Friday, 26 February 2010

Pride and Prejudice (dir. Joe Wright, 2005)

For those unfamiliar with the story, about two thirds of the way through Pride and Prejudice is a scene where Lizzy, visiting Mr Darcy's very posh house as a tourist, wanders through the gallery and looks at his portrait, and realises that he is, in fact, rather attractive (perhaps it was just a very good painter). In the 1995 BBC adaptation, which, like all BBC television adaptations is almost slavishly faithful to the book (with the notable exception of The Wet Shirt Scene), Lizzy walks down a traditional long gallery, found in many, many National Trust properties, and gazes at an oil painting of Mr Darcy, such as are usually found in these places.

In Joe Wright's 2005 adaptation, however, the scene looks rather different. Wright has already selected stately homes with rather richer interior decoration than the BBC had chosen, the camera panning over vividly coloured paintings of nude figures in classical or biblical scenes (though usually passing over too quickly to easily identify them) in both Rosings Hall, Lady Catherine de Bourgh's home, and Darcy's home of Pemberly.

According to the DVD extras, Wright was looking for a traditional portrait gallery for the scene, but couldn't find anything suitable, and changd his mind on discovering the sculpture gallery at Chatsworth House, where they were filming for Pemberly. He decided using this and producing a bust of Darcy would give Lizzy's encounter with the portrait more immediacy, so the sculpture gallery appears instead of a portrait gallery.

In the finished film, we see Lizzy wander around the sculpture gallery in a daze, blending into it entirely in her cream coloured dress. With the exception of Darcy's bust (very accurate, which the portraits aren't always, probably a cast of the actor) the pieces she looks at are of classical characters. None of them are classical pieces - they are eighteenth and nineteenth century works, but based around classical themes. We first see her gaze at a statue of a veiled woman in classical dress, which a little poking around on the internet reveals to be a statue called the Veiled Vestal (thanks to the enterprising person who e-mailed Chatsworth to ask about it, and to Jane Wood from Chatsworth for replying). This statue is actually mid-nineteenth century, far too late to appear in Pride and Prejudice, especially in this version, which is set earlier than most, but never mind. The statue, with its covered face, fits the themes of incorrect 'first impressions' (the novel's first title) rather well, though you wouldn't necessarily know it was classical if you didn't know what it was.

The next statue is much more obviously classical though - it's a sculpture of Achilles, clutching the arrow in his heel. The camera clearly shows the audience the arrow, and scans past Achilles' agonised expression. For reasons best known to the artist, Achilles is naked except for his identifying ancient helmet (you know the style, the one with the big feathers sometimes identified with the Trojans) and the statue introduces two elements not usually so overtly present in this scene - pain and sex. Emotional pain is, of course, central to Pride and Prejudice but physical pain is less so (Jane's cold/flu is no more than a plot contrivance, unlike Marianne's much more serious illness in Sense and Sensibility) but the use of the immediately recognisible dying Achilles in this scene brings out the emotional pain of the characters by introducing an element of physical pain into the audience's subconscious.

Much more important for the film than the element of pain, though, is sex, and this is made abundently clear in the final statue that the camera pans over before coming to the bust of Darcy. Jane Austen's novels are, on one level, all about sex, since they are all about marriage and sex is generally one of the consequences of marriage. Getting married in Jane Austen, however, is about much more than sexual attraction, since money, social position and general respectability all take precedence over lust (the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has a wonderful moment, in the final wedding, where the vicar says marriage was provided by God as protection against lust and Mr Bennet gives Mrs Bennet an incredibly guilty look - they rushed into their marriage out of physical attraction and ended up thoroughly miserable together, as are Lydia and Wickham). But Wright's 2005 film is not nearly so interested in all these more practical concerns. Lizzy and Darcy's mutual sexual attraction is played up from the beginning, and there's much, much more sexual tension in his disastrous first proposal than in most adaptations, where the attraction is usually entirely one-sided (his) until this very scene.

The paintings seen so far on ceilings and distant walls had allowed Wright to introduce some sex into the film, and Mr Collins gets some hilarious accidentally-dirty lines, but it's here in the sculpture gallery that he's really able to up the ante, sex-wise. Following on from the statue of Achilles, the camera pans lovingly and slowly over the naked backside of another vaguely classical-looking sculpture (unfortunately the camerman is so fixated on the statue's bottom that it's impossible to tell who it is, though it seems to be female). Just as classical subjects provided artists of the time with an excuse to depict naked men and women, which would be an utterly inappropriate way to depict a contemporary figure, the sculptures at Chatsworth provided the filmmakers with an excuse to get some nudity into their film. In the book and in most adaptations, Lizzy is impressed by the wealth of Pemberly - here, the use of classical images allows her to be impressed by the sexiness of Pemberly instead.

I like the film a lot, though I think I will always think of the BBC adaptation as the definitive. For all the fuss made at the time of 1995 adaptation about wet shirts and possible erections, though, it is definitely the 2005 film that puts the sex into Jane Austen, by careful use of classical mythology.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Chelmsford 123: The Girl of my Dreams

Hello again everyone! Back from holiday, which was brilliant and involved hardly any work. (I quite often go to parts of the Roman Empire on holiday and tour archaeological sites, which I love doing and which is partly why I choose those places, but does mean there is an element of work in the holiday. This time, I went to New York City, so I was able to fully enter the 21st century - or at least the 20th - for most of the holiday, except for an hour or so photographing pots and statues in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Unfortunately, however, the airline have lost my suitcase (after waiting a full day for them to do a two and a half hour journey, they turned up with the wrong one - never check baggage in to KLM). This means I have to wait in for it, which means I can't go and see Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief in Birmingham this evening, which means I probably won't get around to seeing it until it appears in Blockbuster or on Sky Movies. Sorry about that - my wonderful words of wisdom on it will have to wait.

This episode sees Badvok, Aulus, Grasientus and Functio beseiged in Aulus' villa by an army of furious women who demand a male sacrifice, or they will sit outside until the men starve. The episode tries to get around the fact that this plot is based on the idea that their leader wants to avenge the attempted rape of her daughters by making the daughters very, very ugly, implying no one would want to rape them anyway. (sarcastic voice on) Well, that makes it OK then (sarcastic voice off). This motivation is sometimes attributed to Boudicca, though according to Tacitus' Agricola, rape in general in only one of a number of grievances that led to the revolt. Modern retellings seem to feel the need to explain why a woman is taking arms by making the offence a close personal one - the rape of her own daughters - whereas Tacitus says that Boudicca led the revolt simply because the Britons did not have male primogeniture at the time and leaders could be of either gender, something apparently conveniently forgotten by modern authors.

