Monday, 30 August 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: Kill Them All

OK, time to come clean. I wrote an essay on the slave wars (all three of them I think, I can’t really remember) a long time ago and I haven’t really done that much work on this area since. So, as I’ve been watching Spartacus, although I’m familiar with the period in a general sense, and with Roman customs, religions etc on a wider scale, and I remembered then major details of the revolt (Thracian slave leads revolt, is on the run for two years, killed in final battle, defeated by Crassus's forces, not crucified as certain movies imply) I haven’t remembered all that much about the specifics of this particular slave revolt and the people involved. Since this last episode takes us into the actual historical slave revolt, I decided to delve into the primary sources on Spartacus before recapping and reviewing it, to see how much had been taken from history and how much had been fictionalized. And I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were more genuine historical characters running around than I’d realised.

Now, I know this all sounds very bad and you’re probably all thinking I should have done a bit more research weeks ago (I was snowed under with conference organisation and pushed for time, sorry!). But I’m afraid I have to confess that I’m really, really glad I didn’t. Because it turns out I needn’t have been so worried for Crixus a few weeks ago, nor need I have wondered whether he and Spartacus would ever work things out between them – I now know exactly what happens to Crixus, it’s right there in Appian. I know why Haldir has wandered off to return in series 2 as well. And, while I’m impressed at the way the series has incorporated and developed characters who aren’t much more than names in the history books, I’m also a little disappointed, because now I’m spoiled! I think I had forgotten how much fun it was the first time I watched I, Claudius, when I knew absolutely nothing about the ancient world and genuinely had no idea who Livia was going to poison next or whether Postumus or Germanicus would survive. Watching Rome, much later and after finishing my first degree, was a very different experience, as my housemate and I sat, waiting for the things we knew had to happen, waiting to see Livia for the first time or see how Cicero met his end. The challenge for historical series, of course, is to cater to both audiences; to provide an exciting, suspenseful story for those who don’t know what’s going to happen, and to deliver an entertaining and gripping drama for all those who do, and I think all three series do that very well. But I must confess, naughty as it was of me not to look him up before, I don’t think I would have enjoyed watching the interaction between Spartacus and Crixus nearly so much this season if I’d known how it was going to work out. Whether this indicates that the writers of Spartacus are more interested in appealing to the section of the audience that doesn’t know the history or not, I’m not sure, but since these characters also all appear in the Kubrick film (which I also haven’t watched for a while) I doubt it. It’s really more an indication of how well they wrote the relationship between those two characters.

In case anyone’s wondering what else I’ve missed, the sum total of what we know about Spartacus pre-slave revolt is: he was Thracian (Plutarch and Appian); he had once been a Roman solider but was made prisoner and sold to a gladiator school for unknown reasons (Appian); he was a gladiator in a school in Capua, with other Thracians and with Gauls, run by an unjust owner called Batiatus (Plutarch, though he almost certainly plays up the ‘injustice’ of Batiatus to make Spartacus himself look better because that’s the sort of thing Plutarch does); he had a wife from his own tribe who was a prophetess and who escaped with him (Plutarch, getting carried away one suspects). Plutarch and Appian, both writing a good 200-300 years after the revolt, are the only surviving sources to cover the revolt in any detail, though there are various other fragments and summaries available. So far, then, nothing conflicts too much with the sources, and I’m happy to give them the bit about the wife, she only appears in Plutarch anyway! Crixus, a Celt (so presumably one of the Gauls) doesn’t come up until after the revolt has taken place, and nor does Glaber, so everything they have done before the revolt is fiction, though it fits with what comes later.

As for the revolt itself, neither account is very detailed. Plutarch says two hundred slaves planned to escape, about 78 made it using weapons stolen from a kitchen, and after their escape they elected three leaders, the first of whom was Spartacus. Appian says Spartacus himself persuaded about seventy of his fellow gladiators to make a break for it, and is no more specific than that. The series, of course, follows Appian, as his version is much more dramatically interesting and more in line with what the audience are expecting than a mass breakout followed by a calm election of leaders (probably more likely as well).

Both sources are freely available online, but don’t read them unless you want season 2 thoroughly spoiled! And now, on with our regular recap.

Haldir has disappeared again – boo-hoo. He’ll be back in season 2. He has apparently left his wife in charge of discussing his patronage of Batiatus’ ludus, which is either woefully inaccurate or a deliberate snub to Batiatus on his part. Crixus appears to have recovered reasonably well from last week’s whipping and is finally getting the chance to fight Spartacus, as he’s been wanting to for weeks. Various free characters keep calling Spartacus ‘a god’, which is going a bit far, he’s a good gladiator, not an emperor. Crixus has already told Spartacus ‘no’ to something unspecified – we can guess what that’s about.

And... flashback! To ‘two days ago’. Spartacus is in the process of recruiting all his fellow gladiators in a conspiracy to overthrow Batiatus and escape – at last!

Drill Sergant Guy is miffed at Batiatus for abandoning the ludus to Haldir’s mercenaries and running off to enter politics. Batiatus has decided to grant Drill Sergeant Guy freedom so that DSG can take over the ludus as lanista. Since DSG has only just discovered that Barca was killed by Batiatus, rather than set free, he is a little suspicious of this offer, but Batiatus insists that it was all Barca’s own fault.

Xena has decided that Spartacus and Crixus should fight to the death in a private show for the gladiators, which is totally bonkers and a massive waste of money, since both are valuable crowd-pleasers. Xena wants Spartacus to kill Crixus to soothe her hurt feelings from last week, and somehow Batiatus is sufficiently pleased with this that he agrees to this totally insane idea. When Batiatus tells Spartacus, Spartacus asks that Crixus be allowed to train again, to improve the fight – also pretty obviously a trick to try to plot with him. Spartacus even finally asks for poor long-suffering Torc Girl, just so that he can get her to help with his plans. She agrees, on the condition that he has sex with her properly, which he finally agrees to do.

Back at the fight, Torc Girl and the other slaves have been done up very nicely with pretty flowers and jewellery and everything, and Xena seems to have replaced her former favourite, Naevia, with Torc Girl, making it difficult for her to get away.

We go back to ‘one day ago’, and Crixus explains to DSG that he will kill Spartacus because he has promised Nevia he will stay alive until he gains his freedom. DSG encourages this, as he wants to rebuild the lanista once he is in charge, with Crixus’ help.

Paris Hilton is busy working on the guest list for Xena and Batiatus’ celebration and it turns out that it was Xena’s idea to have her read out a little speech, written by Xena of course. Paris Hilton is not impressed at all and it would not be surprising if she did for Xena herself at this point. Being a pain in the ass to a brutal murderess does not, it has to be said, seem like a terribly good idea.

