Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Roman Mysteries: The Colossus of Rhodes

Hello again, I'm back! This may be a slightly less detailed book review than usual, as I started this one months ago, in August, had to stop to finish my thesis and then catch up on everything else, then finished it a few days ago, while I was on holiday. All of which means my memory of it is a bit blurred (but see how dedicated a blogger I am, reading blog-related things while on holiday!)

Actually, part of the reason I read it while on holiday was that I was in the Mediterranean and it seemed particularly appropriate. I had brought The Colossus of Rhodes and Eclipse, the third book in the Twilight series (yes I know, you can all lose all respect for me and stop reading now!). Twilight, for the record, is a weird phenomenon - the books are badly plotted and the central relationship positively disturbing - but can be strangely addictive - see Cleolinda's explanation.

Anyway, I'd brought Eclipse thinking it would be a good trashy holiday read, but when I got to Croatia, I found I really didn't want to read something set in a cold, wet place with a climate that sounds pretty similar to Britain (in Meyer's descriptions anyway, which I understand are not actually very accurate). Luckily, The Colossus of Rhodes was much better suited, as the descriptions of Mediterranean life in the Roman Mysteries series are always spot on (the result of meticulous research, which must have been fun to do!). Even though I was in Dalmatia/Illyricum, not Greece, it felt much more appropriate for the setting. (We were very very lucky with the weather, it was absolutely gorgeous, so the last thing I wanted to do was read about rain!).

Kefalonia, near Ithaca, one of the islands the children pass by, and also the setting and filming location for Captain Corelli's Mandolin

This installment of the Roman Mysteries series was as enjoyable as ever, the characters well-drawn and their plight both believeable and scary (the dwarf hiding on the shoulders of a very tall man was a bit odd for me, but it provided a nice puzzle to solve - the bad guy being known as both Magnus and Minimus - and I'm sure kids love it!). The action at the end is especially exciting, and has a bit of a North by Northwest feel to it, which is great fun. As usual, there are references to issues that I hope younger readers of the series are unaware of, but that older readers can spot, in this case the fate of the particularly pretty girls and boys sent away to slavery in Halicarnassus.

A 'North by Northwest' moment from the TV adaptation (© 2008 LEG)

Most of the captured children in this book are put to work making carpets, which affects their eyesight and breathing. I don't know how likely this would be in ancient Rome - I am reasonably well-informed about Roman slavery, but I know very little about Roman textiles. The more usual example of the worst sort of Roman slavery would be the silver mines, but that would be unsuitable for children. The carpet-work, though, does reflect modern child slavery, and there is some information at the back of the book about modern slavery. The link listed in the book is now out of date, but you can get information about it here, from National Geographic. Since it is more important that children learn about modern injustices and how they can fight against them than about ancient Roman silver mines, I think this was a very good decision.

Another interesting development in this book is Flavia's evolving relationship with a new, real, character, Gaius Valerius Flaccus. It's always fun to see real Roman characters appear in the stories, and of course, it may hopefully lead to a renewed interest in their work - in Flaccus' case, his epic poem Argonautica. Apollonius Rhodius' Greek Argonautica, which Flaccus' poem constantly references, is referred to throughout the book as well, as the children are studying it with their Greek tutor Aristo. They also refer to the mythic connotations of the areas they sail to, including Scylla and Charybdis (between Sicily and the toe of Italy) and Ithaca (Odysseus' home). The idea, I think, is that this trip inspires Flaccus to write his own Argonautica.

Flaccus is an interesting choice for a character, especially one who it seems will be rather important in Flavia's life, as we know very little about him. We don't know when Flaccus wrote the Argonautica, though it has been the cause of some debate, and it has been suggested that he published it book by book during the reign of Vespasian, so he should, in theory, have finished it by now. On the other hand, it has also been suggested that he may have died before finishing it, which would favour a starting date closer to Titus' reign than Vespasian's, and so fits the book better. He died around AD 90, so if he has met Flavia in AD 80, they don't have long before he kicks the bucket, and if he was really as young as the book implies he is, that is especially sad. Overall, it works reasonably well; our lack of information about his life means that it is entirely possible that he wrote most of the Argonautica after AD 80, and that he was young at the time, and we don't know much at all about his family, so he fits in (and, of course, a bit of artistic licence never hurt anyone).

