Friday, 23 December 2011

Top Five Christmas Classics

Classics, geddit? See what I did there? Ahem.

So, obviously, these are my top five Classical-themed Christmas offerings.*

5. The Vicar of Dibley: 'Winter'
Which festival? Christmas
Fun for all the family? Definitely - though more bitter pregnant women or new mothers might feel the need to point out some of the, ah, toned-down elements
Why? I really like the idea of a Nativity play performed at an actual farm - I'm sure someone, somewhere, has done this. But the real joy of this episode is David Horton's desperate attempt to rehabilitate his character, Herod the Great, as a kindly old grandfather (further complicated by the arrival of his actual grand-daughter halfway through the performance).
Will we learn the true meaning of Christmas? Almost certainly not, though the actual mythology of Christmas, i.e. the story of the birth of Jesus, is in there somewhere.

4. The Roman MysteriesThe Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina
Which festival? Saturnalia
Fun for all the family? Yes - everyone except seven-year-old me. Seven-year-old me would have been inconsolable and no one would ever have heard the end of it. But the book is middle grade (aimed at around 8-12-year-olds) so that's fine.
Why?  The atmosphere of this story, from Flavia's opening scenes with a hot drink, through Nubia trying to adjust to the cold and throughout the family-centric story, is warm and evocative. Saturnalia, with its traditions of turning everything upside down so that an eleven-year-old girl might actually find herself in charge (to a degree) is the perfect festival for a children's adventure and this is a lovely and touching story with some important character development for Flavia. And giraffes, which are just always cool. The only drawback to this as a Christmas story is that the ending is so sad, so it can be a bit of a downer if you're looking for holiday cheer.
Will we learn the true meaning of Christmas? Possibly - the making and breaking of families and growing up are generally Christmassy themes.

3. Jesus of Nazareth (Zeffirelli, 1977)
Which festival? Christmas, I guess. Or, um, whatever Jewish festival might be happening during the lambing season?
Fun for all the family? Yes, for a certain fairly specific definition of 'fun'. I liked it as a kid.
Why? We all used to watch Jesus of Nazareth on video every Christmas and every Easter, and I genuinely enjoyed it (my favourite part was the crucifixion - I worry about that sometimes). Since we had the whole unedited, however-many-hours long version, quite often we didn't get any further than the Nativity story, but we got to know that bit really well! Zeffirelli's realist approach comes up against the surreal Christmas narrative and Zeffirelli treads a fine line rather well - we see a star, shepherds and wise men but no angels (just a bright light) and Jesus is born in a cave, which must have been the predominant thinking on why people might have been lodging with the animals at the time (I believe more recent theories revolve around the animals living downstairs and the people upstairs, or maybe that's been discredited by now).
Will we learn the true meaning of Christmas? Well, that depends on your point of view. If you're a Christian, yes. If not... probably not.

2. Discworld: Hogfather
Which festival? Hogswatch
Fun for all the family? Probably not for younger children, but Discworld is relatively tame. I started reading them around age 12, which is probably about right.
Why? Hogfather is nowhere near my favourite Discworld novel, though it's somewhere in the top 50%, but I used to re-read it every year at Christmas because it is such a great seasonal special. I absolutely love all the Christmassy satire, from Colon and Nobby with the department store Hogfather, to the little match girl, to various characters reminiscing about family Hogswatches past. I'm also particularly fond of the Unseen University faculty as characters, and Death too. The actual Classical element, aside from the general themes concerning mythology and the development of myth and ritual, is Bilious the oh-god-of-hangovers, who's great fun and probably most appropriate for this time of year!
Will we learn the true meaning of Christmas? Yes, probably - there are definitely some interesting ideas about the origins of winter myths and rituals in here.

