Saturday, 30 March 2013

Plebs: The Gladiator

The second episode of Plebs stays true to the first in dealing with one of popular culture's favourite things about ancient Rome, but it also demonstrates the unique opportunities offered by Rome as a setting for a broad comedy.

Unlike orgies, gladiatorial combat is a real Roman thing, though popular culture prefers to conveniently ignore the fact that not all fights were to the death (not even potentially to the death) because gladiators are expensive. A popular culture gladiatorial combat will only rarely be an execution of a criminal, but will always be to the death, at least in potential, with the audience asked to indicate by doing something with their thumbs whether the loser should live or die. This episode represents gladiatorial combat as a popular sport complete with chants and flags and things - probably not a million miles off, though if you want team colours and that football-match sense of rivals up against each other in a Roman context, you really want to go for chariot racing (which was almost as dangerous).

The great advantage to using gladiators in a comedy is that the Roman context here allows the writers to indulge in the blackest of black comedy without actually making our heroes murderers (though Marcus comes pretty close). Black comedy can be great fun but it usually requires a really dark tone that a standard, light-hearted sitcom might struggle with (see for example some of the reservations expressed over at TV Tropes concerning How I Met Your Mother's 'murder room'; Community's depiction of Jeff's encounter with Pierce's father is slightly less dark but still not overly comfortable).

In ancient Rome, however, gladiatorial combat is simply a fact of life (though Cynthia's conviction that it's all a show was very funny). Marcus' attempt to nobble Cassius the gladiator is a bit close to the line, but here all our heroes can agree at the end that they all killed him and move on with their lives, because they live in a society where they're surrounded by abandoned babies, gladiators, chariot-racing accidents and wars, not to mention the lives some slaves led, and so their accidental complicity in poor Cassius' death doesn't actually mark them out as psychopaths. It's a neat use of the setting to do the sort of comedy that just wouldn't work as well in another context.

Cassius is a 'net-man,' a retarius, which is one of popular culture's favourite types of gladiator, probably because it looks distinctive and very Roman, and sets gladiatorial combat apart from fencing or other forms of sword-fighting. Pop culture will generally go for a retiarius whenever they need a fighter to look nimble and clever (as opposed to occasions that call for brute force, which tend to produce the short sword, generally without a helmet because we need to see our manly actor's face). Of course, this comes in especially handy here when poor Cassius, heart-broken, forgets his net...

Cassius is played by Danny Dyer, an actor I only know from Mark Kermode's impressions of him, which did add an extra level of amusement to Marcus' attempts to nobble him. Dyer projects the perfect combination of charm and vulnerability mixed with taking pleasure in killing 'people from France' for the part - we share the characters' regret when he dies, reduced to an emotional wreck by Cynthia's rejection (Propertius would sympathise) but we'll get over it.

I'm not generally bothered by historical inaccuracies in a show like Plebs, though I confess I was slightly distracted by Grumio specifically identifying Cassius' tattoo as the mark of a gladiator despite the fact it was of an eagle and clearly said SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus, 'for the Senate and the People of Rome') which would suggest he was more likely a legionary, rather than a gladiator. It's not really a big deal, but it is a bit distracting when the plot draws attention to it.

Once again, this was daft but made me laugh, and Grumio's epic battle netting chickens at the end was very funny, though the less said about Stylax's fondness for a rotting, bloated severed hand the better...

All Plebs reviews

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Plebs: The Orgy

Here's the thing with Plebs - it's daft, cheap, predictable, unsophisticated, puerile and incorporates some jokes I'm really not sure about taste-wise - and I laughed out loud. Quite a lot.

Plebs is a new sitcom that premiered with a double bill on ITV2 in the UK last night (review of episode 2 coming soon). It follows the misadventures of Stylax, Marcus and their slave Grumio, and Marcus's attempts to romance their British new neighbour Cynthia, without her slave Metella getting in the way (the argument about how to pronounce 'Briton' made me laugh). It's this generation's Chelmsford 123, featuring actors from Twenty Twelve, The Inbetweeners Movie, Friday Night Dinner, Smack the Pony, Gavin and Stacey and so on.

The show is chock-full of inaccuracies, of course, but that's because it exists in the same sort of surreal netherworld as Tony Robinson's Maid Marian and her Merry Men, a fantastic children's show I grew up with in which medieval peasants sing about pancake day and the Sheriff of Nottingham's guards have a pet elastic band (in fairness, one guard did object that this was impossible because they hadn't been invented yet). So there's no point worrying about ancient Romans eating corn on the cob, because that's really not the point. It's not all inaccurate, anyway. The close relationship the main characters have with their slaves might have shocked some of the snobbier elite authors of the surviving Roman texts, but is actually pretty reasonable I suspect, especially for poorer citizens with only one slave, living in close quarters with each other.

Plebs is set in the year 27 BC, which is interesting. Unlike AD 123, which is a pretty random year that sounds kind of funny and is conveniently situated during the reign of Hadrian, he who built the wall, 27 BC is an incredibly significant year in Roman history. It's the year many scholars choose to mark the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, because it's the year in which Octavian Caesar took the name Augustus and set in place the political systems by which he would govern the Roman world, giving himself lifelong powers at the same time. (Others would cut off the Republic at 31 BC, when Mark Antony and Cleopatra were defeated at the Battle of Actium, or 30 BC, when they died, but 27 BC is significant however you look at it). The writers insist that our heroes won't meet the emperor or anything of that nature (though they clearly haven't seen Up Pompeii!, which very rarely featured the emperor either except in the movie, and they imply that the emperor at the time was Nero, which obviously it wasn't) but surely they can't have happened upon quite possibly the most significant year in Roman political history by accident. Whether they do anything with that fact remains to be seen.

(It's also a bit early for Britons - Julius Caesar had invaded and gone away again, but Britannia wasn't yet a Roman province. But that's by-the-by).