The book has a wonderful solution to the problem of Flaccus' lost works, always a fun thing for the author of an historical novel to play with (as Graves did in I, Claudius, when he had Claudius describe the lost work of Pollio). Flaccus' non-Argonautica-based poetry is filled with a beautiful poem by a 19th/20th century Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, which is a lovely solution to the problem of how to get a lost poem into a book, and which fits the themes of the story perfectly.

The meaning of 'Flaccus' is given the perfect translation 'Floppy' - suitable for kids, as it is implied it refers to his hair, but we adult readers get the picture!

The emotional through-line of the book, though, is not Flavia and Flaccus, but Lupus' search for his mother, which once again made me cry. I won't spoil it here because it's a beautiful story - a bit excessively bittersweet for my taste (I find just-missed opportunities incredibly frustrating and I tend to like all-out tragedy or happy endings!) but very lovely, and not quite as miserable and depressing as, at one point, I feared it would be. As ever, the book does not shy away from the true horror of what has happened to poor Lupus (and to Nubia, who is forced to spend weeks on the same ship that she was transported on as a slave) and his anger and frustration is entirely understandable.

All in all, this was another thoroughly enjoyable read and I'm very glad I brought it with me on holiday, even if it is set in a slightly different part of the Med!

Photo taken from the deck of a boat in the Mediterranean, while reading a book set on a boat in the Mediterranean - great fun! (That's actually the coast of Croatia)

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Bonekickers: The Eternal Fire


I'm about to head off on holiday for a few days, so I won't be able to post again till next weekend. In the meantime, I leave you with a very, very long post on Bonekickers - enjoy!

(By the way, if anyone is wondering why I continue to watch and review something I keep insisting is terrible, it's because I'm interested in the reception of Classics in popular culture, which means familiarising myself with all representations of Classics and archaeology, even the rubbish ones!)

We open, appropriately enough, with fire; two Roman soldiers watch as a hut burns. One of them stamps his standard into the ground dramatically. The obligatory scene-setting title says ‘England v Italy, Bath, AD 63’. It sounds like a football match. At least the AD is in the right place. The whole village is burning now, and we melt away.

Ah, it was actually supposed to sound like a football match. The next title card says ‘England v Italy, 1,945 years later’. This explains why they’re talking about ‘England’ when the country of ‘England’ wouldn’t exist for several centuries after the Romans left. The land conquered by the Romans was called Britannia (and covered most of modern England and Wales). England is named after the Anglo-Saxons who migrated/invaded/both (historians disagree) in the fifth century AD. And, of course, an uprising against an occupying Roman force ending in battle is exactly the same as a football match. Obviously.

(No comments about British football fans, thank you, I can hear what you’re thinking!)

The football match is taking place in Bath, for some reason. Do many international football matches happen in Bath? I’ve never noticed any! We pan up from some Italian football fans and a balloon seller selling Valentine’s Day balloons to the very swanky tea room and restaurant above the Roman baths, the Pump Room. I went to the Pump Room in 2006, when I lived in Bristol, and it cost over £25 for afternoon tea (with scones). I dread to think what it costs now. I paid 50p for a cup of spa water. It was completely disgusting, but apparently very healthy. The Pump Room suddenly starts shaking, and we see a little toy Roman soldier wobbling around, then cut to the credits.

The Pump Room - it's the room behind those posh windows!

After the credits, we get a fake news bulletin about the ‘natural disaster’ at the Roman baths, and the news anchor says the city has experienced its first earth tremor in 300 years. So there’s another new thing about Bath – apparently it’s also on a faultline! (Note for non-Brits – we don’t really have earthquakes in this country. We have very very mild tremors – there’ve been a couple in the Midlands in the last few years and one of them gave me quite a scare, as I woke up in the middle of the night and thought the house was falling down. They don’t generally do any actual damage though). There’s also been a release of toxic gas. ‘Dolly’ (hereafter known as NIJ, for Not-Indiana-Jones) informs Gillian (hereafter known as ‘Taggart’, the first programme I saw the actress, Julie Graham, in) that this is both ‘terrible and wonderful’.

