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.

More Top 5 Lists

Friday, 12 October 2012

The Destiny of Rome (Le Destin de Rome), Episode 1

I don't usually review non-fiction, but Hasan Niyazi from Three Pipe Problem kindly sent me a DVD of this French docu-drama, and I couldn't resist the allure of lightly French-accented Latin. The programme has an English voiceover, interspersed with fictionalised dramatic scenes in Latin and a few clips of talking heads speaking French or, in one case, Italian, subtitled in English

The CGI used in just about every shot is a bit off-putting, as it always is in these docu-style productions where the budget doesn't even stretch to a small, I, Claudius-style indoor set. I really think if you can't afford proper sets, you should just put everything in a small room. Dodgy, cheap CGI should only be used when absolutely necessary, like for the eruption of Pompeii.

There narrative is also full of weird inaccuracies. There are professors among the talking heads and what they say is fine (thought they tend to exaggerate a bit and get overly dramatic for the TV). But the writers of the dramatised bit and the main narrative don't seem to have run it past any of the professors. For example, the series claims that Cleopatra was pregnant with Caesar's son at the time of his murder, but unless they're suggesting they had another child who died or was miscarried, this is right out - Caesarion was young, but he'd definitely been born by this point. The map of the Roman Empire shown at the beginning has Britain on it, but Britain shouldn't be added until AD 43, in the reign of Claudius. Julius Caesar just visited, set up alliances with some local kings, and left again.

The narrator claims that when Caesar died, 'According to the plebeians, a god had been murdered and Rome was doomed' - no and no! First of all, 'plebeians' is a very broad category which includes Cicero and Pompey, though it was sometimes used as an insulting way to refer to the masses (this has recently become an issue in British politics, believe it or not, because a politician may or may not have used it as an insult to a policeman - Mary Beard explains Roman plebs in more detail here).

More importantly, Caesar was not proclaimed as a god until Octavian pointed at a meteor that flew over during his commemorative Games and claimed it was Caesar's spirit ascending to the heavens. It was Octavian who deified Caesar, and he very definitely did it after Caesar was dead and after Antony's eulogy for Caesar, in which, in this version, he again says Caesar was a god. The 'Rome was doomed' bit is too general to pick apart, but I doubt anyone thought that either - they were upset because Caesar, a man who turned out to have left generous gifts to the people in his will, had been murdered.

(Speaking of Antony's eulogy, it was fun to see that here, complete with the bit about the blood-stained clothes. I'm still disappointed Rome left that out).

The series also reduces and simplifies a lot. It totally skips the bit where Antony and Octavian fight a war against each other before Phillippi, and Lepidus gets left out completely as well. Are any viewers wondering why one of the professors calls Antony a 'triumvir'?! At then at the end, the narrator proclaims that 'the Roman empire now had two heads' - maybe in effect it did, but technically Lepidus was an equal third of the ruling men. But he often gets left out. Poor Lepidus.

Most of the runtime of Episode 1 is spent on the Battle of Philippi. Since all I really know about the intricate military details of the Battle of Philippi is that Antony, heading his and Octavian's forces and probably helped by Agrippa, won it, I can't really comment much on all the details. I do know that Octavian called in sick for most of the battle, and when Brutus attacked his camp, he wasn't in his tent, but hiding in the marshes. According to the man himself in his (lost, but reported in other sources) memoirs, his doctor had had a dream warning him that he should take extra care that day. The documentary rather misrepresents this as but it gets the gist across - it claims that Octavian had been ill since leaving Rome and that 'he'd been warned in a dream that if he went into battle he would not survive'. I think it's probably safe to assume that what actually happened is, he saw Brutus coming and scarpered, and made up the dream story later.

The episode goes into enormous amounts of detail on the battle with loads of speeches. Roman historians liked to put speeches into their histories - great, lengthy, inspiring speeches. Trouble is, 99% of the time they were making them up. (I can't remember if Caesar included any speeches in his histories, but I'd be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt if he did. In fact, I have a feeling he didn't - which rather implies that all these great military speeches are inventions of the historians rather than representations of reality. Caesar was a great orator, but possibly in a political rather than military context).

