Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Roman Mysteries: The Pirates of Pompeii/The Assassins of Rome (TV adaptation)

Watched these the other day, while clearing out paperwork in my bedroom (something which took a very long time and involved so much rubbish that the shredder kept packing up and I had to wait half an hour to use it again!)

The Pirates of Pompeii is one of the books I've actually read, so that was a good one to see. It was very well adapted - I especially liked the scene where Felix drives his cart very quickly along the cliff road, and everyone else is terrified, but Lupus loves it. It had just the right feel to it that I remembered from the book. My biggest problem with the adaptation though, was that Felix wasn't good-looking enough! I apologise if this seems slightly mean to the actor, Tom Mannion, who does a very good job. The trouble is, Felix should really be played by a young Al Pacino and, failing that, someone who looks like a young Al Pacino. This Felix is nice enough, but it's hard to see how he would inspire devotion in a twelve-year-old girl.

The Pirates of Pompeii deals with slavery, and does so very well, and the TV show got that across effectively. Slaves are correctly shown as an ethnically diverse group, while at the same time, a shot of a black slave in manacles acts as reminder of more recent slave history, which children might be aware of from school. There's also a beautiful scene at the end where all the children run back into their parents' and relatives' waiting arms, while Nubia and Lupus wander, alone, among them. Nubia's loss of her family is a major theme of the book and it was adapted well here.

One of the challenges for the TV series is to cram the densely plotted books into an hour's worth of screentime, which is a shame - it would have been nice to see them adapt fewer of the books, but in greater detail. The Pirates of Pompeii comes across pretty well, but I feel like there was some detail missing from the next story, The Assassins of Rome, though since I haven't read the book, I may be wrong. The Assassins of Rome was chock-full of plot twists and turns and I was surprised and impressed at how dark it was. I hate myself a little for saying that, as I get very frustrated by childrens' franchises that are publicised as 'darker' and therefore 'better' with each new installment, but in the case of the Roman Mysteries, I think they have always been that dark, it just stands out more in some than others (after all, a central character has had his tongue ripped out by bad guys, so the series pulls no punches).

There were two things in The Assassins of Rome that stood out as unusual sights in children's television. One was the blinding of Jonathan's uncle - not shown happening on screen, but the character appears abruptly with ruined eyes. That bit freaked me out, but I have always been particularly weird about anything involving eyes, so that's probably just me. (One glance at that horrible still from Un Chien Andalou has roughly the same effect on me as a very large spider).

The other 'dark' element is the relationship between Titus and Jonathan's mother Susannah, which is extraordinarily bold for children's television (and literature - I assume this is accurately adapted from the book!). Basically, Susannah is Titus' unwilling concubine, i.e. sex slave. She trades her freedom for Jonathan's and ends the story still trapped in Nero's Golden House, where Titus is living. This is a very different view of Titus from the one seen in the book version of The Pirates of Pompeii (he doesn't appear in the TV version), in which he is a fairly genial presence, though Jonathan's father, understandably, avoids him (it was Titus who defeated the Jewish revolt in Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, which is when Jonathan's parents became separated). Titus here, though, brilliantly played by Nicholas Farrell, is really very creepy, at least in his scenes with Susannah, though he is kind and thankfully non-creepy to the children (Lupus overhears his conversation with Susannah, which is how the children know what's going on). Obviously, sex is never mentioned and we see very little physical interaction between Titus and Susannah, but we are left in no doubt at all as to what is going on, which is a testament to the amazing ability of both the TV series and the source novel to walk a very fine line between refusing to water down the realities of Roman life and avoiding exposing younger children to unsuitable material.

The Arch of Titus, which commemorates his victory in Jerusalem

On a marginally lighter note, The Assassins of Rome also includes an appearance from Josephus, an historian I particularly like. This may seem an odd preference - Josephus betrayed his own people and defected to the Romans, claiming that God had told him in a dream that Vespasian would become Emperor and he should follow him (yeah, right. Of all the remarkably convenient prophetic dreams I studied for my thesis, this was one of the most brazen!). He was a coward and probably a traitor or, more genorously, a survivor. But I like him because his writing style is nicely readable and he is an invaluable source for first century Jewish history. I also can't help feeling a bit of sympathy for him. His characterisation here, though he only appears for a few minutes, is spot on - a bit wheedling, a bit sneaky, a bit just sad.

I didn't notice any glaring historical inaccuracies here except one, which I now can't remember (imagine me looking very embarrassed). If it comes back to me, or when I watch it again, I'll edit this to include it!
As you probably tell, I enjoyed these, but I am now particularly keen to read the book of The Assassins of Rome, as the plot moved so fast it was sometimes hard to keep up (partly because I was organising paperwork at the same time, which is my own fault!) and I suspect the story, which had to be a bit rushed for television, will be richer in the book.


  1. Ooh, I have that eye thing too. I freak out just watching put in or remove contacts.

    Titus comes across a bit creepy in the histories, too. He had that weird thing going on with Berenice, who was rather older than he was. He gets painted as a decent enough fellow in the Falco books, but I've always had the sense there was something off about the real him.

    I understand your feelings about Josephus, but you left out what may be the slimiest thing about him: the way he apparently fiddled the lot casting when he was holed up with his revolutionary group. They all killed themselves and he promptly skipped over to the Romans.

  2. I had the complete set of the books as an early Christmas present, and it sounds like the TV series (which I haven't seen) is rather more daring than the books.


    Although Jonathan's uncle is sentenced by Domitian to be blinded we find out near the end of the book that he was rescued in the nick of time by Titus. Although everyone assumes Susannah and Titus are lovers we are assured several times that they are not.

    OTOH and I don't know if it made the TV series, we are told in passing that an awful lot of the female Jewish captives had babies nine months after the fall of Jerusalem -- and didn't know who the fathers were.


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