Sunday, 31 May 2009

I, Claudius: A Touch of Murder


'A Touch of Murder' is the extended first episode of the 1970s BBC serialisation of Robert Graves' novel, I, Claudius, affectionately known as I, Clavdivs (shown in America as part of Masterpiece Theatre). I read the book some time ago - it'll be one to re-read when the PhD is finished. The BBC series is largely responsible for me doing Ancient History. When I was in school, I thought the Romans were very boring (chiefly because all we ever did was label the parts of a centurion's uniform or the rooms in a villa - I preferred the Tudors, especially Henry VIII, who seemed much more exciting). It was a repeat of I, Claudius on UK Gold that proved me wrong and first sparked a genuine interest in the ancient world.

This is mostly because I, Claudius was inspired partly by Suetonius, the great gossip of the Roman world, spiced up a bit more by Robert Graves in the interests of making money, and even further embellished, sex and violence wise, by the adaptors, in the interests of making compelling television. Like the more recent BBC/HBO series Rome, I, Claudius shoves in as much sex and violence into its story as it possibly can, and, for its time, was quite shocking. Of course, it had help, since the family story of the Julio-Claudian Caesars was pretty full of sex and violence to begin with.

'A Touch of Murder' opens with the aged Claudius sitting down to write his memoirs - 'I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-That-And-The-Other...' He is a frail old man, half-seriously, half-comically looking for spies under the table and in the lavatory.

Claudius relates a visit to the Sibyl at Cumae he made some years before. The actual circumstances surrounding the Sibyl are very murky, so the TV people have a great opportunity to embellish. Look! A skull! See how creepy ancient Roman religion was! The Sibyl delivers the poem written by Graves that he wrote as a lost Sibylline prophecy (see Doctor Who post below). Ancient oracles were more likely to utter gibberish that was 'interpreted' by priests, but this way, we get a nice spooky delivery by the actress, who is concealed behind a gold mask.

Claudius explains, almost directly to camera, that he intends for his story to be read in 1900 years, as the Sibyl prophesied, not by his contemporaries.

Now the real story begins, some years before Claudius' birth. Claudius says he will narrate the rivalry between Agrippa and Marcellus and then - naked women! We shift out of the framing device and into the story and are immediately confronted with some naked dancing slaves. Augustus (BRIAN BLESSED!) says he has got a prose poet to tell them the story of his and Agrippa's victory in the sea battle of Actium and Marcellus objects, saying it is a very dull story. Luckily, the writers agree and while Aristarchus the Greek recites his story, Claudius introduces the viewer to the family Caesar.

In the DVD extras, some of the actors, notably Sian Phillips, who played Livia, noted that they couldn't really get into their characters until the director suggested that they should play it as if they were in a mafia movie. This works very well, especially since one can occasionally see the roots of mafia culture in Roman culture.

Claudius tells us that if Augustus ruled the world, Livia ruled Augustus. This pretty much defines their characters for the whole series. Sian Phillips' Livia is fantastic - totally evil, scheming and absolutely in control. I have had some difficulty in the past trying to convince students, especially those who have seen the series, that the real Livia may not have been anything like that - the picture drawn here is so compelling. One thing we do know - whether she was a mass murderess or not, Livia was a unique and uniquely powerful woman.

Having noted that Tiberius is happily married, but that Marcellus' wife, Augustus' daughter Julia, fancies him, we carry on with the story about Agrippa and Marcellus. Which is a bit more dull, actually, though it does give Augustus his first opportunities to use the phrase 'as quick as boiled asparagus', which, according to Suetonius, was one of his favourite sayings. Livia, as a dutiful woman, stays silent while Augustus and Agrippa argue, but chews Augustus out thoroughly for letting Agrippa go as soon as they are alone.

Next we find out that Augustus and Tiberius don't get on, but Livia has thrown all her energy into the advancement of Tiberius because when he was born, some omens involving chickens suggested to her that he was destined for greatness. She extols the virtue of patience and explains that she only married Augustus because she could see he was going to become dictator and knew this was how she would advance Tiberius. The impression given is that she really believes the chicken-related stuff - all the omens and prophecies that appear in I, Claudius come true and Livia is certainly motivated by them later. This makes the story more exciting and allows the reader, if they know the history, the pleasant sense of smugness that comes from understanding an omen that is a mystery to the characters. I doubt that the real Livia was so strongly motivated by fortune-telling - real omens and prophecies tend to have a much lower rate of accuracy.

Livia and Julia discuss happy marriages. This is a conversation with an impending sense of doom hanging over it if ever there was one.

I love Livia's response to Augustus' excitement over the rhinocerous in the amphitheatre, which has a horn on its nose - 'So has Scipio's wife', says Livia, 'we could have used her'. We only ever see the entrance and imperial box in the amphitheatre - the BBC budget didn't allow any more, so the rest is represented by canned sounds of crowds cheering. Maybe this is why Rome chose to focus on a period before permanent built amphitheatres became common...

