Friday, 31 July 2009

The Roman Mysteries: The Pirates of Pompeii

The Pirates of Pompeii is the third of the Roman Mysteries series, but it's the first I've read, because it has some dreams in it that are interesting for my thesis. It takes place near modern Sorrento (Surrentum) just after the eruption of Vesuvius.

I really enjoyed reading this. The story moves at a cracking pace and it's nice to pretend to be on the Mediterranean for a while, even a Mediterranean covered in ash! (For those outside the UK, we are having our third truly horrible summer in a row, weather wise. I am sitting here in a woolly jumper with the heater on).

I missed the previous book, so I'm not sure what happened there and will have to catch up later, but this one finds the children mourning the death of poor Pliny the Elder (why oh why didn't The Doctor save him?!). The story follows them as they get caught up in a dasterdly operation to kidnap children and sell them to slave traders.

The crater of Vesuvius looming over the ruins of Herculaneum

The books pulls no punches on the realities of the slave trade - older children and adults will notice the veiled references to some of what slaves could expect, including a woman who has had two children by her master. Because one of the main characters is a slave, the ordeal of slavery can be described in some detail, though of course Nubia has been lucky and has been treated well by her mistress. (Take note, Harry Potter! This is how you depict slavery in a children's book).

Nubia and Flavia are probably a bit too close to be entirely historically accurate, especially in the way they behave in public and in Flavia's expectation that everyone will treat Nubia as well as she does, but this presents children with a positive view of our heroine and allows the children to interact as normal childhood friends, so it works well. I absolutely love the way Nubia speaks, in slightly stilted, slightly archaic English, to demonstrate that Latin is not her first language.

Children reading these books will come away with plenty of knowledge about the Roman Empire they didn't have before. For the adults, there are oodles of pop culture references to keep us entertained. First laugh-out-loud moment for me was when an announcer for a typical comedy about clever slaves and rich but stupid young men (the book continues with 'and children captured by pirates', which is relevant to the plot; in fact, the third element is usually a beautiful young woman the rich man is chasing) calls himself 'Lucrio' - an anagram of Lurcio, the protagonist of Up Pompeii!, a BBC sitcom and film starring Frankie Howerd from the seventies which blended Plautine comedy and Carry On humour. Later in the book, Jonathan actually says the phrase 'a funny thing happened on the way to the forum' as part of a comedy routine. In another part of pop culture entirely, the hulking strong man for the Patron is called Lucius Brassus.

The parallels with The Godfather help to keep the adults entertained, but they are also entirely justified historically - the family-based system of patronage in the Roman Empire probably is at the root of the modern mafia, though altered through two millennia of history and huge political changes in Italy.

Finally, I have to confess, I actually cried a couple of times while reading this book, mostly during the sections relating to Nubia's capture and to her love of music. I look forward to reading more, especially the books set in Africa. The descriptions of the desert are beautiful (even if they do refer to 'Arabs', who didn't arrive until the 600s AD - at this time, the inhabitants would be Berbers or Phoenicians) and the books are just as detailed in their geographical descriptions as in their historical references. (Since I spent most of my childhood trying to reach Narnia through the wardrobe, I would have loved a book with locations you can actually visit!).

Yes, it's another picture of the desert. No, I'm not going to stop shoving them in wherever possible!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

A Quick Update

Apologies for the lack of posts this week - I'm still slogging away at a final (well, sort of final) draft of my thesis, which I will hopefully be sending to my supervisor tomorrow.

I'm currently part way in to The Pirates of Pompeii (one of the Roman Mysteries series) which has so far made me both laugh and cry within the first four chapters, so that's looking good! I've also dispatched my brother to see if he can get hold of the pilot of Xena: Warrior Princess for me. I've never seen the show and have no real idea what it's like or even what it's about, except it stars two scantily clad women whose characters may or may not be having an affair with each other. (I haven't seen Hercules: The Legendary Journeys either, but Xena sounded more fun).

I've also just booked a short holiday in Split, Croatia, which should fall in between thesis submission and my viva. I've been desperate to see Diocletian's Palace and the aqueduct for years, so hopefully it will all work out. I'd love to take a book set in Roman Split/Dalmatia with me - can anyone recommend a good one?!

Right, back to work, and to staring at the weather hoping it improves before my friends' wedding next Wednesday...

My desk. Where I work. Except I usually work at the study room at uni, but needed to be near the good coffee today.

Monday, 27 July 2009

I, Claudius: Poison is Queen

You can tell just by the title of this one that it's going to be a bit more exciting than the previous two (Waiting in the Wings and What Shall We Do About Claudius?). It opens normally enough, with Old!Claudius at his desk, being brought some old paperwork by a couple of slaves, amongst which is the last will and testament of Augustus Caesar...

We snap pretty quickly into the Past after that, as Germanicus returns to Augustus, feeling very smug about his military acheivements, which he describes to the small section of the Senate that the BBC budget will allow us to see. He and Claudius then go and catch up on each other's sex lives and the fact that Claudius doesn't like his own son (which is presumably why we never see the boy, nor is Claudius concerned when he suddenly chokes to death shortly before his wedding to a relative of Sejanus). Claudius tells Germanicus all about Postumus and Livia and Livilla - he speaks in whispers, and Germanicus' growing acceptance of the truth is indicated by his replies getting slowly quieter, from a shout to a whisper.

The next scene gives us Augustus and Livia: The Sitcom Years, as the two of them bicker over a fig plant and Augustus, with some weariness, notes that they have been married for fifty years. Germanicus has obviously had words with Augustus, as he's off on a trip to Corsica that he hasn't told Livia about, and isn't going to stop off and see Postumus at Planasia on the way, no no, not at all, whatever would make Livia think such a thing, and NO YOU CAN'T COME WITH ME.

Livia is not stupid, and interogates Livilla to see if she's blabbed, but misses the truth by refusing to entertain the idea that Claudius might have two brain cells to rub together. Augustus arrives at Planasia, where Postumus appears to have just enough shaving cream to shave once a month, providing him with Angry Stubble (unless that's as much beard as he can grow in four years). Augustus weeps in remorse, which doesn't impress Postumus in the least, as apparently he's a big wuss who cries at the drop of a hat anyway. He's crying himself pretty soon though, at the thought of getting unceremoniously stabbed to death in his hovel. Augustus explains that he can't take Postumus back until the Senate pass a decree overturning his banishment, and he wants to get Tiberius out of the city as well. Anyone who's ever seen a film or TV programme ever knows that this isn't going to end well, but unfortunately Augustus and Postumus don't have this advantage.

