Friday, 28 December 2012

5 Suggested New Year's Resolutions for Historical Writers

It's that time of year when other people make resolutions about how they will improve their lives over the next twelve months. (I don't, I'm afraid, I gave up long ago. The only New Year's Resolution I've so far managed to keep was Project 365, which was rather fun). So in the spirit of the season, I thought I'd offer the writers, producers, directors, artists and all others involved in producing films, TV shows and books based on the Classical world a few suggestions for their 2013 New Year's Resolutions.

1. Remember that there are languages other than Latin.
Plutarch wrote in Greek. The inscription at the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi, in Greece, was (oddly enough) in Greek. The common language used for communication in the Eastern part of the Empire was Greek. Even Julius Caesar's famous last words were spoken in Greek. Some if these alterations are understandable as no one wants to confuse the audience too much - but Lisa Simpson's claim that Plutarch wrote in Latin is just plain wrong.
How to do it right: Not only do the Roman Mysteries books cover Nubia's slow improvement in Latin with care and sympathy, the children's TV series actually includes subtitled Greek when it shows Lupus' backstory. Goodness knows what young viewers thought, but I was impressed.

2. Go easy on the Minotaurs.
In Classical mythology, there was one Minotaur. It was the offspring of Pasiphae and the bull she fell madly in love with. It lived in the middle of the Labyrinth and was fed with regular sacrifices of virgins. Now, I don't really mind authors, filmmakers and artists playing around with mythology; there's nothing inherently wrong with populating one's fantasy with multiple minotaurs, and the recent Narnia movies in particular do quite interesting things with them. It's just that recently minotaurs seem to have become just another monster, playing no real role beyond showing off the skills of the special effects department. The Minotaur is a specific character from a specific story - it would be nice to see that reflected once in a while.
How to do it right: Um, I can't think of any pop cultural examples of the actual Minotaur. I'm sure there must be some, somewhere. Otherwise, the closest might be Doctor Who's 'The Horns of Nimon,' and that's just depressing.

3. Let archaeologists be archaeologists
'Scientists' are not a great big homogenous group who all do the same thing. The different branches of science are all unique and different from each other. Archaeology belongs with the human sciences, linked to sociology and anthropology, and is a very different beast from, say, nuclear physics. Archaeologists often have a certain linguistic expertise and there is some overlap between archaeology and anthropology, and between archaeology and philology, especially when one studies the ancient near east or Egypt, but archaeologists are not omnidisciplinary scientists. They cannot translate every language under the sun off the tops of their heads, they are not usually all that handy with a gun and believe it or not, not all of them wear glasses.
Of course, I might just be jealous because Classicists and ancient historians never get played by Harrison Ford, carrying a whip.
How to do it right: Lintilla the archaeologist in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (second radio series) is pretty handy in a crisis, but in terms of training and occupation, she stick to digging in the ground looking for the remnants of past civilizations.

4. Come up with something beyond 'it was Christianity's fault' to account for the fall of the Roman Empire
Christianity was certainly a factor in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but watching popular films, you'd think it was the only thing that brought an end to Roman civilzation. Whether it's the 1950s story of wonderful, moral Christianity overcoming the nasty, immoral Romans or Agora's story of the lovely, philosophical, wise Romans being overcome by nasty, evil Christians, either way, Christianity is held solely accountable for the fall of one of the world's most famous empires. In fact, Constantine the Great adopted a favorable position towards Christianity nearly 100 years before the Romans pulled out of Britain and not far off 200 years before the city of Rome was overrun. Christianity had its part to play in the decline of Roman civilization for sure, particularly in the decline of institutions like bath houses, that Christians thought were immoral, but it was only one factor of many.
How to do it right: Fall of the Roman Empire tried to introduce more complex details into the story, though this didn't go down too well with audiences.

5. Try to use orgies ironically
Ah, the Roman orgy. Such a well known trope of ancient Roman-set fiction. The trouble is, it's a concept that came about in the early twentieth century - real Romans were no more or less likely to engage in orgiastic activity than any other culture. I'm sure some of them had orgies, and some of the orgies depicted on film and television are what we might call real rumours (Suetonius reports that Caligula opened a brothel in the palace, for example). But while in some ways attitudes towards sex and sexuality in ancient Rome were very different from ours (slaves had no rights to their own bodies, male adultery was acceptable to many but female adultery was not, attitudes towards homosexuality depended partly on the relationship and positions employed), there were some similarities, and general social disapproval of wild sex parties was one of them. (Social and legal taboos against brother-sister and parent-child incest were another - the point of the stories about Caligula, Nero and the others were to make them look bad).
How to do it right: In Rome's second season, Agrippa lectures Maecenas on moral virtue and then carries Octavia back to her mother, forcing her to admit that she was at an orgy. It's hilarious and filmed with a distinct sense of post-modern ironic humour (whether deliberately so or not).

Happy New Year everyone! Here's to 2013!

More Top 5 Lists

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Hobbit (dir. Peter Jackson, 2012)

OK, there's nothing Classical in The Hobbit. It's Christmas, I don't care!

There are some spoilers near the bottom for the next couple of films, so if you don't want to read on the short version is - I loved it.

I did have one Classics-related thought during the film (I'm always on duty!). During one of the Radagast scenes, he said something about 'witchcraft' and, to the eternal shame of my inner feminist, for a moment I thought, 'huh? I don't remember a witch in this story. What's that about? Is this a new storyline?' Of course, it wasn't, it was a reference to the Witch-King of Angmar, aka the head of the Black riders, and to his buddy the Necromancer, since necromancy is a form of witchcraft. I had become so conditioned to the idea that witches are women that, despite my familiarity with both Tolkien's world and non-gender-specific witchcraft, my brain did a little double take for a moment.

Part of the reason for that sexist instinctive response is that modern fantasy often assumes that a 'witch' is a woman, whereas a 'wizard' is a man (whether or not witches are bad and wizards good, as is sometimes the case).  Occasionally the word 'warlock' is used for a male witch, as in Merlin; sometimes 'witch' and 'wizard' are the male and female versions of the same thing, as in Harry Potter, and sometimes magically-inclined women are 'witches' and magically-inclined men are 'wizards,' with the two being slightly different things, as in the Discworld series. (Good old True Blood has male witches, but I can't think of any other examples off the top of my head).

This idea that witches are women presumably dates back to the early modern witch-hunts in Europe and America, in which the witches/victims were predominantly women. This isn't my area, so I'm not sure exactly how that came to be the case, but somewhere in the mess of mean-ness and paranoia, witchcraft became thought of as a female thing. (I remember a friend of mine telling me once that young women who accused older women of witchcraft were often hurling themselves down stairs etc in an attempt to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy - perhaps the older women were midwives/abortionists? Or it might be something to do with the association of witchcraft with the Devil, the Devil with sexual naughtiness, and sexual naughtiness with women? I'll be honest, I really have no idea!).

The point is, as JRR Tolkien was well aware, witchcraft is not always - perhaps not even usually - associated with women. (His good friend CS Lewis would have been equally aware of this, but chose to ignore it). The people we call 'witch-doctors' (probably something of a misunderstanding of what they do, but still) are usually men. I'm sure there are plenty of cultures around the world where 'witchcraft' is non-gender-specific or even male-dominated. And, in the Classical world, witchcraft could be associated with men or women.

It has to be said, even in Greece and Rome, the stereotypical witch was, just as it is now, an ugly old woman. Erictho, the witch and necromancer in Lucan's poem the Civil War, who lives in graveyards and steals the nails used to pin crucifixion victims to their crosses, is a particularly memorable example of this trope. But there are also occasional characters who tend to be translated as magicians in English who are probably Classical witches, and in real life, anyone could be accused of witchcraft. One of my favourite Classical authors, Apuleius, was accused of witchcraft and had to defend himself in court - though it's worth noting that, when he wrote a witch into his novel Metamorphoses, he wrote her as a woman.

