Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Roman Mystery Scrolls: The Sewer Demon

This book is the first in a new series for younger children (about 8yrs), a spin-off by Caroline Lawrence from her middle grade series of novels, the Roman Mysteries. It follows the adventures of Threptus, a young apprentice to the soothsayer Floridius in Ostia during the reign of Domitian.

Warning: You should probably read neither the book nor this review on a full stomach! Or just before a meal.

In the grand tradition of Scooby-Doo, this book gives kids all the thrills of encounters with demons and spirits, while always providing a more mundane (though in this case still fairly exciting!) solution to go with its real-world setting. We feel Threptus' fear as he encounters terrifying demons in sewers and midnight wells, but we know that ultimately the cause will turn out to be something benign or even useful. The story makes full use of the Roman setting in that, whereas a modern Scooby-Doo type ghost story would have to acknowledge that not everyone is likely to believe in ghosts, Threptus and the other characters here genuinely believe in the possibility of demons in the sewers, which makes their fear that much more real. Floridius exploiting that fear for financial gain at the end is perhaps rather naughty - but that's also very Roman (and realistic!).

The language in the book is neatly balanced between simple English and exotic Roman words and phrases. I remember when I was about six and reading The Chronicles of Narnia, I used to love using the phrase 'brings up the rear' (once I'd asked what it meant), which sounded terribly exotic, and there are plenty of new words and phrases for kids to get their teeth into here. There are also some Roman numerals right at the end - perhaps I was the only child who really enjoyed working out all the numbers on our clock with Roman numerals on it, but I'd have loved it.

One thing this books really brings home is the reality of some aspects of Roman life. As you will have gathered from the title, there is an enormous amount of focus on human waste here (and farting too). Since the book is for younger children, this is generally referred to as 'poo' and 'wee' (sometimes 'vomit' - 'sick' isn't really specific enough). Kids love this stuff of course - but as an adult, it really brought something home to me. Books aimed at older readers tend to use more formal words to describe these things - you might get a description of a torture victim or the hold of a slave ship being covered in 'faeces' or 'urine'. But as I read this book, I realised that nothing brings home the reality of such a situation like the use of the word 'poo'. Maybe it's just me, but when I read 'faeces' I'm somewhat detached from it. I accept that this is what happens in these situations and move on. When I read the word 'poo', I can almost smell it, and I can certainly see it (and in some of the book's most colourful parts, feel it). I suppose a description of torture or the mistreatment of slaves wouldn't really benefit from using the word 'poo', as it wouldn't seem serious enough, but I found it fascinating that I could really feel - and smell, and see - the ancient world much more strongly when viewed through the language of childhood and of immediate experience rather than the slightly drier, more formal language of written work.

Floridius, played by Mark Benton in the TV series based on the Roman Mysteries. I like to think this chicken is Aphrodite, of whom I became very fond in this book.

In theory, this book comes after the Roman Mysteries, but younger children will be quite happy to read it first, as it doesn't require any knowledge of the earlier series. The only slight downside is that it gives away a tiny aspect of the ending of that series - but only one detail about one character and nothing about anyone else, so I don't think that would be a problem. It's beautifully illustrated by Helen Forte - I particularly like the frontispiece, which not only depicts a scene from the book accurately, it includes a man with the most wonderfully comical look of constipation on his face. You know exactly what he's going through, poor thing. A lively start to this new series - I look forward to the next one!

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Ben-Hur (dir. Fred Niblo, 1925)

The complete silent version of Ben-Hur from 1925 is available as a DVD extra on some 3 and 4 disc editions of the more famous William Wyler version from 1959, and it's well worth paying a bit extra for. At over two hours, the film is rather long for a silent film (even more than with subtitled films, you can't take your eyes off the screen, as there's not so much as a sound effect to tell you what's going on - which makes this seem rather long when you're thinking about that pile of work you've got to do and how much you want your dinner!). However, it's beautifully shot and produced and Ramon Novarro is engaging and likeable in the lead role.

Like the 1959 version, this film opens (after the obligatory title card about how eeeevil pagan Romans were eventually defeated by Christians) with a long nativity sequence that tells the entire Christmas narrative, complete with wise men on camels (yay! camels!) and Bible quotations. Mary seems to have a magical ability to hypnotise people into liking her, which just makes her look creepy to me, and after the baby is born she gains a massive golden halo that looks even creepier. The wise men are said to be Greek, Hindu and Egyptian, which is totally off - according to Matthew, they were Persian priests, so they should all be Persian (modern Iranian). It's rather nicely done though. If I were watching a Jesus film, I'd have been totally engaged, but I have to admit I wondered when we were going to get to Ben-Hur. Still, it is subtitled 'A Tale of the Christ' after all.

The use of colour is this film is fascinating. Sometimes the film is tinted to give an impression of the surroundings - yellow for the desert, purple or blue for night-time or a prison cell, and so on. Then certain scenes are presented in full colour - the nativity scene at the manger, scenes set in Rome, including a triumphal entrance (complete with girls in bikinis for some reason) and scenes concerning Jesus' ministry, like the sermon on the mount, the entrance into Jerusalem and so on. The colour is gorgeous and the changing colours are quite effective. They take you out of the film a bit, more so than if you were just watching in black and white (which you get used to after a while). As Mark Kermode would put it, they are a Brechtian alienating device. But they're quite effective and they keep the long film feeling fresh.

Ben-Hur and Messala. Yes, all his skirts are that short.