Then we see Ben (known as Adrian or AL after the actor Adrian Lester, because he’s so attractive I’m too distracted to come up with a better nickname for him) delivering a stammering explanation of why he needs funding – if he was that rubbish at getting funding he’d never have got a job in a university archaeology department. Taggart comes to tell him they’re going underground.

They all meet up at the baths, including Viv (who I couldn’t come up with an amusing nickname for, as the character is dull and the actress is relatively unknown, though perfectly good. In fact, all the actors are pretty good, given what they’ve got to work with). Viv is feeling sick – I sense a plot point.

Taggart says there’s a hollow area under the baths which they haven’t been able to get at till now. AL says all they’ll find is more Roman remains, and sounds bored – I think he’s in the wrong job. Taggart insists there’ll be Celtic remains under there, and the two of them have had a bet on the subject.

They bump into a geologist who explains that hydrogen sulphide has been released and the whole thing is a death-trap. He’s very moody. Geologists are usually much more cheerful than that. Taggart drags them all down anyway as they all joke about the fact they might die. This is worse than their adventures on a fake island last week. Taggart says that the hollow area would have been the perfect place to hide someone in Roman times. The area is made of hand-hewed limestone, which they all conclude means it was Celtic. I don’t know if that’s accurate, though it sounds a bit too simple to me.

The Baths at Bath

Then we get a real heresy against Roman history. They all conclude that this means the baths were built over a Celtic religious site and NIJ grimly declares ‘Subjugate the people, eradicate their heritage, that’s the Romans’.

No, no, no, no, no, NO!

. Roman paganism was a pluralistic religion. They worshipped many gods and goddesses and it didn’t matter which ones or how many you worshipped as long as you sacrificed to the major state gods (Jupiter, Juno and so on). When the Romans conquered somewhere, they adopted the local gods and incorporated their worship as well, so Eastern gods like Isis, Mithras, Cybele and others gained temples all over the place, including in Rome. There were occasional clamp downs for political reasons – the Isis cult, for example, was legislated against a couple of times – but the only group who really presented a problem were Christians, because they refused to worship the state gods (who, as you probably know, were Greek in origin anyway – Jupiter=Zeus, Juno=Hera etc). (Jews were also tricky for their refusal to worship state gods, but since they didn’t proselytize the way Christians did, they weren’t so much of a threat). When the Roman conquered a new place, they adopted the local religion and subtly made it Roman – they didn’t ‘wipe out their heritage’ and stamp all over it.

In the case of Bath, the spring was sacred to a native goddess Sulis, who shared some qualities with the Roman goddess M
inerva (equivalent to the Greek goddess Athena). Both Minerva and Sulis were associated with healing and Sulis was associated with the spring, so she was worshipped here as Sulis-Minerva and the town was called Aquae Sulis, ‘Waters of Sulis’. Here endeth the lesson.

The media ho (Daniel) reminds Taggart she’s supposed to be giving a talk that evening, but she whinges that they’re conducting an ad hoc investigation. I’m the with the media ho on this one – do your job woman! Whi
ch is getting funding for the university, not trying to kill all your staff on a dangerous dig!

The team find an inscription that says ‘Flamma urit semper’ ‘the fire will always burn’. Then they find some first cen
tury Celtic metal stuff (belt buckles etc) which Taggart insist is ‘a settlement’s worth of stuff’ (looks more like one lot of grave goods to me). They all mess around with a Celtic ring that was twisted in a fire (and, once again, it all looks cleaner than the Staffordshire Hoard did three months after excavation).

Taggart and NIJ explain that all they know about the baths comes from the Life of Marcus Quintanus, whose ‘servant’ (what? Slave or freedman, surely?) wrote about his life and about the building of
the baths. This is pure fantasy. No such person exists and our written sources for Roman Britain are pathetically inadequate, mostly consisting of a few bits of Tacitus.

The details don’t matter really, since it’s all made up. The upshot of all this is that Taggart thinks that Boudicca was kept prisoner underneath the baths, having escaped along the
Fosse way. NIJ adds yet another pointless comment about Viv’s breasts to this – how does this man still have a job? Only AL is skeptical of all this nonsense. (And I though Boudicca was buried under Platform 5 of King’s Cross Station anyway?!).