Spartacus thinks the fact that Naevia has been dragged off somewhere will persuade Crixus to join him, but unfortunately Crixus is solely concerned with defeating Spartacus so that he can find her himself, though he acknowledges that, in another life, they might have got on (which is rather nice). He also gets Spartacus to swear to find Naevia if he wins, and if Crixus wins, he will make sure Batiatus dies.

Gnomy beardy guy has got hold of some poison to weaken Crixus and ensure that Spartacus wins, and with that, we’re back in the fight, where Crixus does not actually appear to have been poisoned, or if he has been, it hasn’t slowed him down at all yet. While the fight continues, Torc Girl stabs a guard and we go back in time again to earlier that morning. Xena and Batiatus have a little chat about how their son will rule an empire (particularly interesting given that Rome is still a Republic at this time) while gnomy beardy guy, having lost Naevia, switches his attentions to NR’s widow, Aurelia. She is hoping that Crixus will kill Spartacus and, trying to impress, gnomy guy lets on that he is pretty certain Spartacus will win – and is overheard by Torc Girl.

Spartacus doesn’t want DSG dead, having apparently forgotten that he realised several weeks ago that if he was going to go after Batiatus, he would have to kill DSG first. He also tries to persuade Aurelia to get herself out of the way, but she refuses to trust him – though she does tell him about the poison in Crixus’ food. Spartacus is, of course, far too honourable to want Crixus’ food tampered with. Xena comes to see Crixus one last time, offering him a get-out if he tells her Naevia meant nothing to her and pointing out that her unborn baby is probably his, but Crixus is also having an attack of either nobility or pure stubbornness and she leaves him to drink the poison.

Back at the fight, Torc Girl shows Spartacus her bloodied hand and Spartacus gets Crixus on the ground and tells him about the poison, which is starting to take effect, in a final attempt to get Crixus on his side. This does it – seeing he’ll die anyway, Crixus offers Spartacus his shield as a trampoline to attack Batiatus in his box – an attempt sadly halted by DSG’s whip. (And which looks really cool). It’s too late to stop now, though, and Crixus yells ‘Kill them all!’ to the assembled gladiators while Paris Hilton tells Xena that she’ll ‘see her properly attended’ – so, have her brutally killed then.

Crixus explains the score to DSG and points out, in between killings, that the house of Batiatus was not, and never has been, honourable. As a guard comes up behind Crixus, DSG decides he likes Crixus more than he likes freedom and throws his sword at the guard, killing him and joining the rebellion.

(At this point, right in the middle of the melee, Dad came in for his dinner and made some comments about the delightful tea-time viewing we’d laid on for him).

Then there’s some really exciting head-chopping. One of the brothers who co-conspired with Spartacus dies, but the other lives (brothers together, with weapons? That was just asking for trouble).

Batiatus and the others retreat into the villa, but this does them no good, as Crixus leads a charge of gladiators, wielding a Roman head (I think they should dem
and a refund on that poison). Paris Hilton heads out and orders her men to seal the doors and let the gladiators kill everyone, including the guests.

DSG confronts gnomy guy about Barca’s death. He’s too honourable to just kill him, but he throws him a sword to fight with. Meanwhile, the gladiators kill the snotty teenage boy’s mother, though Batiatus gets the better of that particular man. Gnomy guy tells DSG everything, boasting about his achievements and generally acting a bit like Ephialtes in 300. Gnomy guy seems to think he’s in Gladiator, messing around with the sand, and asks for a gladiator’s death, and DSG obviously hasn’t seen Gladiator himself, as he falls for this trick and appears to get himself stabbed for his trouble (though he still seems to walking around for the rest of the episode, so he must have won in the end).

Crixus wants to know where Naevia is and Xena says she will tell him if he gets herself and Batiatus out of the villa. Crixus doesn’t believe her, tells her he’d rather his son was dead than related to her, and stabs her in the stomach. He’ll have nightmares about that later.

Aurelia has ended up wandering around with the snotty teenage boy, who, thanks to Spartacus, she knows had her husband killed. So she kills him, obviously. Spartacus finds her, and DSG finds him and insists that enough have died – but Batiatus is still alive, as Xena collapses at his feet (she got pretty far with a fatal abdominal wound). Spartacus finally fights Batiatus and wins, of course, because the series isn’t called Batiatus: Blood and Sand. Oh, and there might be some history involved as well. There’s an almost touching moment as Batiatus and Xena try to reach each o
ther’s bloody hands as they die, though by this point the moral event horizon is pretty much a dot in the distance to both of them, so you don’t feel too sorry for them.

The Carmina Burana-like music is back in the end as all the surviving slaves walk out of the ludus. (In different directions, by the looks of things. I hope they know where they’re going).

Having spilled so much blood and guts over the course of the series, this season finale had a lot of expectations to live up to, and it succeeds – I was going to say beautifully, but that’s not really the right word in this case. Artistically, perhaps. The sheer scale of the carnage ensures that the episode feels suitably epic, and there are some great touches adding to the drama – the liberal use of red lighting along with all the blood that’s spilled, the determined exit, at a calm walking pace, of the slaves from the gates of Batiatus’ house, and the lighting around the ludus, which has been rather nicely done all season. I still think the idea of lining up all the gladiators (who still aren’t wearing anything, of course) around the ludus to watch two of their number fight to the death without making any money from it is ridiculous, but it did create a visually arresting scene, and Spartacus’ leap from Crixus’ shield into Batiatus’ box was rather brilliant. And there’s still plenty of unresolved issues for the next season, including whether Spartacus will end up with Torc Girl or Aurelia (probably Torc Girl), where DSG will fit in as they organise themselves (Plutarch’s third leader, perhaps?) and whether Haldir will now forgive Paris Hilton (though I don’t care quite so much about that one). Bring on season 2!

Friday, 27 August 2010

How to Mellify a Corpse (by Vicki Leon)

This post represents one of my occasional forays into popular history, rather than popular fiction. Like the Horrible Histories series, How to Mellify a Corpse collects some of the most fascinating and unusual pieces of information we have about the ancient world and presents them in a witty and informal text, though this book is designed for adults, not children (there are fewer cartoons, but there are some humorously labelled pictures!). The book is written in American vernacular – I have the American edition so I don’t know whether this has been edited a little for other countries – which gives it the pleasantly informal feel of a lively seminar (although I would rarely commit such thoughts to writing outside of this blog, I have often described various characters in ancient history in similar colloquial and not always entirely flattering terms to those employed here).