Livia, meanwhile, is now involving the Chief Vestal Virgin in her scheming. This is a much better picture of a Vestal Virgin; an woman in middle age (she is about to retire after thirty years) and wearing a white outfit a little like a nun, but fancier. Livia discovers that Augustus has changed his will and persuades the Vestal to open it up for her to see what he's changed.

We cut immediately to poor Augustus rolling around on his bed suffering from stomach pain, and we can all pretty easily imagine the intervening events. Livia, actually feeling guilty for once at poisoning her companion of fifty years, is embracing alcoholism as an escape. Augustus has convinced himself that omens are telling him that he will soon die and give way to someone called Agrippa (Postumus Agrippa). He's half right... His friend, who went with him to visit Postumus, is pretty worried at this and talks him out of it, and he manages to cure himself by eating only figs he has picked himself from the garden.

Tiberius is onto his mother, and wants to know whether she's drinking because Augustus nearly died, or because he didn't. She tells him that Augustus has altered his will in favour of Postumus, and Tiberius has a screaming hissy fit. It is possibly at this point that Tiberius' last scrap of sanity finally snaps.

Augustus, meanwhile, comes to talk to Claudius to thank him for his help and apologise for thinking him to be a blithering idiot all these years. He also insists that he's a Republican at heart - yes, Emperor, and I'm the Queen of Sheba.

We get a lovely scene of Benevolent Augustus gambling with his friends and letting them all take all the money, in the middle of which he is suddenly afflicted with the most sudden and abrupt bout of nausea and vomiting in history. Livia has now moved past alochol and resorted to blank staring not unlike the (anti)-Heroic Blue Screen of Death. Augustus tries sticking to the figs-only diet which, naturally, horrifies his doctors; but is foiled when one of them cheerfully explains this plan to Livia.

The next scene is one of the most extraordinary in the series. Sian Phillips acts her heart out as Livia sits with the dying Augustus, telling him how silly the fig-diet was and how, luckily, Tiberius is on his way. She has to do it all with her voice though, because the camera never leaves BLESSED's face throughout the whole scene. He is absolutely silent, but, for the first couple of minutes, his eyes follow Livia's movement around the bed - then, about halfway through the scene, you can actually see Augustus die as Livia keeps talking, becoming increasingly tearful. The director explains on the DVD extras that he wanted the audience to see the light leave Augustus' eyes, and you really can - in a tour de force from Blessed, he remains absolutely motionless for the second part of the scene and somehow manages to look really dead and lifeless, until Phillips comes over and closes his eyes. If anyone ever doubts that Blessed is perfectly capable of doing subtle when required, show them this scene. It's a really incredible piece of acting, and a clever and truly memorable way to say goodbye to Augustus, who has been so dominant in the series so far.

Tiberius comes in and for the first time in the series, Livia looks really genuinely distressed, tears pouring down her face, as Tiberius solemnly intones 'the earth will shake'. As she walks out of the door, Livia tells him, in a low but firm tone 'By the way - don't touch the figs'.

But the episode isn't quite over yet. Livia tells the assembled dignitaries that Augustus is in a deep sleep (hah!), and they walk away, revealing... Captain Picard! In a Roman soldier's uniform! WITH HAIR! He is, it turns out, the son of the Commander of the Guard, and is called Aelius Sejanus - a name that meant nothing to me when I first saw the series, but is certainly significant to anyone who knows some Roman history. As for Picard!Sejanus, he is tough, he is monosyllabic, he 'knows why he's here'. This all sounds ominous, and indeed it is, as Picard!Sejanus' first act in the show is to go and give poor old Postumus the exact death he didn't want, and then do for Augustus' friend Fabius Maximus as well.

Captian Picard with hair... so wrong...

Augustus' will is read aloud in the (BBC-budget) Senate, but it's the old will, not the changed version. Livia is sitting in a back room, rocking like a mad woman and hugging the new will. Claudius stops by to offer his condolences and she good as tells him that it's not the real will, because she's drunk again, and she still thinks he's too stupid to matter. Livia explains that Augustus is a god and she will be one day too, then tells Claudius to go and laughs at him, and we hear her laughter echoing at Old!Claudius as he brandishes the newly discovered correct will at her empty chair and yells 'Poison is Queen! Poison is Queen!'

This is a great, tense episode, the highlight of which is that amazing scene of Livia chastising Augustus as he dies right in front of us (well, you know, acts dying. Brian Blessed is, as far as I know, alive and well). We see the Snow Queen actually weep and her rock hard facade starts to crack for the first time. Nothing will ever be the same after this; the series will descend further and further into darkness (figurative and literal - there seems to be an increasing oil lamp shortage as the series goes on) and without Augustus at the head, things also become increasingly chaotic and times more uncertain. (Since I, Claudius starts with Augustus firmly inplace, we don't see Octavian fighting two civil wars and murdering hundred of citizens by proxy in proscriptions, including Cicero - the Augustus we see in I, Claudius, banishment of family members aside, is a much more kindly fatherly and benevolent figure than the real one. The real Augustus would be delighted though - this is just how he wanted to be remembered).

The Bay of Naples, where Augustus died at Nola, which is on the route of the modern Circumvesuviana railway. Usual apologies for the picture quality. The faint smudge in the distance is actually Vesuvius, though when Augustus saw it, it would have been much more pointy, as it was pre-eruption.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Narnia: Prince Caspian adaptations

Just a short one again, I'm afraid, as I am snowed under with work at the moment.

In my conference paper, I talked a fair bit about Prince Caspian, which features the most significant references to Greek myth in the Narnia series. I won't repeat that here, since I'm hoping to publish it at some point, but I was reminded of something that I've always wondered about in the BBC adaptation.

In the book, having been introduced to the Old Narnians, Caspian joins them for a party. The Old Narnians are all the magical and mythical creatures of Narnia - talking beasts, dwarfs, centaurs and so on. (The New Narnians are human Telmarines, many of whom do not believe in the existence of the Old Narnians).