Taggart reckons the Roman soldier - the fictitious Quintanus, presumably – kept Boudicca as a sex slave, and the men start giggling at her emotion on the subject. Because rape is funny if it happened 2,000 years ago, it seems. (Note: that was sarcasm. I said it in my sarcastic voice). Taggart keeps telling AL to take a leap of faith – well that’s very scientific and academically rigorous of you. The team find a body and take the bones back for testing (apparently ‘Dolly gives good strontium’).


NIJ explains that Taggart’s mother was a media ho who ‘forsook academic enquiry for daydreaming’ and she lost credibility and had a breakdown. He is worried about Taggart, but interrupts it by describing how he likes to imagine what Viv looks like in the sho
wer. Seriously, even Gene bl**dy Hunt wasn’t this bad.

Apparently the ‘servant’’s manscript (seriously, not many servants in ancient Rome. The word often translated as ‘servant’ in editions of the Bible actually means ‘slave’. Freedmen might be servants, but you would refer to them as freedmen) said the Quintanus was an atheist. Very unlikely. He might have been an Epicurean, a philosophical school that came pretty close to atheism, or a Christian, because not believing in the traditional gods could be said to constitute atheism, but an actual atheist is very, very unlikely. This do
es not mean there weren’t people who didn’t believe in the gods – there were, probably plenty of them. But they didn’t self-identify as atheists. Taggart is making up a nice little story about Boudicca now, based on no evidence whatsoever. AL keeps insisting that she’s acting crazy, since Quintanus would have paraded Boudicca through the streets if he had here. Then they have a lover’s tiff based on their past relationship. This involved AL implying that girls who like Queen are somehow weird. That’s him and me out the window then.

There’s another earth tremor and Taggart desides to crawl down a hole despite the obvious danger, so AL has to go in after her, and they get stuck. They find more inscriptions that say ‘Flamma urit semper’. AL observes, with understandable concern, that they are too deep for anyone to hear them, and Taggart gets all excited, thinking this supports her crazy theory.


NIJ gives a little talk on strontium to some visitors and the media ho reminds him that the other two are supposed to be at the thing that evening. The news is all about the gas leaking out and Viv thinks they ought to call the others, but NIJ says they’re fine.

This is not, in fact, the case, as AL is hit on the head by falling rubble. Taggart is still over-excited, causing him to mutter sarcastically ‘Wow, I’m gonna die looking at the rarest Egyptian porphyry I’ve ever seen’. He yells at Taggart for being an idiot (entirely justifiably) while NIJ investigates whether the strontium implies that the bones came from East Englia. It doesn’t – it shows signs of volcanic activity and comes, therefore, from a Roman (presumably from Pompeii). Viv reckons Boudicca killed Quintanus and the Life is wrong when it says he came back to Rome.

Taggart has fou
nd a mosaic she thinks depicts Boudicca. And more flaws in the crazy theory – Taggart claims that the Roman source we do have say that Boudicca killed herself at the battle because they wanted to give her ‘an ignominious end’. But Romans saw suicide as an honourable exit from a life in which there is no future, because you’ve done something wrong (maybe plotting against the Emperor, like Lucan), or the world has gone to pot around you (like Claudius’ mother Antonia) or the Emperor is a fruit basket and told you to (like Seneca or Petronius). There was nothing ignominous about suicide itself, though it couldn’t save your reputation from every disaster (Varus, for example, had gone too far, and even his suicide couldn’t redeem him). The point being, of the Romans had wanted to invent a dishonourable end for Boudicaa, suicide would not have been it.

An actual mosaic from Bath

NIJ is on a web call to an old girlfriend in Italy, and they discuss how Quintanus di
ed in the Great Fire of Rome, which was ‘the Christians’ revenge’ for being burnt and tarred and so on by Nero – what??????? WHAT???????? Suetonius and Cassius Dio both blame Nero himself for the fire, and Tacitus says that when fingers started pointing at Nero, he blamed Christians to take the heat off himself. Some of them confessed, almost certainly under torture, and it was this that sparked the first major persecution of the Christians – it was not a result of it.