Augustus goes off to tour the Eastern provinces, which seals Marcellus' fate. Livia does him in with poison, hoping to secure a marriage between Julia and Tiberius. Its implied that this is the first of her murders - she takes advantage of the absence of Augustus, Julia and Octavia (Marcellus' mother) and of Marcellus having caught a stomach chill already to poison him. Her later murders will be more carefully planned. The writing and direction is very careful to make absolutely sure that we know that she dunnit - after Marcellus dies, Musa says it was probably food poisoning but he couldn't swear to it, and Livia quietly murmers to camera 'but I could'. Julia gives out an impressive scream of anguish when Marcellus dies (Tiberius has just told Livia that Marcellus and Agrippa both stand before him, and Livia responds clamly to the scream with 'It seems that there is now only Agrippa'). It some very passionate acting, but does usually require me to turn the sound down on the TV for fear of disturbing the neighbours.

Much to Livia's annoyance, Augustus promises Julia to Agrippa to get him back so he can quell some riots, and its 7 years before he can be spared. After that, Old!Claudius informs us, Livia poisoned him, forced Tiberius to divorce his wife and finally got Tiberius married to Julia. Unfortunately, she isn't any closer to getting him made Augustus' heir, as Julia and Agrippa have three surviving sons, Augustus' grandsons.

Old!Claudius now changes track to describe his father, who is beloved of everyone except his own mother, Livia. Back in the flashback, Tiberius starts telling his brother about how he has 'dark thoughts', and has lost 2 of the only 3 people he cares about (including his wife, who he was forced to divorce), and if he were to lose the third - Drusus - he would end up in darkness - all foreshadowing his later descent into sexual deviancy (covered in some detail in later episodes, of course).

Claudius' parents, Drusus and Antonia, are happily married - and therefore, naturally, doomed - but Julia and Tiberius are not, as Julia tells Antonia while both a getting a massage (more dodgey sex is implied). Julia says she only bothers to cover her nakedness when she's with Antonia - a neat way of introducing Antonia's character (modest, highly moralistic, chaste) and explaining why both women have covered their breasts and bodies, which Roman women probably wouldn't have - this being the 1970s, the BBC would not allow full female nudity on a primetime show (Rome would put this right). Julia has cottoned on to Livia's schemes, but Antonia, innocent that she is, is horrified and refuses to believe it.

We see Augustus and Livia say goodbye to Drusus and discover that Drusus is a republican, which is why Livia doesn't like him, though Augustus doesn't seem so worried about it. Livia is getting a bit of grey in her hair now, to show the passing of time - Livia's hair is a prime indicator of time in the first half of the show.

While Augustus is yelling at Tiberius for secretly visiting his ex-wife (Tiberius had an exciting plan about how they should commit suicide together and let people find them with their blood mingling, but Vipsania wasn't up for it) a letter arrives from Drusus with some highly treasonable republican thoughts in it. Tiberius convinces Augustus that the problem is a head wound, and Livia sends Musa to him (whom Tiberius mistrusts). When he gets there, Drusus has been wounded again, this time much more seriously. His horse has crushed his leg and he later develops gangrene, though all we see on camera is a lot of fake blood all over one leg when the accident first happens. A soldier shakes his head grimly at Antonia to indicate that he's not going to survive.

Tiberius goes to see Drusus and, this being TV, arrives *just* before he dies. Antonia, carrying baby Claudius, is less lucky, and gets back to the bedside just too late. Musa is no use whatsoever, which is unsurprising since he presumably does not usually treat battle wounds.

The unfortunate Drusus (Ian Ogilvy) breathes his last

Old!Claudius is convinced that his father shouldn't have died and that somebody blundered. At this point, he is interrupted by his dinner, at which his taster complains about the cooking while Claudius points to suspicious-looking bits he wants the taster to try. The taster seems quite calm, though he would be less calm if he knew Claudius' eventual fate. Claudius mentions that his wife wants to poison him, but does not yet refer to her by name. For some reason, no one in Rome seems to have heard of slow-acting poisons...

Back to a year after Drusus' death, we see the family at dinner again. Julia is asleep, Tiberius looks furious, Antonia looks miserable, Augustus is drunk and Livia is, as usual, scheming (you can tell from the look in her eyes). From the first family dinner, where, despite Agrippa and Marcellus' argument, everyone is reasonably lively and happy, the family dinners basically get worse and worse over the course of the series, and include fewer and fewer people, until eventually Claudius is alone with his freedmen, one of whom is trying to kill him. Antonia is greiving excessively - indeed, we won't see her really smile or look happy again, even though she is one of the longest lived characters in the series. Tiberius is desperate to leave, but Livia insists he must stay.

Tiberius and Julia have a massive row in which he slaps her, but this gets him what he wants - Augustus kicks him out. Julia wants a divorce, but Augustus refuses, blaming her for getting herself widowed twice and insisting she can't have any more marriages. Julia wants to know how she should live, neither married nor divorced, and Augustus says she'll live as befits a Roman matron. This will not end well.

The episode ends with Livia, sitting with her arms around Julia's sons Gaius and Lucius. Augustus smiles and enjoys this picture of the Roman family, oblivious to the way Livia's fingers are digging viciously into the boys' shoulders...

I was very lucky to have I, Claudius as my introduction to the world of ancient Rome. Naturally, the series is not a documentary and there are elements in it that are exaggerated, made up entirely or misconstrued. But, overall, it is far closer to real Roman history than the average TV drama, and none of the major characters are invented, though some of their characters are closer to history than others. It can be disappointing to look at the real evidence and discover that some of the most exciting bits have little or no historical basis, but this is kept to a minimum and there are some wonderful references for Classicists (like the conversation with Livy and Pollio in a later episode). There's lots to make fun of - the overly theatrical acting, the sexual deviance that is sometimes exaggerated beyond plausibility, the truly staggering number of murders - but also lots to enjoy and it proves beyond all possible doubt that the Romans are most certainly not boring.

