Sunday, 19 October 2014

Plebs: The New Slave


If you thought Plebs couldn't get darker in tone than 'The Patron', you'd be wrong. It's hard to say whether this episode is just as dark, or even darker, since it combines a plot about having a creepy psychotic living in your house with, once again, the realities of ancient slavery, in which your only way to escape a master you don't want to work for is to get yourself kidnapped.

I love the idea of basing an episode around the impulse purchase of a very creepy slave, because the idea seems reasonably plausible in an ancient setting, but isn't something the ancients themselves wrote about (because ancient literature always emphasizes the slave's subservience to his or her master and Romans would not feel comfortable depicting any free born Roman being frightened of his slave. If you started putting that in plays or literature, the slaves might get ideas. Literature always emphasizes the absolute authority of the master, even in plays about clever slaves or novels in which the master is in love with the slave - the cleverest slave will still be afraid of his elderly master having him beaten. And, of course, since masters could have their slaves beaten whenever they wanted, slaves themselves would be unlikely to behave in any way that would make their masters uncomfortable). Tim Key's performance is great, carefully playing comedy-unhinged in a character that's just creepy enough for the joke to work without being completely horrific - very much in the vein of Eddie from Friends.

I also loved the way the episode addressed the fact that Grumio is, in fact, a pretty terrible slave, while at the same time showing that Marcus apparently does value Grumio enough (having presumably grown up together) to pay a lot of money to get him back after Grumio manages to get himself stolen and refuses to identify Marcus as his master. This, along with catching runaway slaves, is presumably why slaves in the real Roman world were often branded - and probably why slave-napping isn't something that comes up in ancient literature. The Romans were way ahead of their time when it comes to tagging your property - unfortunately in their case, the property in question was other human beings.

It's not hard to understand why Grumio was worried about having a very creepy fellow slave in the house, though putting yourself up for sale at the market is a pretty risky solution - goodness knows what sort of master you might end up with. But if Mushki attacked Grumio, the only result would be that Stylax would owe Marcus some money for damage to (or even the death of) his slave caused by Stylax's slave. On the other hand, if Mushki really went mad and killed Stylax, Grumio might be executed as well as Mushki, depending on whether they count as slaves within the same household (technically they have different masters, so he might be OK). Grumio may have felt he was better off taking his chances. Or, given that he's not very bright, he just hadn't thought through just how bad another master might end up being.

I had a couple of pedantic nit-picks with this one, the main one being that Mushki's hat looked like a freedman's cap (as modeled in the picture here) - which, for obvious reasons, a slave would not wear. It's the sort of thing that can take you out of the episode a bit. And I'm pretty sure it was the Romans who brought rabbits to Britain, so, given that we're still pre-invasion, Cynthia probably shouldn't have had a pet rabbit. And isn't Metella Cynthia's slave? Why is she being invited to dinner with her mistress?

But pedantic nit-picking aside, my main reservations are once again about the treatment of the female characters. I was a bit uncomfortable with the joke about leaving Metella's gag on, and even more so with the boys giving the psycho slave to Flavia, who may be a bit of a hard task-mistress who once tried to replace them with a furnace, but who hardly deserves to have a man who ties up and gags women knowingly placed in her home. That final scene felt really very dark to me, and not in a funny way.

I enjoyed the episode overall, though, and it certainly made me laugh. I loved Water-Man correcting his name to Water-Boy on auto-pilot before realising he'd actually been addressed as Water-Man for once, and I especially loved the use of Latin plurals for the flowers (geranii, croci etc.). I liked the joke about Metella putting tomato sauce on everything as well, something I did for years (and Mushki being set off by people putting condiments on things reminded me of one of Kryten from Red Dwarf's craziest moments, thanks to which I can no longer hear the phrase 'brown sauce' without hearing Kryten yelling in my head "You want brown ketchup with lobster?!").

It's also another episode firmly based in the realities of ancient life. I confess to feeling actually slightly uncomfortable when we opened on the slave market (partly because I associate such a scene with the heroes being auctioned off in The Chronicles of Narnia's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, possibly) and Stylax's comparison of buying a slave to buying an aubergine is, again, pretty dark - but these are the realities of life in a slave-owning society, and the sort of thing we rarely get to see in serious dramas set in the ancient world, in which it's necessary for the hero/protagonist to come across as rather more likeable and have a rather modern and forward-thinking attitude towards slaves and slavery (though Pullo in Rome is clearly the exception to that rule). Sometimes, you need the broad scope and surreal tone of a sitcom to deal with material like this.