All in all, there's no reason we should think of witches as women, but we often do - which makes it doubly surprising that it's Tolkien who reminds us that witches can be men too. After all, Eowyn aside, he's not exactly known for his feminist credentials. In fact, the novel The Hobbit has not a single speaking female character (the Sackville-Bagginses are a homogenous group - Lobelia appears in The Lord of the Rings). Belladonna Took is fondly remembered at the start, and that's it. Bad Tolkien. You shall not have a cookie.

This means, of course, that one of the big advantages of the padding out of the film with other Tolkien material is that Galadriel appears, so there is a woman in it! (I should add, I have no problem with World War One stories with no women in them or anything like that, but fantasy and science fiction with no women rubs me up the wrong way). I really liked the scene between Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman; although tonally a shift from the rest of the film, it provided some nice context, and will be very necessary to explaining why Gandalf abandons our heroes to make their way through Mirkwood alone later in the story. I liked the flashbacks to Thorin's history too - I was always confused by a lot of the backstory as a child (beyond, obviously, 'dragon attacks, takes over mountain.' I could manage that). I'm hoping the Battle of the Five Armies, and the whole business with the Arkenstone, will actually make some kind of sense when the movies get to them, as I've never managed to follow them before!

Overall, I loved the film. I had a big stupid grin on my face from the first 'bing!' of the Star Trek preview (and my goodness that looks amazing!) right through to the credits. Yes, the film is too long - it could have lost a good half hour, mostly from the beginning and a little bit from the end. I like Tolkien's funny little songs, but we really didn't need to see the dwarves do the dishes. There were also some rather OTT action sequences; I was constantly reminded of computer game Fable 2's assertion that a Hero can survive a fall that would break all the bones of most people.

But overall, I loved it. The beautiful, deep, serious dwarf song sent chills down my spine (that bit I wanted to be longer!) and of course, the whole scene with Gollum in the cave was fantastic. Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo and both Kili and Thorin Oakenshield are really hot. FUTURE MOVIE SPOILER ALERT - I did notice that, with the exception of James Nesbitt's Bofur, the dwarves who were given some personality were the ones who are... going to die. Just to make sure we really care about them before they snuff it. Very sensible, very logical, but a bit obvious to those of us in the know!

I'm still not 100% convinced by the decision to make three films out of The Hobbit and some bits of appendices and The Silmarillion, especially since this film could so easily have been substantially shorter, but overall it's looking reasonably good. I suspect it all hangs on the next film, in which Bilbo and the dwarves travel through Mirkwood (and hopefully bump into Legolas) and Gandalf goes off to fight the Necromancer. We see none of Gandalf's struggle with this mysterious figure in The Hobbit, but presumably we'll see lots of it in the film, and on the basis of this first installment, I can't wait!

More CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Roman Mysteries: The Thieves of Ostia

Spoiler warning! There are spoilers ahead. I haven't given away who dunnit or anything, but still.

The Thieves of Ostia is the first Roman Mysteries novel, and its main purpose is to get everyone together and set the scene for the cataclysmic events of the second, The Secrets of Vesuvius. As such, you might be anticipating a small, quiet case to establish our heroes' characters and their world and ease us in. In a sense, this is indeed what you get, as the mystery here is a local problem restricted to a small part of Ostia, and does not relate to possibly-dead emperors or national disasters, widespread criminal organisations or royal noses.

However, this does not mean that the book is lighter or less dramatic than any of the other Roman Mysteries. This story contains attack by wild dogs, dead children, home invasion, mutilated animals, suicide and, probably most distressingly to children, murdered family pets. I'm a cat person rather than a dog person so was fine with this story, but I've been known to abandon books that were too mean to cats in the past, so dog lovers, be warned! (Not that any of the descriptions are too gruesome of course. The book that upset me so much was an Iain Banks book - and, I believe, a Raymond E Feist book - both were much more horrible than anything here). The fact that the mystery is much more personal and the threat so immediate actually makes it scarier, I think. Whole towns being destroyed (particularly by an act of nature) is much less frightening than a threat to a child hero's home or pet.

Our four heroes are introduced gradually and stamp their personalities out clearly - especially Flavia and Jonathan, since the other two haven't yet learned to communicate fluently. Lupus' actions speak louder than words and give him perhaps the most fully-developed character so far, though we get to know him much later in the story - most of the book is carried by Flavia and Flavia and Jonathan are more readily identifiable for children. Nubia's main traits are already present, particularly her love of music and animal-whispering abilities, but she's hindered by her language difficulties.

Although it makes her rather more mysterious as a character, Nubia's struggle to learn Latin is probably one of the most fruitful results of the ancient Roman setting. Many children now come to school with little or no knowledge of the language spoken there; I don't know if there are many stories dealing with such problems in a realistic setting, but in adventure stories, this problem is rarely addressed. In fantasy, in particular, entire magical worlds often seem to have only one language spoken. It's really nice to see an exciting story engaging with the problems faced by children struggling to communicate (a problem also faced by Lupus, of course, as he doesn't have his wax tablet yet). Hopefully this gives children who've faced similar experiences themselves a heroine to identify with.

The main adult to make an impression here, besides sleepy Caudex the door slave, is Mordecai. Jonathan's father is the perfect voice of reason and calm, though he also gets his action moment. I was reminded of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird as the mild-mannered doctor shot arrows at a pack of wild dogs - and although Mordecai doesn't turn out to be quite as good a shot as Atticus, he makes up for it in swordsmanship. Mordecai's medical expertise makes him an especially reassuring presence, and the tension is greater by comparison when he's not around - an ideal benign adult figure for a children's adventure story.

It's hard to view this book as a stand-alone volume when you've read most of the rest of the series, but even allowing for that, there's a clear sequel hook at the end. Captain Geminus sends his children off to Pompeii where he believes they will be safer - and only the youngest children will be unaware that this may not turn out to be his best plan! But that isn't meant to imply that this book isn't a satisfying read in itself, as it certainly is. (It even finishes with a little homage to classic Scooby-Doo, the villain all but claiming that he would have got away with it if it weren't for those pesky kids). The Thieves of Ostia is the Roman Mysteries equivalent of the origin movie, and as everyone knows, origin movies are great fun and intriguing in themselves, even if the makers have put the most highly anticipated adventures in their back pocket for the sequel.

All Roman Mysteries reviews

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (BBC, 1988)

Christmas is coming, and that means - well, it means lots of things but in my house one of those things is re-watching the BBC television adaptations of CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, which I and most of my friends who saw it as children absolutely adore.

These adaptations don't always have the best reputation these days. For one thing, some very rude things are said about the child actors, all of whom I thought were very good. Not perfect perhaps, but they're very young and probably working to a pretty tight TV schedule, I think they do a good job.

The more fantastical creatures are hand-drawn, which looks strange to anyone who's grown up on CGI.

Susan's companions/Edmund's rescue party. Like the recent film, the makers decided that any real or mythological animal could be thrown in, so this group includes a hippogriff and a winged horse from Classical mythology and, for some reason, a winged panther and a pelican.

Personally I think it makes them look somehow more magical, and is an inventive solution to a budget problem, but it depends on your point of view. The Witch's performance is rather pantomime-y and makes a feast of the scenery, but as a child, that's what you respond to. It's adults who find more subtle performances scary - children are less attuned to the subtle manners of adults, and enjoy a properly dramatic villain.

Of course, I'm completely biased, because I fell in love with the series at the age of 5. Just hearing the beautiful theme music tells me that it's Christmas, and takes me right back to decorating the tree, waiting eagerly for my Brussels sprouts (I love them, always have), opening my presents from Father Christmas, watching Narnia with my family. I remember wondering for years exactly how the conversation between the White Witch and Edmund was filmed because we missed that bit after dropping a relative off at the airport (I had already caught up with the story through the book, which Dad was reading to me - we whizzed past the TV series about halfway through). I remember the year Father Christmas brought me Prince Caspian on video and I told my parents he must have got the wrong house because we didn't have a video player - at which point they told me to go downstairs (where Father Christmas had left a shiny new VCR which he firmly stated was for Mum and Dad, particularly when it came to playing with the remote control...).