The inaccuracies in the film as a whole are too numerous to discuss at length - inappropriate use of the word 'tyrant' (which had a very specific meaning in the ancient world), a 'bond-slave' who for some reason can't be freed (nonsense - ancient slavery was chattel slavery, not bond-slavery, and you could free people whenever you wanted), Celts from Britain marching in the Roman army more than a decade before the conquest of Britain, and so on, and so forth.

I rather like the old tradition of not showing the face of Jesus on film, but it could be better done here - his hand keeps appearing from the side of the screen, wobbling slightly, presumably because the actor is standing at an awkward angle, and the whole thing looks more like a really cheap puppet show than anything else. The one-armed carpentry work looks particularly awkward, but I think the award for Silliest Way of Hiding the Face of Jesus goes to the random disciple sitting in right front of him at the Da Vinci-style Last Supper.

The conflict in this version of the story is almost enitrely racial, between massively anti-Semitic Romans and victimised Jews. This is true of all versions of the story to an extent of course, but the 1959 version incorporates more elements of the fractured personal relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala and doesn't shove the glory of ancient Israel and nasty anti-Semitism of the eeeeevil Romans in your face quite so much. Or maybe it's just been too long since I watched it. Anyway, Messala here looks downright creepy in some scenes, though that may just be something to do with the film's quality. He's very two-dimensional figure - Stephen Boyd's performance in the 1959 version was rather more nuanced, but Francis Bushman plays the straightforward villain for the most part. His death is also rather less tragic - Ben-Hur doesn't seem terribly fussed about what happens to him. We see him pulled from the wreckage of his chariot with a bit of blood on his face, and that's it.

Esther and Ben-Hur are also unbearably twee. There's a whole business with a pigeon (rats with wings, seriously!) and Esther has the most improbably blond curls falling all over her face. Give me Metropolis' simple but effective heart-clutching to show romantic affection any day. This version of the story has Esther willingly declare herself to be quite literally Ben-Hur's slave, which I suppose is supposed to be romantic (I, again, found it creepy. It's a good thing I didn't live in the 1920s, I would have spent the entire decade in a perpetual state of freaked-out-ness).

Esther. No offence to the actress, but urgh.

I was quite surprised by some of the gore and violence, tempered by being in black and white but still pretty harsh. There's a naked slave strung up on the ship (why would you waste space on a ship stringing up slaves naked? Never mind), there are severed heads on sticks, a Roman prisoner strapped on to the front of the pirates' ship and rammed into a Roman galley and people groaning and still alive while spiked on a spear. This film pre-dates the finalising of the Hays Code in 1930, and clearly the filmmakers are not shy of showing it like it is.

The film features a character called Iras the Egyptian. The name, a quick scan of the novel (available on Google Books) reveals, belongs to a character in the book, but the character in the film is completely different. Book!Iras was Balthazar (a Wise Man)'s daughter, but Film!Iras is a rather thin Cleopatra clone. In the tradition of the 1920s vamp, she's an evil seductress who tries to lure Ben-Hur into revealing his identity to her before the race, a dangerous sexual presence in direct contrast to the oh-so-innocent Esther. Her presence and attachment to Messala, whom we've almost forgotten about by the time he reappears for the chariot race, seems to be little more than an excuse to break out the Cleopatra cosutmes and have her vamp it up.

It all gets a bit melodramatic towards the end, as Ben-Hur starts raising 'legions' to fight the Romans - I think the history books would have noticed that. His meeting with Jesus as Jesus carries the cross is much less effective for being incredibly dramatic and involving talk of legions - the simple return of a cup of water from the 1959 version was much more emotionally effective. On that subject, I felt very sorry for Jesus as he was carrying the cross and being pestered to heal peple and raise babies from the dead all the way to Calvary. It reminded me of the bit in Jesus Christ Superstar where he's surrounded by people asking for healing etc and he snaps and screams 'Leave me alone!'

There's some great stuff in this film though. Ramon Novarro is very good in the title role and has very nice legs, which the costume department seem determined to show off at every available opportunity. The scene where Ben-Hur's mother and sister watch him sleeping but can't touch him because they have leprosy is very moving (though if someone started stroking my shoe while it was on my foot, I'd wake up). The chariot race is brilliant, impressive and exciting to watch. I was particularly pleased to see Messala cheating by forcing another driver to crash in front of Ben-Hur and by whipping Ben-Hur himself, but without at any point resorting to over-the-top or cartoonish means like putting blades on his chariot wheels. I always expect to see Popeye and Bluto turn up when that happens in the 1959 film.

Novarro's legs again. And quite a lot of the rest of him, in fact.

I would definitely encourage everyone with an interest in film or in ancient world films to seek out this one. Although it's long, it's fascinating to watch and some of the big crowd scenes look really impressive. It's also something of a glimpse into a lost world - like Metropolis or Nosferatu (both brilliant) it's a glimpse into how people in the 1920s imagined a different world, which is in some ways even more interesting than more contemporary '20s stories.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Coriolanus (dir. Ralph Fiennes, 2011)

I mentioned this adaptation of Shakespeare's play way back last summer, after I went to a talk on it given by Ralph Fiennes at the Hay Literary Festival, and it's finally out. The film is brilliant - fantastic acting all round, pretty much as you'd expect from Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave (and I think Gerard Butler has been underrated for too long) and Fiennes' direction is great too - visually interesting without distracting from the story. (The choice of a dragon tattoo as a motif was perhaps unfortunate given the timing of the film's release, but since it was made yonks ago, that's not his fault).

Spoilers follow - if you don't know the story and want to see the film, stay away until you've seen it!

