Monday, February 28, 2005

King Arthur, Part II

Last year, when King Arthur came out, I ended up doing a lot of reading around the legends of King Arthur, and the history and archaeology of the immediate post-Roman period in Britain. The end result of that reading is this post. As part of that I read Michael Wood's chapter on Arthur from his book In Search of the Dark Ages (based on the first tv series he ever did). So I was interested in seeing what Wood had to say about Arthur when he revisited the subject in In Search of Myths and Heroes, more than twenty years later.

By and large, it was okay. Not earth shattering - my Anglo-Saxonist friend Simon Trafford thought it said very little - but I think it was the best of the series. Wood wisely concentrated on the evolution of the legend, in order not to make the same programme twice - twenty years ago he'd looked at the historical evidence for Arthur, and evidently his opinions haven't changed much.

Most interesting was his discovery of a new sixth century candidate for the 'real' Arthur. In the Life of Saint Columba (1.8), Columba prophesies that Arturius, son of King Aidan of Scotland, will fall in battle. This appeals to Wood, who has always been favourable to the notion that some of the Arthur myth comes from the Strathclyde/Cumbria area. I'm not totally sure myself - Arturius belongs to the late sixth century, so is a bit late, but he could have contributed to the evolving legend.

Other points:

Wood called Britain the 'Jewel in the Crown of the Roman empire'. That's just not true.

Wood talked about the way Henry II of England manufactured the discovery of the graves of 'Arthur' and 'Guinevere' at Glastonbury. The way Wood presented it, Henry's sole intention was to deprive the Welsh of their hero, to prove that he was dead and not coming back. Now, that's part of it, but Henry had another motive. He was King of England, but he was not himself English - he was French. The Norman French domination of England was less than a century old when he came to the throne. What Henry wanted was a national hero who was not English. Geoffrey of Monmouth had been writing about just such a hero in the previous reign of Stephen. Henry seized on Arthur as a national myth that could bind together the England, his troublesome Welsh vassals, perhaps even the Kingdom of Scotland, and some of his French territories, notably Brittany, where Breton bards composed lays of Camelot.

I also noted that Wood presents the common picture of the Anglo-Saxon settlements, with the Saxons landing in Kent, and then expanding from there. Now, I can't believe that Wood, who did his postgraduate work on the Anglo-Saxons, hasn't kept up with developments in scholarly ideas on the Settlements in the last twenty years. Which probably means he's quite happy with the old view. I have some sympathy with that. I'm happy to believe that there's much more continuity of settlement than has previously been acknowledged. However, I think that there must have been some incoming settlement, if only because our one contemporary source, Gildas, tells us this is what happened. Now, I know it's fashionable to write Gildas off as polemic, and to an extent that's true. But this doesn't mean he can be written off entirely. He's like a Daily Mail editorial about asylum seekers. Now, that Mail leader writer may be exaggerating the scale of the influx, but you can't argue from that there aren't asylum seekers. And the same I think applies to Gildas - his polemic must still have some relation to reality, and I fear some attempts to reconstruct post-Roman Britain overlook that. Besides, how is Anglo-Saxon culture supposed to have been imported into Britain? People talk about an elite coming over and taking control. Well, they don't just walk in and say 'hello, we're in charge now'. That sort of control requires some sort of military conquest. Which requires soldiers, and soldiers need some reward, and need to be settled somewhere. And where soldiers settle, their wives and families settle. So I find it hard to accept that there was no influx of settlers, even if it wasn't the overwhelming wave that swept the Celts out of their old lands that used to be postulated.

It was nice to see bits of Castlesteads - evidently Wood does know that the name Camboglanna is no longer applied to Birdoswald (see my previous post). I don't know what the evidence is that Castlesteads was used as a Dark Age bandit/warlord base, but since it's known that this happened at Birdoswald, it seems plausible.

But the best moment of the programme, and indeed of the whole series, was Wood reciting Anglo-Saxon poetry, and doing so with real passion.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

‘King of the who?’

(This is another older piece of writing from last year, revised a little. It's included here so that I won't unnecessarily repeat myself when I come to discuss Michael Wood's programme on King Arthur.)

The following is an attack on the historical accuracy claimed for King Arthur the film, followed by a wider rant on Arthurian scholarship.[1]

Had King Arthur (directed by Antoine Fuqua, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer) presented itself as just another reinterpretation of the Arthurian myth, I wouldn't have minded so much. If the selling point was screenwriter David Franzoni's original idea,[2] 'King Arthur as The Wild Bunch', I could have sat back and let it wash over me. Of course, I might have been displeased that one of the great romances of western literature, Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, is reduced to 'Lancelot saw her naked once and had some dirty thoughts', and I might note that there is only one imaginative scene and one memorable piece of dialogue, and I might further have complained about how dull and clichéd, and indeed absurd, the whole exercise is, but that's another issue. After all, I'm quite happy to let creators change legends how they like, as I have said elsewhere about Wolfgang Petersen's Troy.

But Troy doesn't set itself up as history. King Arthur, on the other hand, is keen that the audience should accept it as 'historically accurate'. One of its promotional taglines is 'The untold true story that inspired the legend'. And it is on this level that I must attack it.

The film begins with a caption telling us that historians agree that there must be a historical figure behind the Arthurian legend. Well, no, there are a good number of historians who don't agree that at all. Then the film immediately runs into a voiceover, establishing for the audience that about ad 300 the ever-expanding Roman empire conquered the Sarmatians, dwellers on the Russian steppes, in what is now the Ukraine, and proceeded to establish regular recruiting of troops from them. These troops were sent to Britain, where they were traditionally commanded by a man called Artorius.

Wrong, wrong and thrice wrong. The Roman empire stopped expanding long before ad 300. It never conquered the Ukrainian steppes. Rome did interact with the Sarmatians, but the circumstances were rather different. The Sarmatians concerned had moved from the steppes to living just beyond the Danube, next to the Roman frontier. The emperor Marcus Aurelius tried to conquer them in the 170s ad, but had to abandon the attempt, due to a crisis elsewhere in the empire. As part of a quick peace deal, the Sarmatians provided eight thousand cavalry, five thousand, five hundred of which were sent to Britain. This seems to have been a one-off deal. Rome did not maintain dominion in the area - indeed, several later emperors had to fight further wars against the Danubian Sarmatians. There was still a Sarmatian unit in Britain at the end of the fourth century ad, but there's a strong possibility that by this time auxiliary units of the Roman empire recruited locally, rather than from the area in which they were originally raised. I'll get around to Artorius later.

The publicity for the film made a big thing of wanting to set Arthur in his real context, the aftermath of the Roman withdrawal from Britain. This is hardly a new idea, at least in terms of literature - Rosemary Sutcliff did it in the late 1950s and early 1960s in The Lantern Bearers and The Sword At Sunset, and Arthur of the Britons was a similarly-themed television series in 1972. Stephen Baxter has just done the same in his 2003 novel Coalescent. So what are we presented with in King Arthur?

The main action takes place in ad 467. Arthur is a Roman officer, Lucius Artorius Castus, but with a British mother (instantly presenting a division between conqueror and conquered that was probably irrelevant by the fifth century ad). Rome dominates Europe, but is pulling back from outlying provinces like Britain. Bishop Germanus has been sent to supervise the withdrawal.

But that isn't how it happened. Rome withdrew from Britain about a half-century before the film is set - the date is usually given as ad 410, and that's probably about right. And there was no formal withdrawal. Rather, the bulk of what legionary troops were left in the province were taken about ad 407 by Constantine III to support his (unsuccessful) bid for the imperial throne. Though the Britons subsequently offered to return to the fold, Rome never formally attempted to reassert direct rule, though trade and diplomatic connections remained (especially through the Church). This was because the western provinces, though formally still part of the empire, were by now composed of a mish-mash of areas still directly administered by Rome and barbarian kingdoms that only nominally acknowledged the emperor.

By ad 467 the situation was even worse. After the assassination of Valentinian III in ad 455, the western empire rapidly fell to puppet rulers appointed by Germanic warlords, seeking recognition from the eastern empire in Constantinople (which in the film never gets a mention). The western emperor's authority barely extended beyond Italy.

Bishop Germanus was real, and did really visit Britain, first in the late 420s ad. But by ad 467 he'd been dead for perhaps as much as twenty years, or maybe more. He had come to Britain to fight the heresy of Pelagius, who also gets mentioned in the film, as the man who has inspired Arthur's views about equality for all (a distortion of what Pelagius' actual views appear to have been). In a scene cut from the theatrical release, but restored in the 'Director's Cut' DVD, the young Arthur is seen in conversation with Pelagius. This restores a bit of Pelagius' Christian context, which the movie had otherwise stripped him of, but this scene is supposed to be in ad 452, and Pelagius went to Rome in ad 380, so even if he were still alive (which he probably wasn't - he seems to have died about ad 420) he can't have been this healthy fifty-year old seen.