The episode claims that the story of the fearsome tribe of women (the Silugae) who beseige the men, only to move on when they realise they've got the wrong town, and eventually raze the town they're after and put some man's genitals in a jar, is told in Tacitus' Histories. As far as I can tell without actually re-reading the entire Histories myself, this isn't true - the Histories tell the story of the Year of the Four Emperors. The revolt of Boudicca, which seems to be the inspiration for the episode, is described in Tacitus' Agricola and in Cassius Dio (and the Roman governor who fought was, in fact, Paullinus). It's a shame, because the crack at the end, about how maybe we shouldn't take either Tacitus or Suetonius too seriously, would be quite funny if it was based on a real example. There's also a rather nasty scene where the men prepare to eat Grasientus alive - OK, it's meant to be funny, but it is a bit gross for my tastes.

The best bit of the episode is the first scene, where Aulus goes to a dream interpreter to find out what the horrible blob in his dream means. The dream interpreter inspects the entrails of a goat to try to find out - this is actually pretty accurate, dream prophecies were sometimes verified by extispicy - checking the entrails of a sacrificed animal. The dream interpreter appears to do the New Zealand All Blacks' Haka first, then stabs the goat, which he says establishes that the goat is dead. It's pretty funny. Afterwards, still with no answers, Aulus wonders how he has offended the gods and suggests that perhaps the gods have gone vegetarian and they should be sacrificing carrots, which is even funnier. There's a fairly amusing section towards the end where the men compare war cries (the British 'arrrrgggghhh!' vs the Roman 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori') but if only the rest of the episode had lived up to these first few minutes!

The New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, performing the haka

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Doctor Who: The Romans 1, The Slave Traders

I'm going on holiday this evening, to celebrate passing my viva etc etc etc, so there won't be any new posts for a week or so - see you all then!

This four-part Doctor Who serial is an early one - featuring the First Doctor, still with Ian and Barbara, though Susan has gone and been replaced by Vickie. I haven't seen it before (so I don't yet know what's going to happen next, though Wikipedia and Google Images have told me that the Great Fire of Rome will be involved) but I've heard it's supposed to be a lighter, comic one. In that respect, this episode is mixed - there is comedy, and I found it funny, but there is a more serious storyline concerning slavery which develops towards the end, and which I would expect to be rather less light than the parallel plotline.

The TARDIS lands, rather amusingly, teetering on a cliff edge, just like the bus at the end of The Italian Job. Then it falls off.

We see someone Ian playing at being a Roman, by eating grapes and wearing a toga. The Doctor is wearing a rather exciting spangly outfit - shame we can't see the colours. Barbara and Vickie have gone down to a nearby village, along a road that for some reason seems to be paved with crazy-paving, rather than the more usual rounded, neatly laid cobbles. Apparently they've been there for a month and are doing their best to have a nice rest - Vickie wants adventure, and Barbara points out that this tends to happen automatically sooner or later. They are ebing watched by a creepy man with a knife.

At the market, two equally creepy slave traders are planning a raid (and wearing some rather nice furry cloaks). Barbara and Vickie are buying material for dress-making, and Barbara insists on giving Vickie a bit of a history lesson, which is a bad idea since the stall owner then tells the slave traders all about them, mentioning that they're living in a villa whose owner is away while she explains, and telling them that our heroes are Britons.

Creepy dude with knife on the road assaults an old man carrying a lyre and runs off. No idea why as yet.

Barbara has been cooking for everyone, and they seem to have chosen to eat sitting up at a small table rather than reclining properly, possibly because by the 60s we all knew that lying down does not help digestion. Ian is concerned about the fact that they've abandoned the TARDIS in a heap in the countryside, though not because he actually wants to leave, he and Barbara are thoroughly enjoying ancient Rome. The Doctor doesn't like being pestered and goes off in a huff saying he's going away for a few days, and Vickie says she doesn't blames him because it's so boring there.

The Doctor is going to Rome and agrees to take Vickie, but is not impressed when Barbara and Ian imply that he needs them around to stay safe. He basically tells them to bugger off and go by themselves, and wanders off with Vickie. Barbara and Ian flirt a bit, which is rather sweet, and she combs his hair into a more 'Roman' style (by pulling it forward, mostly). Since she has a full 60s beehive, this is a tad hypocritical. Ian starts quoting Shakespeare, which is funny but does make me expect to see Kenneth Williams and hear Sid James muttering 'countrymen!' in his ear.

One of the creepy slave traders is a centurion, which is odd - where is the rest of the army, if he's a centurion? Maybe these two are deserters.

Barbara and Ian are lying around in the villa, thoroughly drunk (Ian has forgotten that they have no fridge). When the slave traders break in, they're pretty helpless and Barbara accidentally hits Ian over the head with a vase.

The Doctor and Vickie, wandering along the road in the middle of the night (not a good idea) find the dead old man with his lyre, which the Doctor nicks. They encounter a soldier who seems to be waving his sword around for the fun of it, who is looking for the old man, who was a famous musician and who is supposed to be in Rome to play for the current emperor, Nero. The Doctor pretends that he is the musician, and he and Vickie go with the soldier, over Vickie's protestations that they don't even know what his name is supposed to be. The Doctor seems very keen to meet Nero - I know Nero is very famous, but it seems a bit weird to be that keen to meet him in person, meeting Nero was a bit of a dangerous thing to do.

Barbara points out to Ian just how much trouble they're in, asking if he has any idea how Romans treated their slaves, or how many escaped. Jacquline Hill delievers this line very well, her tone and expression conveying much, espeically to the adult viewer who knows just wat sort of thing she's talking about. Ian is sold, but the traders insist on taking Barbara to Rome to get a higher price for her.

It turns out the random soldier is in league with the creepy dude with the knife, who was supposed to kill the musician because Nero pays well whenever anyone kills a musician who is better than him. Soldier guy is not impressed at apparently finding the man alive, and the creepy dude can't explain that he really did kill him because his tongue has been cut out. Soldier guy tells him where the Doctor is and tells him to make sure he kills him this time. The episode ends as creepy dude approaches a curtain behind which the Doctor and Vickie are messing about with the lyre.

I really enjoyed this episode. Barbara's history lessons can be a bit irritating in their obvious desire to impart history to the kids in the audience, but then, that is the entire purpose of her character, a history teacher, so it's not surprising. Her comment to Ian about slaves is well handled, since it's clearly part of the story and osignificant to the characters, but even the little lesson about 'Londinium' is part of the plot, so these aspects are really as well incorporated as they can be. I found the jokes genuinely funny and I liked the idea that our heroes have actually hung around and had a rest for pleasure for once. The Doctor here is grumpy, unpleasant (to Ian and Barbara anyway) and really very silly (meeting Nero is never going to be a good idea, especially if you're pretending to be a musician - I think the bit about him wanting better musicians dead may actually be accurate) but I'm not very familiar with the Willian Hartnell era, so this may simply be how he was characterised at that time. I know his characterisation was very different in the early series to the better known middles ones or the modern version.

