Professor Ray Laurence: Animation, History and University Research

Professor Ray Laurence is Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, where he focuses his research on the study of Roman Urbanism. Ray worked with Cognitive in 2012 and 2013, turning his research into two explainer films for TED-Ed. In this blog, Ray talks about the impact of these films on his work and the people that watched them.


My research lying behind the film was being transmitted to an audience far vaster than that of my best-selling book (40,000 copies).
— Ray Laurence   

More than 14.4 million views have been recorded of the explainer films A Glimpse of Teenage Life in Ancient Rome and Four Sisters in Ancient Rome produced by Cognitive in late 2012 and early 2013.  I wrote the scripts for both films to include ideas derived from my research on Roman history; that about cities, urban life and the history of families. Central to both films is the subject of betrothal and differentiation in the normative patterns of first marriage in ancient Rome. For girls marriage was allowed legally from age 12 and boys legally from 14, but social practice indicates mid-late teens for girls and mid-late twenties for boys.

I thought at the time, I would make the film with Cognitive and that’s it - job done.  Such was my naivety. The very fact the film was being watched by audiences across the world, often sub-titled into a local language automatically, meant my research lying behind the film was being transmitted to an audience far vaster than that of my best-selling book (40,000 copies); let alone the research papers that supported the film’s content cited by a few experts across the world. This is what is called in the Higher Education sector ‘impact’, something measured every six years in the UK to evaluate the value of research to the UK.

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There are two measures – the reach, in the case of the two films millions of viewers, and what may be described as ‘did the films change or challenge the opinions of the viewers?’ The latter is devilishly difficult to measure but, if we examine the tens of thousands of comments on YouTube, the data is there.

Young men in the USA did not know that their equivalents in ancient Rome routinely drunk alcohol.  Many commentators worried about the skin tone of Lucius, as an Italian who spent time outside, he has a tan – some thought he was not white. Thus, we see evidence of challenging a stereotype that Romans were a white race, as opposed to a multi-cultural society.  The whole issue of arranged marriage embedded in the film challenged a perception that the advent of Islam in some way ‘invented’ such negotiated marriages. The comments also led to some ferocious debates around: misogyny, race, and historical knowledge.  Whether we agree or disagree with those viewpoints, matters less than the fact that the film engaged viewers and facilitated their debates.

However, to come clean, I wrote the first script for my own children. Two boys going through Year 3 of primary school in 2012 and 2013; who had all sorts of questions about the teenagers they saw in the street from the secondary school; as well as studying ancient Rome in the school day.  Fast forward to 2018, my eldest son mentioned that: ‘It is kind of cool that you created a cartoon character’.  Now that is an impact of greater value than anything a University can configure as measurable!

‘It is kind of cool that you created a cartoon character’.  Now that is an impact of greater value than anything a University can configure as measurable!
— Ray Laurence   

Ray Laurence