All Plebs reviews

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Plebs: The Patron


(I'm a bit behind on the Plebs reviews but I'm catching up!)

How's this for a comedy pitch: in a society with a particularly high slave population and no free healthcare, a man refuses to pay for the treatment his slave needs, leaving the slave to die to save some money. That's some pretty black comedy right there, probably the blackest Plebs has done since Marcus more or less killed a man in series one's 'The Gladiator'. It basically works, but I must say I came out of this episode finally convinced of something I'd been thinking for a while, which is that Stylax is much, much nicer than Marcus. Stylax is a bit daft, but here he pays for his friend's slave's medicine out of his own pocket and grovels all over the place to both Flavia and Gaius in an attempt to get enough money to pay for Marcus' as well. Marcus, meanwhile, refuses to pay for medicine for his own slave and expects his friend to prostitute himself to get some when he needs it. Cynthia deserves better. Much better.

There's a tendency for modern writers sometimes to assume that people in the ancient world were faced with a choice when ill, of whether to pray to the gods and carry out religious or superstitious rituals, or rely on physicians and medicine. I have to admit, normally, this rather annoys me - I suspect the vast majority of people would simply do both, just as most religious people today tend to pray for health and recovery while also seeing doctors and getting scientific medical treatment. However, there were probably some people who tended to rely more on one or the other, so Cynthia's preference for religious ritual seems perfectly reasonable, and of course Marcus has other motivations.

The religious option wouldn't normally be cheaper - sleeping in an incubation sanctuary and praying for a healing dream, for example, required one to buy an animal to sacrifice before sleeping on its fleece, pay the priests and leave a substantial gift for the temple if it worked (the priests made sure to put up inscriptions noting that, for example, when one man was cured of blindness at Epidauros but didn't bring the thank offerings to the god Asclepius, the god made him blind again until he came back, presumably bringing the thank offerings this time). Cynthia's chosen ritual to the goddess Hygeia (daughter of Asclepius) sounds surprisingly cheap and short on animal sacrifice, however - and of course, Marcus' primary interest is in trying to get Cynthia to go out with him, which somewhat surprisingly nearly works.

The episode's other main plot is fairly black comedy as well, involving potential sexual harassment and a character trying to decide whether they should sell themselves to further their career. Between this and Bad Education, I'll never be able to look at Hugo from The Vicar of Dibley (or Tom from Four Weddings and a Funeral) the same way again. It was very funny though, and firmly based in real ancient Roman society, in which wealthy men acted as patrons for smaller businesses and clients.

Black though the comedy may have been, this episode was also very funny, and the make-up on the sick characters was impressive. I also loved the opening scene, set in a Roman toilet - which really were exactly like that (though surely no one would share sponge sticks - that's even worse than using someone's toothbrush...). I couldn't help thinking of The Roman Mystery Scrolls, the only other series I'm familiar with to set so much action in an accurately-depicted toilet, and author Caroline Lawrence's favourite prop, the sponge stick. The only other time I remember seeing a Roman toilet accurately depicted in a drama was a brief scene in Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, but there are other... distractions that may prevent viewers from paying much attention to the toilets in Spartacus. It's amazing the comic potential of the Romans' fondness for communal pooing hasn't been exploited more often.

What I loved about this episode was that everything in it came straight out of the ancient world. I can think of hardly anything that was contemporary in it - Landlord's life insurance scam was more modern (no life insurance in ancient Rome), but even that relied on Grumio not understanding the concept. (I'm also not sure why some of Flavia's costumes have looked sort of kimono-y lately, but I like it, it's a good look on her). Some things, like Marcus trying to get Cynthia to go out with him, are timeless, and when Gaius sat far too close to Stylax in the toilet I was reminded of people who sit unnecessarily close to someone else on the bus or in church, but most of this story could only have taken place in ancient Rome. Plus it was very funny. If only Metella could be given something to do other than being the only sane person on the block, but I suppose we can't have everything, and that shouldn't take away from how enjoyable this half hour was.

All Plebs reviews

Monday, 29 September 2014

Plebs: The Baby


I feel like I should be making some kind of Three Men and a Baby reference, but this episode is really Two Men and a Baby - Marcus wants nothing to do with any of it.