The fabulous BRIAN BLESSED! as Augustus

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Night at the Museum 2


I went to see this last night, for a laugh, so I thought I'd post a few thoughts on the Classics and heritage-related elements. Warning: spoilers follow.

I thought the first Night at the Museum film was fun, though I became annoyingly obsessed with the fact that the museum obviously isn't a Museum of Natural History, but a general museum devoted to human culture through the ages. This one moved most of the action to the Smithsonian, so that was one problem solved.

OK, let's get the pedantic rant out of the way - HowcomeTeddyRooseveltcanreadhieroglyphicsandwhywouldheusetheword'figure'inatranslation
anywayandwhywouldEinsteinknowanybetterhe'saphysicistnotaphilologistandyoucan'ttranslate
somethingliterallyfromanancientlanguagetoamodernonesothefigurethingdoesn'tworkanywayand
piisanunendingnumberandwhywouldtheancientEgyptianswhohadnoconceptofzerosetoutanumber
padintheexactsamewayasusanyway?

Deeeep breath!

Other than that, Steve Coogan's unidentifiable Roman is pretty fun (Octavius? Did someone get Octavian/Augustus' names wrong or is he just a random Roman guy?!) and speaks in the traditional BBC British Roman accent (see here). He's very interested in nobility and honour and duty - I'm sure Aeneas would be proud. Hank Azaria's evil Egyptian Pharoah speaks with an upper-class British accent and comedy lisp, which he presumably picked up from British Egyptologists. He asks if Larry speaks French first, which I thought was a nice touch, as presumably it's a nod to the discovery of large amounts of Egyptian artefacts by the French from Napoleon onwards. Napoleon himself was worth a laugh or two, and all his French was accurate. As for the others, I liked Ivan the Terrible insisting that he's actually Ivan the Awesome and I loved seeing Oscar the Grouch on film again, one of my favourite Sesame Street muppets.

Actual historical artefacts are generally only used when they're needed for the plot and the New York museum in particular seems to bear more resemblence to Madame Tussauds than a museum. This impression is reinforced at the end when visitors are allowed in at night to see the exhibits talking about themselves. Its not a bad idea - I'm quite a fan of living museums like the Midlands' Black Country Living Museum - though in a way its a shame that no one gets excited about artefacts that don't bring waxworks to life and open the gate to the underworld any more.

Talking of which, the underworld scene was pretty cool. The bird-headed creatures were presumably inspired by the Egyptian god Horus, who was shown as a falcon or with a falcon's head. He was a god of sky and kingship, but he was also associated with funerary rites and his myths blended with other hawk-gods. I'd have taken the opportunity to have the real spirits of Ameila Earheart etc appear out of the underworld, but I think that would have taken the movie out of its cheesy, light-hearted tone.

Like the first movie, I thought this one was fun and mildly amusing, though hardly a cinema classic. Amelia Earheart's slang-ridden way of speaking kept reminding me of this Monty Python sketch, which affectionately mocks all those World War Two movies I used to watch in the afternoons when I was little. Overall, I wouldn't make a special effort to see it, but if you're bored and fancy a trip to the cinema, its cheerful and entertaining enough to pass a dull evening.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Star Trek Voyager: Muse


First of all, a disclaimer. I love Star Trek: Voyager. It is my favourite of all the Star Trek series. I think it's fun, cheesy, silly and occasionally moving (and I pretend that 'Threshold', 'Course: Oblivion', 'Fair Haven' and 'Spirit Folk' never happened). The best episodes, if anyone's wondering, are 'Living Witness' (which ponders the nature and meaning of history) and 'Year of Hell' (which is just cool). Any carping about the series in general will be met with a withering glare.

'Muse', the 22nd episode of Season 6, has ship's engineer B'Elanna Torres crash land on a planet apparently entirely populated by pseudo-Ancient Greeks. Obviously, nothing on screen is 'inaccurate', since it all takes place on an alien planet, but the overall impression of ancient drama and society it puts across is a mash-up of Classical references.

The episode opens on the alien planet, at a performance of a pseudo-Greek play by the rubber-headed aliens of the week. The theatre displays elements of Greek theatre, most notably the Chorus, together with more modern elements, most notably actresses. All the actors and actresses wear uniform white woollen robes that make them look a little bit like monks and they occasionally use masks which they hold in front of their faces, but remove whenever they want or need to (for kissing scenes, for example). The Chorus intone their lines in unison in a manner that I presume is supposed to sound weighty and significant, but actually comes across as pompous and rather dull. I'm not an expert in the performance of ancient drama, but it seems to me that a Chorus should sing, rather than recite, and should have a lot more passion and enthusiasm that this lot do.

The theatre's patron, who is dressed in a slightly more Roman style than the others, likes the play and wants to see more in a week, which throws the poet into a panic - obviously, his patron is a harsh master.