The Italian lady friend has a 17th century copy of the text that NIJ doesn’t seem to have heard of – my goodness, these are the worst archaeologists in history. They have apparently found Iceni coins in Rome, though she barely gets this out between flirting. They also establish that Quintanus went back to Rome and committed some kind of act of betrayal.

Back in the hole, Taggart has spontaneously burst into tears at the discovery of an image of Cupid (god/personification of Love) firing his arrow at Boudicca – implying that she wasn’t imprisoned down there, but having a consensual affair with Quintanus. Apparently this moves Taggart to tears. She won’t last long as an archaeologist if she wells up that easily – if a simple love story gets her going, how does she deal with all the bones and wars and so on? Naturally, she must then be comforted by her ex. He complains that a Roman and an Iceni makes no sense – maybe not during an uprising, but there was plenty of intermarriage otherwise.

Come to think of it, why is the mosaic on the wall anyway? Mosaics are for floor d
ecoration mostly, except in the much later churches in Ravenna and elsewhere.

Luckily Taggart eventually finds a draught, just as they start suddenly breathing in gas. Taggart has to break the mosaic so they can get out. Meanwhile, someone calls for her at the university to ask if she’s received ‘the book’ (which appears to be sitting on the desk).

AL ascertains that they’re ‘OK’, presumably on the basis that they’re still conscious, as they wander into a new bit of ruin. They find a fossilized apple and a bunch of tiny jars which Taggart thinks might be a burial ritual, like Canopic jars. Yeah, except Canopic jars are ancient Egyptian and you generally have to be making a mummy to produce them. None of that in Roman Britain. AL suggests they go together, water in one, tar in the other. How he knows this, no one knows. Maybe he’s psychic. They decide that these are ‘Roman hand grenades’, used for torching the village. Uh-huh.


Then there’s an explosion. It is marginally more exciting than the rest of the show. They realise they’re standing in a ‘minefield’ of ‘grenades’. Oh, for heaven’s sake. The Romans did not have grenades or mines. This is getting too, too silly.

NIJ has found a palimpsest in the 17th century manuscript, written sideways across it. It talks about a hunt for Boudicca. Then there’s some more gratuitous religion-bashing. Or Roman-bashing. Maybe both.

AL bravely offers to walk across the minefield first and at this point I’d really quite like to stop watching this and watch Ice Cold in Alex instead. Taggart brings up some old issu
e from a Valentine’s Day incident when they were going out, 16 years previously. AL is not impressed, being as he’s trying to avoid getting blown up. Taggart has decided they’re going to die, so she’s decided to bring up the time she proposed to him and he said no. Apparently she mopes about it every year. Once they get out of the ‘minefield’, AL explains he said no because she’s too scary.

Taggart decides the ‘grenades’ were booby traps and they’re getting close to ‘something’. Back at the uni, NIJ is continuing his crusade against Roman history by saying something in the manuscript is ‘odd because this is mixing Roman gods with Celtic ones’. No it’s not odd, and any small gift that says Sulis-Minerva available in the Baths gift shop could tell you that’s perfectly normal. Then there’s some stuff about burning. They reckon, because what they have a good Latin, it can’t have been written by the ‘servant’. No, because if a slave was educated to read and write they would b
e taught good grammar. Then they decide Quintanus threw Iceni coins around Rome while it burned. They’re just making it up now.

NIJ and Viv go to get the others and find fire engines and geologists hanging around. NIJ flips out and starts shouting ‘mea culpa!’, presumably getting into the spirit of the Roman thing.

Meanwhile, AL and Taggart have found the body of Boudicca, which isn’t under King’s Cross Station after all. No, it’s been preserved (save your sanity, don’t ask how) under the baths, complete with the some graffiti in tar that says ‘Queen of the Britons’ (actually it doesn’t, it says Regina Britanica, which means ‘Queen of Britain’). AL pays Taggart what he owes from their bet. She then goes and mopes around the body for a bit. The graffiti continues with something written by Quintanus claiming her to be the rightful queen of Britain. (Actually I’
m pretty sure she was just queen of the Iceni tribe, there was no unified country called Britain at this time).

NIJ works out how to find the others with some nonsense involving entrances, exits, Janus, Minerva and I don’t know what else. AL and Taggart speculate that Boudicca was discovered and killed, and there’s a flashback with some subtitled Latin, which is always fun. It involves Boudicca committing suicide after all, and Quintanus kills the man who found them.