This episode left me wanting to see the next one, so it did its job! I'm looking forward to seeing how the series deals with Nero himself, and Rome (matte painting version, persumably). Barbara and Ian's story is interesting too, and the split, although the Doctor's sulk which caused it seemed rather OTT, allows the series to follow the upper class and the emperor through the Doctor and Vickie on the one hand, and Ian and Barbara among slaves on the other. This should be a nice contrast (unless Ian and Barbara both get sold to the emperor right away of course) and should allow the series to teach kids about Roman slavery in an exciting, not too obvious way.

I used this picture to illustrate the lost serial 'The Myth Makers' a while back, but it's actually from 'The Romans'

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Rome: The Stolen Eagle

For Your Information: All epsiodes of Rome are chock-full of sex and violence right from the beginning and are not suitable for young children/people of a sensitive nature. Being an introduction to a new (for the blog) series and a full episode re-cap, this post is very, very long. Enjoy.

was co-funded by the BBC and HBO and filmed in Italy with a largely British cast. It ran for two seasons before being cancelled for being too expensive (I'm guessing HBO were calling the shots here, since that isn't how British TV usually works - we don't 'cancel' things, we just sort of stop making them, well, except for Doctor Who).

I really enjoyed Rome, though it certainly has its flaws. It's not, as it wants to be, this generation's I, Claudius - it's not nearly faithful enough to the sources for that. I, Claudius had the occasional moment where it stepped outside the bounds of historical probability - Caligula eating his unborn foetus being the prime example - but Rome does this sort of thing all the time. On the other hand, it considerably ups the ante on sex and violence - too much, as some of the violent sex scenes are deeply unpleasant to watch - and escapes the studio-bound BBC confines of I, Claudius, something pretty much every reviewer noted at the time. Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with Clavdivs' approach, even if it did lead to the odd moment of 'really, shouldn't there be a crowd in this amphitheatre?' but the sets on Rome are absolutely gorgeous and it is lovely to see filming out in the Italian countryside.

Rome also makes the clear choice from the start to devote about 50% of its running time to actual historical characters, and about 50% to some 'ordinary heroes' who interact with said historical characters. I'm in two minds about this. I have nothing against including fictional characters in historical works, and my favourite authors of Roman-set historical fiction all do this to different extents. (Caroline Lawrence includes historical figures alongside fictional stories, which is a bit different but works very well, Lindsey Davies tells largely fictional stories which sometimes interconnect with historical figures and their history, and Steven Saylor tells historical stories through his fictional main characters' eyes - by far the closest to what Rome is trying to do and, I have to say, he perhaps does it more successfully). I'm always a bit wary when people say they want 'ordinary' characters though, partly because in a terribly old-fashioned, snobby and out of date way, I tend to think the emperors and so on are more interesting. I don't feel that shoving in someone 'ordinary' will help me to enjoy the story, it just gets in the way of the good bit. But it depends on context and on how its done - Brother Cadfael, for example, is a very 'ordinary' character, but I'm happy to follow him. In Rome's case, part of the problem is that these two just aren't always that well written, and they are required to see and do far too much while not ageing at all over twenty years of history. As a result, I'm afraid I continue to be far more intersted in the 50% of historical story than the 50% of totally fictional story. It's not that I'm against the concept entirely, but I don't think it's done especially well here.

I first watched sereis 1 of Rome with my then-housemate, also an historian, during the year we lived together in Bristol. Since we were both historians, and both possessed of a somewhat snarky, sarcastic sense of humour, we thoroughly enjoyed pulling it apart together at every opportunity. In memory of this blissful time, I shall refer to Ordinary Hero no.1, Lucius Vorenus as Boring Soldier. (Half the time we struggled to work out which historical character was which, we had no chance of remembering the names of the random soldier people, so we had to use nicknames to talk to each other about them). We used to call Ordinary Hero no.2, Titus Pullo, Interesting Soldier, because he seemed to have much more personality than no.1, but eventually he committed one too many unpleasant crimes and became Formally Interesting Soldier. Looking back, I see this behaviour was actually there from the start, we just talked over it the first time, so I shall refer to him here as Dodgey Soldier.

Dodgey Soldier (left) and Boring Soldier (right)

I love the opening credits to Rome. The music is great - just exotic and oriental enough without being too much - and the graphics are even better. Inspired by the graffitti found at Pompeii, they're lively, vibrant, colourful - love the Medusa's head with snakes coming out at the audience - and a perfect introduction to the tone of the series. I could possibly do without the exploding head and some of the more pornographic bits, but there we go.

The first episode opens with a map and a bit of narration to orient us. Pompey and Caesar are sharing power and Pompey is in Rome while Caesar fights in Gaul. The narrator gives away his own preference when he says Pompey has 'kept the peace' while Ceasar 'wages war'.

Then we're introduced to our two heroes, Boring Soldier and Dodgey Soldier. The opening battle sequence is clearly inspired by Gladiator - it even uses the same colour palette - but can't quite match Gladiator is action direction (and there's no music). It is doing its very best to match Gladiator in blood and gore though. Where Clavdivs took a good six hours or so to get to blood and guts (Gemellus' head appeared over halfway through) Rome presents us with bloody battle, immediately followed by Dodgey Soldier being whipped for committing some misdemeanor or other. Then, still within the first ten minutes, we have full male nudity as well, as Vercingetorix, king of the Gauls, is stripped naked and made to kneel before Caesar.

As is clear from this description of the first 5-10 minutes, Rome is obsessed with throwing as much sex and violence at the screen as possible. Everyone - Rome was sexy! Rome was violent! Rome is interesting because it has sex and violence! Basically no Roman was not a nymphomaniac/sex addict and they all beat each other up and stabbed each other all the time! Now, I've nothing against a bit of sex and violence where it's appropriate and Rome, home of gladiatorial competitions, was a bit more violent than our culture. But people still lived and acted normally there, and the amount of sex and violence thrown at the screen in Rome is the very definition is utterly gratuitous.

Caesar receives news that his daughter Julia, Pompey's wife, has died in childbirth (as has the baby). We're treated to her death scene, covered in blood, as Pompey weeps over her. I have to say, I don't think Roman men went anywhere near childbirth - if the woman died, the midwife would tell them afterwards. On the other hand, it shows us a tragic scene of a potentially affectionate relationship (though politically motivated) and there's something to be said for refusing to shy away from the horrors of childbirth, though the blood wasn't actually strictly necessary.

Caesar looks vaguely sad, but his primary reaction is to start thinking about which of his relatives to marry Pompey off to next. Mark Anthony, played by the lovely James Purefoy (mmmmm....) looks more actually upset, and offers sympathy.

Back in Rome, we follow a horse that looks like Shadowfax around for a bit, past the town crier (did they even have town criers in ancient Rome? I honestly have no idea. Answers on a postcard).