At least one of the writers has clearly been to a school that taught Latin, because the boys' slave Grumio is named after the cook from the Cambridge Latin Course - Metella is a name from that course as well, where it was the mother's name (which does rather fit Metella's slightly naggy, slightly protective character). Cynthia, meanwhile, is named for Propertius' probably-fictitious lover from his love elegies, and I wondered if Flavia was named for the heroine of The Roman Mysteries (though she's a very different character). I love the use of job descriptions as names as well which is very Roman - mostly coming from Flavia (who calls the boys Copier and Shredder, along with their Roman water-cooler Water Boy or, as he insists, Water-Man) but also in reference to The Landlord (useful for story-telling as well as a fairly Roman thing to do).

As a comedy, and one aimed at an audience with no knowledge of Rome, this series is of course about 'Roman' popular stereotypes more than actual Romans. And so it should come as no surprise that the first episode focuses on everyone's favourite Roman thing (that owes a lot more to twentieth century film and television than anything else), the orgy. The episode didn't really do anything new with the concept of orgies but hey, people talking about having sex is always funny (and it was firmly established that neither Marcus nor Cynthia were especially keen, thus setting them up as an appropriate lead romantic couple).

Another thing that's always funny - men in bad attempts at drag

And that's the real strength of the show - it's funny. Perhaps this is an indictment of my terrible sense of humour, but as much as I was prepared to hate Plebs, I laughed. In fact, I laughed far more at a single episode of Plebs that at half a dozen episodes of Malcolm in the Middle (which I have been watching on DVD for the first time). Ultimately, that's all I really ask of a sitcom - so I'll be watching the rest of the series with pleasure, no matter how daft it gets.

All Plebs reviews

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Spartacus War of the Damned: Blood Brothers

Red stuff drips artistically. You know that scene in Gladiator, in Morocco, where Proximo walks through a butcher’s knocking aside the dangling bodies of animals dripping blood all over the place? It’s like that, but with people.

Number One is still sulking at the Artist for daring to have other friends but has bigger problems; he and Spartacus observe Crixus giving Spartacus the side-eye. Number One affirms his allegiance to Spartacus. I have to say, I’m liking him more this season, baseless jealousy aside.

Gannicus is wearing clothes! Things must be serious. Helga is insulting him and everyone else in German, but no one really minds. The Pirate King is still calling Spartacus ‘King Spartacus’ which is kind of cool. They have a Plan which involves Spartacus sailing off for a little while, taking Gannicus with him and hoping Crixus doesn’t stage a mutiny in his absence.

Meanwhile, back with the Romans, Tiberius is sulking over his dead friend’s short straw (white stone, technically) while Maid Marian attempts a look of mild concern. Trumpets and music a bit like the score on Caesar IV herald the arrival of a senator called Metellus, who is wearing Lucilla’s fox-fur from Gladiator. He tries to tell Crassus what to do, which gets him nowhere since Crassus is paying for the whole army, but his news that Pompey has won his war in Spain and is on his way has more effect. Crassus calls Pompey an ‘adolescent butcher’ which is pretty funny. I so badly want to see a series that follows Surfer Caesar, the so-far-unseen Pompey and Crassus fight their way through the First Triumvirate. We’re reminded that Crassus admires and respects Spartacus, unlike everyone else. Crassus gets fed up of Metellus and goads him into a mission which I bet has more than a sniff of kamikaze to it.

Beardy German now trusts Surfer Caesar enough to give him a sword, so Surfer Caesar repays him by stirring up more trouble between Crixus and Spartacus. Crixus stomps off to yell at Number One, who is feeding and protecting Boudicca and the last few remaining Romans, though reluctantly. Crixus wants to know why Spartacus has sailed away with the pirates but no amount of whinging about Number One’s brother and Romans in general will sway Number One’s loyalty – that’s why he’s Number One. He has fabulous spiky hair in this episode by the way. He’s obviously raided some Roman hair gel.

Gannicus is on the pirate ship with Spartacus, who is reminiscing and plotting to steal Crassus’ army’s supplies. Spartacus, who is clearly not giving Number One enough credit, is now trying to persuade Gannicus to be his second, but Gannicus is having none of it (I so, so want Gannicus to survive this series, though it seems spectacularly unlikely).

Spartacus and his gang find the Romans with a very small cart carrying nothing like enough to feed Crassus’ army and the rock soundtrack kicks in to signal some blood and mayhem. Crassus, blissfully unaware, sulks about the fact that his son is strangely unimpressed at being forced to murder his best friend and then go live in the lower people’s camp and watch his dad come in for a booty call with a slave he clearly fancies himself.

Sexy time – Crassus and Maid Marian, orange glow and soft focus as usual. Surfer Caesar is having a considerably less romantic flirtation with a bare-breasted woman in an ancient Roman pub (I suppose I should call it a tavern, since it’s Roman. It’s basically a pub). He gets his wooden spoon out again to encourage the Pirate King to distrust Spartacus as well and to extract some information from him, and Beardy German kindly offers to help him find out what Spartacus’ plans against Crassus are.

Number One is busy glaring at the Artist and Boudicca together, but the Artist points out that he doesn’t follow orders and Number One can’t tell him who to hang out with, plus he had bigger problems at the time, like Crixus and Naevia slaughtering everyone in sight. Their domestic is interrupted by the news that some Romans are coming and Crixus, over Number One’s protestations, is about to mount an attack when the King himself shows up and declares his intention to release the last few Romans. Apparently when they got off the ship, Spartacus and Gannicus didn’t even stop to wash the blood off, though given what Crixus was about to do that was probably wise.

Maid Marian tries to make Tiberius feel better, on Crassus’ orders. It doesn’t work.

Spartacus and Number One escort Boudicca and the others out of the city. Spartacus and Crixus give each other Significant Looks while some of Spartacus’ men pee on the Romans as they go. Crixus complains that Boudicca will be able to share information with the Romans, but is forced to back down when Spartacus points out that was the plan in the first place. Having convinced the Romans of how divided they are, they’ll take advantage and trick Crassus. It’s a great plan – or it would be, if the divide between Spartacus and Crassus weren’t a bit too genuine.

