Friday, 29 July 2011

Xena Warrior Princess: Hooves and Harlots

This is a scheduled post, but I'll reply to comments as soon as I get a chance.
Still doing Xena in a funny order I'm afraid! Thanks to Amanda for lending me this one.

Ah, the Amazons. Everyone's favourite opportunity to get lots of women into skimpy outfits. I actually thought Xena was one before I started watching the show. Oddly enough, the versions of the myths of the Amazons that refer to them chopping off one breast to allow them to shoot arrows more easily never seem to make it to screen.

The Amazons are entirely mythological so the series has pretty free reign here. Interestingly, the queen of the Amazons doesn't have either of the usual Amazon queen names, Hippolyta or Penthesilea - perhaps they wanted to save those for later. Gabrielle as an Amazon princess is both hilarious and provides a perfect opportunity to get Gabrielle some proper training and put her in a decent, if fan service-y, costume (better fanservice than that hideous peasant thing she's been stuck in so far).

I like the old-fashioned effect on the centaurs - a simple case of putting film of a man on top of film of a horse, like in the old BBC Narnia adaptations. I find this much more convincing than the awful CGI in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The characterisation of the centaurs is interesting, neither as wild as those in Greek mythology nor as cultured and wise as Narnian centaurs. It's a nice compromise which works well for the story.

At one point, Phantes claims that 'If it looks like a hydra and moves like a hydra, it's a hydra'. It's an amusing attempt to Greekify the expression, but really, how could you possibly mistake a hydra, a many-headed monster, for anything else?!

Often, appearances of Amazons, from Greek myth to modern comic books, are really an excuse to objectify women for a bit, and I'm afraid this episode has a fair dollop of that going on as well. The Amazons are 'harlots' according to the title, their uniform is crop tops and tiny skirts, they dance energetically a lot and they wear bikinis to funerals. Since half the point of Xena is Lucy Lawless in tight armour and a short skirt, and since I have been known to objectify quite a few shirtless vampires, ER doctors and Roman statesmen in my time, this isn't really a major issue, but I do find the title a bit much, and indicative of a double standard I don't really like (what would be the male equivalent?). Again, I know it comes from a line of dialogue from the episode, spoken by the bad guy, but still - hmm.

I enjoyed this episode a lot, mainly because Gabrielle among the Amazons is great, especially her dancing. Ephiny is a fun character as well, and well played, and there's something about the realisation that the Amazons and the centaurs need to band together against the men that appeals to me. The end credits note that 'No Males, Centaurs or Amazons were harmed during the production of this motion picture.' Good to know.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Roman Mysteries: The Colossus of Rhodes (TV adaptation)

It's been a while since I read the book of this one, which is always an advantage when watching adaptations - it allows you to watch and enjoy it without constantly noting every little difference from the book! Some spoilers follow.

This is a really nice adaptation, with some really nice touches of humour. I love the scene where Flavia, Lupus and Jonathan claim to have had dreams that were bad omens, to chase away Captain Geminus' regular crew so that they can go after the slavers. It's very funny, and it also plays on something I discussed a lot in my thesis - the fact that there were people in the ancient world who paid a great deal of attention to dream omens, but the equally important fact that not everyone thought any dream was significant, while some thought only a few dreams were significant. There's also a great moment where the captured children are led in chains to join our heroes, also in chains, and Jonathan explains they've come to rescue them, to which a very small child replies 'Well - thanks.'

Floppy (better known to history as Gaius Valerius Flaccus) is introduced as Flavia's love interest here and you can tell he's going to be her love interest because in his very first appearance he looks snooty and rudely shoves Nubia as he walks past. Mr Darcy has a lot to answer for. His poem is fun, especially Nubia as the 'African Queen' and his snub of Flavia (I bet she's not handsome enough to tempt him to dance either). I don't have my copy of the book with me, but I think this comes more or less directly from it, if memory serves!

The sailing scenes are beautifully shot and remind me a little of the BBC adaptation of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which was really nicely done as well (much better than the more recent film). I can't remember if the storm at sea that provides the cliffhanger between Parts 1 and 2 is in the book or not, but it provides a nice, exciting setpiece. There's also a lovely David and Goliath moment as Lupus faces an apparent giant with a sling-shot.

Lupus is much more uncertain and reluctent to look for his mother here than in the book, which works pretty well. Where books can explain a character's feelings and actions in detail, TV and film have to use facial expressions (especially if the character is quiet or, in this case, mute) and reluctence is easier to show - a similar change was made to Aragorn's motivation in The Lord of the Rings for the films.

The temple of Apollo as shown here looks more like a temple of Isis or a mystery religion, all bricks and closed in with no columns, but architecture isn't really my forte, so it's probably fine. I'm glad the adaptation kept the scene of Lupus' mother singing to him, which was my favourite part of the book. There was an odd moment where one character suggests that 'sometimes Apollo demands death' from those who 'give their life' to him. No he doesn't - only in myth, not in real life. Just because human sacrifice is all cool, TV people, does not mean people actually did it, at least not in Greece and Rome. Still, the character in question was a traitor, so maybe he just didn't know what he was talking about!

A 'North by Northwest' moment (© 2008 LEG)

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Spartacus (dir. Robert Dornhelm, 2004)

 I bought this 2004 TV miniseries largely because it stars Luka from ER, a man who can recite Hamlet in Croatian and is pretty nifty with a sword (what can I say, I have strange tastes). It also has James Frain in it. Yum. And much to my surprise, it’s actually pretty good! It’s very, very cheesy, but still… pretty good. It has a sense of humour, which helps.