1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Which festival? Christmas, briefly. And Easter, metaphorically.
Fun for all the family? Yes, definitely.
Why? I blogged the more recent film version last year, but it's the 1988 BBC TV version that really says 'Christmas' to me. The only actual Christmas element is the brief appearance of Father Christmas in episode 3, but between the snow, the parcels Mr Tumnus is carrying when we first meet him and the magic, the whole thing feels so incredibly Christmassy that Doctor Who is ripping it off for its Christmas special this year. The Classical elements are, of course, the fauns and satyrs, and the fact that Tumnus the Faun is the first Narnian creature we meet means that this feels as much like a Classical classic as it does a Christmas classic. The TV version has its detractors, but for me, this was the start of a life-long love affair with fantasy in general and with Narnia in particular and I think its completely magical. The hand-drawn creatures look imaginative rather than cheap to me and when you hear the first strains of that beautiful theme tune, you know it's Christmas-time.
Will we learn the true meaning of Christmas? Perhaps surprisingly, no. Father Christmas turns up briefly to give out some presents, half of which are weapons. So, satisfying the greed of small children, and violence. Not really in line with 'those who live by the sword, die by the sword'. You might learn the true meaning of Easter, though. If your Mum tells you what Aslan's name is in our world.

I'm going to take a short break for Christmas (well, I'm going to focus on some lesson planning and try to start the paper I'm giving in January). Have a fantastic Christmas/holiday and see you all in 2012!

*For the curious, my top five Christmas movies in general are:
5. The Snowman tied with Joyeux Noel
4. The Nightmare Before Christmas
3. Little Women (the Winona Ryder one)
2. Love Actually
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol

and because I can't restrict myself to just five, my top ten Christmas episodes/specials are:
10. The Big Bang Theory, 'The Bath Gift Item Hypothesis'
9. The West Wing, 'In Excelsis Deo'
8. The Brittas Empire, 'In the Beginning'
7. Blackadder's Christmas Carol
6. Men Behaving Badly, 'Last Orders'
5. Only Fools and Horses, 'Heroes and Villains'
4. Friends, 'The One With the Holiday Armadillo'
3. Community, 'Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas'
2. The West Wing, 'Noel'
1. Yes Minister, 'Party Games'

Happy Christmas Everybody!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Strictly Come Dancing 2011 Final

I moved house a couple of weeks ago and just got the internet (and the TV) sorted out in my new flat, so this evening I settled down to, rather belatedly, watch the Strictly Come Dancing Grand Final. After an introductory blurb from Tess comparing the dancers to gladiators lining up for a final confrontation (and set to the soundtrack from Gladiator), for the opening number... well, I think this is better seen than described.

Wow. One of my all-time favourite songs, a Roman theme, and Pasha and Harry with their shirts off. What more could a girl want? Only one question - why is Vincent so thoroughly covered up?!

My absolute favourite part of this number is the bit where the guys come in with retiarii nets! They use them like bull-fighting capes in a paso doble and it is weird and ridiculous and completely awesome. We are talking about actual use of Classical archaeology in a ballroom dance number. I love it.

I assume that the main reason the powers that be went for a Classical theme is that it offered a perfect excuse for men and women of whatever orientation to perv over their favourites in bikinis/no tops (myself very much included). It also plays up the show's depiction of its final as an epic battle of course - Strictly has always been keen on playing up this angle, partly to make ballroom dancing seem a bit tougher and more macho, mostly to play up the drama for the TV. I also wondered, as the three couples were pulled on in chariots, if the producers had been reading The Hunger Games, as it was very much like the presentation of the tributes in the first book.

I'm very fond of Strictly, partly because I used to do ballroom dancing as a hobby, partly because it's just good, fun Saturday night TV. Both my Mum and The Artist Formerly Known as CurrentHousemate's Mum were put off by some of the unfortunate exits in previous years (Colin Jackson was robbed. Robbed I tells ya!) but AFKACH and I have been watching all year and it's been a very good year. Apart from Rory Bremner's early exit (there's no way he should have gone before Nancy Dell'Olio) things have gone more or less the way I was hoping, with my perfect three finalists. My first ever album was Kylie and the first pop stars I loved were Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, so I loved watching him get to the final, though it was right he went out first. And I could watch Harry Judd dance all day and all night and still not have enough - that man can move.

Anyway, I'm off to watch it again. Cheesy brilliance. Thank you, Strictly!

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Xena Warrior Princess: The Execution

This episode follows the near-execution of Gabrielle’s friend Meleager on a false charge by a judge who really doesn’t like to change his mind.

Meleager is a figure from Classical mythology, though his myth doesn’t have anything to do with his story here. The mythical Meleager was to stay alive as long as a brand on the fire. Having killed the Calydonian boar, Meleager killed his uncles (whether accidentally or on purpose depends on which version you’re reading) so his mother burned the rest of the brand and Meleager died.