Our first vigourous sex scene, which introduces us to Octavian's (the future Augustus) mother Atia, played by Polly Walker (great actress, also seen in Enchanted April and some random and very bizarre but thoroughly enjoyable film about Charless II I saw late at night on TV once). Atis, for the purposes of Rome, is basically, Livia, Messalina and Agrippinilla all rolled into one. Mostly, she's Livia - politically scheming and ambitious. But unlike the Livia of I, Claudius, who presumably used sex to get her way with Augustus but whose strengths lay mostly in the areas of poisoning and blackmailing, Atia uses sex to try to get whatever it is she has decided she wants (in this particular case, Shadowfax). (The Livia of Rome is a different story, but we'll get to her much, much later). In this respect she is a little like Messalina, but unlike Messalina, the sex itself is rarely the ultimate aim for Atia, just as it usually wasn't for Agrippinilla. Also, the most important difference between those three and Atia is that as far as I'm aware, there is no historical basis for any of this stuff with Atia at all. We don't actually know that much about Augustus' mother, other than that later there were stories told about how she'd been impregnated by a serpent and dreamed her guts were carried up to heaven, but those are entirely to do with implying a divine paternity and divine plan for Augustus himself (Suetonius, Augustus, 94). The most the history books say about Atia is that she was Caesar's niece (she also remarried after his father's death, so there ought to be a stepfather around somewhere, but we never see him). Whatever Livia, Messalina and Agrippinilla may have been like in real life, everything they do in I, Claudius is something that they were actually accused of doing by an ancint historian. Pretty much everything Atia says or does throughout the whole series, on the other hand, is pure fiction, and nymphomaniac fiction at that.

She's standing fully naked, seen from the front, right in front of the camera two mintues later, encouraging her son to come and chat while she's in the bath. I've nothing against nudity in its place, but this is a rther pathetic attempt to be sexy and daring on the TV people's part. Roman baths were strictly segregated along gender lines.

And finally, we see Octavian himself. Max Pirkis, who plays Octavian for most of the series, is absolutely brilliant. He is cool calm, collected and utterly ruthless - the perfect Octavian. (Although he is a bit put off by his mother's nudity, but then, who wouldn't be?). Atia orders him to take Shadowfax to Caesar in Gaul personally, totally unbothered by the possibility of his getting killed on the way - another difference between her and Livia/Agrippiniila, as her scheming is, like Messalina's pure, unadaulterated self-interest, not self-interest resting on her son's future.

Yes, this boy will eventually grow up to be BRIAN BLESSED

Cato, wearing nothing but a bathsheet by the looks of things, makes a speech in the Senate. It's very boring. But the Senate, unlike the little bit seen in Clavdivs on their budget, is nicely full. Pompey makes a speech (defending Caesar, a bit of misdirection on his part), then Cicero does - and he's Mr Collins! David Bamber is brilliant - just enough of Mr Collins' self-importance, with just enough talent in public speaking to pull it off.

Scipio and Cato arrange for Pompey to marry Scipio's daughter Cornelia - with her standing right there, while a rude mime is acted out. Cornelia points out that she shouldn't be where there is a 'lewd woman' on stage, demonstrating her modesty, but failing to point out that you don't arrange political marriages at mimes, nor do you do so with the woman concered standing there. The mime is just another excuse to show a bare bottom - look how delinquent and sex-filled Rome is! Cato insists that Pompey must betray Caesar but Pompey has ideological issues.

Octavian has a chat with his sister Octavia, played by Kerry Condon. I saw her play Ophelia on stage once (actually twice) - she was very good, though we weren't sure about the bits of paper she was using for mad Ophelia's flowers.

Octavian rides off with Shadowfax. The Italian countryside is very pretty.

Conversation between Caesar and Brutus - oooh! I'm guessing that all that most viewers know about Brutus is that he killed Caesar, so every meeting between the two has a line of tension running through it, played up in the acting and direction. As far as I can tell, this adaptation doesn't go with the theory that Brutus was actually Caesar's illegitimate offspring, though it does include Caesar's affair with Brutus' mother, so perhaps we're supposed to infer it. Caesar tells Brutus that his eagle has been stolen and now his troops are mutinous (all together now - "Quintilius Varus, WHERE ARE MY EAGLES?!"). I confess, I'm not very familiar with Caesar's Gallic Wars, so I'm not sure if there's any historical basis in all of this.

I'm pretty sure there isn't any in Octavian' story, where the pace is picking up as he and his slaves are attacked by brigands. I'm not aware of any story about taking a horse to Gaul and getting attacked attached to Octavian, unless I've just forgotten something I read a long time ago. (There is an exciting story about Julius Caesar being kidnapped by pirates, but that takes place in his younger days, the bit that never gets dramatised).

Mark Anthony demans Boring Soldier's help with getting the eagle back because apparently Boring Soldier is the only man in the army with a brain. Boring Soldier rescues Dodgey Soldier from imminent crucifixion/being sent to the arena (there's a lot more screaming and begging for death here than in your average Biblical dramatisation) and takes him along to help. Dodgey Soldier is appropriately grateful, until Boring Soldier tells him he only did it because they probably won't succeed and he wanted to take someone who was already disgraced and wouldbe no great loss when they failed and were punished.

Brutus comes home to mummy (Lindsey Duncan, brilliant as ever) who wants to know if Caesar mentioned her. He has written her a love letter - aww, how sweet. They have dinner with Pompey, where Brutus insists he is bored of politics, but spills the beans on Caesar to Pompey.

Caesar has written to Atia to ask her to marry a suitable girl off to Pompey. Then we see something really odd - Atia, accompanied by Octavia, performing the taurobolium, a rite of the cult of Magna Mater, Cybele. This rite is known only from the second century AD onwards (the cult goes much, much further back, but there isn't earlier evidence for the ritual) and was performed by those initiated into the cult of Magna Mater. It had to be repeated after 20 years, suggesting some kind of protective function for it. So why is it being performed by an important and respectable Roman matron in the first century BC, apparently purely to ask for some advice? Atia could have been initiated into the cult of Magna Mater, but probably wasn't, as it wasn't always considered the most respectable of cults (there were stories of young men castrating themselves in fits of religious ecstacy). And to get the information she wants - that Octavian will be safe - she could just go to an oracle. Also, Atia, unlike Clavdivs' Livia, hardly ever mentions religion or divine prophecy as a motivation for her actions and never tells the dream and serpent stories actually attributed to her - so why is she soaking herself in bull's blood? One can't escape the impression that the writers heard about the taurobolium, thought it sounded exciting, and just shoved it in wherever they thought it might fit.

Atia undergoing the taurobolium

Following this exciting bath, she tells Octavia that she must divorce her husband, to whom she is happily married, and marry Pompey. Atia is totally mystified when Glabius, the husband, and the slaves weep as Octavia is led away. Then she has Octavia and Pompey sleep together, even though they cannot get married for another month, and we see Octavia kneel, naked on the bed in prepartion. This is getting really, really silly now - I'm not saying no one ever got horny before the wedding night in ancient Rome, but political marriages are delicate things and they're more about the politics than the sex (which can be had from slaves, prostitutes and mistresses whenever the man feels like it, if he wants). There's no reason to risk pregnancy before the wedding, especially when the wedding isn't yet finalised (and won't be).

