Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Top 5 Evil Roman Matriarchs

When Octavian changed his name to Augustus and became Rome's first Emperor, rather than sharing too much power with senators who might start another civil war, he surrounded himself with freedmen (who could never become senators) and family members. The family had always been central to how Roman business was conducted with wives playing an important behind-the-scenes role in business or politics (depending on their husband's level of wealth and ambition) but Augustus' wife and his sister enjoyed more power than any other Roman women ever did.

As the rule of the Emperors went on, the potential influence of lower creatures like women and former slaves over the most powerful man in the world came to be seen as a potential threat, not to mention a good stick for historians to beat unpopular emperors with (e.g. 'Claudius was so rubbish he was ordered around by women and former slaves!'). And so was born the stereotype of the Evil Imperial Woman. Manipulative, sex-mad and twisted, this woman will stop at nothing to further her own ambition through her male relatives.* The Ur Example is Augustus' wife Livia. Although Cassius Dio is quite positive about her and Suetonius is sort of on the fence, Tacitus accuses her of multiple murders, offing all of Augustus' heirs until only her own biological son remained (playing on the existing stereotype of the wicked stepmother who harms her husband's children to favour her own). Livia gives us the manipulator and the poisoner, and is quickly followed by Messalina (Claudius' wife) and Agippina the Younger (Claudius' wife/Nero's mother) who add sex-mad to the list (Romans thought women were all slaves to their sex-drives anyway).

*In the interest of fairness, we do also get Good Imperial Women, who work tirelessly for the good of their husbands/sons/lovers and the Empire. But there aren't quite so many of them.

In popular culture, the trope of the Evil Roman Matriarch found its way into audiences' consciousness through Robert Graves' I, Claudius, and especially through the BBC TV adaptation. Siân Phillips' Livia is one of the most fantastically ruthless and fascinating characters in the series, completely dominating the first half, her absence felt quite keenly in the second. Livia's cool, collected serial killing and masterful manipulation of everyone around her, up to and including Augustus himself, are the model for all the psychotic, completely batsh*t insane Roman matriarchs that come after her.

The only part of the stereotype that doesn't come from Livia is the common aspect of the overactive sex drive, which owes more to Messalina, combined with the fear of imperial women controlling Emperors through sex. (This may be one reason for the frequent accusations of imperial incest, on the assumption that these crazy women who want to control their men will have to do so through sex - though incest also implies a connection with monarchies like the Egyptian Pharaohs). Other than that, whenever you see an Evil Roman Matriarch pulling everyone else's strings, you know you're looking at the latest incarnation of I, Claudius' Livia. (To the extent that, in one of the most obscure casting gags ever, Polly Walker, who plays Atia in Rome, who is partly inspired by Clavdivs' Livia, also plays Cassiopeia in the 2010 Clash of the Titans, just as Siân Phillips plays her in the 1981 version).

And so, time to celebrate the five best examples of an ancient Roman stereotype that remains remarkably popular to this day thanks to witty scripts and some very talented actresses.

(Kills refers to anyone who dies as a result of our Evil Matriarch's actions. This is usually accomplished by manipulating and/or paying other people, though occasionally they personally murder people with poison. Poison was considered a woman's weapon in ancient Rome, since it was assumed women couldn't wield other weapons.)

5. Livia Soprano, The Sopranos
What she wants: To make everyone else miserable, by the sounds of things.
Kills: Tries to have a hit put out on her own son.
Weaknesses: IBS.
Rome has a severe mother: OK, I confess - I've only actually seen one or two episodes of The Sopranos so I know very little about the character of Mama Soprano. But you don't call an Italian character 'Livia' unless you're trying to say something about their personality. Siân Phillips explains on the I, Claudius DVDs that she wasn't quite sure how to get a handle on Livia until the director suggested playing her as mafia-type figure - in Livia Soprano, the cycle of influence has come full circle.
In a few words:
Tony: You know, everyone thought Dad was the ruthless one. But I gotta hand it to you. If you'd been born after those feminists, you woulda been the real gangster.

4. Poppaea, Quo Vadis
What she wants: Sex. Specifically, with Vinicius.
Kills: Lots of Christians, including Pomponia, Plautius and St Peter.
Weaknesses: One-track minded.
Rome has a severe mother: Poppaea belongs to an earlier, pre-I, Claudius generation of Evil Roman Matriarchs. Rather than lusting for power per se (she already has as much as she's going to get, anyway), Poppaea simply lusts, like many other elite female characters in ancient world films of the 1920s-1960s. She wants power over men, though the focus is more on her desire for sexual satisfaction than political ambition. She's set up as the polar opposite of the virtuous (dull) Christian heroine Lygia, the evil femme fatale who wants to ensnare the hero in her sinful world. She's a way for the viewers to enjoy the sight of a sexy, glamourous woman throwing herself at the hero, while simultaneously judging her and anticipating her downfall.
In a few words:
Poppaea: I should like to vanquish you Marcus.
Vinicius: Like the spider who eats her mate when he is no longer a necessity?
Poppaea: Something like that.