The way Meleager here thinks he’s guilty when in fact he’s innocent might bear some relation to some versions of his story but really, this is an independent tale. The depiction of Meleager as a hero who goes around saving villages all the time is rather nice and vaguely fits with the fact he rid the world of the pesky Calydonian boar. Similarly, the mythical Meleager fell in love with Atalanta, a virgin huntress who’d been raised by bears and who killed various unpleasant centaurs etc, so it makes sense that he’d get on well with Gabrielle, though here he sees her as a daughter rather than a lover.

This was an interesting episode, most particularly for the moment when Gabrielle defies Xena to defend her friend. This at the same time marks her out as becoming more independent of Xena, while simultaneously reinforcing her dependency, since she’s motivated to do it by hero worship for someone else. Xena forces her to confront her tendency towards putting people on pedestals, though the fact that Meleager turns out to be innocent after all may have wiped that particular lesson!

Being based around an execution, the episode has a fairly dark tone, brought out unexpectedly in the closing lines.

Gabrielle: When I’m that age, I hope I’m knitting socks.
Xena: Oh don’t worry about it. People in our line of work never reach that age.
Gabrielle: That’s a comforting thought.

Buffy had all sorts of angst about the short life expectancy of Slayers. Perhaps, since Xena and Gabrielle have chosen this lifestyle, they’re less woe-is-me about it, but it does seem that Gabrielle hasn’t quite thought it through, which doesn’t bode too well for the future…

Side note: love the knitting women waiting for the execution. Very French Revolution.


Gabrielle: Whatever he did, he didn’t do it!

Gabrielle: Consider this; when we doubt that heroes exist in this world, who do the optimists name?
Some random: Hercules!

Executioner (looking exactly like Death from an Ingmar Berman film): These are my comfortable clothes.

Note: By popular demand “The Executioner” will bring back his comfortable lightweight cotton-flax blend robe in a variety of spring colours.

All Xena reviews

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Help

Cassandra was the ancient Greek prophetess who was cursed to always prophesy the truth, but never be believed. Because, like Sybil (similar to the Roman oracle the Sibyl) ‘Cassandra’ is a fairly common name still, it’s a perfect option for writers wanting a suitably symbolic name for a prophetically-inclined character, so it’s used fairly often. Sometimes it’s used just because it’s associated with prophecy, but other times, Cassandra’s particular problem is more relevant. In The X-Files, for example, Cassandra is the name of a woman who claims to be an alien abductee and, of course, only Mulder believes her. This occurred in Season 5, though, and then she reappeared in Season 6 with a different story and… I have to confess I was already totally lost by the arc plot by the beginning of Season 3. I love the individual episodes of The X-Files, and great stand-alone episodes continued to appear right up to the end, but even the weird summing up in the series finale couldn’t clear up what on earth was going on with the arc plot.

Anyway, the most touching use of Cassandra’s problem has to be this seventh season episode of Buffy. Like so many other series, Buffy fell prey to the tendency to try to be ‘darker’ by, basically, being more depressing in the later series (I remember The West Wing doing a similar storyline to one of its greatest ever episodes, Season 2’s ‘Shibboleth’, in Season 5’s ‘Han’, but altering the outcome to make it really depressing). Season 7 had its lighter moments, and a lot of rather dull but not overtly depressing stuff about potential Slayers, but it also included a couple of really ‘dark’ – for which read ‘depressing’ – episodes. Oddly enough, though, they were also two of the season’s best.

In ‘Help’, Buffy encounters a schoolgirl who is completely convinced that she is going to die. Buffy is determined to prevent this and most of the episode centres around the gang’s attempts to stop her being sacrificed by a bunch of unpleasant guys much as Cordelia and Buffy nearly were in Season 2’s lighter ‘Reptile Boy’. They are successful, but at the end of the episode, the girl dies anyway, of congenital heart failure. It’s a rather more effective reminder of the point hammered home with the subtlety of an ice pick (I was going to say sledgehammer, but that’s such a cliché) in Season 5’s arc plot centred around Buffy’s mother’s cancer – there are some things, and some deaths, even the Slayer can’t prevent.