The party consists of fauns, dryads, centaurs and talking animals, all dancing round a big bonfire on the Dancing Lawn. I had always imagined it to be a bit like the 'Pastoral Symphony' section of Disney's original Fantasia, all friendly fauns, Pan-pipes and greenery. In both the major adaptations of Prince Caspian, however, it looks quite different.

Ridiculously over-cute cherub - Cupid - things, from the Pastoral Symphony section of Fantasia. I'll do a post on that some day too.

Prince Caspian is probably the hardest of the Narnia Chronicles to adapt - or maybe second hardest, after The Last Battle. Both adaptations do reasonably well, and both have their flaws (yes, I do have opinions on what these are, no, I don't have time to describe them all now!).

The BBC adaptation of the Dancing Lawn scene has a very different feel to it from what I (at 6 years old!) had expected from the book. Most prominent among the attendees, other than talking animals, are human-looking characters wearing grass skirts. I assume these are supposed to be related to dryads in some way - though dryads are female and these are male. Their dark hair and grass skirts look very different to the usual pseudo-medieval European Narnian costuming, and, rather than Pan-pipes, they play a pounding, rhythmic drum beat.

The recent film adaptation (dir. Andrew Adamson, 2008) goes a different route again. Here, we have gone back to a Greek theme, but with a different feel. There isn't a party at the Dancing Lawn, but a meeting, and, in addition to the usual suspects, the attendees include minotaurs (which exist in the plural in Narnia), who were previously among the bad guys in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The whole thing is made to feel much darker, as is the movie as a whole.

A minotaur fights with the good guys in the recent film adaptation

There are advantages to both approaches. The BBC version emphasises the wildness of the Narnians against the medieval Telmarines and, depending on taste, the party maybe feels a little more exciting with that drum beat. The film version, on the other hand, keeps the essentially Greek feel of the original, but loses all sense of joy or exhileration, in favour of concentrating more fully on military matters. I can't quite decide which I prefer - thoughts, anyone?

By the way, the image at the top of the page is the front cover of the edition of Prince Caspian I had as a child, which is still around, falling to pieces in a box somewhere under my bed in my parents' house.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Blackadder: Back and Forth

This clip is from the Millennium special episode of Blackadder, Blackadder Back and Forth, which was made by Sky and the BBC and shown at the Millennium Dome, and later on Sky.

Back and Forth was able to revisit some old favourites (Queen Elizabeth I) and go to some periods the original four series (and two specials) missed out, as Blackadder and Baldrick try to learn to steer a time machine built by Baldrick according to a design by Leonardo da Vinci (nice touch - if anyone could ever be capable of inventing a time machine, it would be Leo!).

Blackadder and Baldrick discover their distant ancestors guarding Hadrian's Wall from the Scots (which is inaccurate by the way - the Scots came over from Ireland later, Hadrian's Wall actually kept out the Picts. So any and all jokes about Scottish people - red-haired etc - are all out too).

My favourite joke No 1 - Blackadder wonders why they are trying to keep the [Picts] out by building a three foot high wall. Roman remains are not well preserved in Britain - villas are usually reduced to a few buried walls and mosaics. I haven't been to Hadrian's Wall, but I believe (from photos) that it has survived in a somewhat reduced state. I suspect the original wall was a little higher.

A typical Roman ruin in Britain - this is a villa near Gloucester, which we stopped off at after going to the annual cheese-rolling one year.

My favourite joke No 2 - Hugh Laurie appears in a very, very short skirt, then Stephen Fry appears in his pants. Basically, each man's tunic is shorter than the last. Luckily, Baldrick appears to be wearing the longest tunic.

Stephen Fry praises the others for practising their 'English' - like Chelmsford 123 (an old C4 sticom, posts on that to follow at a later date), the conceit is that 'English' is the local langauge of the Romano-British (actually 'British' would have been a Celtic langauge - see Dr Who post).

Fry's character is a distant ancestor of his General Melchett, from Blackadder Goes Forth (and , presumably, of Melchett from Blackadder II, though he is more similar to the General). He switches to speaking in Latin (yay!), pronounced in the modern way (vs as ws, hard cs) and explains that Rome is under attack and all the Emperor has done is poison his mother (based on Nero, who tried to drown his mother and then had her stabbed to death) and marry his horse (loosely from Caligula, who thought about making his horse a senator, but twisted over time - I'm planning to write a paper on that subject for the CA conference next year). He finishes with my favourite joke No 3 - converting WW1 General Melchett's favourite expression, 'Baaaa!' to 'Baaaaa-us!'

Then they're attacked by 'Scots', who are referred to as Rod Stewart's ancestors and look like extras from Braveheart. Sigh.

It's a shame Blackadder didn't do more in the Roman period - I think the political world of ancient Rome would be perfectly suited to his scheming and conniving. It would have ruined the forward momentum of the series though, and series 2, 3 and 4 are so good I wouldn't want them changed (and even series 1 has it's moments - Jim Broadbent's Spanish translator is genuis and the Archbishop of Canterbury episode is great). At least we have this clip, and anything that provides a slightly more entertaining way to revise Latin has got to be a good thing!

Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson, short skirts hidden by three foot high wall

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Discworld: Pyramids

Pyramids is one of my favourite Discworld novels. It's quite an early one - the seventh - and it's a standalone novel, featuring none of the regular major characters. I would really love to see it made into a movie - it's a perfect choice, as it requires no prior knowledge of the Discworld and plays on well known images and themes relating to ancient Egypt and Greece.* Also, in my head, Chidder is very sexy.

(*Not like the current Sky adaptations though - a proper movie, maybe directed by Joss Whedon, Mike Newell or Alfonso Cuaron. The Sky adaptations are all right, but they seem to be so busy messing around with sets and costumes, they're not funny).

The hero of Pyramids is Teppic (King Teppicymon XXVIII), who becomes King of the ancient land of Djelibeybi when his father dies in an unfortunate accidental suicide (overcome with the pressure of having to make the sun come up, he thought for a moment that he was a seagull, and tried to fly). Teppic has been sent away to Ankh-Morpork to be educated (the opening sequence, as he takes his final exam at the School of Assassins, is a brilliant pastiche of the British driving test) and he returns to the Old Kingdom with a lot of new-fangled ideas, mostly involving plumbing...