What she wants: Power, money, a child, good things for her husband. Also, Crixus.
Kills: Titus Batiatus, Melitta (accidentally), Tullius, Illythia, Spartacus and Illythia's unnamed baby.
Weaknesses: Tends to be motivated primarily by emotional factors. Goes crazy towards the end.
Rome has a severe mother: Gods of the Arena reveals that, initially, Lucretia restricted her evil behaviour to making her father-in-law sick and sucking up to potential business clients. Over the course of the prequel series, though, we see how she is gradually driven to murder-for-revenge, murder-to-get-rid-of-annoying-in-laws, pimping out her slaves to rich patrons, turning her house into a brothel and raping Crixus in an attempt to get pregnant. By the time of Vengeance it's all gone so horribly wrong she herself is increasingly victimised, but that doesn't stop her plotting.
In a few words:
Titus: Tell me you're not the serpent I thought you to be.
Lucretia: I am not. I'm far worse.

2. Atia, Rome
What she wants: Power, to stay alive, Antony.
Kills: Glabius, Jocasta's entire family. Her preferred method is to bully and/or torture people into submission.
Weaknesses: Genuinely loves Antony, and underestimates her son.
Rome has a severe mother: Atia is, basically, Livia + sex. She wants power, so she goes about getting it the only way available to a woman, through her lovers and her son (though she also makes use of her status as Caesar's niece). Her tragedy is that she genuinely falls for Mark Antony, which leaves her in a no-win situation when he and Octavian go to war against each other. Being left for Cleopatra is the final straw and she turns her back on Antony for good, and reasserts her position, but she'll ultimately be doomed, because her new, younger rival is our No. 1...
In a few words:
Atia: I know who you are. I can see you. You're swearing now that someday you'll destroy me. Remember, far better women than you have sworn to do the same. Go and look for them now.

1. Livia, I, Claudius
What she wants: Power. While her imitators tend to have a soft spot for a particular man that may or may not prove their downfall, Livia murders the love of her life just to ensure that she will
remain in power through her son.
Kills: Marcellus, Agrippa, Gaius, Lucius, Augustus, Martina the poisoner. Her son Drusus died of wounds before she got the chance to have him killed. She settles for having Julia and Agrippa Postumus exiled, but Tiberius has Postumus murdered as soon as he comes to power.*
Weaknesses: Fear of eternal punishment, leading to a desperate desire to be made a goddess.
Rome has a severe mother: ...and Gaius and Lucius a cruel stepmother, is what Livia's own son Drusus says about her as he dies. Unlike the others on this list, Livia rarely uses her own sexuality to get what she wants, though presumably sex is part of the way she controls her husband, Augustus. Livia manipulates people in other ways, usually through blackmail, often involving their own sexual naughtiness. Having already achieved as much power as it's possible for a woman to hold before the start of the series, she spends the rest of her life trying to ensure that she'll hold onto it after Augustus' death, going so far as to actually induce said death just to make sure - only for it all to backfire when Tiberius finally grows a spine in his old age and becomes determined to escape his mother's shadow.
In a few words:
Livia: Don't touch the figs.

*Historically, Tiberius also ensured Julia's death by cutting off her food supply.

Honourable mention: Cersei Baratheon (née Lannister) isn't a Roman/Italian, but in many respects she conforms to this trope, particularly her attempts to use sex to manipulate men and her determination to rule through her son. Unfortunately, she's not nearly as good at it as most of the other ladies here. And she enjoys the incest part a bit too much.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Spartacus War of the Damned: Victory

So here we are at the end. The failure of Spartacus’ rebellion is something of a foregone conclusion, but as far as the fates of individual characters go, all bets are off on everyone except Crassus and Caesar. Elite ancient historians weren’t particularly interested in what happened to Gannicus, Spartacus’ body was never found, and everyone else is fictional – all of which means there’s an impressive degree of tension throughout this episode, despite the general outcome being widely known.

We open with an old quote from Spartacus’ long-dead wife in the previously on – ‘if you go to war you are destined for great and unfortunate things.’

The actual opening of the episode is a rather sweet tribute to the Stanley Kubrick movie; starting with Gannicus, we see several of Spartacus’ men attacking Roman villas in different locations, declaring ‘I am Spartacus!’ There’s also a lot of blood and fire and heads on sticks an so forth. We finish, of course, on Spartacus himself.

Crassus is onto him, and figures this is designed to confuse Pompey. Caesar is determined that the two of them are supposed to be finishing off Spartacus, not Pompey. Meanwhile, Spartacus and Gannicus agree that they’re screwed and all they can do is choose where to face Crassus – but they hope to give some of the others a chance to escape while they distract him. Number One wants to join in, but since he was crucified last week, he’s having some trouble holding things. Like swords. Gannicus thinks he’s more dead than living, but Spartacus wants him to lead those who can’t fight to the north. Naevia is still moping over Crixus, so Spartacus tries to cheer her up with thoughts of killing Romans.

The Artist, who knows the way to his guy’s heart, has designed an exciting shield-come-weapon, since Number One is grimly determined to go into battle, recent crucifixion notwithstanding. The shield he’s used has a red serpent painted on it, which is Symbolic.