This is an episode based on a genuine ancient phenomenon, which always makes me happy (that the episode is based on something ancient that is, not the phenomenon itself, which is pretty horrible). In the ancient world, if people couldn't afford to raise a baby, they would expose it - we have a particularly brutal letter from a man in Roman Egypt to his pregnant wife telling her to raise the baby if it's a boy, but expose it if it's a girl.

One place you could expose the baby if you wanted to give it a fighting chance was the dump. People have to go to the dump to get rid of their rubbish, so there's a high chance of the baby being seen, and someone might take it in - either to raise as their own or, more likely, as a handy free slave (granted you have to put in a few years employing a wet nurse to feed it first, but at least none of your female slaves has to be pregnant for nine months, which affects their productivity). It's established here that this is how Marcus' parents acquired Grumio - on a hill, in his case - and this is how Grumio acquires Binny (technically for the ever-indulgent Marcus, unless Stylax claims her - Grumio can neither own property, including slaves, nor can he claim parental rights over any child, even if it was biologically his).

Obviously other aspects of the episode were less accurate - I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the Romans did not have paternity leave. They also didn't have orphanages - exposed babies were either picked up to be used as slaves or they died. I did like the child running around playing with a mace at the shelter though, which amused me. Perhaps it's a good thing I'm not a parent.

I loved the B plot in this episode, in which Shredder and Water-Man are replaced by a furnace and a table, thanks to the endless march of technology. I particularly enjoyed Water-Man's final triumphant "Water-Man!" as he proved that there are some things a person can do that a table can't (and nor could a water-cooler, for that matter). I was a bit confused at first when we saw the fans leaving because for a moment I thought they were chimney sweeps (which would be right out, since the Romans didn't have chimneys) - I didn't recognise the fans when they were held upright that way! Also it's late and it's been a long day...

The C plot about Cynthia's play was rather thin, but I did like her War Horse-inspired Trojan Horse costume.

Another enjoyable episode and actually almost touching in places. I rather hope we see Binny again, though since working with babies is famously difficult, it seems unlikely. I'm also still hoping Metella gets a bit more to do soon - I was almost hoping she and Cynthia would end up with Binny, just to give them a meatier storyline and something to do...

All Plebs reviews

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Plebs: The Best Men


Water-Man is getting married, and since Marcus and Stylax are his closest friends, it's up to them to organise his stag do.

Stag dos in sitcoms are always a good opportunity to flesh out one or two secondary characters a bit, and this one does that nicely. I always enjoy seeing more of Water-Man, and it's nice to see Claudius (who sends out messages to all staff, so I guess he's the equivalent of the person who runs the staff mailing lists?) getting fleshed out a bit more as well. Is it wrong that I really liked the sound of the ghost tour of Rome? But then, I am interested in ancient ghost stories and Roman afterlife beliefs, so I guess it would be weirder if I didn't.

We also get to meet Stylax's new driving instructor, and I'm desperately trying not to be bothered by the fact traffic was banned in Rome during the day because I am enjoying those scenes a lot (I have a weakness for quirky driving lessons or tests - the best example of which has to be the Assassin's Guild final exam in Terry Pratchett's Pyramids). Balbus himself is a bit of a stereotype, but then, they all are, and the idea of him sleeping in his chariot after his wife throws him out is pretty funny.

Grumio spends much of the stag do high on henbane, which leads to some amusing images as he hallucinates chickens everywhere. Henbane was known as a hallucinogen called hyoscyamos in the ancient world (Pliny the Elder talks about its negative effect on the mind, as well as the fact it induces vertigo; Natural History 25.17) and probably was taken re-creationally, especially as ancient writers sometimes compared it to wine. Half the internet seems to believe the priestess of Apollo took it to inspire oracles (at Delphi, presumably) and claim Pliny as the source of this information, but since none of the sites I've looked at provide a reference to Pliny and our best information for the priestess at Delphi comes from Plutarch, who doesn't mention anything about drugs taken orally (lots of sweet-smelling incense is involved, according to Plutarch), I'm rather skeptical of that - though if anyone does know of a reference for it, let me know. I'm also ignoring the fact that neither any form of drug, nor prostitution was illegal in the ancient world, so there's no reason for the guards to be after Landlord for drug dealing.

