Thursday, 30 June 2011

Quantum Leap: The Curse of Ptah-Hotep

I love Quantum Leap. It's the perfect blend of fantasy, character drama and humour and like Doctor Who, it has the great advantage that if you don't like one week's story, you've still a good chance of liking the next one, which will be completely different. It's such a sweet show, I can't really imagine anyone actively disliking it!

The show's premise was a combination of soft science fiction and ideological fantasy. In each episode, Dr Sam Beckett 'leaps' into a person (oddly enough, usually an American) living sometime between 1950 and 1990 (although the show was theoretically set in 1999, since it was filmed in the late '80s and early '90s, he never leaped into anyone from the 1990s). Taking the other person's place, he 'sets right what once went wrong', repairing relationships, solving mysteries, saving orphanages and that sort of thing, often saving the leapee or someone close to them from death by crime/accident/wrongful execution/illness that he can cure with his 1990s knowledge of medicine.

This episode plays with the themes of mummy movies, as Sam leaps into an archaeologist who disappeared, together with everyone else with him, while excavating the tomb of King Ptah-Hotep II (not, as far as I know, a real Egyptian king, but it is a real Egyptian name, deriving from the god Ptah and 'hotep', often used as a suffix in Egyptian names and meaning, in context, 'Ptah is content'). This gives the writers a chance to play with some tropes that aren't usually part of their toolkit.

Usually, the only science fiction/fantasy element of the show was the leaping itself. As the series went on, and particularly in Season 5, other elements started to creep in (a possible vampire, aliens, a leap outside Sam's lifetime that wan't ususally possible according to the show's internal logic, and most notably an opposite 'evil' leaper). This episode appeared late in Season 4, before the vampires and aliens, but after an early episode playing with horror themes and the works of Stephen King ('The Boogieman') and more particularly, after 'It's a Wonderful Leap', which featured an actual angel. The great thing about this is that the audience isn't quite sure what to expect. Al suggests that the mysterious deaths that start to occur are murders, carried out by someone who's after the treasure for themselves, and that would be the sort of solution you would anticipate from Quantum Leap at this point. However, there's just enough doubt in the audience's minds to add a really nice layer to the mystery - not only, who is doing the killing, but is it a living human being at all?!

In the end, it turns out that there is a murder plot, of sorts - but there is also a mummy, and we see his hand, though thankfully not any more of him. I'm never quite sure how I feel about Quantum Leap doing these more overtly fantasy/science fiction stories, as it doesn't quite fit the tone of most of the show, but on the other hand, it does provide a nice change of pace and it wouldn't be a proper mummy movie without an actual mummy.

Another nice thing about this episode is we get to see a bit more of Sam as a character, in a way that isn't always possible. A while back, I wrote about how TV and film archaeologists are always ridiculously over-qualified and somehow manage to be experts in just about everything, never restricted to their own field like normal people. Well, Dr Sam Beckett really takes the biscuit here. He ought to be Dr.Dr.Dr.Dr.Dr.Dr.Dr. Beckett, at least, as he has seven degrees that come with the title 'Dr' (six PhDs and an MD), though his qualifications, along with his life story, can be changed sometimes if he affects his own past while leaping. It was established way back in Season 1 that one of his PhDs was 'Ancient Languages', including ancient Egyptian (an unusual subject - Classics, Egyptology or Ancient History would be more normal - but plausible. Ish.) and apparently it still is, as he can still read hieroglyphics. He also gets very excited about being in Egypt, about working with fellow archaeologist Ginny - with whom, refreshingly, he develops no romantic attachement and has an entirely professional relationship, despite the tiny tiny shorts she's wearing - and about their discovery, because he's genuinely interested in Egyptology and ancient history. It's fun to see Sam enjoying one of his own areas, rather than having to throw himself into someone else's, and of course it means the episode avoids the usual issues of how he can fit in and convince people there's nothing wrong with him, as he knows what he's talking about.

An episode with a mummy in it can't take itself too seriously, and there are some great moments of humour in here (like Al's assessement of a camel as an ugly horse - he's quite wrong of course, camels are beautiful). Other attempts work a bit less well; Ginny notes that claustrophobia is 'hardly a good trait for an archaeologist', but most archaeologists don't work in tiny underground tombs, they work in the open air! (Though some work in cellars and trenches, which looks even more claustrophobic). If she'd said 'Egyptologist', which is what her character actually is, that could have worked.

This isn't one of Quantum Leap's finest hours - the best episodes of Quantum Leap tend to be those which deal with serious subject matter in a dramatic way, or the romantic episodes, or those which are really broad comedy and involve Sam wearing women's clothing. It is also indicative of the slide into more and more 'out there' episodes in Season 5 that would culminate in the show finishing at the end of that season. It's good fun though, and it's nice to see that old Ancient Languages PhD brought out again - even I have to admit, that's not one that he needs to use terribly often in the course of leaping.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Asterix the Gaul: Asterix and the Banquet


It's been years since I read any Asterix the Gaul, which my parents sometimes used to buy for my brother (in English) when we went to France on holiday. What I'd remembered most was the wonderfully punny names - the old man Geriatrix, Poisonus Fungus, Getafix the druid and so on (there are lots of jokes about drugs around, a clear sign of Asterix's '60s origins!*). Asterix and Obelix themselves, of course, are designed as literal 'footnotes in history', asterisk and obelisk, an idea I love, since I always enjoy stories about the minor characters and side stories of history, even entirely fictional ones like these two.

For those unfamilir with the comics, Asterix and Obelix live in a Gaulish village that has held out alone against the Romans following the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar. This is largely thanks to the magic potion brewed by Getafix, which allows our two heroes to beat up entire legions without breaking a sweat (though Obelix doesn't need to take any, as he fell into a cauldron-full of the stuff as a child). The village is in northern Brittany, and Obelix has a regular job as a menhir delivery man. The translations are excellent, mostly successfully translating the puns and Christmas-cracker level jokes into something appropriate (you only occasionally find something that isn't quite as effective as English).

In this story, Astrix and Obelix travel all over France collecting regional delicacies to win a bet with the new centurion who has blockaded the village. Apparently inspired by the Tour de France, the story provides a chance to see them travel all over France, and each Latin or Celtic name is accompanied by a footnote explaining which modern town or city they're in. This provides the chance for a few regional jokes - my favourite is the joke about the traffic jams on the way to Nice in the summer. Although I haven't ever been to Nice, I have been to Devon by car and lived in Bristol for a year, so I'm very familiar with the inevitable traffic jams caused by the summer getaway!