The subtitle of How to Mellify a Corpse is ‘and other human stories of ancient science and superstition.’ The word ‘science’ could be expanded to include technology and philosophy, as the book covers all these aspects of ancient ‘scientific’ thinking, and it is in these sections – which I think form a small majority of the content of the book – that León really shines. The Introduction explains straight away that the word ‘science’ was not used in the ancient world, and the concept as we know it did not exist, but the book explores what we might term ancient scientific thinking, and does so in a thorough and thoroughly engaging manner. Since this is a popular history book, precise references are not given, but León nearly always explains broadly where the information comes from and in the case of ancient authors, it should be possible for the very interested to explore each section further for themselves (archaeology is a little more tricky, but the reader does always know whether they’re looking for archaeology or written sources, so they have a place to start).

Perhaps the best sections of all are those in which León introduces us to most of the major philosophers of the ancient world. There is a strong narrative element to these sections, as León describes each philosopher in unashamedly broad and often judgemental terms (‘geek’ is one of the milder ones!). These, while clearly personal and biased one way or the other, give the reader a clear and immediate picture of the personality of the philosopher concerned (and for once, León being the author of the ‘Uppity Women’ series, these are not all necessarily male). This technique allows the writer to create a narrative of the history of the philosopher that takes into account the various thinkers’ personal prejudices and foibles and that is comprehensible and, most importantly, interesting to a read. Each philosopher’s life history, relationships and major thoughts, theories or discoveries are described and León always makes sure to inform the reader whether we know the philosopher in question from his own works or those of others. These sections present a beautifully engaging introduction to ancient philosophy which could relatively easily be followed up on by anyone wanting to know more.

Equally impressive are the book’s descriptions of ancient technology in action. Although, thanks to the wide-ranging nature of the sources, these cannot always provide such precise information on the nature of the evidence, they present a vibrant picture of life in the ancient world, allowing the reader to learn about both the better known aspects of daily life, like make-up and gladiatorial arenas, and the less well known, such as the corpse-mellification (preserving it in honey) of the title. My personal favourite, because I once spent a summer cataloguing the cement library at RMC (Ready Mixed Concrete) Rugby, was the excellent section on Roman concrete.

The Pantheon in Rome, a masterpiece of ancient design and concrete

One other aspect of the book that I, as a Classicist, particularly appreciated was León’s careful and precise attention to language. Going well beyond the usual descriptions of how the English word ‘geography’ derives from the Greek words for ‘earth’ and ‘write’ and so on, León includes many references to the precise vocabulary of the ancient world and to the meaning of each word in context for the Greeks and Romans, as well as pointing out common English derivations. This also provides an excellent foundation for anyone who wants to study the subject further.

(Though, while I'm on the subject of language - the book translates the name 'Heracles' as meaning 'the glory of Hera' and describes this as a 'puzzling non sequitur'. For anyone who's interested, the name is more usually understood as meaning something like 'glory because of Hera', or words to that effect: Heracles gained his great fame and kleos, glory, because Hera made his life so miserable and, directly or indirectly, forced him to perform so many glorious deeds).

Just as the ‘science’ side of the book covers science, technology and philosophy, the ‘superstition’ side covers religion, superstition and myth (which I am defining broadly as stories with a religious element for the time being, for simplicity’s sake). Whereas many of the ancients would have been equally likely to lump all the ‘science’ subjects together, eliding the differences between religio, superstitio (very different concepts in antiquity, though the dividing line can be difficult for modern scholars to draw) and myth does present a slightly distorted picture of ancient ideas about the world, particularly if the reader comes away with the idea that literary myth inspired the same sort of ‘belief’ as, for example, adherence to ancient methods of divination. However, this is perhaps inevitable, since the whole concept of ancient ‘belief’, so very different to and more pluralistic than the dogmatic religions best known in the western world today, is quite spectacularly complicated and it is not the purpose of this book to get into an academic debate about the nature of ‘belief’ (Paul Veyne’s Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths? is the place to start on the complexities of ancient ‘beliefs’).

The book also follows the current popular trend of describing ancient ‘science’ as something held back by religion and superstition, and tends to describe most beliefs and ideas as subscribed to by nearly everybody. This is somewhat contrary to the position I take personally – I tend more towards the argument that the extent to which people do or do not ‘believe’ in various ideas, particularly those on the more superstitious end of the scale, has not changed as much as all that, despite the rise of the concept of atheism (which was a very minor belief in the ancient world – Lucian lumped atheists as a minority group in with Epicurians, who had pretty similar ideas, and Christians – to an ancient thinker, abandoning the traditional gods for a single deity was in the same broad bracket as atheism!). You can read my thoughts on the subject in more detail in the conclusion to my PhD thesis, which is freely available online here (do skip to the last couple of sections of the conclusion, unless you’re very interested in ancient dreams!). However, the argument León follows is an entirely valid academic argument and, indeed, one of the more popular around at the moment – the fact that I like to be awkward does not detract from the meticulous research that has gone into the book.

Mellify is indeed meticulously researched, and introduces a wealth of material from across the ancient world. The book is divided according to geographical area. Although this has the disadvantage of disrupting the chronology of the narrative (again, unfashionably, I have a fondness for chronological arrangements!) it has the great advantage of providing a real sense of place and of the subtle differences in the cultures that surrounded the ancient Mediterranean. Since it can be far too easy to divide the ancients into very basic categories (Greek, Latin-speaking, Egyptian and so on) this gives the book a welcome extra dimension and enriches the picture of the ancient world that emerges.

Pythagoras again. I like him. Even though he made my life a misery in maths class.

In this book, León has compiled an eclectic mix of the most outrageous, exciting and generally interesting stories of the ancient world. In most cases, those that seem really unlikely are flagged up (in the best tradition of Herodotus, who is covered with perfect balance under both his titles, ‘Father of History’ and ‘Father of Lies’) and in some cases, León offers tentative guesses about the truth of the matter that, while hard to impossible to back up with evidence, are nevertheless fascinating and entirely plausible – it had never occurred to me that Pythagoras might simply have been allergic to beans! The book gives plenty of background to the historical places and periods it covers, and each chapter explains who it is talking about and their background even if they have appeared before, so the themed sections can be read out of sequence it you want to. A very enjoyable read!

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: Revelations

Straight into the gory stuff this week, with blood everywhere, swords swung high, tits waving around all over the place. (Seriously, producers, women wore clothes when they went to gladiatorial shows. And they sat in the top row only, where you wouldn’t be able to see them from the sand itself). It seems that, knowing they will very soon have to abandon the arena and it’s oh-so-sellable mixture of violence and ecstasy for the distinctly less sexy life of a bunch of runaways on the slopes of a volcano, the makers of Spartacus have gone all out to revel in the blood and tits of the arena one more time. Complete with pumping rock soundtrack and hero shot of Crixus. The bit where blood from the arena drips onto the old guy Batiatus framed last week is rather good. Spartacus, meanwhile, still does not seem to understand the essential nature of the master/slave relationship, no matter how much Drill Sergeant Guy tries to explain it to him.