We cut from this delightful scene to hear Dodgey Soldier telling Boring Soldier all about how he likes to rape British women. Er, thanks for that, that won't give me nightmares at all. Again, I'm not saying it didn't happen, as it certainly did - but this is the 'hero' I'm meant to follow for the next two seasons? I'm supposed to like this guy? One hopes there were some soldiers less keen on the violent abuse of women, and indeed, Boring Soldier, for all his dullness, does appear less interested in talking about women at all. Boring Soldier is occasionally interested though - he received a special dispensation to get married and has a wife, Niobe, whom he has not seen for well over seven years.

The Soldiers get attacked and lose their horses, then come upon the gang that kidnapped Octavian. Liking the look of Shadowfax, the two of them immediately overpower the whole gang and mistake Octavian for a slave. The humiliation on his face, and at the same time the careful, practical willingness to do whatever is necessary to survive as he is forced to say 'please' to Dodgey Soldier to be released is brilliantly done. Then he thoroughly beats up a dying soldier with a stick, which also demonstrates his capacity for violent revenge, which we'll see again later. Octavian then gives the Soldiers a lecture in modern politics, insisting that Caesar doesn't actually care about the loss of the eagle, and it is useful to him, because Pompey will think this is a real weakness, when in fact it means no such thing. Caesar is trying to lure Pompey to attack him first, so he can the moral high ground in inevitable battle. (All this from Mr WHERE ARE MY EAGLES? himself!). Then it all turns out to be immaterial as the stolen eagle falls out of the dead gang's packs. The Soldiers ride triumphantly back into camp with Octavian, whom Caesar seems genuinely pleased to see. It turns out the gang were Pompey's men, and Caesar notes that Pompey has 'the cunning of a sardine', which made me laugh. They send the head of Pompey's man back to Pompey and tell him they're heading for Ravenna.

Pompey marries Cornelia. Atia blames Octavia for not being sexy enough - as if any man would marry his political enemy's relative o matter how attractive she is. Atia realises this and tries to comfort Octavia, but refuses to let her go back to Glabius, insisting that she will find someone better. Octavia shows that she is her mother's daughter after all when she says she wants Pompey dead for dishonouring her.

The episode ends on a hot of a burning town in Gaul as the recovered Eagle is marched away. What town? Why is it burning? Either they didn't tell us or I wasn't paying attention. But look everyone - see how violent Rome was!

I really do enjoy Rome - it's beautifully filmed and the actors are all wonderful. I have nothing against sex and violence in their place - it's just that in Rome, too often the sex and violence seems to be the story, rather than serving the story. The other problem is that it needs to follow the 'season' format of American television, so plots are invented to drag certain characters across stories, the Soldiers end up witnessing every important event in Roman history, interesting characters are kept on after they should have died - perhaps the 'season' format isn't the problem, perhaps the writers would have done all that anyway, but it feels like the story is being stretched in all sorts of ways that don't really fit it, to try to fit a super-imposed structure.

It is great fun though - and sitting back watching it with some wine and a snarky historian friend and fellow admirer of the lovely James Purefoy (mmmmm...) is thoroughly enjoyable evening in.

Mmmm, James Purefoy

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (dir. Nicholas Meyer 1991)

I was watching Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country last night and was amused, as always, by the wonderful revelation of Kirk's middle name.

Now I know, before all the variously named fans of Star Trek start freaking out at me, that Kirk's middle name was established as 'Tiberius' before this film. Tony Keen has written an excellent article about it here, where he explains that the name was originally established in the Animated Series in the 70s, and it was also mentioned in the novelisation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Tony quotes the relevant section from the novel, which is rather intriguing in itself - Kirk, as narrator (though to be honest, the writing doesn't sound terribly Kirk-like to me) says he is 'forever tired of explaining' that he was given the middle name 'Tiberius' because the Roman Emperor fascinated his grandfather Samuel. This is pretty bizarre, since no matter how fascinated his grandfather was, it seems unlikely that he would want his grandson named after him - that's like naming your offspring 'Caligula'. Why the writers of the Animated Series gave him that name in the first place is an even bigger mystery - presumably they just wanted to give him a really awful secret middle name for fun, like Endeavour Morse, and thought 'Tiberius' sounded suitably exotic.

But the Animated Series isn't canon, and isn't repeated anywhere near as often as the other series (I don't think I've ever seen a single episode) and I'm not sure whether the movie novelisations are supposed to be canon or not (if they are, that makes Saavik doing David Marcus canon, which is fairly bizarre) but they're also going to reach a smaller number of people than the series itself. For those of us who mostly watch the five main series and the films, Kirk's middle name is revealed in The Undiscovered Country, and although the Roman emperor is not name-checked, the connection is, I suspect, intended to add something to the scene.

The Undiscovered Country (taken from Hamlet and claimed to mean 'the future', though in its Shakespearian context it means 'death/the afterlife', which should have told them something really) sees the Federation and the Klingon Empire make peace following a disaster at the Klingons' main energy producing moon. Following an interesting dinner with the Klingon Chancellor ('note to the galley - Romulan Ale no longer to be served at diplomatic functions') the Chancellor is assassinated and Kirk and McCoy are arrested and (very quickly) put on trial for the killing.

The case for the prosecution is brought by the wonderful, wonderful Christopher Plummer, delivering lines of Shakespeare in Klingon with great gusto. (Their council for the defence is Worf, entertainingly enough, supposedly menat to be his grandad or something). He accuses McCoy of either being incompetent or deliberately allowing the Chancellor to die, and Kirk of plotting the whole thing because he hates Klingons. In the middle of his interrogation, Plummer's General Chang addresses Kirk by his full name, heard by many people in the audience for the first time, with all the emphasis on the middle name - 'James, TIBERIUS, Kirk!'

Presumably, for anyone who isn't familiar with Roman history, this just sounds like a funny name. But for anyone who knows who it refers to - an emperor notorious for sexual perversions and for allowing one of his subordinates to run the Empire and murder anyone who ticked him off - it has an extra frisson to it. Chang is accusing Kirk of murder and reflecting on his history of insubordination, which resulted, among other things, in his demotion from Admiral to Captain. There's no suggestion that Kirk is, in any way, like Tiberius, but somehow the fact that he happens to have the same middle name as a particularly nasty emperor gives Chang another petty little weapon to throw at him. The reveal is great - hilarious and wonderfully delivered - and poor Kirk just starts to look smaller and smaller. (He looks pretty tiny already, due to the massive Klingon courtroom that seems to be presided over by a character from Labyrinth).

The new movie has kept the name - The Undiscovered Country is one of the best Star Trek movies, well known and loved, so with that, the Animated Series and the novel, it's pretty well established now. (Yes, I know, Kirk was also supposed to be born in Iowa, but it's pretty easy to imagine that his mother went into early labour when her ship was attacked). Here, the name is explained as an unfortunate family name - Mum suggests it as a first name and Dad says no, cause it's terrible. It's mostly just a funny name, though extra terrible if you know the history. By the time we reach the scene in which teen Kirk steals his step-father's car, Kirk is seemingly proud of the name - it marks him out more than 'James' or 'Kirk' and more importantly, in the new mythology, it comes from his now late father's side of the family. Chang hurled it at him as an accusation, but now it's a badge of honour. So we might be hearing it a bit more often from now on.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Survivors: Series 2, Episode 4

A few mentions of Classics on Survivors tonight, though none very flattering I'm afraid. Spoilers below for anyone not up to date with the British episode transmissions.