I'm enjoying this second season of Plebs so far, and I really like the way modern analogies like the driving lessons continue to be mixed up with genuinely ancient plots, like Water-Man's father arranging a marriage for him because it will be good for business. My main quibble with these first two episodes is that we've seen hardly anything of the girls. It's probably too much to expect them to have stories and character development of their own beyond providing lust objects for the boys, but in these two episodes Metella in particular feels like she's been given a line or two just to justify paying the actress, and even Cynthia has only turned up for a few minutes to yell at Marcus. Hopefully they'll have a bit more to do in the next episode.

All Plebs reviews

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Plebs: The Chariot


Plebs is back! And it knows how to get me on side right away by opening with a chariot race, though the fact it appeared to be taking place in an amphitheatre rather than a circus was a bit distracting.

As long-time readers know, I'm an F1 fanatic and a big fan of the idea that ancient chariot races were just like an ancient form of F1 (or NASCAR, since they took place around an oval track). So I was a big fan of the opening scene. The rest of the chariot = car/motorbike analogy was iffier on accuracy (traffic wasn't allowed to move through the streets of Rome during the day, because of the congestion) but I did like all the references to Stylax wearing 'leathers'. It did get me wondering whether anyone drove chariots around the streets - I was under the impression that the actual traffic in Rome consisted of carts, partly because of the massive cobbles that chariots would bounce around all over, but I hadn't really given it much thought, and even it that were the case, the idea of young people riding around in chariots all the time for fun is actually quite appealing and fits Plebs rather well.

The rest of this episode was a fairly predictable story about Marcus going out with the prostitute next door, but I did like the scene where the boys try to steal wishing pennies from the fountain. It seemed like a bright enough idea, and them splashing each other was fun, as well as a nice homage to the Friends opening sequence (the Friends pilot coincidentally having aired exactly twenty years before this episode did, which doesn't half make me feel old).

A fairly gentle episode to ease us back in (graphic sex scene notwithstanding) but it's great to have Plebs back. I didn't realise how much I'd missed it until I heard it's bizarre but strangely catchy and endearing reggae-type opening theme tune. Just try not to think about the fact it's Hizdahr zo Loraq running around ineffectually threatening cheating husbands.

Episode 2 review to follow later in the week.

All Plebs reviews

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Supernatural: Remember the Titans

In amongst writing conference papers, writing lecture slides and writing TV articles, I've spent an inordinate amount of time this summer binge-watching all nine years of Supernatural in an unhealthily short period. (Thanks to the awesome Billie Doux for persuading me to give it a go. I would like a Dean Winchester for Christmas please). Numerous episodes of Supernatural deal with Classical tropes, themes and references and I'm sure I'll blog them all eventually, but for today, having got as far as the back third of season eight (please don't tell me about season nine in the comments, though I do know what the latest cliffhanger is from Tumblr!), I thought I'd talk about Greek tragedies.

I often wonder if the experience of watching a TV episode based on ancient myth is similar to the experience of watching a tragic play in ancient Greece. They're based on old stories with which many of us are very familiar, so we have some idea what to expect - though in this case, Supernatural doesn't assume too much knowledge on its viewers' parts. Anyone with a working knowledge of Greek mythology knows what's going on as soon as the credits roll and we see an eagle eating the unfortunate "Shane"'s liver before "Shane" miraculously comes back to life, so sitting through the first act, in which the characters are trying to work out what's happening, can be little frustrating - Greek tragedies tend to avoid this by explaining to the audience exactly where we are in the story and then getting on with it. But still, this section isn't dragged out for too long and as the episode develops, we get into a re-telling of Greek mythology that, just like ancient tragedy, contains some familiar elements and some new ones.

In Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to mankind (among other things - he tricked Zeus into accepting the useless parts of sacrifices too) and was punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle every day. I liked that this episode took up (one of) the ancient explanation(s) for Prometheus' punishment and wove it into the world of the show. Fire has always been the boys' primary weapon on Supernatural, so the sympathy and gratitude they felt towards Prometheus added some nice depth to the story. The exact nature of Prometheus' punishment was changed to fit better with the themes of the show - in myth, it's the experience and pain of having his liver eaten every day that is Prometheus' punishment, because he can't die at all no matter what. Here, this was changed to have him 'experience death' every day and then come back, so that Prometheus' experiences fit more closely with those of the protagonists, both of whom have died and come back on countless occasions and who are concerned it's about to happen again to Sam (though pedantically, I feel the need to observe Dean has actually died a lot more often than Sam, since he died every day for months in 'Mystery Spot', and he was actually killed before going to Hell, whereas Sam was dragged in, body and all. But I digress).