Our Latin Word (or Phrase) of the Day is ad gladium – execution by gladius, the sword wielded by gladiators.

Spartacus is executing the old guy and yes, the director is really enjoying his last few gladiatorial fight scenes. We have the rock music, the slo-mo, the careful posturing before the fight, the arcs of bright red blood, the intestines spilling out of the loser in glorious technicolour while he somehow manages to gasp out quite the dying speech despite the fact that his innards are already all over the floor. Then, to top it all off, his head is put on a pike to the sort of choral music that is designed to emulate Carmina Burana. Meanwhile, the writers choose this moment to remind us of a storyline that seemed to have been dropped weeks ago – Xena’s problems conceiving a child. Interesting moment to bring that up again, clearly it will become important later in this episode.

Spartacus gets another evening with his girlfriend to stop his whining but he’s still insisting that he’s not interested, and he pisses her off anyway. I’m still intrigued by the fact she seems to be wearing a torc, which no one else is, but maybe she just gets dressed up for Spartacus. They’re also speaking in that weird, slightly cut-off way that the programme occasionally uses to make its characters seem foreign and exotic. It’s not totally unjustified – Latin has a smaller vocabulary and briefer way of putting sentences together than English, and two people speaking a second language may use a more abrupt way of speaking than if they’re speaking their native language, but in a programme that usually employs a more colloquial English it just sounds weird. The nature of the conversation is even stranger. Spartacus actually didn’t know that if a master is murdered, every slave is executed, which goes to show just how phenomenally stupid he is, though it does provide the opportunity to explain this to the audience. He also appears not to care, which doesn’t exactly endear him to the viewer.

Meanwhile, gnomy beardy guy has demanded Crixus’ girlfriend as his reward for getting the old guys out of the way for Batiatus. He’s behaving a bit like Wormtongue in the movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, all creepy and slow-moving and slimy, although much more graphic and more successful in his rape attempts of course. Xena is not pleased, as she was keeping this girl for someone special, so it’s a good thing none of them know she’s been having it off with Crixus for weeks (and a good thing she hasn’t got herself knocked up either, or if she has she doesn’t know it yet anyway).

Spartacus is taking out his anger issues on the significantly cross-shaped practice plank. He leaves Crixus with a cryptic comment that implies his plan is, basically, to knife Batiatus the minute he gets close to him. He’s still not stopped by the presence of the poor torc-wearer, but he does stop when he spies Neighbours Reject’s widow, Aurelia, who is working for Batiatus to pay off NR’s debts. Torc Girl is so unimpressed by this she goes to see him especially to tell him off, which is quite brave of her since she has to blackmail a guard to do so.

Gnomy beardy guy drops by to taunt Crixus, who wounded him out of gladiatorial combat and who he therefore thanks for everything he has now. At the time, we wondered why no one had mentioned she wasn't a virgin, but this gets resolved later.

Paris Hilton is leaving to go join Haldir, horay! Xena is completely horrified, as she’d only just got Paris Hilton under her thumb. Then, with some words about their friendship that might not be entirely positive, there’s a completely gratuitous two-women kiss between two characters who usually appear to be straight.

Haldir is finally back! Woo-hoo!! He rides in looking all tough on a white horse (he’s nicked Shadowfax!). He appears to be possessed of more brains than most people around, as he actually finds the sheer volume of murders occurring around Batiatus a wee bit suspicious. Meanwhile, Crixus’ girlfriend explains why she can’t come to him and he gets rather cross, and then Xena (in one of her most half-naked outfits) blacks out because, as it turns out, she’s finally become pregnant. If Batiatus wasn’t so horrible you’d almost pity him for being so pleased when the kid is probably Crixus’.

Paris Hilton is trying to have a good night in but Haldir, who really is the sharpest character around apart from maybe Drill Sergeant Guy, as he has noticed that Batiatus seems to be giving himself undeserved airs and graces and that his own wife may have something to do with it. She’s soon able to distract him, of course, because we hadn’t had a sex scene for at least five minutes.

Torc-girl is victimising Aurelia because Spartacus seems to like her so much, even demanding that he talk to her alone. He tries to persuade her to leave and live on his winnings, but she’s having none of it – she’s aborted the baby she was pregnant with and sent her son off to live with his uncle so that she can nobly work off the debt herself. Spartacus warns her not to trust Batiatus and she points out that, at this point and unsurprisingly, she doesn’t really trust anyone.

Haldir and Paris Hilton pop by to visit Batiatus and Xena, and Batiatus continues his doomed attempt to enter politics by trying to obtain Haldir’s patronage. (Paris Hilton, during the conversation, observes that the older man Batiatus had been trying to win support from was unpleasant and had a tendency to stare at people with his teeth – a brilliant line, hilariously delivered complete with face-pulling and, if I recall correctly, absolutely true!). Haldir is unimpressed with the idea that he should associate himself with a lanista and points out that Spartacus, their champion, was his worst soldier. This is all a ploy on his part to try to get rid of Spartacus (good luck there, mate) as he demands that all the gladiators be brought to the villa (why all of them? Really, there’s absolutely no logical reason any of the others should be there).
Haldir has his men attack Spartacus one by one, in the best tradition of Hollywood bad guys, and even with practice swords, Spartacus is able to defeat them all while jumping around artistically in the very pretty and historically accurate pool in Batiatus’ atrium. Spartacus even kneels before Haldir in the interest of maintaining his position until he can strike, but it is all to no avail, because at this moment, Crixus spots gnomy beardy guy with his hands all over Naevia, his girlfriend, and goes completely mad. OK, so gnomy guy was taunting him, but his actions here go beyond stupid and into morally irresponsible, considering the consequences for the unfortunate Naevia. Here, gnomy guy reveals that yes, he had noticed she wasn’t a virgin, and had been trying to work out who she’d been sleeping with. Xena, of course, goes completely and utterly mad, beats up Naevia and discovers the key Naevia stole. Naevia points out the obvious truth that Crixus didn’t love her and was only doing what he was told, but Xena just gets madder.