The plot provides a nice opportunity for the French authors to revel in two of the things the French are most proud of - their cuisine, and the Resistance. There is an attempt to stick vaguely to the period with the specialities by not naming champagne and calling white Bordeaux, white Burdigala, but since the whole point of the Asterix comics is to satirise modern Europe in the guise of an ancient-set story, this is largely a celebration of modern French cuisine, and thoroughly mouth-watering it is too. Other elements of the story, meanwhile, are pure Word War Two, with various helpful townspeople sabotaging Roman transport to help our heroes get away, while a couple of traitors get their comeuppance.

The Romans here tend to come across as rather inept and not very bright, though several are presented fairly sympathetically. Plus, of course, no one actually dies, as this is a children's comic - they just get knocked out and see the obligatory stars floating above their heads. It's nice to see some Latin included as well, though readers would probably prefer it to be accompanied by a translation rather than left by itself.

I love France, so I really enjoyed this story, though the Romans featured were really too stupid to provide an effective enemy for our heroes. I'll have to get hold of one of the books featuring Caesar or Cleopatra who, while losing in the end, might give the main characters more of a run for their money!

A Breton menhir, as delivered by Obelix

*Yes, I know the first comic was written in 1959. That was a joke.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Blog Awards

I've been away all weekend at a marking standardisation meeting (which meant I spent the hottest day of the year in a windowless room, shivering in the air conditioning - typical!). I got back late because when I tried to return to Oxford from Cambridge, I accidentally headed for Ipswich - for those unfamiliar with the geography, This Was Not Right (thank you to the nice hotel receptionist who pointed me back in the right direction!).


Anyway, the point is, I didn't even have time to finish the Asterix the Gaul comic I was reading, so a proper blog post will follow next week. In the meantime, however, the lovely Ali B from Fantastic Reads has kindly given me an award!


Thank you Ali!

The award comes with some rules:
1. Send a thank you to the person who nominated you and include their link. 
2. Share seven random facts about yourself.
3. Pass the award along to at least 8 deserving bloggers.
4. Contact those bloggers to congratulate them.

I'm going to list my eight deserving bloggers first:

Cris at Here, There and Everywhere (general awesomeness, travel, marine biology)
Hasan at Three Pipe Problem (art history)
Billygean at Billygean (life in general, sometimes CFS) 
Billie Doux at Billie Doux (TV and film reviews)
Elizabeth Spann Craig at Mystery Writing is Murder, author of various southern-set mysteries
Amalia at Good to Begin Well, Better to End Well (writing and myth)
Terri Windling at The Drawing Board (art, myth and folklore)

Also, it brings it up to more than eight, but Vicky Alvear Shectar's Friday Funnies are always entertaining.

This whole thing is creepily like a chain letter really, but a nice one!

Anyway, seven facts about me:
1. I have attended a Star Trek convention, in costume. It was a very cheap costume though. No uniform.
2. When I was a teenager I wanted to be a priest, and the only reason I didn't was that I'm the wrong gender. Maybe someday.
3. I love single malt whisky, peaty, like Laphroig - neat. There will be no polluting my whisky. Also mugs.
4. Until I was about 13, I thought the Romans were really boring. I refused to take Latin in school because, as I told my mother, it's a dead language and would never be any use to me whatsoever (this was before the priest thing).
5. I love to watch Sex and the City in French. It sounds good in French. (And in English as well, of course).
6. I have slept in a school library.
7. I have eaten dinner in Liverpool Cathedral.

I shall return with Asterix as soon as I've had time to read it!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The House of the Vestals (by Steven Saylor)

 
I'm delighted to say, I have a new flash fiction (short short fiction) story up at 365 Tomorrows: 'A Shared Interest in History'. Not actually as connected to Classics as the title might sound, but there's definitely a running theme in what I'm writing at the moment..

The House of the Vestals is a collection of short stories that fills in some of the gaps in Gordianus the Finder’s earlier years, between the events of his debut novel Roman Blood and the second novel in the series, Arms of Nemesis. A mixture of stories from historical records and purely fictional mysteries, the collection is broad ranging in terms of setting, subject matter and outcome and is as enjoyable to read as all Saylor’s work. The historical material is interesting, but the real value of this book for fans of the series is the way it enriches the life history and character of the fictional Gordianus and his friends and family.

The best thing about this collection for fans is that it outlines the entire friendship between Gordianus and Lucius Claudius, a character we only meet once he’s dead in Catilina’s Riddle because the country farm he leaves Gordianus in his will is required for the plot of that novel. Here, Saylor gets a chance to introduce us properly to Lucius Claudius and explain how he and Gordianus became friends, and Lucius Claudius features in several of the stories here. He’s a thoroughly likeable character, and I found myself wishing he could feature more – while alive – in a full length novel. He’s also rather useful, as a rich and well-connected friend who doesn’t come with the mass of hidden intentions and conflicting loyalties of Cicero and other powerful (and real) people.

Another nice thing about this collection is that it gives us a glimpse of Gordianus, Eco and Bethesda’s life together when they were younger, and even better, both Eco and Bethesda get the chance to solve a mystery themselves. Bethesda, especially, always strikes me as a very underused character in the novels (though she gets a chance to shine – if that’s the right word in the circumstances – every now and again) so it’s lovely to see her get some attention here. It’s also interesting to see how she and Gordianus interact while she is still his slave, since she is absent for much of Arms of Nemesis and freed and married to Gordianus after that. Their interactions fit quite neatly with how I imagine some master/concubine relationships might have functioned, when the master is kind (and single).

The historical content in the stories is as entertaining and as accurate as ever. ‘The Tale of the Treasure House’ suffers somewhat if you know the sources, because it’s lifted almost directly from a story in Herodotus’ best known part of his Histories, his description of Egypt, with just some minor tweaking by Bethesda. Since the change is so minimal, this does make the story rather a lot less interesting when you already know it. The other historical stories, though (‘Death Wears a Mask’, ‘A Will is a Way’, ‘The Alexandrian Cat’ and ‘The House of the Vestals’) are from more obscure bits of sources and are more substantially altered or added to, while ‘Little Caesar and the Pirates’ takes inspiration from history and creates a new story around it. I particularly like the expansion of very brief historical notes in ‘A Will is a Way’, which is very effective. The reamining stories, 'The Lemures', 'The Disappearance of the Saturnalia Silver' and 'King Bee and Honey', are purely fictional, though inspired by bits and pieces of Roman literature and social history.

