New Hadrian, Ancient Kaepernick… Everything Old Is New Again
When Google Arts and Culture unveiled their selfie feature last year, I took a picture of myself and trusted Google’s algorithm to match my face with a painting from their vast database of art from museums around the world. It only took a few seconds to feel profound disappointment. According to Google, my long lost twin is a ridiculous, flat-Stanley-like man. My second closest match was a wrinkled old lady in a bonnet. The app might have missed the mark in my case (or maybe I am just in denial), but Google’s portrait match feature succeeded in sparking millions of conversations about art.
Developer Amit Sood explained via Bloomberg News, “You need to find simple ways to get people interested in art.” Growing up, Sood was disconnected from art and viewed it as “a posh experience, and not something that was for me or for my people.” Google Arts and Culture has brought art to the masses. If you have access to the internet, you have access to nearly 50,000 images from over 1,500 museums in 70 countries. The selfie feature sparked viral interest by providing a personal connection and tapping into our natural interest in doppelgängers.
Last March when I visited the Capitoline Museum in Rome, I found myself transfixed by the Dying Gaul, a Roman copy of a Hellenistic sculpture of a man defeated in battle. The statue made an immediate impression on me, as he has on countless others for centuries. It is even said that Thomas Jefferson wanted a replica of the piece for his personal collection at Monticello. Jerry Salz described the Dying Gaul experience in Vulture: “Time and distance collapse when you stand before it — a mysterious abyss opens between us and the sculpture, and recognition rushes in.” Salz was referring to recognition of our common humanity, but I experienced his statement in a very literal way. The Dying Gaul looked really, really familiar. I couldn’t shake the feeling I had seen him before. Who did he look like?
The Gaul certainly was not supposed to look like an ancient Greek or Roman. The sculpture’s clear pain and distinctly foreign features — from his hairstyle and mustache to his torc — were a visual representation of imperial domination over a barbarism. To the modern eye, the Dying Gaul is no longer an example of alterity.
It turns out he looks like many of the pop culture figures we celebrate and emulate: Burt Reynolds, Steve Prefontaine, Tom Selleck, and other shaggy-maned, mustachioed men who hawk cigarettes, appear in movies, and play professional sports. The Dying Gaul also resembles this male model from the J.C. Penney Catalog:
Ricky Cobb, a sociologist, author of an upcoming book on 1970s baseball, and the force behind the Super 70s Sports Twitter account agreed that the Dying Gaul is very familiar. “Pick a year between ’75 and ’79, every major baseball league team had at least five guys who looked like the Gaul,” he said. A quick Google search for “1970s MLB player” confirmed Cobb’s assertion.
With this in mind, I reached out to Jerry Reuss, a Major League Baseball pitcher whose career spanned for 22 years starting in 1969. After seeing an image of the Dying Gaul, he told me, “It appears I have a twin brother some 2000 years older.” He provided me a picture as proof:
The Dying Gaul is not the only ancient sculpture with a modern-era twin. Captured Dacian looks quite a bit like Brett Keisel, a retired defensive end for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Hadrian looks like Mike Schmidt, who played 18 seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies. Activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick resembles an Egyptian man portrayed on a Fayum portrait from Roman Egypt. I found dozens of other examples, representing hours of procrastination and avoidance of less entertaining tasks.
I am not alone in this hobby. I found out there had been a short-lived #AncientLookAlikes hashtag on Twitter a few years ago that featured a comparison of Nero and Ringo Starr and a few other gems before it fizzled out. More recently, Shannon Dubois, a fourth-year PhD student at Boston University, has found some doppelgangers of her own. In fact, her current pinned tweet is an epic comparison between Holding-an-In-Your-Eyes-blaring-boombox-outside-of-his-love-interest’s-house John Cusack and a Hellenistic figurine of “Eros Holding a Mirror.” She has compiled some of her other discoveries in a Twitter moment.
Social media, like the Google Arts and Culture app, can make classical content more accessible to people who otherwise might not encounter it. “I liked that this was another way to reach a bunch of people on Twitter who might not be interested in classics, but like to see how pop culture can resonate,” Dubois said.
Dr. Rob Cromarty, a classics teacher and author of texts about history and archaeology, has also found some entertaining lookalikes, including Daniel Craig as Claudius. He told me, “My students liked it — or at least they laughed. I think they appreciate studying some material culture as in a lot of their courses it’s text only.”
I also discovered that ancient lookalikes aren’t limited to human dyads. After I posted a bizarre mosaic of the Capitoline Wolf, Dean Rutland of Reading, Berkshire in the United Kingdom immediately found her equally strange twin from an old T.V. series. “The image instantly took me back to my childhood and Saturday mornings watching kids’ T.V. with my brothers,” Rutland said. “Even though I barely thought about it for decades, I immediately knew what her grin reminded me of: Dobbin, the horse from the bizarre British T.V. series Rentaghost.” Bizarre, indeed:
Is there something wrong with reducing ancient art to a meme? Cobb had an answer to that: “There are always people out there who think they are the gatekeeper to intellectual rigor and who want to tell you the appropriate way to enjoy something. You can have had a lot of laughs over something, but there is still meat on that bone.”
There are many ancient Roman footprints in etymology, architecture, government, and other aspects of the modern world, but doppelgängers can provide an instant connection to the ancient world everyone can enjoy and access. Dubois said, “It is a really fun way to be immersed in the classics and it reminds you why you got into the field in the first place.”
If you happen to find ancient doppelgängers, don’t keep it to yourself. Share it with the rest of the Twitterverse by using the hashtag #AncientLookAlikes.
Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in Virginia where she lives with her husband, children, and muppet-like dogs. She has published many collections of Latin mottoes online,has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on twitter, and is available to write, speak, or rabble-rouse.