Gannicus and Eponine have sappy, romantic sex with swelling romantic music over it. I am becoming seriously concerned for my beloved Gannicus, who I’d been hoping would be a survivor.

Crassus is practicing his sword-fighting. No one is wearing shirts, because that would be sensible. Maid Marian appears, in chains in case she runs away again. She and Crassus discuss Tiberius’ death mask, which Crassus thinks is a reflection of his father in its general sulkiness. Maid Marian claims he was killed by an older man covered in scars and Crassus wishes the guy had died. He hasn’t asked why Maid Marian ran away because he thinks nothing can excuse it.

Boudicca insists that her group will wait for Spartacus at the foot of the mountains, which he keeps trying to dissuade her of, since he’s going on a suicide mission. Number One shows Spartacus his fancy new shieldy thing and explains that he and The Artist are coming to the battle. Spartacus says he's honoured, and points out that Number One is the last left who fought their way out of Batiatus’ ludus way back in season one, looking at his B brand (he’s also the last remaining actor from season one, due to casting changes for Spartacus and Naevia). They say goodbye to the women, children and injured-and-not-insane who are heading north, in an attempt to escape over the mountains. (Spartacus says they’re going ‘beyond snapping jaws of Rome’. Presumably they’re heading to Gaul, where they’ll enjoy about twelve or so years of peace before they’ll be seeing a certain Gaius Julius Caesar again…) Spartacus says goodbye to Boudicca, Eponine and the random blonde woman who had a baby last week, who thanks him. Then the pirate appears to warn them that the Romans are coming, and off they go.

The two armies meet, but Crassus wants a chit-chat first, so they go find an appropriately dramatic-
looking cliff to stand on to do so. Crassus hands his sword to Caesar and Spartacus hands his to Gannicus, who looks massively uncomfortable, not so much because he thinks it’s a bad idea but because he still doesn’t want to be Spartacus’ second, even though Crixus is dead and Number One seriously disadvantaged.

Crassus, who understands the laws of drama, wants to meet and talk with Spartacus face to face before they finish each other off. Crassus insists Spartacus cannot win and Spartacus says they all say that. Also, Crassus wants to sulk about Tiberius not dying on the field of battle with honour – at which point Spartacus defends himself by pointing out that ‘the woman’ had been ill-treated by him – oops. Spartacus insists that Crassus’ grief for his son cannot be as great as his for his wife, which seems a pointless bit of one-upmanship (then again, Tiberius was a little twerp). Crassus and Spartacus shake hands and Spartacus says he’ll kill Crassus when they meet again. Crassus says he’ll try, and Spartacus says that’s all a free man can do.

Crassus confronts Caesar about Tiberius’ death and Caesar, to his credit, continues to cover for Maid Marian, but she gives up and ‘fesses up because she still wants forgiveness. She and Caesar explain exactly what a little sh*t Tiberius was and thankfully Crassus believes them, though if Maid Marian thinks she’s getting away with this, she’s got another think coming. Crassus smashes Tiberius’ death mask and apologises to Maid Marian, saying all she’s suffered ‘shall end when Spartacus falls.’ Hmm.

Spartacus takes a break from strategizing to look at a map of his homeland, Thracia. He finally manages to persuade Gannicus that he has to be his second because, frankly, there’s no one else. Gannicus has stopped drinking! Truly, this is the end.

Spartacus explains how when he first got together with his wife, she told him how the gods had delivered oracles in her dreams and prophesied that Spartacus would never love another woman – which despite finding comfort in others, has proved to be true. This is a really nice nod to Plutarch, who claims that Spartacus' wife was subject to fits of Dionysiac frenzy and visions, and on seeing a serpent coiled about Spartacus' face when they were first brought to Rome, said it was a sign of great power. Spartacus muses that they thought victory could be defined by Roman deaths, but now he thinks victory will be the lives of Eponine, Boudicca and the random blonde and her baby.

Finally, it’s epic CGI battle time! On the well-known desert wastelands of Italy. (It looks very much like North Africa. If only that was where they actually were). There’s just time for one more big speech. ‘Let us teach them that all who draw breath are of equal worth!’ declares Spartacus. Then they all go into battle ‘with a cry of freedom!’ I like to think the extras are yelling, ‘they may take our clothes, but they’ll never take our freedom!’

Spartacus’ army gain an early advantage from a technique previously seen in The Chronicles of Narnia, but soon it’s all hand-to-hand combat. The battle is suitably epic and features spikes, huge arrow-things, flaming catapults (or are they trebuchets? I can never tell the difference - Crassus says catapults), testudo formations (Naevia observes this is their ‘predicted maneuvre’ which shows she has watched the odd Roman epic film in her time, though possibly not any actual Roman battles), people randomly getting off their horses for no reason (surely a horse is a major advantage?) etc. etc. etc.

As the battle heats up, Crassus gives some instructions. 'No wounded enemy is to be blessed with merciful passing. I would make example of all those who dare raise hand against the glory of Rome!' This is because he plans to crucify all the survivors. Crucifixion was a death given to very poor provincials and slaves, especially runaway slaves. By crucifying Spartacus' people, Crassus is putting them back in their place as slaves, rather than allowing them to die as free people.