Saylor includes an excellent Author’s Note at the back of the book, detailing all the sources for the stories. For ‘The House of the Vestals’, he explains that he had to do an enormous amount of legwork tracking down one and two-line references to the incident in question. Luckily for those of us working on this story at the moment, two articles have since been published (in journals that are available on JSTOR, the online journal storage site, even better!) which go through all the references to the case in minute detail, thus saving the rest of us hours of trawling through Cicero and Plutarch. (Also, we now have the ability to do electronic word searches of the texts. Which helps too.) Both articles offer slightly different summaries of the case but they’re in broad agreement, and they highlight a couple of inconsistencies that lead them to different conclusions from Saylor – not that this matters, since a) Saylor’s conclusions are also perfectly reasonable, the whole incident is extremely difficult to reconstruct and b) he’s writing fiction and any changes would easily fall under artistic license anyway. But since I happen to have looked into this recently, it seemed worth bringing it up!

As always with Saylor’s books, I enjoyed this very much. There were a couple of cases in which I worked out the culprit straight away, but the resolution was never quite so clear, so apart from ‘The Tale of the Treasure House’, I was hooked throughout. There’s also something strangely satisfying about reading about Gordianus’ life when he was poorer, when it was just him and Eco and Bethesda, and when Eco was mute – like reading the scenes with the old Watch in Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, sometimes, when fictional characters make progress, you find yourself wanting to go back to how they were when you first met them. This collection provides a perfect opportunity to do so!

Monday, 20 June 2011

Spartacus (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1960)


I started a post about Spartacus back when Tony Curtis died, but quailed at the positively Herculean task that was taking it to pieces bit by bit, and left it for a while! There’s an important clue about Spartacus in the opening credits, which note that the screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, based on a novel by Howard Fast. Not based on history, or on Appian or Plutarch; on a novel. Spartacus is about story and scale and (sometimes) emotion, but it is not about history.

With that in mind, I’m not going to pick over every little detail of historical accuracy or inaccuracy in Spartacus. I will note a few of the major ones, which are fairly well known. Spartacus wasn’t born a slave as far as we know and he was never a slave in a mine in Libya – mining slaves usually died within a year or two and no lanista in his right mind would travel all the way from Capua to Libya to buy mining slaves. Julius Caesar didn’t invade Britain until 55 BC and Britain wasn’t properly conquered AD 43, so Varinia being British is unlikely at best. Gracchus appears to have been transplanted from the 120s BC, and the patricians were a group of families, not a ‘party’. Spartacus himself was probably killed in the final battle with Crassus’ troops, and his body was never found – he wasn’t crucified with his people, though the reason for that change is fairly obvious.

It’s also worth looking at the opening prologue, a really classic bit of Hollywood History, in some detail. The full prologue is: ‘In the last century before the birth of the new faith called Christianity, which was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome and bring about a new society, the Roman Republic stood at the very centre of the civilized world... Yet, even at the zenith of her pride and power, the Republic lay fatally stricken with a disease called human slavery. The age of the dictator was at hand, waiting in the shadows for the event to bring it forth.’

1. Christianity did not ‘overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome’. The Western Empire was Christian for a century before it fell and the Eastern Empire, as the Byzantine Empire, continued as a Christian empire until 1453. The Empire became Christian in AD 312, but the tyranny continued just fine.

2. The ‘centre of the civilised world’ bit depends what you mean by the world. I’m sure the Romans themselves would have agreed, but I think there were some pretty impressive civilisations in Asia who would beg to differ.

3.Slavery exists in most human societies to a greater or lesser extent; banning it is the exception, not the rule. Presumably the implication is that Christianity led to its end, which is also inaccurate. Christians and Stoics recommended that slaves should be treated well, but they did not start to argue for the end of slavery until the eighteenth century.

4.The bit about the coming of dictatorship is more accurate – Spartacus’ revolt took place in between the dictatorship of Sulla and the rise of Julius Caesar. But the emphasis on it is rather nakedly influenced by 20th century politics.

The restored scene between Laurence Olivier’s Crassus and Tony Curtis’s Antoninus is interesting. The voices are very good; when you know, you can tell it’s actually Anthony Hopkins and a much older Tony Curtis but it wouldn’t be overly noticeable if you didn’t know. The scene itself seems pretty tame to modern eyes, despite the literally steamy setting. There are a couple of problems with it, though. Firstly, the whole conversation is based on the idea that some people think sexual relations between members of the same gender to be inherently immoral. Romans didn’t think that. It was considered emasculating and effeminate for a man to be the passive sex partner, but no one had a moral problem with a Roman man being the active partner with a male slave.

The other problem is that it seems pretty clear to me that this conversation is what prompts Antoninus to run off and join Spartacus. While, obviously, a male slave wouldn’t want to be sexually assaulted any more than a female slave would, Crassus is pretty clearly painted as the bad guy throughout the film, even being credited with helping to spark off the whole rebellion in the first place. In that context, the implication of Crassus, the only non-heterosexual character in the film, as a lecherous villain from whom Antoninus flees while Spartacus and everyone around him spend their whole time when they’re not fighting making babies and even have to specify that they love each other 'like my own father/son', seems distinctly off and out-dated to me.

And why is Crassus wearing a Celtic torc?! I can only assume it’s meant to look slightly effeminate.

There are elements of Roman society that are well represented in the film. Although no one, Spartacus included, actually attempted to overthrow the institution of slavery, the way slaves are treated and the interactions between masters and slaves are well represented. I especially like the emphasis on the horror of being sold on at your master’s will. I also like the scene in which Spartacus refuses Varinia, not because he’s afflicted with twentieth-century nobility, but because he doesn’t want an audience. His screams of ‘I am not an animal!’ make sense to me as something a Roman slave would feel that might eventually incite him to rebel (even as they have me expecting to hear ‘I am not a number! I am a free man!’). The institution of slavery was never questioned, but it seems very plausible that such excessive humiliation might drive someone (especially if they had not been born a slave) to feel especially aggrieved on their own behalf and to take a more violent route rather than trying to buy or win their freedom, which was the normal method. I love Varinia’s calm reply, which gives some reason for the affection that grows up between them even though they are hardly able to talk to each other again until much later.

Spartacus is a great film but I must confess, I’ve never been able to summon up the affection for it that I have for Ben-Hur. I haven’t seen all that many of Kubrick’s films, but I think the coldness with which he directs might be part of it. Spartacus and Varinia’s relationship is sweet and Spartacus, who barely speaks and seems entirely composed of generalised aggression during the first part of the film, gains a bit more character as the story goes on, but hardly anyone else among the rebels has any discernible personality and all the shots of cute children in the world can’t make up for that. Crassus and Batiatus are a bit more rounded, largely because they’re played by Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov, both of whom could read the phone book and make it exciting, but Marcellus is a cardboard cut-out bad guy who’s thoroughly nasty, but not very interesting. Up against Ben-Hur’s conflicted, imperfect hero and impetuous but ultimately regretful ‘bad guy’, there’s no contest.