Mostly, Pratchett plays with the mental images everyone already has of Egypt - pyramids, camels, cats, crocodiles. The well-known notion that pyramids preserve cheese is tweaked for the Discworld so that the pyramids actually store time, becoming the basis of the plot. Egypt is not my area of expertise, but to the best of my knowledge, Pratchett's representation of Egyptian religion is actually not that far out - according to Jan Assmann, whereas Mesopotamian and Greek observations of natural phenomena were focussed on foretelling the future, Egyptian observations of the same things focussed on maintaining order in the present and ensuring that things contined as they had before. (This is probably the result of the vital importance of the regular, annual flooding of the Nile to Egyptian farming).

Teppic orders the biggest pyramid ever to be built for his father (who wanted to be buried at sea) and is then forced to flee the country saving Ptraci, his father's favourite handmaiden, from being fed to the crocodiles. (I first read this book when I was about 14 and it was years before I worked out how to pronounce the names to get the joke - I had been pronouncing them 'Puh-trah-ki and Duh-jeli-baye-bi, when of course, it should be Tracy and Jellybaby). Just as they cross the border, the pyramid's stored time cause a rupture in reality and the whole country disappears, trapping Teppic and Ptraci in neighbouring Ephebe.

Ephebe is the Discworld's version of ancient Greece. It is ruled by a Tyrant, using a strange new political system that Teppic thinks is called 'mocracy'. A little way from the border, Teppic and Ptaci discover the philosophers Xeno and Ibid, shooting at tortoises, because Xeno insists that it should be locially impossible to shoot a moving tortoise. Teppic is then invited to a symposium (which is almost exactly like an ancient Greek symposium, except for the plate-smashing at the end - a bit of moder Greece seems to have crept in there) where he meets a few more philosophers and other assorted ancient Greek types, all in uniform of white sheet and grey beard.

Xeno is the Discworld counterpart of Zeno of Elea, whose Achilles paradox argued that Achilles could not catch a moving tortoise. Copolymer, 'the greatest storyteller in the world', who tells Teppic the story of the Tsortean War ('Wossname's armour shone like shining armour. Fight and a half, that fight. Between thingy, not the one with the limp, the one with red hair...') is presumably Homer. Iesope is Aesop, obviously, and Antiphon is Aristophanes. I can't think of anyone in particular analogous to the Discworld's Ibid; the name reflects tha Latin abbreviation, often used in older scholarly works, meaning 'in the same place'.

Copolymer's full version of the story of the Tsortean war, by the way, is brilliant - a perfect combination of epic epithets, like 'red hair' and so on, with the sort of oral storytelling that more often happens among drunk friends in a modern context. It also includes all sorts of little details from the real Trojan cycle, thrown in with everything else, like Copolymer's reference to 'the one with the limp' (which might be Philoctetes; 'Oedipus' also means lame, but he isn't part of the Trojan War cycle) who 'didn't want to go, said he was mad' (that was Odysseus).

Teppic is actually looking for Pthagonal (Pythagoras), who is glumly complaining that the diameter of his pie should divide into the circumference three times, not 3.14....... etc. This is the most significant use of classical philosophy in Pyramids, for the novel is based on the idea that the world really is, as Pythagoras said, all based on mathematics. This, coupled with the added notion that camels are the greatest mathematicians in the world (because they have so much time to think out in the desert, and they have to do quite complicated sums to get their legs to move properly) is what leads to all sorts of hi-jinks involving disappearing countries and exploding pyramids.

Teppic gets his camel, You Bastard, to take him back to Djelibeybi; meanwhile, the absence of the kingdom in between them has led Tsort and Ephebe to re-start the Tsortean war. Except, this time, both sides have built battalions of wooden horses and are sitting, waiting for the other side to come and take them in. Ephebe, which up to this point has chiefly represented classical Athens, now becomes a combination of ancient Mycenae (Agamemnon's kingdom) and classical Sparta - one young soldier has been told to come back with his shield or on it (Plutarch, Moralia, 240 anon16), and while briefly facing certain death, the captain gets as far as 'Go, tell the Ephebians - ' before giving up as the army arrives (Herodotus, 7.228).

Once everything has been sorted out and the country restored, Teppic leaves and Ptraci becomes Queen - at which point she turns into Cleo from Carry On Cleo, calmly seeing visitors in her asses' milk bath (for which she plans to install plumbing). She was halfway there already anyway - the handmaidens in Pyramids are just like Carry On hareem girls. The ending of the book is wonderful and takes tying things up neatly to a new level - it involves use the ouroboros, the symbol of the snake eating its own tail.

There's probably lots more I could say about Pyramids, but I really have to go work on my thesis now, so I'll leave it there. One final note: there's a review of a film I hadn't heard over at The Life of Antoninus Pius, but which sounds like it might be very entertaining...

Me, on possibly the greatest mathematician in the world, in Tunisia. I named him You Bastard - in an affectionate way - because he kept trying to throw me off in revenge for me having sat on him wrong. We made peace during a break in the ride and hewas much nicer on the way back!

Edited to add: I forgot to mention the Sphinx! Teppic gets the traditional Greek riddle but has a fabulous, unique solution - having failed to get the answer, he insists that the question is unfair and it should be amended to 'What, metaphorically speaking, walks on four legs just after midnight, on two legs for most of the day (barring accidents), until at least supper time, when it continues to walk on two legs or with any prosthetic aids of its choice?' The Sphinx gets so confused, he is able to slip past it.

I also forgot to mention the dreams, a subject currently close to my heart. The dream about the seven fat cows and seven thin cows is an ancestral dream of the royal family here, with one cow riding a bicycle or playing an amusing instrument.

I love these references - I love the way they gently poke holes in the mythology, whether its the obscurity of a riddle or a dream report that lacks dream-like qualities. Plus, its just really funny.

(And I'll say no more on the religious issues; in the Great Religious War of Fantasy Authors, I'm on the side of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling, rather than that of Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams - whose sci-fi is so crazy it's practically fantasy).

Me and Y. B. again, making peace. I'm a bit fond of these pictures!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (dir. David Yates 2009)

A few random thoughts on the new Harry Potter movie...

Warning: SPOILERS contained within. Only read this if you've already seen the movie, or don't care!