For me and I suspect for lots of other people my age, this was my first exposure to anything Classical and shaped my interpretations of Classical mythology for years. I grew up thinking a Faun look like this:

 - roughly accurate, except for the coat and scarf (the name comes from 'Faunus,' hence Lewis' careful use of the capital 'F' for them). I though a satyr looked like this:

 - which isn't too bad either, though the legs on both satyrs and Fauns look less like goat legs and more like very woolly trousers.  I thought Dryads and Naiads looked like this:

I have no idea what the men with laurel wreaths and skin-tight costumes are meant to be. Male dryads and naiads? I do like the Athena-style helmets the women wear though.

 - which is probably fine, though the Greeks might have put them in less clothing. All of it pales in comparison with the fact that I grew up thinking a beaver looked like this:

Seriously, it was years before I realised what beavers actually look like.

The series also included these little dinosaur-things. Hard to say why.

Hippogriff and winged cat approaching Cair Paravel. This is what Cair Paravel looks like - a medieval British castle. The 2005 movie got it totally wrong!

BBC adaptations tend to stick very closely to their source material, using mostly original dialogue from the book. In many ways, this is an advantage, and although the way the children speak in the book may sound strange to modern children, the period setting makes it entertainingly odd rather than being too confusing. At five years old, Classical references passed over my head, but most of them could be safely ignored. 'By Jove!' just sounds like a funny, old-fashioned expression so it doesn't cause a problem. Edmund's offer of 'Pax!' to Lucy is presumably more problematic for children who didn't grow up going to Catholic mass every week - I had an altar serving medal with a 'pax' sign on it, so I understood that bit. The programme makers even just about get away with the 'Daughter of Eve' stuff, since it confuses Lucy as well.

There is one line of dialogue, though, that always threw me as a child. When Lucy meets Mr Tumnus, she takes one look at him and asks 'Are you a Faun?' This always bothered me, because without Narnia I would have had no idea what a Faun was, and I never came across them in any other context. When Lewis was writing, presumably children with his level of education came across so much Classical material that they might have known what a Faun was,* but children in the late 1980s did not, and the more recent film adaptation more sensibly had Lucy just ask Mr Tumnus what he was. It's a small thing, but probably one of the occasions where taking a bit of a liberty with the text is a better idea that sticking pedantically to the exact required phrasing.

*(Actually, I suspect even Classics students, on being confronted by a man with goats' legs and horns, would ask if he was a satyr rather than a Faun, as they're rather better known. Satyrs don't necessarily have goats' legs, but sometimes do, whereas Fauns nearly always have the goats' legs, so Lucy is technically correct in thinking of Fauns first; but really, Fauns are pretty obscure. Unless you grew up obsessed with Narnia and take notice every time you see their name...)

Narnia's setting is pseudo-medieval, so I didn't really associate these images with Classical mythology as a child - it was only later that I started to realise that they had a different origin to dwarfs and unicorns (and I was a teenager before the fact that the Stone Table is an altar suddenly struck me like a bolt from above). The complete blending of elements of different mythologies was apparently something Tolkien criticised about Narnia (which is a bit rich coming from someone who wrote a mythology for ancient England in which people ate potatoes) but it makes no difference to young children - at that age, you just accept what you're told. This means that The Chronicles of Narnia don't necessarily get children interested in Classical Mythology the way that Disney's Hercules might, but a childhood love of Narnia can make Classical myth seem that much richer if and when you finally get around to reading it.

More posts on CS Lewis and Narnia

Monday, 26 November 2012

Top 5 Representations of Pompeii

Poor Pompeii. If Roman Britain thinks it has it bad, being known only for rain, Boudicca and the non-disappearance of the Ninth Legion, Pompeii has it much worse, as it's known for one thing and one thing only. Being destroyed by a volcano, of course. The trouble is, Pompeii's destruction was so dramatic and spectacular, it would seem a waste to go there and not cover it in some way (not to mention if anyone goes to the Bay of Naples in earlier-set Roman fiction, they go to Baiae, the party town, as do actual Romans in historical sources). And so, a Top 5 that might as well be called 'Top 5 Representations of the Eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.'

Incidentally, Mary Beard just did a rather good reflection on the very famous 'bodies' from Pompeii, which are actually plaster casts. There were no human remains in the city - there were holes in the solidified lava that were human-shaped, so Victorian archaeologists poured plaster into the holes to produce statue-like images of the attitudes in which these people died, where the lava originally flowed around their bodies after they'd been killed by the pyroclastic flow (or surge - there seems to be some disagreement over which it was). More human-looking than skeletons, they're very moving to look at and dominate representations of the eruption.

5. The Simpsons, 'The Italian Bob'
Why are we in Pompeii? The Simpsons does Italy, taking the title characters on a tour in Mr Burns' new car, so they don't even have to come up with a reason to hit a list of random Famous Things About Italy (in an order than makes no geographical sense). The Roman Forum and the Colosseum are kept for the climax, but Pompeii makes it into Italy's Greatest Hits alongside the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a picturesque Tuscan village and a McDonald's that serves wine.
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? No. We're here for a single, volcano-based sight gag.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? Sort of.
Worth a watch: Lisa inaccurately says that the victims of Pompeii (which is given the spelling of the modern town, Pompei, not the ancient Roman spelling) were frozen in whatever position they died in, implying the bodies are actually petrified corpses. Which, of course, they're not. But it's probably worth it for the sight gag of an ancient Roman family who look exactly like the Simpsons, complete with Roman-Homer choking Roman-Bart (which I have to admit is my least favourite running gag in the whole show, but it's become iconic now. My favourite iteration of it is the bit in the VH-1 Behind the Music spoof 'Behind the Laughter,' in which Homer explains, over the usual image, 'And that horrible act of child abuse became one of our most beloved running gags').

4. Pompeii: The Last Day
Why are we in Pompeii? For a BBC docu-drama whose title was presumably inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton's famous nineteenth century novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, and its various adaptations.
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? No. Bulwer-Lytton had all sorts of preachy stuff about terrible Roman morals and how somehow this led to death by volcano (I think - I have to confess, I haven't read it) but that sort of thing's gone out of fashion (partly for being untrue) and this docu-drama is all about getting to everybody's horrible deaths.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? Oh yes.
Worth a watch: I don't normally like docu-dramas - I think things ought to be either documentaries or dramas. Either talk about the evidence and the debates surrounding a topic, or write a proper fictionalisation of it. This is party because I'm a bit of a purist, and partly because I don't like the implication you get from docu-dramas that their largely fictionalised version of events is somehow the 'correct' or 'true' one. At least when people watch a fictionalised drama, they know it's fictionalised and don't expect anything else.

Anyway, I've made an exception in this case because I think there are advantages to using the docu-drama format to tell the story of Pompeii. We understand details concerning the nature of the pyroclastic flow that destroyed the city that the Romans didn't, so a modern narrator can explain what's happening much more clearly than Roman characters within a story would be able to. The geology of how the volcano erupted and the different (though equally gory) ways people died in Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum is fascinating but you need documentary-style narration to tell that story properly, in a way that you don't necessarily in dramatisations of political or military events. Meanwhile, the fictionalised elements offer a moving representation of the human side of the story, and the moments towards the end where the characters we've been following move into place to become the famous plaster casts of the inhabitants of Pompeii crouching where they died are quite chilling.