OldHousemate(thecamelridingone) and I saw the play at Stratford years ago, following an impulse to get some use out of their under-25 offers before we outgrew them. (In fact, we saw one of the very last performances in the old theatre at Stratford before it was closed for renovation. The set was a simple but big and effective design involving columns going right from near the front of the stage to the back, and I was quite sad at the time knowing that the theatre was being redesigned in a way that would make sets like that impossible. I haven't been there since the new theatre opened, so I don't know how they're creating sets in the thrust-stage design).

The actor playing Coriolanus, William Houston, was excellent, and in a totally different way to Fiennes. From what I remember, the RSC actor went for a really manic energy, a man who could barely sit still with a quick temper. In the scene where Coriolanus meets the people, I seem to remember him acting basically as a huge snob, making fun of them (there were lots of lines about 'mocking' in the film, but I found it hard to see the mocking in the lines - I'm not sure whether the script had been over-edited, or I just drifted off for a moment and missed it). Fiennes' Coriolanus, though he can shout up a storm when he needs to, is much quieter and Fiennes-like at other times. He's intense in a slightly more slow-burning fashion (except in the middle of a fight, when he breaks out and screams the place down) and his problem with appeasing the people seems centred more in him being somewhat uncomfortable in his skin and too brash and honest to play games with them - whereas from what I remember from the other performance, it was more about him simply feeling utterly superior to the people and not caring what they thought. Either way works perfectly well, and both performances were equally effective.

William Houston as Coriolanus

At the time OldHousemate and I went to see Coriolanus, we each had a first class honours undergraduate degree in Ancient History (she may also have got her Master's by then, I can't remember), but neither of us had a clue what was going on. At the time, neither of us had done much work on the Roman republic in years, and what we had done was mostly about the Late Republic - Julius Caesar, Pompey et al. Coriolanus is a much earlier figure - so early, in fact, he's almost more legendary than historical. His story is full of intricate details concerning how one became consul at this early stage, and the function of the tribunes when they were a relatively new institution (which was to stand for the plebeians against the patrician consuls and senators. As more and more positions were opened up to plebeians as well, their role changed over the years). It is largely this incomprehensibility that Fiennes has hoped to overcome by giving the play a modern setting (in a random southern European landscape 'called Rome').

Fiennes has no interest in the story as an incident from Roman history - only as a Shakespeare play (I know this because I asked him last summer. This is probably the starriest this blog will ever get - a one-question interview with Ralph Fiennes!). The great advantage of this modernising approach, which has been used frequently on Shakespeare plays for years, is that he can draw out the emotional beats of the story, using pared-down dialogue and added visuals, making it comprehensible to everyone. Like Baz Luhrmann in his Romeo + Juliet, Fiennes uses newsreaders to great effect. In addition to Channel 4's ever-brilliant Jon Snow, just as good with Shakespearean dialogue as news, Fiennes has the advantage of being able to make use of the development of 24-hour news channels with rolling text across the screen that have taken off in the last ten years or so, where Luhrmann had to make do with the old spinning-newspaper trick. These punchy headlines allow him to make important developments crystal clear to the viewer, in a way the stage production couldn't.

I have to admit, though, a part of me wondered if this isn't too Roman a story for such complete avoidance of its context to work for me. The story of Coriolanus is known chiefly from Plutarch's Lives of the Greeks and Romans, in which Coriolanus is featured as a great Roman figure from Rome's past (paralleled with Alcibiades, a Greek general who changed sides several times - changing sides is clearly the theme Plutarch wanted to focus on). It's also featured in Livy's History of Rome. His story is tied up with ideas about Romanness and Coriolanus' tragedy is that he is first exiled from, then turns against, Rome. I'm not quite sure the story works so well when the state he fights for, and then against, is an anyplace 'called Rome' - the point of the story is that Rome is pretty special, and turning against it is pretty drastic.

The character of Volumnia, Coriolanus' mother (Verturia in Livy) embodies both the advantages and the problems with cutting the story off from its Roman roots. On the one hand, we have a hugely powerful story about a mother and son, culminating in the great scene where she persuades him to make peace. Their relationship is at the heart of the story (along with that between Coriolanus and Aufidius, half homoerotic tension, half spitting hatred) and stripping away the 'period' costumes and so on makes it more obviously relatable for the audience. On the other hand, Vanessa Redgrave mentioned in an interview (I can't quite remember where - BBC's Film 2012, possibly) that she found it difficult to get into the head of a mother who would rejoice in her son's wounds. I can't speak for modern mothers of soldiers and officers, but in the ancient world, this would not seem surprising. Perhaps the Romans didn't say 'Come back with your shield or on it' as the Spartans supposedly did, but they were a culture that glorified military service and warfare and this attitude does not seem so out of place in that context. The idea of Volumnia and Virgilia persuading Coriolanus where the men could not also goes right back to Roman foundation mythology, in which the Sabine women persuaded their husbands and fathers to make peace. The family unit was at the heart of Roman life and politics and this idea, that the importance of family (especially including Coriolanus' young son) was paramount was a popular one - and a very Roman one.

On a smaller level, there were a few lines left in that referred to Juno or the gods, which sounded a bit odd given the surroundings (wherever they were meant to be, I would guess the population would be mostly either Catholic or Muslim!). And I couldn't quite buy that in a modern country, people would be elected or exiled on the basis of a fairly small group of people shouting - but perhaps that's my naivety coming through.