The Pirate King is leaving, but I’m distracted by the fact Gannicus is wearing actual trousers! No shirt though. ('Trousers' - of a sort - did exist in the ancient world, Persians wore them). He calls Spartacus’ plan mad, which he means as a compliment.

Boudicca tells Crassus Spartacus is heading for Sicily and Crixus is staying in the city, though all that achieves is to get her snarked by Crassus for still being alive (he frowns on that). Meanwhile Tiberius rapes Maid Marian as a way of getting petty vengeance on his father and Spartacus’ people pack up and move out. Naevia tries to apologise to Gannicus about Trojan Horse, but he remains unmoved.

Gannicus rocks ancient-style trousers (this pic is from another episode, but they're probably the same trousers)

Surfer Caesar reaches the end of the road and reveals himself to Beardy German, who tries to negotiate, since he doesn’t care about Spartacus and just wants to get home. Surfer Caesar is about as taken by this idea as you’d expect and Beardy German is given the honour of a slow-motion death.

Helga goes off to find Number One and Eponine takes advantage of the opportunity to accost him again. Spartacus’ carefully laid plans are interrupted by the Pirate King going over to the Romans (who had more money – of course, being led by Crassus) and Surfer Caesar and Gannicus get to throw a few blows at each other before splitting off to run in dramatic slow-mo across the city. Surfer Caesar takes on Number One and Helga, who are guarding the gate, and one of these three is an historical character with another 27 years to live, while the other two are not. Hmm.

Lots of slo-mo fighting. It all looks a bit like an especially bloody version of tai chi. The Artist does pretty well for himself. A Roman gets his face smashed in, of course, and the Pirate King gets his cut off. Crixus gets a bit over-enthusiastic about finishing off the pirates, but he and Spartacus make up, covered in the blood of their enemies.

It won’t do them much good, though, because Surfer Caesar burns down the gate. I love Crassus’ battering ram, which has an exciting animal head that is probably a dog but looks a tiny bit like a dragon to me (it’s probably pretty accurate – I confess, I have no idea what Roman battering rams looked like. I have a vague notion they might have had dogs' heads). ‘Now would be time to run,’ says Surfer Caesar. End of episode.

Not a bad hour – it’s nice to see Spartacus and Crixus making up and it’ll be good to see our nominal heroes band together against a common enemy again. Surfer Caesar continues to be pretty awesome, though Tiberius has put himself straight on the ‘die horribly as soon as possible please’ list – which probably means he’ll hang around for ages, but eventually die horribly in the finale. And Crassus somehow remains sympathetic despite ‘exhuming the putrid spectre of decimation,’ largely because he’s so much more intelligent than anyone else on the show. Good stuff – though the most pressing hanging question is, how long will Helga and Number One last, and will Gannicus and The Artist throw themselves into mad vengeance kicks if and when they die? We’ll have to wait and see…


Spartacus: I am done with words.

Metellus: Is it true that you exhume putrid spectre of decimation? This might be my favourite line in all four seasons to date.

Gannicus: A man must do what he can to brace against the shit of a simple day.

Nasir (on Agron running away from an argument): Is it a common trait of men east of the Rhine to run from a fight?

‘The die has been cast’ comes up again. It’s no wonder it sprang to Caesar’s mind all those years later…

All Spartacus: Various Subtitles reviews

Friday, 22 March 2013

Fan-made Silmarillion trailer

More Spartacus reviews are on their way, but I saw this today and was really intrigued. This is a fan-made trailer for a sadly non-existent film of Tolkien's tome of Middle Earth mythology, The Silmarillion. I have to confess, I'm a bad Tolkien fan - The Silmarillion is sitting on my shelf but I haven't read it. I have read Christopher Tolkien's edited version of some stories from it, published as The Children of Hurin with beautiful illustrations by Alan Lee. Based on what I've read from that novel, The Silmarillion would be a lot more like Game of Thrones than The Lord of the Rings, but I digress.

This 'trailer' is, of course, made up of clips of other films, edited together to look like one really kick-ass film without including too many story-specific elements. I spotted quite a bit of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in there, which is sort of nice and weirdly appropriate given JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis' friendship (and ignoring the fact that Tolkien didn't like Narnia). I spotted bits and pieces of King Arthur and Robin Hood in there as well, I was delighted to see the sexy guy who went off with the mermaid from Pirates of the Caribbean 4 and I recognised Gemma Arterton's voice from Prince of Persia. The maker of the video has listed the films he or she used on You Tube, and some others I didn't recognise included Legend of the Seeker, The Time Machine, Diablo 3, WoW Wrath of the Witch King and WoW Cataclysm (I assume that stands for World of Warcraft?).

What really intrigued me, though, was the use of Clash of the Titans for much of the first part of the trailer. I guess this was largely because it provided the astrological imagery needed for the opening section about the universe, but it got me thinking. Because The Lord of the Rings is pseudo-early-medieval (the Rohirrim use words from Old English like theoden, prince, and eorl, warrior, while Tolkien's description of the faded glory of Gondor could be sort of Byzantine), I tend to imagine all Tolkien's mythology as taking place in a pseudo-early-medieval society (except, of course, the hobbits, who live in the early twentieth century. They're ahead of their time). But logically, of course, if Gondor is Byzantium and the Rohirrim are the Old English, then surely their immediate predecessors should be pseudo-Romans and their distant ancestors should be pseudo-ancient Greeks, Egyptians or Mesopotamians.

Tolkien fans, what do you think? If, by some miracle, the whole situation with the rights were to be sorted out and a movie made of The Silmarillion or The Children of Hurin, what sort of look should it have? Should it look pseudo-Greek, or pseudo-Roman? Egyptian or Mesopotamian? Or should it look pseudo-medieval, to match up with the currently existing films?

More posts on JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis

Friday, 15 March 2013

Top Five Deaths of Julius Caesar

OK, so this one is perhaps a little morbid. And Caesar was a real person who was really murdered, which is not nice and nothing to celebrate even if he was a power-obsessed tyrannical dictator. But somehow the 2056th anniversary of his bloody, vicious death still seems worth commemorating. I'm sure he would appreciate the eternal fame aspect of the whole thing.

5. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953)
Famous last words: Et tu Brute? Then fall Caesar.
Et tu Brute... The guilt written all over James Mason's face as he stabs the already dying and blood-covered Caesar is both very well acted and, for me, makes Brutus look essentially cowardly (almost as if he's been persuaded into doing this by peer pressure, rather than believing he's doing the right thing).

The really great set-piece in this film is Marlon Brando as Mark Antony giving the famous 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen' speech, but for someone to give Caesar's eulogy, Caesar first has to die, and the film captures the scene simply and effectively. The black and white visuals and the conventions of the time limit the amount of blood and gore on display, but somehow the streak of blood running down Caesar's face as he approaches Brutus is especially effective and makes him look particularly vulnerable.

4. Caesar, by Alan Massie
Famous last words: Not you, my son.
Et tu Brute... with the twist that here, Caesar is not addressing Marcus Junius Brutus, ex-supporter of Pompey, famous assassin and son of Servilia, but Decimus Junius Brutus, up until this point a staunch Caesarian and one of the main beneficiaries of Caesar's will (after Octavian and Mark Antony, of course). 'Markie' is depicted in a not particularly flattering light in the novel, and although the reluctance to join the conspiracy stays with him, the guilt over betraying Caesar belongs to Decimus, which makes sense, since Decimus was much closer to Caesar. This results in a neat twist on the famous line, combining Suetonius' ambiguous 'boy' (though Suetonius does actually specify Marcus Brutus) with Shakespeare's 'Brute' and thus keeping everyone happy!

Caesar's assassination is the focus of Massie's novel, but takes up very little space in terms of the word count. After an enormous amount of build-up, Casca suddenly stabbing Caesar in the neck, for all their careful preparation, almost seems to come out of nowhere and the whole thing is over very quickly - which is probably pretty realistic. Massie's description of the murder and the body is suitably brutal without needing to go into great detail on either the struggle or the gore - phrases like 'a piece of bleeding flesh' and 'what had been the Perpetual Dictator' briefly but effectively conveying the ultimate metamorphosis of living being into dead body. The decision to focus on Decimus, rather than Marcus, Brutus pays off brilliantly, driving home the emotional resonance of Decimus' turning on Caesar from him being the one persuading Caesar to attend the Senate to him being the last to leave the body. The shock and sense of betrayal the reader imagines Caesar must feel as Decimus stabs him in the chest is that much stronger for the fact that, unlike Marcus, Decimus never fought against him in a civil war and his betrayal was presumably, therefore, more surprising.

3. Carry On Cleo (dir. Gerald Thomas 1964)
Famous last words: Et tu Brute! So dies Caesar. Let me just say these last words to you. Friends, Romans - (Brutus: Countrymen!) I know! Oh, what's the use...
Et tu Brute... After Bilius, Agrippa and Mark Antony's failed attempts to murder him, it's Brutus (with help from the rest of the Senate) who finally succeeds.

Poor Caesar. He spends the whole of Carry on Cleo surviving various assassination attempts and has already given us the immortal lines, 'Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!' and 'I came, I saw, I - conked out' before he is finally offed by a bunch of extras and a bit-part character, having lost his British bodyguard. This is the big payoff for the 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen' running gag, as poor Caesar is denied the chance to display his competence one last time and gives up. I would suggest that he shouldn't worry, as Mark Antony is about to get it right, but since in this version Antony is in Alexandria, busy leaping fully-clothed into Cleopatra's bath, that's probably not the case.

Coin issued by (Marcus) Brutus after the assassination, depicting a freedman's cap (to symbolise Rome being freed from slavery to Caesar) in between two daggers, labelled 'The Ides of March'. Subtle. (Image taken from the British Museum, © Trustees of the British Museum).

2. Julius Caesar (dir. Gregory Doran, 2012)
Famous last words: Et tu Brute? Then fall Caesar.
Et tu Brute... Not so much 'fall' as 'get violently shoved to the ground.' Paterson Joseph as Brutus gives a fantastic display of grim determination, his guilt tempered by his conviction that this must be done, played out in the ferocity of his attack on Caesar. It's usual to depict Caesar as badly injured but still staggering around until Brutus stabs him, at which point he goes down (though, given that he gets firmly stabbed in the back first and Roman medicine was limited, I suspect he was doomed anyway) but this version really goes for it - Caesar isn't too bloodied (and we can't see the wound, as it's in his back) until Brutus gets at him, at which point all hell breaks loose.

Is there a spookier way to kill someone off than on a broken-down escalator, with a spooky witch-doctor type caked in clay or white mud of some kind gazing on with a look of 'I told you so'? If there is, I don't know it. As if the abandoned, eerily-lit escalator by itself wasn't X-Files-y enough (escalators have never been the same since 'Tombs'), after the requisite famous last words, as Caesar is thrown to the jagged surface, his face is pushed up against the clear glass side and blood spurts out of his mouth like something from a quarantine episode of a science fiction programme (these nearly always involved people spewing blood, potentially infecting everyone around them. I'm particularly fond of Fringe's 'What Lies Below'). This is an angry, brutal version of Caesar's death and all the better for it - even Caesar himself throws 'then fall Caesar' at Brutus like an accusation, full of rage, rather than the usual resigned horror.

1. Rome, 'Kalends of February'
Famous last words: None. He's been stabbed, like, 20 times. Both lungs are probably punctured.
Et tu Brute... He does give Brutus a really piercing look as he goes down, though. Caesar is definitely a goner before Brutus gets to him in this version, and Brutus' blow is more of a mercy kill, ending Caesar's suffering as much as driving home the final blow.