First named character to die is the beardy guy. I mean, I know he has a name, I just have no idea what it is. He goes up in flames and gets stabbed twice, yelling rude things about the Romans’ mothers in German the whole time. The pirate is next to go (again, I am aware that he has a name…) His last words are to sulk that he never got to be The Artist’s boyfriend – right at The Artist and Number One. Nice. Number One does not look like he’ll mourn him.

Spartacus and Crassus try to go at each other but Crassus is forcibly protected by his men, who take him up a hill. (Where was this hill in the big aerial shots? Hmm.) Spartacus tells Number One he’s off after Crassus and away he goes. Caesar and Gannicus spot each other and go at it with
enthusiasm. Spartacus appears over the hill to attack Crassus like a bloody avenging angel. He offs all Crassus’ guards, though gets a nasty cut across the back in the process, and they get to it.

Helga is the next to die, in Gannicus’ arms, then Naevia, who gets taken down by Caesar himself (taking back the sword in the process). She gets the honour of a lingering death shot. Gannicus is by now completely surrounded and outnumbered, attacked not only by Caesar, but bounced between dozens of Roman soldiers. They injure him, then knock him out (Caesar smirking the entire time). Nooooo, he’s gonna get crucified! Not my beloved Gannicus! I had really hoped he would be the one who survived.

Spartacus and Crassus are both pretty badly injured, but Spartacus prevails and is about to finish Crassus off despite the Gladiator-style visions of his wife and Mira and Neighbours Reject (hey! Neighbours Reject!) that keep flashing before his eyes when he’s abruptly speared through the back three times by some Roman soldiers ex machina. Somehow still breathing, Spartacus kneels before Crassus, who is about to give him a clean death (which, if you think yourself into a twisted Roman mindset, is really, really nice of him – he’s planning to crucify everyone else) when he’s unexpectedly rescued by Number One and The Artist, who carry him off despite his clearly fatal injuries. I mean, he has two fricking great spears sticking out of him, guys. This is a lost cause. They look back towards the battle, which the Romans have obviously won.

Crassus is annoyed that Spartacus got away, but confident he’s dying, so he tells Caesar to see the survivors ‘to promised reward upon Appian Way.’ Gannicus is now the guy who gets a full-on messianic death-scene. He’s crucified along with 2,999 others all along the Appian Way (this is, I'm afraid to say, completely historically accurate) - including Maid Marian. Caesar is rather regretful about this, but Crassus insists it's necessary; he's forgiven her, but she'll still have to die for killing Tiberius.

We interrupt this intimate drama to bring you… Pompey! In Mark Antony’s armour from Cleopatra by the looks of things. He has destroyed Spartacus’ people in the north and taken all the credit for crushing the rebellion, which Crassus graciously allows him in the interest of future alliances. Caesar is unimpressed at Pompey stealing all their glory after the amount of crap he put himself through, but Crassus is looking to the future, largely because the present is so unpleasant.

Meanwhile, as Gannicus dies very slowly on the cross, he sees visions of DSG (yay! DSG!) followed by full on 3D-visions of an arena filled with cheering crowds. Maybe to Gannicus, heaven is a gladiatorial arena?

Spartacus is, improbably, still alive and has been dragged all the way to the mountains. Boudicca, Eponine and the others waited for him, which was stupid, because Pompey attacked them and killed most of them. Luckily, Boudicca, Eponine and the random blonde with the baby are all still alive, so this still constitutes a ‘victory’ according to the very specific criteria Spartacus set down earlier in the episode. As Boudicca pesters him with, ‘Spartacus!’ he points out that that is not his name, and, clutching the B brand on Number One’s arm, looks forward to seeing his wife again. ‘There is no greater victory than to fall from this world a free man,’ he says, and dies. The clouds cover the sun and it starts to rain, because the gods like a dramatic ending as much as anyone else.

Random Blonde and her baby, Boudicca, Eponine, their very small group of survivors and finally, The Artist and Number One walk off into the sunset, leaving the red serpent-painted shieldy-thing on Spartacus’ grave. The final credits (with suitably epic music) show images of the major characters from all four seasons (yay! Batiatus and Lucretia!) and end on a brief shot of Liam McIntyre and finally a clip of the late Andy Whitfield declaring loudly ‘I am Spartacus!’

This was a fantastic ending, allowing the show to really go out on a high. So many productions promise an epic battle and then don’t deliver, but for my money this one really does – everyone involved has really stretched the budget as far as it can possibly go. More importantly, it’s the character work that really has us invested in that battle, knowing that we’re going to see most of the regulars get mown down – with only Caesar and Crassus safe, it’s genuinely exciting to watch. Spartacus refers to his earlier self as ‘a man who no longer exists’ and mentions his real name, but we never get to hear it, which is sort of disappointing but probably wise, as whatever it was revealed to be could only disappoint.