The set-pieces are less thrilling too. The initial breakout from the ludus is well done and fairly exciting but the battles after that blend into each other a bit for me and can be rather slow, like the section where Crassus’ army take aaaaages to reach the waiting rebels. Presumably it’s supposed to build tension but I just get bored waiting for the action to start. I’m a child of the 80s and 90s, I can’t help it – I want instant gratification!

The best thing about the legendary ‘I am Spartacus!’ scene is that it reinforces a central aspect of slavery – Crassus watched Spartacus fight back at the beginning, and it was a memorable fight, so you’d imagine that even after two years he might remember something of what Spartacus looks like (especially given that chin dimple!). But he can’t remember anything. He can remember the slave who tried to kill him, but not the other – a stark reminder of how little a slave’s life could mean to a master (undercut when he does eventually remember him, but still). Plus, 6000 people die for Spartacus, which is terribly, terribly noble of them all.

There are occasional whiffs of Robin Hood in this version of Spartacus' story. Crassus calls him an 'outlaw' and all those shots of the poor people he's helping, along with the story of the beautiful woman the money-grubbing enemy takes (not to mention deliberate lack of attention to historical detail), all have me half-expecting to see Errol Flynn gallop over the hill. The difference, of course, is that Robin Hood, in most of his incarnations, is much more fun. Spartacus couldn't possibly take such a gung-ho approach when it's dealing with such serious subject matter, so it's left with noble intentions and a fair amount of posturing.

The film looks fantastic (even the matte paintings are awfully pretty) and there are some really powerful individual scenes in it, but they tend to be a bit on the episodic side. Still, it’s hard not to be moved by a film which ends with a historically accurate crucifixion of 6000 people. Plus, the maneuovering of Batiatus and escape of Varinia and the baby, and the final tearful goodbye (because apparently they're travelling north to France via the road that goes south) are fabulous, even if by this point you're desperate for the bathroom because it's soooooo loooooooong... sooo loooonnnnggggg....

Whadd'ya mean, the Romans didn't have eyelash curlers?!

Friday, 17 June 2011

How I Met Your Mother: Desperation Day


I realise this post is hopelessly wide of the proper time of year, but we only just got to see this episode in the UK! If I wait until next February I'll never remember it.

This is How I Met Your Mother's Season 6 Valentine's Day episode. I watched the first few episodes of the first series and then moved house without my TV, so I've only just recently started getting into the show again. This was a pretty good episode - I especially enjoyed Marshall and Ted's reversion to their teenage years, since they're supposed to be roughly the same age as me and I recognised my old Gameboy and MarioKart obsession, and while we don't go out and pick up random men, my single friends and I have been known to get together on Valentine's Day, usually to watch romantic comedies. Any wearing of purple is accidental though.

The reason I'm blogging it is that Barney's explanation of 'Desperation Day' (February 13th) involves a fantasy Roman-set sequence with the main characters dressed up as Romans. You can tell they're Romans because they're wearing white sheet-type things with leaf-crowns on their heads and Cobie Smulders as Robin even has a go at speaking The Queen's Latin (though since no one else is doing that, it sounds pretty weird).

Now, I know that the object of comic fantasy sequences in How I Met Your Mother is not historical accuracy, but I would be a traitor to my profession if I didn't point out a few salient points. The sequence springs from Barney's statement that 'Weddings were forbidden under Roman law, so St Valentine performed them under threat of death', to which Ted adds, 'That's actually true'.

Er, no it's not.

Does anyone know where this idea comes from? There were a few Valentines mentioned in early Christian matryologies, at least two of whom were supposedly martyred in the third century AD, so Valentine as a Roman makes sense enough. But Valentine's Day as we know it originated in the Middle Ages and the only people who weren't allowed to get married in ancient Rome were slaves. Is this a medieval tradition? Was St Valentine particularly connected with slaves? Is it a random bit of Catholic folklore (though if so, it's not on the Catholic Encyclopedia)? Is it fiction invented for the show (though I think Ted's comment rules that out)?

While I'm nit-picking, Romans didn't wear white for weddings, or not all white anyway. Bridal veils were 'flame-coloured' (opinion differs as to exactly which colour is meant by this!).

This was one of those times when I wished I could switch off my inner historian and just watch the show, because while I was staring at the screen mentally yelling 'What? NO!' the dialogue was moving on and was very funny, as Barney said 'Wait! There's more' and Ted put in 'This won't be [true]'. The fantasy sequence was funny too - I kinda love St Desperatius, who probably ought to go make friends with Bilious the Oh God of Hangovers, 'Player, play on' sounds Shakespearian but sort of works because Shakespeare is so well connected with Rome in the popular imagination, and Robin wins the prize for an actually historically accurate joke with her line, 'Fifteen and still unmarried!' (Barney's 'And I thought Pompeii was smoking' is also reasonably historically accurate, but not as funny).

The best resource I could find for St Valentine was the Catholic Encyclopedia which, while obviously biased, is a pretty good reference tool for Late Antiquity, as it usually cites its sources (though 'tradition' broadly means 'not the slightest idea', I think). Please comment if anyone knows of an ancient source that refers to St Valentine, as I'm genuinely perplexed on this one!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Rome: Passover


Previously on Rome, Season 1: Death. Sadness. A total lack of Shakespearian dialogue.

As this episode opens, Mark Antony emerges from the Senate, fresh from Caesar's murder, looking shell-shocked. We know what a substantial proportion of the audience is expecting; a Shakespearian speech. No sign of that yet, though, as he's too busy fighting off assassins sent by Cassius. This is actually much more historically accurate than Shakespeare - in fact, the whole episode is much closer to some kind of amalgamation of the various accounts than most depictions of this particular event. This, I suspect, is because the long, drawn-out process that was Caesar's funeral and Antony's popular victory over Brutus is much better suited to a slowly building television episode than to a film or even a novel. (There is one major inaccuracy, which is Octavian's presence - he wasn't even in Italy at the time. But they make it work, story-wise, so I quite like it).

Brutus is having a Lady Macbeth moment, madly washing his face and shaking like a leaf. Everyone's feeling Shakespearian today. Servilia tells him he must be strong but the poor guy looks in need of a valium.

Posca weeps over Caesar's body and this moment is truly tragic - and is blended straight into a shot of the Godfather, still holding Niobe's body and weeping too. Then the pesky child who caused all the trouble by being born makes the mistake of showing his face and the Godfather attacks first him, then his daughter who actually hadn't done anything wrong at all (except lying). Unusually for a Roman father, he is actually angry because his daughter didn't have sex outside marriage. Luckily Niobe's sister reappears from nowhere to comfort the daughter as the Godfather storms off, cursing them all. As he wanders off he hears all the cries of 'Caesar is dead!' in the streets, at which point he realises he's really f*cked up this afternoon.