Freed from the constraints of the ultra-famous Shakespearean lines, this is the gritty, down and dirty version of Caesar's death, to go with Rome's grimier, earthier approach (OK, that's something of a euphemism for 'there's a lot of sex and violence in it,' but it's more than just that). It seems unfair to praise this one for being especially realistic against the other four listed here, since it's a modern production not constrained by 1950s convention, it's a motion picture not a novel, it's made for television and not adapted from a stage production so everything is designed to be captured by the cameras rather than seen by a live audience and it's not a comedy. But even leaving all that aside, this version is exceptionally well done, the tremors taking over CiarĂ¡n Hinds' body as he falls to the floor a gruesomely effective touch. Brutus is a bit wet, perhaps, but then, Brutus is always a bit wet (except when played by Paterson Joseph, who should play Brutus is all adaptations from here on in). Caesar's (and Niobe's) death marked the end of season 1 - the only thing missing from this clip is the equally effective scene from the very beginning of season 2 in which Caesar's slave Posca, seen here being distracted and restrained along with Mark Antony, weeps over his body, probably the one person who will genuinely miss Caesar the most.

More Top Five lists

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Roman Mystery Scrolls: The Thunder Omen

The Thunder Omen is the third in the spin-off series to The Roman Mysteries, The Roman Mystery Scrolls, aimed at younger readers (about 7-10). In this story, Threptus and Floridius find out what happens when you play god(s)... (spoilers follow).

The Thunder Omen is set during my favourite Roman festival, the Saturnalia. I loved the way all the characters greeted each other with, 'Yo, Saturnalia!' This is a perfectly sensible transliteration of  the Latin Saturnalia greeting, 'Io Saturnalia!' - 'Io,' contrary to the way it's used in 'Ding Dong Merrily on High,' should be pronounced 'yo' (just like Julius, spelled in Latin as Iulius, should be pronounced 'Yulius') - and 'yo' is much clearer to read for young children. But I have to confess, the '80s baby in me really got a kick out of everyone saying 'Yo!' to each other! It reminded me of Terry Pratchett's brilliant books about Johnny Maxwell, in which one of Johnny's friends is known as 'Yo-less' because he refuses to say 'Yo.' So that made me very happy!

The book also introduces children to how the sacred chickens actually work, which Lawrence wisely simplifies for young readers. The rule was, if corn fell to the ground from the chickens' mouths when they were feeding, that was a good omen, i.e. if the chickens were so hungry they gobbled up the corn too quickly and some of it fell from their beaks, that was the good omen. Lawrence sensibly simplifies this to make just the chickens eating a good omen, since the whole business with dropping the corn would be too complicated for young readers who, if they're anything like I was at that age, haven't the faintest idea what chickens eat anyway. Floridius and Threptus then explain exactly how ancient chicken keepers would manipulate the omens, by keeping the chickens hungry so that when the time came to look for an omen, the chickens would eat greedily. It's an example of how their trade is occasionally a wee bit close to that of a conman, but an excellent history lesson.

This book does also deal with Threptus and Floridius' distinctly dubious (and historically accurate) practices, as here they go too far, trying to trick a young woman into entering a marriage she doesn't want by faking Jupiter's thunder. Their story is paralleled with the story of Phaethon, who tried to drive his father Apollo's chariot, lost control and set half the earth on fire. Threptus decides that playing god is not a good idea, and confesses everything to the girl (luckily, after he takes her on an outing and she sees her suitor in his natural habitat, she decides she likes him after all, based on his personality and good reputation). It's a good development - a certain amount of trickery is part of Floridius' trade, but Threptus learns here not to go overboard, which ensures that our heroes remain likable and sympathetic.

Perhaps my favourite bit of history in this story though, was the explanation of what a 'vomitorium' is. This is framed by a device in which an older bully has tried to scare Threptus away from the theatre by telling him that rich Romans keep vomitoriums, where they go to throw up during a feast so that they can eat more food - a real misconception about the Roman world that comes up occasionally. Of course, Threptus is relieved to discover that 'vomitorium' is just a fancy word for an entrance or exit (the word 'vomit' is related, for obvious reasons, to words for 'exit'). It's an ingenious use of a real and common mistake to liven up the story at the same time as educating readers on what the word really meant.

As ever, this is a fun and lively visit to ancient Ostia. There are lots of familiar characters that keep the world of the Roman Mysteries rich and well developed; Ostian magistrate Bato's story progresses, Narcissus the handsome pantomime dancer from The Beggar of Volubilis makes an appearance fresh from his tour of North Africa, and we discover a softer side to Naso the bully. There are the usual fun references for grown-ups as well - Bato's mother, for example, is frequently referred to as the Lady in Lavender, so of course I pictured her as Judi Dench. But none of these are needed to understand the story, so young children picking up the book for the first time won't be lost - and hopefully they'll have sneakily been taught a lot more about ancient Rome by the time they've finished!

This was a review copy sent to me by the publisher.

All Roman Mysteries reviews

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Spartacus War of the Damned: Decimation

Well, the title is promising anyway. The word comes from a nasty Roman habit of killing every 10th soldier to punish the army for a mistake or disobedience, which according to Plutarch Crassus did indeed revive while fighting Spartacus, after a lieutenant called Mummius did exactly what Tiberius did in the previous episode (Appian mentions it too). Caesar may have gone in for it as well, so it's actually reasonably accurate, as well as being perfect for Spartacus, since it involved unnecessary violence on a large scale.

The pirates have brought some supplies, but only wine, as the greedy Romans are hording their grain for themselves. When one of the few barrels of grain spills on the ground, they all go after it like the peasants after wine in A Tale of Two Cities (brilliant film, check it out if you haven't seen it).

Boudicca is sneaking some of the precious bread to feed her little group of escaped prisoners, while Crixus and Naevia are still whining that they should kill them all. Number One is struggling with crowd control and checking people coming into the city for weapons and slave brands. Helga is helping, but her version involves getting to 2nd (3rd?) base with the bare breasts of incoming ex-slaves (OK I confess, I'm not clear on exactly what the bases are! I'm British, we don't do baseball metaphors). A discussion of whether or not to attack Crassus’ army is interrupted by the discovery of some Romans who are, needless to say, quickly dispatched. Except Surfer Caesar, who uses the oldest trick in the book, killing his own men, to blag his way in. He tells them he cut out the brand on his leg and shows them the gash from his pseudo-vampiric sex with one of the slave-girls a couple of episodes ago.