(An aside: The more I think about it, the more I see a disturbing anti-Catholic element in this film. It's not anti-Christian; though Pelagius is largely stripped of his religious context - more so, as noted, in the theatrical release than in the Director's Cut - Arthur remains a good Christian. But Germanus dresses like a Catholic bishop - originally he was meant to be an anachronistic Cardinal, which makes it even more obvious; he is overtly Italian, as are other characters closely associated with the Church authorities; they're all clearly more interested in power and politics than in saving souls; the impression is given that the Pope is head of the Roman empire - no mention is made of an emperor; and there's even a mini-Inquisition going on. I'm quite surprised there hasn't been a hoo-hah about this, as this film is more anti-Catholic than The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic.)

Much of the historical action, therefore, has been placed decades later than when it belongs. On the other hand, the climactic battle is named as being Badon Hill. Badon Hill was a historical battle, that we know took place no earlier than ad 490, and probably no later than ad 515. That event has been brought forward.

So why has the film chosen ad 467 as its date? No idea. It might be connected with a British leader, Riothamus, who led a force into Gaul in the 470s ad at the request of the western emperor Anthemius, and who has been advanced as another possible 'real' Arthur. But no mention of the name Riothamus is made.

The film is full of other inaccuracies and anachronisms. The troops are all in recognizable Roman uniforms. Unfortunately, what most of us think of as Roman uniforms date to the first and second centuries ad. By the fifth century, uniforms and equipment were very different, and more like what we think of mediaeval soldiers wearing.

Arthur and his knights are ordered to rescue a Roman family (headed by poor Ken Stott, required to speak in a stupid Chico Marx-style Italian accent that makes you expect him to start singing the joys of Italian ice cream at any moment) living in a villa north of Hadrian's Wall. But there weren't villas north of the Wall. In any case, most villa owners came from the same Celtic élites that had always been the landowners. There wasn't much Italian settlement of this kind. This villa is just an excuse for an expedition into Injun territory - King Arthur as Western again. As I note above, Franzoni has said that his idea was 'King Arthur as The Wild Bunch', but I think he's just using Peckinpah's film as generic code for 'western', because that certainly isn't the film he's written. What he's actually imitating is the John Ford cavalry western - King Arthur as She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.* That's why there's a villa beyond the Wall – it's transferring the conditions of the American frontier in the 1870s to late Roman Britain.[3]

And the Saxons attack from north of Hadrian's Wall. Again, nonsense. The Saxons had light boats, not capable of long sea journeys. So they started landing at Kent, and then spread out from there. They crossed the Wall northwards into Scotland, not the other way round. (And I'm not going to mention crossbows!) There were threats to late Roman and post-Roman Britain from north of the Wall, but they were not Saxons.

Also, if you're going to give the characters names from the Arthurian legend, why select Lancelot, almost certainly a mediaeval French invention? Why not Kay, or Bedivere, who are associated much earlier with the Arthurian cycle? The answer, of course, has more to do with providing Hollywood entertainment than any desire for accuracy.

And what's all this with the 'Woads'? Why not call them 'Picts', since that's who they are? Perhaps to pretend that the Picts and the Britons are the same, something further implied with Guinevere's impersonation of Boudicca - again, the situation was rather more complex than that. But, of course, the film falls into standard Hollywood epic cliché. Rome is the evil empire, enslaving the subject races of other lands. The native Britons are freedom-loving, and 'want their country back'. This depiction of as oppressor can be seen in many Hollywood films, but its presence here further undermines King Arthur's claims to historicity. As for Guinevere as a warrior woman, whilst Keira Knightley asserts in a documentary that accompanies the DVD that "it's a historical fact that women fought the same as men", the reality is a lot more complicated than that. For a start, this is usually asserted for the Celto-British tribes at the time of the Roman invasion. The conditions that apply in pre-Roman Britain don't necessarily apply in early Pictish Scotland, though it suits the film's ideology, which sees the Picts as part of a continuing Celtic resistance against Rome, to assume that they do.

Then, it has to be pointed out that the ideas about the British warrior woman come from a few reference in Roman historians writing about the Boudiccan revolt, exaggerated by the baroque notions of seventeenth and eighteenth-century antiquarians. Yes, there are references to women amongst the ranks, and of course Boudicca herself. But one thing that has to be remembered is that Roman historians (and, indeed, the antiquarians) are portraying these non-Roman cultures as transgressing cultural norms. So just because Roman historians write of warrior women, it doesn't necessarily follow that they really existed. More evidence from the archaeological side is needed before we could necessarily believe the Roman reports.

Even if we do accept that there were women amongst the ranks of Celtic troops, we don't know what their actual role was, and we can't say for sure that they actually undertook any fighting. So, asserting that it's a historical fact that Celtic women fought on the same level as men is at the very least an over-simplification. Of course, all the Keira fighting stuff has nothing to do with any desire to be historical anyway - it's all about trying to capture the Buffy/Xena market.

Still, the film's historical consultants are keen to defend it.[4] 'The story created by Franzoni is fiction, but, as with all good historical fiction, it draws heavily on historical facts,' says Linda A. Malcor. However, good historical fiction tries to fit its narrative around what is known. It doesn't create an entirely false historical background against which to set its story.

At the basis of the film's portrayal of Arthur is the theory that identifies the 'original' Arthur as Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman commander named in a pair of inscriptions from Dalmatia (ILS 2770). This Artorius, so the theory goes, was the leader of the Sarmatian cavalry forces, and he and they distinguished themselves in fighting around Hadrian's Wall, when Pictish barbarians invaded in the reign of Commodus. This theory has been expounded by Malcor, among others.[5]

Malcor's article detailing the biography of Lucius Artorius Castus and his connection with the Sarmatians, is, I have to say, one of the poorest examples of 'scholarship' it's been my misfortune to read. She submits that Artorius commanded the Sarmatians in Britain in the late second century. She does this because ... well, she doesn't really bother telling the reader that. As far as I can tell, the reason for believing this is that Artorius served on the Danube frontier, and was probably involved in dealing with the Sarmatians there. Yet if you look at what she says about his earlier career, she argues that he must have got to know the Sarmatians when he was on the Danube, because we know he later took command of them! Can we say 'circular argument', children? Her whole piece is like this. Important assertions are made without evidence. Hypotheses become 'facts', upon which further hypotheses are built, which in their own turn become 'facts'.

To be fair to Malcor (fairer, perhaps, than she deserves), I don't think she's the first to come up with the association of Artorius Castus and the Sarmatians. It may well be in Peter Turner's The Real King Arthur (1993), who certainly argues that the 'real' Arthur was a descendant of Artorius Castus - though given that the latter went back to Dalmatia on retirement it seems implausible that his descendants returned to Britain. The Sarmatian connection is possibly also in Tadeusz Sulimirski, The Sarmatians (1970). (I've seen neither of these works.) Artorius' command of the Sarmatians is now treated in popular accounts as if it were accepted fact, as is the idea that he and they performed spectacularly against a Pictish invasion in the late second century.

However, as far as I can make out, there is no direct evidence to link Artorius and the Sarmatians. We know that Artorius had served on the Danube frontier. We know that he later served in Britain, as praefectus of the VI Legion Valeria Victrix, though we don't know what precisely that entailed (possibly it meant he was third-in-command of the Legion). We know that he subsequently led infantry and cavalry contingents from Britain in a campaign in Armorica (modern Brittany and Normandy).** But we don't know whether Sarmatians were included in that force, though since we know there were Sarmatian cavalry in Britain at the time, it's likely. But even if they were, there were other cavalry units in Britain, so it's not likely that Sarmatians formed all of Artorius' cavalry force, and we know the cavalry wasn't the sole component anyway. There is nothing to suggest that Artorius had ever commanded the Sarmatians in Britain. There isn't even any firm evidence that the Sarmatians served on Hadrian's Wall (though it's likely that vexillations did) or that Artorius did (though he may well have at least visited it). Nor is there anything that associates either with the Pictish invasion, though as the Sarmatians were in Britain at the time, they no doubt got caught up in the fighting. But there's nothing to say that they distinguished themselves in it, and we don't even know that Artorius was in Britain at this point.

That, at least, is the conclusion from the evidence I have been able to trace - but writing on Arthurian matters has an annoying habit of vaguely stating "there is evidence that shows ..." and then not indicating what that evidence actually is, leaving one unable to determine if this is based on something one has overlooked, or simply overly hopeful inference based on the commonly available information. Publicity articles for King Arthur in Empire and elsewhere made mention of an inscription that names Arthur and supports the film's version of history. I've not been able to track down an epigraphic text that matches the publicity materials' description, and I can't tell if this is something new, or the Artorius inscription, or the Artognou inscription from Tintagel, overinterpreted to the point of no longer being recognizable.