The opening scenes make it clear that the series is telling Varinia’s story, more than Spartacus’, which is a good idea – watching the Kubrick film, I found myself wondering why the film kept going and going after the slave army was defeated, but here there’s more of a sense that it’s not over until we know what happens to Varinia and the baby.

The script is, as I said, very cheesy, but it also contains some really nice elements and fun touches. I particularly liked the script’s use of lines from other things, like the comment that Caesar is ‘every man’s woman and every woman’s man’, which comes from Suetonius, Caesar, 52 (Curio apparently once said Caesar was ‘every woman’s man and every man’s woman’), and was also featured in the original novel I, Claudius, and there were some Shakespearian phrases scattered around as well. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. There’s no ‘I’m Spartacus’, though the line is turned around quite effectively in a weird hallucination/daydream thing of Crassus’.

The series is well structured, with a nice sense of passing time, and starting with Spartacus about to be crucified for attacking an overseer and rescued by Batiatus makes it rather nice and symmetrical, coupled with Varinia coming back to her village at the end to make a circle of the whole thing. However, Varinia having her baby during the final battle, more or less at the moment of Spartacus’ death, is spectacularly cheesy, and I actually found I missed Kirk Douglas’ gazing down at the baby from the cross, unhistorical as it was.

This series is based on the same novel as the Kubrick film, so has some of the same tics, like Batiatus shopping for gladiators in a mine, and an effeminate Crassus (though no snails and oysters are mentioned). However, I love the scene in which Batiatus points out the craziness of Crassus’ request that he waste the lives of his gladiators on a private show and makes him pay an absolute fortune for it.

The series’ approach to the novel’s Christianising is interesting. For a substantial section of the series, Spartacus repeatedly insists that he does not believe in any gods, to the puzzlement of everyone around him, and it almost seems as if Christianising has been replaced with excessive and, for the ancient world, extremely unusual, atheism. However, at the end of the series, writer Robert Schenkkan had perhaps returned more closely to his source material. Spartacus, Nordo and Gannicus are killed in the final battle while Jewish character David is left to be crucified – of course. He even gets stabbed in the side while on the cross, declaring ‘I will be back’. Subtlety, thy name is not Howard Fast. With no Spartacus or Antoninus (who doesn’t exist in this version) it’s David who is left to be crucified last and see everyone else die before him – he becomes the audience surrogate without Spartacus, and although the Christian message is not presented overtly, as it is in the Kubrick film, it certainly seems to make a reappearance once the hero is dead.

There are some odd character moments; I'm not sure Crassus would give an expensive gift to anyone, he liked to hoard money, not spend it! But Crassus’ brutality against the actor’s slightly camp delivery makes a rather nice tension, and I like the scene where he can’t bring himself to kill Varinia and the baby. I actually felt rather sorry for Crassus when Pompey and Agrippa stripped him of his glory, though this sympathy is mitigated by the brutal crucifixion of 6,000 people, obviously. I felt even sorrier for Agrippa when Pompey and Crassus were made consuls. It’s also interesting that we see our heroes crucify Crassus’ friend, which while it doesn’t justify Crassus’ actions does go some way towards explaining them. Spartacus and especially Crixus are much less straightforwardly heroic here, even than in Blood and Sand, murdering several innocent and slightly-less-innocent people along the way.

I like the way the Spartacus story is tied very firmly to the end of the Republic here. Agrippa freeing all his slaves is a bit daft though, I don’t think anyone did that until Christian ascetics in the fourth century (not that Christians were against slavery in general, but ascetics did sometimes free all their household slaves so they could all live together in a sort of proto-monastery).

The actor cast as Crixus is very tall! The character works well, in a Little John sort of way (and actually looks like he might be a Gaul, possibly Obelix) but I have to confess, I miss Manu Bennet. One thing the series does very well, which so many similar stories have a problem with, is that it does a really good job of creating clear, distinguishable characters for Crixus, Gannicus and the fictional Draba, David and Nordo in a very short space of time, partly through casting actors with different looks and builds from each other, and partly through basic but memorable characteristics (initially-mute Jew, young fellow Thracian, Little John!). We also get some more fun and games with pronunciation; Spar-ta-coose sounds quite nice but T’rashan (Thracian) just sounds weirdly Irish.

While never gory or horrific, the violence in this series is affecting, especially the several rapes of Varinia, while the scene of Spartacus taking down Draba’s body is sweet and nicely done. The dreams are a bit gorier, especially the one of Crixus’ death, which is also a real event.

There are, it has to be said, some oddities on display here. It’s not made clear exactly how the slaves manage to defeat a bunch of Romans in tortoiseshell formation, and I can only assume they’re carried through on sheer enthusiasm. I have a suspicion that Visnjic’s hair was under contract to ER as it’s certainly not gladiatorial – not that I’m complaining about that, necessarily. The Gauls’ blue war face paint is fine historically, but does inevitably remind you of Braveheart. Crixus’ turning-into-the-monster moment is accompanied by the Wailing Woman on the soundtrack, of course. Varinia, once again, drives south to get to Gaul (she’s been taking navigation tips from me). And I especially like the scene where our heroes sit around discussing strategy without their shirts on. As you do.