3. Up Pompeii!
Why are we in Pompeii? For Plautine-style hijinks with people who thought it was a good idea to name their daughter 'Erotica.'
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? Yes, which is partly why it makes the list. The TV series ran for a couple of years, using Pompeii as a setting, presumably because it's the best known Roman town outside of the city. The film made from the series is more about working up to the eruption, but even in the film this only occurs at the end, to provide a suitably dramatic climax.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? Much like the Simpsons example above - sort of.
Worth a watch: There've been better comedies set in ancient Rome. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for one, which inspired Up Pompeii! in the first place, and certainly Carry on Cleo. But Up Pompeii! is entertaining enough. And then, at the end of the film, the volcano erupts. The film has been so completely silly that it can't take the eruption entirely seriously, and yet the knowledge that what is being presented is the real-life death of hundreds of people means a certain level of gravity is required. It's hard to say whether the film achieves the required balance - the characters from the series being frozen in awkward moments (rather inaccurately implying they're somehow turned to stone, or something along those lines) are half funny, half a bit strange. On the other hand, there's something about Frankie Howerd facing his inevitable doom with comic dignity is rather wonderful.

2. Doctor Who, 'The Fires of Pompeii'
Why are we in Pompeii? Because Doctor Who hadn't done a full-on Roman-set story since 'The Romans' in the 1960s. Perhaps more importantly, because the production team were able to use the sets recently vacated by the BBC/HBO series Rome.
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? No. Though the Doctor and Donna do have some fun with the TARDIS' translation magic while trying to work out how to avoid ending up with a sonic screwdriver-shaped hole in the lava.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? No - the Doctor saves Caecilius and family just before the full force of the pyroclastic flow/surge hits the town. (Which, incidentally, was caused by the Doctor and Donna, who had to blow up Vesuvius to save the Earth from a Pyrovile. Obviously.)
Worth a watch: 'The Fires of Pompeii' was the episode that showed us the sort of companion Donna could be. 'Partners in Crime' was funny, but 'Pompeii' is dramatic and moving, show-casing not just Catherine Tate's acting but how the team would be writing for Donna. The show has repeated many times over the last few years its mantra that the Doctor needs a companion to keep him grounded and provide an emotional connection with the people he meets, but this is one of the episodes that shows it most effectively. And of course, the icing on the cake is that the people Donna persuades the Doctor to save are Caecilius and his family, characters from the Cambridge Latin books that children who learn Latin in school in the UK use (I actually didn't learn Latin in school, but borrowed a book and learned some of it anyway, because I'm weird that way). And for everyone who didn't learn Latin in school - Caecilius was also a real person and you can visit his house in Pompeii. So that's pretty cool.

1. The Roman Mysteries, 'The Secrets of Vesuvius'
Why are we in Pompeii? Well, we're not exactly - we're in and around the Bay of Naples, within sight of Pompeii. And we're there because that's where Uncle Gaius lives.
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? No - but we do learn lots about the Elder and Younger Plinys along the way.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? No - the children are further away than the victims in Pompeii, though Pliny succumbs to choking on the ash (in his Letters the Younger Pliny mentions that his uncle had suffered from breathing problems already, and whatever his condition was, the ash in the air was enough to kill him while others around him survived).
Worth a watch: I haven't had a chance to read the book yet (it's on my list to read!) but the TV adaptation of this book is excellent. This is in no small part thanks to the casting of Simon Callow as Pliny the Elder, which is just brilliant. I love Pliny the Elder (his Natural History is fascinating) and I love Simon Callow, and Callow has all the gravitas combined with fun required to play a general with an interest in unusual flora and fauna and general curiosity and enthusiasm about the world. We're spared the gruesome fate of those in Pompeii and Herculaneum here, as our heroes a) are in a children's programme but more importantly b) have to survive, but there's plenty of drama and horror in the distant eruption and the falling ash, not to mention poor Pliny's death. Brilliant stuff.

Honourable mention: I haven't yet read Robert Harris' Pompeii, but I thought his Imperium was excellent, so I'm sure Pompeii is great.

More Top 5s

Monday, 19 November 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: The Royal Couple of Thieves

Xena gets hit on my the self-proclaimed 'King of Thieves,' a character somewhere halfway between Robin Hood and Plunkett and Macleane. He doesn't steal to give to the poor exactly, but he does occasionally do so anyway, and he is apparently an honourable man. who steals things. It's one of those types of stories.

Autolycus, who's clearly a character from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys given how many times he mentions Hercules, seems to be modelled after Errol Flynn's Robin Hood, though not quite as suave. He even wears green. He actually has quite nice chemistry with Xena, but overall the writing seems to be relying a bit too much on assumed familiarity with the character, which those of us who haven't watched Hercules don't have.

The story of the episode is largely about Robin Hood helping Xena to recover the Ark of the Covenant for her friends, and doesn't really have anything Classical in it. The Ark is from the ancient world of course, but really, its presence and role here owes more to Indiana Jones than to anything from ancient history (on the actual history of the Ark, the Catholic Encyclopedia has an obviously biased but decent entry). On the Robin Hood side, the Roman world included plenty of bandits and one of them, Bulla Felix, is sometimes thought of as the Roman Robin Hood, so he's not completely un-classical. Not sure the Romans were quite so into the neat little goatee though.

To be honest, I wasn't overly enthralled by this episode. It had some nice moments (Xena, undercover, as a courtesan, faking horror when a body is uncovered; a guard who is even more stupid than usual and refrains from searching their room when Xena pretends to be in the middle of business with Autolycus). But it also had some truly daft stuff, particularly the guy who kills by hitting pressure points (who constantly reminded me of Tom Conti in the London episode of Friends, following Elliot Gould's Jack Geller with murder in his eyes and saying 'I could kill you with my thumb, you know'). Overall, it's rather dull, but it does feature Xena gyrating in a short skirt and corset, if you're into that sort of thing.


Xena: Magmar told me his former boss has got a big ego. Almost as big as yours.
Autolycus: Nothing is as big as mine.

Disclaimer: No Ancient and Inflexible rules governing moral behaviour were harmed during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena reviews

Monday, 12 November 2012

Argo (dir. Ben Affleck, 2012)

Brother and I went to see this at the weekend, and I'd highly recommend it. I've had a fondness for Ben Affleck ever since Shakespeare in Love, even through the J-Lo years (if you doubt me, just consider my opinion of Keanu Reeves and Star Trek Voyager...) and I'd heard that he was a very good director, but his other films (Gone Baby Gone and The Town) aren't really my thing (they looked a bit depressing!). So I was very keen to see Argo, a drama-with-a-bit-of-comedy-in-it-but-not-that-much-really about a CIA agent pretending to make a bad science fiction movie in order to get six Americans out of Iran in 1980. It's very good, and benefits from the real life events it's based on being relatively little known/remembered (obviously, I hadn't been born, but it hasn't rung many bells with people who were alive that I've talked to, though obviously they remember the taking of the American Embassy that kick-started the whole thing).

My excuse for blogging it, other than to say 'go see it,' is that there are a handful of references to the ancient world scattered throughout the first part of the film - most prominently, the title. Argo is the title of the bad science fiction film agent Tony Mendez is pretending to make. During a read-through of the script (a 'real' script that had been rejected, that composite character Lester Siegal buys to make the fake movie look real), one of the actors/various Hollywood people quizzes Siegal about the movie's title, only for Siegal to eventually exclaim, exasperated, 'Argo f*** off.' The random Hollywood person is probably right though, or nearly - he insists the title must be a reference to 'the Argonaut,' but he means the Argo (the Argo is the ship, an Argonaut is one of the sailors on the Argo). The Argo is, of course, Jason's ship in the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Science fiction, as long term readers of this blog will be well aware, frequently draws on the Classical world and on Greek mythology in particular so it's no surprise that a science fiction film would draw on the myth of the Argo in this way (though Wikipedia informs me that the real film was re-named Argo by the CIA, having been originally Lord of Light. It sounds spectacular. Someone should make it).

The choice of Argo for the title of this film as well is an interesting one. On one level, it draws on the mythology the same way the fictional science fiction film is presumed to - it gives the story epic overtones and a suggestion of adventure by linking it with an ancient quest story full of magic and exotic characters. But it also sounds, in English, just a little bit like another famous ship, the Ark. The subliminal suggestion of a lifeboat rescuing people from a great disaster is perfect for the film.