Agron and Nasir as the two survivors (plus the main non-combatants) is a nice decision. It completely inverts the trope of, as TV Tropes puts it, ‘Bury Your Gays’ by making the gay couple the sole survivors of the final battle, which is very pleasant to see. It also means that one of Batiatus’ slaves and gladiators has survived, allowing the first season finale to hold on to a tiny bit of satisfaction, knowing that at least one person has, ultimately, been saved, even though the others are all doomed (though, um, thousands of others have died. The inclusion of Laeta among the survivors who make it a victory is a bit weird, considering that without Spartacus’ rebellion, she would still be living happily in the city with her husband). I’m sad it wasn’t Gannicus who got to survive, but I guess, since Gannicus was already free and chose to join Spartacus because he didn’t have much to live for, saving Agron and Nasir makes more sense.

Pompey is in the series for about as long as Richard I is in your average Robin Hood film (and dressed in white to boot) but I’m hoping that’s because eventually the creators will do a First Triumvirate spin-off. The First Triumvirate was formed about 10 years later, so they have plenty of time! And Crassus’ eventual fate – probably exaggerated by the ancient historians, but whatever – is just crying out for the Spartacus treatment. Pompey was very sneery and annoying here, too, which means if they ever do the civil war between him and Caesar, we may finally feel like we’ve got a happy ending. (Pompey is usually depicted as fighting for the Republic and Caesar’s triumph as the tragic death of democracy – this goes back to Lucan’s treatment of the subject in the first century AD – but I think there’s room for a depiction of both being as bad as each other and the Republic doomed either way! If it’s these two, I’m definitely on Caesar’s side).

The final montage is just gorgeous. I loved seeing all the old faces again, especially on a show with this high a body count (has anyone done a Game of Thrones-style In Memoriam for this show on You Tube? That could go on for a while…). Finishing with Andy Whitfield was a sweet tribute to the original star.

And so, Spartacus is over. What do we do now?! For more ancient world-goodness, the second Percy Jackson film is out in a couple of weeks. For more gladiators, the second Hunger Games film is out in November. On TV, the BBC’s Atlantis will be coming in the autumn (quite excited about that), though if you’re after anything not aimed at a family audience, you’ll have to wait for the next season of Plebs sometime next year…

Only one thing for it. Rome, followed by I, Claudius, followed by The Roman Mysteries. Then start the whole cycle again with Spartacus: Gods of the Arena!

Idiotic things to say in the series finale:

Gannicus: I am no martyr upon cross, but I would gladly give my life that those more deserving may live.

Kore: I would give life to gaze upon forgiveness in [Crassus'] eyes.


Spartacus: Why did you call me here, Crassus?
Crassus: Same reason you came – curiosity.

Spartacus: There is no justice, not in this world.
Crassus: At last, a thing we agree upon.

Crassus: Would that you had been born a Roman and stood beside me.
Spartacus: I bless the Fates that it was not so.

Crassus (re himself, Caesar and Pompey): We shall stand fearsome triumvirate with means to bend the course of history.

Agron to Spartacus (last line): One day Rome shall fade and crumble. Yet you shall always be remembered in the hearts of all who yearn for freedom.

Lots of people, but most importantly both Liam McIntyre and Andy Whitfield as Spartacus (last
line of all): I! Am! Spartacus!

Monday, 22 July 2013

The Roman Mystery Scrolls: The Two-Faced God

As Britain cooks in the hottest summer we've had in years and we all run out and get a combination of heatstroke and sunburn, or cook in our non-air-conditioned offices, I have been enjoying a story about New Year's, the coldest time of year! Normally I have no problem sympathising with Threptus' problems, but it is strange reading about how cold he is as you feel your legs burn...

In the latest of Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries spin-off series for younger readers, Threptus must evade bullies, investigate a haunted house and find a way to save his boss the embarrassment of fainting at the sight of blood when he's supposed to be performing an extispicy (examining the entrails of a sacrificed animal for divinatory purposes). The story is nicely layered and moves at a brisk pace, and the inclusion of a four-year-old girl allows for some very natural-feeling exposition of Roman rites and customs (Threptus' exasperation with her questions is quite funny). On the other end of the scale, Floridius' alcoholism is hinted at through Threptus' nine-year-old eyes, creating a story suitable for and comprehensible to children, but adding an extra, poignant layer for older readers.

I especially liked Threptus' solution to Floridius' fainting problem because it made use of some of the real aspects of Roman sacrifice. Whereas Greek ritual sacrifice was performed with the head uncovered, the Roman custom was to cover the head with a fold of the toga (unless sacrificing to Saturn). Although Floridius manages to get the butcher's boy to perform the actual sacrifice, he still has to read the entrails - but he covers his head so thoroughly that no one realises his eyes are closed! It's quite funny, and it's a really nice detail of Roman sacrifice to bring in.

The use of the butcher's boy to help with the sacrifice is also useful in a couple of ways. For one thing, although the world of sacrifices and entrail-reading is very alien and possibly frightening to modern children, relating the practice to butchery makes it both more understandable and less scary - children are well aware of the existence and purpose of butchers, even if they and their family are vegetarians. It also emphasises the fact that the animal will be eaten at the feast and afterwards - being religious does not equal being stupid, and the ancients would not waste valuable meat on incorporeal and invisible divine beings. That's why they had the myth of Prometheus.