Went to see the new film last night and I loved it, though I did feel a bit like there were two scenes missing at the end (the fight between the Death Eaters and the kids/Aurors, and Dumbledore's funeral). I liked the extra bit at the Weasleys' house, but I was expecting Lupin to go all werewolf on the Death Eaters' collective asses, and was kinda disappointed when he didn't (because of Tonks' random reference to the first night of the cycle). That would've been cool. I loved how funny it was though - I was dreading all the teen romance, but it was done really well and it was hilarious. The felix felicis potion was also done really well - I think 'pincers' may be my favourite line in the film. ('Felix' means lucky, and 'felicis' is the genitive of 'felix', so I guess this means 'Lucky thing of lucky things'...) Also we finally got to see more of Snape and Draco, yay! (Mmmm, Alan Rickman).

There isn't as much Classics-y stuff in the last two books as in the earlier ones - something I'll talk about more when I do Book 7, which largely (though not entirely) substitutes it's own invented 'fairy tales' for actual myth or folklore. The main threat in Half-Blood Prince is more human than magic, though the wizards use magic instead of guns. The scene in the cave is reminiscent of a katabasis, that is, a part of the story where the hero goes down to the underworld, the land of the dead. The Greek underworld appears to welcome these visitors on a regular basis - Hercules, Theseus, Orpheus and Odysseus all pop down for a visit - and the scene showing all the Inferi (Potterverse zombies) surrounding Harry and Dumbledore and their tiny boat is definitely underworldy. (I want to do some more posts on pop culture examples of katabasis, so I won't say too much on that now!). A couple of my friends described the Inferi as 'all the Gollums' which I guess is a good point, though they looked somehow even grosser than Gollum to me. I did think that the Pensieve is looking more and more like Galadriel's mirror with each passing movie though.

I think Goblet of Fire is still my favourite of the films, and, unless the filmmakers do something amazing with the two parts of Deathly Hallows, I think it will stay that way. I really liked this one though, and I think it needs a second viewing to really enjoy it - on the second viewing, it's so much easier to just enjoy the film without constantly thinking about all the stuff that got moved around or taken out (and without the idiots who were sitting behind me and talked loudly all the way through the film). Oh, and I have to confess, I did cry a little bit - I was doing fine until everyone put their wands in the air to remove the Dark Mark with candle-like wandlight, at which point the tears started rolling!

Monday, 13 July 2009

Carry On Cleo (dir. Gerald Thomas 1964)

The Carry On movies are something of a British institution. Starting with Carry On Sergeant in 1958, originally they were comedies about a group of men pulling together in the face of adversity and in an attempt to get the girl, but over the years the plots devolved and the sex elements increased until the series petered out with the erotic Carry On Emmanuelle in 1978 and the failed attempt to reboot the series with Carry On Columbus in 1992. In between, however, the series produced some comedy classics (Carry On Up The Khyber, Carry On Matron) as well as some real stinkers (Carry On England). Carry Ons are characterised by two-dimensional characterisation, women walking around with their stomachs sucked in and breasts thrust out, extremely camp men chasing after said women and jokes at about the humour level of a Christmas cracker.

Carry On Cleo was one of the best (the films were often at their best when spoofing earlier films - Carry On Henry, a spoof of Anne of the Thousand Days, is another good one). Cleo also benefitted from being able to use leftover costumes and sets from Cleopatra - Sid James wears Richard Burton's costume throughout. I read a review of Cleopatra once - I'm afraid I can't remember where, I think it was Empire or Total Film - that suggested the best way to enjoy Cleopatra was to skip it and watch Carry On Cleo, which is shorter and funnier.

This is an example of Classics via Shakespeare, and much of the humour and the representations of Romans and Egyptians in this film stems from Shakespeare, rather than from Roman history. There's a running gag in which Caesar starts to make a speech, gets as far as 'Friends, Romans - ' and gets cut off by someone nearby hissing at him 'and Countrymen!'

As far as historical inaccuracy goes, I think the easiest thing is just to say, if you want to know what actually went on between Caesar, Cleopatra and Mark Antony, have a look at Wikipedia - though all the usual caution must be advised. If you have time, various primary sources including Appian, Plutarch and Suetonius are online at Lacus Curtius. With the exception of the eventual assassination of Caesar at the end, none of the events depicted in the film ever actually happened. Caesar and Mark Antony did both have affairs with Cleopatra, who had one son by Caesar and two children by Mark Antony, but not both at once.

Carry On Cleo opens, as usual in these films, with The Bit With The Writing, but in this case, the Writing simply assures us that, although the story is based on real people and events, 'some liberties have been taken with Cleopatra'.

The British are living in caves. I really hope I do not have to point out that this is less than historically accurate! It does emphasise nicely the difference in culture and technological achievement between the British and the Romans, but on the other hand, these are the descendants of the people who built Stonehenge, so suggesting they still haven’t invented the wheel by the 1st century BC is going a bit far. Our hero, the unforuntate Hengist Pod, has memorised his attractive and but unpleasant wife's nagging rant.

The Carry On team became something of a repertory company, with parts divided between regular actors, and for this movie, the part of Julius Caesar has been allotted to Kenneth Williams (his first line in the film being 'Oh, I do feel queer'), while Sid James plays Mark Antony. As a result, we have a Caesar who is very effeminate (though he does spend half the movie chasing girls, as is traditional for Carry On). The problem is that he can barely control his own household, let alone an army. It’s an unusual view of Caesar, and much of the humour (and the plot) comes from seeing familiar scenes and hearing familiar lines delivered in a very unfamiliar way. It should be noted that there were all sorts of rumours going around about Caesar’s private life in antiquity, so for all we know, it could be closer to the truth. Other regulars include Charles Hawtrey as Caesar's father-in-law, Joan Simms as his wife Calpurnia, Jim Dale as Horsa and Kenneth Connor as Hengist.

Carry On movies are always full of terrible, terrible puns, and the one about coming ‘hot-foot’ from Rome is one of the worst. I do like Caesar’s explanation that he has caught ‘Astinkin-cold’ though. The reason they all find Gloria from Bristol so funny, by the way, is that ‘bristols’, in cockney rhyming slang, mean breasts (Bristol City = titty). A lot of the jokes in Carry On films are unintelligible to non-Brits, and Caesar's joke about how he didn't even get his XI plus is becoming increasingly out of date in Britain as well (the eleven-plus exam is taken by students trying to get into grammar schools in Britain, including me some years ago, when I was going to the first of my two grammar schools).