There’s some excitement with drilling and water tables and the ‘grenades’ and everything ends up burned down, including Boudicca. NIJ jumps around in the baths claiming bureaucracy is
overrated – but isn’t that kind of thinking how they got into this mess? NIJ finds some ancient trapdoor and finally rescues Taggart and AL.

Their escape involves this bit of the baths. I forget why.

NIJ declares that Boudicca won in the end because Quintanus set fire to Rome to avenge her and threw Iceni coins at Nero’s palace. Then AL reveals that they all used to call Taggart ‘Boudicca’ at uni and gives her a Valentine’s balloon, which she floats up into the air. AL then plans to give a speech all about archaeology as fairytale. Yeah, that’ll get you funding. He wonders if you can know what dreams they had – yes, if they carved inscriptions relating to temple incubation, you can. He goes on about the importance of imagination, instead of evidence. Great. So basically, we should just make it all up. This is an idea with some precedent – Livy and Plutarch certainly weren’t averse to making stuff up in their histories. Doesn’t get you far in modern archaeology though. Taggart opens the book, which says ‘we will call you’ and once belonged to her mother. Then she starts getting suspicious of Vivian, so paranoia is setting in, and apparently the fricking sword shape has turned up in the baths as well.

The next episode is about ancient Babylon and the Iraq war. More serious issues for the show to poke at ineffectually…

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.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Bonekickers: Warriors

Having attacked issues of religious tolerance with all the subtlety and deep understanding of the issues of a bowling ball last week, this week Bonekickers turns its attention to slavery and race relations.

The episode actually starts reasonably well, with a quick view of an eighteenth century battle in Virgina, then the discovery of some bones in the Bristol Channel, in an area I went for a walk in once while I lived in Bristol – not a particularly picturesque part, but never mind. After the credits, we see Dolly (Not-Indiana-Jones, hereafter shortened to NIJ), Adrian Lester (who will be referred to as Adrian or AL, as I can’t remember what his character’s name is and don’t really care) and Viv playing pool in a bar while Scottish Woman (whose character’s name I can’t remember either, so I’ll call her Taggart) visits her mother, the mysteriously discredited archaeologist we heard about last week. It turns out her mother has some form of mental illness. Taggart shows her a card of some kind with a knight and a sword on it and pesters her about the shape of the sword, but is ignored.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (dir. Terry Gilliam, 2009)

Went to see this last night. I have to confess I tend not to 'get' Terry Gilliam - even the stuff he did with the Pythons tends to pass me by. (And before anyone expresses horror that I don't like Twelve Monkeys or Brazil - I haven't seen them! I have seen Time Bandits though, and I didn't really get it). I do love his use of weird and wonderful costumes and sets, though, so I was looking forward to seeing his fantasy world. I really enjoyed it, though I think really coherent thoughts on it would require a second viewing!

Minor spoilers follow.

The reason the film is appearing in this blog is that there were a couple of Classics/Ancient History references. First and most obviously, Anton, the herald into Parnassus' world, presented himself as Mercury, the messenger of the gods (Greek Hermes). So far, so obvious! Mercury was a very busy god, being in charge of commerce, taking messages and taking the sould of the dead from the upper to the lower world, among other things. Whether he's here in his messenger capacity, or here to show souls to the lower world, probably depends on how you read the film (or which bit of the film you're watching). I suspect the transportation of souls bit is the most relevant.

Less obviously, Tony, the new arrival among the troupe, owns a small pipe which he is particularly attached to. This reminded me very much of Pan, the god who gives his name to Pan pipes, and the mysterious pipe seems at times to have some special quality. Tony certainly seems to ascribe a magical quality to the pipes (though perhaps mistakenly).

A strange 'gondola' appears a couple of times in the film, but although the dialogue gives it the Venetian name, the boat itself, and more especially its environment, owe more to Egypt. At one point, we see the boat floating along in front of a huge black pyramid. At one end of the boat is a carved head of Anubis, one of the Egyptian gods of the dead (there are several Egyptian gods associated with death and the underworld). Anubis was the jackal-headed god of embalming and took care of people in the transition from death to rebirth in the afterlife - rather like Mercury. He is particularly prominent during a touching speech about famous people who died young (which I can't help thinking might have been a late addition to the script).