This book seems to provide a conclusion to Threptus' story. By the symbolic date of New Year's Day, Threptus and Floridius have gained a promise of regular meat to stop them going hungry which, as Floridius himself observes, cannot be gambled away, they have warm clothes to see them through the winter, a good patron and support from the local magistrate, Threptus' former bullies have mended their ways and now owe him a debt, and Floridius is even showing signs of conquering his drinking problem. If this is the end for Threptus, then I'll be sad, because I enjoy these books, but glad to leave him on such a warm and happy note. And the final pages offer a tantalising hint that, though his solo adventures may be over, this may not be the last we see of Threptus - or, even more excitingly, of our old friends from the parent series... Fingers crossed we'll be seeing them all again sometime soon!

All Roman Mysteries reviews

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Spartacus War of the Damned: The Dead and the Dying

Spartacus lurches towards its final finale with a well-intentioned though odd and oddly-paced episode.

A group of Romans are having a picnic by a bonfire when they are abruptly added to the menu by Spartacus, Helga and Gannicus. It turns out that these aren’t Crassus’ men, but the as-yet-unseen Pompey’s – maybe there’s hope for a First Triumvirate spin-off yet! Spartacus is unimpressed by Pompey’s reputation, but their discussion is interrupted by a messenger from Crixus’ army – Naevia, carrying Crixus’ head in a bag. As you do.

Naevia is refusing to eat or drink and feels Crixus was robbed of glory by being executed rather than dying mid-combat. She recaps the end of the previous episode so that we can see the CGI montage of their victories and the very unconvincing Roman countryside again. She mentions that the actual fatal wounding and beheading of Crixus was Tiberius’ work, thus producing another two or three people who want Tiberius dead (get in line). She also has to break the news about Number One (currently MIA, last seen getting a bash on the head) to The Artist.

Gannicus points out that Crassus is trying to goad Spartacus into doing something stupid, but Spartacus is sensibly more concerned with Pompey’s approaching legions and trying to work out how not to get caught between two armies.

Crassus is discussing strategy with Tiberius, who is more interested in loudly noting that the camp follower Caesar befriended last episode has been horribly murdered. Two of Pompey’s soldiers approach the camp and offer support against Spartacus, and suggest a small meeting on neutral ground. Tiberius suggests that Pompey just wants intelligence on Spartacus so he can take victory and credit (a nice nod to history, according to which Pompey did in fact turn up after the main fighting was done and try to take all the credit), but Caesar points out that Pompey is a hero and they shouldn’t insult him – plus they could use two armies at once. Caesar suggests sending Tiberius to negotiate with Pompey, which Tiberius thinks is a great idea because he’s massively underestimated Caesar's ability to squash anyone who mistreats him like a bug.

After a brief scene of Naevia complaining about Maid Marian not taking the opportunity to kill Crassus before leaving, we see Tiberius arriving to talk to Pompey. Instead, he is greeted by Spartacus, who has set the whole thing up, hoping to catch Crassus himself. For a moment it looks horribly like the slimeball Tiberius will escape again, but Spartacus pulls him off his horse and captures him and his men, saying he wants them to give honour to the dead in advance of joining their ranks. We learn that Caesar had seen this coming when he tells a terrified camp follower that the man who killed her friend is dead, having been sent to ‘deserved slaughter’ and gets on with what he does best – having sex.

Spartacus declares that Tiberius and his men’s blood is for a higher purpose – he’s going to put on some gladiatorial games in Crixus and the others’ memory. He gives Naevia Crixus/Tiberius’ sword and tells her who Tiberius is, and that he’s saved Tiberius especially for her to kill, so they’ll build a pyre and pay tribute to ‘the undefeated Gaul.’ Naevia apologises for trying to turn Crixus away from Spartacus and they bond over their planned murder of unarmed prisoners in mock-gladiatorial games.

Good grief, Number One’s still alive! How on earth did he manage that?! He’s tied up, cursing Romans and having dubious-coloured liquid thrown at him. Caesar wants to make him a gladiator again, but Crassus crucifies him as a warning to the others. Caesar takes an inordinate amount of pleasure in driving the nails into his palms (his arms are tied up, just in case anyone’s wondering).

A fresh envoy from Pompey arrives – a real one, this time, who tells Crassus other messengers were dispatched, but not to Crassus. Crassus realises the first was Spartacus’ but holds out hope for Tiberius, thinking he’s a valuable hostage (and because he wants it to be true), and decides he’s off to rescue him. Caesar tells him he’ll be killed on sight and offers to send some random called Rufus, but Crassus makes him go himself, since Caesar knows them, and he thinks they won’t kill him (though he’s not really that bothered either way).

Tiberius realises that Caesar knew it was Spartacus’ man he sent him off with, but just as he’s going on about how Spartacus and his gang are just slaves, Maid Marian turns up to gloat. He tells her Crassus still loves her and tries to get her to free him, but although she’s grateful to hear Crassus loves her, she’s looking forward to seeing Tiberius die that night (as are we all).

