Running an account like CSMFHT is hard to explain to people for the first time. Yes, I have nearly a million followers across social media. No, I’m not an influencer. Yes it is weird to think about. No, I didn’t set out to become a ‘niche internet microcelebrity’ as I have been called. I thought it might pay to outline a few basic things about the history and development of this account so that people don’t get the wrong idea about me/it.
First, some context - as many will know, and as I’m not afraid to share, I am from New Zealand. While that may send some people searching for their Atlas (he’s busy right now), you may know us as the little country that normally gets left off maps, or the place where they filmed Lord of the Rings. We’re a former British colony and certainly haven’t been spared the troubles that colonialism brought with it. But it has meant that there was, for a long time, a strong history of teaching Latin and Classical Studies in the ‘British’ style. For what it’s worth, we have long acknowledged the inherent issues with this subject as a relic of that Imperialist past, but it remains popular and a great subject to teach. So, to cut a long story short, I am a teacher of Classical Studies in New Zealand, a Secondary School subject aimed at 16-18 year olds as an introduction to the ancient Mediterranean world.
Why Classics? New Zealand has a long history of contributions to the discipline as a whole, perhaps most notably the great historian Ronald Syme was born and educated here before leaving for Oxford, going on to become one of the great scholars on Ancient Rome. We have also contributed many recent academics and public figures (we might still claim Russell Crowe) and the subject remains popular among young people and old alike. I myself could have hardly avoided it, coming from a family dominated by educators, some of whom even taught Latin and Classics. Even more so, I grew up through perhaps the golden age of Classics in pop culture, with films like The Mummy, Gladiator, Troy and more making a significant impact on people my age.
What many people who follow me may not know, however, is that the majority of my education was in Latin (the subject, we didn’t speak it!) rather than Classics. In fact, when I was at school you could only take Classics for one year! When I went to University, I continued to focus on Latin with some Classics papers thrown in - all the while completing a Law degree as well. Yes, that’s right, I spent tens of thousands of dollars to complete a Law degree and now I’m here posting memes about Bophades and such. The career path from lawyer to teacher to memes would seem to many a calculated plan to give my parents a heart attack!
So yes - I studied Latin and Law, and practised as a Barrister for some time, before realising my true passion lay in Education. In fact, I had tutored several students during my time at university and found this to be far more rewarding. More than that, however, teaching is a vocation and one that is hard to resist when it calls you. The harder part is sticking with it when the job becomes anything but actually teaching. But all this leads me to the fact that in 2017 I began my career as a teacher of Latin and Classical Studies here in New Zealand. Today, I still teach Classical Studies but Latin is no longer part of our national curriculum (more on that another time) so all but one of two schools have completely cut it.
It was in 2017 that, in my attempts to stay ‘relatable’ to these students in front of me, I made the effort to relate the content we were learning to the format of memes. There were a handful of small pages and communities around at the time, but nothing dominated the scene. That being said, however, I never even contemplated becoming a big deal. And so it was that around the middle of the year, bored one day in class while the students were working on something, I decided to make a Facebook page to share these memes. Now the meme pages and groups at the time often had stylised names that followed a similar pattern - Just ZYX Memes, XYZPosting, and of course XYZ Memes for ZYX Teens. It was this last one that seemed, on the absolute spur of the moment, to fit best for a Classical Studies page. Thinking what sort of teens could be appropriate here, the multi-syllabic ‘Hellenistic’ popped straight into my head. I don’t know why, but it was the very first thing I thought of and I have never conceived of anything else it might have been! And so, the name stuck.
Initially, the page was small and followed by a handful of my students and their friends. The content was quite specifically targeted towards our topics we were learning, and they were sourced from a wide range of places - almost all of them low quality. I never set out to make 100% of the content on the page, though over time I came to include many of my own, and I have always stuck to the idea that it is a compilation or curated site, sourced from many different places. Over time some people have been critical of this, though I have never pretended that all the content is mine and have, where possible, retained any watermarks, account names or identifying features on them, and given credit when it is known. However, the nature of memes is that they are designed to be shared and spread, and so by the time one makes its way to me, it has often gone through 5-10 different hands and the original creator is a mystery to me. I’m always happy to debate the ethics of this, but I think if I am clear about this then people can choose not to follow me if they wish.
So how did the page go from a couple hundred followers to four hundred thousand? Well, inevitably it is a story of the power of social media and virality. The first meme that really went big for us came at the perfect time, perhaps one of the peaks of meme culture on Facebook. This was of course the time of the Distracted Boyfriend meme which I have included below.
This meme was both a very popular format, if you can believe there was a time before it was done to death, but also tapped into a very common and well-known punchline - the ‘horny Zeus’ gag. I actually don’t mind this one very much because it isn’t exactly explicit, but over the years I have come to realise that too many of these memes are a bit too focused on the non-consensual nature of Zeus’ philandering, and you won’t see much like that anymore.
Anyway, as you can probably tell, this meme went viral (by the standards of the page at the time) and brought in a lot of new followers. It was from about then onwards that the Facebook UI became completely unusable for me as the constant notifications were unreadable. From that point on, the page grew steadily with the occasional spikes as other popular memes went viral. I also cottoned on to some of the many tricks that can be used to promote engagement on Facebook - ‘tag a friend who’ or posting a controversial take and waiting for the arguments in the replies. All of this was fun and after a couple of years I found myself with around 200,000 followers on Facebook.
Then of course, everything changed… More on that next time!
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Thanks for this background! My year 9 kid and others were disappointed to find out Latin was removed from the curriculum. If you could explain why this happened that’d be great.