Anachronistic jokes aplenty flow when we get to Rome, my favourites being ‘Marcus and Spencius’ the merchants and poor Horsa getting branded for an owner named Willa Claudia (WC, ‘water closet’ in Britain stands for ‘toilet’). The terrible jokes are not restricted to English either
- Caesar, facing an angry crowd, protests that he sticks to his campaign slogan, 'Nihil expectore in omnibus', which he says means 'No spitting on the public transport' (It doesn't of course - I haven't time to translate it now, but 'nihil' means nothing, it is not a negative command, and, obviously, 'in omnibus' means 'in everything' and has nothing to do with public transport).

This is the best quality picture I could find of the Carry On view of the Vestal Virgins. These don't seem quite to have understood the meaning of the 'virgin' part.

Our heroes have been sold at Marcus and Spencius' slave market, but decide to run away and make it as far as the temple of Vesta, home to Vestal Virgins and eunuchs. For some reason, in his popular book Amo, Amas, Amat, Harry Mount suggested that the Vestal Virgins were 'not that different from the version portrayed in Carry on Cleo' (p71). I don't even know where to start with that statement. Let's sum up by saying that the tradition of the Vestal Virgins has a lot more in common with nuns (a tradition that developed in the later Roman Empire) than with a desert hareem. They certainly wore more than these girls and there were only seven of them.

As they go in, Horsa says they should pretend to be eunuchs and Hengist rhetorically asks what they've got to lose. Groan.

This is where Kenneth Williams, pursued by a murderous bodyguard, yells 'Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!' If you are at a Classics conference in the UK and everyone randomly starts yelling this line over dinner, this is where it's from. It is followed a little later by 'I came, I saw, I - conked out'.

Horsa kills all the guards and runs away, leaving Mark Antony to find Hengist, sword in hand, surrounded by dead conspirators. Hengist is made Caesar's bodyguard and Mark Antony is sent to Egypt to kill Cleopatra and put Ptolemy on the throne. He decides to do it the other way around, as he finds Cleopatra rather more attractive than Ptolemy.

Cleo herself, seen for the first time since the prologue, spends almost all of the film naked, in her asses' milk bath, or lounging in her palace in a glorified bikini. Mark Antony's reaction is 'Puer, oh puer, oh puer', translated by the narrator as 'Boy, oh boy, oh boy'. She persuades Mark Antony to kill Caesar so that they can take over the Empire, but Antony finds his plans, which involved taking Caesar to Egypt and killing him on the way, foiled. The boat they are on is being rowed by Horsa, who incites the slaves to revolt and kills all the conspirators again. Caesar survives but has to row himself to Egypt, after complaining to Gloria that he is suffering from 'sic transit, Gloria' ('thus passes glory').

Caesar has come to Egypt in hope of having an affair with Cleopatra, but the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) sees a vision of Caesar, murdered, though the identity of the murderer is unclear. Caesar forces Hengist to pretend to be him, and Hengist gets so nervous that Cleopatra gives him a drug which appears to be the ancient - or, more strictly speaking, fantasy - equivalent of viagra. The plot to kill Caesar is discovered; Hengist, while excited, kills Cleopatra's bodyguard; then Horsa reappears and escapes with Hengist and Gloria in a stolen boat, all the way back to Britain.

At the end of the film, we see everyone living happily ever after - Hengist having placated his wife using the viagra, Horsa married to Gloria, Mark Antony and Cleo living in the bath - except for Caesar, who is stabbed to death by Brutus, giving up on his final speech when Brutus reminds him to say 'countrymen'.

The Carry On movies are much more valuable as evidence for British culture in the 1960s than anything else, and Carry On Cleo has a lot more to do with mid-twentieth century sexual stereotypes than anything relating to Classics. Depending on your sense of humour, it can be very funny. It plays on the best known elements of the ancient world - the might of Rome, the love affairs of Cleopatra, the unpopularity of Britain from a Roman point of view. History is thoroughly twisted out of all recognition, but Rome does much better than native Britain, where, in the world of Carry On, a man's mother-in-law can still be eaten by a brontesaurus in the 40s BC. The film assumes that the audience are at least familiar with Shakespeare's plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra - without this familiarity, the jokes do not work so well. On the other hand, it is the elements of Shakespeare and of the earlier film Cleopatra that give the film its plot and structure, making it one of the better Carry Ons, and certainly one of the glossiest in terms of it's look. I'm very fond of it, though, as I watched Carry Ons a lot as a child, it has great sentimental value attached to it for me - I'm not sure friends I've shown it to have been quite so enthralled...

Friday, 10 July 2009

The Roman Mysteries: 2 mini-mysteries and conference final thoughts

The rest of the conference went just as well as the first half. I especially enjoyed talking to Tracy Barrett about writing and Caroline Lawrence's talk was a really interesting glimpse into how she goes about writing her books. I think my paper went OK, and I very much enjoyed the other papers in my panel, though I was a bit worried I was repeating what everyone else had said!

I bought Trimalchio's Feast, a selection of short stories from the bookstall which are part of Caroline's The Roman Mysteries series. Having been assured that the first two stories wouldn't spoil the books for me too much, I dived right in and read the first two, 'The Case of the Missing Coin' and 'Trimalchio's Feast'. I had been introduced to the characters through the talks, so I had some idea who everyone was, and the stories explained who they all were anyway.

I was amazed by how much detail was in these very short stories. They are a brilliant introduction to daily life in ancient Rome and I love the way the stories exist within such a well defined timeline (they all take place within the short reign of Titus).

I especially loved the literary allusions - 'Trimalchio's Dinner' is one of my favourite pieces of ancient fiction. It's the longest surviving section from Petronius' 1st century AD novel The Satyricon, and describes what Petronius clearly considered to be the worst possible dinner party, hosted by the eponymous Trimalchio. During the course of the dinner he:

Picks his teeth with a silver toothpick in front of everyone

Has his slaves wash the guests’ hands with wine because there is no water available

Hits a slave on the ear for picking up a fallen silver platter, which he then orders thrown away

Claims to be serving Falernian wine from the consulship of Opimius, when the wine wasn’t being bottled at that time.