The narrative keeps talking about this being a battle of ideas, between republicanism and monarchism, Brutus fighting for 'freedom and the republic', Antony and Octavian upholding Caesar's ideals. But at this point, Antony and Octavian were still maintaining some vestige of the Republic, they're not yet emperors and they're certainly not kings. And I think that the soldiers were fighting for the generals they were loyal to and even more importantly, for whoever was paying them and promising them land when they retired. Maybe some of Brutus' men had more idealistic reasons for fighting, and maybe some of Antony and Octavian's armies were fighting to avenge Caesar's death, but the idea that the whole battle was a war of political ideals seems an overly modern interpretation to me. Calling them 'republican' and 'Caesarian' isn't really accurate either, though I suppose one could argue Brutus was fighting for the republic, and Octavian certainly ended up destroying it.

When it's not being inaccurate, the narration is a bit obvious. 'The carnage and the groans of the dying were atrocious,' the narrator solemnly tells us and the camera pans over a pile of badly-CGI'd corpses after the battle. Well, obviously. At the end, Octavian comes off rather badly, wanting to cut off Brutus' head and show it to the people as proof of victory rather than give him a grand funeral and send his ashes to his mother as Antony wants. That bit's maybe more accurate, though it was supposedly Antony who wanted Cicero's head and hands nailed to the Rostra, so they were probably even on the totally ruthless and a bit gross front.

Mark Antony and completely inaccurate pregnant Cleopatra

To be honest, I'm not really overly wild about docu-drama as a concept. I tend to think a thing should be one or the other, fictionalised or not fictionalised. I also tend to avoid documentaries about the ancient world because of their shameless audience-grabbing (look! sex! violence!) and their tendency to elide or exaggerate to the point of inaccuracy. I prefer fictionalised productions, because at least - hopefully - the audience is aware that certain elements have been changed, exaggerated or moved around to serve the fiction and won't take the whole thing too literally. On the other hand, docu-drama is probably the closest modern genre to ancient history (in which events are formed into a narrative telling the story the author wants to tell, full of invented speeches, exaggerations and hearsay) so it's probably hypocritical of me to complain about it!

The problem with this show is, the main value of something like this must be to explain the basic facts from this period, which is rather complicated in terms of military and political history - but the persistent inaccuracies rather reduce its value from that point of view. Still, I really can't resist any combination of French and Latin, and this provides a handy less gory, if not less depressing, alternative to The Passion of the Christ to watch if you want hear and revise spoken Latin.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: Mortal Beloved


I love stories about journeys to the underworld and ghost stories, so I really enjoyed this episode, in which Xena has to chase a bad guy from the underworld up to the land of the living and do a deal with Hades.

The plot devices and set-up seen here are a mixture of Classical and non-Classical. The main plot device, Hades' Helmet of Invisibility, is rewritten to suit the needs of the episode (see comments below - I had initially forgotten its existence, but it is a Thing. The ancient helmet just makes you invisible though, it doesn't do any of the other things attributed to it here). And as in many depictions of the ancient underworld, the producers can't resist the urge to throw in some elements of the Christian hell as well - although Tartarus was the Classical part of the underworld where the wicked were punished, the fire and brimstone aspect (represented here by some nice stock shots of a volcano erupting) is more a feature of Christian hell than the ancient underworld.

Many elements of the Classical underworld are incorporated here, though. The most obvious, of course, is Charon the ferryman. Here's he's a rather grotesque, broadly comic character. I'm not sure I'm wild about that interpretation - I prefer my Charons more creepy and ghoulish, generally speaking. But his boat made of bones is quite good and he does get in some funny lines.

At one point, Charon mentions 'the hanging gardens of disgusting diseases.' These, of course, are a joke, but the ancient underworld was often imagined as being split into different realms, with specific groups of people in specific areas - suicides, women who died before marriage, old men and so on. Tartarus was indeed where the wicked were punished, and in some versions (though not all) the 'good' (for varying definitions of 'good', e.g. heroic, died for Rome, etc) live in peace in the Blissful meadows/Elysian fields/etc. The Elysian fields here are a bit cheesy, but they do look very... Elysian. The idea that however pleasant they are, nothing on the other side quite matches the living world, is also quite Classical. Death was not something you really wanted, even if you were hoping for a pleasant eternity.