Atia is actually crying and being comforted by her old slave woman, though whether she's upset or panicked is hard to say. Octavian sensibly points out to Octavia that the fact it's partly their fault should not be mentioned. Atia has called Timon to get them out of the city. Octavian suggests waiting to see what Antony does but Atia is convinced he must be dead because he hasn't come to get her. Atia orders the slaves to fetch the money and household gods (yay for random bits of historical accuracy and a sort of allusion to the Aeneid!) at which point, much to Timon's irritation, Antony actually does turn up and immediately strips (he does have blood on him, to be fair).

Antony thinks the Godfather was paid off, but Atia somehow knows what really happened. She then proceeds to rip into Antony for not taking on half the Senate with his bare hands. Antony's plan is to raise an army in the north, which Atia objects to because it's 'ghastly'.

The Godfather has a strange encounter with a weird old soothsayer who nuts him on the head, presumably to rob him. Dodgey, meanwhile, blissfully unaware of what's going on, is busy proposing to Eirene, who accepts, apparently on the strength of his promise to buy her lots of shoes.

Antony and his gang go to get Calpurnia, because it'll look bad if they run off promising to avenge Caesar and leave his wife behind. She is watching a wet nurse squeeze milk into Caesar's dead mouth, and I'm sure some researcher got this from some obscure ancient source but seriously, did anyone really do that? What if there weren't any handy lactating women around? Hmm. Calpurnia is puzzled as to why no one has come to pay their respects to Caesar, which suggests either she's lost it through grief or she was bizarrely clueless in the first place. She refuses to budge and insists that they must read Caesar's will (Hayden Gwynne is excellent here by the way).

Posca reads the will and it reveals that Caesar has adopted Octavian and left him everything, except Posca himself, who has been freed. Mark Antony is Not Impressed (to such an extent that this requires Capital Letters). He takes up a defeatist attitude and declares that none of it will count because Brutus, Cassius and the rest will take it all, but Octavian points out that the name 'Caesar' is still his, no matter what happens. This prompts him finally to take charge as head of the family and put his foot down, insisiting they stay where they are and giving Antony, who wants to eat Brutus et al's livers (with fava beans and a nice Chianti?), detailed instructions on how to keep them all alive. In the end, as Posca and Antony argue, it's Atia who has the final say, swayed by the idea of lots of money and this greatest of victories over Servilia. They stay.

Ian McNeice, the town crier, unsug hero of the series, I think. Fabulous use of traditional rhetorical gestures.

News of Caesar's death finally reaches Dodgey and Eirene and they ride for Rome. The Godfather wakes up in a puddle with a head wound while Niobe's sister (Esther Hall, best known these days for those annoying BT ads, putting in a great performance of silent weeping while she tries to comfort the daughter and dresses Niobe's body) and the kids get a visit from the local mob.

Cicero enthusiastically congratulates the conspirators and tells them how disappointed he is that they didn't include him (as he really did in his letters). He assumes they've killed Mark Antony and points out what a bad idea it is to leave him alive, to which Brutus sulkily tells him to kill him himself. Cicero, a man who knows which side his bread is buttered, immediately tries to run away - unfortuantely, right into Antony, who's just walked in.

Dodgey finds the Godfather, who has made it back to his house and gone catatonic. He tells Dodgey he was going to kill Niobe before she did it herself (I still don't think he would have). Now, while he was in a funk and after he cursed them, all the children and the sister have disappeared. Kevin McKidd's performance is wonderfully jittery, and for once Dodgey is the sanest person on the scene, which is worrying in itself.

Cicero straight away gets Brutus to confirm to Antony that he wasn't involved in the assassination (goodness that man is a weasel!). Antony points out that killing Caesar does not appear to have been a popular move (he says many people 'will worship Caesar until they die' which is a rather nice line considering Caesar's later deification). He further points out that if all Caesar's actions are nullified, none of them hold their positions any more (as Octavian had pointed out to him earlier). He tells them he wants peace and stability and James Purefoy finds a wonderful way to enable the audience to hear the fact that Antony's lying, knowing Octavian has put him up to this, but sounding convincing enough to swing Brutus and Cassius. He pretends he wants to retire and persuades them to organise Caesar's funeral jointly with him, so they don't have to fight and kill each other.

Cassius, Servilia and Cicero (in his roundabout way), try to persuade Brutus to kill Antony, but Brutus, unaware that Octavian is pulling the strings, doesn't see brutish Antony as a threat. They hug and Antony gives him a kiss that's Judas Iscariot and Micheal Corleone all rolled into one. It's a wonderfully tense scene and for a moment you wonder if, against all historical record, Brutus really is going to kill Antony. Purefoy's expression as he walks away speaks volumes and you really feel the idiocy of Brutus, thinking this man is not a threat. Antony does stop to murder Pompey's illegitimate son on the way out, to make himself feel better.

Dodgey cleans the Godfather up and it finally occurs to him maybe he shouldn't have cursed his own children. Dodgey tries to reassure him that they'll come back, blissfully unaware they've been taken and sold into slavery by the mob.

Caesar's funeral, complete with eulogies by Brutus and Mark Antony, is announced for the next day. Servilia comes to pay her respects to Caesar and Calpurnia spits on her (yay!). Then she spits on her again (yay again!). Then she lets her past (boo!).

Octavian fills Dodgey in on the whole sorry saga, which unfortunately involves admitting to the fact the whole business with Niobe and the Godfather was his fault. Since he's quite powerful, Dodgey forgives him and offers to help him avenge Caesar. The Godfather, meanwhile, is rocking.

Next morning, Antony is feeling confident and his threat to have sex with Atia's old nurse is really quite amusing (especially Atia's response, that she'd eat him alive). This is a really heavy episode, and the moment of lightness, in anticipation of what much of the audience knows is indeed going to be a pretty successful day for him, is very welcome. Also, Atia's funeral dress really suits her, but that's neither here nor there.

The Godfather is still rocking and wants to wait for the children before having Niobe's funeral, which is not a good idea in a relatively hot country. Luckily he has Dodgey, and it's really nice to see Dodgey looking after him for a change, rather than vice versa.

 Solemn Funeral Face

Funerals happen and everyone looks appropriately solemn (except Dodgey, who's... drinking). Then doors are opened to the crowd, and it's finally time for some speeches - this is where, historically, the famous 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen!' speech comes in and much of the audience knows it and is waiting for it.