Two of our heroes have been kidnapped by slavers and put to work in a coal mine, run by a man who still wears a suit and tie while civilization collapses around him. This guy is not a good guy - he is totally immoral and tries to have one of our heroes hanged. He's also rather keen on the Classics.

Our slave dealing bad guy quotes Xenophon at length and bases his justification of slavery on the fact that Athens and Sparta were both built on slavery. He isn't really a Classicist though, by which I mean he isn't someone who is interested in ancient history and classics because it happens to be something that interests him. This guy is pure public school product - Sir Humphrey Appleby to the power of a hundred. His interest in Classics is his way of feeling superior to those around him - he laments the days when all reasonably well educated boys (not girls) would recognise quotes from Xenophon, he sneers at one of our guys for having been to a 'polytechnic' (a university that used to be a polytechnic college) and he generally considers himself to be above everyone around him.

All his classical references are accurate, and his comments about slavery are all accurate too. Slavery is much more common than it is uncommon, and his description of Athenian laws as 'draconian' is particularly appropriate, since the word itself comes from an especially harsh Athenian leader, Draco. Of course, none of that stops everything he says from being utterly and completely immoral.

I don't think we can complain too much about the references to classical slavery here - much as we may hate to admit it, much as it is horrible and shameful to think how many of ancestors were involved in one slave trade or another, it's all true, though seeing nothing but that side of ancient society is a shame. What's more depressing from a pop culture point of view, though, is the image of the unbearably smug, utterly immoral, sexist, racist unpleasant public school boy who is not only the only person who knows any classics, but the only person who values it. This horrible slave dealer dismisses everyone else, criticising them for not knowing Xenophon while displaying his extreme ignorence of coal mining, despite his job running a coal mine. All this serves to reinforce the view that Classics is a useless, dead subject only valued by awful, privileged people (awful and privileged, not awful because they're privileged, though nice privileged people are few and far between on primetime television) and utterly useless in a survival situation.

I don't think Classics is useless, though. Perhaps if our guys knew more about human history, they might be able to see these things coming and do something about them. Knowing about ancient slavery doesn't mean you have to emulate it, like the bad guy - it can help you to avoid it, to see the risks and the dangers, to avoid getting kidnapped by slavers and to fight against it more effectively. The bad guy was absolutely right about human history being built on slavery - it's knowing and being aware of that that can help us not to repeat history, to strive for something better. Maybe Xenophon won't help anyone to run a coal mine, but he does have plenty to teach us about human nature.

I had begun to wonder if the stereotype of the public-school-boy-Classicist was starting to die out, but it seems not - and it's turning evil. We'll have to try to introduce some more positive Classicist role models into popular culture!

Monday, 8 February 2010

Horrible Histories: The Groovy Greeks

I've written a bit about the 'Horrible Histories' series before, a series for which I make an exception to my general rule of writing about fiction, not popular history or documentary.

The Groovy Greeks is a later book than The Rotten Romans, so the Romans are referred to as 'Rotten' throughout. The titles are partly determined by alliteration, of course, but there is a little bit more to it than that - the book really does imply that the Greeks were 'groovy' while the Romans were 'rotten'. To some extent, this is partly determined by what is appropriate to cover in a children's book. The good side of the Greeks is easy to talk about with children - the development of science, philosophy and history, the Olympic Games, the mythology. The fact that rape was considered a less serious crime than adultery, the conditions in which slaves worked, the fact that Aristotle thought that if a woman looked in the mirror during That Time of the Month it would turn red, thus suggesting he never actually talked to a woman about his theories - all these are patently unsuitable for a children's book. In the case of the Romans, however, some of their worst qualities - the gladiatorial games, their tendency to violently conquer most of the known world - are entirely appropriate, indeed positively good for, a book selling itself as a 'horrible history', designed to appeal to those children who like gore and blood in their stories. Their better qualities, like building roads, inventing ice cream, freeing many more slaves than Athens and allowing their women out a bit more, are either too boring or are only actually impressive if compared to Athens - they still had slavery, many slaves led horrifically awful lives, and they didn't treat women particularly well a lot of the time. I can't help feeling, though, that Deary really does prefer the Greeks to the Romans - much as I like 'em both, as a Romanist (apart from where mythology is concerned) I'll have to politely disagree.

The book includes a fair few myths, which is fine when they're clearly marked out as myths, as with the story of Pandora. But it does have an infuriating tendency to imply that the Trojan War really happened - although it notes some of the less plausible aspects of the story, I suspect impressionable children are not firmly enough told that it didn't really happen.

It's a good book though, and a great way to introduce children to ancient Greece. There's a nice section on Sparta, which includes the Battle of Thermopylae, and a section on Athens which includes Plato's description of the death of Socrates, followed by an excellent visual demonstration of the nature of Athenian democracy - a great political achievement, somewhat lessened by the number of human beings living in Athens who actually had the vote. The section on 'woe for women' is pretty good too. Hopefully children who read this book will learn something more about ancient Greece than that the ancient Greeks wore sheets, ate feta cheese and married their mothers (what I took away from a primary school project on ancient Greece. I actually played Jocasta in a kiddie prodution of Oedipus Rex. I don't think I've yet recovered).

Friday, 5 February 2010

I, Claudius: Old King Log

Well, here we are, 12 episodes and nearly 13 hours of television later, at the very last episode of I, Claudius. We open, appropriately enough, with Claudius dead, and Nero and Agrippinilla (Agrippina the Younger, given the diminuative version of her name to distinguish her from Germanicus' widow and her mother, Agrippina the Elder) gloating over his body.

Agrippinilla is pure evil - I know you thought we'd seen pure evil in female form before, in Livia and certainly in Messalina, but not so - Livia was strangely grand, a true Magnificent Bastard, and even sympathetic towards the end, while Messalina was really just a small child, over-indulged and too used to getting her own way. Agrippinilla, on the other hand, is evil in human form. She is scheming, conniving, sneering, superior, totally self-centred and without any moral compass whatsoever. It's worth noting at this point that all Graves' female characters are either utterly evil bitches or helpless victims, with the possible exception of Antonia and, to a lesser extent, Agrippina the Elder. How much this says about Graves and how much it says about his Roman source material is hard to say, but I think it's worth bearing in mind that, in an historical novel, Graves entirely at liberty to alter the characterisation of these women, as he did with Claudius himself, so he must bear at least some of the blame for the parade of witches/victims we are presented with here.

