Monday, 28 February 2011

The Last Legion (dir. Doug Lefler, 2007)

It seems appropriate, the day after Colin Firth won a well-deserved Oscar for his brilliant performance in The King's Speech, to post a review of, shall we say, one of his lesser-known films. I know of the existence of this movie thanks to Antoninus Pius' blog, where he posted a review a while ago - the film disappeared so entirely on its cinematic release I'd never have heard of it otherwise. It is a gloriously silly concoction in which Academy Award Winner Colin Firth and Knight of the Realm, Academy Award Winner Sir Ben Kingsley travel to Hadrian's Wall with Mr Wickham to protect the kid from Love, Actually (who doesn't appear to have aged in four years) from Boring himself, Lucius Vorenus. Who is a Scots-accented Goth.

If you weren't confused enough already, Batiatus also makes an appearance, not as Batiatus (one of Firth's men) but as a slimy senator who conspires with Star Trek DS9's Dr Bashir against our heroes and is, once again, gutted for his pains. True to his later argument, regarding Spartacus: Blood and Sand, that since everyone would be speaking Latin, it doesn't matter if he uses his own Scottish accent, his character here has quite possibly arrived in Rome via Edinburgh. Trouble is, all the other Roman characters are speaking The Queen's Latin, while all the Goths use Scottish accents, so this is just off-putting (or, possibly, an explanation for why his character switches sides?).

If I poke holes in all the fim's historical inaccuracies we'll be here all day, but I feel I should draw attention to some of the biggest clangers. First of all, neither Tiberius nor Romulus Augustulus were the last of Caesar's line, as Caesar's line died with his son by Cleopatra, Caesarion. (Of course, there's always the possibility that Dodgey from Rome smuggled Caesarion away and Romulus is his descendent - but in that story, Caesarion isn't Caesar's son anyway...). Caesar left no direct descendants at all and the last emperor to be related to him was Nero - Tiberius was his nephew's step-son. Perhaps more importantly, attempts to create a hereditary monarchy in the Roman Empire were generally doomed to failure sooner or later so the emphasis on bloodline is a bit off. As for the Eastern Byzantine Empire - OK, it was becoming an increasingly separate entity from the Western Empire, but the fashions are far too Oriental and not Greek enough and I'm pretty sure it didn't extend as far as Kerala in southern India.

The film also brings up the 'lost' ninth legion, who may or may not have disappeared somewhere in Britain or Europe several centuries earlier. Antoninus Pius knows much more about the military history of this than I do (being emperor and all) so I point you in the direction of his blog for the details, but it's worth bringing up because the disappearance of the ninth is the subject of both last year's Centurion and next month's The Eagle. I also really like this film's answer to the question of what happened to the legion - they settled down, married local women, took Celtic names and stayed put. This may not be what happened to the real ninth legion, but it is something that happened a lot after the Romans withdrew from Britain around AD 410 and it makes a nice change from the usual Pictish massacre.

Really, though, it isn't fair to pick at the history in this film, because this film isn't supposed to be about history. This, like Troy, is about myth and reality really has no part in it. The writers (and Valerio Massimo Manfredi, author of the novel on which the film is based) haven't started with Roman history, but with Arthurian legend. Stories of King Arthur often claim an origin from the classical world for their hero (just like Virgil and others claiming a Trojan origin for the Romans, in a way), though the precise nature of the connection varies. In producing this story, the writers have started with Arthurian legend - Merlin, the sword in the stone, the name 'Excaliber', dragons, Vortigern - and traced their origins back into an imaginary Rome.

The film actually walks a fine line between fantasy and realism reasonably well, but balancing itself so carefully in between two distinct genres unfortunately means it doesn't seem to know where it lives, and doesn't fit into either of them. The film starts out like an historical swashbuckler, but about halfway through it seems to want to be The Lord of the Rings, which it most certainly isn't - there isn't nearly enough of a sense of scale and wonder about it, and the usually excellent Patrick Doyle doesn't quite seem to be feeling it with the music.

The actors do their best with two-dimensional characters, the central group being made up of an absolutely typical Five Man Band (as described on TV Tropes); The Leader (Academy Award Winner Colin Firth/Mr Darcy), The Lancer (possibly Vatrenus, killed off fairly early on), The Young Guy (Mr Wickham/Prince Albert), The Big Guy (this film's Batiatus) and The Chick (Mira). The actress playing Romulus' mother is rear-end-clenchingly awful, but everyone else is fine, and Firth and Kingsley could read the phone book and be entertaining, though neither are quite up to their Oscar-winning heights here. Kingsley's Welsh accent is fine but his performance in general is all too reminiscent of the narration at the fabulous North Wales tourist attraction, King Arthur's Labyrinth (this involves a boat in a cave and is brilliant - if you're in southern Snowdonia, go visit it!). Firth can do the snappy soldier pretty well and has some great comedy moments (his face when Sangster hugs him is hilarious) but he struggles, ironically, with the Independence Day-style speech he has to give which is not quite as successful as his more recent speechifying efforts (though stammer-free).

A smoking-dragon incense burner I bought from Corris Craft Centre, by King Arthur's Labyrinth

I think this could end up being a good guilty pleasure for rainy afternoons. Aishwarya Rai as Mira kicks ass, Firth and Rupert Friend are reliably sexy and wield swords, Boring gets his comeuppance and it's got Merlin in it, not to mention some really amazing-looking scenery filmed in Tunisia (though the CGI-castle thing in Britannia not only makes one think of Monty Python, but is so incredibly inappropriate for the period it takes me right out of the film). It also features Alexander Siddig, who I met at a convention once and who is lovely, so that's always nice (though he is once again playing a eeevil character - he explained to all of us that, outside of Star Trek, he has spent most of his career stuck playing eeevil terrorists). This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good film, but its problems are artistic more than they are historical, because this film is not meant to be any more historical than Xena: Warrior Princess. Watch it with friends, pizza and your alcoholic/caffeinated beverage of choice and you may find you have an enjoyable evening. Just don't expect it to be Gladiator.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Stargate SG-1: The Curse

Quick plug: I have a new article out at Sound on Sight, on Five Films that Blur the Line Between Fantasy and Reality (I must try to come up with a snappier title next time!).

This episode of SG-1 is one of those mid-season episodes that serve to re-direct the main Goa'uld plot a bit and set up the season finale. In this case, we are introduced to a new Goa'uld, Osiris, another Egyptian deity, in the form of Daniel's ex-girlfriend Sarah (because his wife/another Goa'uld was killed off the previous year, so of course, we need to pile some more emotional trauma/sexual tension on top of Daniel). The audience ought to realise immediately that the unfortunate Sarah will end up Goa'ulded by the end of the episode as, like so many American bad guys, she has an English accent. We also see Osiris' consort Isis, in a way - her dead worm-y body is dissected by Doc Frasier.

This is also the episode that introduced us to Colonel O'Neill's cabin by the lake with no fish in it. When Daniel calls Teal'c for some translation assistance, Teal'c delivery of the phrase 'banished to oblivion' is priceless, as are his repeated offers to return to the SGC.