Except we don't get to hear it.

In a sense, I can see why the writers didn't want to include the actual speech - who wants to take on Shakespeare?! But to be honest, I can't help feeling they've chickened out a bit. Antony goads Brutus with what a successful speech he's made and insists Brutus must leave the city, but it's hard to enjoy his success when we haven't heard a word of the speech. (Servilia refuses to leave and Antony is fine with that because he wants to crow over her in person). The speech must have been quite something because Cassius is hugging himself as he's been kicked in the stomach and he's taken over rocking from the Godfather, but still - without hearing it, we're not feeling it.

Dodgey and the Godfather come home to find a neighbour looting the place ('only for things I lent!') who tells them that the mob have taken the children. The Other Godfather is in the pub, where one of his friends is describing Brutus and Antony's speeches, including the display of Caesar's bloody toga and everything. This would have been so much more impressive if we'd actually seen Antony do it, rather than hearing the badly-accented mob minion's drunken version. The Other Godfather did not enjoy the speeches and insists on 'observing the decencies' and we're all waiting for him to explain the importance of 'respect', but he doesn't.

His irritation doesn't last long, as Dodgey and the Godfather show up and murder them all. The Godfather looks like a demon from Hades, all covered in blood with mad eyes, and he responds as one might expect to The Other Godfather's calm assertion that he raped and murdered the children. The episode ends as he carries The Other Godfather's head towards the river to dispose of it.

Well, that was a cheerful hour! Thank goodness for Antony's voracious sexual appetite, it was the only smile in it - as was to be expected, but that doesn't make it light viewing, nonetheless. This is a very good episode, really tight, effective, well paced, maintaining an extraordinary level of tension, with stunning performances all round. Just don't watch it in a bad mood, it'll only make it worse.

The title of the episode is very interesting - 'Passover' means freedom from slavery to Jews (suggesting a certain sympathy with Caesar's killers?), the sacrifice of one to save many to Christians (the sacrifice of Caesar which will eventually be to the benefit of Octavian and, through the Pax Augusta, all of Rome?) but I think the most relevant connotation of the word is the notion of sparing the first-born son. By passing over Antony and Octavian, now Caesar's son, the conspirators have signed their own death warrents.  

Mmm, James Purefoy.

I still think some part of Antony's speech should have been shown (personally, I would have shown visuals of the crowd lapping up the speech and Antony displaying Caesar's bloody toga while playing the score loudly over the top so we couldn't hear the words). Without any kind of visual, it's hard to really appreciate its impact, and if you looked away from the screen for a few moments, you'd wonder what on earth put Antony ahead of Brutus. On the other hand, the seeds of Antony and Octavian's eventual split are very effectively shown with a few words and a few more facial expressions, and among the excellent performances, Max Pirkis' ever calm, calculating Octavian stands out, a man who knows exactly what he's been given the minute he hears Posca read Caesar's will...

Friday, 10 June 2011

Horrible Histories: Crazy Caligula

I've just acquired a positively frightening amount of work to do by next Tuesday, covering for someone, so I'm afraid I'll have to take a little unplanned break from blogging for a few days! In the meantime, I thought y'all might enjoy this video from the Horrible Histories TV series, which I blogged about a while back.


The interesting thing about this video is the selection of bits of information about Caligula that can be presented to children, since quite a lot of his reign would have to have a 15 rating! It's worth noting that when the video says 'True' it actually means 'found in Suetonius' - this is not, in fact, quite the same thing as 'true'. It's real gossip - whether it's real fact or not is quite another matter! (and the whole horse-consul business inevitably comes up again). I should also add that this is not the real Josephus, he worked with Vespasian.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Little Mermaid (dir. Ron Clements and John Musker, 1989)

I have Guest Posted over at Three Pipe Problem on Muses and Memory, and I've got a new article on portrayals of Nazis in film at Sound on Sight, do go and take a look!

Today's post is part of the Oceanic Blog-a-Thon Crazy Cris hosts every year for World Oceans Day. Every year I have lots of ideas and never quite find the time to research them properly (i.e. re-read the books!) but hopefully a few nostalgic thoughts on one of my favourite films will fit the bill and provide an 'Oceans' post that's a bit different.

I absolutely adored The Little Mermaid as a child. I had a picture book of the original Hans Christian Anderson story and I knew how Disneyfied the film was, with its sugury sweetness and happy ending, but I didn't care - I loved both. I actually wanted to be a mermaid, which is probably a bit weird, but there you go (I used to make an underwater cave out of my duvet, and I used to lie flat on a swing and pretend to be swimming. You can just have me committed now). Mermaids themselves aren't that common in Classical mythology, though they do appear, and I talked about them in my post on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But there is one indisputably Classical element in the film, which is Ariel's father Triton the Sea King.

When I was little, I knew that Triton was vaguely Greek or Roman and assumed that he was the Sea God. Of course, as I later discovered, he isn't. The God of the Sea is Poseidon, in Greek, or Neptune, in Latin, the brother of Zeus/Jupiter and Hades/Pluto. Triton, or the tritons, is/are the son or sons of Poseidon/Neptune, a more minor sea divinity or sea creature(s). I suspect there were two main reasons for naming Ariel's father Triton rather than Neptune; the name is more closely related to the three-pronged trident that he wields as a weapon, and more importantly, unlike Neptune, the tritons were sometimes depicted in art as fish-tailed.

Heracles fights Triton, Greek, 6th century BC

All the underwater creatures in The Little Mermaid are either based on real sea-creatures or are in the traditional mermaid-form of half-human, half-fish (in Ursula's case, half-octopus) so it made more sense for the filmmakers to use Triton, rather than the humanoid god Neptune, as Ariel the mermaid's father. Triton is also thematically linked to the story of The Little Mermaid through music; one story has him drowning a human who challenged him in conch-playing.

The Little Mermaid is one of those stories usually referred to as 'fairy tales' even though technically, they should be called short stories, as they are neither traditional tales with no author, nor stories about fairies (or Faerie, or Fair Folk, or whatever). Hans Christian Anderson's tales and some of Oscar Wilde's, like The Selfish Giant, often get this attribution. I wonder if it's because many of us were read these stories when we were very small, alongside actual fairy tales, and did not know or care about the difference. The Little Mermaid certainly plays with fairy-tale-type creatures and characters, and the use of the Classical, mythological Triton as her father in the film cements her place as a mythy, folky character, accurate or not.