Other elements are a bit of a mixture. The most important quality of ancient shades, or ghosts, is that they are completely incorporeal and will pass through your fingers like air if you try to touch them. Here, just as in ancient literature, the dead are insubstantial, but Xena seems to get a minor electric shock from trying to touch Marcus rather than simply finding him body-less, and once she's in the underworld, he appears substantial and she can touch him again. That's not usually the case in ancient literature, though it varies according to what you're reading. And the ancient dead couldn't usually tell when the living were thinking about them - though they did tend to have more knowledge than when they were alive, sometimes gaining powers of prophecy, and sometimes they demonstrate knowledge of what the living have been up to while they've been gone.

The bad guy, Atyminius, is here a fairly ordinary human murderer who has become something of a bogeyman, known for killing children and girls about to be married, and sometimes chopping them up. There seem to be elements of a lamia in him, a female monster of Greek mythology, but mostly he's just an unpleasant human being who manages to steal Hades' special helmet. The harpies are creatures from Greek mythology, though in ancient literature they're not especially associated with Hades (more with Zeus).

The whole episode has a very fairy-tale atmosphere, complete with, apparently, Little Red Riding Hood at the beginning, Hades' medieval-looking castle and lots of mystical-sounding music. The underworld being at the bottom of a lake isn't exactly ancient (the location varied; caves and the edge of the sea were quite popular) but it fits, being down towards the ground, and it adds to the magical, medieval-folklore feel.

Overall, a really nice episode, if slightly OTT in places. I especially like Xena's special black underworld outfit (I think it's actually just her underwear, because she has to swim there, but still). Marcus, last seen dying in 'The Path Not Taken,' has become a bit implausibly nice, wanting to go back to eternal punishment for the sake of the innocents etc (not that much seems to be going on in Tartarus when they visit - no rocks rolling down hills, no grapes dangling over pools, nothing). However, his scenes with Xena are lovely and they have a nice chemistry, with a sweet and sad romance (I like to think they made time for a quick shag before returning to the underworld at the end). Atyminius the villain doesn't half devour the scenery, but he's kind of fun, a really hissable bad guy. And I especially like Xena taunting Hades into letting Marcus back up as a mortal and later getting him shifted to Elysium, though Hades insisting he can only give him 48 hours of life is a bit weak, considering that theoretically he was willing to let Eurydice go back to a full life. An excellent episode - I'd recommend it as an introduction to the series, since it's early and it has the humour, angsting and sense of adventure that Xena does best.

Quotes:

Gabrielle: Even if you reach the bottom you won't have enough air left to make it back to the surface.
Xena: Then I'll make it to the underworld one way or another.

Charon: You wanna help set things right? When Hades can't do anything? This I gotta see!

Marcus (re the wicked): They're not happy, even in Paradise.

Marcus: You know him?
Xena: I killed him...

Marcus: Love is the strongest power in the universe. It's stronger than evil. It's even stronger than death.

Atyminius: I hate jugglers (wallop). Be glad you're not a mime.

Charon: If you look on the left, you will see the Caves of Despair, and if you look on the right, you'll see the Hanging Gardens of Disgusting Diseases.

Disclaimer: No winged harpies were harmed or sent to a fiery grave during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena/Hercules reviews

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

True Blood: Whatever I Am, You Made Me


It's October, Halloween is coming, and True Blood is back on UK TV screens. Huzzah! Even better, season 5 features an actual Roman-period vampire as a main character for much of the season. Salome is not a Roman citizen - she's a Jewish princess, a royal from a client kingdom - but she's definitely Roman period and she's from the Roman world. She's best known to us now from the New Testament.

Salome is a vampire character in Book 5 of The Southern Vampire Mysteries, but there we're not given any detail about her background. I think we're probably expected to assume that Book!Salome is the Biblical Salome, in the absence of any information to the contrary, but it could just as easily be a coincidence. She doesn't really feature heavily enough in the book to provide any clues as to her origin.