This was Alan Bates’ last performance, as Agrippa. He’s very good, of course. His last line, as Agrippa falls on his sword, is ‘remarkable’, which seems a pretty good cinematic epitaph to me.

As you can tell, despite the fact that this is not prize-winning television, I really quite enjoyed it. Though I should add that the trouble with Spartacus dramas is that, inevitably, they’re really depressing. I almost wanted to turn off halfway through, before it could all go horribly wrong. And I can’t ignore the possibility that my fondness for this is entirely due to the fact I would happily watch Goran Visnjic strip paint, especially if he took his shirt off to do so. Still, if it’s a choice between this and Imperium: Augustus, I’d go for this any day.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Rome: Son of Hades

I have a new, light-hearted, article up at Sound on Sight, on Ten Films to Watch now that Harry Potter's Finished.

Things are not all well in Rome, as The Godfather chucks The Other Godfather's head on the floor without even bothering to find a wastepaper basket. On the upside, he's stopped rocking. Eirene complains that The Godfather's house is a house of death and will adversely affect any children they might conceive, and Dodgey promises to think about getting them out of it. However, The Godfather is sitting in bed sulking (given that he's caused the deaths of his wife, children and Caesar, this is understandable) and refuses to budge, or to get rid of the now rotting head in the corner of the room.

Cleopatra is in town and Antony pretends not to be interested in her to Atia, who doesn't approve of him having sex with anyone who outranks her. Octavian demands the money he's inherited from Caesar, and Antony evades the issue. He leaves to meet with Cleopatra, who is dressed in a more Roman style than usual, albeit with a very large Egyptian ankh pendant round her neck. He notes that she's changed (probably because she appears to be sober this time). She claims she doesn't remember him. Posca tries to bring the meeting back to the point - the preservation of Cleopatra's throne as a client kingdom - and he and Cleopatra's nurse/companion neogtiate the deal while Antony does his level best to have sex with her with his eyes alone.

Cleopatra demands an official declaration of Caesar's paternity of Caesarion, but while she is willing to prostitute herself for a good cause, she demands payment up front, and Antony has to confess that he'll never make Caesarion Caesar's legal son (he's got enough trouble with Caesar's legally adopted son as it is). When he tries to touch her, she slaps him (which is rather satisfying). The whole scene very effectively sets up Antony and Cleopatra's relationship, in Rome's narrative; he is besotted with her, and she is using him. It's also notable for the being the longest she appears to be sober in the series.

Cicero tries to tell Antony some true but dull and unpleasant facts about famine, mob wars, riots and so on. Antony shows him a list of candidates for the elections Posca claims to have found among Caesar's papers and Cicero notes how many of these Posca seems to turn up, while referring to the candidates themselves as wretches. Cicero's dialogue here really nicely reflects the real Cicero's dry wit, and Bamber is excellent as usual. He also points out Antony can't kill him because he needs him to run the Senate, and Antony has to point out that won't be the case forever. Poor, foolish Cicero. Meanwhile, Antony hasn't paid Posca either.

Dodgey grabs Antony on the street and asks him for help dealing with The Godfather, and rather surprisngly, Antony agrees and goes to get him out of bed personally. Antony has a right royal go at him over the whole letting-Caesar-die thing, demanding to know why he hasn't committed suicide like a good Roman (The Godfather's excuse is rubbish, by the way), then orders him to sort out the mob wars he's started, thus solving one of his own problems at the time. It's a lovely bit of reverse psychology and is actually genuinly nice of Antony, even if he is helping himself as well.

Antony and Atia share a bath in which, unusually, they are in water up to their necks. He insists repeatedly that he's not interested in Cleopatra and Atia really should have noticed that he's protesting too much, though she is reassured that he refused to raise Caesarion above Octavian. It's quite a sweet scene and it seems that Antony and Atia really like each other, as opposed to their many other relationships, which tend to be based on sex alone.

Next day they hold a fancy dinner at which Atia enjoys humiliating Servilia until Octavian rats out her plan to have the woman murdered to Antony and she has to cancel it. Cleopatra turns up in full Egyptian Queen garb - short black dreadlocks wig and all - and Antony makes it even more obvious that he would really, really like to have sex with her. Everyone eats in as aggressive a manner as possible and they all stare at each other even more intensely than the cast of I, Claudius during Claudius' opening this-is-who-everyone-is narration.

Timon, Atia's torturer, hitman and occasional lover, goes home, where it turns out he is Jewish and has a wife, children and a recently returned brother. This is part of a sub-plot that eventually had to be hastily concluded when the show was cancelled early and it doesn't really go anywhere, so I'll skim over it for the most part, though it does lead Timon to an interesting personal crisis later on.

Cleopatra tells Atia to kiss her because she's her friend for life and Atia hisses at her to die screaming, which is mildly amusing but not a terribly good idea politically.

There's yet another new Godfather in town - let's call him The Don - who is putting people in sacks with snakes and that sort of thing. An announcement goes out for a big meeting of the captains of the collegia where they are all to try not to kill each other for a few hours, as they will be under Lady Concord, meaning violence would be extra specially naughty. The Godfather turns up, freshly shaved, and they all settle down to meet and I swear, I half expect a helicopter to appear in the doorway and gun them all down. The Godfather announces that since he killed the previous godfather and he's BFFs with Mark Antony, he'll be taking over mob rule in the city. When a few object, he smashes up the statue of Concord, snaps that he's a son of Hades and f*cks Concord in her a*se, and draws his sword, ready to kill anyone who doesn't do what he says. It's a pretty effective strategy.