Tiberius, meanwhile, is not as nearly dead as I had hoped, and for some reason wears no underwear while having a wound in his abdomen treated. Crassus is mad at him but he does confide in him about Surfer Caesar’s mission (which is the reason he ordered the goatee to stay).

Spartacus is smart enough to realise that Crassus is using their own strategies against them and that they probably have a mole, while Gannicus’ main concern is that if Spartacus dies, Crixus will be in charge (Number One is too busy agreeing with Crixus that they should attack Crassus to complain about being passed over for promotion). Gannicus also points out that Naevia killed the blacksmith and now they have no way to make weapons, because he is the only character on Spartacus’ side, apart from Spartacus himself, with two brain cells to rub together. As Crixus walks off, Number One does indicate that he probably doesn’t want to be led by Crixus, but his solution is to make himself Spartacus’ personal bodyguard in an attempt to ensure that Spartacus lives forever.

Eponine is still hanging around and moping when Gannicus challenges Surfer Caesar, who tries to explain away his skill with a sword by claiming his old master trained all his shepherds to be that good (he then deliberately loses, which seems a better idea). Beardy German points out that Crixus and Naevia are watching Surfer Caesar suspiciously as he pulls out a tooth (hope he doesn’t lose many more, I don’t think Roman dentures were that great) and they decide to enter into some dodgy dealings together.

Boudicca is cheered a bit by the news that Crassus is after Spartacus, as she thinks he might actually win, though she also gives him some intel. that leads to Spartacus realising that Crassus played him in Episode 1. Not cool, Boudicca. Crassus finally lays into Tiberius for disobeying orders and, even worse, for being so un-intimidating that his men fled Spartacus rather than obeying Tiberius, and orders the titular decimation to make sure they never do it again. Tiberius' friend (who name-checks Marius in his horror at the order of decimation - yay! History!) is in the drawing of lots despite standing with Tiberius and hauling him away, so of course, he’s going to die, just like Neighbours Reject before him.

Surfer Caesar is still cosying up to Beardy German, while Eponine helps Boudicca with her sneaky prisoner-feeding. Gannicus catches a random beating up a prisoner who keeps asking about his sister, Fabia, and puts a stop to it. Helga whines at him in German, which does no good of course as he doesn't understand a word she's saying, and she also uses German to express her desire to see Eponine’s head on a pike.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled plotting and scheming for some random sex because this show used to be called Blood and Tits for a reason, and the tits have been sorely lacking this season. Crassus is having romantic, soft-focus, clean-sheet sex with Maid Marian, because he may be a vicious b-word who kills a tenth of his own men but he's still the closest thing we have to a sympathetic protagonist this season. This goes on for a while (presumably to make up for cutting away a couple of episodes ago). Apparently he’s particularly good in bed when removed from his wife. Maid Marian tries to stick up for Tiberius (who she may actually prefer, it's hard to say), though with limited success.

The pirate king becomes the latest to whine at Spartacus that he wants to kill all the Roman prisoners. Crixus, after an unnecessary vomit shot, talks to Beardy German about Surfer Caesar, whose loyalties Beardy German has been ordered to test. Crixus is rather unnecessarily harsh in the play-acting, risking actually turning Beardy German against him. Surfer Caesar, while all this goes down, is just after another drink (in another life, he and Gannicus would get on famously).

Beardy German decides to test Surfer Caesar's loyalty by making him rape and then scar a naked and terrified Roman woman who’s been taken prisoner – something Spartacus knows nothing about, making it extremely unclear exactly which loyalties are being tested. (Surely what Surfer Caesar should have done is run and tell Spartacus, thus proving his loyalty to their nominal leader? But then, this is Crixus' test, not Spartacus'). Surfer Caesar is not made for undercover work, and tells her everything - luckily for him, no one seems to be listening at the door. Still, it’s nice to know that while he’s a womaniser and his relationships with house slaves are very dubious, he draws the line at raping a bleeding, weeping woman. She begs him to ‘free’ her so he does (she is of course the sister of the guy who kept asking about her, Fabia). So Surfer Caesar kills her, then actually reveals his true loyalties, but this goes unnoticed because he says ‘I set her free, as I would all Romans held by Spartacus,’ which Beardy German just takes as a sign he wants to kill them all, like everyone else does.

Crassus is preparing to decimate his men, which Jupiter or the weather gods of television have heard about so the sky is appropriately dark and stormy. Even those not killed in the decimation will be sent to the followers’ camp with the slaves. Tiberius objects but he shouldn’t have spoken – Crassus apologises for not seeing him as a man and sends him off to join the lots for decimation. Lovely. Tiberius is OK but, as predicted, his bosom buddy is for the chop.

Boudicca tells the ex-prisoners that Crassus is on his way, but Eponine has blabbed to Gannicus and Helga and they are all in very big trouble. Meanwhile at the villa, Beardy German turns up with Fabia’s body claiming she came at him. Gannicus, who is now really mad at Naevia for killing Trojan Horse (since it was Boudicca who freed the prisoners) and calls her a mad bitch, leading to an inevitable showdown between Gannicus and Crixus. Beardy German has to pull Gannicus off Crixus, but opens himself to being half strangled by Fabia’s brother using his chains. Surfer Caesar kills Fabia’s brother – he’s getting the hang of undercover now – and Gannicus and Crixus get up, while Surfer Caesar, getting into the swing of 'undercover means lying' now, takes advantage of the moment to speechify – no one’s done that for ages, this is obviously where they’re going wrong. At his instigation  Crixus stirs everyone up to kill all the Romans, leaving Gannicus lying on the ground and probably thoroughly depressed.

Tiberius has to kill his buddy himself of course, because we actually are replaying Spartacus and Neighbours Reject here. Apparently decimation involves beating the soldiers to death with sticks in gangs (I always thought they just stabbed them or something). So Crassus’ men kill each other while Crixus, Beardy German and the others kill every Roman they lay their eyes on. The soundtrack gets very excited and the makers of fake blood celebrate another year in solid business.