Malcor's biography of Artorius, however plausible it might be, must therefore be considered fictitious. Hence it becomes unsafe to argue that Artorius must have formed the basis for Arthur, as Malcor goes on to do in a subsequent piece. This second article is equally circular in its logic, demonstrating that Artorius' life has parallels with Arthur's by reconstructing the Roman's biography from Arthurian sources! She even includes Badon in Artorius' battles, despite the fact that we know this battle took place in the post-Roman period. And I do wonder, if Artorius had such a glorious career, why is it that his name leaves no trace in the historical record, only being known from epigraphy.

This, in any case, is not Franzoni's Arthur. For the film, Artorius Castus is transported to a point two hundred and fifty years later. The explanation? Either the Sarmatian commander was traditionally called Artorius, or command of the Sarmatians passed from father to son (it is a measure of the sort of film we're dealing with that it never makes up its mind which of these options to choose).

Neither is at all plausible. The idea that images from Sarmatian culture and mythology have got into the developed mediaeval romance version of the Arthurian cycle is quite difficult to disprove, though my impression is that there is wishful thinking and overlooking of alternate explanations involved on the part of its proponents (and, as an online reviewer has pointed out, since these Sarmatian stories weren't written down until the nineteenth century, it is entirely possible that the images reminiscent of Sir Thomas Malory have actually come from Malory). The whole Sarmatian hypothesis remains just that, a hypothesis, however many parallels can be found. It cannot be supported by the historically-unsound association of Artorius Castus with the Sarmatians.

The film's other advisor, John Matthews, does not appear much better, at least in interviews done in connection with the film. He is quite convinced that 'Camelot' derives from Roman Camboglanna, despite the fact that the name doesn't appear in an Arthurian source before the twelfth century (people seeking for the 'real' Arthur sometimes seem to have a real problem with the notion that Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes or Malory might ever have made stuff up). Thus he places Arthur at the fort of Birdoswald, supporting the contention with the evidence (which is undeniable) that someone dominated the local area from the fort in post-Roman times. Now, I have no doubt that the sort of person who was in charge at Birdoswald in the post-Roman period contributed to the Arthur legend. But that's as far as one can go. Also, Matthews is seemingly unaware (or chooses not to accept) that, though it used to be thought that Birdoswald was called Camboglanna, modern scholarship believes the name was probably Banna, and assigns Camboglanna to the next fort westwards, Castlesteads. (Nor does he seem to care that the Sarmatians in Britain came from the Danube lands, and not the Ukraine or Georgia.)

The trouble with Malcor and Matthews is a problem with a lot of Arthurian writing (at least, that side of it which doesn't concentrate on the literary aspects of the legend's retellings). People write on the subject who have been gripped by the power of the legend, and want to believe. They desperately want to demonstrate that Arthur really lived, and where he operated, and that their theory will command respect where others have failed. As a result, people don't stop when the evidence does. Let's take another example, that of Riothamus mentioned above, whose continental expedition is sometimes thought to be the model for Geoffrey of Monmouth's tale of Arthur's war with Rome in Gaul. Riothamus, modern writers say, seems to have died on the way to a place called Avalon. Pretty intriguing, eh? Except that's not actually what the ancient source says. Here it is, Jordanes, writing in The Origins and Deeds of the Goths:

Euric, king of the Visigoths, came against them with an innumerable army, and after a long fight he routed Riothamus, king of the Britons, before the Romans could join him. So when he had lost a great part of his army, he fled with all the men he could gather together, and came to the Burgundians, a neighbouring tribe then allied to the Romans. But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized the Gallic city of Arverna for the Emperor Anthemius was now dead.


Now, first of all, there's nothing about Riothamus dying. We simply don't know his fate. Secondly, though one might note a similarity between the names Arverna (modern Clermont-Ferrand) and Avalon, this isn't indisputably where Riothamus is said to have been going, even though we know from a letter of Sidonius Apollinaris that Riothamus had diplomatic links with the city. It was Euric the Visigoth who actually went there. Riothamus was off to the Burgundians, who admittedly lived not far to the east of Arverna; but it is wishful thinking to state that the source definitely shows Riothamus heading for Arverna/Avalon.

In the end, the whole quest for the historical Arthur, which informs the movie's claims to authenticity, may well be a wild goose chase. It's entirely possible that one of the many post-Roman British warlords was called Arthur. But Arthur is absent from the account of Gildas, who lived when Arthur is supposed to, and indeed from the Venerable Bede, and this is not trivial.

I don't think I'd go as far as saying Gildas proves that there wasn't a historical Arthur. For a start, I think Gildas has been misread. Gildas is usually taken as saying that Ambrosius Aurelianus, not Arthur, was victor at Badon. Since there's some suggestion in other sources that Ambrosius opposed Vortigern, probably in the late 440s ad, the idea that he was also victor at Badon c. 500 ad has resulted in Ambrosius Aurelianus' history being more confused than it need be. This being arguably too long a period for the activities of a single individual, it has lead to a hypothesis of an older Ambrosius and a younger one, to cover his whole career. But, contrary to what most books state, Gildas does not say that Ambrosius was the victor of Badon. He states that Ambrosius emerged as British war leader, and stiffened resistance to the Saxons. After this, Gildas foes on to state, there were a series of wars, that culminated in Badon. It's an understandable inference from that to associate Badon and Ambrosius, but unsound in such a compressed and idiosyncratic account as Gildas.

But I do think that Arthur's absence from Gildas' account shows that, if he did exist, he certainly wasn't as important as later tradition makes him out to be. If there was there was an 'Arthur', i.e. a heroic British/Romano-British leader who was successful against the Saxons. Perhaps he was indeed, as later tradition has it, the leader at Badon, which is after all one of the two battles earliest associated with Arthur (the other being Camlann), and the only one we know for certain took place. Maybe he was not significant enough for Gildas to mention, but grew in fame as the story was retold. But there's no agreement even of where the name came from. 'Art-' isn't that common a start to a Roman name, so there may not be a mass of Roman 'Arthurs'. But it's also been suggested that the name has Celtic roots. To those searching for the One True Arthur, of course, the name must be either Roman or Celtic, but I suspect both roots may contribute to the legend.

But we will never know for sure. By the time he appears in records, the historical Arthur, if he ever existed, has already developed beyond recognition. There is an obscure reference to Arthur, saying that someone 'was no Arthur', in a Welsh poem Y Gododdin, which perhaps originally dates from c. AD 600. But this may be a tenth-century interpolation into the text. On the other hand, it may be evidence that Arthur began as a Welsh mythical hero - 'he was no Arthur' could be the equivalent of 'he was no Hercules'. (Or it may simply be an adjective meaning 'bear-like'.)

In any case, this figure has already accrued to himself the actions of many other Dark Age warlords, such as the shadowy but undoubtedly historical Ambrosius Aurelianus, or indeed Riothamus. Perhaps, as has been suggested, the British usurper emperor Magnus Maximus, who seems to have strengthened Britain's defences against the Saxons, went into the mix (possibly when Geoffrey was writing), and maybe even (though personally I doubt it) Lucius Artorius Castus. But beyond all the historical figures, the Arthur we know has also been touched with Irish and Welsh legend, and Celtic Iron Age and perhaps even Bronze Age practices. Maybe some Sarmatian stories did get in there.

But it's silly to suggest that Cumbria, or Wales, or the south-west, is the setting for Arthur - all will have made their contribution to the evolving legend. In the end, the Arthur who unites the Britons in the wake of the collapse of Roman control is just as much a literary construct as the chivalric Arthur of the mediaeval romances. Possibly a historical figure called Arthur stands behind the legend, which certainly incorporates some elements drawn from the reality of post-Roman Britain (as Guy de la Bédoyère says in Francis Pryor’s Britain A.D. television series). Whether or not there was a historical Arthur in some ways isn't the point, and in any case is a question that cannot be answered. All we can do is to trace the evolution of the legend. We may be able to take that back some way, but never quite far enough. Like the Questing Beast that King Pellinore forever chases but never catches, the 'real' Arthur is forever just beyond our reach.

Somebody asked me if, given all this, I had a favourite modern version of the Arthur myth. 'Yes,' I replied. 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail.'





[1] The Arthurian scholarship I'm having a go at is that seeking for the historical Arthur. I have no problem with literary Arthurian scholarship that concentrates on the stories as stories.