Haldir and Paris Hilton go to leave, since they have no desire to be associated with this lot, but Batiatus and Xena blackmail Haldir with the hand of the woman Paris Hilton killed a few weeks ago, Crassus’ cousin. Haldir believes Batiatus and Xena over his wife awfully quickly here, since all they have is a body she claims she didn’t kill, but Mum and I decided Haldir must know his wife quite well and think that this is something she might do. Haldir grants his patronage, dumps Paris Hilton to stay in Capua and leaves them with a bunch of guards to keep an eye on things. And stomps off, hopefully to return in series 2.

Batiatus waves around the head of the guard whose key Naevia stole, has Crixus flogged (though not quite as badly as the flogging in The Passion of the Christ, as they still need Crixus’ gladiatorial skills to make money and don’t actually want to kill him) and Naevia is taken away. As she leaves, she manages to say a word or two to Crixus and she finally tells Drill Sergeant Guy the truth about what happened to Barca. Meanwhile, Batiatus shows he’s not quite as dim as he seemed, and that he knew Xena was sleeping with Crixus the whole time – and yet he’s still convinced that her baby is his. Maybe he’s just deluding himself wilfully because he needs a son. And then finally, finally, Spartacus starts a conspiracy with a couple of younger gladiators (brothers who wanted his help staying together). They are planning to escape! Yay! And the solution to the problem of not having every slave in the household executed for Spartacus is to kill the entire household. If they’re escaping rather than just murdering Batiatus, this is not strictly necessary, but it will ease their escape and may be their only practical option, unpleasant as it is. And so, we are set up for the finale.

This is a powerful episode with some good stuff, especially the final scene between Crixus and Naevia in which Crixus weeps manfully, and the gladiator fights at the beginning really are rather good too. The only problem with this episode is that some of the characters do have to pick up the Idiot Ball (thank you again, TV Tropes!) in order for the plot to move forward, which is always a bit jarring. At least it wasn’t Spartacus throwing the ball around though – his Idiot days are behind him. And next week, not only do we get lots of blood and guts and all sorts of nastiness going on but... (drumroll please!) ...we also enter Actual History! Sort of. A little bit. Get near it, anyway!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Le Retour!

Well, I'm back.

As I'm sure you'll all be completely unsurprised to hear, I didn't get quite as much done as I'd meant to while I was away. I did make some headway though, and upcoming attractions over the next week or two will include recaps of the last two episodes of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which seems to have been successfully recorded, a review of Vicki Leon's popular history book How to Mellify a Corpse and possibly something Star Trek-y...

In the meantime, I thought I'd do a round-up of various Classics-y things that came up while I was away that aren't really substantial enough for a full blog post by themselves. We were staying in a gite in Morbihan, Brittany, and I managed to buy rather too many books and DVDs in both French and English - it's a good thing we went by car. Spoilers follow for J. V. Jones' The Barbed Coil, Holocaust Part 1 (dir. Marvin J. Chomsky, 1978) and especially for The Island (dir. Micheal Bay, 2005).

The reason I didn't get as much reading done as I'd meant to was that I spent the whole of the first week of the holiday stuck deep into a 600-page fantasy novel! The novel in question was J. V. Jones' The Barbed Coil, which was very enjoyable and made really interesting use of various illuminated manuscript traditions, complete with a name-check for the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels (which I once wrote a rather mediocre essay on while doing a module on Anglo-Saxon archaeology). This is a book that is crying out for an illustrated version! Anyway, there wasn't much that was specifically Classics-y, other than references to illuminated manuscripts throughout history in general and in Egypt more sepcifically, but there was a brief bit of Latin near the end. The book is about a war and features a lot of (rather intimitely described) fights and battles, with a middling-size body count in terms of named characters and an enormous body count in terms of redshirts over the course of the story. Towards the end, a new character appears. He is called Pax. I won't tell you what happens to him, but I was fairly sure he'd be OK!

The gite we were staying in came complete with a DVD player and a selection of DVDs, one of which was The Island (I also finally got the chance to see Madagascar and Shrek the Third!). Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson's characters in The Island grow up in a very isolated community where they are only given as much education as they absolutely need. In a rather nice use of Latin, Sean Bean's bad guy realises something is not quite right with Ewan's character when he reveals some knowledge of Latin - not the meaning of the word in question (renovatio) but how to spell it and that it was used as a boat name. Latin is particularly useful for this. It's often used for boat names, presumably because if you're naming a boat, you want something meaningful but not necessarily too obvious, and putting it into Latin achieves that nicely (though, knowing me, I'd just end up calling a boat the Dawn Treader!). Latin is also something that a lot of people know a little of, because a lot of people are interested and it's very much still in use in certain areas (like boat naming) but that you wouldn't necessarily include in a very basic education programme that focussed on the essentials. All in all, it was nice and satisfyingly logical way to incorporate some painfully obvious symbolism (renovatio means 'renewal, rebirth') into a fun movie that was more thoughtful than I expected from Michael Bay.

While we were in Brittany, we visited the Musee de la Resistance Bretonne near Malestroit, which is an excellent museum that combines plenty of information (some of which is available in English) with a couple of more interactive, though still tasteful, displays to engage younger visitors. In the souvenir/bookshop, Mum spotted in the 1978 American mini-series Holocaust on DVD, which we hadn't seen elsewhere, so we bought it. Holocaust, unsurprisingly, is not easy viewing but it is very good and by following a large cast of characters, it is able to cover more aspects of the period than most films. Along with the Jewish Weiss family, the series follows a young SS officer called Dorff and, in the first episode, we see him put on his SS uniform for the first time. His young son hides, crying, and is frightened of him. Dorff then draws attention to the similarity with the famous scene in The Iliad in which Hector's baby son cries and is frightened at the sight of his father in his helmet. Actually having Dorff draw this comparison has an interesting effect, in that what is really does is remind the viewer even more strongly that Dorff is no Hector. Not only do we see the child frightened at the unpleasant uniform (with our own adult knwoledge of what the uniform means), we are also reminded of others who have fought with better reason. The aim of the heroes on both sides in The Iliad is to acheive honour and glory in open battle (not a nice thing by any means, but rather less secretive), while Hector is a defender rather than an agressor. These marked contrasts with the activities of the SS only serve to make the sight of Dorff in his uniform even more horrifying than it already was. The character, of course, is busy comparing himself to Hector, so the allusion also serves to reinforce his own self-delusion.

Time for me to get back to catching up on housework and e-mails - it's been a while since I've been away for as long as two weeks! Spartacus and book reviews to follow as soon as life has returned to some semblence of normality!

The picture at the top of the page is of the Cairn de Barnanez, a dry stone tomb in the shape of a stepped pyramid, with two distinct phases of construction that was in use through to medieval times.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Stargate SG-1: Hathor

I'm going away for two weeks tomorrow and won't have access to the internet, so I won't be blogging again until the end of August - though I am taking several books I want to blog with me so should have plenty of material ready when I get back!