Describes his constipation and subsequent relief to everyone, and encourages everyone to fart if they feel the need, as he does.
Makes terrible jokes – for example, he keeps yelling ‘Carpe!’ at the slave cutting the meat, whose name is Carpus – Carpe being both the vocative form of Carpus and the imperative of the verb carpo, to cut (in English translations, given as ‘Carve ‘er, Carver!’ but it does not quite work).
You can read the whole section here.

The Trimalchio in the story is equally disruptive, though in a different way, as he is a monkey. There's also a lovely birthday ode that references lots of mythology (which hopefully children will be encouraged to go and look up) and refers to the 'wine-dark sea' - the Homeric epithet for the sea, which made me grin.

It did take me a minute to get used to Flavia calling her father 'Pater' - I kept picturing a strange cartoon boy going on about his 'pater' (I think I got this from an old Rupert cartoon I caught on TV last week). I understood why she did when I noticed that the Jewish boy called his father 'Father' - so the name differentiates between their languages, like the African Nubia's odd 'Latin' (i.e. archaic English). I enjoyed the little bits o
f Latin that were thrown in - again, hopefully that may encourage children to be interested in Latin.

All in all, it was a really good conference and I now have lots of books to go and read! (Well, to go and read in October anyway). Maybe I will even get back to my own stilted attempts at writing fiction - eventually...

The four children from the TV adaptation of The Roman Mysteries

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Conference Update

The conference venue, Lampeter University

We're just a little short of the halfway point at the conference, and so far it’s been really good. As far as anyone knows, there’s never been a conference on this theme before, so everyone is super-enthusiastic! There’s a great variety of talks and I’m looking forward to hearing more from authors later in the week.

Highlights so far have included a fascinating talk from Abigail Baker about using narrative fiction – specifically Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries – to bring museum exhibits to life. I think this is a brilliant idea. I remember going around Greece on a school trip when I was a teenager and knew nothing at all about ancient Greece and being thoroughly bored. Our teacher insisted that we must pay more attention in the museums, so we all decided to pretend that we were, in fact, the gods in disguise (or something to that effect) and all the statues, vases etc were actually of us – thus rendering them much more interesting! (And ensuring our places in the Crazy Hall of Fame). Using a properly written and thoroughly researched, engaging story is an even better idea. Obviously, the texts have to be chosen carefully (or, alternatively, any artistic licence taken by the text pointed out) but I believe Caroline’s books are very well researched and entirely suitable (Caroline, I’m afraid I have to confess, I have not yet read them – they are at the top of my list of Things To Read After The Thesis Is Submitted!)

Lisa Maurice’s paper on Greek and Latin classes in girls’ and boys’ school fiction was also really interesting – I hadn’t really thought about it before, but the attitude of boys to Latin (it killed off all the Romans and now it’s killing me) is very different from that of girls. Tracy Barrett offered a fascinating (and, to a potential future author, very useful) insight into the difficulty of selecting material and dealing with adult topics in books designed to be read by children but purchased by adults. I also really enjoyed Deborah Kerr’s paper on the presentation of Jason and Medea in children’s compendia of myth (and would have done even if she wasn’t a good friend of mine, whose paper we have discussed it in the pub a few times!)

I should point out that all the papers I have been able to see have been really good – these are edited highlights, but I haven’t seen a bad one yet! Unfortunately, I can’t go to everything – with a final draft of my thesis due at the end of July, I’m having to spend a lot of time in my room working on my Introduction. Hopefully I won’t have to miss too much – and hopefully my paper on Thursday will go OK and I won’t come away with any bad memories! (The fear of humiliation during the question portion is ever present...)

Really old, really blurry picture of Delphi from our school trip, winter 2000, before I had heard of digital cameras. It snowed while we were there - not a weather condition I usually associate with Greece!

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Storyteller

I’m away at a conference all next week so I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to post anything. I had hoped to leave y’all with a really nice, long, detailed post like my Troy post below, but unfortunately I got sidetracked watching one of the longest Wimbledon finals in history (I think I actually cried a few tears for Andy Roddick at the end of that). So I’m afraid this is all I have time for before I finish my packing and get sorted for the conference. This episode of Buffy is not really related to Classics – basically, it has one joke relating to Classics in it that I find so funny I decided to base an entire post around it. It does have some universal themes though, which can be applied to Classics as much as anything else and in fact, considering the nature of ancient historical writing – often more interested in telling a good story than reporting accurately – and classical epic poetry, it could be considered particularly relevant to classical history.

I’m not a huge fan of season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for various reasons,* but ‘Storyteller’ is a work of comic genius and includes the funniest Classics-related joke in Buffy history (OK, that might not be that hard, but still). This is the epidsode in which Andrew, ex-supervillain, tried to record the gang's work for posterity, but his version of events is a bit... interesting.

I’m sure Andrew’s fantasy set-up with the library, the armchair and the fireplace is making fun of something, but I think it must be an American programme that I haven’t seen. Andrew pronounces ‘vampire’ ‘vam-PY-re’, presumably because he thinks it sounds cool. He speaks for many pedantic viewers when he questions how it’s possible for vampires to show up on video (because the camera uses mirrors).

Andrew is trying to leave a legacy for future generations, which is a decent enough idea – the Greeks would certainly have approved. Only Buffy has a problem with it – everyone else quite sensibly points out that it would be nice to have a record of their achievements if they do manage to save the world (as an historian, obviously, I approve of this sentiment).

Much of this story revolves around the Hellmouth, which always strikes me as very underworld-y. ‘Hell’ is a Christian concept, but classical mythology always put Hades, the land of the dead, firmly underground. That’s about where the similarity ends though.

The bit with the wind machines around the breakfast table really has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Suffice to say, it is completely hilarious. It doesn’t seem to be on YouTube at the moment, though there’s a tiny clip in the promo.

The intense feeling of relief experienced by the viewer when Andrew moves away to discuss how boring Buffy’s speeches have become is a testament to just how tiresome her seventh season speeches were. Andrew’s re-writing of his own history with the other two late supervillains is both very funny and an important reminder that no historian, especially those telling their own history, is entirely to be trusted.