Events in the episode are kicked off by the mysterious death of Daniel's old archaeology professor in an lab explosion. I can't help wondering what an archaeology professor is doing is a laboratory with explosive potential. Archaeologists do work in labs sometimes, but they don't usually have to share them with the chemistry department. (Please note: this is a joke. I am aware that chemistry labs do not spontaneously conbust on a regular basis). The episode makes several references to a 'curse' of Osiris that does not, as far as I know, have any basis in any belief, ancient or modern - I presume the writers were inspired by the supposed curse of Tutankhamun. In this case, presumably, the 'curse' is down to the fact that Osiris is a Goa'uld in hibernation.

Osiris was worshipped both in ancient Egypt and later, together with his sister-wife Isis, in Greece and Rome as the object of a mystery cult. Judging by the artefacts Daniel's old professor is working with, he's focussing on Osiris' Egyptian incarnation, which, of course, fits with Stargate's general focus on ancient Egyptian mythology. I suppose, in the Stargate universe, the quite different Greco-Roman cult of Isis and Osiris developed independently as a relic of the Egyptian cult after the Goa-uld left... but I digress.

As usual, Daniel's descriptions of Osiris' mythology and attributes (chiefly the crook and flail) are fairly accurate, up to the point where the myth needs to be changed to fit Stargate's plot, and the wall painting that Steven finds looks like it properly depicts Isis and Osiris. Daniel's description of the Osiris myth conforms fairly well to Plutarch's version, which is the most coherent version we have of Isis and Osiris' mythology (evidence for the narrative from ancient Egypt itself is very scanty; Plutarch was a Greek who lived and wrote in the second century AD). For some reason Daniel insists on referring to a 'magic box' rather than a coffin or casket, which would be more accurate. Is this a dumbing-down thing on the part of the writers? Surely their viewers know what a coffin is! Perhaps they're just using a different translation of Plutarch. The punishment/banishment bit is an alteration to make the myth fit Stargate's plotline and does not appear in ancient mythology.

Daniel describes a canopic jar that he finds as belonging to Isis (he calls it an 'Egyptian burial jar' - perhaps he's just simplifying things for Carter?). In real life, a canopic jar would 'belong' to the dead person whose organs are stored in it, but the purpose of the jar has been altered for this episode - rather than storing the organs of a human being buried in the tomb, this one stores the worm-form body of a Goa'uld symbiote. It belongs to Isis because it's Isis' symbiote that is stored in it, complete with alien technology to keep it alive (except it's broken).

One of the nice things about this episode is that is presents archaeology in a reasonably accurate way, and in a much less sensationalist way than usual. One of the handy things about archaeology for TV scriptwriters is that archaeologists often have to work against genuine deadlines, and the (1990s) Egyptian government's request for the artefacts seems a perfectly plausible one. Daniel's ex-colleague Steven's book is apparently on the bestseller list, which seems unlikely - though ancient Egypt is always popular so I suppose, if it was a general introduction rather than an academic tome, that might be possible. Daniel and Sarah's envy is certainly realistic!

Given that they obviously wanted a new female Goa'uld to play with, one can't help wondering why the writers went for the male Osiris over his female consort Isis. Presumably this was because Osiris, who was killed by Seth (a god/Goa'uld the team have already encountered), dismembered, then brought back from the dead and associated with death and resurrection seemed like a more interesting choice than Isis, who is among other things healer, mother and life-giver.

This episode is a bit functional, moving the plot to where it needs to be later in the season. On its own, it works reasonably well as a murder mystery, but the simplest kind. There are two suspects (i.e. people who may have been taken over by Osiris - Daniel's colleagues are probably not natural murderers!). One looks very obviously like the guilty party so, of course, it turns out to be other one. It is lovely to see Daniel actually being an archaeologist though, and we get a trip to Egypt thrown in too! (Well, some sand that looks like it could be Egypt. It makes a change from Canadian forests anyway). Not an all-time classic, but a fun enough way to pass forty-five minutes.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Catilina's Riddle (by Steven Saylor)

As I’m sure I’ve said before, I love Steven Saylor’s Gordianus books. I first read this one years ago, while on holiday in Sweden, and re-read it recently for a class I’m teaching. Although my very favourite Gordianus books tend to be the earlier ones, this is a long but excellent and entertaining entry to the series and features one of Saylor’s most complex and memorable portraits of historical figures, besides Cicero – his evocative characterisation of Catilina (Catiline).

This book falls right in the middle of the Roma sub Rosa series, which focuses on Gordianus, and it shows. There is only one instance in which an earlier book is actually referenced (footnote, publisher’s details and everything!) but the book is peppered with references to past events in Gordianus’ life and with more subtle references to the future. At the time of publication, only Roman Blood and Arms of Nemesis had been published as books, and events from both are referred to so frequently I must admit I grew rather tired of reading Sextus Roscius’ name! There are also references to events covered in Saylor’s short stories, set during Gordianus’ early career (which is skipped over at alarming speed if one just reads the novels, as the first three novels cover nearly twenty years, the remaining seven just over ten years). At the time of this publication, these had only been published in a mystery magazine, but they are now available in two collections, The House of the Vestals and A Gladiator Dies Only Once. It is refreshing to see how full and real-seeming a character Gordianus is, a man who does not forget old friends or past events simply because his readers might not have read that book, and the plentiful explanations will prevent any new readers from being lost, while avoiding spoiling the central mysteries of these earlier publications. Events in Gordianus’ personal life however are, unavoidably, spoiled. Most successful are the few subtle hints of what is to come – Meto’s taking up of a career under Julius Caesar in the Epilogue, which, it’s not hard to guess even if you don’t know, will become significant in the future – and, even more pleasingly to anyone with knowledge of the history, Marcus Caelius’ passing reference to a widow with green eyes and Gordianus’ memory that Clodius’ sister was instrumental in Cicero’s feud with Clodius and eventual exile.

Catilina is one of the great villains of Roman republican history, and Saylor takes the always entertaining route of, to a great extent, rehabilitating him. I’ve a great soft spot for novels that do this, as it offers such a fresh perspective on the history and is nearly always possible to achieve reasonably plausibly (though I think the emperor Nero might be an exception). Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, a sympathetic biographical account of Richard III, is one of the best, and to some extent, I, Claudius could be said to be this sort of book as well.

However, unlike these others, Catilina’s Riddle is not written from Catilina’s perspective, and it is not a straight rehabilitation of the man. The novel as a whole, and it’s narrator, by and large, fall mostly on the side of Catilina, but the number of qualifying words in that sentence gives you an inkling of how effectively Saylor walks the line between presenting a balanced view and coming down hard on one side or the other. Saylor points out himself in his ‘Author’s Note’ that Gordianus is a deliberately unreliable narrator in this story, while his two sons, Eco and Meto, present the views of the opposing sides. This has the double effect of emphasising the differences between Cicero and Catilina (wily and cautious vs violently passionate) and of essentially introducing the reader to the characters of the grown-up Eco (last seen as a mute teenager, now a married adult) and Meto (last seen as a five-year-old slave boy, now turning sixteen). Meanwhile, Saylor’s view of Cicero continues to chime perfectly with my own, making me rather biased in his favour, while his depiction of Catilina is perhaps a little too kind, but thoroughly believable.