Surfer Caesar looks fairly broken up about all the dead Roman bodies around him, while Crassus looks thoroughly satisfied until Tiberius comes to snark at him about a lesson well learned, at which point he seems momentarily worried about his relationship with his son. But it passes.

Spartacus is planning one last as-yet-undisclosed intrigue with the pirate king when The Artist turns up to tell him Crixus and the others have gone mad (Number One thinks this is an appropriate moment to snark The Artist about liking the pirates - he is wrong, as his relationship drama is totally lost among all the killing). Helga has clearly got tired of all the blood too and is sneaking Boudicca and her gang of refugees back to Spartacus when they get caught. The pregnant woman’s husband is killed but Spartacus turns up just in time to save Boudicca from Crixus, at which point Crixus declares open mutiny. Everything comes out about Boudicca helping the others escape and Spartacus complains about having been merciful and getting betrayed in return, but Boudicca tells him what for re: dead husband, sacked city etc. He points out that he doesn’t want to become the thing he’s fighting and spares her. He also informs Crixus in no uncertain terms that Crixus is no longer his second (Number One looks a tiny bit satisfied there). Crixus and Naevia decide they need to leave Spartacus once and for all, and Surfer Caesar smirks as they walk away.

This was better, with Helga, Gannicus and Surfer Caesar (plus Boudicca) being the most fun, interesting and sympathetic characters in this episode. I'm really starting to warm to Helga, and I'd like it if she and Gannicus were able to walk off into the sunset together at the end, though I doubt that's going to happen.

I've always liked stories about Julius Caesar, so I'm thoroughly enjoying the young, sexy version.

Crassus undercuts the sympathetic character he’s been shown to be so far by not only reviving the vicious practice of decimation (historically accurate) but also nearly killing his own son and forcing said son to kill his best friend (not accurate). He's still managing to be more likeable than Crixus, since he a) has a reason, albeit a bad one, for what he's doing and b) looks slightly ashamed when snarked by Tiberius. If it was just the decimation, this episode would be a thoroughly accurate protrayal of his character, plus a foreshadowing of his eventual crucifixion of thousands of Spartacus's followers at the end, but having him include his son and his son's best friend in the decimation, then force Tiberius to kill said friend, is going a bit far. Crassus has a reason for the decimation - but there's no reason to involve his own son in it, which just seems melodramatically vicious in the manner of Paris Hilton (and look how that turned out for her).

Caesar comes out of this episode best of the Romans, as all his actions, while extremely violent, are either mercy kills or part of maintaining his cover. If only he and Gannicus weren't on opposite sides, we could just have them and Helga go off and drink and have kinky sex with each other, happily ever after.


Caesar to Gannicus: I shall re-match, upon a day. Sadly, probably true.

Crassus: Death at the hand of Spartacus pales against the wrath of the house of Crassus.

Laeta (to Spartacus, re: Agron): I did not think the slayer of the shadow of death had need of a protector.

Random to Saxa: I do not see Gannicus among you, nor cause to heed his bitch.
Saxa: I give cause, bitch!

All Spartacus: Insert Subtitle reviews

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Spartacus War of the Damned: Men of Honour

...As in, there aren't any.

Spartacus et al, with their new friend Trojan Horse the blacksmith, are melting down shackles. There’s lots of dramatic pounding of hot metal into sharp objects, and I keep expecting them to re-forge the ancient sword Narsil and re-name it Anduril, the flame of the West. Despite all the exciting weaponry, Number One is not happy. He wants to slaughter the captured women and children to save food and free up some more shackles.

Crixus and Gannicus have found a nice villa with a courtyard to train in that looks just like Batiatus’ villa and training ground. Funny, that. (It has Doric-looking columns, though I would have thought Corinthian more likely in this period. Maybe Doric were cheaper). The Trojan Horse wants to join in and is still whining about being paid more, so Crixus glowers at him and sends him off to Naevia for training.

Gannicus and Helga are still a thing, which causes the girl who fell madly in love with him last week to stand by a wall and sulk. She’s following him around the way Rue follows Katniss in The Hunger Games, except in a dodgier way and looking more pathetic; I was going to call her Rue, but naming anyone in this show after a character from a children's novel is just too icky, so I'll call her Eponine instead. She has Eponine-like hair. Meanwhile, Spartacus’ less pleasant men are busy taunting and stealing from pregnant women in chains, until Crixus steps in and suggests they should make the men fight each other like gladiators for bread. Trojan Horse protests and Gannicus points out the hypocrisy, but no one cares. I sort of expect one of the men to start singing ‘I stole a loaf of bread!’ Instead the woman’s husband reaches for a sword to attack Crixus or possibly to grab the bread, Naevia cuts him down, Trojan Horse calls her a see you next Tuesday and bandages the guy and everyone yells at everyone else. Naevia tells Crixus about a particularly unpleasant guy who tortured her after she was sold by Batiatus (who sounds like the bad guy from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and claims this is why she doesn’t trust Romans who seem nice, because apparently she thinks everyone who seems nice is secretly a villain.

Apparently there are ships at the coast and I'm getting quite bored now. Where are the Romans?  What’s happened to Crassus and Caesar? They’re much more interesting than this lot. Sadly the ships do not contain Romans, but pirates who embrace Spartacus and tell him they want to join him against Rome.

Huzzah! Romans! Boo! It’s Tiberius and his squeaky friend. But Surfer Caesar is with them so it’s all good. Tiberius sulks because Camp Commander Guy would rather talk to Surfer Caesar than him. Meanwhile, the pirates want to be compensated for the loss of their arrangement with the town’s aedile since Spartacus stuck a sword through his throat. The pirate calls him ‘King Spartacus’ which is kind of cool, but Spartacus badly needs better advisers, since Number One and Crixus are all for killing everybody at random, it seems, and have no idea why alliances are useful or necessary.

Don't be a messenger on this show. Your blood ends up spattered all over Tiberius' face.