Nero and Agripinilla, looking for Claudius' will so that they can destroy it, find the history he has been writing all this time - starting with the scroll that picks up from the last episode, the death of Messalina. Claudius compares himself to the King Log sent by Jupiter to the frogs, and we as we melt into flashbakc we see one last dancing girl (breasts covered this time) while Claudius reflects that he has been too benevolent, and as allowed Rome to get used to the idea of having an Emperor as a Good Thing. This is the beginning of Graves' rather contrived explanation of how his Claudius, who unlike the Claudius in the sources is wise, moral and aware, came to marry his own niece and make Nero his heir over his son, Britannicus. He repeats the phrase 'let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out' - his solution will be to leave Rome a worse emperor than himself - even than Caligula - so that it will become impossible to take and the Republic will be reinstated.

We're down to just Claudius, Pallas and Narcissus in the dining room now - a truly dark, depressing and empty place - and Claudius seems almost catatonic while Pallas and Narcissus discuss the relative merits of the dancing girl. Both are determined to get Claudius to marry again, supposedly because his children need a mother, but they both have a specific candidate in mind - Narcissus suggests Lollia Paulina, a childless, older noblewoman - he genuinely seems interested in providing a good stepmother for Britannicus and Octavia (Claudius' children by his first wife are long dead). Pallas, however, insists that Claudius should marry his own niece (Germanicus' daughter, Caligula's sister) Agrippinilla. Narcissues informs us that even Caligula thought she was the most corrupt woman in Rome, at which Pallas declares grandly that their friendship is at an end. Narcissus pleades with Claudius, but he quietly agrees to Pallas' proposal, drunkenly repeating 'let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out' when Narcissus points out that Agrippinilla will want Nero to be his heir, rather than Britiannicus.

In the next scene, we see why Pallas was so keen to get Claudius married to Agrippinilla - because he's banging her. Agrippinilla will do anyone to get herself to the top - though, bearing in mind she apparently committed incest with her brother Caligula, this is perhaps not surprising (whether she had any choice with Caligula is not explored). She claims that 'passion and ambition are beautifully combined', which does seem to imply she enjoys it. There's also some biting - you know, just to show how vicious she is.

Claudius, sitting waiting for her, really is becoming a doddery old man, but his wits are still intact. Agrippinilla tried to play a Messalina-like game, pretending to be in love with him and wanting to be a mother to his children, and even have more children, but Claudius is having none of it. He points out that they're comitting incest, which she may have done before, but he hasn't, and he thinks she did it willingly. He says he's more interested in her mind than her body, and that he wants her to help him rule, in a way that others can't. She tells him that if he gives her power, she'll use it, and he is perfectly happy with that too.

Agripinilla, having worked out he doesn't even like her, leaves in a somewhat perturbed state, but the plans all go ahead, and she points out to Pallas that they need to keep Claudius alive long enough for Nero to come of age.

We switch next to Claudius in the Senate, announcing the end of the war in Britain. King Caractacus in brought into the Senate in chains (all the way into the Senate itself? Really?) and - it's Peter Bowles! The dude with the moustache from Only When I Laugh and To The Manor Born! He has some very exciting white slicked back hair (apparently when they were taken into slavery, the Britons were allowed to keep their hair products) and some very warm looking furs. His moustache has long white bits hanging down from it - he looks a bit like he's escaped from an old Smirnoff Ice ad. He gives a stirring speech about how they'll need to sleep with their swords if that's all they use against the Britons (you'd never know it was a British production!) and wins the hearts of the Senate, who grant him a pension.

We see Agipinilla and Nero reading the end of Claudius' history, in which, after five years of marriage, he calls her 'loathsome' and him 'slimy'. Claudius is fully aware of her plans and has his own - and to this end, we see in flashback once again, he has allowed Nero to marry his daughter Octavia and has adopted him as equal heir with Britannicus. We also get to see Nero playing the lute, which is rather fun. Britannicus has grown up into a sulky youth, who insults Nero by calling him 'Lucius Domitius', his old, pre-Claudian, name and is utterly frustrated by his father's taking Nero and Agipinilla's side against him. He is also still miffed about the fact that Claudius had his mother executed. Nero, meanwhile, is doing very well at playing the gentleman and has managed to win Octavia's heart.

Nero is interesting casting, by the way - Christopher Biggins, King of the Jungle, pantomime dame, brilliant narrator of The Rocky Horror Show. He's very good, and even - without meaning to insult Biggins - looks a bit like Nero. His Nero is over-indulgent, self-centred, keen on luxury, which seems to match the popular perception of Nero in the ancient as well as the modern world.

Poor Narcissus is apopleptic at these latest developments and points out that Claudius has signed his own death warrant, but Claudius is unworried, because his astrologer has already told him that he will die soon anyway. He has a very, very convoluted plan for Britannicus, whose days are also numbered. Claudius insists that the Sybil has foretold that Nero will rule after him, and kill Agirppinilla, and produces a prophecy given to him by Livia at that last dinner shortly before she died. It has got everything right so far, so Claudius believes it will be right again, and he insists that nothing any of them do will stop it - and he wants the Republic to be restored after him, destroying the monarchy by being as bad as Caligula or worse. Unfortunately, the prophecy does not seem to have mentioned the Year of the Four Emperors or the Flavians. Claudius intends for Britannicus to save Rome by restoring the Republic, and seem to genuinely believe that this way, he can save him from inevitable death under Nero and Agrippinilla.

Pallas and Agrippinilla have decided that the time has come to put an end to Claudius, but Pallas is concerned about the newly-married Nero, and how pliable he will be. Nero interrupts and Pallas leaves, and Nero shows jealousy of Pallas, 'that Greek'. He is in a bad mood because Octavia has locked herself in her bedroom and won't have sex with him, so Agrippinilla, totally devoid of moral compass as usual, has sex with him herself instead, to cheer him up.

The next scene is a wonderful farewell to the series as a whole. Using a fantasy sequence for the first time, we see Claudius bid farewell to the Senate, knowing he will soon die, and he tells them that through his history, people will see Rome for what she truly was. We see the room blur and the colour fade, and we hear the mixed voices of many people and see a crowd of faint, translucent figures wandering around in front of the assembled senators. It is Claudius' relatives, the characters we grew to love or hate and gradually lost over the course of the series. And then - BRIAN BLESSED walks stridently to the foreground, swims into focus, leans forward until he is right in Claudius' (that is, the camera's since we are now seeing things from Claudius' point of view) face and addresses him. 'Well done Claudius,' he says, 'Emperor after all. Who'd have thought it, eg?' It's absolutely wonderful to see him back - somehow, despite the Messalinas and the Agrippinillas, the latter part of the series hasn't quite managed to produce characters as memorable, striking and as much a joy to watch as those early characters we first became fascinated by, and to see BLESSED's smiling face once more is pure delight. Even better, he's immediately followed by Livia, restored to youthful beauty, who leans in with her superior look and tells Claudius 'you're a fool boy, you always were - people say it's not your fault, but if it's not your fault, whose fault is it, eh?'. She is superior, arrogant, exquisite - the Livia who was so wonderfully wicked in the early episodes. She makes a fabulous tutting noise as she leaves. Then Antonia leans in to tell Claudius that his nose is still running - poor Claudius still can't catch a break from his mother, even in his own imagination. Caligula urges her out of the way, and is in turn bunped by Tiberius - and briefly we see senators trying to rouse the once again catatonic Claudius. We return to his vision, to hear Tiberius sympathise with him that 'it wasn't worth it'. Caligula tells him that he 'wasn't that Messiah after all', something which has throughly shocked him - John Hurt's comic timing here is perfect. The whole thing is a perfect farewell to the series, and a good indication of why this is where it should stop - Claudius, and the series, are worn out now, and it will be the job of new series, and new emperors, to tell the next bit of the story. Claudius limps slowly out of the Senate for the last time.