The play features B'Elanna Torres and Harry Kim as Eternals (gods) from 'shining Voyager far from home'. The Chorus seem to think they're narrating an epic poem, rather than a play, as they give the characters and other elements epic epithets ('shining Voyager', 'young Harry Kim', 'headstrong B'Elanna Torres'). (For more information on epithets, the Wikipedia article is pretty good). Its rather sweet in a weird way, though not entirely appropriate to staged drama.

After the credit sequence, we find out that the poet, Kelis, has discovered B'Elanna unconscious in her crashed shuttlecraft (and on that subject, see the sadly incomplete Shuttlecraft Graveyard page here). Kelis has been bleeding B'Elanna to try to relieve her fever (so he's well-versed in ancient medical practice as well). His initial impression, that she is an Eternal, seems confirmed when she uses her dermo-regenerator (Star Trek techno-magic) to heal the cuts. Science fiction writers have a tendency to view human society in a very Frazerian way, and the less technology an alien society possess, the more likely it is to be extremely religious. In this case, this isn't being used as a story about encouraging the aliens to see the light (as these often are), but as a stand-in for the ancient Greek pantheon in their capacity as the subject matter of poetry. B'Elanna is literally Kelis' Muse, a goddess who has fallen from the heavens and can provide him with the poetic inspiration he needs.

Kelis, the poet, complete with rubber forehead and mock-ancient tunic thing

B'Elanna and Kelis develop a somewhat tense relationship in which she trades stories about Voyager for things she needs. B'Elanna is really horrible to Kelis here - all she has to do is explain the contents of her log to him, while she forces him to risk his life stealing for her and go into serious debt getting gold for her.

On top of that, Kelis' fellow performers aren't terribly impressed with the new play, failing to understand, for example, how any being could be emotionless. There's a nice juxtaposition of two scenes here, one showing Tuvok, back on Voyager, having stayed awake for days on end looking for Harry and B'Elanna, and the other showing Kelis, down on the planet, explaining to another actor that Tuvok must show no emotion even though inside he is devastated. There's a pretty funny line about Vulcan too - 'On the planet Vulcan there are no tears and no laughter. It is a very quiet place'. Joseph Will, as Kelis, delivers the line perfectly.

Poor Kelis' situation becomes even more dire when he finds out that his patron is planning to go to war with another local clan leader. Kelis is determined to stop him, and passionately explains to B'Elanna that he believes that the right play at the right time has the power to stop a war. This is where we get to the heart of the episode, which attempts to explore the nature of poetry and drama in the same way that 'Living Witness' explored the nature of history. Suggesting that the war may put B'Elanna in danger too, Kelis persuades her to come with him to the theatre to help with the play, much to the chagrin of his own girlfriend.

Kelis explains the rules of drama to B'Elanna - there must be mistaken identity, discovery and sudden reversal. These rules do not quite adhere to Aristotle's theory of drama, though they may be inspired by them, especially those relating to change of fortune and reversal of intention. Aristotle, however, was talking about tragedy, while mistaken identity is much more common in comedy. An older actor then wanders in and informs them that none of this matters anyway, as all they need to do is 'find the truth of your story'.

Kelis insists that audiences want excitement and passion and gleefully shows B'Elanna his characterisation of Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay. This is sheer cheek on the part of the writers, as all those of us with eyes had been rooting for Janeway and Chakotay to hook up since Season 1 (it never happened). It's very funny though. Even funnier is B'Elanna's unimpressed reaction to Kelis' pairing of her own boyfriend, Tom Paris, with Voyager's resident walking catsuit, Seven of Nine.

Kelis explains that victims used to be sacrificed at the altar that is now the theatre, until one day a play was performed instead and no one had to die, and that this gives him hope that his play can stop the war. Whether or not this ever really happened in the development of ancient religious practice is hard to say, but it is true that drama was associated with religious festivals. Greek religion is low on human sacrifice though, apart from within its mythology. Kelis comes up with an ending in which Janeway is betrayed by Seven of Nine but refuses to kill her, hoping that his patron will get the message.

The plot starts to wind itself up from here, as Kelis' irritated girlfriend threatens to expose B'Elanna and Harry turns up with some technical doohickey that will enable them to contact Voyager and get off the planet. Poor Kelis, meanwhile, still can't work out the ending that will stop his patron going to war. Kelis sends a messenger to B'Elanna telling her he will kill her off if she doesn't come and help, and B'Elanna realises that he needs her, giving orders to Voyager to wait and beam her up only when she tells them to.

Pseudo-Janeway and Seven have a short dialogue on the futility of war, then, in the nick of time, B'Elanna shows up and goes onstage as herself, promising to disappear in a blaze of light. Kelis' girlfriend tries to out her as an Eternal, though quite why anyone would be upset or in trouble for discovering a goddess in their midst is not explained. The older actor covers for them and B'Elanna and Kelis say goodbye before B'Elanna has herself beamed directly off the stage, claiming she is ascending to the heavens. We never do find out whether Kelis succeeds in stopping the war, though he delivers a heartfelt speech about the importance of wisdom and compassion before the credits roll.

I'm very fond of 'Muse', though it's probably not one of Voyager's best episodes. It feels very sincere, if naive, and although its cod-Greeks are walking stereotypes, they are affectionately drawn. Alien Greek theatre is a fun concept and its great to see the Greek Chorus and some dramatic masks, though the Chorus could be livelier. 'Muse' doesn't quite succeed in saying anything terribly profound about the nature of drama or poetry, but it does present a sweet little love letter to the potential power of theatre.


