (in Eagle form) and… well long story short, she has a son named Aeacus, the father of Peleus and thus the grandfather of Achilles. She later, however, had a son with the mortal Actor, and that son was the same Menoetius, father of Patroclus. This makes Achilles and Patroclus first cousins, once removed (as they are a generation apart on the tree).

HOWEVER - there is not much to be read into this familial connection. Their relationship as cousins is never really stressed in ancient sources, and they are never really defined by it. The question about the interpretation of their relationship really doesn’t hinge on whether they were related or not - this was no particular barrier in Greek mythology, where almost everyone is related to each other one way or another. In reality, it’s the act of reducing their relationship to only cousins to explain their bond that is most egregious in Troy (2004) - as well as the fact that Patroclus is shown to be younger than him, despite being clearly older and more responsible, even in Homer. So, yes they are cousins but it really isn’t the gotcha people think it is!

I think it’s also important to note that a lot of these memes target ‘historians’ with their ire - although this might have been the case in the distant past, there are so many wonderful people out there in the world of Classics now that present a nuanced and unbiased picture of life in the Ancient world as it truly was.

2. The Library of Alexandria never burnt down
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Ok, so I may have talked about this before on Twitter, and I generally try to avoid spreading this misconception - but it is extremely pervasive in memes and internet discourse in general. The story goes that, at some point in time, the great Library of Alexandria, famed for holding copies of pretty much every literary work in ancient times, burned to the ground. Some people go one step further - what could have been? Romans on the moon? No dark ages? The leaps of imagination that occur from there are somewhat incredible to behold. But all that aside, the central point is both incoherent and also widely held - that the Library burned down and all was lost.

5 Times Classical Memes LIED To You (3)

So, where did all this come from? And what happened to the Library then? Well first of all, the Library absolutely did exist but it wasn’t perhaps the great repository of all knowledge that we think. It certainly had a large collection, owing to rather vigorous collection policies, but it was only one of several such libraries in the ancient world, many of which outlasted it. Being in Alexandria, it was of course subject to the tumult of the several changes of regime in Egypt during its lifespan. It both waxed and waned as a centre of intellectual thought and research.

Many people point to a specific event as the source of the ‘fire’ legend - the attack of Julius Caesar on Alexandria in 48 BC, during the Civil War when he aligned himself with Cleopatra. As much as we know, some part of the building was caught in a fire and was damaged, though we know it was not so extensive that it caused significant long-term problems - we know it was back in business a few years later. So, while technically there was a fire and some of it was damaged, there was no cataclysmic loss of information the likes of which people so often bemoan!

3. Carthage never got ‘salted’
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One of the older memes in the Classics world is the idea that Carthage was ‘salted’ - that is, when the Romans conquered the city in the Third Punic War, they ploughed the land and sewed salt so that nothing would grow on the site. While this sounds like an incredibly harsh measure, it certainly seems to fit with the general ire of the Romans towards the city - they burned it to the ground and enslaved the population. This led to the creation of many, many memes where ‘Carthage’ would often replace ‘salt’ in a common situation. For example:

5 Times Classical Memes LIED To You (4)

However, the reality is that, while this was a practice sometimes seen in the ancient world, it simply didn’t happen. The earliest mention of salt in relation to Carthage is in the 19th century, but from there it somehow slipped into history books as fact until later rebuked by those hard working Classicists we love so much. It may well be that it was based on similar stories from the Bible and other ancient texts, such as the city of Sechem in Judges. But the truth is simply that it never happened to Carthage - and it’s also probably worth considering why some ‘fans’ of Ancient Rome might celebrate devastating actions like this…

4. Hades and Persephone are not the dream relationship

Hades and Persephone are everyone’s favourite couple in modern retellings of Greek mythology. From Lore Olympus to Hadestown and even the game Hades, we have seen many a reimagining of their relationship in the Underworld realm, often through rosy glasses. For many, Hades can be seen as the introverted or closed-off man who deeply lives his beautiful, flowery wife Persephone. Their marriage is marked by fidelity, a major contrast to Hades’ brothers and Greek gods in general. In this way, they come to represent the dream couple of Greek myth. Some memes reflect this:

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5 Times Classical Memes LIED To You (5)

Unfortunately, their relationship in mythology is much more complicated. While yes, there aren’t a lot of affairs or extra-marital shenanigans, this also reflects the different role the Chthonic (Underworld) deities play in mythology - they just don’t crop up as much! But what is more important is that there is a very clear trend in mythology that Hades *abducted* Persephone while still a young girl - not that unusual in the Ancient world, but not exactly dream boat material. I’m not really go into detail about this abduction, nor use the more common term associated with it, but it’s more difficult to pass that off as the basis of a wholesome marriage. Yes, reimagine them in a new setting with a different story, that’s great. But when that bleeds over into people’s perceptions of them in actual mythology that’s much more complicated…

5. The Caesar Salad really has nothing to do with Julius Caesar

Ok really just a fun one to finish with. There are lots of misconceptions about things being named after Julius Caesar, which then come with invented stories to explain how the connection works. An obvious example is the idea that Julius Caesar was born by ‘caesarean' section’ and the practice gained its name and fame from him. This is of course, not true but also implausible, especially as Caesar gave a speech at his mother’s funeral many years after his birth. Caesarean section comes from the Latin caedo (to cut) and is otherwise unconnected. I’ve also already spent a lot of time talking about the Caesar calendar meme - read all about it here.

But the one that is a little silly is the Caesar Salad meme - I don’t have any problems with them, because they are just that - silly. But it’s worth pointing out that, no, it wasn’t named after Caesar. It wasn’t, in fact, invented for almost 2000 years - not until a chef named Caesar Cardini came up with it in Mexico, before bringing it to the USA. So it was named after a Caesar, just not that one. Of course you can always argue that JC’s popularity led to the name and title passing down through history and thus ending up as the Chef’s name - but that’s a bit of a stretch. Regardless, it’s fun to enjoy these memes:

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5 Times Classical Memes LIED To You (6)

That’s all for now - if you have any other meme misconceptions you’d like clarified, please let me know!


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