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!

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  1. One of my main characters is an archaeologist who's left the profession behind (I've got to write the prequel next). He does speak several languages, but at one point in my manuscript, he's standing in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, rueing that he's not fluent in the languages the Dead Sea Scroll are written in...


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