The main change from Greek myth I didn't like so much was the resolution, in which it was revealed that Artemis had an affair with Prometheus. Generally speaking, I liked Artemis, who was very cool in all her black leather with her fancy bow, and correctly identified as the goddess of hunters and therefore the one who would be Sam and Dean's patron goddess if Dean didn't pray to his best friend the angel (that was adorable, by the way) and Sam wasn't a possibly-lapsed-by-now Christian.

However, the addition of an affair between her and Prometheus bothered me for a couple of reasons. One is that one of Artemis' defining attributes is that she is a virgin. Obviously, I do not agree with the ancient Greeks that a woman can only take on a 'masculine' role (hunting in Artemis' case, warfare in Athena's) if she is a virgin (and, therefore, not a mother - ancient contraception wasn't up to much). But, whether we like it or not, it was one of her defining traits (plus this show has a habit of scoffing at virgins which is mildly irritating). That's not the main reason I dislike this change though. What really bothers me is that the goddess of hunting is completely turned around, to the point of killing her own father, because she has a thing for a guy. I'm probably being overly harsh - normally I like stories about the redeeming power of love (any kind of love). But it bothered me, probably because the only two women in the episode were entirely defined by their relationships with men, and the other one was pretty stupid to boot. How very ancient Greek.

At least the scene in which Sam throws out a bunch of wild educated guesses (who blabbed? Homer? Hesiod? Herodotus?) is pretty funny, largely thanks to Dean's fantastic facial expressions throughout. And we come back to the mythology as everything comes together and Sam, by motivating Artemis, 'frees' Prometheus (by inadvertently getting him killed) and his son (who speaks for the first time at the end of the episode) from the curse. In mythology, it was Hercules who freed Prometheus from his chains, and the show has already specifically pointed out that Sam is currently playing the role of Hercules, taking on a series of trials (only three though, what a wuss) including killing a hell-hound (at least it didn't have three heads - though, to be pedantic once again, Hercules captured Cerberus, he didn't kill him).

Supernatural episodes about pagan gods have varied in tone and theme depending on the nature of the episode (I'm especially fond of the cheery Christmas murderer-gods in 'A Very Supernatural Christmas'). This one, appropriately enough, had a melancholy, tragic tone to it that is found in few of the others. 'Defending Your Life' started to bring more of a sense of personal tragedy to these episodes, but it didn't quite have the pathos of this episode, which ends with the touchingly ironic image of Prometheus' body being burned with the fire he brought mankind. There's a lot of Greek tragedy in the DNA of Supernatural - it's frequently unremittingly depressing, for a start - but this episode brought that to the forefront in a particularly interesting way.

Monday, 11 August 2014

I, Claudius (by Robert Graves)

The TV adaptation of I, Claudius is one of my favourite television shows of all time, and one of only a handful I re-watch regularly every year (I can't think of any others at the moment except perhaps the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice - the Colin Firth one). The novel holds just such an important place as a classic and a genre-defining work, inspiring numerous novels based on Roman history and kick-starting the I, Noun/Name title format. I have to confess, I don't find the novel as re-readable as the TV series is re-watchable, but that's not to take away from how important it is, or how enjoyable I dimly remember it being on first read (which was some years ago now).

One of the quirks of Graves' writing style in this novel is that he carefully composes it as if it were written by the Emperor Claudius - not just using the first person, but incorporating many of the quirks and foibles of ancient history in general, and of the little we know of Claudius' own writing. Before he was Emperor, Claudius wrote several histories (including an autobiography), but unfortunately none have survived. Graves explains in his author's note that he used surviving fragments of a speech of Claudius' to try to ape his style - which Graves himself describes as 'inept' (according to Suetonius) and 'inelegant' with 'awkwardly placed digressions'.

