Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii

Warning: my specialist area of reseach is ancient myth and religion, especially in Imperial Rome. In this case, this may result in a serious sense of humour failure and a tendency to take historical inaccuracies in Doctor Who too seriously. For this, I can only apologise, and promise that the next review (Harry Potter) will lighten up and get over itself.

'Ancient Rome!' exclaims The Doctor (Tennant version) as he steps out of the TARDIS. Well, actually ancient Pompeii as it turns out, but close enough. The Doctor has been here before - in the William Hartnell adventure The Romans. Then Donna (Catherine Tate) spends a couple of minutes getting very over-excited before noticing that the signs are all in English.

This bit is rather fun if you're a crazy person who speaks Latin, like me. The TARDIS translates all languages for anyone who travels in it, and Donna wants to know what would happen if she deliberately tried to speak Latin. She goes up to a stallholder and says 'Veni, vidi, vici' ('I came, I saw, I conquered', attributed to Julius Caesar and reported by Plutarch and Suetonius). Her pronunciation is Italianate or Vulgar Latin - venee, veedee, veechee - rather than Classical Latin, as taught in schools and universties, which would be wenee, weedee, weekee. Classical Latin pronunciation is supposed to be closer to how Cicero would have pronounced it, but I'm still not 100% convinced Cicero called himself 'Kikerro' and the Italianate pronunication sounds much nicer!

The stallholder looks confused and tells Donna he doesn't speak Celtic (though even if he had understood her, he might have wondered what she was on about anyway). Donna is confused, and The Doctor tells her she sounds Welsh. Celtic is actually the root langauge for Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Breton, Cornish and several others - presumably the writer (James Moran) went for Welsh to please Russell T Davies, well known Welshman. English didn't exist at the time of the Roman Empire (it developed later from Anglo-Saxon, with some French thrown in around 1066) so the stallholder hears Donna speaking the language of the British Isles at that time - Celtic. Since she's speaking English, not a Celtic language, the stallholder should actually tell her she sounds German, as English is a Germanic language. Presumably 'Welsh' sounded funnier, and the writers were more interested in appealing to the Welsh than the Germans. Or they were just plain wrong. Still, its pretty funny and a reasonable attempt to actually talk about the language thing.

Love the line about how anything goes in Ancient Rome. Probably true.

Pompeii. Apologies for the terrible
quality - this was taken before I had a digital camera, and it was chucking it down with rain.

As they come round a corner, they see Mount Vesuvius, pointier than it is today, and smoking. 'We're in Pompeii - and its Volcano Day!' exclaims The Doctor. Hmm, bit of a stupid name, but good setup, and we're straight into the credits.

After the credits - oh dear. The strange lady in red who's been following The Doctor and Donna turns out to belong to a group of ladies in red who seem to be calling themselves priestesses of the Sibylline, a gang of overly made up, breathily over-acting young ladies hanging around in a big fiery cave. I suppose, since aliens are behind it all, historical inaccuracy is irrelevant, but really... The Sibyl was an oracle from the bay of Naples, well known for the Sibylline Prophecies, a collection of prophecies relating to the state of Rome which were occasionally referred to (or, more likely, re-written!) in times of emergency. See the pretty decent Wikipedia article here and the actual texts - or rather, the actual forgeries, the originals were destroyed - are available here. Where the idea for this lot came from, I do not know. There was no 'sisterhood' of priestesses attached to the prophecies. There were priestesses in Rome, attached to various cults, but I doubt they went in for quite such heavy make up or for hanging around in volcanoes. Still, must remember - its all because of the aliens. And so I attempt to restore my sense of humour and go on...

Not sure what the wailing music is all about either. I think its trying to emulate Gladiator (unsuccessfully).

The stallholder mentions Caecilius! And here he is, played by the fabulous Peter Capaldi! Hurrah! Caecilius and his family were the main characters in the Cambridge Latin Course. If your school did Latin, you did the Cambridge Latin Course. My school didn't do Latin, but I borrowed the book from my cousin and read the first one anyway, because I have a strange idea of how to have a good time. Caecilius was a real person who lived in Pompeii and whose house has been excavated. In the books, he didn't have a daughter, but he did have his wife Metella and sone Quintus. And a dog. At the end of Book 1, everyone except Quintus was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius (even the dog. I cried). So seeing them all brought to life here is great fun.

The newly added daughter is about to be 'elevated'. This is an alien thing and has nothing to do with Rome. They could have moved to Rome and made her a Vestal Virgin - well, maybe, but there were only six Vestal Virgins and they were usually chosen when under the age of ten, so not very likely (again, the Wikipedia article, here, is actually pretty good). Quintus is ordered to go and apologise to the household gods. The household gods, the Lares, were real and were worshipped in Roman homes (regular Wikipedia is less reliable here - see this version), though the idea that they are always watching and you have to apologise to them for a minor misdemenour sounds more Christian than pagan. Pagan Romans would not want to commit an act of major impietas, but probably would not worry about something to small.

Quintus has apparently been cavorting with Christians. Christians were a fairly new cult at this point, and had been blamed for the fire in Rome under Emperor Nero. There were various rumours about them, some involving cannibalism (a misunderstanding of communion).

The TARDIS is in the Sibylline Propehcies - tee hee!