The late Kellie Waymire as Kelis' girlfriend

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Monty Python's Life of Brian (dir. Terry Jones, 1979)

Frequently voted the best comedy of all time, and best of the Python films (though actually I think Holy Grail is funnier). I don't have time for a really long blog at the moment, so here are some scattered thoughts, focussing on the references to Rome and the Romans and skipping most of the jokes relating to religion. Perhaps I'll produce an extended edition of this blog once I've finished the PhD!

The film opens with both Brian and Jesus being born in caves, which is probably inspired by Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth and follows one theory about what sort of 'stable' Jesus might have been born in (though personally I lean towards the theory that animals lived on the lower floor of a building with people on the upper floor, so Mary and Joseph would have been in a house, but on a lower level).

As far as I know, there is no dangerous animal called a balm. But you never know...

I love the opening credits. Gilliam's animations are usually my least favourite part of Python, but this opening song, accompanied by Brian falling through life and rising back up to heaven, is fab.

The Romans don't appear for a little while, as we see the crowd arguing at the back over what the cheesemakers have done that's so special. I'm not aware of any rule that women couldn't go to stonings, but if anyone knows of one, let me know. We first see proper Romans while a group of Jews are arguing over who has or has not said 'Jehovah'. This is the first appearance of a theme of the film; the Jewish characters stand in for some of the extremes of modern Christianity, while the Romans look on, exasperated and bemused. The two soldiers here are thoroughly bored, and clearly baffled at the scene unfolding before them.

(By the way, if you watch the German dubbed version, the women disguised as men are actually voiced by women, not Pythons - so we have women pretending to be men pretending to be women pretending to be men. Its actually a bit confusing).


I always giggle at the 'Children's Matinee' title on the amphitheatre scene. I have to confess I have no idea whether children actually went to gladiatorial shows, but it wouldn't surprise me if they did.

After a while we get to the famous 'Romans, go home!' scene. They get the locative of 'domus' wrong (it should be 'domi'). This scene is probably funniest to people who did Latin in school, but the eventual 100 lines are pretty impressive anyway. The humour of the scene has much more to do with Classics as a subject learned in school, rather than the actual substance of Classics (that is, the history and literature of the Greeks and Romans). It isn't really making fun of Romans, other than to point out the odder points of their language; the Pythons are much more interested in making fun of Latin teachers and long-suffering Latin students.

The Romans' longest scenes are those involving Pontius Pilate and a succession of amusing names, including the well-known Biggus Dickus. Most of the humour here has little to do with Rome or Romans per se; other than the names, many of the jokes could apply to any military situation.

I absolutely love the scene where Brian falls out of a tower and lands in an alien spacecraft, and for three minutes the film turns into Star Wars. It's just completely hilarious.

When Michael Palin went back to Monastir, where Life of Brian was filmed, for his 2002 documentary Sahara, he talked about how much he loved the scene where Pilate becomes completely discombobulated because everyone is laughing at him (because he keeps saying things like 'He wanks as high as any in Wome!). To be honest, I'm not sure that kind of obvious, cheeky laughter is really as powerful as Palin would like to think - a lot of officials in Pilate's position would probably have responded rather violently to such treatment. On the other hand, satire can be a very powerful way of making a point, and it is certainly true that a political figure who becomes an object of ridicule loses a certain amount of power. And, of course, viewed in this way, the scene becomes a central statement about the overall point of the film.

Palin's sickeningly sweet and polite overseer of the crucifixions is pretty funny too. I challenge anyone who's seen it to watch a serious film about Jesus without thinking, towards the end, 'Crucifixion? Good!'




Me, in the 9th century AD Islamic fortress in Tunisia where both Life of Brian and Jesus of Nazareth did much of their filming. The tower Brian fell off is behind me.















Me on top of the tower. Since I couldn't see any handy passing alien spaceships, I stayed sitting down, just to make sure I wouldn't fall off.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Harry Potter: Books 1-3


I am going to break Harry Potter into manageable chunks, and cover books and films together unless there's a major difference between the two. So here are some thoughts on Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

The US title for the first book drives me crazy. The Philosopher's Stone was something people actually believed might exist in the late medieval and early modern period - a stone that would turn lead to gold and produce the elixir of life.

Let's get some of the major Latin references out of the way first:

Albus = Latin for 'white'
Remus = one of the two brothers who founded Rome, who were suckled by a wolf
Lupus = Latin for 'wolf'
Vol-de-mort = French for 'Flight of death' (not Classical, but worth mentioning!)
Expecto patronum = Latin for 'I am expecting a guardian'
Oculus reparo = Latin for 'I repair the eye'

All the spells are Latin except for 'Avada Kedavra' (which is from the same root as Abracadabra). I won't list them all here, but if anyone is curious about a particular spell, ask me about it in the comments.

I love Harry Potter. Its not great literature - Rowling's writing is somewhat basic (count the number of times she has to say 'he, Harry' because she hasn't made the subject of her sentence sufficiently clear) and there isn't a single original idea in all seven books, but they're great, fun reads. As I spend all day reading thick and often impenetrable books for work, sometimes in different languages, I find it increasingly difficult to get into fiction books in the evening - it's so much easier to just put in a DVD. But there are no problems there with Harry Potter, the stories are exciting and fast-paced and time spent reading it just flies by.