Other references to the ancient world are briefer, but the first line in the film refers to ancient Iran - the Persian Empire - which is a really nice beginning, as it evokes Iran's long, fascinating history before catching up to more recent events. There's also a brief exchange where John Goodman's John Chambers suggests using a script called The Horses of Achilles and Siegal declares that if it's got horses in it, it's a Western, and no one makes Westerns any more. It's very funny (Chambers does try to explain about ancient Troy) but also true in its own way - the tradition of the Western does feed into certain other genres of film, especially where horses are involved (or even camels, in The Mummy's case), and as Tony Keen has suggested, several films about Roman Britain draw on the genre of the Western in their representations of Roman-period Scotland.

As an historian, I feel duty-bound to point out that the film is far from historically accurate, but as an historian whose knowledge of the area in question is two thousand years out of date, I am spectacularly unqualified to do so myself. Assuming Wikipedia is halfway accurate, I think my fellow Brits (and New Zealanders) may have been insulted, though out of the need to create drama rather than any malicious intent. Overall, for those of us who don't know anything about the history of the region pre-the early 1990s, the film may, possibly, do more good than harm (though I assume this depends partly on your political persuasion).

As a film and a piece of drama, this is well worth seeing. Affleck really is a very good director (check out subliminal touches like the poster for New York showing an image of the financial district of downtown Manhattan in 1979 that the hostages in the embassy are rushed past during the storming of the building). He earned my eternal affection in particular with a couple of sequences that demonstrate a love and understanding of science fiction as a genre. The first was the scene in which the read-through of Argo which was intercut with news footage from the crisis in the Middle East; on one level, it shows up how ridiculous the film is, but is also emphasises what science fiction tries to do, which is represent feelings and struggles and emotions that are very real through metaphorical stories. But even better was the sequence towards the end which lovingly panned over Mendez' son's action figures (mostly from Star Wars, plus a Mr Spock). To a degree, science fiction saved these people's lives, and the shot plays like a rather sweet little thank-you to the genre.

Excellent hair/shirt combo

Argo isn't a perfect film, but it is very good and well worth a look. Plus, the very, very bad film-within-a-film looks so bad it could be brilliant - the campaign to get it made starts here!

More film reviews

Monday, 5 November 2012

Star Trek The Next Generation: Darmok

In the course of researching an article for Den of Geek on 10 ground-breaking episodes of The Next Generation, my lovely Facebook friends pointed me in the direction of 'Darmok,' which turned out to be rather fascinating.

The basic premise of 'Darmok' is that Picard is stuck on a planet with an alien whose language cannot be translated by the universal translator. It's a rather nice idea, forcing Picard to struggle to understand an alien race and to think about how we as sentient beings communicate, rather than just saying hello and having the universal translators do all the hard work.

In the end, it turns out that the alien's language is entirely composed of imagery and metaphor - the example given in the episode is that it's like saying 'Juliet on her balcony' when you mean that someone is in love. The universal translators can't translate it because they're not programmed with the required stories.

Now of course, there are all sorts of problems with this. For one thing, how did they develop sufficiently complex stories to account for any situation? I supposed they could be relying on visual art, but it's a bit of a stretch. For another, the universal translators seen able to cope with everything in the language that isn't a proper noun, which is cheating really. And although I had the advantage of knowing the set-up beforehand, I still think Picard was a bit daft to think someone was trying to attack him when they offered him a knife hilt-first.

But however unfeasible it is, the idea of a language built on metaphor and imagery is really interesting. Back in the 19th century, philologist Friedrich Max Müller suggested that mythology was a 'disease of language' - he thought that myths grew out of flowery ways of describing the natural world (usually the sun - where Freud was obsessed with sex, Max Müller was obsessed with the sun). So, according to Max Müller, the myth of Eos (Dawn) and Cephalus (literally 'head,' which Max Müller twisted around until he made it mean 'dew') is actually a poetic way of describing the dawn 'kissing' the dew on the ground as it rises in the morning. No one has really agreed with Max Müller's theory for about 150 years, but he would have loved this episode.

Max Müller would also, as a scholar of the East, have loved Picard's re-telling of parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving work of literature in the Middle-Eastern-and-Western world, and one of the oldest works of literature in the world all together. It survives in various bits and pieces of different versions, but a standard version exists and is available in translation from Penguin (if memory serves, there's an older prose translation - that's the one I've got - and a newer verse translation). It's much, much (MUCH) shorter than any of the Greek or Latin epics and, apart from some slightly repetitive sections (a common feature in ancient Near Eastern literature) it's a pretty good read, so I'd recommend having a look if you're interested in epic poetry.

The standard version of the Epic of Gilgamesh isn't quite the same as the story Picard tells here but it's close enough, and he gets the most important part right - the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and Enkidu's death. Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight each other at first, but then become inseparable and like family, and then Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh mourns him. It's a perfect story for Picard's situation, and it's nice to hear it told, as it isn't used in popular culture as much as the later Greek and Roman stories.

At the end of the episode, Picard is apparently reading the Homeric Hymns. I say 'apparently' because Riker seems to recognise what he's reading as Greek, but it doesn't look like Greek, and why is he reading a book instead of a PADD anyway? I'm pretty sure you can already get ancient Greek texts on a Kindle... I'm also baffled as to why Picard has decided to start with the Homeric Hymns, instead of the Iliad or the Odyssey. Maybe he liked that they're shorter. He calls them 'the root metaphors of our own culture' - Max Müller must be jumping for joy in the afterlife.

I liked this episode a lot, despite the logical flaws. The basic story is simple and sweet (I cried) and it's always nice to see a shout-out to the Epic of Gilgamesh. I don't know whether the writers had ever heard of Friedrich Max Müller but this must be one of the first outings for his theory in about a century, so that's nice. And I've never before seen anyone so excited as Picard is here by the word 'metaphor'...

More Star Trek reviews

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Top Five Classical Monsters

It's Halloween! Oooo-OOOOO-oooo. Etc. I've posted my favourite 5 Halloween specials over at Den of Geek, and at Billie Doux we've all got together to share our Halloween thoughts and recommendations. But here in the Classical world, I thought I'd celebrate one of Greco-Roman culture's great contributions to modern pop culture - an exciting array of monsters.

5. (A) Minotaur, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Mythic forebears? As long-time readers know, I have a bit of an obsession with the number of minotaurs in modern popular culture, which mystifies me. This is because in ancient myth, there was no plural of minotaur and it wasn't a race of beings - the Minotaur was a single creature, the result of one woman's deep and abiding passion for a bull, who lived in the Labyrinth on the island of Crete and ate virgins (to be fair he probably would have eaten whoever he could lay his hands on, but he was fed virgins).
Should I be hiding behind the sofa? In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, yes. The interesting thing about the modern Narnian minotaur is that he acts as a symbol of the changing relationships between the various magical creatures of Narnia. In the first film, there's a whole group of minotaurs, and they're scary, and part of the Witch's army, proper monsters. In Prince Caspian, there's a rather nice, jumpy moment when Peter assumes a minotaur is an enemy, only to find that, as a magical creature, he's working with Caspian against Miraz. By the time we get to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, poor Eustace is scared out of his wits by suddenly being brought face to face with a minotaur and everyone just laughs at him.
Does he do the Monster Mash? The minotaurs are pretty active in battle and make fairly impressive enemies during The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe's climactic gurry-wurry; after that, they don't do so much.

4. The Basilisk, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Mythic forebears? Not so much mythic as cryptozoological; Pliny the Elder described a North African snake called the basilisk that moved with the upper part of its body in the air, could kill by sight, could kill plants with its breath and had especially deadly venom. Goodness knows what particular snake was the source of these ideas - something pretty scary I should think.
Should I be hiding behind the sofa? The special effects are perhaps just OK, but before Fawkes blinds it, the idea of the Basilisk is pretty scary - one look and you're dead. Poor Myrtle.
Does it do the Monster Mash? The Basilisk is almost too huge, so that its movements are restricted by the tunnels it lives in, which in turn restricts the fear factor. I've always liked the Chamber of Secrets scenes though, which are properly scary and dramatic (Daniel Radcliffe doing the Dying Hero thing rather well) and the way Fawkes' attack on the Basilisk's eyes is filmed, following their shadows dancing on the wall, is very effectively done.

