In the spring of 2012, Roman historian Ray Laurence, a professor at the University of Kent, teamed up with TED-Ed and Cognitive Media to create “A glimpse of teenage life in Ancient Rome” and “Four sisters in Ancient Rome,” two animated videos about growing up Roman. We’re big fans of the clips’ charming animation style and innovative storytelling, which make the complicated concepts of Roman social history accessible by filtering them through the eyes of Lucius and Domitia, two Roman children growing up and finding their place in the world. The two clips have developed a devoted fan base among students and educators, with over 2 million views combined.
We recently reached out to Professor Laurence to learn a little more about the creation of the TED-Ed videos, and his exciting new plans for the futures of Lucius and Domitia.
HistoryBuff: Could you tell us a little about the making of the videos? When and how were they originally conceived?
Ray Laurence: These came about through a combination of circumstances. Firstly, I was involved in the discussions over the future of the Canterbury Roman Museum in 2010-11 and met numerous people involved in promoting culture in the region. One of these showed me an animated film made by Cognitive. At the same time, my own son—aged 7—was studying the Romans at school and I taught his class. What caught the kids’ imagination was the idea of 7-year-olds being betrothed to teenagers. I also discovered lots of their interests. Then I met Andrew Park of Cognitive and had to pitch my idea to the guys at TED-Ed.
HB: How was the aesthetic of the animations developed?
RL: The aesthetic of the animation is really unlike the usual Cognitive style. Andrew Park had been interested in Romans for some time and created the look, whilst I created the script. A key theme running through the film are the hours of the day (you’ll see a sundial appear in some of the scenes). The intersection of timed activities with the spaces of the city is right at the heart of my research publications, so that is a major structure for the scenes. I also sent Cognitive maps and images of buildings, and met with them in person to explain ancient Rome as a very built-up place.
HB: Where did Lucius and Domitia come from? Are they based on historical people?
RL: Choosing the names of the characters for the first film was really difficult, and I went through many different names that I did not like. I ended up simply choosing the name of the 6-year-old who rebuilt the Temple of Isis in Pompeii—the reason being I wanted an authentic name from the 1st century C.E. Also, this choice creates a bit of a riddle for viewers to solve. Obviously my Lucius is not the historic 6-year-old grown up, so he is not real—after all he is an animated character (just as Bart Simpson is not real). If someone wants to think up a name for his dad, they are welcome to do so—for now he is just “Lucius’ dad,” which parodies my own identity as “Zak/Max’s Dad” from the perspective of my own children’s friends.
The Domitia sisters in the second film came about because I had a better understanding of how animation worked, and, to be honest, I just thought it would be funny to have four sisters with the same name. This decision also encapsulates a problem for the Romans of tracing female genealogy.
HB: How have the animations been used so far? Have you been surprised by any applications of them?
RL: This is such an interesting area. Making the films involves loads of energy and effort, such as checking content and making changes, that you don’t have much time to think about what happens when it is released. A big surprise is that so many people have watched the films: combined, they have 2 million views. I started to hear first from high school teachers, who use the films as homework. The growing popular awareness of the films has more recently caused them to enter university-level teaching. I heard this week that the second film was shown at the start of a course on Roman law.
The most interesting thing that has happened was that an Italian furniture maker located in Folkestone (in Kent, United Kingdom) spontaneously made life-size wooden versions of Lucius and his dad. They appeared in a shop window in the High Street. Later, Massimo let me have both of them, and they now stand in my office at the University of Kent.
HB: What are your future plans for Lucius and Domitia?
RL: The plan at the moment is to create a blog called “Lucius’ Romans” that will have links to further information and discuss some of the different aspects featured in the films: places such as the Forum of Augustus, or the torturer who gets a haircut, or the boxers. All the walk-on parts have something to reveal about the ancient world. We are also hoping to have some guest posts from teachers who use the films, and a script-writing competition for school-age students.
In a very different style, we are now working on a 60 second film on the History of Migration, half of which is about Rome. We’ve just recorded the voiceover and the animators should be working on this early next year. This follows on from an experimental film about a Roman nursing goddess that acts as a ‘museum label’ built around a 3-D laser-scanned image of a real object from the Canterbury Roman Museum. The film about migration will provide the public for the first time with really accessible information based on the latest research on Roman mobility, and will engage with Europe’s major debate at the moment—immigration.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Feature image: screenshot via YouTube