As always, Saylor expertly weaves his fictional characters into Roman history. There is, as always, the odd moment that might make the reader sit back and think ‘hang on – that’s a bit convenient’, most notably the climax, in which Gordianus and Meto are revealed to be the only two, unrecorded, survivors of an historical defeated army from which there were no survivors. Saylor has, however, set up his characters well to make them believably connected with the uppermost echelons of Roman society. By creating a connection and mutual obligation between the young Cicero and Gordianus in Roman Blood, from a time when Cicero was a young and unimportant New Man, Saylor has laid the groundwork for Gordianus to become plausibly and intimately connected with Roman politics at the highest level, and it is Cicero who drags him into the Catilinarian conspiracy. Gordianus’ connections therefore feel real and lack the feeling of obvious insertion of a fictional figure into the story that one often gets while watching Rome (‘How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic’, ‘Pharsalus’ and ‘Caesarion’ being particularly egregious examples).

Saylor is equally adept at weaving historical evidence into his narrative, though, as with several Gordianus novels, I found that the pace slackened and my attention wandered whenever he described actual speeches at length. No doubt this is partly, if not entirely, due to my own lack of enthusiasm for ancient oratory on an aesthetic level (though, of course, I use it frequently as evidence, and it’s very useful). Saylor’s summaries of real speeches certainly demonstrate the depth and breadth of his meticulous research, but I’m afraid, if I’m reading a novel, I want to read a novel, not a Ciceronian speech, even if it is rendered into modern English. However, given that I loved the excerpts from Catullus’ poetry included in Counting the Stars, I think my own bias is much more the problem than Saylor’s writing here.

The Gordianus novels are murder mysteries by genre though several of them, starting with Catilina’s Riddle and continuing with Rubicon, are more concerned with Late Republican politics than detective work. There is still a murder to be solved though, which Gordianus erroneously believes to be connected to Cicero and Catilina’s struggle but which turns out to have nothing to do with either of them. The murder, the clues and the solution book-end what is otherwise a rich recreation of the Catilinarian conspiracy. I was perhaps a little disappointed that the murder was so unrelated to the rest of the story; although it has an important position in the plot as the spark for Gordianus’ action, he could have come to the same decision without the murder and it shares only the broadest thematic links with the main story. However, as a mystery in itself, it was rather good, and would make a nice short mystery on its own.

I really enjoyed this book both times I read it (and was pleased to find that my vague memories of it were largely accurate). Eco and Meto have grown up into likeable, flawed, believable characters and Saylor presents an account of this particular bit of republican history that is equally enjoyable to readers who have little knowledge of the period (my knowledge of this area was pretty sketchy back when I first read it) and those with much more background knowledge (which I like to think is me now!). His decision to frame the story around Meto’s coming of age provides a particularly fruitful device for explaining the system to the reader, and Saylor continues to be one of the best authors when it comes to the difficult balance between ensuring that your reader understands what’s happening, and writing a history lecture rather than a novel. And this is, of course, essential reading for fans of Gordianus, providing a bridge between the much earlier novels and the complex tangle of mysteries surrounding Caesar, Pompey, Clodius and so on that is to come.

Funky photo I took of the Lutheran cathedral in Uppsala, Sweden. Because, well, that's where I was when I first read the book. Whadd'ya mean, 'pretty tenuous connection'?!

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Xena Warrior Princess: Ties that Bind

Owing to an unfortunate DVD mix-up, I've had to abandon my plan to review Xena entirely in order, but I will try to go back and catch up on the missing episodes whenever I can. This episode appears somewhat later in Season 1, and I'm very happy to see that Gabrielle has finally got herself some more attractive and more practical clothing, even if it is still orange.

This episode revolves around the return of Ares, previously seen being slimy and evil and trying to win Xena back for the forces of darkness. Here, he is slimy and evil and tries to win Xena back for the forces of darkness. He goes about it in a rather more interesting way, though.

Ares is a more warlike god of war here, but also even more totally nasty, as his unfortunate underling discovers to his cost. It's interesting that the god of war is presented as an evil so-and-so (I haven't seen any of the Hades episodes yet, so I don't know whether this is in addition to the usual pop cultural identification of Hades as The Bad Guy or instead of it). I really like this idea, that identifies war and battle of any kind with evil, which is totally different from how the ancients viewed this god (I suspect that, a few years on, this idea would never have got anywhere). Most depictions of Ares follow the ancients more closely, portraying him as perhaps a little trigger-happy, but more powerful than bad, a god you want on your side rather than a god to fight against (not that having him actually did the Trojans any good, but still). He's certainly a much more interesting and unusual choice than Hades for the position of 'evil god of the pantheon', something that didn't exist in ancient mythology but that modern interpretations seem to feel is necessary to give them a strong bad guy. The choice of Ares for this role fits very well with the series' overall theme of redemption and striving for peace (albeit through the medium of vast amounts of fighting while wearing skimpy armour).

Ares is also much more cunning than last time and shows how close Xena still is to her former, evil self by presenting a scenario that might drive anyone to a desire for violence and revenge. As Xena screams 'kill them all!' it becomes clear how much she needs Gabrielle around to hold her back, and Gabrielle hitting her over the head is both an important step in the development of their relationship and totally awesome.

We learn some more about Xena's personal history when she talks about her father, which is nice - there's nothing particularly strange or startling to be learned, just the sad but frequently-heard story of how she worshipped him and then he left (see also: Buffy, B'Elanna Torres) but it's nice to know a little more about her anyway. And Xena taking over an army is naughty but rather cool, though I was thoroughly amused by how much 'Hail Xena!' sounds like 'Hail Caesar!' (well, it does to me anyway!).

The B plot involves Gabrielle's interactions with a group of girls she and Xena have rescued from slavery, but who did not all want to be rescued. At first I thought this might be a really interesting exploration of why someone might sell themselves into slavery and how desperate you would have to be to do so, something that did happen in the ancient world, but it turns out this particular young woman offered herself in place of her sister - which is a good story and very noble, but not quite such an interesting sociological concept.

I enjoyed this episode a lot more than I thought I would. Ares didn't really appeal to me much as a character last time around, but here he plays a more interesting role with cleverer plan and allows us a glimpse into another side of Xena's personality. And he has a rather nice line in funky earrings.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Interview with Caroline Lawrence

Following yesterday's review of The Man from Pomegranate Street, Pop Classics is delighted to present an interview with children's author Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries
, in which she discusses writing for children, writing about history and the fate of poor little Popo. Enjoy!

Why did you want to write novels set in the ancient world?

I read Mary Renault’s magnificent historical novel The Last of the Wine when I was 18, and it was the first thing that really sparked my interest in history, and Classical History in particular. My overriding desire was and still is to GO BACK IN TIME TO ANOTHER WORLD, be it the world of Classical Greece, Imperial Rome or – more recently - the Wild West. Because of Renault’s book, I studied Classics at University, including Greek and Latin.

Which Roman-set books, films etc influenced your writing, if any?
Two writers were huge influences on my earliest books, (The Thieves of Ostia and The Secrets of Vesuvius.) They were Mary Renault and Gerald Durrell. The wonderful 1966 film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was - and still is – my favourite ‘Classical’ film. I was also deeply impressed by Fellini’s Satyricon, though many aspects of it disturbed me. I saw it while I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, studying Classics, and I remember thinking ‘That’s what it would have been like!’

Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis have also been wonderful literary role models and great inspiration, but I only discovered them after I’d begun writing my own books. The film Gladiator hadn’t come out when I was writing my first book. It was a terrible disappointment, mainly because my hopes were sky-high and it was SO inaccurate.

What made you choose the reign of Titus as the setting for these stories?

My starting place was the eruption of Vesuvius in August of AD 79, and when I discovered that Titus had just become emperor it seemed the logical conclusion to learn all I could about him. It is fitting that my series ends with his death just over two years after he became emperor. In fact, the final mystery is this: Was Titus death natural or was he murdered? And if the latter, whodunit?

Why did you decide to write children’s novels?

When I first determined that if I didn’t ‘start writing now, I never will’, I was teaching primary school. I also had a son aged about 12. Through him I had rediscovered the joy of kids’ books. The best of these can be enjoyed by adults as well as children and are often better because the plots usually clip along and the message is almost always uplifting. Some of my favourite books are children’s books. Also, I suspect my ‘mental age’ is around 11. So it seemed logical to write books for kids.

The Roman Mysteries feature quite a few historical characters alongside fictional ones. Is it easier or harder to write ‘real’ people?

Not really. I just read about them and their writings (if any) and get an idea of their character from that. Sculptures help, too. I like to get a visual image in my head. For some reason I picture Titus as William Shatner and Quintilian as Perry Mason.

Caroline's own drawing of Titus, by way of William Shatner. Now that's a mental image that's going to stick!

How didactic are your books intended to be? Do young readers seem more interested in ancient Rome as a result of reading these books, and do they learn anything?
I try to fit in as many facts as I can and make them as accurate as possible. But not dry facts: the funny, fascinating, disgusting and exciting facts. I also pack the books with sensory details of the world of ancient Rome: the smells, scents, tastes, sounds, customs, etc. My fans are usually a certain type of child - often those of above average intelligence - who are not afraid of Latin words and strange names. Ten years on from the publication of my first book, many of my early fans have gone on to study Latin, Greek or Classical Civilization in secondary school and university. I just had an email from a long time fan at Swansea who is writing her dissertation on the concept of Romance in the Roman World. She hadn’t even started Latin when she first began reading my books.

I think the Roman Mysteries walk a fine line between glossing over the more difficult parts of Roman history, and keeping the books appropriate for primary-age readers, and I think they do so very well. Did you ever worry about including too much more ‘grown-up’ material, especially in terms of sex, violence and slavery, or about glossing over these issues too much, resulting in a distorted picture of the Roman world?

That’s why I have an editor! If I am too caught up in my own world and write something too strong, violent or explicit, they usually rein me in. In almost every case, I know they are right. But as a parent and ex-primary-school-teacher I also know that you can suggest things without being explicit.

Have you ever considered writing Roman-set books for older readers or adults? If so, what would you do differently?

I tried writing a Young Adult spin-off called The Flavian Trilogy and it was deemed too strong. So I’ll have to come back to it in a year or two with ‘fresh eyes’.

What about younger readers? Do you think it’s possible to present a version of the Roman world that feels true while keeping it suitable for younger children?

I’m currently working on a spin-off for younger readers (6, 7 & 8). Its working title is The Threptus Mysteries and the first one has lots about Roman poo and sewers. I hope it will especially appeal to boys of that age group. Again, I have to use common sense, instinct and my editor!

Will you be writing any more about Flavia, Nubia, Jonathan and Lupus?

I hope to mention them in both my spin offs: The Threptus Mysteries for younger children, and the Flavian Trilogy for the YA market.

Would you consider writing about other parts of the ancient world, other periods of ancient history, or other characters?

Yes, I’m now deeply involved in the American ‘Wild’ West, which has quite a lot in common with ancient Rome. Virginia City in the early 1860’s was a ‘horse-powered’ society, with about the same level of medical knowledge as the ancient Romans, and the same tension between law and lawlessness. As with the Roman Mysteries, I am introducing ‘real historical characters’, using the rich reserve of primary sources and lots of great artefacts. For research I am travelling and watching lots of Western movies. [You can read about The Western Mysteries here, and keep up with Caroline's research in this area at the Western Mysteries blog.]

And finally... what happened to Popo?!
Popo was kidnapped by the wet nurse who lost her own child in Roman Mystery 13, The Slave-girl from Jerusalem. She spirited him away to the furthest realms of the Roman Empire: Britannia! The first book in my previously-mentioned Flavian Trilogy picks up the story when Popo is 14 and ignorant of the fact that he has an identical twin in Ostia. Let’s hope I can find the right balance when I come to revise it.

Many thanks to Caroline for taking time to talk to us!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Roman Mysteries: The Man from Pomegranate Street

The Man from Pomegranate Street is the culmination of the Roman Mysteries series, offering a balanced combination of closure and threads left open for future projects. Tomorrow, Pop Classics will be posting an interview with author Caroline Lawrence in which she talks about what inspired her to write the series and about future possibilities for Flavia and friends. Today, I'm reviewing this final volume, and beware, here there be spoilers.

For anyone with any knowledge of Roman history - and, of course, the assumption is that most readers have none - this final volume ties up the loose ends and flapping questions. The most important historical event is, of course, the death of Titus, which forms the central mystery of the story. Although it's a shame to miss seeing Titus in the flesh again, his death is handled beautifully - which is to say, creepily and in a rather sinister fashion, as befits a sudden and mysterious death. The question of whether or not he was poisoned, and if so, by whom, is never definitively solved and the possibilities are both shocking and convincing (I'm must admit, I'm glad Dr Mordecai didn't turn out to be a murderer after all!). What I liked best was that the murderer, if there was one, was not Domitian - knowing that the series ended with the death of Titus and (thanks to reading one of the short stories set after this novel) with the childrens' exile, this is what I was expecting, and I was really pleased to see the story take a less predictable direction. Titus' final words, 'I have only one regret', also remain mysterious, though it is heavily implied that they referred to Jonathan's mother.

The other historical event that had been nagging at the back of my brain since reading The Colossus of Rhodes is that, by AD 90 at the latest, Flavia's beloved 'Floppy' (Valerius Flaccus) will be dead (this book is set in AD 81). This is neatly solved in this volume by having Flaccus fake his own death, to enable him to marry Flavia. This seems a rather drastic solution to their social inequality and Domitian's disapproval, but it makes for a wonderful dramatic gesture as Flaccus chases Flavia's ship in a classic last-minute romantic chase and perfectly solves the tricky problem of his impending doom - Flavia can now enjoy a much longer happily-ever-after and Flaccus becomes, essentially, a fictional character (leaving the publication of his poem, abandoned in a hurry, to Pliny).

This leaves, historically speaking, the reign of Domitian, and there are plenty of hints here concerning how that will pan out. This book is certainly not for younger readers, as Domitian's treatment of Flavia and especially Nubia, though kept at PG level, is seriously unpleasant. However, after seventeen books, I imagine that most readers have grown up with the series - perhaps not to quite as advanced an age as in the case of Harry Potter, whose characters are much older by the end, but certainly to a stage where they may start to understand the material here. Readers certainly come away with a clear picture of Domitian's character and could probably make some safe predictions for his reign before looking at a history book.