Graves therefore conscientiously reproduces these flaws in the novel, which is very clever of him, but can be irritating to the reader. The fact that ancient histories are full of awkwardly placed digressions is one of the things that's annoying about them and off-putting to modern readers - it's not something I personally would choose to replicate in a novel, I have to confess. The structure of the novel is somewhere between the two forms of Roman history (annalistic, describing events year by year, or thematic, usually used in biographies). Claudius as narrator explains at the beginning that he is going to avoid the annalistic structure (and write in Greek, distancing himself a little from the Latin Roman histories) and in the early part especially, the narrative jumps around quite a lot (rather confusingly at times). However, it does follow a broadly chronological structure, from before Claudius' birth to his accession as Emperor, and the latter half proceeds in a rather more conventional chronological way (which is something of a relief).

Another consequence of Graves' careful portrayal of Claudius as an historian is that the book as a whole has a tendency to tell, rather than show, especially in the earlier sections. There has to be a specific source for all Claudius' knowledge and although some conversations he couldn't have been present for are invented, Claudius-as-narrator self-consciously avoids doing so as much as possible. The scene in which he talks to Livy and Pollio about their different ways of writing history sets out what are probably Graves' preferences and certainly the character Claudius's - privileging the facts so far as they are known over invention and artistic writing. We modern historians would certainly tend to agree with him there when it comes to history - but this is not, in fact, history, it's a novel. The result is that the early sections especially whizz through event after event, describing everything rather briefly and very matter-of-factly, and I have to wonder how much of an impression any of it would have made if I hadn't seen the TV series first.

In the preface to the sequel, Claudius the God, Graves replied rather defensively to some critics who had implied that in I, Claudius he 'had merely consulted Tacitus's Annals and Suetonius' Twelve Caesars, run them together, and expanded the result with my own "vigorous fancy". This was not so'. He then provides a long list of the primary sources he used in writing Claudius the God. I certainly don't disbelieve Graves - I'm sure he did read numerous ancient sources and that everything comes from one or another of them, and his research into Claudius' own writing style is impressive. You can see where the critics were coming from, though, as the book really does read like the slightly confused love-child of Tacitus' Annals and Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars.

Wherever Tacitus is available, Graves tends to follow him reasonably closely, and it's Tacitus who provides the indictment of Livia that Graves takes as his jumping-off point for portraying her (awesomely) as a serial killing megalomaniac. (His portrayal of Augustus makes the man who took over the world from the age of 19 into an 'overgrown schoolboy', with all his accomplishments credited to Livia, good and bad - but I don't want to go into that in too much detail right now because I'm giving a paper on it next week). The novel's account of the reign of Tiberius includes a lengthy digression on Germanicus' putting down of mutinies and war in Germany (justified on the grounds that he wrote to Claudius about it) which was presumably of interest to Graves, a veteran of the First World War, but also reflects the content of Tacitus' Annals and Tacitus' areas of interest.

When we get to Caligula, however, and Tacitus' account is lost, Graves gives in completely to Suetonian gossip, with just about every rumour and every bizarre act attributed to Caligula recorded as 'true' and attributed to madness, with little other motivation (he does talk about Caligula's reckless spending and need for money, but the building of temples to himself in Rome is attributed entirely to madness). As it happens, I tend to think Caligula was not quite sane as well, but it is noticeable that, while Tiberius' vices are referred to briefly and pages dedicated to Germanicus in Germania, Caligula's reign is nothing but complete insanity and personal gossip - perhaps partly because it's from Suetonius, not Tacitus.

The jacket describes the novel as 'racy' but Graves actually skirts over most of the sexual or violent sections fairly quickly. His portrayal of Tiberius is actually kind compared to Suetonius (absolving him of guilt for reading Drusus' republican letter to Augustus, for example) and he reports on Tiberius' sexual habits on Capri fairly briefly, without the details which Suetonius includes, which are enough to turn the stomach. Claudius as narrator states things simply, such as recording matter-of-factly that Caligula slept with all three of his sisters, but there are no details. A couple of gladiatorial combats and the assassination of Caligula are described in a little more detail, but even these are fairly brief. Or perhaps I've just become hard to shock after reading all of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Like most novelists, Graves uses the most common names for characters rather than their full Latin names (Mark Antony, not Marcus Antonius, for example). Most usefully, he also invents nicknames to compensate for the confusing Roman habit of giving each successive generation the same names as their forebears (which to be fair is not just Roman - my own grandfather, uncle and cousin are Jimmy, Jim and James). Characters who are differentiated in historical works in general by using a particular one of their names - such as Tiberius, Germanicus and Claudius, whose names were all extremely similar - are given their usual name. Female characters known as 'the Younger' are given the Latin diminutive suffix 'illa', which in English looks like a different name and so avoids confusion - so Agrippina the Younger becomes Agrippinilla, 'little Agrippina', Julia the Younger becomes 'Julilla' and so on. When stumped for a version of a character's actual name that will be sufficiently different, Graves makes up a family nickname, so Julia the Even Younger becomes 'Lesbia', Drusus the Younger 'Castor'; which is a very good idea and responsible for me always thinking of Drusus the Younger to myself as Castor. It does get a bit strange, though, when he extends this system to geography and talks about 'France' rather than 'Gaul' - I'm actually more familiar with Roman place names than modern ones in some cases and sometimes lost track of where everything was (and 'King of Britain' is just completely wrong on several levels).