'Hathor' has to be one of the silliest episodes of Stargate ever filmed, but that is why I love it. I feel much the same way about Star Trek: Voyager's 'Threshold', an episode so bad it's actually been written out of Star Trek canon entirely. 'Hathor' is a completely ridiculous, borderline sexist episode but it is also one of those so-bad-it's-funny classics you see in SF and fantasy every now and again.

Early in the episode, we hear the following exchange between Daniel and Jack:

Daniel: Hathor was the Egyptian goddess of fertility, inebriety and music.
Jack: Sex, drugs and rock and roll?
Daniel: In a manner of speaking.

This is more or less true. Hathor was a goddess of fertility and music, and, therefore, was also associated with sexuality and with the pleasurable things in life in general. However, what this episode does is take her association with sexuality and fertility and run with it, mostly ignoring her association with music, and totally ignoring the fact that she was usually represented a woman with a headress of horns, a woman with cow's ears, or as a cow.

Most of the details of Hathor's mythology mentioned in the episode are fairly accurate, including the story about how she was sent to destroy the world by Ra, but then he changed his mind. On the science-fiction side of things, Hathor is presented as a 'queen bee' type creature who produces larvae which are then incubated by the Jaffa (people like Teal'c). It is possible that this was inspired by Hathor's title as mother of all Pharaohs. In Egyptian mythology, the Pharoah was identified with the god Horus, and Horus was a son of Hathor (in some versions - she was also considered the wife of Horus at Edfu). The script refers to her as the 'mother of all Pharaohs', because one of the titles of the Pharaoh was 'son of Hathor', so that may have been what inspired the writers to give her the 'queen bee' function.

Bronze arched sistrum (musical instrument) with Hathor head decoration. Egypt, Late Period, after 600 BC. From the British Museum online catalogue.

There is, however, one rather odd reference to the ancient myths. About halfway through the episode, Carter and Doc Frasier are doing some research on Hathor, and Carter finds a website:

Carter: This one academic's web page theorises that a bunch of the sex goddesses from different cultures were actually the same woman - Hathor. The Greeks identified her with Aphrodite. There's Ishtar of Babylon, Astarte of Syria, Ceres of Rome.

Carter does point out that this is really Daniel's area and she's not sure what she's doing. But the really weird thing about this bit is that this is not the theory of a modern academic with a website. This is the sort of theory put forward by ancient academics - by philosophers and theologians and scholars in the Greek and Roman periods. Ancient scholars did not necessarily believe wholehearteredly in a particular myth or dogma - that was one of their problems with Christianity as a concept. However, they also would not necessarily assume that all the ancient deities were entirely fictitious, but rather that the different myths represented different aspects of the same truth. In a separate but related trend, as people travelled and traded and, eventually, were conquered by the Romans, different religious traditions and rituals became conflated with each other, so gods and goddesses worshipped under different names in different traditions were considered to be, broadly speaking, identifiable with each other. Called syncretism, this was a very common phenomenon in the ancient world, and Hathor herself was eventually subsumed by another Egyptian goddess, Isis, with whom she had long been identified.

The strange thing about the Stargate reference is that Carter makes it sound like it is a modern academic (with web technology!) who has created this 'theory'. Part of the reason for this is that, in the show, all these deities actually are real alien beings, but it still seems like a bit of a weird gap in the otherwise pretty good research done for the show. Surely Carter could just as easily have found out that the ancients considered all these goddesses to be the same deity? But then, she did say it wasn't her area. The actual identifications aren't totally out of the realm of possibility. Ceres was a goddess of fertility as it related to farming rather than to human reproduction, but she was identified with Isis, who was identified with Hathor.

The episode actually opens with an archaeological dig in Mexico, in a Mayan temple, where a group of archaeologists are surprised to find a sarcophagus with Egyptian hieroglyphics. As so often happens to archaeologists on TV, all their messing around with the sarcophagus opens it up and out crawls Hathor, who kills them. Luckily some of their team were outside and the appearance of Egyptian hieroglyphs in a Mayan temple makes them think of Daniel. This seems to be the first appearance of a sarcophagus in the television show, which is interesting. One of the problems with Stargate's sarcophagi for a long-running series is that they bring people back to life, which makes it hard to kill anyone or to create real tension and danger. This episode solves that problem by having it destroyed after it's been used, which seems wise.

What makes the episode so silly (in case those of you who haven't seen it were wondering!) is that Hathor's sexual power is translated here into a horrifically cheesy magical power over men (explained as some sort of chemical influence but really, there's not much point bothering with the science of it). She breathes her purple mojo on them and they become putty in her hands. The result is that the entire base, bar the few women on it and Teal'c (protected by being a Jaffa) are completely in her power. Then she has sex with Daniel for his sperm, produces hundredsof larva babies and tries to make Jack her first Jaffa (i.e. a human incubator for one of the larva babies). All of which is the direct result of two acts of stupidity at the beginning of the episode, when Daniel has a fit of chivalry and un-cuffs her, despite the fact she was trying to break in to the base and Hammond, despite everything he's seen so far, believes Jack when he calls Hathor delusional and agrees to have his hand kissed, in order to play in to her delusions. All in all, it's not Stargate's finest hour.

The men vs women plot does have some compensations. I love the conversation between Carter and Doc Frasier about being 'one of the guys', and about Frasier's ex-husband calling the Air Force 'this man's army'. Carter actually comments on the paucity of women on the base as well, which is nice to hear and which provides the show with a neat excuse for the ratio of men to woman: whereas, for example, Star Trek has no excuse for having male crewmen outnumber female, because it's set in a supposedly egalitarian future, Stargate can claim that it is simply representing the current make-up of the United States Air Force. The bit where they all have to flirt with the men to get out of their cell is very funny too and seeing Doc Frasier trying to be a soldier provides a nice opportunity to see an identifiable female character for those of us not of the military persuasion.

Still, this cannot quite make up for the fact that Hathor appears to be wearing an outift that bears a certain resemblence to the famous gold bikini of Princess Leia, or all those odd shots of her in a bathtub surrounded by swarming larvae. You also have to wonder why she doesn't just work her mojo on at least some of the women as well, though there might be an argument that, since her power is related to fertility, it only works on a female/male basis that could lead to procreation. Afterwards, the men don't seem to remember anything, which saves them from having to angst about the fact Daniel was essentially date-raped and then all his larva babies were killed, though he does look a bit depressed when he works it out. Still, if this was Farscape, there would have been a lot more angst about that. On the other hand, at least he didn't just abandon his lizard babies on some planet in the Delta Quadrant.