Buffy might have realised that her efforts were going to be in vain if she’d known her Greek mythology because the girl’s name is Cassie – clearly, short for Cassandra. Cassie insists throughout the episode that she is going to die and there is nothing anyone can do about it, but not a single person believes her, because they are all convinced they can save her. Unlike Greek mythology (in which, in some versions, Troy burns partly because no one will listen to Cassandra), their insistence on refusing to believe her does do some good, because they catch and stop the bad guys, who could have gone on to hurt someone else after Cassie, someone less doomed. However, the essential point that Cassie is tragically aware of her own doom, completely unable to prevent it and also completely unable to get anyone to take her seriously is terribly poignant and terribly sad, and comes right out of the mythical Cassandra’s curse. Knowing the future is bad enough, but not being taken seriously when you know the future is even worse.

Cassie’s form turns up again when the First Evil visits Willow (and possibly other members of the Scooby Gang) in ‘Conversations with Dead People', but since that isn’t really Cassie (and was supposed to be Tara originally) it’s not really relevant to her particular story. Her main episode remains a rather nice and effective stand-alone story in which the mythological trope is used to maximum tear-jerking effect and, despite being really depressing, the episode really works as a commentary on helplessness and frustration.

(By the way, the other ‘dark’ Season 7 episode that is really good, even better than ‘Help’, is the Anya-centric ‘Selfless’).

(And the picture at the top of the page doesn't really have anything to do with this episode, it's just awesome).

All Buffy/Angel reviews

Monday, 12 December 2011

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 1996)

I cover Shakespeare from time to time on the grounds that what he was writing was popular culture, of its day. There's no need to justify the inclusion of this particular adaptation though - despite the Shakespearian dialogue, this film is definitely popular culture. I can still remember countless phone calls as a teenager being addressed as 'Hulieeeeeeeeeeeeeet!' and pausing the video as Leonardo DiCaprio looks at the screen and says 'Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.' Swoon.

Shakespeare included lots of Classical references in his plays, but they are often edited out when the plays are cut down for film versions (except for Kenneth Branagh's four-hour Hamlet of course). The most substantial literary reference left in this version of Romeo and Juliet (given the + sign in the title to make it extra cool and attract the yoof) is to Queen Mab, who's not Greco-Roman.

There is one Classical reference added for the film, though. Here, the Capulets' party at which Romeo and Juliet meet is a fancy-dress party. Most of the costumes are symbolic of something, mostly something quite obvious - Juliet is an angel, Romeo a knight, Tybalt a devil, Paris (Paul Rudd, young and very cute!) is an astronaut, an all-American hero and perfect son-in-law material. Others are slightly more subtle, though not by much - flamboyant Mercutio is in disco drag, one of Romeo's particularly violent friends is a Viking, and so on. Juliet's parents are dressed as Cleopatra and either Antony or Caesar - of course, since either of those would be a simple Roman costume and there's no dialogue referring to it, it could be either!

Cleopatra for Juliet's mother is interesting. Mrs Capulet is a pretty tough character, later demanding the death penalty for Romeo and cutting Juliet off entirely when she refuses to marry Paris. In her first appearance, during which she puts the costume in all its constituent parts on while talking, she is telling Juliet about Paris and suggesting the idea of the marriage to her. The fact that she is putting on a Cleopatra costume as she does so emphasises the sexual aspect of the marriage, the fact that she is pushing Juliet to grow up and regard men sexually, since Cleopatra is so well known for her sex life and her power over men. The sexuality of Cleopatra also plays well during Romeo's bad trip shortly after, in which he sees her kissing Tybalt, an image the audience is supposed to wonder about - is it real or not? The Cleopatra costume encourages the audience to at least consider the possibility that the event is real, since Cleopatra is so well known for a voracious sex life. The fact that Cleopatra was a queen also plays into Juliet's mother power over Juliet and the importance of her social position, as a woman the Prince must listen to.

During his trip, Romeo also sees Mr Capulet waving his purple tunic around and showing off his underpants, behaviour perhaps associated more with Antony than Caesar (though most of all, I suspect with toga parties - an apparent staple of American college comedies that I don't understand because I've never seen any of those comedies). I also think that he is probably meant to be Antony, because these costumes are a reference to Antony and Cleopatra. There are subtle references to other Shakespeare plays scattered throughout the film, like the phrase 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on' from The Tempest, which is displayed on a billboard. It is quite likely then that these costumes are another nod to a play with a conclusion that bears some similarity to Romeo and Juliet - the costumes foreshadowing the tragic conclusion of the play and of these characters' daughter's life.