[2] In an article by Kate McCallum, 'The Great Idea: The Historical Epic Feature and the Creation and making of King Arthur', in Scr(i)pt 10.4 (July/August 2004), pp. 32-35, Franzoni explains the rationale behind his version of the Arthurian legend. Unfortunately, anti-Britishness colours Franzoni's responses to criticism.

[3] Bruckheimer and Fuqua, in the meantime, seem to have wanted to remake The Lord of the Rings, to judge from the lingering aerial scenery shots, etc.

[4] See this BBC news report: 'King Arthur film history defended'.

[5] 'Lucius Artorius Castus. Part 1: An Officer and an Equestrian', The Heroic Age, Issue 1, Spring/Summer 1999; 'Lucius Artorius Castus. Part 2: The Battles in Britain', The Heroic Age, Issue 2, Autumn/Winter 1999.

* Later note: It's been mentioned elsewhere that the expedition north of the Wall has similarities to the plot of Fuqua's previous film, Tears of the Sun. So it may be that film at this point isn't representing Franzoni's original screenplay, but a subsequent rewrite drawing on Tears.

** Later note: The Latin description of this command is duci leg cohortium alarum Britaniciniarum. Malcor translates this as "dux of the legions of cohorts of cavalry from Britain", but that cannot be correct. Ala is not the word for cavalry, but for a cavalry unit, equvalent to 'cohort'. So the genetive alarum cannot depend upon cohortium, since alae were not organized into cohorts, but upon duci, indicating that Artorius was "dux of cohorts [and] of alae", i.e. led a mixed infantry and cavalry force. The abbreviaton leg probably indicates that the cohorts were drawn from the legions rather than being auxiliary units.

The Romans are still relevant

I'm not particularly a fan of the work of Tracey Emin. I'd like to think that (these days) I'm open-minded enough not to be among those who shout "How dare this be considered art?" But her stuff has never really grabbed me particularly, and she seemed as talented at self-publicity as at art.

Now, she's done her first piece of public art.



Roman Standard is a small bronze bird (of indeterminate species, but not, as some have unkindly dubbed it, a 'sparrow'), on top of a four-metre bronze pole. The whole is set in front of the Oratory in Liverpool, next to the Anglican Cathedral.



And actually, I rather like it. It's subtle and understated, and is appropriate to its surroundings. By recalling both the Roman empire and Liverpool's neo-classical past, it displays a sense of history I wasn't aware Emin possessed. It also quietly subverts its paradigm, by replacing the martial eagle one would usually find on top of a Roman legionary standard with the much less aggressive bird of her selection. I shall certainly go and look for it the next time I'm in Liverpool (assuming it hasn't been vandalized by then). The Daily Mail (the Voice of Ignorance), of course, hates it.

One point of interest: In interview, Emin said that she chose her subject to fit in with the 'Roman'-style of the Oratory. As it happens, when John Foster built the Oratory, originally as the Mortuary Chapel of St James' Cemetery, from 1826-1829, it was meant to be a Greek-style building, rather than Roman. Hence its architectural order is the plain Doric, rather than the more ornate Corinthian found on many Roman temples.



The ancient architectural orders: (l-r) Doric, Ionic, Corinthian.

However, like many Victorian buildings based on Greek temples, it does not have a colonnade all around, but instead the interior extends the full width of the building. This actually makes it look more Roman.



A typical Greek temple (the Parthenon at Athens). Note the colonnade surrounding the temple.



A typical Roman temple (the Maison Carree, Nimes). Note the exterior walls.


What I don't know, of course, is whether Emin doesn't know the difference, or felt that, despite the Grecian elements, it does look more Roman (and didn't want to confuse people who might be watching the programme). It could well be the latter - she's rather more clever than she often lets on.

(Click on the photos for sources and more information.)

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Today Wilhelm Grimm was born

I'm a member of the Ancient & Medieval History Book Club. This morning I got a delivery from them. Sometimes I do forget to say 'no' to the Editor's Choice, but I was fairly sure I'd rejected the most recent one. Yet here was a copy of the Chambers Book of Days. Bugger, have to return that, I thought. Or maybe I'll keep it. And then I found from the note that it was a free gift, for sticking with the club while they had problems with their distribution. So I will keep it.

And now I know that on the day of my birth the Elizabethan financier and philanthropist Sir Thomas Gresham, who gave us Gresham Street in the City of London, died. Expect more dull information like this.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Argh!

There's nothing essentially wrong with What the Ancients Did for Us, but I wish someone had told junior presenter Jamie Darling how to pronounce the name of the first imperial dynasty of China, the Qin. It's chin, not kwin, from which we get 'China' (probably). In the old system of transliteration of Chinese, that in which Beijing was rendered Peking,* it was spelt Tsin. I'm rather concerned that this might have been down to some idiot producer who thought it might confuse an audience to show a letter q on screen and pronounce it ch. However, since the caption to the on-screen map talked about the Qing dynasty, which is the name of the last imperial dynasty of China, it's probably just poor research.

* If you thought that the capital of China changed its name at some point in the 1980s, well, it didn't. What changed was the way the Chinese characters are rendered into the Latin alphabet.

Jason and the Argonauts

The third of Michael Wood's In Search of Myths and Heroes series (which I talked about before in this post) turned to the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts, and the quest for the Golden Fleece.

With the Jason tale, Wood is able to follow a legendary journey, rather than, as he did with the Sheba myth, following the different versions around the Middle East. However, in retrospect, one of the things he could do with Sheba was disentangle the different traditions by visiting the geographical areas from which they originated. That's a lot harder to do with Jason, and really beyond what can be achieved in a hour-long television programme (Wood does a bit better in his accompanying online article). The Jason legend had been told and retold for half a millennium or so before anyone wrote it down, and was then continually modified by each writer after that - the two main narratives Wood uses are Apollonius Rhodius, from the third century BC, and Valerius Flaccus from the first century AD.

Perhaps this is best illustrated in the composition of the Argonauts. As Wood notes, just about every hero of Greek legend turns up in the crew of the Argo; Orpheus, Atalanta, Theseus in some accounts, and of course, Heracles (Hercules). It's a fair bet that this wasn't the original form of the legend. Robert Graves, in The Greek Myths, suggests that this is down to every city-state in Greece having to have its own representative amongst the crew, and that's no doubt part of it. But another factor is surely the natural tendency of storytellers to have the characters from one story meet characters from another. Just think of all those stories in which Sherlock Holmes hunts Jack the Ripper, or (to cite a recent Hugo-winning short story) gets involved in the Cthulhu mythos, or the teaming up of previously unconnected superheroes that started in the 1940s with the Justice Society of America. Kim Newman has made a career of writing such stories. So, what I'm saying is that the Argonauts were transformed into a sort of ancient Greek League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Some of them are really only in there for the sake of it - Atalanta does nothing much in the story bar be the only female crew member.

In a programme broadcast last summer (Greek Gods and Goddesses: Jason and the Argonauts), to coincide with the Athens Olympics, the Jason myth was examined by a number of scholars. A key part of the tack taken by the programme was to read the story as a rite-of-passage allegory. In this reading, Heracles is the older man who becomes mentor the younger Jason, but who cannot be there at the final test, which Jason must face alone. Now there's probably something in this - that the story has a rite-of-passage theme from the very start seems plausible, and I can believe that later storytellers did choose to use the relationship between Heracles and Jason in that way. However, this needs to be set against the probability that Heracles does not belong in the original legend. The main reason Heracles has to be removed quickly is that otherwise Heracles, the strongest hero in Greek myth, will take over the whole tale, which is meant to be Jason's story - indeed, there are some versions of the legend in which this is exactly what happens. Hence the Hylas story, to take Heracles offstage.

(For those who aren't familiar with it, Hylas, Heracles' young companion - and eromenos, 'beloved', to Heracles' erastes, 'lover' - is taken by nymphs; there's a magnificent Waterhouse painting of the event shown below. While Heracles is searching for the boy, the Argo departs on a favourable wind. In the 1963 film, Heracles decides to leave the crew of his own volition. The Greeks legends are less cosy - Heracles is abandoned, knowingly or unknowingly, sometimes under divine instruction that he is not fated to complete the quest.)

Hylas and the Nymphs

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), 'Hylas and the Nymphs' (1896).

There is also cross-pollination with the Odyssey. So, Jason's voyage also features an encounter with the Sirens, this time defeated by Orpheus outsinging them, rather than everyone stopping up their ears. It's notable that this incident belongs to the return part of the voyage, which suggests to me that this too is a late addition. Dramatically, Jason's story climaxes with the taking of the Fleece and the escape from Colchis. At that point, the story needs to move as quickly as possible to the resolution of Jason's being deprived of his rightful throne in Iolcos by his wicked uncle Pelias. (The 1963 movie doesn't even bother with that, and ends after Jason has the Fleece, leaving unresolved the Pelias plotline with which it begins.) Thus the return journey should be completed without serious incident. But it looks as if later, less talented, storytellers felt that, logically, the journey home should have as many incidents as that out. Still, the return does give us the episode with the bronze giant Talos, an episode which, sensibly moved to the journey to Colchis, forms one of the most memorable sequences of the 1963 film.