As his father Neptune does in Classical mythology, Triton holds supreme power over the sea, and so does the sea-witch Ursula when she takes his trident and reduces him to a worm-thing. Being the Bad Guy, Ursula is a bit more keen on using this awesome power than Triton himself. She can call up storms and whirlpools at will and is lethal to human beings (unless you manage to drive your boat into her and kill her, a death that seemed a lot more gruesome than I remembered when I watched it back as an adult). This metaphorical representation of the power of the sea, together with the storm from which Ariel rescues Eric early on, introduces child viewers to a very real danger through mythological means. As gorwn-ups and especially the sea-faring ancient Greeks know, the sea is enormously powerful, far more so than any ship. In ancient mythology, Poseidon/Neptune is frequently a metaphor for the simple power and unpredictability of the sea itself, and Triton and Ursula play the same role here. Luckily, this is Disney, and the happy couple are, in the end, confident enough that Triton has given them his blessing to sail off for their honeymoon in a boat...

Monday, 6 June 2011

Doctor Who: A Good Man Goes to War


Dirty great spoilers for the most massively over-hyped episode of Doctor Who thus far follow, so look away now if you don't want to be spoiled.

'Over-hyped' does not necessarily mean 'bad' - I very much enjoyed this episode, though some of the dialogue was perhaps a wee tad on the melodramatic side. The repetition of how the Doctor would face his darkest hour really didn't ring true for me. He accidentally got some people killed (which is bad, admittedly) and got tricked. Oh dear. This is the same man who committed acts of genocide against both his own race and their enemies, yes? I don't think this was actually his darkest hour, somehow.

It probably was Rory's though. I wasn't sure about the reappearance of the centurion costume at first. It was last seen in the context of Amy and Rory's honeymoon sex games in the Christmas special and did look rather silly, especially since the futuristic soldiers were wearing current-style uniforms. As the episode went on, though, I realised just how effective the costume actually was. The Nurse Sontaran, who came from a society entirely obsessed with warfare (like the Spartans, I suppose, but wearing more clothes thank goodness), was a clear mirror for Nurse Rory Williams, who, for this episode at least, has metamorphosed entirely into a solider and to whom the title refers, just as much as it refers to the Doctor (Amy's opening lines, which play with audience expectations and must have led a fair few fans to think for a second or two that the Doctor really was the father of Amy's baby, are an inidication of how much the characters are intended to be viewed in a similar way throughout this episode).

Uniform, as far as I can tell (never having been in any armed forces myself), is a very important thing to members of the armed forces. It changes according to promotion or demotion, it marks you out from the enemy and it is a badge of honour that declares that you have served your country and risked your life for it. To wear a uniform you're not entitled to would be utterly wrong. But once you've served and worn a uniform, even if you leave, you always have something of a right to it - for example when characters in Dad's Army wear their old First World War uniforms if they haven't got Home Guard ones. Rory is dressed as a Roman because he served in the Roman army as a centurion. I'm still a little unclear on exactly what was going on with the plastic Romans in 'The Pandorica Opens' and 'The Big Bang' and I'm not entirely sure what their relationship to the actual Roman army was, but I think it's safe to say that somewhere over the course of two thousand years, Rory probably did some active service as a Roman soldier. The uniform in this episode doesn't represent Romans, it represents Rory the soldier, a Rory who fights and hunts down his enemies, rather than healing, as he did in a former life.


Ralph Fiennes at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, last Saturday. It's relevant, I promise - read on!

This is especially satisfying for me as a Classicist because it's a reminder of the similarities between ourselves and the past. I'm sure I've talked before about how people from the past can be represented as either very like ourselves, or entirely different from ourselves, depending on the writer's intentions (and in fact I'm giving a paper on the subject in July). Often the Romans are the Other, the not-us, but this episode, by mixing up Silurians, Sontarans, Cybermen and Romans together with Moffat's weird militaristic future church (the Roman Catholic Church perhaps?)  deliberately draws parallels between military forces from different times and places, between lots of good men and women going to war. By a weird coincidence, I was at the Hay festival this weekend and went to a talk by Ralph Fiennes about his new film version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus (sadly not out until next year) which does exactly the same thing, moving a Roman story about war and warriors, dramatised by Shakespeare, into a modern setting, because as Finnes sees it, the characters and themes and emotions of the story and timeless and universal. (The film looks brilliant, by the way). Because Romans are often viewed as so different, with all the orgies and so on, drawing the audience's attention to the similarities between us and them can be particularly effective.

River was a bit too preoccupied to do anything archaeological in this episode, though I will say, give a child a 900-year-old cot, what do you expect them to grow up into? Half the internet guessed the big revelation - and pointed it out to the other half - weeks ago, so no surprises there and although it's logical and kind of fun, there is a slightly uncomfortable Twilight-y edge to the Doctor banging Amy's daughter - he didn't imprint on her, did he?! Also, why didn't she just regenerate in 'Forest of the Dead'? Maybe she'd run out of regenerations. This does solve one niggly problem though, that of Alex Kingston growing older while her character grows younger. We can go as young or as old as we want and we don't even need an actress that looks like her! Sorted.

As I said, I enjoyed this episode a lot, though I look forward eagerly to the day I don't spend half an episode of Doctor Who wondering what the frell is going on. I also hope we get to see more of Hugh Bonneville, Space Pirate! in the really stupidly titled next episode, as he was totally wasted here. Matt Smith was brilliant though - I have finally been converted. And maybe, just maybe, we'll actually get to find out some more about the Doctor's own family and possibly even where Susan came from in the next bit of the series, now that Amy, who is not a person to let a thing go once it's been brought to her attention, has started asking questions...

Edited to add: I complete forgot to praise the use of language in this episode! English, as a language, has an unusually enormous vocabulary and there are loads of words that you just can't quite translate from one language to another. It was wonderful to see this not only acknowledged but used as a plot point!

Edited to further add: I should probably also draw attention to the fact that Amy's father was called Augustus and River was 'in the care of' Father Octavian. Octavian and Augustus were, of course, the same person. Is this just a really obscure, nerdy in-joke, or is there a deeper meaning to it?

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Pandora (by Anne Rice)

I'll be away at the Hay festival with no internet access until next week, so I'll return next Monday with a review of the Doctor Who mid-series-not-quite-a-finale-more-like-a-Sweeps-episode-except-we-don't-have-those-in-this-country thing, 'A Good Man Goes to War' (which has both River and Roman Rory in it).

For fans of The Roman Mysteries, Caroline Lawrence has just released the first book in a new childrens' mystery series, The Western Mysteries, which I've reviewed over at Fantastic Reads. Thanks to Caroline for sending me a review copy of the book and to Ali for hosting the review!