Spartacus has set up in a theatre (i.e. a semi-circular area with audience seating, usually used for plays in ancient Rome, whereas circular amphitheatres were used for gladiatorial games) which is, of course, on the edge of a cliff (I sometimes think this series massively over-estimates the number of conveniently located landlocked cliffs in Italy). He does his best impression of Maximus from Gladiator, grabbing at handfuls of earth, and gives a little speech about how he was forced to be a gladiator and is now returning the favour to the captured Romans.

Tiberius and his men are sent out into the mini-arena to face Spartacus, Gannicus, The Artist, Naevia and some bald guy (he’ll get killed, then). The first Roman soldier refuses to fight for others’ entertainment, so Spartacus just kills him quickly and tells the others they’ll fight or die right away. Next, two Romans are sent out at once, and we’re back to the glory-days of gladiatorial combat. Everyone seems to be enjoying it except Eponine, who it turns out has never been to the Games and who is somewhat discombobulated to realise that Gannicus actually misses fighting in the arena.

Lots of fighting ensues, including some lovely inventive deaths, like the guy who gets impaled on two swords sitting in the ground and the guy who gets knifed in the back of the head with the weapon coming out through the eyes. After Spartacus has defeated two men at once, Gannicus takes on three and we finally see one kicked off the cliff, which the scene has clearly been saving up for that moment. (Spartacus and Gannicus are wearing as little clothing as usual while the Romans are in armour, but this seems to make no difference). Boudicca is still around, surprised to hear that Gannicus is free and joined up with Spartacus anyway, insisting that the Romans are no longer her people and flinching from the Games while at the same time reveling in what’s happening as much as everyone else.

This all goes on for a while. Gannicus throws the head of one of the defeated Romans into the audience, Baldy takes out another Roman, a bearded rebel another, Helga another, and everyone has a whale of a time. Even The Artist gets in on the action in Number One’s memory (to the obvious consternation of his pirate admirer). Naevia says she told Crixus she didn’t like the games when they first met, but now they’re all she wants.

During The Artist’s fight, Caesar turns up and Gannicus and Spartacus nip off to beat him up a bit. He offers Crassus’ trade – 500 of their men held prisoner by Crassus for Tiberius. He then informs them that he personally is not interested in saving the ‘festering disease that fell from [Crassus]’ loins’ that is Tiberius, but that if Spartacus kills him, the 500 prisoners will die too.

By this point, only Tiberius is left to get slaughtered, and Helga brings him out for Naevia to dispatch in Crixus’ honour. Tiberius, because he’s terminally awful, demands that Naevia return his sword and calls her ‘Slave!’ so she calls him a woman ‘or sickly child’ and they get on with it. Tiberius’ armour does actually give him some protection against blows that might otherwise have finished him but Naevia bets him down all the same. Then just as she’s about to chop off his head, to the utter frustration of everyone there including Maid Marian and every single TV viewer, Spartacus stops her.

Spartacus tells the crowd that Crassus has offered to trade their 500 comrades for Tiberius but no one is overly thrilled (that’s how much everyone wants to see Tiberius dead by this point). Naevia says Crassus is lying. Spartacus says he doesn’t think so, but that he’ll give her the choice. So Naevia, unhappily moral creature that she is, punches the twerp, taunts him a bit, and lets him go. Maid Marian is not happy and nor is anyone else.

Tiberius is led out without his armour, in a scrappy tunic, to the waiting Caesar, but just as Caesar is explaining how dangerous the journey is, Maid Marian runs screaming from behind and kills him herself. Tiberius finally goes down, thank goodness, and Maid Marian looks extremely satisfied, though no one else is impressed, since they don’t want the 500 prisoners to die. Spartacus is about to finish off Caesar, but Maid Marian offers to go herself in trade for the prisoners.

Caesar tells Crassus a rebel slave killed Tiberius as he brings him back his body. Crassus is not impressed that Caesar held to the bargain anyway, but is distracted at that moment when Maid Marian walks into the tent. Crassus sends Caesar away and kisses her, but tells her to call him ‘dominus’, not Marcus.

The 500 prisoners are returned to Spartacus – including, to everyone’s surprise, Number One, which cheers everyone up except the pirate. Naevia has a funeral ceremony for Crixus’ head in the theatre which everyone attends while Spartacus speechifies about how nice it is that they’ve got some people back and about the sacrifice of those who’ve already died. Everyone shouts out the names of their most missed fallen comrades and everyone ends up shouting ‘Crixus!’ over and over again while even Spartacus starts to show emotion and makes a lot of promises about how much Crassus is going to suffer as they make a final stand against Rome. End of episode.

This episode combines a couple of Classical elements in producing its commemorative Games. In the Iliad, the Greeks hold spectacular (though much less bloody) athletic games in memory of Patroclus, and gladiatorial games in general began as a funerary custom (even into the early Roman empire, they were often held in memory of a dead person). Even more importantly, Appian claims that after Crixus’ death, Spartacus slaughtered 300 Roman prisoners to his memory. (Appian does not like Spartacus very much, as opposed to Plutarch, who sees him as more of a noble rebel, ‘more Greek than Thracian,’ i.e. someone to be admired – as far as Plutarch is concerned, to be Greek is to be the best).