When I watch it, though, I find I see Capulet more as Caesar than Antony. Despite his apparent intoxication, during the party, Capulet makes his power and authority very clear to Tybalt when Tybalt threatens to defy him. He is absolute ruler of his small kingdom, and of course his absolute authority over Juliet is an important part of the plot. For a modern Western audience not brought up to understand a society where the power of the father is absolute, this is a helpful visual reminder that no subordinate character can cross Capulet.

Luhrmann transports Shakespeare's action from Italy to the US for this film, but he gives it a very strong Italian feel throughout, ensuring that the Italian setting is all but kept. The Catholicism of the central characters, so important for the plot, is overtly and opulently displayed and the Capulets in particular have a distinct mafia-like feel to their operation. Dressing their first couple in Roman costumes only adds to this Italian theme. The film is a fantastic adaptation, exciting, vibrant, romantic, violent and with a fabulous soundtrack. If you haven't seen it, make sure to get hold of a copy - it's not just for teenage girls, I promise!

Friday, 9 December 2011

Stargate SG-1: Seth

This third season episode of Stargate: SG-1 features Seth, a Goa'uld who makes a one-off appearance, rather than our regular bad guys Apophis or Osiris. These are always good fun - they're often able to tell a tighter story than episodes focusing on long-running characters and arc plots.

As usual, the basic details given about the Egyptian god Seth are pretty much accurate - a god associated with chaos and confusion (though they perhaps dwell a bit too much on the 'evil' aspect, since our cultural conception of evil is rather heavily Christianised). This includes the detail about the mythical/fictional animal that represents Seth - the Egyptian god is indeed represented by a mysterious animal in Egyptian art. He also really was identified with the Greek monster Typhon. I have no idea where the medieval bit comes from - I think that's an invention of the writers, but I might be wrong.

I like Daniel's (totally correct) theory that a Goa'uld hiding somewhere on today's Earth would most likely be a religious cult leader - as he points out, it fits their M.O. rather neatly. The incorporation of the Greek identification of Seth with Typhon into this story, as an indication of what Seth was doing on Earth in the Classical period, fits nicely too. The more personal storyline in this episode concerns Sam, her father and her brother, who has had a major falling out with their father in the past and didn't come to his apparent deathbed in the previous season. Our heroes also spend a fair bit of time with a man whose son is in the cult. Since much of Seth's mythology concerns his murder of his brother and battles with his nephew, this makes for a vague but nice thematic link.

The costumes worn by members of the cult are fairly typical twentieth-century Western cult styles (at least, as far as these things are represented on television - I haven't seen any real ones!) but most of them could equally easily belong to members of an Egyptian-based ancient religion. They look like simple linen robes, like those worn by members of the cult (different kind of cult! well, a little bit different) of the originally Egyptian but later Greek-ified goddess Isis in the Greek and Roman world. The more senior members' outfits, a combination of pyjamas and karate clothes, are less so, since ancient Egyptians (and Greeks and Romans) didn't wear trousers. I love Seth's outfit. You can't go wrong with a villain in black leather. And an evil little black goatee. And he has fabulous floppy Snape-hair.

For some reason I've been interested in stories about scary American religious cults for a while (I say American because all the stories on this topic I've seen have been written and set in America - though I'm sure similar organisations exist elsewhere). This probably comes of watching too much X-Files as a teenager. I also seem to remember a melodramatic Sweet Valley High book called Kidnapped by the Cult! that I was quite fond of. Anyway, I enjoyed this episode. It's nice to see Canada playing Seattle rather than an alien planet - it's rather more convincing as Seattle! Seth doesn't really do anything particularly interesting - his actions are all bog-standard evil cult-leader stuff, without even the added interest of including exciting money-making ventures - but he does have great hair and a fantastic black leather coat.