I have to admit, on viewing this episode again, I was surprised at just how accurate a lot of the information on Hathor was. Aside from the misunderstanding, or misappropriation, of syncretism, the writers genuinely had done their research. (And they left out the cow part, but that's hardly surprising. In fact, given the set-up of the series, they missed some great opportunities to show alien Eyptian gods that actually had jackal's heads and falcon's heads and so on). Even better, the science fiction elements of Hathor's character do seem to have been inspired by her real mythological roots, which is pretty impressive and a nice way of adopting and adapting ancient mythology for a modern audience. It's just a shame that the eventual episode, in both script and direction, was somewhat mishandled and came over as cheesy, patronising (I'm not sure if it's more patronising to men or to women!) and supremely silly. Still, points for effort and for producing something that can give us all a good laugh on a rainy evening.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: Old Wounds

Bad news I'm afraid - I'm away for two weeks this month and will miss the last two episodes of Spartacus! I'll record them and review them as soon as I can after I get back later in the month. And, while I'm distracted, some better news: I have a new non-academic (very light-hearted) article in Discworld Monthly this month, on the various levels of fantasy and reality in the Discworld.

Drill Sergeant Guy tries to comfort Spartacus over the death of Neighbours Reject while distinctly Gladiator-like music plays in the background. Aurelia, unsurprisingly, isn't in the mood to be sympathetic, but the whole thing is so sad that even John Hannah feels sorry for Spartacus.

Our ancient word of the week is Greek this time - hubris. Though I guess that one's moved into English, really.

Crixus is upset because Spartacus will fight in some Games against Pompeii - or are they Games of Pompey? Their pronunciation is hard to make out! - that he'd been looking forward to, which sort of reminds me of that bit in The Devil Wears Prada where Anne Hathaway gets to go to Paris instead of Emily Blunt. That's probably just me, though.

Spartacus is hanging around in the hope of supporting NR's wife and family, which is surprisingly sensible and noble of him, though you can bet your freedom that John Hannah isn't actually sending her the money. He's still being rather harsh to his girl-friend, who is servicing a man who, Spartacus believes, was wounded protecting his wife. JH, meanwhile, is having fun torturing the white-haired politician whose son was the cause of all the trouble. One of these days, some magistrate or other legal person is going to notice the number of (often freeborn) dead bodies that pile up around him, and he's not an emperor, there's no reason the family of one of them shouldn't take him to court. If any of them are alive, that is.

White-haired guy prophesies that when Spartacus falls, JH will follow, which is probably true. He's so far gone that even nasty goatee guy is starting to doubt that this is a good idea. Meanwhile, our unfortunate hero is seeing ghosts again, though Neighbours Reject has replaced his wife for the time being, and his wound from the fight last episode is not healing and he has a fever. It's good news for Crixus though, who gets to play champion again and who has taken to saying foolish things like 'tonight I am a god!' He'll be planning to make a horse a senator next, just wait and see. Crixus is very confident - 'He's doomed!' observes Mum.

Beardy gnomy goatee guy has sold John Hannah out to, um, a different white-haired guy? Yeah, this one's a merchant I think. Mum observes that you can't trust a soul in this programme (I think I need to show her Rome and I, Claudius again...).

There's a rather cool dream sequence which unfortunately I had to keep looking away from because I'm very squeamish. Spartacus pours coins from his wound while Neighbours Reject watches and his wife - identifiable by the fact she's one of very few brunettes on this show - approaches masked, then collapses and dies on him (again). His female friend, who's nursing him, is a brunette as well, which is probably not a coincidence.

Oooh, some more arena action, goodo (except I'm not actually looking at most of it, just listening to Mum say 'Eeee!' and 'Ohh, erugh, oh!'). We meet a rather fun new character who may or may not be called Pompey - no, wait, I think they are referring to Pompeii after all (and this definitely isn't the famous Pompey, who wasn't that... generously built). The absence of the white-haired politician has been noticed, especially since his son is right there. Politico is not as dumb as he looks, as he plays dead and then bites one of his captors, who happens to be the minion who was there when Spartacus' wife was killed, like a vampire, though this doesn't actually do him much good, other than to leave him alone with gnomy guy.

I like the trumpet-y things played at the Games - no idea what they are but they look very cool. They're playing because it's time for Crixus to fight Pericles, the Primus of Pompeii, and Crixus has to learn what every inhabitant of the Big Brother House has learnt - that if you disappear from the public eye for five minutes, they will forget who you are and boo when they see you. The CGI on these scenes really is very good, it's not seamless but it's a pretty convincing picture of an arena - no restricting this show to shots of a few people in a box with some sound effects behind them.

It's not looking good for Crixus, and things get worse when his fan club - Xena and his girlfriend - are ordered back to the villa, denying him the chance to share his victory with his girl(s). Luckily, sheer indignation (and a pumping rock soundtrack) gives him a second wind and he guts the other guy (literally). And smashes his face, just for good measure. The crowd love him again, but he's bloodied and his girlfriend is not there - this does not please him.

John Hannah has news of an attack on Politico brought to him and takes the irritating teen off with him, supposedly to help. Gnomy guy tells the white-haired merchant where Politico is, but it's starting to look like this is another double-bluff of Batiatus', since he ushers the merchant on a solo rescue mission.

(Ad break - Batiatus encourages us all to go to the Co-op and buy olives).

The minion who was there when Spartacus' wife was killed is now in the infirmary with him, where the medicus has given him henbane which, thanks to a brilliantly comprehensive poisons list in The Sirens of Surrentum, I know is not a good idea.

Spartacus is still experiencing effectively creepy dream sequences - if there's one thing this show knows how to do well, it's a dream sequence. Spartacus has killed his long-haired Thracian self, who is also Neighbours Reject - deep. Interestingly, these are the sort of dream sequences we would expect to see or experience ourselves rather than the sort of dreams Romans often described - none of these dreams contain prophecies, just the odd hint of unfortunate destiny, nor is Spartacus brought a message from the dead or the gods as might happen in an ancient Roman dream sequence. This, however, is probably the one that comes closest to a Roman dream. Spartacus is told to look by NR and his wife, he sees Batiatus talking to the cart driver - it seems almost as if NR and his wife are trying to make him see the truth. They don't quite manage it, but they make him suspicious.

The whole business with the identical white-haired men does turn out to have been a double bluff, as the spotty teen and guards walk in to discover that the merchant has just murdered the Politico and drag him off.

Spartacus inspects the body of the minion and discovers... no scar! The truth is finally out - when strangled by Spartacus, he sings like a canary. Well, more chokes the truth out with his last breath actually, but same diff. Spartacus shows he has some brains by getting the girl to help him cover up the murder, pretending the bite got infected and killed the minion.