Atia is nagging Antony about Cleopatra and Octavian is nagging him about his money, which he needs so he can give the people the money Caesar promised them in his will, for starters. Octavian has hired a lawyer and Antony is forced to tell him outright that he's not giving him the money. (Amusingly, throughout all this, Octavia calmly eats lunch and makes polite requests for the fruit salad). Atia insists that they need Antony's protection and sneers at Octavian's suggestion that he can protect them (it's fun for TV writers to give characters lines they'll seriously come to regret later). Later, Octavian tells Octavia his plan to, essentially, take over the world, and she laughs at him (something else she'll regret later).

Octavian has the town crier announce that he will fulfil the terms of Caesar's will and give everyone money, the result of selling his own property and borrowing three million sesterces. Antony and Atia are very cross and Octavian explains that he's decided to enter public life and this is his way of doing it. He suggests that he and Antony make a public display of unity and makes a very sensible argument in favour of this plan, but the other two are distracted by the whole borrowing-three-million-sesterces business and a full on brawl ensues in which Antony nearly kills him (largely because Octavian hit Atia and called her a whore - it's sort of sweet, or it would be if Octavian wasn't Atia's son). Atia manages to stop Antony actually murdering her son, just about, but Octavian is distracted by the fact she's taken Antony's side and has to be comforted by Octavia.

Dodgey is a bit nervous about The Godfather's lack of respect for the gods, but sticks with him anyway. He hires a brothel supervisor with bad attitude called Gaia to work for them, thus putting one of this season's least satisfying storylines in motion. He also hires another old comrade from the Thirteenth called Mascius.

Servilia and Cicero are celebrating Antony's problems and Cicero dismisses Octavian, but Servilia points out Caesar chose him, and they probably shouldn't ignore him. Cicero persuades her that Brutus shouldn't come home yet, which upsets her.

Octavian leaves to stay with his friend Agrippa in Campania and prepare for his political career and we see him ride away, covered in bruises from Antony beating him. The camera pulls away to reveal, in a cartload of slaves on the same road, Niobe's sister and all The Godfather's children, still very much alive but thoroughly miserable. End of episode.

This is the last we see of Max Pirkis as Octavian, which is a great shame. Since Pirkis was still in his mid-teens at the time of filming and Octavian needed to age from nineteen (his age at Caesar's death) to, as it turned out, 33, over the course of season 2, the change is understandable, but it's still annoying, as Pirkis had done such a good job with the character. His portrayal of Octavian as a slightly weedy but hyper-intelligent and thoroughly ruthless young man is spot on and the audience can both understand why everyone underestimates him, and see how very wrong they are to do so. Simon Woods, who plays the older Octavian, takes his cue from Pirkis' performance and maintains his character interpretation pretty well, but for me, the character belongs to Pirkis.

Essentially, this episode is composed of set-up for season 2, following on from episode 1, which dealt with the fall-out from season 1. Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian's ambition, The Godfather becoming The Godfather and Dodgey's relationships with Eirene and Gaia are all moving into new stages. As such, there's not so much to say about this episode itself - it does its job nicely, but everything in it has to be understood as part of what is to come in later episodes. One thing I do like very much about season 2, though, is that I think we get slightly more of the actual history; or at least of historical characters, if not history itself, which takes a beating from several directions and for several different reasons as the series goes on.

All my Rome reviews are listed here

Monday, 18 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two (dir. David Yates, 2011)

There isn't really very much that's Classical in Harry Pottter 7b - aside from the usual Latin names and spells - but I'm nothing if not a completist so I'm covering it anyway! Spoilers follow.

Harry Potter 7b (thanks to Kermode and Mayo for that nickname) does contain a dragon, so perhaps this is a good time to discuss ancient dragons. Dragons as we imagine them are generally either Eastern (the long ones, especially if they're friendly, like that one that looks like a dog in The Neverending Story) or Norse (the fire-breathing, treasure-hoarding ones). However, the word 'dragon' comes from the Greek drak┼Źn, Latin draco, both of which essentially mean 'large serpent'. In Classical myth, a dragon is long and toothy, more like an Eastern dragon or perhaps a wyrm-type of dragon, but it doesn't really have any special qualities other than size. A dragon guarded the Golden Fleece, but that was more because it had been placed there as a suitably scary monster rather than because dragons had any particular connection with treasure hoarding. Whereas modern pop culture dragons, aside from usually having a heavier shape, tend to have certain qualities - cleverness, a weak spot in a thick hide, a fondness for treasure - ancient dragons really are just big snakes. The dragon in the film is definitely a modern-by-way-of-Norse dragon.

The dragons that pull Medea's chariot as she makes her escape, and the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece swallowing Jason - as you can see, they're basically just big snakes.

Draco Malfoy's first name, of course, means dragon, but it is also the name of a legendary ruler of Athens who brought in a set of incredibly harsh laws in which the death penalty was laid down for just about everything. These laws were repealed by Solon, except for the murder laws, and it's Draco of Athens that gives us the word 'draconian' for a particularly harsh set of rules. Draco Malfoy is named for the mythological creature - in fact, for the mythological creature in its Classical, big-snake form, given that he's a Slytherin through and through. But I can't help feeling that the most harsh of the ancient law-makers is a pretty suitable connection for him as well!