Wood rightly noted the dark conclusion of Jason's tale - the murder of Pelias, the flight to Corinth, and Medea's slaying of their children. For some reason, however, he leaves out Medea's first crime - the dismemberment of her own brother Apsyrtus to delay her pursuing father Aeetes, who stops to pick the pieces out of the sea.

The Golden Fleece

Herbert Draper (1863-1920), 'The Golden Fleece' (1904).

In general, this series continues to be slightly below par Wood, and he doesn't seem as enthusiastic as he has before. Perhaps it's that the choice of subjects is not his own - they certainly seem a fairly predictable selection. Or maybe having to fit everything worth saying on each into sixty minutes is too much of a strain.

(Click on the photos for sources and more information.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

"No he didn't! He made it up!"

I shouted this at the television a lot yesterday.

I was watching a programme on The History Channel about Atlantis. It was trying to be quite sensible about the whole thing, but managed to blow it from the very beginning. The legend of Atlantis, we were told, is first found in the works of Plato, who, many years after the event, recorded a dinner party he had, as a boy, sneaked into, in which the story was told by his uncle (actually his mother's cousin) Critias.

Well, no. This over-literal reading of the two Platonic dialogues, the Timaeus and Critias, is one of the things that has bedevilled writings on Atlantis for centuries. Though these dialogues, written perhaps in the 350s BC or may be a little earlier, purport to record a dinner party that, given the attendees, must have taken place in Plato's childhood, in the 420s BC, Plato never says that they are an eyewitness report, and you don't have to read much to realize that the detailed and philosophically-complicated conversation cannot possibly represent Plato's seventy-year-old memories. The dialogues, as with almost all of Plato's work, are dramatic fictions to allow Plato to explore and explain his philosophical ideas. The most likely conclusion to be drawn is that Atlantis is a myth Plato invented to make a philosophic point, a device he used elsewhere.

Even if he didn't invent the tale, and it was recounted by his cousin, there's no real reason to believe that Critias didn't invent the story. He claims that the story was told by Egyptian priest to the Athenian statesman Solon, who lived in the early sixth century BC. Yet no trace of the story is to be found in Greek literature between Solon's time and Plato's. The attachment of Solon's name to the legend is merely to give it authority. And even if the story does go back to Solon, it could well have been made by him for some political purpose, or made up by the Egyptian priests. The automatic assumption that Plato's account is a historical document of any sort is simply unfounded and untenable. There really is no reason to search for the 'true' Atlantis, either in some non-existent worldwide civilization previously unknown to science, or in Minoan Crete, or Thera, or Troy, or Helike, or to see any specific historical resonances beyond an understanding of what destruction earthquakes could wreak.

Unfortunately, many people seem unable to distinguish between the factual and the fictional. It's the same thing that sends people in search of a historical precedent for every single detail of the Arthurian romances, or treats the Book of Genesis as a literal account of the creation of the planet, or probably thinks that Sherlock Holmes was a real person.


Multimedia radio

They just did something very interesting on Radio 4's Front Row. When about to discuss the new Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery, Mark Lawson told anyone listening on or near their computer to got the programme's website, where they would find a a gallery of painting from the exhibition. They didn't make too much use of being able to have some of the audience look at the pictures, because of course they have to work with the listeners who don't have their computers online. But it did add something to my enjoyment of the discussion. I liked it.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Lion

I've just been watching an old Doctor Who story from 1965, The Crusade. Well, I say 'watching', but in fact only two episodes exist as complete telecine recordings, and for episodes 2 and 4 only the audio soundtrack survives. Anyway, it's splendid. Julian Glover is magnificent in the role which he was surely born to play, King Richard I. Forget Sean Connery (in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves) or Richard Harris (in Robin and Marian), Glover remains, for me, the definitive heroic Couer de Lion. He gives the sort of ambiguous, darkly heroic performance that Sean Bean later gives in The Lord of the Rings. On this basis, it's astonishing that nearly fifteen years went by before he was cast again - he would have worked marvellously with Jon Pertwee's Doctor. Of course, it's the very English Richard of legend, the neo-Arthur, rather than the historical Richard, a man who cared little for England save that it gave him a crown and let him talk to Philip II of France as an equal rather than a vassal. (Though it can be argued that England was the part of the large Angevin empire, which included half of France, that least warranted the attention of the king during Richard's reign.)

Glover has a marvellous Shakespearian script by David Whitaker to work with, some of it apparently in iambic pentameter. There are also fine performances by Jean Marsh as Richard's sister Joanna and Bernard Kay as Saladin. The Shakespearian nature of the whole production is emphasized by the way that the Arab characters are played by blacked-up English actors, something that would not be acceptable these days.

What this story demonstrates is one of the qualities that kept Doctor Who going through the 1960s and 1970s. No-one involved felt embarrassed about being involved in a children's show that was then only in its second year. Instead, they all treated it as if it was any other BBC costume drama, and applied the same standards. It was when people forgot this and started not to treat the whole thing seriously that the rot set in for Doctor Who.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

2005 King's Greek Play

Every year the students of King's College London put on a Greek play in the original language, since 1987 as part of the University of London Festival of Greek Drama. This year the play chosen was the Rhesus, a play that has come down to us amongst the works of Euripides, but is probably by an unknown author, and dates to the beginning of the fourth century BC. (The Internet Classics Archive translation linked to above dates it to c. 450 BC, which is where those who accept it as actually by Euripides date it, considering it an early work.) If the common assumptions are correct, then, as Nick Lowe said in his pre-performance talk, Rhesus represents the only surviving tragedy not by the 'big three' playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the latest tragedy we have, and therefore our best evidence for how tragedy developed in the fourth century. It is also the only play that survives that dramatizes any part of Homer's Iliad, though, just as the Iliad only presents one incident from the Trojan War, so the Rhesus only presents one incident from the Iliad. The play is, however, little studied, and the last performance in the UK was apparently in 1968. I'd never read it before, even in English.

My first thought was how modern the play seems. Partly that was probably the staging, but not entirely. As the programme observes, it's really quite fast-paced. Greek tragedy is magnificent literature, with a huge emotional range and resonances that still touch us to day, but sometimes, it can really drag. Your bum starts to wriggle under the impact of a long choral ode, or an operatic aria by some Greek hero. (The worst offender is the longest play in the tragic corpus, Euripides' Phoenician Women, wherein he tries to do Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes and Sophocles' Antigone and Oedipus Rex all at once - it too isn't performed often, though it was considered one of his best in antiquity.)

Rhesus isn't like that at all. Everything moves quickly, and serves the functions of the plot. The Choruses are pretty short, and no scene outstays its welcome. Moreover, some of the devices that seem to a modern audience most artificial are played down in Rhesus. In other plays the Chorus is often either neutral or powerless - in Rhesus they are active participants on the side of the Trojan prince Hector, and indeed must depart off the stage for a short while, to avoid hearing information that for plot reasons they must not have. The deus ex machina at the end is also played down, and does not, as it often does in Euripides' plays, resolve an otherwise unresolvable conflict between the way the plot is heading and what the audience knows to be the outcome of the story (e.g. Euripides' Orestes; until the arrival of the god Apollo, that play can only end in an almighty bloodbath). In Rhesus, when the Muse Terpsichore, mother of the murdered Thracian prince Rhesus, arrives on stage, she tells the participants what (as Hector comments at the time) they already have guessed, that Rhesus' death was accomplished by Odysseus, not Hector. The only person who doesn't believe this, Rhesus' charioteer, has already left the stage. Elsewhere, the goddess Athena appears as a participant in the action.

It's also notable that the play centres itself around two actors in dialogue - there's only one short scene that requires three on stage at the same time, though some of the costume changes that are required can't be accomplished with only two actors. (For those who don't know, Greek tragedy was written around a small number of masked actors, each playing several roles, originally just one, then two, and finally three. Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus has a short scene at the end which requires four, and is therefore sometime thought suspect, but since people were already experimenting with 'guest' solo singers and extra Choruses, and comedy was already using a fourth actor, I prefer to think of this as another experiment.)

Overall, Rhesus appears to me to indicate a move away from tragedy as ritual civic act towards tragedy as entertainment. Of course, it's enormously unwise to generalize about all of fourth-century tragedy on the basis of a single play, just as it's probably unwise to judge Greek tragedy on the basis of the fairly small percentage of plays that survive.