Gannicus is hanging out with Trojan Horse, who is still sulking (given that they’ve essentially destroyed his whole life, you can’t really blame him). A messenger finally turns up to tell Tiberius that Spartacus has taken the city, which apparently only the pirates had noticed. The messenger calls Spartacus the bringer of death, which is kind of funny given how he and Crixus first got together. Surfer Caesar is so unimpressed with the messenger for surviving the city’s sacking that he chops up his skull, which the poor guy was still using, getting blood all over Tiberius in the process  Tiberius tells Surfer Caesar ‘you serve beneath me’ which doesn’t seem like a good idea. He keeps calling him Gaius too, which seems pretty disrespectful. Even if Tiberius survives this series - which seems unlikely - there's no way he's going to keep breathing once Caesar is consul.

Spartacus summons the aedile’s wife from last week, having realised that his own advisers are so useless he needs to ask his prisoner for help. (She needs a nickname - her character is called Laeta, which is fine but dull. The actress played Jules in The Cabin in the Woods, but since I'm reluctant to give anyone on this show my own name, considering the sort of thing that usually happens to them, I shall christen her Boudicca, because she has red hair and she's a sort of freedom fighter on the sly). Despite her protests that Spartacus killed her husband last time she helped him, not to mention what Crixus and Naevia have been doing, she’s bizarrely swayed by the revelation that her husband had a deal with the pirates and helps him anyway, on the promise of freedom.

Spartacus strikes a deal with the pirates, though they’re unimpressed when he refuses them Boudicca because he doesn’t trade in slaves. Everyone drinks a lot and has a lot of sex to celebrate in a scene that’s sort of half a Roman orgy and half the party scene from The Matrix Reloaded. Eponine is still gazing adoringly at Gannicus, when Helga catches her. Crixus and Naevia are lying back and watching the whole thing like Antony and Cleopatra in their court. And suddenly we're all distracted by some full frontal male nudity, though not from a regular.

Boudicca is still upset that her husband was doing things she didn’t know about, but Spartacus unchains her and tells her to take charge of feeding the prisoners and reporting mistreatment back to him. She refuses to sleep in the villa because the people wouldn’t like it and heads off to the stable, giving Spartacus a little smile on her way out because when your husband is killed and turns out to have been involved in some dodgy business dealings, naturally you start contemplating jumping into bed with his murderer.

One of the pirates comes on to The Artist, which is not a good idea and puts Number One in an even worse mood than he already was. He proceeds to beat the guy senseless, which does not do wonders for Spartacus’ and the pirate king’s alliance, though The Artist seems to find it romantic and inevitably, sex ensues.

Gannicus stumbles into a random villa to find Helga waiting for him, wearing actual clothes for once – a really rather pretty dress. She’s brought Eponine too, in a slightly skimpier dress (with sparkles!) and appears to have spent the whole time doing all their make-up. She quickly deprives Eponine of the skimpy dress and her and Gannicus make an Eponine sandwich briefly, but Gannicus sends the girl off because he prefers a tougher, less jailbait woman.

Later, Eponine is sitting outside, still waiting to thank Gannicus for saving her life, which she is determined to do despite Gannicus’ protestations. He tells her to stay away from him and everyone like him in an attempt to protect her from herself that will almost certainly fail.

Everyone meets up at dawn, all the worse for wear for all the drinking and brawling and most of them hoping the pirates betray them so they can kill them. Meanwhile, Tiberius and his friends watch the pirates approach the city and Tiberius decides to attack the pirates, against his father’s express orders (what a surprise).

A series of misunderstandings leads to Helga telling Naevia that Trojan Horse is freeing some Romans, and Naevia going after him. I'm not wild about what they've done with Naevia's character this season. Her motivation has been reduced to that of a straight-to-video- slasher protagonist, and she was never stupid before.

In the middle of arguing with each other (out in the open, clearly visible from above) Spartacus and the pirates are interrupted by Tiberius' attack. Long story short, Naevia kills Trojan Horse (by smashing his face in, natch) and when Camp CommanderGguy turns up to reinforce Tiberius (who does pretty well for his first fight, slitting people’s throats and everything) the pirates attack the Romans with flaming cannon balls from their ships. The music even sounds a bit like the score for Pirates of the Caribbean. Camp Commander Guy goes up in flames and Tiberius et al. are forced to retreat. Tiberius is wounded by some random with a beard who I think is one of Spartacus’ men, kills beardy guy and leaves his sword in him. Tiberius’ friend helps him stagger away but it’s not looking good. Spartacus and the pirate king cement their alliance and Crixus finds Tiberius’ sword in beardy guy and sees the label Legio IV.

By this show's standards, this is a surprisingly tame and restrained shot of face-smashing.

The Artist whines that Beardy German (a different, still living beardy guy) wouldn't let him out to play but Spartacus says he was only following orders. Everyone believes Naevia when she says Trojan Horse betrayed them (which of course she genuinely believes, albeit incorrectly), though in fact Boudicca has freed a small group of Romans including the pregnant woman and her husband and is hiding them under some floorboards, WW2-movie style. Gannicus, mourning the loss of Trojan Horse, bows his shoulders under the weight of being the only character with any common sense whatsoever.

A bit boring, this one. Far too much of Spartacus and the others being unpleasant – even Crixus, though Gannicus remains awesome – and no Crassus. Tiberius is still alive at the end, but surely not for long, after that sword wound. All the series' nominal heroes except Spartacus and Gannicus are becoming increasingly unpleasant, but in a plain nasty way rather than Batiatus' gloriously evil way, and in the absence of anyone to root for, we at least need some major Roman action to form a prequel to Rome, if nothing else.


Spartacus (on not paying people): Knowing effort serves higher purpose is reward enough. Yeah right.

Pirate king: You are Spartacus?
Spartacus: I stand so named (still no 'I’m Spartacus,' but a nice, subtle reminder that 'Spartacus' isn’t his original name).

Random naked guy: My cock is magic!
Crixus: Then see it vanish from sight.

Gannicus (hungover): There was a fight. It was very loud.

All Spartacus reviews
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