All this sounds like criticism of the film, which it isn't really - it's just strange seeing something so very Roman presented as something completely un-Roman. But the film really is great, and I haven't even mentioned Brian Cox's fantastic performance as Menenius (who, in one of the film's more deliberate nods to the story's Roman origins, slashes his wrists next to water). OK, there was a dodgy moment where his dialogue referred to Ulysses and Penelope and for a moment I expected him to pick a fight with Achilles and jump into a giant horse. But that's really my problem. His Menenius really grounded the scenes in Rome and made us care, showing us exactly when Coriolanus was doing something stupid, and when he was getting it right. Catch the film if you can - it's out now, but you sometimes have to look a bit to find it. It's well worth seeking out.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (dir. Joel Zwick, 2002)

I saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding in the cinema back in 2002, and I will always be fond of it because it signalled the end of a truly terrible drought on the romantic comedy front. The year before, my housemate and I had been to see Shallow Hal because it was the closest thing to a romantic comedy we could find, and it was... eh. We'd been desperately seeking something sweet and fluffy ever since and finally, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, we found it! It's a slight film in many ways, but it's nice and it's funny and it's a relaxing watch. It also highlight some really interesting aspects of the reception of (Classical) Greek culture both within Greek emigrant families and outside.

I put Classical in brackets up there because it's my area of interest but really, in this film, Greek culture is Classical culture. Not being Greek, I have no idea whether this accurately reflects Greek culture, but in the film all the aspects of Greek culture that Toula's father describes to show off are Classical, mostly based in etymology or the achievements of the Classical Greeks. Her family keep up plenty of traditions that I assume are largely post-Classical - and of course, they're Christian so the Greek Orthodox side of things is mainly post-Classical - but the later history of Greece is only mentioned by the women, and only as an example of what it was about Greece that prompted them to leave in the first place. It's fascinating to me that the sense of cultural identity put forward in this film is so completely bound up in a specific period (and quite a specific culture - we're basically talking about Classical Athens here) but as I say, I only know what I see in the film, so this may be totally unrepresentative of how actual Greeks feel about their heritage.

Of course Classical Greece is pretty impressive, and Toula's father has plenty of material to draw on. His insistence that every word in the English language comes from Greek actually reminds me of growing up with my Mum reminding me frequently that much of English comes from Latin or Greek, and there are so many Greek words in the English language that he's got a point. He takes it too far, though - I love the scene where he insists, having been challenged by young Toula's friends, that 'kimono' is also Greek, and has a whole argument to back up this assertion.

The scenes with young Toula and her friends are interesting in themselves. We see Toula's father wheeling out all the things that we as adults find impressive about ancient Greece, things like the Greek origin of democracy and the word arachnophobia. He wants Toula to be proud of her heritage and her friends to be impressed, but that will never happen, because kids don't care about etymology or the origins of democracy. To encourage a child to be proud of their heritage, or impressed by someone else's, you have to give them something they can understand and connect with.

As teachers of the ancient world, this is something we have to think about as well. In addition to fiction and films set in the ancient world (like The Roman Mysteries for Rome, or Hercules for Greece) we need to wheel out stories and facts that will excite kids. I took part in a production of Oedipus Rex as a child - which is pretty weird, to be honest, but it was certainly memorable! Less controversially, kids might be more interested in hearing about the theories ancient philosophers had about the solar system or the fact that they had guessed about the existence of atoms, or instead of a dry etymology of the word 'arachnophobia', a lively re-telling of the myth of Arachne might appeal to them more.

Toula's parents' house

I did feel the urge to nit-pick a couple of times during the film. Toula says her parents' house is modeled after the Parthenon, complete with Corinthian columns... except the Parthenon doesn't have any Corinthian columns. The Parthenon is a combination of the Doric and Ionic orders of temple design, with Doric and Ionic columns (Doric are plain at the top, Ionic have a scroll design at the top and Corinthian have acanthus leaves at the top). The house actually does have Corinthian columns (which are often the most commonly used outside of Greece) and it's not exactly a huge error, but still. Also, on a broader academic note (Toula's fiancee Ian is a university lecturer), why are people in films always interrupting classes for random personal conversations? Seriously, no one does that, and if they did, I'd be pretty mad. (There was an episode of Friends once where Ross actually pointed to Phoebe that he had a class full of people waiting for him, which was mildly satisfying).

The Parthenon

On the less nit-picky and more honestly-this-is-totally-wrong level, whoever did the DVD menu was seriously lazy. They've put Greek under the English headings, but they haven't actually translated it, they've just transliterated it into Greek letters. Worse, they haven't actually transliterated it. They've downloaded a Greek keyboard code from the internet and typed out the words in English, with Greek letters coming out the other end. Except, the Greek alphabet doesn't have the same number of letters as English, and they're not always where you expect them to be ('y', for example, gives you a theta, which is a 'th' sound in ancient Greek - not sure about modern - not upsilon, which is a 'u' sound and is the closest to y, the letter usually transliterated as y in words like 'gynecology'). They couldn't have asked a Greek speaker to transliterate - or, better, translate - the headings? Or just not bother putting them on the menu if they weren't going to do it properly?

Random thoughts: I kinda love the idea of a wedding reception in Aphrodite's Palace. It's certainly more... thematically appropriate than a church hall. I'm pretty sure the Greeks didn't invent pottery, but their ancient pots are so famous and so ubiquitous it sometimes feels like they did. I love the bit following the obligatory tell-him-something-rude-means-thank you joke, where Toula's mum just slaps her brother up the head because she knows exactly what happened. The equally inevitable 'it's all Greek to me' joke is terrible, but at least it proves that Ian's family do have something that passes for a sense of humour.

