Ancient Roman British English?

It has been nearly 18 months since I last wrote anything here. Now I spend my days exhaustively reading case law, which can be a little heavy, so I will opine today about a lighter matter.

I write of dramatization and a stylistic puzzle, which crosses my mind every time I watch a re-enactment of ancient society. The ancient Greek and Roman civilizations dissolved many centuries before the rise of the English language. Thus to advocate the application of one or another of the many English dialects to the ancients is, from a historical perspective, fatuous.

However, the clear impossibility of a valid conclusion has not prevented contemporary performance artists from coming to a consensus on the question of ancient English dialect. They invariably impose a British accent upon the ancient tongue. Why, o muse, is this so?

The translation of Latin or Greek to English is justified as a matter of convenience. Not only would there be great difficulty in producing a film or play in a dead language, the finished production of that endeavor would burden viewers with subtitles, and add a substantial risk of boring them away. I offer no commentary here on our societal aversion to the written word, but it is undoubtedly true that for many in the audience, reading is a prison from which performance is a furlough, and thus a performance that requires the audience to read is unlikely to reach all of its potential audience members.

Although the translation from Latin or Greek to English is sensible, the use of a British accent is not. As a matter of convenience, producers should employ the accent most intelligible to the intended audience. In America, it would be most sensible to give the ancients American accents; in England, British accents; and so on. To many American listeners, the British accent is distracting; to a small minority, it is unintelligible. For the latter, the production may as well use Latin or Greek, but to their detriment, the mysterious tradition of making Romans speak like Englishmen continues. Film producers and directors often pride themselves on breaking rules, but this is one unwritten rule that no one, to my knowledge, has broken.

Who is to blame for this stylistic decision? My first suspect is William Shakespeare. His plays were performed in England, where his
Caesar and Antony adopted the local accent, and we have always heard a distinct British intonation in the words, “friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

Another explanation is that there are specific stylistic advantages to presenting ancient characters with a British accent. England is closer to Italy than America, and the two land masses have a common history dating back to Roman times. Moreover, the British accent gives ancient characters an “Old World” tone, and therefore makes the characters seem more genuine to most viewers.

Whatever the reasoning for this practice, I would like to see some bold producer abandon it. I would like, if only once, to turn on the television and hear Antony speaking like Forrest Gump.


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