3. Medusa, Clash of the Titans (1981)
Mythic forebears? Medusa was one of three sisters, the Gorgons, all terrifying and horrible, according to Hesiod. Ovid makes Medusa a once beautiful maiden whose hair was turned to snakes by Athena. Either way, like the basilisk, her look turns people to stone, and she ends up beheaded by Perseus so that her head can be used as a weapon. This is the part of both Clash of the Titans films that strays closest to actual Greco-Roman myth.
Should I be hiding behind the sofa? The more recent Clash of the Titans has a CGI Medusa, whose movements are more fluid and who is probably more convincing. But it's the Harryhausen Medusa that's always stuck in my memory. Sure, her movement is a little awkward and she doesn't really look very real, but just look at that face! Those eyes! Well, or don't, since that might turn you into stone.
Does she do the Monster Mash? Her movements may be a little stop-start (hehe) but she gets about decently enough in her big fight with Perseus, even if it does go on a little longer than it really needs to.

2. The hydra, Hercules
Mythic forebears? Killing the hydra is one of Hercules' Labours, and depicted on many a pot by excited vase painters.
Should I be hiding behind the sofa? Now, it's not that Disney couldn't do scary monsters. When Ursula the sea witch suddenly grows humungous in The Little Mermaid, it's pretty scary, and the whole Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia is terrifying. But the hydra is perhaps not their scariest of Disney's monsters. Still, it's threatening enough for a first level monster that appears fairly early on in the movie. (The centaur who attacks Megara shortly beforehand is really scary, but not in an enjoyable way - he's spectacularly creepy and introduces the subject of attempted rape into a Disney cartoon. It's just all kinds of wrong).
Does it do the Monster Mash? The great advantage of a cartoon is, of course, that your monster can move and really throw its weight about in a way that isn't possible with stop-motion animation, or even, really with CGI (which has to interact with a live actor). The hydra sequence is an exciting set piece and Hercules' eventual solution to the problem of the regrowing heads is risky but brilliant (and gives him a chance to use brain as well as brawn, not a characteristic often played up in representations of Hercules).

1. Talos, Jason and the Argonauts
Mythic forebears? Talos was a giant bronze automaton - living statue - made by Hephaestus, or in some versions, the last of the race of bronze men. A great big guy made of bronze, is the point. He was killed, usually by Medea, in a variety of ways including releasing a pin that caused him to 'bleed' or leak to death, or getting shot in the ankle, both of which are half-represented in the film, albeit without Medea's involvement.
Should I be hiding behind the sofa? Only if he's actually behind you, in which case you'll never be able to run fast enough to escape. Otherwise, Talos isn't an especially scary monster, and he's outdone in terms of fame, technical expertise and creepiness by the animated skeletons from the end of the film. For me though, Talos outdoes the skeletons in two important ways. One, he's actually from Greek myth, whereas the skeletons, although inspired by the men who sprang from the dragon's teeth in the story of Jason and the Argonauts, are not precisely Greco-Roman (the mythic men were full-bodied soldiers, not skeletons). More importantly  I feel sorry for Talos. There's something tragically beautiful about the huge bronze man even as he's attacking our heroes, and his death (which also brings about that of Hylas) and the way he breaks apart is rather poignant. Like the troll in The Fellowship of the Ring, I can't help but feel sorry for him.
Does he do the Monster Mash? He has that slight stilted-ness to his movements that many Harryhausen creatures have, but that just adds to the character. Since he is, essentially, an ancient Greek robot, it makes sense that he has rather robotic movements. Classic stuff, in every sense of the word.

More Top 5 lists

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Vampire Diaries: Ordinary People

Halloween special coming up later in the week (plus more Halloween goodness in store from Den of Geek and Billie Doux), but I'm getting in the mood early...

Yes, I have found a new vampire show, just in time for Halloween. It has a boring, broody vampire, a sexy, snarky vampire, a slightly dull, holier-than-thou heroine, some cheerleaders, a witch, a werewolf or two and some laboured metaphorical representations of real-world issues. BUT - the boring vampire is the blond and the sexy vampire is the brunette. It's a totally different world.

'Ordinary People' amused me because it hits so many of classic elements of pop cultural representations of archaeologists and archaeology. We have:

a high school history teacher who's an expert in Viking script and language*
...and who is able expertly to analyse an archaeological site just by wandering around with a torch for a day or two.
The cave paintings reveal a secret that's been kept for a thousand years
...but that, for some reason, the perpetrator decided to immortalise in a cave painting...
(in a cave vampires can't get into, but I'm not even going to worry about that)
...which everyone accepts as absolute truth without questioning it...
...because in pop culture, if someone says it, it might be a lie - but if they paint it on a wall it's true.
*this is because Alaric is Giles, but sexier and with more alcohol.

As well as these interesting misconceptions about how archaeology works, there were some historical howlers in here:

I don't what 'Viking script' this is meant to be, but I'm pretty sure the whole point of runes is that they have no curves, to make them easier to carve. There's no way 'R' or 'B' should look like that.

On the subject of 'Rebecca,' 'Esther,' 'Elijah' and 'Rebecca' are ancient Biblical names, i.e. Hebrew/Semitic names. No Viking would have those names. 'Mikael' and 'Niklaus' might sound more Germanic, but 'Micheal' and 'Nicholas' are anglicised versions of Greek names, so Vikings shouldn't be called that either. I've no idea what 'Kol' is meant to be. 'Finn' could actually be a Viking. Possibly. (They should have just called them all Eric and had done with it).

I don't think the Vikings went in for cave paintings.

I'm not even going near the Vikings-in-America thing - though Virginia seems a bit far south for that  particular theory.

Why would Vikings have English accents?!

(The Salvatores can't pronounce their own name either. It's Italian, it should be Sal-va-tor-AY!).

None of this really matters, as it's not that sort of show. This is a teen soap opera in which, oddly, the love interests do even more morally reprehensible things than anyone in True Blood and it's not here to be historically analysed. (I was chatting with Crazy Cris from over at Here, There and Everywhere the other day, and we were discussing whether or not this show kills off more main characters than Game of Thrones - but we had to stop because I'm still only at the beginning of A Dance with Dragons. We can pick it up again when I've finished A Song of Ice and Fire!).

The trouble is, I think Charlaine Harris has given me unreasonable expectations when it comes to historical accuracy in vampire fiction. Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series may be faintly ridiculous in many ways, but she always does her research and she writes her vampires with a real sense of the period they come from and of making them feel like genuinely old characters. She even had a quick guide to Latin pronunciation in one of her books. So I suppose I've come to expect a bit too much from my historical vampires.

Of course, I'm mostly just frustrated that, if the original vampires were Vikings, that means the show's never going to feature a Roman vampire and I won't get any more blog posts out of it!

No prizes for guessing why I decided to give this show a second chance.

The Vampire Diaries is cheesy and occasionally nonsensical but I'm enjoying it enormously, largely for the usual, obvious reasons. I also appreciate Damon and Alaric's love of whiskey - Damon Salvatore must be the only vampire on television who drinks more whiskey than he does blood. Which just makes him even more awesome. (By the way, the show is on Monday evenings over here at the moment, so please don't mention the latest episode in the comments until Tuesday!)