I will always be fond of this film for warm, comfy feel, even if I do find the final gift from Toula's parents to the couple overbearing and creepy rather than loving and sweet (I would be very grateful for my parents' help in buying a house, but I would not want them to choose it for me without even asking. I have reservations about handbags as gifts because only I know exactly what I need in a handbag, so you can imagine how I would feel about someone else choosing my house). When you just want a heart-warming and relaxing comedy with no gross stuff, this is exactly what you need. And, of course, it spends much of its runtime celebrating Classical culture. Only one drawback; I'm really craving moussaka now...

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Top Five Classical Bromances

Thanks to Brother for the post idea!

As a researcher and teacher of gender studies, I'm not wild about the concept of 'bromance' - why should deep male friendship and stories about it have its own word, but there's no equivalent for women? Whether it's because it's assumed women form close relationships anyway and such a thing is less remarkable, or whether it's because people are less interested in stories about deep female friendship (particularly when it's two people and not a group), it's sexist however you look at it. However, I am a big fan of Scrubs, which may not have invented the term but is clearly built on bromance and I think may have helped to popularise it, so what the heck. Whatever I think about it, I suspect the term is here to stay. So here is my totally subjective list of the best bromances in Classical pop culture.

5. Mark Antony and Julius Caesar (Rome)
Real bromance? Yep. As far as we an tell, anyway. Except for the part where Caesar made Octavian his heir and really pissed Antony off, but that was posthumous.
Does my heart feel warmed? Sort of - it's more tragic than heartwarming when Antony discovers Caesar's body. And in the Rome version, which is the one I've chosen to highlight here since it's the one that gives the most screentime to the partnership (and it's the one where Mark Antony is played by James Purefoy, not that I'm shallow or anything), Antony looks more scared for his own skin that grief-stricken for his friend. But still, there's genuinely touching emotion there, especially in Marlon Brando's performance as Antony.

4. Claudius and Postumus (I, Claudius)
Real bromance? Goodness knows - probably not, since Claudius was quiet and stuttered and Postumus was exiled for general bad behaviour, but there's no evidence to prove otherwise.
Does my heart feel warmed? Again, this is more tragic than anything else. Like his uncle Tiberius before him, Claudius has few friends, and the ones he has get killed off, one by one. Fortunately, unlike Tiberius, Claudius does not respond with sexual violence, perversity and misanthropy.

3. Spartacus and Crixus (Spartacus: Blood and Sand)
Real bromance? Well, Crixus was one of Spartacus' generals, so yes, quite possibly.
Does my heart feel warmed? This one is still in development - they've been more like frenemies, or just enemies, for much of season 1 - but my heart feels warmed when Spartacus gets chucked in the medical centre with Crixus, who asks drily 'Have you been making friends again?' Perhaps my heart is weird.

2. Marcus Aquila and Esca, The Eagle
Real bromance? Definitely not. Fiction bordering on fantasy. Not that a Roman and a Briton couldn't be friends - I'm sure they could, and quite a few intermarried - but the film is pure fantasy.
Does my heart feel warmed? The film is kind of daft, and you feel like half of the scenes showing the development of their relationship have been cut, but still - I defy anyone to watch the two limp out together at the end and not feel a little glowy in the chest region.

1. Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, Rome
Real bromance? The two are named in a short section of Caesar's Gallic Wars and described as great friends, so technically, yes. However, this section is tiny and the only thing we get from it is that they both fought in the Gallic Wars - and since our Vorenus and Pullo (see, I do actually know their real names!) only meet after these wars are over, they really have nothing in common except the name. It's neat thing to do, using these two names, but these characters themselves are entirely fictitious.
Does my heart feel warmed? It varies depending what they're doing, but they definitely have their moments - the best of which is, of course, the moment where Vorenus leaps into the middle of a gladiatorial combat yelling 'Thirteen!' to save Pullo from execution.

Honourable mention: Frodo and Sam, The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is mostly based on Norse mythology, but it has it's Classical elements. These days, Frodo and Sam's relationship is often interpreted as homoerotic rather than bromantic, which is a fair enough interpretation (and there are certainly plenty of moments in both book and film to support that interpretation), but I've always seen this as a bromance myself (and since Tolkien was a Victorian devout Catholic, that's probably closer to what he meant).

All Top Five lists

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Chelmsford 123: Something Beginning With E

This is the very last episode of Chelmsford 123, and my second favourite, because once again it features some Latin, and it sees the return of pseudo-Emperor Hadrian (I say 'pseudo' because the only thing this guy has in common with the real Emperor Hadrian is that they both have beards).

The episode opens with our heroes playing daft games and complaining about how they'd rather be at a orgy. The Emperor, as it turns out, is just as bored (though his fantasy orgy involves baboons) and he picks Britain at random as a place to visit to break the monotony. Although everyone has become so bored they've got Blagg doing the dance of the seven veils (insert joke about the baboons being a better bet here), this is still not good news.

Howard Lew Lewis, who played Blagg - this picture is actually from the  classic childrens' comedy series Maid Marian and her Marry Men, written by and starring Tony Robinson, in which he played the delightfully-named Rabies

Since this is the last ever episode, the writers take advantage of the opportunity to throw in all the Classical jokes they haven't quite managed to find a place for in the series so far. At one point, Aulus wonders how he's offended the gods, since he's never done anything that awful - he's never killed his father or slept with his mother, for example (at this point Mungo chimes in with 'don't knock it till you've tried it'). I like the bit where Aulus and Grasientus discuss the possibilities of throwing Christians to the lions for the Emperor's entertainment, and consider how to solve the problem of the lack of lions in Britain - they decide to try using sheep instead. Aulus delivers a very funny prayer as well, assuring Jupiter that he's his favourite god with half a dozen flattering epithets, which reminds me of the Romans' tendency to call him things like Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Jupiter Best and Greatest), which seems rather redundant.