'I'm Spartacus!' says The Doctor. 'And so am I!' says Donna. Lol. Though Donna, being a woman, should be Spartaca.

Donna wants to save Caecilius and family - go Donna! She needn't worry so much about Quintus though, he was OK.

There were augurs in Rome, (see here), but they interpreted the flights of birds and that sort of thing, rather than delivering verbal prophecies - that, contrary to what the augur says here, was more often done by female oracles. Everything they say here relates more to the aliens than to actual Romans though.

There's a rather cool bit with the daughter (Evelina - not a Roman name) and the augur making various prophecies relating to the rest of Series 4 of Doctor Who. Then the alien story really starts to kick in.

The episode is based on the idea the people in the ancient world did things because the gods told them to. To be honest, I suspect it was the other way around more often - politicians decided what to do, then said they'd done it because the gods told them to.

The Sisterhood want to execute Donna as a 'false prophet'. There were plenty of 'false prophets' around in Rome, but they weren't usually executed, just tolerated. Christians were dangerous because they tried to prevent the worhship of the traditional gods. Most religions in Rome were pluralistic - you could worship as many gods as you liked. So false prophets weren't dangerous, as long as they didn't try to insist people give up on traditional religion.

Donna is not wearing a toga, Doctor - togas were only worn by citizen men (they're the white robes with red strips worn by senators). Donna is wearing a stola, a dress (and a very nice one too).

The Doctor defeats the bad guys with a water pistol. That's just cool!

Various stuff with fiery bad guys happens. The bad guys remind me of something I can't quite place - bit like a cross between a troll and a balrog maybe.

The Doctor and Donna have to destroy Pompeii to save the planet. This is very sad and I start welling up again.

Donna, whose Roman history is excellent, tries to stop people going to the beach. At this point, I really wanted The Doctor to go and save Pliny the Elder - I've always liked his somewhat entertaining Natural History and thought it was very sad that he died trying to find out about the world and help people.

The Doctor leaves Caecilius and his family behind - nooooo! Save Caecilius! Luckily, Donna eventually persuades him otherwise, making year one of Latin language much less depressing. Catherine Tate is very good in this scene. Could do without the halo of light around The Doctor as he picks them up again, but there we go.

This being a family show, they decide against showing people crouching in the positions their bodies were discovered in by archaeologists, which is what the earlier BBC production Pompeii: The Last Day did. It was a bit creepy, but effective - but the point would either be lost on kids, or it would be too upsetting, so its understandable.

Caecilius and family have adopted The Doctor and Donna as their household gods at the end... to be fair, its not entirely inappropriate, as hero cults and ancestor cults were known in Rome, but usually the hero or ancestor should be dead first. It annoys the heck out of me, but that's probably got more to do with my general irritation at The Doctor being presented as a god-like or Messianic figure, which is a rant for another time and place. Evelina should not be allowed out on her own, though - the attempt to make the family sound very modern takes things a bit too far. Nice young Roman girls were not allowed out without accompaniment. And you can either study the physical sciences (alas, poor Pliny, whom they failed to save!) or be a physician - 'scientists' were not 'doctors' at this time.

Overall, contrary to appearances, I actually really like this episode! It's exciting, it makes me cry (it doesn't take much), and in places it's hilarious. I find the depiction of ancient religion somewhat irritating, especially towards the end, but some of that is irritation at New Who's depiction of religion in general, rather than a Classics issue, and of course, I just have to keep telling myself - they're aliens, it's not real!

I have a picture of the real Caecilius' house sitting around my parents' house somewhere - if I ever find it I'll add it...


  1. Is he supposed to be Caecilius Iucundus? Doesn't look anything like him!

    Longest. Blog. Ever.

  2. It did get a bit long... work avoidance kicking in there I think...

    He's supposed to be the Caecilius from the Cambridge Latin Course, which I assume is Caecilius Iuncundus - the name they give him is definitely wrong ('Nobus' I think).

  3. Tony Keen's done a paper or two on classics and Dr Who, and there's a thread about this episode on the Facebook group, 'Classical receptions are vital...if you do it right'. I think there'll also be a (v. good) article about it in 'Greece and Rome' in a year or so.

  4. Great post! Many thanks. Nice to see two of my interests, the ancient world and Doctor Who, intersecting for someone else too. Give my love to Birmingham; I taught there for a decade (1995-2005) and have happy memories.

  5. I love Doctor Who and earlier today I was actually going through the whole episodes and trying to spot all the Latin phrases, then finding out what they meant. It took a while to find out that the Doctor said 'morituri te salutant' (men doomed to die salute thee), but I got it eventually. I do what you do and really analyse history and languages in Doctor Who.
    Good 'specialist area of research'! :)

  6. Living outside the country I've only seen occasional episodes of the revived Dr. Who (mainly the Christmas specials), something I decided to remedy by buying some DVDs. Anyway, I've just seen the 9th Doctor episode, "The Empty Child".

    In this episode Captain Jack was introduced as an temporal con artist who would sell worthless objects to Time Agents (not sure who they are) minutes before, whoops, the objects get blasted to pieces in the Blitz or buried by Vesuvius on VOLCANO DAY. So, it was Captain Jack's reference, not the Doctor's.

  7. I'd forgotten that - I love that episode! Those two are probably my favourites from New Who, though I love Turn Left and Human Nature/Family of Blood too.


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