Enough of the play, what about the production? As I said, it is given a modern staging, by people in modern military dress, with the stage occupied by a small Balkan hut. The wars of the former Yugoslavia still cast a long shadow over modern productions. This approach leads to the most harrowing messenger scene I've ever witnessed, as the bloodied charioteer crawls on stage and proceeds to vomit blood.

At the centre of the King's version are two excellent performances, by Paris Erotokritou as Hector, and Joseph Matlak as the Chorus Leader. Both of these believe in the reality of what they are doing, and are committed to the illusion. Rather too many of the other actors look as if they are in a play. Erotokritou also is (obviously) Greek himself, and so speaks the ancient version of his language with a natural flow that carries conviction. Some of the English actors sounded uncertain of the dialogue, and occasionally stumbled.

There were some good performances amongst the other cast members. Joseph Malcomson as Odysseus and Mike Stephens as Diomedes are worth noting. Also, Lucy Robinson as Athena skillfully conveyed the goddess' transformation into Aphrodite simply through body language. (Though the following scene with Paris is rather pointless, and is just a way of passing the time while Odysseus and Diomedes are offstage killing Rhesus and the Thracians.)

There are some interesting casting and costuming decisions. Rhesus makes his brief appearance (another notable point of the play is how little the character who give it its name is on stage) dressed as a louche Mediterranean gangster, whilst the hapless Trojan spy Dolon is played by a woman. Though both seem rather odd, I suspect the point is to suggest that both characters are out of their depth, and punching above their weight in comparison to the professional soldier Hector. But even Hector deludes himself into thinking that the Trojans can defeat the Greeks.

This is the first time I'd seen a King's Greek Play since they started using English surtitles. Though some might feel this is a step towards barbarism, I think it makes it easier for those without a very thorough familiarity with the play to keep up with the action, and I certainly would have been lost without it. On the other hand, the short film in English dramatizing the events of Iliad Book 10, meant to give the audience an idea of the background to the play, didn't work so well. A confusion of voices that did not always match what one saw on screen made the whole thing hard to follow, though I could see what they were trying to do, and it did become a little more coherent towards the end.

Overall, this production has its good moments, but is not quite as successful as it might be. However, all involved are to be commended for the bold, imaginative choice of play, and for giving what may be the only opportunity I will ever have to see Rhesus on stage. I hope it's not, though, as the point most convincingly carried over by this production is that Rhesus has been unjustly neglected, and deserves a more prominent place in the Greek tragic repertoire. When there is a tendency to reduce the corpus to the Oresteia, Oedipus Rex and Medea (yes, I know that's an exaggeration, but sometimes is seems like that), we need more imaginative choices of material like this.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Mercury in the 20th Century

I've just finished reading Marvel Visionaries: Jack Kirby. This is a collection of the best work done for Marvel Comics for Kirby, one of the greatest artists of superhero comics from the last century, and the man at least 50% responsible for the Marvel style that proved so successful in the 1960s and 1970s, and which still makes a great deal of money today, mainly through movie spin-offs like X-Men and Spider-Man.

The story that I'm interested in for the purposes of this blog is Mercury in the 20th Century, Kirby's first work for Timely, the company that would later become Marvel, from 1940. In this, Jupiter sends Mercury to Earth to stop the wars that are taking over the world, wars prompted by the machinations of the evil Pluto, god of the dead (who is depicted in satanic guise). This was a single eight-page strip that was never picked up again. But it shows Kirby working with the anti-Nazism that would fuel the more famous Captain America, created with his partner Joe Simon the year after. It is, however, notable that, like Charlie Chaplin in the same year's The Great Dictator, he gives Hitler a pseudonym (though unlike Chaplin, not a funny one). It quite obviously is Hitler, but perhaps it was felt in 1940 too risky to directly suggest that the Fuhrer was actually Pluto in disguise. By the time of Captain America No. 1 seven months later, Simon, Kirby and their publishers had no such qualms about attacking Hitler by name - but by then it was obvious that Hitler was not going to win the European war in the immediate future, and increasingly obvious to many that America would soon have to join in against Germany.

What is more interesting is that the Mercury strip also has themes that would recur over twenty years later in The Mighty Thor, a strip in which the Norse God of Thunder becomes a superhero, themes that include the father-son relationship between the divine hero and the chief deity, and the chief villain being another god (in Mercury, Pluto, in Thor, Loki). In Origins of Marvel Comics, Kirby's collaborator in the 1960s, Stan Lee, gives an account of Thor's origins that makes it all his idea, and implies that this was the first time a mythological deity had become a superhero. This is disingenuous on a couple of counts. Firstly, Lee himself had been involved in writing a superheroic version of the goddess Venus in the late 1940s, and had written a story where she confronted the Norse god Loki.

Secondly, though Lee has always presented the classic Marvel characters such as the Fantastic Four and the Hulk as emerging straight from his own head, and then farmed out to appropriate artists, it is now generally accepted by most critics that on those titles created by Lee and Kirby, the ideas were at least 50% Kirby - The Fantastic Four, for instance, derives many ideas from a strip Kirby wrote and drew for rival publisher DC, The Challengers of the Unknown. (Kirby himself claimed that Lee was merely an administrator and had no creative input to the stories, a claim I feel goes too far and denies Lee credit he deserves.) I have always suspected that of all the Lee/Kirby creations from the sixties, Thor, even more than the FF, is the one that is most Kirby and least Lee. This is because the mythological themes recur constantly in Kirby's work after his partnership with Lee ended. Most obviously this can be seen in the Fourth World saga (Mister Miracle, Forever People and New Gods) he created for DC in the early 1970s. But the themes are also in The Eternals, a series he created for Marvel in 1976, that in some ways was simply the New Gods played at a different speed, but also riffs off Greek and Meso-American mythology, work Kirby was doing at the same time in a comic based on Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and his sixties work in Thor and the Galactus stories from FF. It strengthens my opinion to find that Kirby was playing with mythology as early as 1940.

There are also similarities with the way the Roman gods are depicted in Wonder Woman, another strip that blended anti-Nazism with classical mythology. It would be interesting to know if William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman's creator, was aware of this strip - he was certainly aware of Captain America.

Finally, I just want to share this image with you.



Jupiter is running through all the gods,wondering who he can send to oppose Pluto, rejecting them all for one reason or another. At his side is Minerva, goddess of wisdom and war, wielder of the aegis, who brought the matter up in the first place - and I like to imagine she is thinking, "pick me, you silver-haired ninny!"

Michael Wood: In Search of Myths and Heroes

Michael Wood (who went to the same school as me, though some years earlier) has made some very good history programmes in his time. I hold him up as being the classic example proving that it is possible to make history television that is not over-simplified, inaccurate, or plain moronic (yes, that would be Time Commanders). In fairness, he has made some awful programmes as well - I have bad memories of Art of the Western World. However, there he made the mistake of being the mouthpiece for other people's words, rather than writing it himself, a mistake he has rarely made since.

Sadly, the first episode of In Search of Myths and Heroes, 'The Queen of Sheba', is not Wood at his best. It's not that it's bad history - I don't know the evidence for Sheba well, but nothing in the programme made me scream at the television. But there is a certain sense that they weren't sure what they were trying to do with this programme. Most of Wood's earlier television has been either history (e.g. In Search of the Trojan War, Domesday) or travelogue (e.g. his contribution to Great Railway Journeys of the World). 'The Queen of Sheba' tries to be both, a trick Wood previously pulled off successfully in In The Footsteps Of Alexander The Great. But it worked there because Wood was following someone else's journey. In 'The Queen of Sheba', Wood is following an artificial trail of the evidence, so the balance is not right.

But also there's just some quality missing that's been there in earlier programmes. I sense Wood's no longer quite as enthusiastic as he once was, perhaps feeling that he's a bit old these days for jumping in a Land Rover and zooming across the desert at the drop of a hat.

However, there was one fine moment at the end where he visited the evocative ruins of the mud-brick city of Marib, where for once one didn't feel that he was visiting locations that we've seen time and again in tv archaeology programmes, but was breaking genuinely new ground. And the article Wood writes on the website on Sheba is actually rather better than the programme.

Interestingly, one of the remaining three programmes will be on King Arthur, a subject Wood has already covered nearly a quarter of a century ago, in the original In Search of ... series. Rereading his chapter on Arthur from In Search of the Dark Ages, as I did last summer (the King Arthur film set me off in a brief flurry of Arthurian scholarship, in order to disprove to my own satisfaction the nonsense that was being spouted around it), I was struck by how dated it was. The concerns of people looking for the historical Arthur in 1981 are quite different from those they have in 2004. Not that there's any new evidence turned up, but fresh theory after fresh theory has poured out of word-processors across the world. It will be interesting to see if and how Wood deals with the (to my mind untenable) theory that Arthur's exploits are based on a Roman commander and his Sarmatian Knights in the second century AD.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Big Roman Dig - advance notice

Channel 4's Time Team is an archaeological programme that I broadly approve of. Between 26th June and 16th July they are conducting what they call the Big Roman Dig. You can find more details here - I shall be keeping an eye on this.