Seth, on the left

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Chelmsford 123: Mine's a Double

In this episode, Badvok and Aulus both somewhat unexpectedly turn out to have long lost identical twin brothers, who both turn up after a ten-year absence needing somewhere to stay. They turn up, cause trouble and reveal all the old family secrets - such as Badvok's real name ('Rosemary') and the fact that Aulus is actually a Spanish provincial rather than native Roman. Aulus runs into Badvok's twin and thinks it's Badvok, Badvok runs into Aulus' twin and think it's Aulus, and hilarity ensues.

The trope of the identical or nearly identical sibling/relative who turns up uninvited requires said relative to be some kind of polar opposite to our regular hero, like the brave-to-the-point-of-stupid MacAdder, cousin of the cowardly Blackadder, or the alcoholic loser brother of Captain Mainwaring. In this case, Aulus' brother is a dirty, rude career criminal with a terrible Spanish accent, while Badvok's is a walking stereotype of camp. Badvok's brother is actually slightly more likeable than Badvok, while the nice thing about Aulus' is that it makes him and Grasientus look slightly closer, since Grasientus is less of a pain than his brother.

At one point, Aulus' brother insults all the patrons in a British drinking den. The idea of British drinking dens that are off-limit to Romans is interesting. I don't know if that's true or not, I can't remember coming across it before - though I think it's safe to assume the opposite (exclusively Roman drinking dens) certainly existed. It would certainly be a good way to make the locals feel that they had a place that was still their own - but given the possibilities for plotting rebellion in such a place, especially only a few decades after Boudicca, I doubt they really existed.

The story revolves around Mungo's theft of one of Aulus' priceless statues of the divine twins Castor and Pollux. Naturally, Aulus wants it back, Badvok wants the other twin, there's all sorts of twin-swapping going on, and everyone gets very confused. The scene where Aulus interrogates his hapless guard (Chris Langham), who has not only barely guarded the villa, but was actually present when Mungo stole the statue and let him do it, is really pretty funny. A second scene, in which the guard reveals that Badvok has managed to convince him he was the emperor, is even funnier.

This episode wasn't half bad - better than the rather tired plot might imply. The attempt to lampshade how totally ludicrous it is that everyone has a long-lost identical twin who's suddenly decided to show up is a bit forced, but saved by Blag's sudden gift of prophecy regarding the invention of television and Panorama, and the final joke, in which we are introduced to Grasientus' identical twin, pushes the idea so far it becomes funny again - and it's an amusing joke too.

All Chelmsford 123 reviews

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Top Five Roman Murder Mysteries

In terms of detective fiction, the only thing better than a good murder mystery is a good murder mystery with an interesting setting. I have a love of quirky, interesting detective stories with fun settings, from cozies like Riley Adams (Elizabeth Craig)'s Memphis BBQ books, set in a Southern restaurant, to quirky spoofs like Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth books, which are Raymond Chandler pastiches full of evil Druids and victimised fudge box girls set in Aberystwyth, to the City Watch Discworld books, in which our heroes may find themselves trying to produce a million-to-one chance so they can shoot a dragon. So obviously I have a great fondness for detective stories and murder mysteries set in my period of history, ancient Rome.

Spoilers follow; I've avoided actually naming the murderer but there are fairly substantial spoilers floating around. OK, very substantial spoilers. Best not read any of the details if you haven't read the book...

5. The Venus Throw, by Steven Saylor
Victim: Dio, an Egyptian philosopher
Detective: Gordianus the Finder
Context: The trial of Marcus Caelius Rufus, 56 BC
Is justice served? That depends on your definition of 'justice'.
Why read it? I read this book a long time ago so my memories of it are vague, but it is surely one of the most fascinating Gordianus stories. I read the books out of order; I was particularly keen to read this one, because it was based around Cicero's speech in defense of Caelius. This speech one of the reasons I have intensely disliked Cicero throughout my academic career. In it, he completely destroys the reputation of a woman called Clodia, using a combination of sexism and inferences. Clodia's social life never recovered and she pretty much disappeared from public life after this. Saylor's Clodia is a fascinating creation, largely built from the rather one-sided ancient evidence but managing to be sympathetic at the same time, while this story marks a turning point in Gordianus' increasing disillusionment with his former friend Cicero. The actual murder mystery is something of a separate, though linked, issue, but holds its own among the high politics with its intensely personal context for Gordianus and its genuinely shocking conclusion.