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Coming of the King (by M.C. Scott)

One of the most freeing things about writing historical fiction, rather than non-fiction, is that it gives the author the opportunity to offer a reinterpretation of the text, and that reinterpretation can be as radical as you want it to be, with no need to provide evidence to back up your theories. Some ideas, the sorts of ideas we all hold about historical characters and events, can only be explored in this way because there simply isn't any evidence to support them. This is doubly - probably triply or even ten-times-ly - true of the ancient world, because nearly all our evidence for the ancient world is so spectacularly unreliable that we don't really have much of a clue what we're on about most of the time anyway. And it is hundred-times-ly true for anything involving mystery religions or the early development of Christianity, about which we know almost nothing.

Authors of historical fiction, then, have a great big playground to splash about in - working within a basic climbing frame of historical evidence (which they can choose how closely to stick to anyway), they can make up whatever games they want. The only problem for the reader is, if the games stray frequently and far from the more usually told story, it can get a bit confusing. The Coming of the King is Scott's sixth Roman-set book and the first one I've read; I suspect if you follow Sebastos Pantera's adventures from the beginning, with the deviations from history as you know it introduced gradually, it all makes a bit more sense. But, discovering them all at once in this sixth volume, the major reinterpretations I noticed included (spoilers follow):

Nero was right after all - the Great Fire of Rome really was started by a Christian, specifically, by Saulos (St Paul)...
who is completely evil...
and is trying to destroy Jerusalem for personal reasons I can't quite remember.
Jesus was a Galilean rebel called Yehuda/Judas...
who was taken down from his cross early...
by his pregnant wife (or lover, something like that)...
and survived.
He had been leading a War Party wanting to wage war on the Roman Empire (zealots, presumably)...
which is now being led by his grandson Menachem...
along with another grandson, Eleazir.
The hero, Pantera, has had some kind of romantic relationship with someone related to Jesus (daughter, possibly).
Saulos (Paul) was killed by Pantera in Jerusalem (not executed in Rome, as Christian tradition usually suggests).
Oh, and Nero didn't murder Poppaea, but he has married a eunuch (so, following about half of Suetonius' gossip).

That's a lot of reinterpretation and frankly, I got lost. Perhaps more significantly, the Author's Notes at the back suggests that Scott included these interpretations because she believes them to be factually true, which is another issue all together. Scott mentions a few books in the Note, several of which, if I saw them in a student's essay bibliography, would lead me to mark the essay down for using inappropriate secondary sources. These include Daniel Unterbrink's The Three Messiahs (a quick Google didn't bring up any reviews, but he mentions how indebted he is to I, Claudius in the intro, which tells you quite a lot about it) and Joseph Atwill's Caesar's Messiah (which is, quite frankly, bonkers - there is very interesting work to be done on the relationship between the Gospels and satire, and between the Gospels and Greco-Roman novels, but suggesting that Titus Caesar invented Christianity - a man who oversaw the deification of his father - is not it). (Martin Goodman's Rome and Jerusalem, which she also mentions, looks rather better).

All of which is to say that it's all very entertaining as a novel, as long as these speculations aren't taken for history. To be honest, the only re-interpretations here that I find really historically plausible are the suggestion that Poppaea could have died in childbirth (quite possible) and that idea that Jesus was rescued from the cross before death, which fits with the Biblical records of Him dying unusually quickly - and I personally don't believe that, because I'm a Christian and I actually do believe that He was the Son of God and rose from the dead etc etc etc. But assuming you're not a Christian, that one does actually fit quite neatly. Whether He had descendants or not is something we can never know, though personally I've always thought if He did, and they survived, you'd have thought they'd have made themselves known at some point. Maybe they were embarrassed by the family history.

Aside from dramatic re-interpretations of history, there's an interesting fantasy-vibe to much of this novel. Iksahra the Berber (persistently described as having black skin - I always though Berber people tended towards lighter skin tones than, say, Ethiopians, but I could be wrong) travels everywhere with a tame cheetah and hunting birds, and constantly reminded me of Hunter from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, especially when she started developing a thing with Hypatia. Hypatia (presumably named for the later philosopher) is attached to the cult of Isis (always good for fantastical creations, as we don't know much about it) and both she and young Kleopatra (not that one) have premonitory dreams and can see and hear the souls of the just departed (which must be quite distracting in battle). Prophetic dreams, and prophecies in general, quite often crop up in historical novels including The Roman Mysteries and I, Claudius, though they aren't always mentioned quite as often as they are here. The dreams referred to throughout this book don't really match the way ancient texts use omen dreams - these dreams aren't symbolic, nor do they carry a message from a deity. Literal prophecy dreams like these (in which Hypatia and Kleopatra live events before they happen) are very rare in ancient texts, but here Hypatia makes decisions based on them. And then there's Pantera, who can smell blood from three streets away. To be fair, I think my immediate reaction to that line says more about my own personal obsession with dodgy vampire fiction than about the book.

Camels! These were in Birmingham. Probably cold, poor things, but they seemed quite happy.

This book presents an exciting adventure story and it reads well. The prose isn't always to my taste - it tends to spell things out a bit and is rather overly dramatic - but Scott includes evocative descriptions of the desert and of the ancient cities, some of my favourite things (there were camels!). At one point towards the end, we briefly followed a soldier who decided to get the heck out of Dodge in a rather beautiful digression that was quite affecting. I found the characters a bit too perfect to be really likeable in most cases, but Kleopatra was well drawn and I liked Menachem, who seemed the most three dimensional character. I also quite liked Scott's interpretation of Josephus - although I like Josephus because I like his writing, like Scott, I see him as something of a conniving, selfish character. If you enjoy sand, blood and intrigue, and won't be constantly distracted by your conviction that the lead character is a vampire, you might enjoy this.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Red Dwarf: Lemons

It's like the producers of Red Dwarf heard me doing a post on Roman Britain and decided to throw in a trip there, just to shake things up. Not that they do anything especially interesting while there, but still.

This is the third episode of the long-awaited new series of Red Dwarf, and oddly enough the second to have a strangely Classical flavour (the first was called 'Trojan,' though in reference to a spaceship and, presumably, the prophylactic rather than the ancient city or war). Our boys accidentally end up in pre-Roman Albion (Britain) in AD 23, but they stay there for less time than Julius Caesar, immediately leaving again in search of lemons. I'm pretty sure Italy or Greece should have some lemons by this point, but the gang don't know that, so they walk all the way to India to get some, where they run into a young guy called Jesus, take him home, operate on his manly parts and accidentally leave him in a room with a history book.

In the end, the joke is that this isn't *that* Jesus at all, 'Jesus' (or Joshua, Yeshua, Yehuda, or however he actually pronounced his name, since 'Jesus' is the Greek version) being a fairly common name at the time. I quite liked that, and the joke about the potentially 'real' Jesus was quite funny too, though I was disappointed to see the earlier religious history of Rimmer's family, devotees of the Church of the Seventh Day Advent Hoppists, contradicted (not because of the inconsistency - this is the same show that had a main character's appendix removed twice - just because I always thought the idea of the Church of the Seventh Day Advent Hoppists, whose Bible had a misprint leading them to believe that the three greatest virtues were Faith, Love and Hop, was hilarious). The idea of Jesus (any Jesus) being in India seems vaguely plausible too; oddly enough, in 29 years of being Catholic and 11 years of being an ancient historian, I'd never actually given much thought to what Jesus did between the ages of 12 and 30. Possibly, like Rimmer, I assumed he was making tables.

The show tries to address the language problem by claiming everyone's speaking the language of Albion, which did bug me a bit, because anyone's who's watched Doctor Who knows that the British language should sound like Welsh (actually, it wouldn't quite be Welsh, but it was probably a distant ancestor of Welsh/Cornish/Breton. It definitely wouldn't sound anything like the Germanic language of English). I think they probably would have been better off just ignoring the issue all together, especially since everyone sounds vaguely like they're from the north of England anyway.