More on Alexander

My friend Joseph Nicholas brought to my attention Neil Faulkner's review of Alexander, in Current World Archaeology 9, pp. 48-50. Faulkner's a lot more enthusiastic about the film than I am, and has some interesting points to make (though the "very English" Christopher Plummer is actually Canadian). I'm not sure that he's right to interpret the film's message as apologia for (American) empire - that seems to me a reading that one can make, but unlikely to be what the director of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July intended, and certainly not one seen by many critics (otherwise they would not have panned the film so much in America). The problem is that Stone has tried so hard not to impose a message on the film, to let Alexander's story stand on its own merits. But I think Faulkner's exactly right to characterize much of the criticism of the film as 'bigoted or childish'. Certainly, from the moment that I first saw the negative reviews coming out of the US, I had a feeling that they weren't going to help me make my own mind up about the film.

Meanwhile, this story reveals how Alexander's legacy is still manipulated for modern political purposes. In India, the film has been cut by 25 minutes, and goes straight from Alexander's wounding in the battle against the elephants to his death, giving the impression that the Indian King Porus killed Alexander. Thus the film is transformed (without Stone's knowledge) into an Indian nationalist epic.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Alexander

A quarter of a century ago, Michael Cimino directed a film called Heaven's Gate. It was roundly condemned as being the worst film ever made. When I finally got to see it, I wondered if that was fair. It wasn't a great film, but it wasn't that bad. And I feel much the same about Oliver Stone's Alexander. The critics have savaged it, throwing around terms like 'camp classic', 'risible' and 'Stone's worst film'. It's a bit of a surprise, therefore, to enter the cinema and discover that it's all rather ordinary, and not really warranting the invective thrown at it. I would never claim that it was a great film, or even particularly good one, and certainly don't intend applying the term 'flawed masterpiece'. But is it really as bad as everyone says? As Philip French notes in The Observer, it's a better film than Robert Rossen's 1956 Alexander the Great. It is on a whole series of levels a more successful film than Antoine Fuqua's ludicrous King Arthur. And I find it difficult to believe that the mooted rival Alexander the Great, to have been directed by Baz Luhrmann and produced by Dino de Laurentiis, would have been better. A combination like that has 'gross excess' written all over it, in terms of camp Pontin's at Camber Sands to Stone's trailer tent with a Calorgas stove.

That Stone's film has flaws is undeniable. It is, for a start, too long, but that is not an uncommon fault amongst films these days. In fact, it doesn't drag too badly - Rossen's 1956 film seems slower, though it is actually an hour shorter, whilst Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, also an hour shorter, is far more tedious. But Stone's film is undeniably badly, and unevenly, edited, in what seems to have been a rushed effort to bring the film down from its original four hour length. Some points have been completely lost in this. The Irish accents sported by almost all the Macedonians (though Jonathan Rhys Meyers' Cassander evidently comes from that little-known part of Ireland called Swansea, whilst Gary Stretch as Cleitus reckons his native Liverpudlian is good enough) has been the source of much amusement from reviewers, and generally assumed to be to try to make them fit with Colin Farrell's native tones. But in fact Stone is trying to explain the relationship between the sophisticated Greeks and the Macedonians they despise as moronic country bumpkins, by characterizing it as similar to that between the English and the Irish. Except that there are almost no Greeks left in the film, so the point is lost.

Other points are beaten to death - subtlety has never really been Stone's strong point. Stone suggests through Rosario Dawson's appearance, accent and choice of jewellery that one of the reasons Alexander marries the Sogdian princess Roxane is because she reminds him of his mother Olympias. And then he makes the point again by having Olympias dictate a letter to her son telling him not to confuse her and Roxane. And then he makes the point again. Later in the film, he establishes through looks that Alexander's companions have conspired to poison him - and then rams the point home in dialogue five minutes further on.

There are occasional flashes of subtlety. In a single look, a brief moment of shock at an unexpected event, Stone exonerates Olympias of complicity in the murder of her husband Philip of Macedon. But these are rare.

It probably does the film no harm that Colin Farrell coincidentally looks a bit like Brad Pitt in the role of Alexander's idol Achilles. Farrell's blond locks have come in for much mockery, and true enough his Rod Stewart barnet is not too convincing. But it looks better than Richard Burton's blonde Beatle wig in 1956, which I feel is the yardstick against which it should be measured. In fact, overall, Farrell does a better job at conveying some humanity in Alexander than Burton's humourless, overly Shakespearian performance. (I haven't seen William Shatner's 1968 TV performance, but I can't imagine it would be better.)

Some casting is wrong. Angelina Jolie, eleventh months older than Colin Farrell, is too young to be Olympias. Perhaps the fact that you expect them to be a romantic couple in a film underscores the Oedpial elements Stone wants to build up, but it means, like Glenn Close' Gertrude to Mel Gibson's Hamlet, you don't believe in the mother-son relationship. Someone like Rene Russo, or at least of her generation, would have been better. And because Jolie is Stone's most bankable star (though how bankable she is after Tomb Raider 2 is open to question) means that she gets more screen time than Olympias' importance perhaps deserves - nor does it help that she spends much of that screen time fondling snakes as if she is a villain in a Bond movie. On the other hand, those who have followed Val Kilmer's career may be surprised to find that he's not completely rubbish.

Historically, the film tries hard to be as accurate as possible. Respectable classicists like Robin Lane Fox and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones are involved. Lane Fox's 1973 Alexander the Great was my introduction to the subject as well as Stone's, and one of the first works on Classics that I read. Though one of my university lecturers dismissed it as "pretentious", it remains, to my mind, the most readable, if not the most scholarly, book on Alexander.

Stone ensures that there great attention to detail in the uniforms and sets, again mocked by some critics as an overly grand gesture, but frankly I am quite glad that Alexander does not, as he does in the 1956 film, spend half the movie wearing a breastplate celebrating a Roman diplomatic coup of three hundred years later (that of the Prima Porta Augustus, celebrating the return of legionary standards by the Parthians). Stone does conflate (the battle of Gaugamela has elements of the earlier battles of Granicus and Issus), oversimplify (Alexander's Successors did not immediately set about dismantling his empire, but for over a decade fought for pre-eminence within an empire that they viewed as a unity), and re-arrange for better dramatic effect (Cleitus was killed before Alexander's marriage to Roxane, not after, and the Macedonian mutiny and refusal to march further east took place after the entry into India and the battle with Indian troops using elephants at the River Hydaspes). However, and this may surprise those who caricature me as a stuffy historian who resents all distortion of the facts, good history does not always make good movies. For a start, Alexander's biography is full of incidents - Lane Fox's book is 500 pages - and not easy to fit into three or even four hours. This sort of historical narrative often suits better a television mini-series - film needs to indulge in the compressions or distortions of a Gladiator or an Elizabeth to get a truly cinematic story. This is a problem that afflicts the 1956 film just as much - that film skips much of Alexander's time in the far east, partly because the story is already dragging, but partly because they probably could not find anywhere in Spain to stand in for the Indus valley. This doesn't mean that Stone's Alexander is incoherent - though I am so familiar with the story that I find it hard to put myself in the place of someone who knows next to nothing of Alexander's life story, which I think covers a lot of the audience for this film.

However, the further away from history Stone gets, the less sure his touch. My friend Tanya Brown commented on how the battle of Gaugamela works better than that later against the Indians. I think this is perhaps because for Gaugamela Stone sticks pretty closely to the historical script. But for the elephant battle, because he wants to incorporate Alexander's wounding, which happened later, and make more of the impact of the elephants, he departs from what actually happened at the River Hydaspes, where, instead of Stone's chaotic battle that the Macedonians barely survive, Alexander scored another decisive victory. The elephants, who were not unknown to Alexander, caused some distress amongst the phalanx, but soon the Macedonians had shot or skewered the mahouts, and the elephants became, as would often be the case, as much of a hazard to their own troops as to the enemy. Stone ends up using his elephants in a fashion that I suspect is only possible if they are computer generated.