I suspect the geographical naming may owe a little to the fact Graves was writing about a war involving France and Germany - let's just say the Germans don't come out of this novel especially brilliantly (though to be fair, no one does really). One of the perils of first person narrative is that sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between really effectively getting inside a Roman's head and just plain dubious/typical 1930s thinking on things like feminism, racism, homophobia, etc. I could have done with a bit less on how lazy and useless slaves and freedmen are, I have to say (especially since Claudius as emperor was known for relying heavily on his freedmen). Several sections on the army and Claudius' opinions on different types of officer must surely be the product of Graves' experiences as well, though I confess I haven't yet read Goodbye To All That, which would probably shed some light on that.

Along with the digressions and occasionally odd ordering of events, the book sometimes gives away later plot points, presumably on the assumption that everyone already knows the history, which is a bit of a shame. I certainly didn't know anything about any of these Emperors (not even Nero) when I first saw the TV series as a teen - the only Roman history we were taught in school involved labeling the parts of a centurion's uniform and the rooms of a villa (it was spectacularly boring) and the rest of it was not the sort of thing people tell children. Horrible Histories was pretty much the only source of information available, so watching I, Claudius for the first time was very exciting. Graves doesn't do this with everything, however, and readers unfamiliar with the history should find the plot reasonably compelling.

This review sounds bizarrely negative for a book that's partly responsible for my choice of career, and I don't really mean it that way. I, Claudius is a celebrated classic for good reason - it's fast-paced, fascinating and clearly written, with the excellent nick-naming system helping to keep the characters clearly individualised.

All Graves' choices concerning skimming over some events (which is completely necessary when dealing with this period, especially Octavian and the Civil Wars - I tried to cover too much of the detail of those in lectures once and I'm pretty sure most of my students were asleep by the end of it), including various digressions, aping ancient authors in his style and ensuring that there is an explanation for how Claudius knows everything are very deliberate and done for good reasons. Ultimately, I think I prefer a little more invention and a little more more modern writing styles in my novels, so it's the TV series that I truly love - but the book is equally worth reading in its own right.

More posts on I, Claudius in its various forms

Friday, 25 July 2014

Hercules (dir. Brett Ratner, 2014)


Maybe I've just seen too many rubbish ancient world films, especially those based on mythology, but I thought this was really pretty good - I was pleasantly surprised. It was funny, the cast of British thespians did their thing well, The Rock was fine (I've quite enjoyed all the acting performances of his that I've seen, which is mainly The Mummy Returns and Star Trek: Voyager's 'Tsunkatse'), and most importantly it played around with ancient mythology in some interesting ways, putting some nice twists on the material.

For once, I've kept spoilers to a minimum in this review, because the film rests on a couple of turns and revelations that you should see for yourself if you're at all interested in this sort of film. I also won't go through the many ways in which the film differs from the various ancient sources, which would not only be tedious, but would miss the point entirely. The whole reason for telling new versions of ancient stories is to put a new spin on the material, which is what the ancient versions certainly do - you'd struggle to find any two or three versions of Hercules' story that are particularly similar. (I will mention briefly that the mythical Eurystheus is king of Mycenae, not Athens - evidently the writers thought the audience were more likely to have heard of Athens, or perhaps they just wanted to redress the balance a bit re screen interpretations of the city. We also get the ever-irritating assumption that 'Elysium' equates to heaven and 'Hades' to hell - heaven and hell are medieval Christian concepts).