In this episode, however, having been introduced to her last week, TV!Salome is confirmed to be the famous Salome from the Bible, who danced for Herod Antipas (with or without seven veils) and when offered anything she wanted, asked for the head of John the Baptist.

The theme of this episode, as the title implies, is about what and more specifically who made our heroes and villains the people they are, both in the literal sense and, more importantly, the figurative one. Perhaps unsurprisingly (especially given True Blood's tendency to let one episode blend into the next), it's one of the most satisfying episodes of the season. Jason's story is probably the least surprising and least compelling, though it adds a bit of depth to his persona (and his scene with Jessica at the end is lovely), but the vampire stories are great, as we see the final part of the story of how Eric made Pam, neatly combined with Eric and Bill's first meeting. Eric and Bill's bromance is one of the most fun elements of this season and the flashback to the beginning of their relationship incorporates both their rivalry and tendency to try to kill each other, and the mutual respect that exists underneath it.

Interestingly, we don't get any details about how Salome ended up a vampire, but her seduction technique includes an explanation of that most famous incident from her human life. I really like the interpretation of Human Salome here. The Salome of the Bible is revealed as an abused girl, used by her mother and stepfather for their own purposes, and the 'dance' refers to her being forced to prostitute herself to her uncle to please her mother. Obviously, this sort of interpretation belongs in fiction as there's no historical evidence for it, but it seems pretty convincing to me. I especially like some of Salome's dialogue about her treatment in the histories:

Salome: Don't believe everything you read... they made me a convenient villain, a symbol for dangerous female sexuality. I was just a girl with a severely f*cked up family.
Bill: So you didn't ask for a man's head on a silver platter?
Salome: Politics.

This sounds so exactly like the way ancient sources treat any number of historical women (Livia, Agrippina the Younger, Messalina... OK some of them might have been pretty dodgy themselves but still). I love the mixture of implying a core of truth to the stories (the demand for John the Baptist's head) but a lot of twisting and exaggeration in the telling of it.

Salome plays both Bill and Eric (lucky Salome) but you sense she has more of a connection with Bill, and that she's telling the truth when she says she admires the fact that Bill is still ruled by his heart. Her scene with Eric, on the other hand, placed right after the flashback of Eric in bed with Pam, emphasises the complete lack of connection between Salome and Eric. She also comes away understanding Bill better (he's looking for something to believe in) without really understanding Eric, who she thinks is only out for himself (only partly true). (You have to feel for Eric, though, when Bill makes a crack about 'sloppy seconds').

On the less exciting side, Salome also continues the grand tradition of portraying the Romans and those living in the Roman period as especially violent by claiming that 'The humans of my youth... were far more savage than any vampires I've known.' But then, the Romans did enjoy gladiatorial combat and crucifixion, so I guess she might have a point. On the other hand, she's clearly lying or deluding herself when she says, ''The world's different now, and so am I,' since she immediately proceeds to let Roman use her and her body in the exact same way her mother once did. Granted, on this particular occasion it's a fairly pleasant task (which is possibly why two other female characters makes jokes along those lines in this episode, plus two reminders that Sookie's had both of the vampires in question as well), but that's not really the point, is it? She slept with Herod Antipas to get John's head for her mother, and she slept with Eric and Bill to get information for Roman. Plus ca change.

Roman is the leader of the Vampire Authority - the name doesn't appear to have any special significance, though I like to think it's because he was a Roman (though really, if that were the case, he'd probably have a regular Latin name...) In the books, the Romanovs from Russia appear (together with an actual Roman) but the TV series doesn't seem to be going in that direction, at least not yet (and they can't follow the book story exactly anyway, because TV!Eric's maker is Godric, not a psychopathic Roman called Appius Livius).

The episode is bookended with Pam and Tara, whose story reflects the theme especially literally - but they don't talk about Romans. Or beheadings.

It's only mentioned briefly in this episode, but there is another ancient reference here; one of the major ongoing storylines of season 5 concerns an ancient, mythical vampire named Lilith. But it'll be easier to talk about her once the season's over. Well, possibly. Possibly not.

More True Blood reviews

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