'Behold Spartacus risen from the dead!' says Batiatus as we see Spartacus attacking a practice pole that's distinctly cross-shaped. Subtle. (Because this show is known for subtlety of course!).

'I am myself again!' declares Spartacus, smiling for the first time in ages. Excellent - we should have some quality plotting and escaping to look forward to over the next two weeks!

This was another cracking episode, though of course, with all those dream sequences, I was bound to enjoy it. And the dream sequences were the standout parts of the episode, as we saw our hero use a different muscle for a change - his brain! Unlike an ancient Roman dream sequence, these dreams did not provide Spartacus with any information he did not already have. His wife and friend did not come back from the dead to tell him something, as they might in an ancient novel or poem - rather, in thinking about them, Spartacus came to realise something he already knew, but had been too preoccupied to fully realise. It's a very modern use of the dream sequence, but it works perfectly for this Roman story, and next week's episode, 'Revelations', looks very promising.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Sirens of Surrentum

The moment when Buffy the Vampire the Slayer changed from a good show into a great one was 'Innocence' - the episode where, having slept with Buffy and experienced a moment of perfect happiness, Angel loses his soul, dons the Black Leather Pants of Evil and, well, becomes evil. There's a scene towards the end of the episode in which Buffy's blissfully ignorent mother, Joyce, asks Buffy what she did for her birthday and Buffy replies sadly, 'I got older'. It's a beautiful, bittersweet moment that neatly sums up everything the viewer has just been through over the past two episodes. The Sirens of Surrentum is to the Roman Mysteries series as 'Innocence' is to Buffy - it is the moment where Flavia Gemina who, being a Roman girl, has to grow up rather faster than Buffy, learns some things she maybe didn't want to know about men and women and gets older.

Minus the sex and evil vampires, obviously. (Though I do love 'very kissing' as a child-proof description of sex).

As you'll have gathered, this is definitely a book for older readers of the Roman Mysteries series. I understand from my teacher friends that kids 'do' the Romans at Key Stage 2 - which I think is 8-9 year olds, or possibly 7-8 year olds - in the UK at the moment, which would be the perfect age for them to pick up The Secrets of Vesuvius or The Pirates of Pompeii. By the time they work their way up to The Sirens of Surrentum they should be that wee bit older and starting to be interested in the opposite sex, rather than running away from them because they have nits. (This is what we used to do in my primary school). This is probably also one for the girls, though there is plenty of poison and wild boar hunts to keep the boys occupied too - but really, what the book captures perfectly is what it feels like to be an eleven-year-old girl, and the minefield that is trying to understand adult relationships at that age.

This is something which is much more complicated for Roman girls, of course, because at eleven they are nearly old enough to get married and certainly old enough to be engaged. Not so for boys, who marry much later, though Jonathan and, especially, Tranquillus are clearly thinking about it already. But for Flavia, Pulchra and Nubia, the question of romantic relationships is not just something they can wonder about idly for fun, as it was for my generation, but an urgent problem.

I think my favourite aspect of the book, though, was actually something that reminded me of my MA year rather than the last year or two of primary school. Here's an insight into the workings of my brain for you all: I have studied both Lucan and Suetonius at some length, and Lucan was the subject of my MA dissertation. It took me ages - I won't even admit to you how long - to realise that 'Tranquillus', Flavia's betrothed is, in fact, Suetonius Tranquillus, one of my favourite ancient authors. It was only when he said he wanted to be a biographer that the penny dropped. On the other hand, a very brief mention of the Latin word 'nefas', which refers to a crime or sin of enormous proportions carrying with it an element of religious pollution, immediately had me primed for a reference to Lucan. (I didn't remember his wife's name, so I didn't work out the exact connection, but you say 'nefas', I think 'Lucan').

I'm not sure I should send kids running off to read Lucan, but for anyone with a strong stomach, his Civil War is absolutely brilliant. I focussed on the necromancy scene, which features Erichtho, one of the nastiest witches in literature.

My other favourite part (how many is that now?!) is Flavia's speech on the subject of suicide, which I won't spoil by quoting here. It's beautiful. (It also reminded me of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I think that might be my obsession with Buffy talking). And I will make some attempt to redeem my powers of deduction by saying that, once I realised Polla actually was being poisoned and not just suffering from a debilitating disease, I worked out the solution to the mystery myself.

Odysseus and the Sirens. I love this vase. See also the blog's current background!

The children, as good Romans, observe that poison is considered to be the resort of women and cowards, and refer to a few famous cases - I absolutely loved the use of figs on the tree that are pre-poisoned, which took my right back to I, Claudius, and I loved seeing Suetonius gather information for his most famous work. I was a bit horrified at Locusta's actions though, and almost - almost - sympathised with Felix over his response. I liked the lists of various poisons and their antidotes, which I will carry with me when I watch or read Agatha Christies in future, as Christie often uses the symptoms and/or antidotes of poison as vital clues.

There were some nice introductions to ancient philosophy here as well. They were necessarily over-simplified, of course, partly to fit the plot and partly for space and comprehension value, but the characters themselves explained that they were simplifying things, so that's fine. It was a shame that Platonism had to be missed out, but certainly Stoicism and Epicureanism were the big names at this time and the easiest to place at polar opposites to each other. (No room for the Pythagoreans and their beans, but that can't be helped!). It will be fun for any readers with a passing knowledge of Christianity to spot Philodemus' affiliation, and the way philosophy was discussed and handled in general was nicely done. Most importantly, there was an emphasis on philosophy as relating to moral character and life choices more than religion, which is more of a shared experience for everyone who isn't Jewish or Christian, which is an aspect of the ancient world far too often ignored by modern writers desperate to make some kind of point relating to their views on religion (good or bad!)

It's a shame Flavia can't marry Suetonius, as he seems a good sort, despite his obsession with naked women (he's just an early developer!) and I seem to remember that he has rather a lot longer to live than Flaccus, who look set to be her ultimate partner. Also, really, I'd worry about someone whose name is 'Flaccus' (it's just a reference to his floppy hair, kids!). Flaccus does seem to be the sanest person around, but I sort of hope it wasn't actually him who snitched on Flavia and Suetonius, as that was rather mean. Still, we can start to see what the future might hold for Flavia and Jonanthan (who should remove Pulchra from her parents as soon as possible I think!), though it remains more uncertain for Nubia, who once again functioned as the voice of reason and experience throughout, and Lupus, who's still a bit too young!

View from near Sorrento (Surrentum) across the Bay of Naples, towards Vesuvius
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