Some of the fictional threads that have run throughout the latter part of the series are left open for possible future development. After finishing the book, I realised that I am going to have to accept that poor uncle Gaius, last heard of missing following a shipwreck at the beginning of The Scribes from Alexandria, really is dead. I was rather upset to see him so swiftly killed off after being recovered, and the lack of a body results in something of a lack of closure, but it does accurately reflect the realities of sea travel, especially in an age without radar or search and rescue facilities. Or lifeboats, I suspect. And I still hold out some hope for him - I've read enough fiction to know it ain't over till the funeral dirge sounds (and given how much fantasy I read, sometimes not even then). The other major unsolved mystery is what happened to Jonathan's baby nephew Popo - more on that in our interview with Caroline Lawrence tomorrow.

The major fictional stories, however, are nicely, satisfyingly wrapped up. Nubia and Aristo's marriage occurs in a spine-chillingly awful context, but they seem happy once they're all sorted out and, much as it seems thoroughly wrong to modern readers, in ancient Rome, a twenty-something marrying a thirteen-year-old was perfectly normal. Forcing our heroes into exile provides a perfect sense of closure, to Flavia's childhood as well as to Titus' reign, to their life in Ostia and to Flavia's career as a detective (possibly). Flavia herself gets a lovely send-off as the people of Ostia show their gratitude for her help over the course of the series, in a scene that reminded me very much of Buffy's 'Class Protector' award at the end of series 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which also always makes me cry. Having seen their life in Ephesus set up at the end of The Prophet from Ephesus, we can be reasonably sure that happiness and prosperity awaits the children (with the possible exception of Jonathan, who still has a missing nephew and broken relationship with his father - that poor kid can't catch a break).

The Man from Pomegranate Street is a fast-paced read, a thrilling adventure (there's all sorts of excitement in caves that I haven't room to mention) and a satisfying conclusion to an excellent series. I felt terribly sorry for the romantically disappointed Suetonius, but we are left with a clear intimation for the future for both those left behind in Rome - the historical characters Suetonius, Pliny, Josephus and Domitian - and for those in Ephesus - the now fictional 'Jason', Flaccus having named himself after his own principal character, Flavia, Jonathan, Nubia, Aristo and Lupus. The whole series could be read as one long rite of passage, but Flavia and Jonanthan in particular really leave their childhoods behind here - as, of course, does Nubia when she gets married. Whether this is the last we'll see of them remains to be seen - tune in tomorrow...

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Rome: Utica

Bit of a memorable episode of Rome, this, and unfortunately, not really for the right reasons, though you can say this for it - there's plenty of drama here.

We open on a dramatic desert scene with a dying elephant (and, being British and therefore animal-mad, I am of course more distressed by the injured elephant than by all the human carnage around it!). Cato has lost a battle and is feeling very depressed. He makes it to the town of Utica, where Scipio tries to persuade him that 'where there's life, there's hope' to no avail. Cato clearly has some kind of prescient knowledge of Captain Oates, because his last words are,
'If you'll excuse me, I need to urinate. There's a piss-pot through there, I believe.'
And he kills himself. Not quite as dignified as 'I'm going outside, I may be some time,' but the same essential sentiment, I think. Scipio kills himself too.

Caesar has returned to Rome and Boring Soldier and Dodgey Soldier are once more planning to leave the army. Boring returns home and he and his family actually seem happy and prosperous for once - that'll never last. This is also the start of the storyline that originally had my housemate and I change Pullo's name from Interesting Soldier to Dodgey Soldier, as we see that he is still particularly keen on Eirene, to whom he's actually very sweet at this point. Octavian has also returned to Rome - for some reason we are re-introduced to him while he wees against an aqueduct. Did the writer of this episode complete the whole thing while desperate for the toilet, or something?! I mean, we've all gone behind a bush from time to time when necessary, but I don't see why we need to see it.

By the way, we've now reached 46 BC, having started in 54 BC, eight years previously. And yet, miraculously, neither Octavian nor Boring Soldier's children have aged a day. To be fair, they have made some effort to age Octavian a little, through dialogue, general confidence and possibly some face fluff (and the later re-casting was not a good idea). And I don't think we met Niobe and the children until 49 BC, so her love child, who looks about 3 now, is about the right age. Still, we will keep an eye on them, as, if I recall correctly, this will be a recurring issue.

Brutus and Servilia are going to dinner at Atia's, at which Caesar will also be present, much against Brutus' wishes, who knows this cannot be a good idea. Servilia insists her problem with Caesar is purely political, and is a bad liar. At dinner, Octavia wears a rather nice dress while Octavian explains how he would put the world to rights if he were Caesar. This is rather brilliant, as, of course, he explains exactly what he will later do after he's finally defeated Mark Antony and his ideas impress Caesar, presumably leading to Caesar's adoption of him in his will (though his declaration that he would rather focus on his poetry is quite amusing).

Boring discovers a thug about to cut someone's nose off in the street and ever-so-nobly intervenes, which is of course a very bad idea among proto-Mafia-run society (though it is also the beginning of his eventual metamorphosis from Boring into The Godfather. When we get to season 2, I may consider re-naming him).

Octavia tells Servilia that Atia thinks Caesar and Octavian are lovers, but Octavian insists the incident related to a 'terrible affliction.' This is where Rome's determination to present viewers with as much sex as possible and make said sex as dubious as possible takes a turn into the Land of the Utterly Ridiculous. Servilia wants to know what the 'afflication' is, hoping it will give her a weapon against Caesar, so she dispatches Octavia to discover it from Octavian, whose idea of a good time currently consists of reading from Catullus' love poetry. Octavia pesters him about 'terrible secrets' but can't get what she wants. So, eventually, Servilia persuades Octavia to resort to desperate measures and seduce Octavian, to get him to tell her what she wants (which isn't even an especially vital piece of information).

This is just utterly ridiculous. Incest was as much a taboo in Rome as it is now (which, to be fair, Octavian points out). Cleopatra was married to her brother because they were Pharoahs, but Claudius was criticised for marrying his niece - sisters are right out for Romans. Caligula and Commodus were accused of incest with their sisters, and Nero with his mother, because the historians writing about them didn't like them and wanted to paint them as psychotic lunatics. And we are supposed to believe this of Octavian, a man who will eventually consolidate his power partly through a 'back to basics' style insistence on returning to 'old-fashioned morals' and who will banish his daughter and grand-daughter for sexual promiscuity. This does not necessarily imply that he followed such a strict moral code himself - Suetonius suggests quite the opposite - but I really think incest with his sister is going too far. Also, ick.

It doesn't work anyway, because Octavian is ten times more intelligent than anyone around him and is well aware of what Octavia's up to (though clueless as to Servilia's involvement). On an extra random pedantic note, Octavian also insists he doesn't have anything 'comical' to read, in which case his collection of Catullus' poetry is seriously lacking.