The Emperor's visit goes predictably badly, as Badvok tries to kidnap the Emperor and hold him hostage for money and freedom, and Aulus wants to leave him with Badvok and go and take over the Empire himself. Both are foiled by the fact the Emperor has swapped clothes with his right hand man in case of just such a plot and we last see our heroes rowing as galley slaves and blaming all their problems on the French. On the bright side, they've done a lot better than the lead characters in most series of Blackadder, but they do seem to have fallen prey to the British fondness for downer endings (this is why I like American sitcoms so much...)

So, that was Chelmsford 123. It's not ever going to get into the Sitcom Hall of Fame, but I enjoyed it when I caught it on UK Gold a few years ago, and I've enjoyed watching it again now. It may a bit obvious, but it's entertaining and I know I will think of it any time I find myself taking a bypass around Romford. The whole series can be viewed from free on 4oD in the UK, so check it out sometime if you're bored and need something to watch with lunch - at the very least, the first and last episodes are much more light-hearted Latin revision opportunities than The Passion of the Christ!

All Chelmsford 123 reviews

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Weight (by Jeanette Winterson)

Weight is part of Canongate publishing's series The Myths, a series of (fairly short) novels retelling myths in innovative ways, which includes Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad. Weight is a particularly short novel, and reads more like an extended prose poem than a story, though there certainly is plot and action in there.

Although nominally focused on Atlas, Weight also includes substantial material on Heracles, and Heracles (with Greek spelling - because even when your only source is Robert Graves, it looks more authentic with the Greek spelling!) is the liveliest, most interesting and most memorable character. His dialogue sparkles - well, maybe 'sparkles' is the wrong word - and he feels like a truly complete character. Atlas suffers a bit by comparison, being much less lively, but is reasonably sympathetic, which is essential to making the story work.

Some parts of the book didn't entirely work for me. The narrative perspective jumps around all over the place, and although I liked some of the astrological and cosmological sections towards the beginning and end, the sections where the story suddenly slips into a first-person, pseudo-autobiographical account of the narrator's childhood globe and parental issues left me pretty cold. Myth works perfectly well as a metaphor in itself (the final letting-go is especially satisfying) - it doesn't need these over-thought, overly poetical bits of introspection and naval-gazing interrupting the flow of the story. I also could have lived without some of the sexual content, not because I'm particularly prudish (I am, after all, a fan of both Spartacus: Blood and Sand and True Blood) but because it often seemed both unnecessary and, at one point, implausible. I absolutely loved the section where Atlas rescues poor Laika the Russian space dog though.

I rather liked the intensely poetic feel to this story and somehow the strange mash-up of realistic astronomy and mythology actually works, for the most part. Although I love poetry, this sort of self-consciously literary fiction (I hate that way of branding fiction, as if everything written for pleasure and to entertain the reader is somehow worthless, but I can't think of another way to describe it) isn't really my thing, but still, I enjoyed this, and have resolved to read some more of Winterson's better-known work (probably starting with Oranges are not the Only Fruit).

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Breaking Dawn (by Stephanie Meyer)

Yes, I have read all the Twilight books. I know exactly what you think of me now. But they're escapist, silly fun, and Stephanie Meyer sure knows how to write a page-turner.

I particularly liked the first one, which was a nice, daft sparkly-vampire story, and the second, because when Bella's hanging out with Jacob they actually feel like they might be real people who enjoy each other's company. (I much prefer Jacob to Edward, but that's at least partly because my brother is a tall, relatively pale-skinned, dark-haired musician called Edward). The second novel is also where the Volturi first appear - ancient Italian vampires called Caius, Marcus and Aro - i.e., surely, Romans! I read the book a while ago so my memory of it is a bit dim. However, over December I finally got around to reading Breaking Dawn, in which they also feature, having seen Part 1 in the cinema, which wasn't bad at all. I'd been putting it off for ages because, while Books 1 and 2 have their fair share of weird and off-putting stuff (WATCHING YOU SLEEP IS STALKING, NOT LOVE) Books 3 and 4 really take the crazy factor up to eleven.

I don't even know where to start on the madness that is the world of Twilight, so I'm just going to direct you to Cleolinda Jones' Twilight reviews, recaps, discussion etc, particularly her Horrify the Twilight Noob game. Suffice it to say that the first half of Breaking Dawn works rather well as a metaphor for the horrors of pregnancy (which is much, much nastier than any pop culture interpretation would have the inexperienced believe - see, for example, this description of all the things no one tells you about pregnancy, not even pregnant women. I should add that I have no personal experience of this issue, but I have seen the statistics for the mortality rate among pregnant women, women in labour and infants in pre-industrial societies. It's not good). The second half, however, gets progressively madder and madder, the worst crimes against narrative and characterisation being Bella as the Best Vampire Eva! (worse than the worst Mary-Sue-style fan-fiction), the ridiculous anti-climax of the final showdown (in real life, I am all for diplomacy and ending things without violence wherever possible, but in vampire fiction, not so much) and worst of all, Jacob imprinting on the baby. See Cleolinda's summaries for more detail - I can't bear to think about it!