Anubis, statuette from the Ptolemaic period, Metropolitan Museum of Art

As I said, I really enjoyed the film, but I have to confess, I'm not quite clear on exactly what happened at the end, though I think I followed it. A second viewing would probably clear it up a bit! The film is deliberately reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, which it actually quotes at one point. It also had sequences that reminded me of the Terry Jones-scripted Jim Henson film Labyrinth, though that might just be because Labyrinth is also influenced by Alice in Wonderland. The ending (if I understood it right) reminded me of the Star Trek: Voyager episode 'The Thaw', which is quite possibly the freakiest, scariest episode of Star Trek I've ever seen, but also unusually thoughtful and ahead of its time (it predates The Matrix, which shares some concepts with it). The film is also very funny, which is great to see - Anton's drag costume at one point made me expect him to start yelling 'spam, spam, spam, spam, spam!' The costumes are absolutely gorgeous! I love the Imaginarium itself, with its wonderful Victorian feel (I was surprised to see that the film is actually set in the here and now!) and elaborate sets, and Tony's updated version is rather good too. The performances are brilliant all round - Johnny Depp and the late Heath Ledger are predictably brilliant, but Ledger's tragic death halfway through filming shouldn't be allowed to overshadow Lily Cole and Andrew Garfield as Parnassus' daughter and protege, who are also excellent, and Christopher Plummer, who is reliably great as well. The film is definitely worth a look, and I appreciated more than I've appreciated some other Gilliam stuff, though the ending doesn't quite match the pace and bizarre but understandable logic of the rest of it.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

I, Claudius: Reign of Terror

With the world of I, Claudius completely changed from the early episodes, this one starts with Old!Claudius reminding the audience that Livia is dead, Sejanus and Livilla are lovers and have made themselves available but need permission to marry and Tiberius has given up on the running the Empire and turned it over to Sejanus, aka Evil!Picard. It is he who is the focus of this episode, which charts the apex of his rise and his fall.

Out first scene in the past shows Sejanus' ex-wife begging Antonia for help in getting her children back from Sejanus (under Roman law, children 'belonged' to the father, not the mother). The thing that always strikes me first about this scene is that even Claudius is now grey-haired - so a lot of time has passed. Sejanus' ex says if Antonia doesn't help her, she will tell Tiberius that Livilla murdered Castor with Sejanus' help and Antonia's family name will be ruined (Livilla, in case anyone has lost track, is Claudius' sister and Antonia's daughter; Castor was Tiberius' son). Apicata, the ex, claims that she has slaves who will talk freely or under torture - presumably she means informally, since evidence from slaves was only acceptable in court if it had been obtained under torture. We have already seen that Antonia despises Livilla, but she refuses to believe that her daughter is a murderer and kicks the other woman out. Before she goes, Apicata calls Antonia 'Mark Antony's daughter', reminding us just how old Antonia is and how different Rome was when she was a child. Well, much the same actually, but with different people.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Doctor Who: The Myth Makers 4, Horse of Destruction


This episode, even more than the previous episodes in this serial, really suffers from being basically audio-only, as a lot of it is action-based. I suspect that, in full, televised form, it was rather good - unfortunately, in audio form, it's still a bit hard to follow and there are long stretches where we're left looking at a still image while listening to men go 'urnngh!'

At the opening of the episode, Vicki lets Steven out of prison, then goes to get Troilus out of Troy. The story she comes up with is that 'Diomedes' has escaped and Troilus should go find him and re-capture him - which is not a great story, but eventually it works. Cassandra is still predicting doom, and still being ignored. Everyone credits Vicki with saving them, much to her discomfort. Cassandra tells a handmaiden in service to her, Katarina, to follow Vicki.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Bonekickers: Army of God

Bonekickers is a (thankfully) short-lived BBC series consisting of eight hour-long episodes that was on a couple of years ago. I didn’t watch it at the time because I could tell from the trailer that it was going to be awful, but a friend has kindly lent it to me so I can watch it now. It’s set in the fictitious ‘Wessex University’ and filmed in Bath, so there’s some nice views of pretty houses and things.