I will say that the film used or referenced lots of aspects of Hercules' mythology, many of which often get left out of modern interpretations. It mentioned the derivation of his name (they went for 'glory of Hera' whereas I would usually translate it as 'glory through Hera', and it would have helped if they'd used the Greek 'Herakles' instead of the Latin 'Hercules', but still), as well as the various Labours, the snakes he supposedly strangled in his cradle, even the murder of his first wife Meg(ara) and their children, and he wore the skin of the Nemean Lion when fighting, which I loved (a reason is provided in story for such an impractical bit of kit, as well). It was lovely to see so many bits and piece of Hercules' mythology get a shout-out.

Considering how much of the ancient Hercules was put into the film, I have to confess I was a bit disappointed when the young man loudly singing Hercules' praises at the beginning turned out to be Iolaus, rather than Hylas, so there was no reference to the complexities of ancient sexuality. Iolaus in mythology is Hercules' nephew and much of Hercules' mythology revolves around his relationships with his two wives and his children, so the portrayal of uncle and nephew here would be perfectly recognisable to the Greeks - but the emphasis put on the blood relationship in Iolaus' early scenes and the lack of subtlety with which the point is made that Iolaus likes girls suggests the makers must be aware that some viewers might assume a different relationship between an older ancient Greek warrior and a younger man. How fantastic would it have been if this part went to Hylas, Hercules' younger lover, instead? Ah well, maybe some day.

Alongside the mythology, there was an interesting nod to historical developments as well. The warfare described in Homeric epic is all about individuals fighting alone and gaining glory, but sometime during the Archaic period, hoplite warfare was developed, which relied on soldiers creating a wall of shields, each half protecting himself, half the man next to him, and basically shoving the enemy as hard as possible (300 depicts this for about 30 seconds before it gets bored and everyone starts leaping about like a mad thing).

The Chigi Vase, which depicts hoplite warfare - it's all about shoving the enemy.

The film sort of seems to be trying to depict this change. Our heroes themselves fight individually and make use of chariots, like in the epics (these chariots are far too big to be Mycenaean war chariots - though they might fit Homer's somewhat inaccurate description of Mycenaean war chariots). However, Hercules teaches the army something like the hoplite style, focusing on maintaining a wall of shields - except he leaves out the bit about creating deep lines of hoplites, to help with the pushing. The shields the army are using are presumably supposed to reflect Ajax's tower shield from the Iliad, a style also seen on a Mycenaean ring from Mycenae, but most pre-hoplite Greek soldiers would have had smaller, round shields. Then Iolaus equips the men with hoplite armour, but only half of them - which would completely defeat the object, as they all have to have the same shields for the thing to work. All in all, it's a rather nice attempt to tie the story in to historical developments and a particular historical period, but there are some noticeable holes in the depiction of the fighting. (Edited to add: apparently the film is set in 358 BC - see comments - in which case this is all ridiculous, because it was all happening in the Archaic Age. Phillip II of Macedon made some changes to Macedonian phalanxes, e.g. giving them longer spears, around the fourth century BC, but hoplite warfare had been around for centuries).

My favourite thing about this film was that, like the BBC's Atlantis, it played around with the legend of Hercules and with the idea of storytelling. Ignore the incredibly misleading trailer (which also gives away the movie's best moment) because this is barely a fantasy film. It has prophecy in it, as do many ancient world stories, fantasy or otherwise (including I, Claudius and The Roman Mysteries) and the extent of Hercules' strength beggars belief, but otherwise this is a film in which the Hydra is a group of criminals wearing snake-like disguises and centaurs are just cavalry (rare in the mountainous landscape of Greece). In fact, the whole resolution of the plot, which I won't give away here, rests on the legend of Hercules, on how his story has grown and spread, regardless of the reality. It's an excellent theme for a version of a Greek myth, reflecting the importance of heroic kleos (glory) that gives Herakles his name.

I enjoyed this film a lot more than I expected to. I really liked Ian McShane's Amphiaraus, who's almost like a slightly chirpier version of The X-Files' Clyde Bruckman, and it was nice to see Atalanta in there (even if she's magically become an Amazon to save time on explaining her backstory). It's not a cinematic masterpiece or anything, but I found this an enjoyable and interesting addition to Hercules' mythology.

More movie reviews

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...