I really enjoyed the film, and almost everything I wanted to see in it was there. (The exception was the wonderful scene where Professor McGonagall enchants a bunch of school desks to go after the bad guys, which I loved, but I understand why it wasn't included). I was a bit sad to see Draco still refusing to stand up for, well, anything, but I'm very glad the scene with Narcissa and supposedly-dead Harry was kept, which was one of my favourite parts of the book. Mrs Weasley kicked bottom, though I expected her to shout louder! Poor old Fred's death scene got a bit curtailed, which was a shame, and I wanted Neville to kill the snake in front of the whole school, not just Ron and Hermione. And the entire film felt a bit like one big climax with no build-up - since all the build-up was in 7a - which I guess is justified after ten years and eight movies, but does make it feel a bit incomplete. Though we did get to spend almost all the movie in Hogwarts again, which was great.

There were some parts I absolutely loved. Neville and Luna make a great couple. Perhaps my favourite moment of all was Professor McGonagall telling Mrs Weasley that she'd always wanted to do the spell that makes the statues turn into an army. Helena Bonham Carter as Hermione on Polyjuice Potion was completely wonderful and, bizarrely, had better chemistry with Ron, though the kiss in the Chamber of Secrets was nice. Ron yelling 'that's my girlfriend!' like he's secretly been wanting to do for eight movies was good too. Snape's death and the revelation of his memories were great and I cried - I especially loved that they got the shorter wig back for some of the sequences set in the past - though I did wonder how Voldemort thought he could win the wand from Snape if he got a snake to kill him (because he disarmed him I suppose).

The epilogue worked better on the film than it did in the book for me. I think it's because the railway station is such a symbol of the world of Potter, because Harry's offspring is trundling along an identical cart to Harry's and most importantly, because the original John Williams score comes back. The use of the first movie's music all over the end section - with it's more magical, enchanting and especially more upbeat sound! - really brought the story full circle and was the perfect way to demonstrate that all is well in the wizarding world once again. It was like that moment at the end of Revenge of the Sith where the two suns appear on Tattooine and the original score plays and you just want to watch the whole set of movies all over again from the beginning (in Star Wars' case, from No. 4, of course). It's actually the perfect ending for the film and for the series, and I foresee many circular viewings of the films that both start and end with the flawed but magical first film in the future!

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Last Seen in Massilia (by Steven Saylor)

Following on from the cliffhanger at the end of Rubicon, Last Seen in Massilia follows three main plot threads; the resolution of the cliffhanger, a mystery concerning the death of a young woman and the story of the siege of Massilia by Caesar's troops. The story of the siege is true, in the general outline; the story of the young woman is an ancient fiction (Saylor mentions in his Author's Note that it comes from Lucian) and the story of Meto is, of course, modern fiction. All three are effectively told, gripping stories, though since about a third of the book is concerned with wrapping up earlier plot threads, it definitely isn't a good volume to start reading the series with!

The narrative of the siege is especially effective - Vitruvius is once again a very useful tool for explaining the mechanics of the thing and the in-story narration of the sea battle immediately calls to mind Lucan's equally gory account of the battle in his poem the Civil War. Lucan is one of my favourite ancient epic poets, so I was especially pleased to see this shout-out of sorts to him (our heroes don't witness the battle, but are told about it later by a survivor). Other elements, like the banquet in which one entire course is composed of a single olive, provide evocative snapshots of the horrors of a prolonged siege.

The tradition of the scapegoat, as outlined in the book (in which the people of Massilia would fatten up and then sacrifice one of their citizens in the hope of encouraging the gods to be more kind to the rest of them) is one of those things that I tend to be a bit sceptical about in real life - like all those various and extreme Spartan traditions that we hear about from outsiders who may have been exaggerating, or may have misunderstood. On the other hand, people do terrible things when frightened, so perahps it is true, depressing as that thought is. Hieronymous the scapegoat himself is both an extremely likeable character - these come few and far between in stories about the Late Republic! - and a very useful narrative device that ensures Gordianus and Davus do not become malnourished or even seriously threatened, for the most part, and they are able to observe the siege as outsiders even while they're within the walls.

As in some of the stories in The House of Vestals, I guessed the solution to the mystery(ies) fairly early on, but could not foresee how the whole thing would resolve itself. As in the case of Rubicon, the ending is so bittersweet as to verge on the downright tragic, but lightened by another, happier resolution that cheers up the final few pages. I enjoyed this very much and I'm looking forward to the next book - which I'm sure will refer back to this one a bit - but I do hope it has a happier ending!

Marseille (Massilia) today - sadly not my picture, I haven't yet been there!

Monday, 11 July 2011

Imperium: Augustus (dir. Roger Young, 2003)

I'll be away at a conference for the rest of this week, at which Penelope Goodman is speaking on this 2-part 2003 made-for-TV movie about the life of Augustus, and the DVD was cheap, so I thought I'd watch it.

There's no way to beat about the bush here: it's not good. The writing is bad, the music is bad, the costumes are bad, the CGI and matte paintings are bad, the ADR which presumably replaces several actors' Italian accents with roughly English ones is especially bad and even the acting is bad, which is surprising, as Peter O'Toole, playing Augustus, is usually excellent. The Lion in Winter, this ain't. It's not even up to Troy's level.