While all this is going on, we also get treated to a stark naked Dodgey (he's looking good, been working out) and the proto-Mafia have caught up with Boring. He sends the children away to the country to protect them, but his backside is, once again, saved by Caesar who, once again, Boring insists on insulting and refusing his offer of a political position (when will he learn?! If he was Thomas More, his head would be on the block for refusing to bow to Caesar's power). Luckily Caesar talks him into it (and his wife and slaves, about to be killed with him, breathe a collective sigh of relief!).

Atia finds out that her children have been engaging in extremely dodgey activities and attacks both of them with a whip - but Servilia has told Octavia that Atia had Glabius killed so they're pretty much all even on the naughtiness front. Thanks to Servilia's blatent manipulation and Octavia's sense of guilt, Atia actually suceeds, again, in convincing Octavia that she really didn't do it.

Dodgey gets drunk and starts yelling for Eirene, who apparently reminds him of his mother (Freud would have a field day). His mother was a slave, he says, which begs the question of why he's not and how come he's in the army (the children of slaves were born slaves, owned by their mother's owner). Then he makes Eirene take off her dress so he can touch her up and, since she's a slave, she has no choice but to obey. This is all very Roman, but at this point, Old Housemate and I sat, mouths open, staring in disbelief at the television - this is one of our heroes? One of the characters we're supposed to care about and take an interest in? Roman or not, I have absolutely no interest in following or caring about a sexual molestor of women or a rapist (which, if we had listened properly to the earlier dialogue, we would already have known he was). We re-christened him 'Dodgey' then and there, not even thinking that his behaviour was going to get even worse...

The episode ends with Atia's men physically attacking Servilia in the street. This last part of the episode seems rather determined to make the audience dislike or disapprove of just about every character except Boring and Niobe - though it has the benefit of making Boring look really good, and from this point on, I preferred him to Dodgey by quite some distance.

This episode isn't quite as successful as 'Caesarion', being a bit less focussed and including some truly ridiculous plot developments. It's also worth noting how often I used the words 'again' or 'once more' in this re-cap - an awful lot of this episode is repeating old threads. However, having said that, it's pretty good. There's a real menace to Boring's encounter with the proto-Mafia and it's wonderful to see Octavian back again. It's just a shame that the attempt to make the plot even darker involves de-railing the characters of Octavia, Dodgey and even Octavian. Luckily Octavia and Octavian would both recover - Dodgey, unfortunately would get much worse before he got better.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: I Was Made to Love You

Somewhat unusually, today I actually want to argue that, in the case of this particular example, rather than using or working with classical culture, the modern retelling actually has very little to do with its classical predecessor at all. Several scholars (especially Paula James of the Open University) working on classical reception have discussed 'I Was Made to Love You' as a re-telling of the myth of Pygmalion which, on one level, it is. It is the story of a 'perfect' woman built by a man who wants to be with her sexually and romantically - which is the story of Pygmalion. However, I think that the themes explored in the episode are really very different to the themes of the myth, and that the classical story has little to do with the modern re-telling.

This story has been re-told many times, especially in the twentieth century, either in the literal form of robots or mannequins coming to life, or, following George Bernard Shaw, in the metaphorical form of a man trying to model a real woman into a more ideal version. The level of interest in the statue/robot/woman herself varies, though it is worth pointing out that whereas Ovid, the main classical source for the story, focuses on the process of production, obsession with the lifeless statue and prayer to Aphrodite to have the statue brought to life, few modern 're-tellings' do the same. Bernard Shaw was clearly interested in working with the myth, titling his play Pygmalion, and both his play and My Fair Lady, the musical based on it, focus on the process of transforming a young woman physically (through accent) and socially. However, most of the other examples that spring to mind, like Weird Science, focus on the activities of the woman once brought to life and on the implications of creating a fully grown woman, and probably owe more to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein than to the myth of Pygmalion. Even The Stepford Wives, which brings the focus back onto creating the perfect woman, is told in reverse, from the point of view of a woman trying to escape being 'turned into' a robot, the focus on the existence of the women, rather than on the process of transformation.

'I Was Made to Love You' also focuses on the created woman, rather than the creator (who would get more attention in the following season) but I think this episode is much more concerned with its place within season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than with ancient myth. IWMTLY is, perhaps surprisingly given its largely light tone, the crucial, turning-point episode of season five. It sits directly between the two biggest game-changing episodes of the season - the revelation of Spike's love for Buffy in the preceeding episode 'Crush' and the death of Buffy's mother, discovered at the end of this episode and dealt with in the following episode, 'The Body'. (An argument could also be made for the importance of 'No Place Like Home', in which Buffy discovers Dawn's true nature, 'Blood Ties', in which Dawn discovers the same, and 'Checkpoint', in which Glory's nature and intentions are revealed, but these are plot points, episodes which move the mechanics of the plot along. Even 'Into the Woods', I would argue, exists simply to get rid of Riley. 'Crush' and 'The Body' are the real emotional turning-points of the season, where the themes of this season - what love is and whether it is dependent on a physical state or relationship, and death - are brought home). Essentially, all the content of IWMTLY reflects the changing state of Buffy's relationships brought about by these two episodes.

IWMTLY opens with Buffy in a state of distress over Spike's affection for her, worrying that there is something wrong with her that attracts crazy vampires. April is a clear rebuttal to this idea. April was created for the sole purpose of being Warren's perfect girlfriend, but Warren has abandoned her for an imperfect, real woman. There is nothing about the way Buffy behaves or lives her life, the episode insists, that can attract or repel men and trying to remodel herself to be a better girlfriend will do her no good.

April's empty 'perfection' and her sole purpose in life of being Warren's girlfriend is also a recurring motif in the episode, emphasised by one of very, very few conversations between Anya and Tara, without any of the 'core Scoobies' (Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles) present. Anya and Tara are 'the girlfriends', the people who exist on the edge of the group and who drop off when their relationship ends (when this does happen, Anya eventually comes back and Tara maintains contact, but the fact remains that their position within the group is dependent on Willow and Xander, emphasised by the fact that their previous conversation alone with each other took place in Giles' bathroom while the others were arguing and they were waiting for them to finish). By repesenting them having a conversation about their own lives with each other, the episode tries to avoid the very plausible accusation that these two, especially Tara, are depicted on the show almost entirely in relation to their sexual partners and their own lives and interests tend to be sidelined.

The real importance of April's lack of purpose beyond Warren, however, is to highlight another of the main themes of season 5, that of Buffy's nature as The Slayer. Buffy herself is, to a great degree, a created woman, made into a Slayer by a prehistoric group of men, and she questions what this means for her throughout this season. If there is a conscious parallel with the myth of Pygmalion, it is here, in the exploration of what it means for a woman to be a literal creation of men. April asks Buffy what her purpose is if it is not to love Warren and Buffy has no answer - just as Buffy herself finds it difficult to determine a purpose for herself beyond slaying, as her nature as the Slayer drives away all her romantic paramours and threatens her relationship with her sister. Whedon has frequently discussed how this was a crucial theme for series 5 and it is treated overtly in 'Fool for Love', 'Intervention' (in which a robot version of Buffy herself is created, just to really push the metaphor) and 'The Gift', among others.

