Beyond my love for Dido, I also had an ulterior motive—while not necessarily ‘canon-busting,’ as both authors I chose are clearly canonical, I wanted to show that the traditional Latin course could be tweaked to make it more interesting and maybe help with retention. My hope was that by taking a typical Latin class and giving it a fun twist, students would be more engaged, especially over Zoom, and show them that classics can be more than just sitting and reading. And so, I decided to frame my class not only around Dido, but also around the idea of fan fiction.
I am not the first to take either of these approaches. Classics and Fan Fiction was the topic of two different talks at the recent Queer and the Classical conference (Talk 1, Talk 2), and at Res Difficiles 2.0 Elizabeth Manwell spoke about her success creating ‘themed’ Latin courses rather than author or text base courses (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). So my goal with this post is not to praise myself for coming up with this great new approach to teaching, but to reflect on how my class went—the ups, the downs, and what we all took away from it.
The basic premise of my class was that we were going to read Aeneid 4 and then Heroides 7 as a fan fiction of the Aeneid. This approach used Thomas’ definition of fanfiction from her article “What is Fanfiction and Why are People Saying Such Nice Things About It?”: “fan-created narratives [that] often take the pre-existing storyworld in a new, sometimes bizarre, direction.” With this, we also discussed reception theory, specifically the ‘definitions’ of reception as listed by Hardwick in her introduction to Reception Studies, since fan fiction is a type of reception. This was also important because I wanted the students to think about the reciprocal relationship between source text and reception/fan fiction.
I started out with a very ambitious plan: read the majority of Aeneid 4, all of Heroides 7, as well as the appearance of Dido in Aeneid 6, and Servius’ introduction to book 4, in addition to a few modern reinterpretations of Dido. In the end we got through only about half of that, which was okay because my students were really into not just the Latin grammar but the actual story itself. And I think the framework of fan fiction helped with that—they knew we were going to look at how the story evolved and so they had to know the story well.
I also had to cut most of the modern reinterpretations of Dido, but made time to include two that I thought were especially important for our theme of fan fiction. The first were selections from the first two books of Julian Barr’s The Ashes of Olympus trilogy, The Way Home and The Ivory Gate. These are a novelization of the Aeneid aimed at a young adult audience. We discussed the two ‘new directions’ this text takes Aeneid 4 in: [spoiler alert] Dido is Hera’s daughter and dies of a failed abortion, not by suicide. We talked about what type of reception we thought this was, based on Hardwick’s definitions, and if we would define this as fan fiction (the answer was yes).
The other modern interpretation we discussed was “The Choice” from the 15 Heroines: 15 Monologues Adapted from Ovid, produced by the Jermyn Street Theater in London and broadcast virtually in November 2021. With this, we didn’t so much discuss major changes to the narrative, as the monologue is based pretty much on Heroides 7, we talked about how the identity of an author can change a text. All of the monologues of the 15 Heroines plays were written by female or non-binary playwrights, making this the only non-male interpretation of Dido that the students read. Many thought that this made the feelings behind the words more genuine, as they came from lived experience.
Beyond class discussions of similarities and differences between Aeneid 4, Ovid, Barr, and “The Choice,” I gave my students two opportunities to reflect on the intersections between classics and fan fiction, since a goal of the class was to look at the reciprocal relationship between source text and reception/fan fiction. The first was in their final project, the “Fan Fiction Project:” they had to create a fan fiction (or fan art) of Dido’s story, and then reflect on how this activity changed their thinking about Dido. Since I have already posted at length about this on my Twitter, I am going to wrap up this post by highlighting responses to the last question on their final.
For the ‘analysis’ section of their final, I asked the students to answer the following question: Hardwick states that the relationship between source text and modern text is reciprocal: reception studies “yield insights into the receiving society…but they also focus critical attention back towards the ancient source and sometimes frame new questions or retrieve aspects of the source which have been marginalized or forgotten” (Hardwick 4). How have works of reception such as Heroides 7, Barr’s books, and “15 Heroines: The Choice” changed your critical understanding of Vergil’s Aeneid book 4?
Here are some highlights from their responses (all anonymous):
· “I think the biggest understanding I took from the works of reception is that it is not uncommon for people to interpret Aeneas (as well as the gods) as the bad guy of Book 4 of the Aeneid, and for people to recognize [the] powerful woman Dido could have continued to be without the meddling of the gods and without Aeneas…They recognize the tragedy of Dido’s death in her own story, a powerful and resilient woman destroyed by no real fault of her own.”
· “In the Aeneid, most of Dido’s decisions were made for her, but in the Heroides and 15 Heroines, Dido understands the power in making her own decisions and takes charge of her own life by making a decision on her own. I think this difference between the Aeneid and other works is what makes Dido’s character much more empowering in the Heroides and 15 Heroines than in the Aeneid, which is something I did not understand until considering each piece on its own.”
· “My critical understanding of the work has thus increased because with the addition of other receptions which ultimately agree with what I already felt would be a better portrayal of her character, I am certain that I am not alone in my response to the work and that others have had similar experiences with Dido’s story.”
· “My understanding of Book 4 an its subsequent projects of fan fiction is that the outcome of Dido seems to be dictated by society at that time…however, centuries later when women were given more respect in society, we see that the authors show Dido as an independent woman capable of complex thought, and not reliant on Aeneas…every piece of fanfiction since Vergil’s Book 4 have shown how the roles of women in society have changed and evolved since Vergil wrote Book 4.”
· “Perhaps, in fact, it could even be said that the elaboration [of Dido’s story in Ovid specifically] seems to be almost intentionally written for applicability to our own lives, from fine points like the incorporation of the all-too-common phenomenon of parents running away from parenthood, to broad points like the general literary framing of an ex who finally gets to verbally smack down the person who was less-than-honest with them.”
· “Reading the works of reception can give me new appreciation for the source text because it unlocks some sort of potential that was already there, and shows how the original stories and characters were so well built that they can be changed or seen from new points of view and still remain in tact…recognizing the shortcomings of the Aeneid in the first place, furthermore, doesn’t make me not like the work. I think that the best way to appreciate the work is to take it seriously and recognize its criticisms.”
· “side characters often provide valuable insight to a story that the main arc or main character may not provide.”
· “the reception works overall made me look at dido more as a human being with emotions than a minor catalyst made of anger who only serves as part of Aeneas’ story”
· “the works of reception offer such different takes on the same events that it helped me realize how the same variability can be present in any ancient story.”
· “This all changed my critical understanding of the Aeneid book 4 by showing how the change of time has lead to new versions of the story that better represent different minorities of the story that did not get justice in the original.”
· “Vergil’s Dido is vengeful and bloodthirsty, willing to doom an entire civilization. Once can feel the collective Roman horror and hatred towards Carthage that Vergil expresses, the kind that caused Rome to level its high walls and desiccate its rich soil. The reception versions of Dido, however, lacks this hunger for slaughter and ruin. This is woman, and a state, cheated of greatness and resigned to an inglorious end. The reception works portray a more nuanced view of Dido than the clear-cut vengeance hungry Dido of Vergil, and with a more nuanced look at the people of Carthage which Vergil resigned to the fate of Roman slayers. Dido, and her people, have more to them than their relationship to Aeneas’ kin, and the reception works provide this angle to the black and white story Vergil tells.”
· “While the Aeneid itself is a great work and source material, it is further improved upon and carries on its legacy through additional works of reception.”
So, if you’re looking for an interesting way to frame a class, I suggest taking a look at fanfiction and the theory associated with it. My experience with this class has shown me that doing so can greatly affect student engagement with the text as well as result in some interesting reflections about the relationship between the ancient world and the modern one.