4. The Silver Pigs, by Lindsey Davis
Victim: Sosia Camillina, a relative of Helena Justina
Detective: Marcus Didius Falco
Context: The first years of the reign of the emperor Vespasian, AD 70
Is justice served? No.
Why read it? The first of the Falco novels is also the cruellest, the most cynical, the grittiest and the most bitter - though still written with the wry humour that makes him so beloved of readers. We meet Falco as a struggling bachelor and the murder that forms the heart of this book is by far the most tragic and the most affecting (though I confess I haven't read all the books yet). The case is intensely personal and the solution firmly rooted in its historical context. Although justice is not directly served for Sosia, there is enough resolution and enough characters are brought to justice for related reasons that the ending satisfies, and of course her tragedy is balanced out by Falco and Helena's happy ending. If you like Falco, you must make sure you read this first, character-defining story.

3. 'Some Justice', I, Claudius
Victim: Germanicus Caesar
Detective: All the main characters, really. Livia is the most successful.
Context: The death of emperor Tiberius' nephew and adopted son Germanicus, AD 19
Is justice served? Some of it. Obviously.
Why watch it? This is more a courtroom drama than a detective story, but it still counts as a murder mystery, as most of the main cast spend the episode not just pursuing the case, but trying to work out what actually happened as well. The story is also told in Robert Graves' novel, of course, but the format of this, as an hour-long courtroom drama taking place within one episode, is especially effective. Again, we have here a real and really mysterious death, which in real life may or may not have played out the way it does here. Like Saylor in both his novels listed here, Graves uses the classic historical novelist's technique of taking a real death and a real solution and presenting an alternative, secret explanation - or, in this case, a deeper and more complicated explanation. His solution plays into the way he wants to present his characters later in the novel and is perhaps less shocking than you might think, given the characters involved, but he certainly spins a good yarn. The slow revelation of this solution over the course of the episode, and in particular Livia's crucial dinner conversation, make for a satisfying hour of television and a refreshing change of pace in the middle of a long series.

2. The Man from Pomegranate Street, by Caroline Lawrence
Victim: Titus Caesar. Possibly.
Detective: Flavia Gemina, Nubia and Lupus. And Jonathan, sort of. And Aristo.
Context: The death of the emperor Titus, AD 81.
Is justice served? Your guess is as good as mine... probably not.
Why read it? Since The Roman Mysteries are children's books, they are fairly light on murders, at least in the events of the books - recoverable crimes, like theft or kidnapping are more common (the characters' back-stories are another matter all together). The later books in particular do go further into the murder mystery area, with poor long-suffering Nubia's discovery of a dying man in The Slave Girl from Jerusalem standing out as a sign of slowly increasing violence as the characters and readers get older and more mature. The Man from Pomegranate Street, the last novel, goes to slighter darker places again, while remaining suitable for middle grade readers. One of the things I like about this story is that it's not clear whether a murder has occurred - the mystery is, was it murder? It's a really interesting approach, especially since this is a real-life death, and a slightly mysterious one. I also love that Lawrence doesn't go for the obvious solution, but presents several possibilities, some quite shocking to a young reader - while at the same time ensuring that the resolution, as far as there is resolution, offers a level of reassurance (these are children's books after all!).

1. Roman Blood, by Steven Saylor
Victim: Sextus Roscius
Detective: Gordianus the Finder
Context: The dictatorship of Sulla and Cicero's defense of Roscius' son, 81 BC
Is justice served? Er, it's so long since I read it I actually can't remember!
Why read it? It's been well over ten years since I read this book and as you can see, I can barely remember most of the details! It's number one on my list though, because I love the simplicity of the concept so much. Saylor takes an extant defense speech by Cicero and a real murder case and builds a murder mystery from it, offering his own (fictional) solution to the case and using Gordianus to explore the various characters involved, especially Cicero himself and his secretary Tiro. Saylor also examines Sulla and his dictatorship but, reading this long before I ever studied any ancient history, it was the murder mystery and the characters, especially Tiro and Bethesda, that appealed to me. It's also beautifully and evocatively written. I could have lived with slightly less of Cicero's actual speech perhaps - which bored me even before the Pro Caelio sealed my dislike of him - but otherwise, this is a cracking story and essential reading for Saylor fans.
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