Contrary to popular opinion, my favourite of the films is number four, The Goblet of Fire, but out of the first three I like Prisoner of Azkaban very much. The other two are fine, the first sets up the world of Harry Potter nicely, but they're a bit... bland.

Book One's Fluffy is presumably inspired by Cerberus, the dog that guarded the entrance to Hades, the Greek underworld (see description here). The name 'Fluffy' is great, but unfortunately what he's guarding isn't anywhere near as exciting as the underworld; just a bunch of supposedly protective charms and spells that three 11-year-olds can get through.

Book Two's basilisk is also Classically named - see Pliny the Elder's description here. The Wikipedia article is also good. The basilisk is pretty cool and pretty scary, though I always think it's cheating to have Fawkes destroy its sight. Still, it's a good scene, and I think Dan Radcliffe first showed some real acting skill in that movie, when he thinks he's dying and tries to persuade Ginny to leave without him - I feel really sorry for poor little Harry at that point!

Professor Snape, in the third film, is absolutely right about the origin of the word 'werewolf' (from the Anglo-Saxon wer, man), though werewolf stories were known in Greece and Rome too (see here and here, at LXI and LXII). The first time I read Book Three, before I started to study Ancient History and before I had done much Latin, I didn't realise Lupin was a werewolf - something I have since become somewhat embarassed about (see above)! I like Prisoner of Azkaban a lot - as a book, its one of my favourites. I was genuinely surprised by some of the plot twists and Rowling's treatment of lycanthropy ('werwolfism', from the Greek) as an illness puts an interesting twist on an old tale.

The use of Latin for the magic spells in Harry Potter is similar to its use for the same purpose in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Latin is old, and therefore mysterious. Its also a language that relatively few people can really read, but that a lot of people know little bits of. A lot of us, for example, known the meaning of a motto that we've come across in Latin (like that of the RAF, Per Ardua Ad Astra - Through hard work to the stars). Anyone who's Catholic or who has enjoyed classical Catholic music, like a Requiem Mass, will have heard some Latin. So its an old mysterious language, but one that, at the same time, sounds familiar and which has some words that are almost recognisible - like 'oculus', eye, in 'oculus reparo', the spell to repair spectacles. This makes it especially effective as a magical language. The fun thing for me is translating the Latin spells back into English!




Me at my MA graduation, wearing the Gryffindor House scarf I knit myself and looking very Hogwarts, I think!

Next up: Monty Python's Life of Brian. More Harry Potter to follow at a later date!

Short Note: Discworld, Jingo





The promised Harry Potter review will appear as soon as I've had time to do it, but in the meantime, here's a quick note on one of Terry Pratchett's many, many uses of Latin (or 'Latatian' on the Discworld).


In Jingo, a prince from Klatch is presented with an honorary degree by Unseen University, which is named as Doctorum Adamus cum Flabello Dulci. This, we are told means 'Doctor of Sweet Fanny Adams'. (Note to non-Brits: this is a rather rude way of saying 'nothing at all').

Unfortunately, Doctorum Adamus cum Flabello Dulci actually means 'Adam of Doctors with Fanny Sweet'. It should have said Doctor (Docturus if you want to sound more Latin without actually using Latin) Adami Flabelli Dulcis. And flabellum actually means a small fan (as opposed to the English slang meaning, which is more X-rated).

However, the idea of this being a name for honorary degrees does have a certain appeal to those of us who've slogged our way through writing a thesis!

My camel, which I rode for an hour or so, from my holiday to Tunisia last year. Because, er, there are some camels in Jingo. And I just really like this picture!

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii




Warning: my specialist area of reseach is ancient myth and religion, especially in Imperial Rome. In this case, this may result in a serious sense of humour failure and a tendency to take historical inaccuracies in Doctor Who too seriously. For this, I can only apologise, and promise that the next review (Harry Potter) will lighten up and get over itself.

'Ancient Rome!' exclaims The Doctor (Tennant version) as he steps out of the TARDIS. Well, actually ancient Pompeii as it turns out, but close enough. The Doctor has been here before - in the William Hartnell adventure The Romans. Then Donna (Catherine Tate) spends a couple of minutes getting very over-excited before noticing that the signs are all in English.

This bit is rather fun if you're a crazy person who speaks Latin, like me. The TARDIS translates all languages for anyone who travels in it, and Donna wants to know what would happen if she deliberately tried to speak Latin. She goes up to a stallholder and says 'Veni, vidi, vici' ('I came, I saw, I conquered', attributed to Julius Caesar and reported by Plutarch and Suetonius). Her pronunciation is Italianate or Vulgar Latin - venee, veedee, veechee - rather than Classical Latin, as taught in schools and universties, which would be wenee, weedee, weekee. Classical Latin pronunciation is supposed to be closer to how Cicero would have pronounced it, but I'm still not 100% convinced Cicero called himself 'Kikerro' and the Italianate pronunication sounds much nicer!