I was hoping the series would do something with this tidbit of Appian’s – it’s so bloody and vicious, while at the same time indicative of such a strong bond between Spartacus and Crixus and such an outpouring of grief on Crixus’ death, that it’s far too good for the show to pass up. I think I was picturing more of an enraged, grief-stricken, blood-thirsty crazed attack on some part of the Roman army, but this works too. Spartacus is totally calm, cheerfully declaring his desire to pay tribute to Crixus and Agron, but has completely become his enemy now, putting on his own gladiatorial show. It’s like the end of Animal Farm (which is, I confess, the only bit of Animal Farm I’ve actually read).

Most of all, of course, this is a neat way to return to the gladiatorial combat scenes that were the backbone of the show in season one and the prequel series, and on which its success was founded. Throughout season two, the show seemed to falter outside of the structure of the arena, and although the battles in season three helped it to find its way again, it’s never quite been able to move on from the established pattern of duel – sex – duel that dominated those early episodes.

The only problem is, something about this episode just doesn’t quite work. Tiberius’ long-awaited death misses its moment and lacks punch as a result. As an audience, we’re all ready for him to cop it at Naevia’s hands and we feel the crowd’s disappointment when he doesn’t; as a result his actual death just afterwards feels anti-climactic. I’m happy to have Agron back but Crassus’ release of the prisoners doesn’t seem terribly plausible. Still, it’s fun to be back in the arena again (sort of) and at least with Tiberius out of the way, we can focus on Spartacus himself and our rebel heroes as we charge into the final episode and find out once and for all who is or isn’t going to make it out alive…


Crassus: I’ve never know Pompey to support any cause but his own interests.

Crassus (re Tiberius): He stands a man now and I wish for him all that he deserves.

Spartacus: This I promise you – we will live free, or join our brothers in death!

Monday, 8 July 2013

Xena Warrior Princess: Altared States

In a predictable but rather sweet episode, Xena and Gabrielle try to stop a conflicted father from sacrificing his young son, apparently on the orders of his god.

The story of this episode is a clear re-telling/adaptation of the story of Abraham and Isaac and the bulk of the plot and dialogue is really a debate about Judaeo-Christianity, so for the most part this episode draws less on ancient pagan mythology. Ancient myth does provide stories of parents forced to sacrifice their children of course, most famously Agamemnon, who was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia because he offended Artemis, who would not allow them the wind to sail to Troy without a sacrifice (though in some versions Artemis saved Iphigenia and transported her away - unfortunately her mother Clytemnestra didn't know that...). The use of father and son here would indicate Abraham and Isaac even without the constant references to monotheism and 'zealots' - the boy is even called 'Icus' (Isaac) and his brother 'Mael' (Ishmael).

The episode shows the boy's mother disagreeing and trying to stop the sacrifice, so there's perhaps a hint of Clytemnestra there. The mother prays to Hestia, goddess of hearth and home, and there's a distinct division set up between the masculine monotheistic god, with the father's belief manipulated by a son to harm the other son, while Icus is protected by his mother who prays to Hestia, Xena (who answers when the mother is praying) and Gabrielle. Much of the episode is spent objecting to the Biblical story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, though Anteus is portrayed sympathetically - clearly in the wrong, but obviously conflicted as well as drugged and mis-led. The episode pulls back from this critical perspective at the end, as it's revealed it was human manipulation that was behind the demand and Icus is saved by a distinctly masculine heavenly voice that stops Anteus just as Xena is about to get him with her frisbee, presumably to make up for the previous 40 minutes of complaining. The music right at the end also sounds very much like a 1950s Jesus movie (or possibly The Life of Brian).

Elsewhere, there's an unusually high volume of ship teasing between Xena and Gabrielle for such an early episode (naked bathing with suggestive dialogue, drugged Gabrielle declaring how beautiful Xena is, climbing up each other). Also Xena growls at one point. While naked. The episode features Karl Urban in the first of his four separate roles across twelve appearances in Xena (plus two in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys). I'd make a crack about New Zealand being short of actors, but honestly, I'm perfectly happy to see Karl Urban on TV as much as humanly possible. There is a brief reference to Classical myth, as Gabrielle tells a very weird version of the story of the Trojan war involving lions and hydras - and that's before she gets high (which is very funny). All in all, the story is a strange juxtaposition of theological philosophy and Gabrielle leading an invisible choir, but somehow it vaguely works, and it puts Karl Urban on our screens for another 45 minutes, so it's entirely worth watching for that alone.


Xena:  I don’t think much of your god - or any god who’d want to kill a child.

Xena: I'm asking you to spare your son.
Anteus: And teach him what? That faith is just for those times when it's convenient to believe? What's the good in sparing his life, if I rob him of the very thing that makes it worth living?

Xena: I thought I told you to wait for me at the cave.
Gabrielle: I did. And then this rock told me I had to come find you.
Xena: The rock spoke to you?
Gabrielle: Oh, yeah. I mean, his voice was a little gravelly, but I understood.

Disclaimer: No Unrelenting or Severely Punishing Deities were harmed during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

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