Anyway, I am spending far too long on things that are not, strictly speaking, Classics related (though the themes of storytelling and how we record our own lives have an obvious relevance for anyone working in any historical field). We eventually come to a flashback showing Andrew and Jonathon in Mexico, explaining how Andrew came to stab his best friend to death, and that is where we see the reason this episode appears on a Classics blog. Andrew has been led astray by the First Evil in the form of his late friend Warren (long story), who has

promised him that, if he obeys its orders, the three of them will all be reunited and will live as gods.

This is Andrew’s idea of what it would be like to live as gods.

He’s got the laurel wreaths and white robes from classical mythology, and mixed them with instruments that might be classical lyres (like the one Nero played) or might be angelic harps. He’s placed the whole thing in a field of beautiful flowers which presumably is meant to be the Elysian fields, or something similar. The gold is pretty self-explanatory; I don't know where the unicorn came from, and I think it would be best not to ask. It is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen (though this may say more about my sense of humour than anything else).

Anyway, a whole bunch of other stuff happens and Buffy eventually has to force Andrew to stop telling stories and face up to his own actions and their consequences. Really though, Andrew doesn’t need to stop telling stories – he just needs to tell the right ones. Buffy has a point though. Romanticising horrible things can become a serious problem when the romantic story becomes the only story and the nasty reality gets forgotten. I could suggest all sorts of real life examples, but I’m sure you can think of them yourselves.

And so, I'm off to the conference, which should be very interesting (its about Classics in children's literature). I'll try to get another post up if I can, but otherwise, I'll be back next week.

*The potential Slayers are so annoying I want to rip my own arm off and throw it at them (thank you Friends for that line), Buffy herself becomes a cold and emotionless walking soapbox, they still can’t work out how to deal with Spike, the First Evil was never my favourite villain anyway and the ubervamps are just dull. And I have never yet forgiven Buffy the Vampire Slayer for season six.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

I, Claudius: What Shall We Do About Claudius?

We open with Old!Claudius melting into Young!Claudius, who has been banished to a couch hidden away against the wall so none of his family have to look at him. We are reintroduced the now grown-up children and informed that Postumus and Germanicus are Good and Livilla is Bad, and apparently the fact that Postumus fancies the pants off another man's wife is All Her Fault for flirting.

The boring poet they were listening to turns out to be Horace! Augustus explains how much better Horace is than Ovid, though he doesn't mention Julia, so we're presumably not going with that theory (or maybe he just doesn't want to talk about it). The old age make up on Livia and Augustus is a bit interesting... Livilla is a brilliant mini-Livia, and just as eeeeevil, though a bit less subtle.

Just as Augustus is going to bed, news comes of a terrible disaster in the Teutoberg forest, complete with bloody, muddy messenger. Postumus has gone off to make hot naked love with Livilla, so Germanicus and Tiberius alone have to discuss tactics with Augustus.

We break away from all this drama to visit Claudius in the library, in a scene sure to make ancient historians giddy and bore the pants off everyone else. Claudius bumps into Livy and Pollio - as you do - and discusses the relative merits of the two, while historians of the early Empire writhe in envy at the idea of someone actually being able to read Pollio (whose work has mostly been lost). I do like the bit where Claudius keeps correcting Livy though - serves him right. Pollio becomes the latest person to suggest that Augustus' relatives do not keep dying of natural causes, and gives Claudius some survival tips, suggesting that he exaggerate his foolishness in the interests of long term survival.

Postumus' wife has apparently complained to Augustus that Postumus isn't sleeping with her often enough. Is that really something you take to the leader of most of the known world? On the other hand, maybe its a good idea - if anyone can bully a man into sleeping with his wife, it's him. Livia overhears Augustus telling Postumus that *he* will be his successor, not Tiberius - so that's pretty much it for Postumus. Livia blackmails Livilla into betraying him, and Livilla has a vested interest anyway, since it's her father-in-law Livia is propelling towards the throne.

Augustus is muttering to himself like a madman, convinced Tiberius is messing him around, and we are treated to repeated shouts of 'QUINTILIUS VARUS! WHERE ARE MY EAGLES???!!!!' This line is yelled the way only BRIAN BLESSED can yell. (The 'Eagles' were the standards of the legions, so their loss represents the loss of a legion and was a PR disaster).

Claudius attends his first Games in the imperial box (having helped to pay for them) and faints - this is a bit odd, since the Emperor Claudius was known to have really rather enjoyed the Games - more than was strictly seemly. However, there are many years in between this scene and him becoming emperor, so maybe he got used to it. We see Herod Agrippa again and he's grown up rather well - yum. Livilla thoroughly enjoys the Games - because she's Bad, you see. Livia's speech to the gladiators about how she wants to see lots of death and mayhem and no dirty tricks in an effort to stay alive is also rather fun.

Livilla sets Postumus up, accuses him of attempted rape, and has him banished. Postumus finds time, on his way out, to give his guards the slip, tell Claudius what really happened, blame Livia and ask Claudius to tell Germanicus when he gets back from recovering the lost Eagles.

The episode ends with Claudius' first wedding, to the fabulously named Urgulanilla, at which everyone erupts into peals of cruel laughter because she is rather a lot taller than him. She doesn't look impressed, which doesn't bode well.

Augustus is terribly vexed

This episode still feels like it's treading water a bit, perhaps hampered by the BBC budget that doesn't allow it to actually show any of the action in the Teutoberg forest. I'm not that into action myself, but when our heroes spend half the episode talking about a war, it's a shame not to see any of it. Of the new cast members, only John Castle as Postumus and Patricia Quinn as Livilla really get to shine. John Castle is very good and succeeds in making Postumus both immensly likeable (and reasonably attractive) and yet believable as an adulturous drunkard (to see him really let his sinister side out, see The Lion in Winter. In fact, just go watch The Lion in Winter, coz it's fab). Patricia Quinn is perhaps a bit too much literally Livia Jr (as her name suggests) but with a higher sex drive, but the eeeevil acting is quite effective, especially when she looks like she's taking an almost sexual pleasure during the sequence in the amphitheatre. No one else really has much new to do - Claudius limps, BLESSED YELLS, Livia schemes, Tiberius does his best impression of Oscar the Grouch. Business as usual, really. Things are set to pick in the next episode though - a change is gonna come...
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