The stallholder looks confused and tells Donna he doesn't speak Celtic (though even if he had understood her, he might have wondered what she was on about anyway). Donna is confused, and The Doctor tells her she sounds Welsh. Celtic is actually the root langauge for Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Breton, Cornish and several others - presumably the writer (James Moran) went for Welsh to please Russell T Davies, well known Welshman. English didn't exist at the time of the Roman Empire (it developed later from Anglo-Saxon, with some French thrown in around 1066) so the stallholder hears Donna speaking the language of the British Isles at that time - Celtic. Since she's speaking English, not a Celtic language, the stallholder should actually tell her she sounds German, as English is a Germanic language. Presumably 'Welsh' sounded funnier, and the writers were more interested in appealing to the Welsh than the Germans. Or they were just plain wrong. Still, its pretty funny and a reasonable attempt to actually talk about the language thing.

Love the line about how anything goes in Ancient Rome. Probably true.









Pompeii. Apologies for the terrible
quality - this was taken before I had a digital camera, and it was chucking it down with rain.

As they come round a corner, they see Mount Vesuvius, pointier than it is today, and smoking. 'We're in Pompeii - and its Volcano Day!' exclaims The Doctor. Hmm, bit of a stupid name, but good setup, and we're straight into the credits.

After the credits - oh dear. The strange lady in red who's been following The Doctor and Donna turns out to belong to a group of ladies in red who seem to be calling themselves priestesses of the Sibylline, a gang of overly made up, breathily over-acting young ladies hanging around in a big fiery cave. I suppose, since aliens are behind it all, historical inaccuracy is irrelevant, but really... The Sibyl was an oracle from the bay of Naples, well known for the Sibylline Prophecies, a collection of prophecies relating to the state of Rome which were occasionally referred to (or, more likely, re-written!) in times of emergency. See the pretty decent Wikipedia article here and the actual texts - or rather, the actual forgeries, the originals were destroyed - are available here. Where the idea for this lot came from, I do not know. There was no 'sisterhood' of priestesses attached to the prophecies. There were priestesses in Rome, attached to various cults, but I doubt they went in for quite such heavy make up or for hanging around in volcanoes. Still, must remember - its all because of the aliens. And so I attempt to restore my sense of humour and go on...

Not sure what the wailing music is all about either. I think its trying to emulate Gladiator (unsuccessfully).

The stallholder mentions Caecilius! And here he is, played by the fabulous Peter Capaldi! Hurrah! Caecilius and his family were the main characters in the Cambridge Latin Course. If your school did Latin, you did the Cambridge Latin Course. My school didn't do Latin, but I borrowed the book from my cousin and read the first one anyway, because I have a strange idea of how to have a good time. Caecilius was a real person who lived in Pompeii and whose house has been excavated. In the books, he didn't have a daughter, but he did have his wife Metella and sone Quintus. And a dog. At the end of Book 1, everyone except Quintus was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius (even the dog. I cried). So seeing them all brought to life here is great fun.

The newly added daughter is about to be 'elevated'. This is an alien thing and has nothing to do with Rome. They could have moved to Rome and made her a Vestal Virgin - well, maybe, but there were only six Vestal Virgins and they were usually chosen when under the age of ten, so not very likely (again, the Wikipedia article, here, is actually pretty good). Quintus is ordered to go and apologise to the household gods. The household gods, the Lares, were real and were worshipped in Roman homes (regular Wikipedia is less reliable here - see this version), though the idea that they are always watching and you have to apologise to them for a minor misdemenour sounds more Christian than pagan. Pagan Romans would not want to commit an act of major impietas, but probably would not worry about something to small.

Quintus has apparently been cavorting with Christians. Christians were a fairly new cult at this point, and had been blamed for the fire in Rome under Emperor Nero. There were various rumours about them, some involving cannibalism (a misunderstanding of communion).

The TARDIS is in the Sibylline Propehcies - tee hee!

'I'm Spartacus!' says The Doctor. 'And so am I!' says Donna. Lol. Though Donna, being a woman, should be Spartaca.

Donna wants to save Caecilius and family - go Donna! She needn't worry so much about Quintus though, he was OK.

There were augurs in Rome, (see here), but they interpreted the flights of birds and that sort of thing, rather than delivering verbal prophecies - that, contrary to what the augur says here, was more often done by female oracles. Everything they say here relates more to the aliens than to actual Romans though.

There's a rather cool bit with the daughter (Evelina - not a Roman name) and the augur making various prophecies relating to the rest of Series 4 of Doctor Who. Then the alien story really starts to kick in.

The episode is based on the idea the people in the ancient world did things because the gods told them to. To be honest, I suspect it was the other way around more often - politicians decided what to do, then said they'd done it because the gods told them to.

The Sisterhood want to execute Donna as a 'false prophet'. There were plenty of 'false prophets' around in Rome, but they weren't usually executed, just tolerated. Christians were dangerous because they tried to prevent the worhship of the traditional gods. Most religions in Rome were pluralistic - you could worship as many gods as you liked. So false prophets weren't dangerous, as long as they didn't try to insist people give up on traditional religion.

Donna is not wearing a toga, Doctor - togas were only worn by citizen men (they're the white robes with red strips worn by senators). Donna is wearing a stola, a dress (and a very nice one too).

The Doctor defeats the bad guys with a water pistol. That's just cool!

Various stuff with fiery bad guys happens. The bad guys remind me of something I can't quite place - bit like a cross between a troll and a balrog maybe.

The Doctor and Donna have to destroy Pompeii to save the planet. This is very sad and I start welling up again.

