[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 4 April, 2003, 16:30 GMT 17:30 UK
A brief history of celebrity
Scene from Ridley Scott's film Gladiator
The ancient appeal of gladiators still endures today
Modern-day celebrities are hard to avoid these days, and the stars of today are a far cry from their ancient counterparts.

Newspapers boost sales by splashing stars across their front pages, and magazines are bursting with them, from A-List down to, well, bottom of the heap.

Prime-time TV is also rife with stars clamouring to promote their latest venture, while millions of fans clog up cyberspace with websites paying homage to their heroes.

But all of this is in stark contrast to from some the earliest records of celebrity, when getting noticed involved more than just wearing a skimpy dress to a film première.

Elizabeth Hurley
Actress Elizabeth Hurley hit headlines with "that dress"
Thousands of years ago, one of the best ways to gain fame was through title, such as a monarch, or to be a warrior whose deeds had a direct impact on the lives of their fellow countrymen.

But this was not the only way to grab the attention of the masses or be splashed across the pages of the history books.

Some of the first celebrities were, in fact, winners in the ancient Olympic Games.

Dr Hans van Wees, who lectures in archaic Greek history at University College London said such athletes "were not only widely talked about, but were given the equivalent of red-carpet treatment".

He said that when they returned home, part of the city wall was demolished so they did not have to use the gates like "ordinary mortals".

They also won the right to life-long free meals, and would advertise their fame by commissioning hymns of praise from famous poets such as Pindar, which would be performed in their honour.

Denise Lewis
Top athlete Denise Lewis: A modern version of ancient Olympic stars
Dr van Wees added that this could have been "the next best thing to appearing on TV".

Ancient Rome advertised its most famous, powerful inhabitants by imprinting their faces on coins and being immortalised as sculptures or artworks.

In 44BC, Julius Caesar was the first Roman to appear on a coin in his own lifetime, in a departure from the usual coin designs which depicted his achievements and claims he was descended from Venus.


He was not the only one to get in the star treatment.

During the same era, the Roman comic actor Quintus Roscius Gallus, who was born into slavery, was boosted to equestrian rank by Emperor Sulla as reward for his theatrical skills.

And his reputation lasted through to 19th Century, when the epithet Roscius was still given to actors, as a mark of supreme distinction.

TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral
TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral told the story of Thomas Becket
Gladiators, whose bloodthirsty contests drew thousands of spectators, also gained fame during the Roman era, despite their notorious reputation as outlaws.

News of their battles spread by word of mouth, and boys idolised them, often taking fighting lesson at gladiator schools, while women were known to have affairs with the muscle-bound fighters.

Jumping forward in time to 1160, another now-famous figure, Thomas Becket, was archdeacon of Canterbury and chancellor of King Henry.

Becket became a martyr after being murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, by four knights thought to be connected with the king.


His name became known across Europe as news of his murder spread, and the king - threatened with excommunication - was forced to do public penance to keep his throne.

This cemented Becket's fame, and his reputation as "father of the poor and the comforter of the sorrowful" was spread by the church and by word of mouth.

Pilgrims began to flock to the site of his death, and relics and images of Becket became commonplace.

Former director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, Dr Alan Borg, said that just over a decade after his death manuscripts, wall paintings and stained glass were all embellished with scenes from the saint's life.

Glenda Jackson as Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I reigned during Shakespeare's era
"A sort of Becket mania spread across Europe and pictures of him were to be found from Iceland to Palestine," he said.

Becket's story has endured through to the modern day, and the cathedral draws thousands of fascinated visitors to the spot where he was murdered.

Poet TS Eliot wrote about his life and death in his famous play Murder in the Cathedral in 1935, while a film, Becket, starring Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole and Sir John Gielgud was made in 1964.

By the time William Shakespeare - probably the West's most famous literary figure - was on the scene between 1564 and 1616, times were changing.

Oliver Twist
Dickens's Oliver Twist is still popular
Not only did Britain have a very famous woman - Elizabeth I - making history, there were also dramatic shifts in science, religion and culture.

The Elizabethan era saw popular theatre become a major source of entertainment for the masses in Britain.

The preachers and scholars may have disapproved of such "corrupt" entertainment, but it made Shakespeare London's most popular playwright.

His fame spread, of course, through the repeated performance and popularity of his plays, which still are still performed today and earn him global recognition centuries after his death.

Other writers gained recognition as people's literacy levels improved and they were able to entertain themselves with reading.

International fame

By the Victorian era, authors such as Charles Dickens popularised his stories by serialising them in newspapers and magazines.

Dickens also started his own weekly magazine, Master Humphrey's Clock, in which he introduced the tragic heroine, Little Nell, in the serialised tale of The Old Curiosity Shop.

This brought him international fame, spreading his name to the US where he gained huge popularity.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific