For parodies of Vergil, the Golden Age really was the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Or so it seemed, until University of Maryland Classics grad students Erika Grace Carlson and Heather Day dropped their Facebook Aeneid on a wholly unprepared world.
Midway through the first week of March, Facebook Aeneid had gone completely viral here at Rutgers Classics. Many undergraduates termed it “genius” (often with further modifiers).
Indeed, for Carlson and Day to get across much of the narrative and tone of Vergil’s Aeneid in something like 300 words does take brilliance. Especially while simultaneously summing up the content of the better part of 175 200 million Facebook pages.
The Rutgers Classics Department Blog was determined to find out the background to this coup. So here is Erika Carlson telling the story of the duo in an exclusive interview…
RU: Can you tell our millions of readers a bit about yourselves?
EGC: Heather and I are both grad students in the Master’s program at University of Maryland. Last semester, we bonded over our pasts at small liberal arts colleges (her past at Wheaton, mine at Bryn Mawr), our shared love of BBC America, and our similar senses of humor. While Heather wants to teach high school Latin, and I’m aiming for a PhD so I can eventually teach Classics at the college level, we’re both very concerned with finding ways to reach out to our students, present and future.
EGC: Admittedly we’d seen fake Facebook feeds before—there was one that retold Hamlet which served as our primary inspiration.
But we figured, why should we let English majors have all the fun? Greek and Roman literature seemed just as, if not more, rich with incidents that could be easily translated into internet drama. At first our discussion was mostly hypothetical—if we could take a Classical text and make it into a Facebook feed, which one would work best?—but by the time we’d worked out that Aeneas and Dido were an “It’s Complicated” on Facebook, we were pretty sold on the idea.
RU: How long did it take you to put the Aeneid Facebook page together?
EGC: The text took about an hour and a half, and we finished that early last November. Making the photoshopped image took a few months after that, because I’d work on it for an hour or two at a time on select weekends. Admittedly, I was being a bit of a perfectionist in trying getting the look just right, and dragging my feet. Fortunately, Heather was TAing myth during Maryland’s winter semester, and gave me an ultimatum to finish it on Inauguration Day, so I got it finished just in time for the Aeneid lesson. Heather distributed it to her students in paper form the very next day.
RU: Now, which of you did what?
EGC: We came up with the actual text together late one night, after a lengthy session of translating Herodotus together. Heather and I translated a lot of Herodotus that semester, and after three hours of it you tend to get a little loopy, so I think we were in the right state of mind to get our creative juices flowing. At first the brainstorming was more informal, but soon enough Heather had pulled out her various editions of Vergil while I took down notes in a notebook.
I was the tech-savvy one, so it was up to me to do the actual photoshopping. I had to make a lot of additional decisions about the visuals, and I’d say things to myself like, “All right, so Aeneas is pius Aeneas, so he’s going to want to show that off on his Facebook by setting a pic of him carrying his father as his profile picture. On the other hand, he’s kind of a terrible boyfriend, so he probably wouldn’t bother using proper spelling or grammar when apologizing to Dido on her wall. He’d think that was proper relationship procedure.” A lot of times I’d run the idea by Heather ahead of time and see if she liked it.
That sounds like a lot of thought to put into it, but it’s the little things that make this sort of parody work. You can’t slap the word “Facebook” onto a summary of the Aeneid and hope your students will find it funny because it’s “their generation.” You’ve got to get the nuances, and that’s what makes it genuine.
Heather was also instrumental in nagging me to get it done, which sounds trivial but it was pretty important in the end. Furthermore, at the moment she answers most of the e-mails that come our way and keeps track of where our responses are coming from.
EGC: Fittingly enough, it started through Facebook itself. I uploaded the picture to my webspace, put the link in a note on my Facebook account, and tagged most of my friends who’d had any association with Latin or Classics, past or present. I figured it would give them a laugh, even if no one else saw it. I did say they could pass it on to whoever they wanted, though, so some of them told their friends, and those friends told their friends…pretty soon, it was going around blogs and mailing lists, and we were getting e-mails from all over.
I think the fact that it’s an image helped. It’s the sort of thing you can read in five minutes during downtime in work or in homework, and then pass along to your colleagues really easily. We were hoping that the image would spread, but we never expected it to spread so quickly and that it would be received so well.
When you google the image itself, there’s about 52 sites that link it, many of them blogs. Even if you’re assuming something modest, like, 20-30 readers per site, that’s still well over a thousand hits, and that’s a lot more than we ever expected.
RU: What have the reactions been like? At UMD? Also worldwide?
EGC: Heather’s winter semester students loved it, and we’re still waiting to test it out on our spring semester students. Our classmates and colleagues have also been quite positive, and were helpful and encouraging during the drafting and photoshopping process.
Outside of UMD, I’ve already had a few friends ask if they could show it to their own students, so I know it’s gotten some classroom exposure. My friend Emily told me that her Latin students are actually using the Facebook Aeneid as a basis for a class project, and that they’re making profiles for the Aeneid‘s main characters. Hopefully, those too will find their way online. At the request of some of our readers who are high school teachers, we’re also working on making a “high school friendly” version that will meet the approval of most administrators.
Finally, some of the fan mail we’ve received has come from surprisingly far away. I don’t think we’d really caught on to just how far until a guy from Russia e-mailed us and said that he thought it was brilliant. It was pretty cool, all things considered.