Donna, whose Roman history is excellent, tries to stop people going to the beach. At this point, I really wanted The Doctor to go and save Pliny the Elder - I've always liked his somewhat entertaining Natural History and thought it was very sad that he died trying to find out about the world and help people.

The Doctor leaves Caecilius and his family behind - nooooo! Save Caecilius! Luckily, Donna eventually persuades him otherwise, making year one of Latin language much less depressing. Catherine Tate is very good in this scene. Could do without the halo of light around The Doctor as he picks them up again, but there we go.

This being a family show, they decide against showing people crouching in the positions their bodies were discovered in by archaeologists, which is what the earlier BBC production Pompeii: The Last Day did. It was a bit creepy, but effective - but the point would either be lost on kids, or it would be too upsetting, so its understandable.

Caecilius and family have adopted The Doctor and Donna as their household gods at the end... to be fair, its not entirely inappropriate, as hero cults and ancestor cults were known in Rome, but usually the hero or ancestor should be dead first. It annoys the heck out of me, but that's probably got more to do with my general irritation at The Doctor being presented as a god-like or Messianic figure, which is a rant for another time and place. Evelina should not be allowed out on her own, though - the attempt to make the family sound very modern takes things a bit too far. Nice young Roman girls were not allowed out without accompaniment. And you can either study the physical sciences (alas, poor Pliny, whom they failed to save!) or be a physician - 'scientists' were not 'doctors' at this time.

Overall, contrary to appearances, I actually really like this episode! It's exciting, it makes me cry (it doesn't take much), and in places it's hilarious. I find the depiction of ancient religion somewhat irritating, especially towards the end, but some of that is irritation at New Who's depiction of religion in general, rather than a Classics issue, and of course, I just have to keep telling myself - they're aliens, it's not real!

I have a picture of the real Caecilius' house sitting around my parents' house somewhere - if I ever find it I'll add it...

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Red Dwarf: The Inquisitor


Just a short one to start off with, as I need to do some work :).

If you haven't seen the episode in question, this is worth quoting in full:

KRYTEN: Ah, Virgil's Aeneid. Oh, the epic tale of Agamemnon's pursuit of Helen of Troy -- the most classic work by the greatest Latin poet who ever put quill to parchment!
LISTER: Yeah, it's the comic book version. It's good though, man. Absolutely full of history.

RIMMER gives them a disgusted look.

KRYTEN: (Reading from comic book) Zap, pow, kersplat, die in bed you Trojan pig-dog, gnyarrg, kerpow. I see they've remained faithful to the original text. I'm sure Virgil would have approved.
RIMMER: Kryten, don't discourage him. It's the only thing he's ever read that doesn't have lift-up flaps.
LISTER: I dunno though. This wooden horse of Troy malarkey, I'm not buyin' that.
RIMMER: It's one of the most famous military maneuvers in history!
LISTER: I mean, the Greeks have been camped outside Troy, kerpowing, zapping, and kersplatting the Trojans for the best part of a decade, yeah?
RIMMER: So?
LISTER: So all of a sudden they wake up one mornin' and the Greeks have gone. And there outside the city walls they've left this gift; this tribute to their valiant foes: a huge wooden horse, just large enough to happily contain 500 Greeks in full battle dress and still leave adequate room for toilet facilities? Are you telling me not one Trojan goes, "Hang on a minute, that's a bit of a funny prezzy. What's wrong with a couple hundred pairs of socks and some aftershave?" No, they don't -- they just wheel it in and all decide to go for an early night! People that stupid deserve to be kerpowed, zapped and kersplatted in their beds! You know what the big joke is? From this particular phase in history we derive the phrase, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts," when it would be much more logical to derive the phrase, "Beware of Trojans, they're complete smegheads!"
RIMMER: Well, thank you, A.J.P. Taylor.


I realise nit-picking Red Dwarf over historical accuracy is probably not only futile, but could lead to accusations of spoiling the fun. However, I feel duty-bound to point out that the story of the Trojan War takes up only one Book out of 12 in the Aeneid. The rest, with the exception of the trip to the underworld in Book 6, are much more boring.

The A. J. P. Taylor joke falls completely flat with the live audience, because no one knows who he is. I can't remember who he is at this moment, except he was once a famous historian. Let this be a lesson: beware jokes about historians, for no one will ever get them.

I actually really like the idea of a comic book version of the Trojan War story, which would be a very cool update of an ancient myth into a modern format. I also want to know exactly what weapons they are using that involve zapping, powing and kersplatting. If there is one, let me know.

Which brings me to an important point - Rimmer and Lister are both suffering from a common delusion, and think that the Trojan War really happened. I hate to break it to them, but it didn't. The Trojan Horse is not an historical military manoever, but a myth which may or may not be related to Indo-European horse legends. King Arthur is not real, Father Christmas is not real, the Tooth Fairy is your mum, and the Trojan War is entirely fictitious. Sorry, kids.

Lister has a point though. Bringing the horse into the city was clearly completely stupid and the phrase should indeed be 'Beware of Trojans, they're complete smegheads'. Maybe I will make that my motto...

Welcome! Now, how do I get started on this blog thingy...

The plan for this blog is to review uses of Greek and Roman culture and literature in modern popular culture, hopefully in a witty and entertaining way. This will include anything from Gladiator to Buffy the Vampire Slayer's use of Latin. First proper post to appear later, once I've actually done some work on my thesis...
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...