I'm not even going to start on the historical inaccuracies here. Let's just say this re-imagines Caesar and Augustus as great defenders of the people fighting vaguely referenced 'nobles' and leave it at that. I do feel the need to point out that Augustus was not of excessively 'humble birth', as he was part of one of the most ancient families in Rome through his mother. And Cicero is lumped in with 'the nobles' despite the fact one of his defining features is that he wasn't noble. And Cicero appears to be part of the conspiracy against Caesar, which he equally famously wasn't. And... OK, I'll stop now.

The open hostility between Livia and Augustus is very odd. Livia's characterisation is quite interesting and she is much less the cut-and-dried villainess than usual - indeed, it is implied she may be largely innocent. She certainly comes under suspicion of poisoning people though, and without Robert Graves' conceit, that Augustus simply had a gigantic blind spot where Livia was concerned, or Rome's interpretation, that they're both evil incarnate but bound by mutual desire, their relationship makes no sense. Augustus was descended from the Julians twice over (biologically through his mother and by adoption through Caesar) so although Livia was usefully aristocratic, he didn't need to be married to her for that reason. They had no children together and divorce was common amongst the Roman aristocracy, especially in pursuit of an heir, so if they were that hostile to each other, they wouldn't have stayed married.

The almost entirely terrible dialogue did include the odd gem, such as:
Julia: Did you want me to spin the wool for my own dresses like I did when I was a little girl?
Augustus: Perhaps with slightly more wool.
And Augustus carefully avoids a split infinitive, as one is compelled to when speaking Latin, when he announces his intention 'formally to denounce' Julia. O'Toole is no BLESSED in the shouting department though, not any more.

I'm not even going to think about Russell Barr's portrayal of Maecenas. I've seen schoolboys play pantomime dames with more subtlety.

Cleopatra's death scene, which could rival vampire shows for linking sex and death and features what looks more like a cobra than anything else to me, is also better left with the less said the better.

Part 2 is a slight improvement on Part 1, as the sub-plots concerning Julia's unhappy political marriage to Tiberius and the possibility that Livia is poisoning everybody kick in, plus a bit of Antony and Cleopatra, always at least mildly entertaining. It also features a rather fun scene involving Augustus smashing lots of glasses and saving a slave from a flogging, which I have a vague notion may have some roots in an actual historical incident when Augustus ordered a friend not to kill a slave who'd broken something, though I can't remember the details. An assassination attempt on Augustus features the two most incompetent would-be assassins in history but does have the advantage of providing a thoroughly satisfying explanation for Julia's banishment and Augustus' adoption of Tiberius.

On the other hand, Part 2 contains the most bizarre scene of all in which, after nearly 100 years of civil war, a (really rather small) bunch of Roman soldiers suddenly twig that civil war means offing your friends and relatives and refuse to do it. What did they think they'd all been doing for the previous several decades?

Oh, and there's a random bit of sneaky Christianising at the end as well - 'if the gods have sent someone to save the world, I am not that man' says Augustus, and then the film finishes with a reminder that Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus. All this achieves is to make it really seem like we've slipped back in time to the 1960s, when this sort of thing was quite common in Roman dramas. It certainly doesn't belong in a drama about a man who died when Jesus was 14(ish).

Overall though, this is notable largely for being the most postive and friendly account of the life of Augustus since he wrote his own autobiography. He did it all for Rome, it's all Mark Antony's/Cleopatra's/Livia's/Tiberius's fault, Augustus just wants peace and love and fluffy bunnies. Really, truly, honestly guv. And if you'll believe that, you'll believe anything.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Xena Warrior Princess: Is There a Doctor in the House?

My review of this episode is slightly hampered by the fact I haven't seen 'Hooves and Harlots', in which Gabrielle is apparently 'inducted' as an Amazon, but I maintain episodic television shows ought to be comprehensible no matter where you start! I feel the same way about book series, much to several friends' frustration.

The episode takes places in a healing temple (which looks distinctly Eastern of some description to me - whatever it is, it sure as heck ain't Greek!), in the middle of a civil war, and most of it revolves around arguments between Xena, who's practicing her battlefield medicine and teaching it to a young healer called Hippocrates, and Galen, the old physician who insists only Asclepius, the (correctly identified) god of healing, can decide who lives or dies.

The war was caused, according to the other side's leader, by the Thessalians (from an actual part of Greece) trying to force the 'Mitoans' (not from an actual part of Greece) to adopt their religion. This is spectacularly unlikely in an ancient context. The only religion that demanded that everybody worship their god and no other was Christianity, and they didn't start the more violent kind of evangelism until the medieval period. The only religion persecuted to that extent by polytheistic ancient pagans was, again, Christianity (because the Christians refused to worship the major gods, and therefore might endanger others) but the pagans were quite happy for Christians to worship their god, as long as they worshipped Jupiter etc. as well. Occasionally an emperor might take against a particular cult - the cult of Isis suffered this way once or twice - but always because of a specific grudge against that specific cult, not because they were against other religions in general.

Galen and Hippocrates are both named after famous ancient physicians, though Hippocrates is the better known - he is clearly the Hippocrates, he of the oath (we see him starting to write his famous works, all attributed here to Xena, at the end), whereas Galen is more of a fictional character designed to demonstrate how much superior Xena's practical healing is to his religious ritual. The real Galen was a Greco-Roman physician who lived in the second century AD and whose writing on medicine was still being used as a practical guide throughout the medieval period and even beyond.