I'm rather unsure how I feel about this new episode, and this new series. The fact that the characters are nearly 25 years older is simply not addressed, which I find slightly odd - I'd have liked to see an episode dealing with the fact that they're ageing (is the computer artificially ageing Rimmer to make him fit in with the others?!). Maybe that's just because my favourite Star Trek film is The Wrath of Khan, which does this so well (I should point out, I missed episode 2, which might deal with some of that). I also think the 'science' part of 'science fiction comedy' has become shakier ever since Rob Grant left after Series 6. Red Dwarf has always been at the soft end of science fiction on the Mohs scale, but Series 1-6 tended to take a fairly simple idea and run with it, whereas from Series 7 onwards it all seemed to get... sillier, and less grounded somehow.* I'm not sure I quite believe in these characters any more, and some of the jokes have got a bit obvious too. On the other hand, I do like these actors, the show has got rid of a lot of unnecessary baggage from Series 7 and 8 (we do not speak of 9) and both the episodes I've watched have made me laugh. Which is what you want from a sitcom, isn't it?!

The Last Supper. Obvious? Yes. Funny? Also yes.

*Case in point: at the end of Series 6, the crew had a time machine that they could use to travel in time but not space - taking them on an exciting journey to medieval Deep Space - and was a day out. Both my Dad and my brother theorised that, when they returned from the fifteenth century, they were out by a day or two and came back to an unreality bubble, which is what produced the future versions of themselves where Lister was a brain in a jar. All they had to do was keep flying until they came out of the unreality bubble and everything went back to normal. But when the show returned for Series 7 without Grant, there was a time-loop-based explanation so convoluted it made Lister's camcorder explode, Starbug had got much bigger for no reason whatsoever except timey-wimey stuff - and because they wanted a shiny new set and lots more CGI - and the time machine was suddenly able to transport them to Dallas. If they had a machine that could get them back to Earth, to whatever time period, but to an Earth with other people and women and everything, why didn't they just go back there and live out their lives in the 1960s?
Ahem. Sorry, got carried away there. Back to ancient history...

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Top 5 Representations of Roman Britain

Roman Britain - a cold, miserable place that everyone hates, where it rains all the time. Julius Caesar popped in and decided it wasn't worth the effort, leaving Claudius to finally step in because where else can a limping, twitching, stuttering middle-aged emperor with no military experience go to gain a bit of credit? Boudicca revolted, Hadrian built a wall to keep out the Picts and the Ninth Legion supposedly disappeared, and as far as popular culture is concerned, nothing else happened for about 400 years. You're more likely to find Roman Britain represented in a story about King Arthur than a story about the Roman Empire, and a lot of the films and television series that do feature Roman Britain are quite frighteningly bad (Bonekickers, King Arthur, The Last Legion...) But it pops up occasionally in something halfway decent - these are five of the best.

5. Carry on Cleo
Historically accurate? Not even a little bit. The British live in caves and apparently co-exist with the dinosaurs, all during Julius Caesar's governorship of Gaul (immediately after which he returns to Rome as 'Emperor' - Caesar was never Emperor, though he did hold ultimate imperium, and he had to fight a civil war before he became Dictator). It's about as chronologically accurate as the Ice Age movies.
Any sign of Boudicca or the Ninth Legion? None whatsoever, as to be expected since the story pre-dates either of them. But then, there are dinosaurs in it...
Does it rain? There's some splashing while the Romans march, and Julius Caesar has a cold.
Worth dragging myself to the a*se-end of the Empire? Carry on Cleo is ridiculous, and the jokes are as broad as broad can be, but I still find it funny. And there's something pleasantly self-effacing about the ancient Britons (with whom we modern Britons tend to identify, even though we're unlikely to be related to them unless we're Welsh or Cornish) being so far behind the Romans in terms of technology and civilization, they're still living in caves as the Roman Republic reaches its end.

4. Chelmsford 123
Historically accurate? Variable according to the episode. The broad strokes tend to be about right, particularly basic signs of the impact of Rome on Britain like the straight roads, but poor Emperor Hadrian must be spinning in his mausoleum.
Any sign of Boudicca or the Ninth Legion? Not specifically, but there are some angry women in one episode who seemed to be inspired by Boudicca.
Does it rain? Frequently. Starting with this inspired clip.
Worth dragging myself to the a*se-end of the Empire for? Chelmsford 123 varied in quality, but when it was on form it was thoroughly chucklesome and even occasionally made jokes relevant to the study of the ancient world. The road that has to be bent so that it can go around the brothel in Romford particularly stands out.

3. The Silver Pigs (Falco series), by Lindsey Davis
Historically accurate? Yes - Titus comes off quite well, fitting his reputation as Emperor more than his reputation beforehand, and Domitian is a bit of an all-out villain but basically everything in there is plausible, including the representation of Roman Britain.
Any sign of Boudicca or the Ninth Legion? Falco was serving in the Roman army in Britain during Boudicca's revolt and is haunted by memories of it, especially when forced to return to Britannia.
Does it rain? It's been a while since I read it. I'm sure it does at some point.
Worth dragging myself to the a*se-end of the Empire for? This first Falco novel is one of my favourites - a little more serious, a little more gritty, and a classic they-don't-like-each-other-then-they-fall-in-love story for Falco and Helena. The gruelling description of the horrendous conditions in the silver mines serves as both an impressive representation of Roman Britain, and of the fate of many slaves across the Empire.

2. Caratacus' speech in I, Claudius, 'Old King Log'
Historically accurate? Roughly speaking - according to Tacitus, Caratacus really did give a speech in which he so impressed the senate that they let him retire peacefully in Rome. It was in front of the people rather than in the Senate, and how accurate Tacitus is presents another question all together, but the gist is there. Caratacus' look is based on Julius Caesar's description of the Britons, though they're gone easy on the blue body paint and done something a bit mad with the hair.
Any sign of Boudicca or the Ninth Legion? Thankfully no, too early.
Does it rain? Having seen Caligula hanging out in the rain in Germania, having Claudius thrown into a river, the good people behind I, Claudius clearly decided they'd had enough of both water and of trying to hide the fact they had no budget for exterior locations. We don't see Britain itself at all - so, no rain.
Worth dragging myself to the a*se-end of the Empire for? It would be worth many long journeys just to get the chance to admire that moustache. The whole scene is bonkers (what language is Caratacus speaking? Does he have perfect Latin?!) but brilliantly so.

The moustache is wonderful, but just who did his hair?!

1. The Eagle (dir. Kevin MacDonald, 2011)
Historically accurate? The Ninth Legion did not disappear in Scotland, they got moved out to Gaul and/or Germania. Otherwise most of it is not implausible, largely because we don't know all that much about Roman-period Scotland.
Any sign of Boudicca or the Ninth Legion? What's left of the Ninth are living in Scotland, doing their best to blend in. Until, thanks to Aquila, nearly all of them get finished off fighting over their old Eagle.
Does it rain? A bit, though local Kevin MacDonald is more interested in showing off the cold, clear beauty of Scotland, and England looks positively warm by comparison.
Worth dragging myself to the a*se-end of the Empire for? I really like The Eagle, much more than the similarly Ninth-Legion-in-Scotland-themed Centurion. The performances are great, the story is entertaining enough and MacDonald shoots Scotland beautifully. I especially love the documentary feel he brings to some of the scenes featuring the Seal People, and his use of American accents for the Romans.

Honourable mentions: Doctor Who's 'The Pandorica Opens' doesn't really depict Roman Britain in any detail, but I do like the reminder that Stonehenge was already old and inexplicable in the Roman period. It's been 20 years since I saw the BBC's Merlin and the Crystal Cave, but its use of Mithraic religion and Robert Powell as a Roman soldier stick in the mind - though I have a suspicion that section actually took place in Brittany, in France. Spiritual successor Merlin has an elderly character called Gaius who is presumably a Roman or Romano-Briton, but I haven't seen enough of the early series to know if that's significant  And, of course, the Wall between Westeros and the lands to the north in Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is inspired by Hadrian's Wall, but isn't actually Hadrian's Wall. Westeros being much bigger than the UK, the rainy British weather seems to have been shoved out to the Fingers, with more dramatic, often snowy weather to the north and desert in the Westerosi equivalent of Cornwall.

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