We open in Bath, 1307 – between the hospice and the playground apparently. The hospice and playground from the 21st century that is. A knight is killed and we see his body decompose and disappear into the ground. Then we’re quickly brought up to the present day and introduced to our two male leads.

They say pictures speak louder than words, so I’m just going to show you what our two heroes look like. The very yummy Adrian Lester looks fine as ever (I was rooting for him to be the next Doctor Who) while Hugh Bonneville looks like Indiana Jones. I mean, exactly. Well, given the overly long trench coat he’s wearing together with the ridiculous hat, maybe he’s a cross between Indiana Jones and Morpheus from The Matrix.


By the way, if you’re wondering where you’ve seen them before, High Bonneville was Bernie in Notting Hill and was also in the last episode of The Vicar of Dibley, and Adrian Lester was in Primary Colours and was killed off in a snowstorm with Bilbo Baggins in The Day After Tomorrow.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Moulin Rouge! (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 2001)

Moulin Rouge!, as I discovered when I watched the DVD extras a while ago, is loosely based on the myth of Orpheus in the underworld. You would have thought, what with the master's degree in myth and everything, that I would have realised this for myself, but I didn't. In my defence, I've never actually done any work on the Orpheus myth - it just hasn't come up in anything I've done - but that's not much of an excuse really.

Perhaps the reason I didn't notice was that the bit of the Orpheus myth that I always remember the best is Orpheus' journey to the underworld and his attempt to get his wife Eurydice back, which fails when he can't resist the urge to check whether she's following. The movie is interested in this aspect as well, of course, and Christian's journey into the world of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge is envisaged as a journey into the underworld. However, rather than going there in order to retrieve his lost love, he meets her in the underworld, though his ultimate failure to bring her out from it is more reflective of the myth. There is a sense of the famous look back as Christian walks away from Satine during her final performance, but the look back is not a disastrous act of madness that ruins everything, but a return to sanity that saves their relationship, at least for a last few minutes. In the end, Christian's failure to rescue Satine from the underworld is not his fault, nor anyone else's, but a stroke of fate. I think for me, this is the major departure from the Orpheus myth. The fact that his ultimate failure is his own fault is, for me, the crux of the story of Orpheus in the underworld, so Christian and Satine's doomed romance doesn't quite feel Orphean.

The part of the Orpheus myth that the film does reflect very strongly, though, is the part I always forget about - Orpheus the musician. The son of the Muse Calliope, Orpheus is best known for his musical skill, and of course, this is reflected beautifully in Christian's song-writing skill. Christian's 'enormous talent' is depicted as far ahead of those around him, and his singing and song-writing enchants everyone around him in a very Orphean manner.

I enjoyed Moulin Rouge! for years without realising that it was supposed to be the myth of Orpheus, but I do like the extra dimension it now has with that extra knowledge. The film does very well at depicting the world of Montmartre as a dark, opressive place anyway, but seeing it as Hades does give it that extra creepy dimension. It also makes Satine's struggles to get out into the world above more dramatic and her ultimate failure more heartbreaking. Seeing Christian as Orpheus also gives his extraordinary musical skill an added dimension. Overall, it's perfectly possible to enjoy the movie without knowing anything about the myth, but it's rather fun to watch it with the myth in mind.

Friday, 2 October 2009

I, Claudius: Queen of Heaven


Warning: this post contains (written only!) material not suitable for children. As will most I, Claudius posts from now on...

'Queen of Heaven' opens (after an obligatory bit with a dancing girl) with a long sequence in which a friend of Claudius' and the others called Lollia (whom we've never seen before) tells them all at length how Tiberius summoned her and her daughter and raped her when she offered herself in her daughter's place (doing all sorts of unspeakable things apparently) and then kills herself in front of them all. This, presumably, is intended to show us all what a monster Tiberius has become.

We cut to Livia and Tiberius' litters passing each other in the street, and they argue, shouting at each other across the crowd (and you get a reasonable impression of a crowd even on the BBC budget). Livia complains at the number of trials Tiberius has been running and at his refusal to allow a temple to be erected to her. She has changed her tune since the old days and complains that Drusus was worth ten of Tiberius. It's the last time they ever see each other.
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