Healing temples are something I happen to know rather a lot about, but instead of typing out a lecture, I'll just link to my paper on the subject, which is currently available here. As far as the argument between Xena's practical healing and Galen's more overtly religious methods goes, I personally suspect that all these places practiced practical healing as well as religious rituals, but proving it either way is pretty much impossible. Civil war aside, chances are these temples were usually filled with people whose problems couldn't be cured by local healers or practical healers anyway, and pilgrimage to the temple was their last resort - I suspect there were healers there who did their best, but there was often little they could do anyway.
If you were going to have a baby, on the other hand, as Gabrielle's friend Ephiny is, you wouldn't want to go anywhere near a male healer of any kind, they wouldn't have a clue. You'd need a midwife, and they would definitely favour practical healing, though I'm sure they'd have some religious rituals as well.

Ephiny is apparently an Amazon, who was on her way to Athens because her recently deceased other half wanted their baby born there. At first, she doesn't specify why - better medical care? You'd want Cos or even Epidauros for that. Citizenship? You can't get that from geographical proximity, you have to have two Athenian parents. In the end, it turns out the Athenians are 'more tolerant' - presumably of mixed race marriages between centaurs and women. There's no historical evidence for that, oddly enough!

The other main storyline of the episode follows the Mitoan leader who is eventually persuaded that war is, generally speaking, not a good idea. It takes a story, a baby centaur, lots of preaching and several deaths (including, briefly, Gabrielle's) to convince him, but he gets there. I love that Gabrielle self-identifies as a bard. The nice little story she tells about finding peace in yourself is not, you'll be unsurprised to hear, an actual Greek myth, though Artemis turning people into hunted animals features in actual myths.

Not a bad episode, but a woman giving birth to a centaur? Really??!! At least when Doctor Who featured human/kitten hybrids, we didn't have to actually see the birth. And if Xena did an ancient Caesarian section that left the mother alive, she really does have magic powers. We do get another great disclaimer though: Being that war is hell, lots of people were harmed during the production of this motion picture (but since television is a dramatic medium of make believe, all casualties removed their prosthetic make-up and went home unscathed).

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Living Dead in Dallas (by Charlaine Harris)

We return to vampires and maenads, the original version (if there’s another story featuring vampires and maenads out there, I need to see it, but somehow I doubt such a thing exists). Spoilers follow.

Unlike TV!maenad Maryann, Book!maenad actually has a Greek name, though it doesn’t seem especially related to her character. Callisto was a nymph/princess who used to hang out with Artemis, but she was raped by Zeus (or sometimes Apollo), became pregnant, and when Artemis discovered she was pregnant Bad Things happened (specifics varying according to which version you read) and she got turned into a bear. Greek mythology; not a friend to feminists.

Anyway, this Callisto doesn’t seem especially closely related to her namesake, other than having a genuinely Greek name (a few other Classical bits and pieces are scattered through the book as well – I definitely remember hubris getting a mention at some point. Godric has tattoos from the Roman period, but I don’t think he’s meant to be Roman; the name sounds like he could come perhaps from somewhere in the Empire, but wouldn’t be a Roman citizen. And while we're on the subject of Godric, his supposedly more 'modern' name, Godfrey, did not conjure up the right mental image for me).

The existence or otherwise of the god Dionysus is an interesting point in a supernatural story like this, in which all manner of mythical or folkloric creatures can be assumed to be real, but usually the line is drawn at actual gods, even – or perhaps especially – in a story with a broadly Christian base like this one (Sookie is a churchgoer and she’s the narrator, so there are basic Christian assumptions underlying the supernatural stuff). The gods can be included if they’re revealed really to be something else, like supernatural humans, aliens and so on, but gods as gods are more unusual (though they do appear – Buffy Season 5 being the best known example). The implication here seems to be that Dionysus/Bacchus was at some point real in some god-type form – maenads were ‘driven made by the god’. On the other hand, there’s a reference to the fact that maenads have ‘lost’ the god, and whether this means he used to exist in some form and doesn’t any more, or is just a reference to the lack of belief in Dionysus these days, is unclear, though the lack of current belief is brought up as a specific problem. As in the TV series, the exact process by which a human woman would become an immortal psycho is left deliberately vague, but Bacchus/Dionysus definitely seems to be involved somehow, while whatever existence he once had now seems to be lost.

As someone whose initial exposure to ancient history, pre-university, was through I, Claudius, my favourite bit of the whole explanation scene was Sookie admitting to the reader that she knew about maenads because they featured in a mystery novel she’d read, but deciding to let Eric think she ‘reads ancient Greek literature in the original language’ if he wanted to. Hehe. That would’ve been me ten years ago.

There are various minor differences between book and TV series in the plot and particularly the resolution, but the most interesting difference by far between Callisto and Maryann is that, as far as I can tell, Callisto is not actually the cause of any of the sex and murder going on until she takes her tribute at the very end. She’s attracted to drunkenness and sex and violence, but whereas Maryann brings out behavior that the people around her would usually repress, Callisto merely feeds off behavior that is already happening. Lafayette’s murder, it turns out, was a human act carried out from lust and fear, and the orgy that Sookie finds so repulsive is a simple human activity that Callisto is drawn to, but certainly hasn’t instigated. It’s hard to say which is the more cynical view of human nature – the TV version, which implies that such desires (the violent as well as the sexual) are in all of us, but we keep them buried, or the book version, that leaves the rest of the characters alone but clearly shows some of them actively engaging in such behavior without supernatural prompting. It also explains why poor Lafayette had to die – in his very little ‘screentime’ (page-time?) Lafayette came across as easily likeable, and you can believe that Sookie would go to such extreme lengths to avenge him, which she certainly would not do for Miss Jeanette.