Narcissus brings Britannicus to Claudius and Claudius tells him his plan, which involves favouring Nero over him yet again. Poor Britannicus takes it all very well, considering. Once Claudius has explained, and he's finished telling him off for killing his mother and favouring his stepbrother all his life. And Claudius does admit that he found it difficult to love Britannicus for some time after he found out about Messalina - partly because Claudius believes that Britannicus is Caligula's son, not his own, but without Caligula's nature. He seems to accept that Claudius, in his own mad way, really did mean the best with the plan, in which Claudius tried to save Britannicus the way he was saved, by keeping him out of the way. Claudius wants to send Britannicus to Britain to stay with Queen Cartimadua, to wait until Nero destroys the Empire, and then Britannicus will return to restore the Republic. But Britnnicus does not want to paint his face blue and hide with barbarians. He insists that he will stay, that he will put on his manly gown (in his early teens) and defeat Nero, and he tells Claudius that he doesn't believe in the Republic and nor does anyone else, except Claudius. Claudius is heartbroken, since he knows from the prophecy, that Britannicus will not get his chance to rule, but has to allow him to try.

We cut back to Nero and Agrippinilla reading Claudius' manuscript, as Claudius writes 'come death, and draw the final curtain - I am tired.' Agrippinillia rips it up, and then they burn it for good measure - Nero watched the papyrus burn and mumers 'what a pretty thing a fire is!'.

Narcissus tells Britannicus that Agrippinilla and Nero poisoned Claudius, and we see Claudius deliebrately take the poisoned mushroom that Agrippinilla offers him from her own plate, knowing and welcoming death on a fork. Narcissus tries to persuade Britannicus to go away, as Claudius wanted him to, but Britannicus inists that he can take of himself - and proves that he did not know his father at all as he says, 'poor father, he never could'.

We are left with Claudius' corpse - or almost. A vision of the Sybil from waaaaay back in the first episode appears above the bed and we see her have a conversation with Claudius' ghost, speaking through his dead body. 'You can't survive them all' he says, and before he goes with the Sybil, he asks some questions. 'What will happen to Britannicus?'. 'Nero will kill him.' The Sybil answers shortly and simple, without emotion. 'And Narcissus?' 'Agrippinilla will kill him. Then Nero will kill her.' 'It sounds depressingly familiar' sighs Claudius, and the Sybil agrees. The Empire, she tells him, will go on, as Livia said it would, but after Nero, last of the Claudians, most of the emperors will not be so bad. 'Quite a story, wasn't it?' she says, and Claudius agrees. He has buried a copy of his book, that Nero and Agrippinilla burned, which will be discovered in nineteen hundred years or so. The lighting on the Sybil's face goes very, very bright and she tells Claudius that the ferryman is waiting. She promises him that after crossing the river, he will 'dream a different story all together.' 'Farewell, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, God of the Britons, One-Time Emperor of the Roman World. Farewell.' The image on the screen burns away to reveal the final credits - THE END.

It's a beautiful ending to the series, with just a touch of the metaphysical in that last prophecy that the dead Claudius will dream another story. The whole episode is about looking forward to the future and looking back to the past. The future elements were lost on me the first time - it's fun now to see Nero enjoy fire or the lute, but it meant nothing then. But the backward-looking elements work beautifully. It's wonderful to see all those familiar faces again, and to bid farewell to the series the same way we said hello to it, with Claudius and the Sybil. And the Sybil is a very appropriate guide from this life to the next, since it is the Sybil who leads Aeneas into the underworld in Book 6 of the Aeneid. As viewers, we are glad to go - without Claudius, Britannicus, Octavia (alos killed by Nero) or Narcissus, it will be a depressing world until Vespasian eventually gains power through a coup d'etat carried out in Alexandria and ushers in a new age all together - a different story entirely.

Farewell, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, God of the Britons, One-Time Emperor of the Roman World. Farewell.


Monday, 1 February 2010

Notes From a Small Island (by Bill Bryson)

I've been reading Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island since, oh, about last November, and I still haven't finished (somehow there's stll always too much to do). The other day, I came across Bryson's description of a Roman ruin with mosaic he went to see near Cirencester, Spoonley Wood Villa. According to the BBC, the villa has become somewhat better known since the book was published, though it doesn't sound like it's being preserved and presented by English Heritage or the National Trust the way Lullingstone or Chedworth are. These are usually covered over, an entrance fee is charged and there's a shop and cafe and so on.

What impressed Bryson about this one, though, is that is was just hidden away in the wood, with a polystyrene cover over the mosaic. His description of the villa is beautiful, and he describes how 'for the first time it dawned on me in a kind of profound way that all those Roman antiquities I had gazed at over the years weren't created with a view to ending up one day in museums'. He talks about how much easier it was to imagine Romans living and walking here, in an ancient wood looking at the mosaic in situ (though the BBC point out that some of the mosaic may be 19th century reconstruction).

After this, Bryson moves from the sublime to the ridiculous as he describes (perfectly) getting lost in Milton Keynes, then I got very cross when he said he didn't want to visit Rugby, Coventry or Birmingham, three places where I have many happy memories from my late teens and early twenties.

It's nice to know that what we study is really appreciated by others, and I can understand Bryson's point about museums. It can be hard to be impressed by dry exhibits behind glass and as I've said many times, I didn't find the ancient world at all interesting in my early teens, despite a number of museum visits (I did love the mummies in the British Museum though). There are some exciting museum projects going on at the moment to try to make the exhibits more exciting though - at the conference in Lampeter last year we heard about one museum that was using Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries books to help the exhibits come alive for children (and I'd tell you which one it was if I could remember... sorry!).

I'm sure that it's not just children who can benefit from this sort of thing - adults are just as likely to enjoy an exhibit more and find it more engaging if it is a bit less clinical, even if not all Roman ruins can be left in the quiet and idyllic situation Bryson found Spoonley Wood in. Hence my love of pop culture - despite all their manifest flaws, Gladiator, I, Claudius, Rome and so on all bring these things to life so much more effectively than a dry label in a museum. Perahps one day I'll open a museum that shows film clips next to the exhibits...
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