The most important overall theme in this episode, though, is death. The whole season is driven by the lead-up to Buffy's death and her mother's death, which partially precipitates Buffy's own sacrifice by removing the strongest tie she has to the world. The robot girl's name is 'April', which may be a reference to the rhyme put to music by Simon and Garfunkel, 'April Come She Will', which ends with 'August, die she must'. April has a limited battery life, which she has already outlived, and her demise is inevitable. The swing set she and Buffy sit on reflects April's literal youth and her childlike innocence, but it is also significant that, unbeknownst to Buffy, at the exact moment she sits and comforts the dying April, her own mother is dying, alone, in their house. April's death quite literally marks the end of Buffy's childhood - it is a death of innocence and of childhood comforts like 'when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.' It is impossible to understand the significance of the episode without acknowledging that the whole story is created and informed by that moment at the very end when Buffy walks into her home to find her mother's dead body in the living room. Whedon had been planning this character death since the end of season 3, and this moment comes before anything else in this episode and shapes the entire story.

I don't know whether Joss Whedon and Jane Espenson, the writer of this episode, have read Ovid's Metamorphoses, though I'm sure they are familiar with the story of Pygmalion. I have no idea whether they had the Pygmalion myth in mind in creating this story (Joss or Jane, if you're reading, please let us know!). But I don't know that I really consider this to be an example of classical reception, of a use of the classical past in modern popular culture. I can't help thinking that the resemblences between this story and the myth of Pygmalion are largely coincidental - that this episode is concerned with exploring particular themes in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ('perfect' romantic love, the historical manipulation of women by men which is given metaphorical form in the creation of the Slayer, death and innocence) and that, while the myth may have provided initial inspiration, it has little to do with the development of this story.

Of course, on the other hand, postmodern literary theory tells us that we should be considering the response of the reader rather than trying to discover authorial intent, so in that respect, this is very much an example of classical reception. If it makes viewers think of Pygmalion in its treatement of the attempt to create the perfect woman (though Pygmalion was rather more successful), then it counts as reception of that myth, and we can never really discover the author's intention anyway. I do think, though, that there is something different about this sort of use of classical myth to the more overt uses of Greek and Roman culture and history that I usually look at, and that this example really has very little to do with using the classical past, and more to do with using a useful recurring motif that happens to be classical (the manufactured woman) to work within its own mythology.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Tangled (dir. Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, 2011)

Brother and I went to see this yesterday and were pleasantly surprised to discover it was much better than we were expecting. This is a real return to magical form for Disney, with all the the enchantment, humour and soppiness-but-not-to-much that you want from a Disney fairytale (plus, any movie that implies brown hair is a better thing to have than blonde gets my vote!). It also features a really scary villain, creepily animated and given an evil edge by the rather sinister repetition of 'mother knows best', possibly one of the spookiest Disney villains since Snow White's witch-Queen.

As the film began, I noticed that the palace guards seemed to be dressed like Roman soldiers from the waist up (with trousers on the bottom) and I wondered of this was a coincidence of design, or deliberate. I decided it must be deliberate when the name of the captain's horse was revealed to be Maximus! This might still be down to simply liking to sound of the name, but I think there's a bit more to it than that, given that the male lead's assumed name 'Flynn', for a swashbuckling thief in the woods who sports a natty little goatee thing, is certainly not a coincidence - the writers have put thought into these things.

Maximus was my favourite character in the movie - a horse who occasionally acts like a dog and who has the most fantastic frown I've seen on an animated character in a while. His antagonistic relationship with Flynn also gives him a slight extra edge as an animal character - while the role of cute animal sidekick in the traditional mould is filled by Rapunzel's chameleon, Maximus, Javert-like, spends half the movie pursuing Flynn before Rapunzel turns the charm on him. The fact that neither animal, no matter how ridiculously anthropomorphised (and, in Maximus' case, canine-ised), ever speaks is also quite refreshing.

Tangled takes place in the traditional pseudo-Germanic fantasyland of European fairy tales, complete with turreted castle, extensive woodland and craggy rocks, but somehow the half-Roman guards fit in rather well. There's something about pseudo-Roman armour that says 'guard' to the collective imagination - Discworld guards frequently have Roman-ish
elements to their armour as well - presumably because medieval guards' armour was often loosely based on Roman styles, though the history of armour is not really my thing, so I don't know this for sure! Maximus, meanwhile, pursues Flynn with a doggedness of which his namesake would be proud and goes on to lead the troops (still without speaking, goodness knows how that works), while the name continues to give the same impression of size, strength and power that the original Latin term embodied.

Tangled is a joy, a sweet, funny film which will have little girls all over the country demanding pink princess dresses next Christmas, while little boys hopefully will not take too many life lessons from the joyfully irreverent hero.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Counting the Stars (by Helen Dunmore)

Counting the Stars is, essentially, an historical romance based on the love poet Catullus' Lesbia poems. The blurb on the back mentions poison and implies other concerns, and poison certainly plays a large role in the plot, but the book is concerned almost entirely with the relationship between Catullus and Lesbia, identified, as usual, with Clodia Metelli, the woman whose reputation (whatever it was beforehand, and presumably there was some foundation for Cicero to build on) was completely destroyed by Cicero in his defence of Marcus Caelius. Before reviewing the book, I want to talk briefly about the historical characters, since they've been subject to all sorts of interpretations from their lifetimes onwards. Spoilers follow (although no major events are invented, the spin put on them varies between versions!).

The first thing anyone writing about either Catullus or Clodia has to decide is whether or not they think Clodia was actually Catullus' mistress 'Lesbia'. The evidence is pretty convincing (a poem about Lesbius, who is connected with pulcher, Clodia's brother Clodius' nickname, would seem to suggest one of Clodius' three sisters and a reference to Rufus - quite likely Marcus Caelius Rufus - in connection with body odour, with another poem about Lesbia running off with a man with body odour, plus a poem addressed to Caelius referring to 'our Lesbia', all suggest the woman Cicero accused of sleeping with Caelius and of incest with Clodius, her brother). It is worth bearing in mind that the identification comes from Apuleius, who was writing some 200 years later, and that Lesbia may have been another of Clodius' sisters, or that Apuleius may have been wrong and she was someone else all together. However, the evidence is pretty strong for identification with at least one of Clodius' sisters, and the most infamous one is not only the most likely choice, but also by far the most interesting for a novelist.

The next pressing issue, and the one where I tend to take a different view to several novelists, is Clodia's character. (My favourite depiction of Clodia so far, by the way, is that in Steven Saylor's Gordianus books). Cicero performed one of history's most effective character assassinations on Clodia, snidely accusing her of sex with just about everyone including Caelius, holding orgies, financial extravagence, incest with her brother, implied that she might have poisoned her husband, and at one point just uses the word 'Baiae', a notorious seaside resort, and lets people imagine what they want. The assumption is that something of this must have reflected reality, since Cicero won the case and the speech went down very well (though there was rather more to the charges against Caelius than just his relationship with Clodia). Personally, I doubt there's very much we can conclude based on Cicero's speech, given that it is written with the sole purpose of socially destroying Clodia and making Caelius look less bad. I would infer from it that Caelius and Clodia had a relationship outside marriage, that Clodia probably had other affairs, though they may not have been as numerous as Cicero makes out, that Clodia was known to hold parties at her house and at Baiae and that she was close to her brother. Beyond that, it's up to the novelist to decide how far they believe Cicero.