Anyway, the ultimately disappointing finale heavily features the Volturi again. We get a few details about their history, mentioned briefly while discussing their various strengths and weaknesses. Since Meyer is not known for her rigourous research any implications may be pure coincidence, but what the heck, let's look over it anyway. It is suggested that the Volturi have been around for about twenty-five hundred years, which would make them early Republican Romans. However, it was only fifteen hundred years ago that they came to power, following the fall of the Romanians (who appear to have essentially turned into Enkil and Akasha from the Anne Rice-verse). I found this quite interesting because this would mean they came to power just as the Roman Empire was crumbling. I rather like the idea that they had to hide and live fairly quietly while the human Empire was strong, but were able to come out and take over the vampire world once the human Empire had crumbled. That would actually be a rather interesting story. I have no idea, though, whether Meyer actually intended to suggest that interpretation, or whether she just picked dates at random.

The influx of new vampire characters in the final third of the book also includes the 'Amazons' - three female vampires (two of whom appear to be in the only non-hetero-normative relationship in the entire quartet) who come from South America. What Meyer has done here is basically a sophisticated pun, but it's a rather nice one. These three come from the area of the river Amazon, right? And they're tough female warriors (who appear to shun the sexual company of men) so they're also Amazons, geddit? Tee-hee. (Either that, or Meyer has made the same mistake I used to make as a child, and Terry Pratchett's Eric makes, and actually thinks the Amazons come from the Amazon). I rather liked them.

Of the three Roman vampires, my favourite by far is the perpetually-bored Marcus, who hardly does anything but imply that the world in general is uninteresting and beneath him. He's supposed to be about twenty-five hundred years old as well, but in my head, he's a bit younger than that - I like to think he's Mark Antony (preferably as played by James Purefoy) and in between falling on his sword and actual death, he got vamped, and has wandered the world, shagging, fighting and trying to conquer Parthia ever since. He's now had enough of the whole thing, hence the boredom. I'd read that novel. Anyway, Aro and Caius aren't nearly as interesting, but in the movies, Aro is played with camp glee by Micheal Sheen, so I'm rather looking forward to Breaking Dawn Part 2, as his presence should vastly improve the whole sequence. You never know, the filmmakers might even include an actual fight at some point.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Star Trek (dir. J. J. Abrams, 2009)

As you know, I love all things Trek, so of course I love this movie. I could live without the random, Star Wars-esque giant ice planet monster. And I have an ongoing argument over whether the alternate timeline presented here replaces the original, or runs parallel to it. But otherwise, it's perfect.

The plot revolves around the destruction of the planet Romulus, and the bad guys are a group of Romulans. When Romulans were first introduced, way back in the original series, their military set-up bore some superficial resemblances to ancient Rome, and their Romanness was part of a wider use of the Roman Empire as a parallel for both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia (sometimes both at the same time). In later appearances, individual writers or directors could choose whether or not to play up the 'Roman' elements of their culture, depending on what they wanted to do with their story.

The Romulans seen in the new film have, like the originals, a relationship to Vulcans, with pointy ears and a similar language. However, whereas in their first appearance this similarity was part of the point, here the visual similarity is played down, as the particular group of Romulans we're dealing with are tattooed and clothed very differently from Vulcans (and they're quite emotional too!). Their 'Romanness', likewise, is not really emphasised in their culture, costumes, hierarchy or ship, except in one respect - the name of their leader, Nero.

The new film is not especially interested in drawing a parallel between the entire Romulan race and ancient Rome, but it is interested in likening its main villain to one specific Roman, the emperor Nero. This Nero is far from an emperor, being the captain of a mining ship, a tough guy and a survivor rather than a pampered young ruler. He does share some traits with the emperor, mainly in his cruelty and vicious punishment of anyone who crosses him.

The main point of the Nero parallel, though, is an inversion of Nero's most famous (supposed) act, fiddling while Rome burnt. In the emperor, this was (supposedly - the evidence is not that great) an act of utter callousness and self-absorption, caring nothing at all for the fire destroying the city (which some authors imply he may have started) and more interested in his own composition of a song on the subject. This is the vital difference between him and the Romulan Nero, for this Nero cares. He viciously destroys an entire planet, and tries to destroy another, to avenge the perceived wrong to his own, but you certainly couldn't accuse him of not caring. Like (according to the somewhat gossipy sources) the emperor Nero, he burns worlds for his own purposes, but not out of callousness - rather, because he cares so much about his own home, he is driven to complete disregard for others.

Rumours abound about who the villain will be in the next movie. I don't think I want Khan to show up - Montalban is such a perfect Khan, and The Wrath of Khan such a fantastic movie, I don't really feel the need to see a re-boot of that. I'd like to see some Klingons, if only to see which variety of make-up the film-makers decide to use, but of course, my no. 1 choice would be more Romulans, because then I could blog a review of it...

All Star Trek reviews

Monday, 2 January 2012

Saturnalia in popular culture

It's a Saturnalia miracle!

Happy New Year everyone! Fingers crossed for 2012!

OK, so Christmas Day has been and gone and December's over, but we're still well within the Twelve Days of Christmas, so we're still within the season and there's room for one more seasonal post. Saturnalia was the Roman mid-winter festival, and if you want to know more about it, Caroline Lawrence has written about some of the customs Saturnalia and Christmas have in common here. I've posted on depictions of the Roman Saturnalia before, from Steven Saylor, the Roman Mysteries and Chelmsford 123. However, what I want to talk about today is the way in which popular culture set in later periods describes Saturnalia.