I have to say, in places this was a strange book! Not because of the orgy per se – I am a Roman historian, after all – but because Sookie thought it was a good idea to ask someone who’s been trying to get into her pants since the moment they met to accompany her to one. As a bodyguard. While her boyfriend’s away. He actually has to tell her how crazy this is and it still doesn’t stop her. Even weirder than that, which can at least be explained away as the result of suppressed warm and fuzzy feelings she’s in denial about, is Sam’s affair with Callisto. He doesn’t seem remotely bothered that his fling is a psychotic several thousand year old Thing which Sookie describes as actively evil. Perhaps he’s in denial too.

I did like the book’s depiction of Andy Bellefleur though, one of the most complex characters in both the book and the TV series, albeit in slightly different ways. Andy is a good person trying to do the right thing who sometimes gets it horribly wrong by, for example, pointing a gun at our heroine. He’ll never be a fan favourite, but something about this character keeps Bon Temps and its inhabitants grounded while madness (literally) goes on around them.

I enjoyed this one, strangeness aside, though like anything you’ve seen in another form of media first, it probably needs a second look to be appreciated on its own merits (even if this version is the 'original'). You’ve got to have some admiration for anything that includes a full-on, named-as-such orgy outside of ancient Rome, though I have to say, that scene left me with some mental pictures that can never be erased…

Actual maenads, with Dionysus


Sunday, 3 July 2011

Top Five Gladiatorial Combats

I'm once again buried under an enormous pile of exam marking, so forgive me if things are a little quiet around here this week! Once I emerge, I can promise posts on Priam playing Augustus, some more Classical Places, more maenads and vampires, more Rome and more Xena.

In the meantime, I've been giving serious consideration to the Top Five Roman-style Gladiatorial combats in popular culture (that I've seen). Spoilers follow.

5. Spock and McCoy vs Flavius and Achilles in Star Trek, 'Bread and Circuses'
Why? Becuase any gladiatoral combat that ends in a double Vulcan Nerve Grip is a great gladiatorial combat.
How Roman is it? I'm not aware that the Vulcan Nerve Grip was known in ancient Rome. The replacement of the audience in the arena with a television audience works brilliantly, and the network's need to provide an entertaining combat is surely representative of something that must have been an issue for Roman lanistas.

4. The Face-Dude vs Spartacus in Spartacus: Blood and Sand, 'The Thing in the Pit'
Why? Of all the many, many fights we've seen on Spartacus: Blood and Sand and the prequel series Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, this is by far the most memorable. It's a face! It's a face!
How Roman is it? There's no evidence of a Fight Club-style set-up like this in ancient Rome and with gladiatorial combats available regularly, why would you need one? It gives the show a nice change of pace for an episode though.

3. Spartacus vs Draba in Spartacus (1960)
Why? It's a tense scene, a pretty decent fight - but it's the expression on the face of Woody Strode, as Draba, as he throws his trident at Batiatus and Crassus and then launches himself at them, that makes this a memorble and chilling fight and a great end to an intriguing character. Plus, of course, it's a turning point for Spartacus himself.
How Roman is it? I can't see why Crassus would randomly demand to see two gladiators killed purely for the amusement of himself and two friends, when they could be killed for the amusement of hundreds. On the other hand, there's be nothing to stop him and he wasn't exactly the tender type.

2. Katniss and Peeta vs Cato and the muttations/ Katniss vs Peeta in The Hunger Games
Why? Just when you think The Hunger Games can't get worse or more horrible... it gets worse and more horrible. Cato meets such a nasty end you actually feel sorry for him, and then we finally get to the resolution we all knew was coming since about page 15. And very satisfying it is too.
How Roman is it? Like Star Trek, these gladiatorial games have replaced live audiences with television, which I suspect is what would have happened if the Romans had invented television. With much more space to explore the concept, Collins really gets into how that removal of the audience from the horror of what's happening might affect such a series of games, which is really interesting. Beyond that, well, there's a character called Cato. That's about it. Again, if the Romans had known how to genetically mutate animals, they probably would have done so - but they didn't.

1. Maximus and his men vs 'Scipio Africanus' (actually several female gladiators) in Gladiator
Why? Undoubtedly the highlight of a great film, this fight is the lead-in to the famous 'My name is Maximus Decimus Meridus...' scene, and it does a fantastic job of showering Maximus in glory right before his big moment. The way he uses his military training to beat the odds, the re-writing of the history of the Battle of Carthage (much to the announcer's embarrassment), the excitement of the fight itself and the way the gladiators band together to face the emperor when it's over, all go together to make the best scene of gladiatorial combat in the movies, topped off with Hans Zimmer's majestic score.
How Roman is it? I'm not sure the Romans would have chosen a bunch of women to represent Scipio Africanus, but otherwise this all looks pretty good to me. Perhaps the number of old soldiers in Maximus' group of fellow gladiators is a bit on the implausible side.

Honorable mention goes to the lovely little British arena in The Eagle, and the beginning of a beautiful friendship. There aren't many gladiatorial combats that can claim that!
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