Celebrity in the Ancient World

Robert Garland considers the meaning of fame and celebrity to the Greeks and Romans.

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787)One of the leading characters in The Clouds, the comic masterpiece by the Greek playwright Aristophanes, is the philosopher Socrates – depicted as a money-grasping teacher of rhetoric. On the play’s first performance in c.420 BC, some foreigners in the audience were heard to be whispering, ‘Who is this Socrates?’ At this the real Socrates rose to his feet in the theatre and stood in silence. In so doing he marked an important moment in the history of the cult of celebrity, by fostering, if not actively courting, public recognition. 

There is no word in either Greek or Latin that describes an individual who achieves public recognition during his or her lifetime, even though celebrity seems to have been a coveted status. This was noted in the first century CE by the Younger Pliny, who inquired in one of his letters, ‘Should I not take pleasure in the celebrity of my name?’ Our word ‘celebrity’ derives from the Latin celebritas, meaning in a general sense ‘reputation’ or ‘renown’. Instead both languages focus on the concept of fame (from the Latin word fama, cognate with the verb ‘to speak’), an enduring characteristic that outlived a person’s demise.

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