How many of our Christmas customs come directly from the Saturnalia and how many are simply coincidentally similar is hard to say. The use of lights to decorate the house at the darkest time of year is, perhaps, obvious and doesn't need a specific explanation, and festivals of light are celebrated at the darkest time of year all over the world. The overall mood of celebration (often fueled by alcoholic beverages) and the inverting of social traditions or breaking down of social boundaries that, as seen in the holding of the Servants' Ball in the Downton Abbey Christmas special, continued well into the twentieth century, may or may not have survived from Roman times (during Saturnalia, masters would wait on their slaves). One thing we are fairly sure of, though, is that the Christian festival of Christmas was deliberately timed to be the Christian Saturnalia.

What mildly irritates me about popular culture references to the festival, though, is the insistence that early Christians somehow 'stole' Saturnalia from the pagans, and the underlying suggestion that this knowledge somehow devalues Christmas as a Christian celebration. The Horrible Histories special, Horrible Christmas, for example, claims that 'the Christians pinched [the sun's birthday]... to celebrate the birth of Jesus, even though that wasn't his birthday'. (I feel the need to point out here that we have no idea when Jesus' birthday was - if the shepherds were out all night with the sheep that suggests lambing season, but that's only in one gospel and really, it doesn't matter). Meanwhile, The Big Bang Theory's season 2 Christmas special, 'The Bath Gift Item Hypothesis' (the one where Penny gives Sheldon the napkin from Leonard Nimoy) includes the following dialogue:

Penny: Hey Sheldon, are you and Leonard putting up a Christmas tress?
Sheldon Cooper: No, because we don't celebrate the ancient pagan festival of Saturnalia.
Penny: Saturnalia?
Howard Wolowitz: Gather round, kids, it's time for Sheldon's beloved Christmas special.
Sheldon Cooper: In the pre-Christian era, as the winter solstice approached and the plants died, pagans brought evergreen boughs into their homes as an act of sympathetic magic, intended to guard the life essences of the plants until spring. This custom was later appropriated by Northern Europeans and eventually it becomes the so-called Christmas tree.
Howard Wolowitz: And that, Charlie Brown, is what boredom is all about. (Thanks to imdb)

It's more the traditions of bringing in mistletoe and Yule logs that come from Saturnalia greenery than the Christmas tree, but what Sheldon's saying is basically factually accurate. It's the interpretation that mildly irritates me. Granted, both these examples are intended to be humourous and are exaggerating to make it sound funnier, but this still reflects a common notion that Christians have 'stolen' Christmas from Saturnalia, or that Christmas is 'really' Saturnalia.

The Christians did 'steal' Saturnalia in one sense, in that if you are a Christian, you can't worship any other gods, so Christians would not just celebrate Jesus' birthday, they would refuse to celebrate Saturnalia (unlike members of the cult of Mithras, whose birthday was also supposed to be 25th December, but who could have continued to worship Saturn, Jupiter et al alongside Mithras). However, the deliberate decision to celebrate the birthday of Jesus on 25th December and adopt elements of the Saturnalia does not make it 'stolen'.

This is because the celebration of religious ritual does not necessarily have to be intimately connected with belief. In the ancient world, religion as a whole was much less concerned with belief and dogma than Christianity, as can be seen from the way stories about the gods were re-told and rewritten. Christianity, as a religion, is more concerned with dogma and faith, but the purpose of various rituals remains a linked but ultimately separate issue. Plenty of people get married in Christian churches without having a strong Christian faith, and some might have their children Christened (though perhaps less often in recent years) because those things are social rituals that mark a changing point in your life. Others get married in a registry office, but the wedding is no less a wedding because it's not religious, and many of the same traditions are performed.

Annual festivals are not dissimilar - that's why Christmas is still such a big deal in an increasingly secular society. We need a mid-winter festival to brighten things up at the darkest time of year and we need a social gathering to reconnect with family. The ritual exists, in a way, independently of belief in whatever god it's dedicated to.

Of course, belief is not totally disconnected from the ritual - I go to church on Christmas every year because I believe in Jesus and I choose to celebrate that. But whether or not Jesus was actually born on 25 December is totally irrelevant to the choice to celebrate on that date, and more importantly, the Christians did not 'steal' Saturnalia from poor, hard-done-by pagans. The Roman world simply reached a point where more people were Christian than not, so instead of celebrating Saturn, the festival switched to celebrating Jesus. The Christian leaders who made the decision to celebrate Jesus' birthday at that time were maintaining the festival because it was important to people, but it's not a theft so much as an evolution (or devolution I suppose, depending on your point of view).

Pop culture references to Saturnalia usually show some awareness of these issues, particularly the well-known anthropological need for a mid-winter festival. Some go further. Terry Pratchett's Hogfather goes some way to probing the issue of the winter festival, but gets caught up in the business of belief, which is a red herring. There is belief, philosophy, faith etc, and there is ritual. Sometimes they're connected, but sometimes they're only loosely connected or even not at all. Community's season 2 Christmas special, 'Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas' probably comes closest when it concludes that the meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning. However, the annoying notion persists that Christians 'stole' a pagan festival, or that Christians have somehow been tricked into celebrating a pagan festival, neither or which really reflects the subtle process of transformation that turned Saturnalia into Christmas.

Scene from the Saturnalia-esque Servants' Ball in Downton Abbey (of two 'upstairs' people dancing, but still). Which is totally relevant and not at all an excuse to post a picture of Dan Stevens. Obviously. Ahem.
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