Thanks also to Hasan from Three Pipe Problem, who kindly sent me a copy of a very different Roman history-based book. I'm not sure if I've read any Anne Rice before; I might have done. What happened was, a long time ago (it must have been about fifteen years ago I think) I was staying in a hotel in London with my parents. I had my own room in a really nice hotel that was decorated like an old-fashioned living room and had a shelf of books in it. I've always had trouble sleeping and I picked up a book at random, which turned out to be a romantic story about a vampire. All I really remember is that it involved a trip to the opera in the late nineteenth century, and possibly also to the ballet. Yes, definitely the ballet. Or maybe I'm mixing it up with that episode of Angel. Anyway, I got halfway through the book, fell asleep, and the next morning we left the hotel and I never finished it. I assume that the book must have been an Anne Rice, but I didn't bother to check at the time so really, it could have been anything.

What this means is that I came to Pandora with only the limited knowledge of Anne Rice's world that you can get from watching Interview with the Vampire a few years back, and with a confused head full of Buffy, True Blood and Twilight. (Yes, I've read Twilight. All the first three, not the fourth. I really like the first two, the third one got too weird. There's nothing wrong with a good trashy read from time to time. I've been re-reading Sweet Valley High recently as well). Pandora is apparently one of the 'New Tales of the Vampires' and I get the feeling it's aimed at a loyal readership who are familiar with Rice's world and her characters, beyond a vague knowledge that Lestat is Tom Cruise (yum). No one sparkled, obviously, but I did occasionally get a bit lost trying to work out which rules applied to these particular vampires and which didn't!


Tom Cruise as Lestat. Yum.

As far as I can tell, Rice!Vampires are extremely similar to TrueBlood!Vampires. However, while Harris may have taken inspiration from Rice's vampires to create her own, there is one crucial difference between the two sets of books - Harris knows how to find the funny. Her series knows full well how daft it is and her characters are self-aware, her heroine's narration dry and often hilarious. Rice perhaps puts herself at a disadvantage, funny-wise, by writing from the point of view of the vampire, but that's not the only issue. Pandora, narrating her own story, makes frequent references to ancient comedies that Rice obviously loves as much as I do, but none of that humour comes through in her own story, which is told is a dry and terribly pompous manner. I'm afraid this made the book occasionally hard-going for me, as I have a tendency to avoid anything that entirely misplaces its sense of humour, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy the book at all - the story was well paced and usually interesting, and the characters reasonably well drawn, especially the anti-heroine.

The story follows Pandora, formerly Lydia, a Roman vampire who's taken the name of the woman from Greek mythology who unleashed all sorts of evils on the world by opening a jar (very Symbolic). Rice has clearly done her homework, and name-checks a wide variety of ancient sources, including Suetonius, Tacitus, Apuleius, Ovid (lots of Ovid), Plautus and so on. She ties Pandora the Roman vampire's story into the story of Tiberius and Sejanus and also to Germanicus, which gives it a nice sense of being firmly located in history, and her characters behave in a reasonably Roman manner for the most part (though I'm not sure why a Greek has the very Roman name 'Flavius'). The only thing that's missing is a sense of what made ancient authors like Ovid or Apuleius so successful - that missing sense of humour and fun.

I was surprised to realise that the book focuses almost entirely on Pandora's human life (partly because of a misleading bit of blurb on the back). Much of this story might simply be a novel about a woman's misfortunes under the reign of Tiberius. This allows the story to take its time and really explore Pandora's character and situation, which is nice. The problem with this approach emerges at the end of the novel, at which point Rice suddenly rushes through two hundred years of history in a hurry to get Pandora to where she is in the opening, twentieth century sequence (a story which, I get the feeling, is designed to fill in blanks in earlier novels that I haven't read). Not only is this section horribly awkwardly narrated in places, the narrator urging readers not to bother remembering all the names she keeps throwing at them, but insisting on mentioning them anyway (just leave out the names if they're that unimportant) but in her rush, errors start to creep into Rice's research. Suddenly, we get 'monks' a good couple of centuries too early, a description of second century emperors in general that better fits third century emperors and a truly bizarre spelling of the word 'deities' (as 'dieties' - Slim Fast fanatics?!).

'Pandora's' overview of the way social history developed during this period clearly follows the classic assessment of E. R. Dodds in his most famous scholarly work, The Greeks and the Irrational. Dodds argued that rationality ruled hearts and minds during the Classical Athenian period in the fifth century BC and again during the Roman Republic but that, from the second century AD onwards, society crumbled into growing 'irrationality' and religious fervour, finally culminating in the success of Christianity. His argument is still widely accepted today, but it's one that I am less convinced by than many others, and that I have argued against in my thesis, as I don't believe any particular century in the ancient world was that much less rational than any other century. It's a popular analysis, though, and it fits with Rice's preoccupations in this book, much of which is concerned with working through arguments about faith, religious fanaticism and rationality.

Pandora's 'conversion' to vampire is connected to the mystery cult of Isis and Osiris, a subject I've written about a few times here - but it's also intimately connected to Rice's vampire mythology, and I get the definite feeling that there's a whole lot going on here that I won't fully appreciate without reading more of Rice's books. Still, going just on this book, the Isis connection actually works rather well. Mystery cults were so secretive that they offer great ground for authors to play in, since it's virtually impossible to prove or disprove anything you say about them. Isis is particularly suitable for a vampire story, since bringing her husband back to life and conceiving a child by magic from a dead body with no vital male organ is such an important part of her mythology - it fits beautifully with the vampiric themes of unlife from death and non-sexual (well, metaphorically sexual) reproduction. I also liked the use of Near Eastern names and others for Isis and Osiris, which I assume relates to Rice's other books but which also parallels the ancient habit of conflating different gods together quite neatly.


Vincent Perez as Marius, Pandora's lover and sort-of-maker (there are three different vampires involved, it's complicated), in the movie version of
Queen of the Damned. Which I haven't seen, but even if I had, I'd probably just be even more confused!

For the most part, this is a fun enough, if slightly pretentious, novel about a woman struggling to survive in Tiberius' Rome and Antioch. Then at the end she gets turned into a vampire. Pandora is a strong character and her story brightened up a dull afternoon sitting in my car waiting for the breakdown repair man, but characters arguing about religion and faith in novels isn't to my personal taste, and I need a bit more self-deprecation in my first-person narrators. I also wanted more about Flavius, the one-legged philospher-vampire, but perhaps he belongs in another book as well. I'm sure there are other readers, though, who will revel in Pandora's struggle to find meaning, her encounters with strange dark temples and vampire queens who sound more like mummies to me (Vampire Mummies? Has anyone written about those? Now there's an idea...). I certainly get the sense that knowing this story will enrich Rice's other novels for regular readers, and that if I ever read any more of her work, I'll probably have a greater appreciation for this one.

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