As a master at Sherborne, one of Britain's most traditional public schools (founded in 1550), Tom Payne, a classics teacher, enjoys many an afternoon devouring the texts of ancient Greece in the school's exceedingly well-stocked library. But, lately, during these long sessions spent poring over semi-sacred tomes, the scholar has been sneakily studying some much more glossy material secreted within his dusty pages. Anyone for Grazia?
The teacher's first book, Fame: From the Bronze Age to Britney, published next week, is set to do for classics what Harry Mount's much-lauded Amo, Amas, Amat ... and All That achieved for Latin in 2006 – the updating of a fusty subject for a modern audience, by forging links between the ancient, classical world and our modern, celebrity-worshipping culture. The book asks what Big Brother tells us about Athenian democracy (the nomination process can be fixed in both cases, he argues), and ponders that ancient poser, beloved of Herodotus and Heat magazine alike: "Why does anyone want to be famous?"
"I was teaching adolescent boys all about these ancient civilisations and it rapidly became apparent to me that they took all of this celebrity culture stuff rather seriously," says the softly-spoken Payne, 38. "And I thought maybe I should take it seriously, too. It seemed like it was worth studying in a bit more detail. I've tried to take on these subjects in a manner that could almost be considered academic. Crucially, I also wanted it to be funny."
Payne's humour stems from the texts he references (comedies like The Office or Sex and the City), rather than from any personal comic voice; but this a result of the painstaking and diverse research thrown into the project. "I put many hours into trying to make the subject exciting; I hope it leads people to pick up books and read drama that they otherwise wouldn't have looked at," continues the author, who studied classics at Cambridge University and is a former deputy literary editor of The Daily Telegraph. "I think people often underestimate the relevance of classical texts to contemporary society. I think I've been aided by the success of films like [the Sparta-based adaptation of the Frank Miller comic] 300 and Troy, which have helped cast light on the relevant periods. Now it is just a question of getting people to engage with their instincts and apply them to a different culture."
Working on "his hunches", Payne spent the summer of 2006 reading his way through history books and a stack of celebrity memoirs, including biographies of Daniella Westbrook and Jade Goody. The author soon began to see links between different celebrities' stories; particularly, he says, the doomed careers of Michael Barrymore, Paul Gascoigne and Leslie Grantham. "I saw this crime, punishment and regeneration pattern," he adds.
Payne's book's title is taken from its first chapter; and it is here where the basest human tendency to criticise and revel in the misfortune of celebrities – particularly in the case of Spears – is explored. Her famous hair-cutting incident, lit by the flashbulbs of the world's media, is comparable, claims the author, to the tales of human sacrifice as told in Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, in which hair is cut from the victim's head, symbolising their path to self-destruction.
And the celebrity comparisons continue.... Can we think of anyone who has recently had sex with a celebrity, potentially in order to further their own career (clue: their one-time conquest rhymes with "Rude Bore")? "There is always a steady spate of these social climbing situations in the British tabloids, and the best equivalent I can think of is in Ovid's Art of Love," says Payne. "He discusses how people often try to have sex with people higher up the celebrity ladder than them, or pretend to have done so, to make themselves better than they are."
He gives another example: "Michael Jackson famously had problems with a lady who claimed to have had his child. It is amazing how ordinary people believe that they get value from sleeping with someone who might be just a little bit more famous than them; it's almost like a badge of honour to claim you've had sex with Wayne Rooney."
Such thoughts also emerged in Greek myth when Dionysus became angered, after his aunt Agave claimed that his mother Semele had never slept with Zeus. "She taunted her sister by saying Zeus never shagged her," concludes the author. Gah – it could almost be Chinawhite on a Friday night.
'Fame: From the Bronze Age to Britney', by Tom Payne (£10), is published by Vintage on 6 August. To order a copy for the special price of £9 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit Independentbooksdirect.co.ukReuse content