Then there's the character of Catullus' Lesbia. Lesbia also appears to have other lovers, besides Catullus, and a husband. She would rather be married to the poet than anyone else, but he senses that she may be lying - she certainly doesn't seem inclined to marry him. On the other hand, the last two poems to mention her, 107 and 109, describe the poet's joy that they are back together and although he still doubts her sincerity a little, he seems content. She is referred to as mea puella, 'my girl', a phrase with overtones of 'little girl', 'maiden' or even 'slave-girl'. And she may or may not have a pet sparrow which she mourns when it dies - many have theorised that passer, 'sparrow', actually stands for the poet's manhood, while others have suggested a different sort of bird, maybe a thrush, since this tame creature doesn't sound much like a sparrow. Personally, I suspect he meant it to mean a bird-pet of some kind and his manhood - that's rather the point of poetry. Whether this woman is an entirely fictional construct, an entirely real lover or something in between is impossible to tell - and, again, the novelist can choose how to represent her.

The problem with trying to write a character who is both Cicero's Clodia and Catullus' Lesbia is that they don't really match. Adultery and unfaithfulness is the common theme, but the other aspects of this imaginary woman's personality don't quite fit each other - I don't see the 'girl' who wept over her sparrow in the woman who hosts orgies at Baiae. Any novelist who tries, as Dunmore does, to present a character who fits both profiles completely is, I think, doomed to failure, though Dunmore gives it a very good try. Her Clodia is pretty convincing, certainly as Cicero's Clodia and even as the sparrow-mourning Lesbia, though she takes her grief over a bird rather far (see below). I just don't quite see the girl, the puella, in this Clodia - she's far too much woman (not to mention, ten years older than Catullus - a possible reason for assuming his Clodia to be the youngest, not the second, sister. A woman in her thirtes could be girlish, but I'm not convinced Dunmore's Clodia ever is).

Modern Baiae, now mostly underwater

I think one of the biggest problems with this book for me is that neither central character is particularly likeable. Catullus whines and moans and mopes and nearly dies of bronchitis or something similar, while Clodia is a borderline insane domestic abuser who regularly beats her maid and then apologises in the manner of a violent partner, while the maid protests that 'she doesn't mean it'. The book is also so consumed with describing a fiery love affair that anything else, including Caelius' trial, which is upcoming but the book ends before we get there, is shoved to one side. The ending itself reminded me of Sofia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette, which I like very much but which stops before it gets to the point, right before she dies. The novel breaks off just before the trial that ruins Clodia, and not long before Catullus own untimely death - despite all the build-up concerning his ill health and the knowledge that he is the last of his line, the book denies us the closure of a final ending. (I realise that many readers like this sort of open ending, and not all will know the history, so this is probably down to personal taste - I like my endings ended!).

I also found the narrative style rather off-putting. The book jumps around between different points of view, though it stays with Catullus for the most part and never empathises with Clodia. The first chapter is written in the second person and much of the rest of the book in the third person, but in the present tense, which I'm afraid I find rather pretentious. There is a classical precedent, since much ancient literature uses the historic/vivid present to engage the reader, but this is a 21st century novel, not a 1st century epic poem, and it seems 'off' to me.

I don't mean to criticise too much, though, as this is actually a good novel. The writing, present tense notwithstanding, is engaging, the characters may be unlikeable but they do feel real and there were sections where I was rally drawn in, mostly those about Catullus' freedman Lucius or about the death of Metellus and the poisoner Gorgo. Best of all, Dunmore really knows these poems - she clearly has intimate knowledge of all of them and she fills the book with snatches of poetry, not just in English, but in Latin as well. She translates all the Latin, but she also describes the way the poet finds just the right words and how he puts the poems together and how they sound, all beautifully explained.

I also liked the way the novel dealt with the relationship between Clodia and Clodius, never quite stating outright what their relationship was but, like Cicero, implying things. It is implied that they slept together when young - there is an overtone of abuse, or at least mistreatment, in the way this is described that prevents it from becoming a more hysterical 'look at the naughty Romans, gleefully committing incest' moment that comes up in portryals of Caligula so often. It is never outright stated that they have done so and much of the implication comes from Catullus' confused mind and his hatred for 'Pretty Boy Clodius'. Historically, personally, I suspect this was a slander of Cicero's based on the fact that the widowed Clodia was close to her brother and the fact that he hated Clodius, but I thought this was a really interesting way to approach the issue.

But towards the end, just as I was thinking I'd been too harsh on this book when I complained it was boring while reading the first few chapters (during which very little happened except that Catullus and Clodia had a lot of sex, then went to Baiae and had less sex), things took a bit of a turn. Clodia sells her body slave Aemilia, another annoying character with a horrible temper who is made to speak with an accent even though, as home-bred slave brought up in the household and serving as her mistress' personal slave from early childhood, she ought to speak in a similar way to Clodia. When Catullus visits Aemilia, he discovers the most bizarre tale of violence and murder that takes both Clodia and Aemilia from 'slightly eccentric pair with very hot tempers' to, as one might put it, 'completely batsh*t insane.' Aemilia, it transpires, killed Clodia's sparrow because she was jealous of the attention Clodia was giving to it, and was not giving to Aemilia. Aemilia then implied that Clodia's husband, Metellus, had killed the sparrow. So Clodia poisoned Metellus. She has sold Aemilia because Clodius thought Aemilia was spying on them and nearly beat her to death, taking her eye out in the process. What?! I can't help feeling that this reflects popular culture's obsession with the sparrow poem more than anything else. (I saw it in the title of a collection of love poems the other day - for some reason a lament for a bird/possible penis metaphor is considered one of the greatest love poems ever written. I prefer the 'Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love' one).

The novel had already established that Metellus was poisoned with a trip to a poisoner who could diagnose his symptoms and it was heavily implied, like Cicero in his speech, that Clodia was the poisoner (though at a largeish dinner party, it could have been several people). This was all quite interesting and left the reader intrigued to discover if Clodia had, indeed, poisoned him and why - perhaps to free herself, so that she could see her lovers without impediment, perhaps due to political machinations involving her brother or another lover. But no - she did it because she thought he killed her pet. Really? That's up with Eddie the psychotic roommate from Friends in terms of bonkers behaviour.

All in all, I think one of Catullus' poems probably best sums up my feelings about this book. Odi et amo - I hate it and I love it! I love the way the book describes poetry, the bits of Latin dropped in among the English, the portrayals of Lucius, 'Dr Philoctetes' (though I could live without the anachronistic 'Dr'), Catullus' father and his brother Marcus. I actually cried when Marcus died, though I think it was Catullus' own poem that brought the tears. But so much of the book drags on with nothing really happening and all the interesting things that do happen are referred to only briefly or happen offstage (except the death of Metellus, which is very effectively described in all its horror). And everyone turns out to be completely mad. Overall, I suspect this is just the wrong genre for me - I like political history and murder mystery with a bit of romance, whereas this is romance with a bit of history and murder mystery.

A sparrow. I'm not putting pictures of the other thing on here!
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