Plebs: The Erotic Vase

It's Grumio's birthday, and Stylax has bought him the titular (hehe) vase, which happens to include a picture that looks like Cynthia. I liked the vase - there are lots of vases like that from the ancient world (though possibly not detailed enough to look like a specific person). I liked the way everyone kept calling it 'vintage' too, as it would most likely be a very old Greek vase, judging by the style.

I also liked the detail that Grumio doesn't know how old he is, which is played for laughs but reflects what must have been a pretty common reality. Marcus has forgotten to get Grumio a present, so he offers to swap roles for a day - this is also something some Romans really did, as part of the Saturnalia. It would be up to the master whether to participate or not (and some, like Pliny the Younger, refused to swap roles but did go away to the country and leave the city slaves to have a holiday) but it was definitely a real thing, so that was fun too.

Much of this episode was concerned with Stylax's relationship with his cousin, and I was very happy to see incest depicted  as something thoroughly disapproved of by almost everyone else (even between cousins, which is more often considered OK in some cultures). One of my biggest pet peeves about popular culture interpretations of Rome is the notion that Romans were prone to having sex with siblings, parents, aunts and uncles all over. The truth is, historical writers accused certain emperors - the ones they didn't like - of having sex with their sisters, mothers and so on in order to show up how bad they were. (And Claudius did marry his niece, but he had to get special permission to do that). Historians also routinely accused bad emperors of being effeminate, thinking they were gods and being fond of money and luxury. Basically, all bad emperors were accused of being Cleopatra, which is probably where the whole notion came from in the first place (well, and Caligula might genuinely have been a bit off his rocker - it's debatable).

All of this means it's really refreshing to see a large number of Romans reacting with appropriate horror to the idea of incest - this time, Plebs actually reflects Roman reality more than popular culture tropes. The reference to how 'the royal family do it all the time' is a bit problematic because of the date - 'the royal family' would have to mean either Egyptian or Hellenistic monarchs, who were all gone by 27 BC (Cleopatra having killed herself three years earlier) or the Julio-Claudian emperors, in which case it would certainly be true as far as cousins and step-siblings go, but too early (Augustus is still only about 35). I do wonder if giving the series such a precise date was a good idea - I suppose it doesn't matter much since hardly anyone will notice, but if you do know the history, it does take you out of the comedy when you're distracted for several seconds thinking 'hang on, that doesn't work.' If the series was simply set in 'the Roman Empire' none of this would be a problem (nor would the fact Cynthia and Metella's home of Britain isn't a province yet, though there were trade links) - I rather hope something is made of the date to justify it at some point.

A bit slower than some earlier episodes, but Marcus walking around in a yellow dress was very funny, and talking of Cleopatra, Flavia bathing in asses' milk was a nice touch. Marcus clearly hadn't thought through his offer to buy Grumio a pointy hat, since a cone-shaped hat is the symbol of a freedman, but then I imagined it as the Roman equivalent of giving Dobby a sock, so that was quite funny too. And now we know how all those Greek pots ended up getting smashed...

All Plebs reviews


  1. Good comments!

    I'm not sure if I was in the wrong mood but this one didn't inspire many laughs or much good will, especially when script required them to piss and poo themselves. urgh.

    I did enjoy the tight yellow tunic as a visual gag, though. Also, Boyana Studios looks fab and ongoing chickens, landlord and waterma are always a bonus.

    1. Yeah, I didn't like that bit much either - much like Stylax and the hand, it just seemed to be trying to be gross for the sake of being gross. But I was intensely relieved the whole review didn't have to be a rant about incest! I often have to correct people who think incest was totally fine in ancient Rome...

  2. Not being in the UK, I can only experience this through your reviews, but your comment on what they're getting right and the pictures in the previous reviews made me realize something: their tunics seem to be colorful for the most part. Costumers almost always go for simple white (which actually isn't all that simple), when that really wasn't the case. Even books tend to ignore this. Falco occasionally mentions color when he's getting dressed to impress and his first landlord was a fuller. I'm not even sure if Gordianus ever brings it up.

    I suppose this is another version of white marble syndrome. Which raises the question of what the series does with statuary.

    1. Good point - I'll look out for the statues in the next episode! I did notice more painted buildings than you usually see - some are white, but there's an impressive number of red painted buildings in the background

  3. Good comments!

    I don't know if the series will ever make it to this side of the Atlantic.

  4. Since I don't have access to this show... All I have is the snapshot... while most people seemed to comment on 'incest'... one glaring 'note that', is the 'vase' that the fellow appears to be 'painting'(The making of such vases is a bit more complex than 'painting' on the red image...)... It is a Red-Figure Vase, and as such, was not seen much in Rome, but was a prominent art feature of Greek art, during the 7-4th centuries BCE. It was seen in Southern Italy and other areas that had been colonized by the greeks, or traded heavily with the greeks, but as such the Romans never really developed the style, nor 'picked it up' as they had other greek culture items.

    While a 'vase' is perhaps more convenient for the framing of the shot... having an artist work on a fresco depicting some sex scene would be 'more accurate'... of which there are many heterosexual examples, some number of homosexual examples, but often in the case of a 3-some, it would be two males and a female.

    A. Nonymous.

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