Yet there are many good historical moments. Stone's script does try hard to get across points such as the importance of Darius' person in the war, a point the historical Alexander had probably learnt from Xenophon's Anabasis. We also get Alexander's understanding that he has not just conquered the Persian empire, but has become the new Great Persian King, and he must therefore act as the Great King, and no longer privilege his Macedonians - something his Macedonians, who saw themselves as conquerors and superior to the defeated Asians, never understood. And there is even a pun at the end which you will never get if you know no Greek. On his deathbed, Alexander is asked to whom he leaves his empire, he whispers something. "Did he say 'to the best'?" "I thought he said 'to Craterus.'" The pun is in that last bit. What Alexander is recorded as saying is that he left his empire to 'the strongest', kratistos. That is the superlative of the adjective kratos, 'strong'. The comparative is krateros. Which is also the name of one of Alexander's generals.

So why does everyone hate this film? I think there are a lot of reasons. For a start, the story of Alexander is not one that can be used to convey points about American independence and individualism in the face of oppressive foreign imperialism in the same way that the history of the Roman empire has so often been manipulated.

Then, the right wing in America has never liked Stone, because of films like Salvador, and doubtless they feel that circumstances are right to have a go at him. Some critics clearly resented the attempt to produce an epic that had a modicum of intelligence behind it, both the lowbrow critics that don't like (and can't cope with) their entertainment turning into history lessons, and the more highbrow ones who don't like spectacle, and particularly don't like uppity spectacle that tries to have ideas.

And of course, there's the homoeroticism. Stone doesn't try to hide this (though actually hard evidence on the nature of Alexander and Hephaistion's relationship is thin on the ground), but he doesn't make a fuss of it either. One might contrast this with Troy, which went out of its way in the script and in the publicity surrounding the film to deflect accusations of being a 'gay' film, yet is far more suffused with homoerotic imagery than Alexander. (There's much more to be said about this, but at another time.)

It's a shame that Stone is treated like this. He deserves more respect for the brilliant quintet of the mid to late '80s, Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio and Born on the Fourth of July. Instead, people remember his more recent films (even I've never been able to sit all the way through JFK), and he gets to watch all the awards go to Scorsese's over-rated The Aviator. Let's hope he gets a better reception for the Director's Cut DVD, when he may correct some of the mistakes made in the editing.

It's worth noting that Heaven's Gate now has a much improved reputation, with at least one critic calling it 'a superb achievement'. I doubt that critical opinion will reverse to that degree over Alexander - it's not that good a movie. But I do think it will be better thought of in future. (It is notable that, outside the US and the UK, it has apparently done financially quite well.) And let's hope it's not the end of Stone's career. His films at least show a degree of imagination, and there's not enough of that in Hollywood - when I saw Alexander the coming attractions were two remakes and a sequel to a remake.

Battlefield Britain on Boudicca

(This post was originally written last August, in response to the first programme in the BBC's Battlefield Britain series, on the revolt of Boudicca.)

Very pretty CGI, but my god! What a load of rubbish! Dreadful simplistic nonsense in which Britons were good, and terribly oppressed by the nasty nasty Romans. The fact that many of the elite of the British tribes had been happily buying into Roman culture for a century before Claudius' legions was ignored. All the time we were being told about the 'Britons' in their revolt, yet it was only two tribes in east Anglia and the Midlands. All the others stayed loyal to Rome. In fact, the idea of 'the Britons' was a Roman invention - the people living on the island certainly didn't think of themselves as a single nation. The peoples of Kent and Sussex didn't seem particularly incensed by what was happening to the Druids.

As for the Druids, the programme presented a picture of nasty Roman legionaries butchering defenceless old priests. The fact that the one source suggests that the Druids commanded strong military forces gets overlooked, as was the suggestion that they indulged in human sacrifice. They wouldn't do that, you see - too nice. The one atrocity of the Iceni that was mentioned was qualified as 'probably propaganda' - yet every tabloid sensationalist tale of what the Romans did was repeated as fact, and even added to. We have no knowledge of the ages of Boudicca's daughters - you can't suggest, as this programme did, that they were mere children without any good reason.

It is sometimes assumed (and was again in this programme) that because the Roman governor Suetonius was off suppressing the Druids when the revolt happened, this was why the revolt happened; post hoc ergo propter hoc. There's not a shred of evidence for this hypothesis in either of the writers who give accounts of the revolt, both of whom see economic factors as being principally at work. (My own theory is that since the Druids appear to have been an independent power block within their society over which they could exercise no control, many British elites were glad to see the back of them.)

What is never done is for the revolt to be placed in the wider context of what is going on in the Roman empire at the time. We have a general collapse of the standards of provincial government in the reign of Nero. At the beginning of his reign, there were a number of trials of provincial governors for financial misconduct while in post, charges brought by provincials after the governor's term of office. In every one of these, the governor got off. About AD 60, these trials stopped, and it looks to me as if this is because the provincials just gave up using the legitimate mechanisms of complaint, as they no longer worked. Instead, they sought other avenues for protests, and it is then that we get not just the Boudiccan revolt, but also the great Jewish revolt, and the revolt of Julius Vindex in Gaul in AD 68, which, though directed at Nero personally, had definite nationalistic overtones.

The writers of Battlefield Britain hadn't done their homework properly - they stated that the IX Legion was destroyed, yet the same source that tells us the infantry were wiped out later says that it only took 2,000 legionaries from the Continent to bring the Legion back to its full strength of 5,000. And the Romans did not have 'flimsy sandals' on their feet. They had sandals with bloody great hobnails!

And the final statement that the Roman oppression drove the Britons into Wales and Scotland. Utter nonsense! The population of Britain under the Roman empire remained mostly people whose ancestors had been there before the Roman invasion. The driving of the language into the fringes of the island happened in the Anglo-Saxon period.

And the buggers can't count. 'Nearly a thousand years after Boudicca's revolt, new invaders are coming to Britain ...' Boudicca's revolt, AD 60. Battle of Hastings, 1066. When I went to school, that was not 'almost' a thousand years ...

(Subsequent editions were apparently less awful, but the only one I saw substantial parts of was the one on the Battle of Britain.)

Ancient monuments tour of Rome

(As a first post on this blog, here's something I wrote almost exactly a year ago, after my last visit to Rome.)

[Note: The photos below are a mixture of ones taken by me or my family (not all on this particular trip), or taken from various locations on the Internet.]


So, last weekend [31/01/04-02/02/04] I went to Rome. The Roman Catholic priest who married my brother and sister-in-law over a decade ago subsequently went to Rome to teach other priests for missionary work. And every time they have had a child, they have gone to Rome so that Father (now Monseigneur) Rod can perform the baptism. So we all trooped over there for Fergus' christening. And I can't say I was annoyed, as going to Rome is something I always like.

We flew into Ciampino, and our route took us over Rome. As it was daylight, and I had the window seat, I could make out the Victor Emmanuel Monument (the "Typewriter", as it is known), and the Colosseum as we came in. I got a bit excited over seeing a train, much to Kate's chagrin, but rather more excited about the aerial views of the aqueducts approaching Rome from the south. The first thing I saw (though I didn't know it at the time) was the sixteenth-century Aqua Felix, which follows the course of the first century AD Aqua Claudia. And then I saw the more impressive remains of the actual Aqua Claudia. I saw a few more arches of the latter on the coach journey up to central Rome.

Aqua Claudia

Aqua Claudia.


It was getting dark by the time we actually arrived in Rome, but I could still see enough to note where we came through the third-century AD Aurelian Wall, at Porta Tiburtina (Porta S. Lorenzo), where a monumental arch of Augustus took three aqueducts over the road.

Porta Tiburtina

Porta Tiburtina.


The coach then ran up the inside of the wall, which had lots of "Keep off" signs, as this bit is in the grounds of the Ministero della Difesa Aeronautica. Just beyond the Ministry is its ancient equivalent, the camp of the Praetorian Guard, though this can only be detected from the change of direction of the walls.

After that, we were deposited at Roma Termini station, from where we got a modern, clean, but unpunctual, train to Trastevere, booked into our hotel, and joined the rest of the family for pizza.

Sunday was the day of the Baptism. We were bussed out to the institute where the priest are trained, and had the ceremony. I found this fascinating. I always tell my students that the prime difference between Roman religion and Christianity is that in the latter, it is what you believe that matters most, whereas in the former, belief is unimportant, as long as you get the ritual correct. I still think that's true, but much of the belief in the importance of ritual has carried over into Roman Catholic practice - there's a considerable weight placed on getting every act of the ceremony just right.

After this was over, we went to the adjacent Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura (St Paul Outside the Walls) for a bit of sightseeing; Kate sat this out in the bus, being quite tired.

Basilica of St Paul

Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. Photo Tony Keen 2004.


The Basilica was originally built in the late fourth century, and was progressively modified by various Popes until a disastrous fire in 1823 destroyed most of the building. What is now there kept the floor plan of the pre-1823 building, but is built in a mid-nineteenth century architectural style. It's a bit naff in terms of decoration, but it is very impressive. Once inside, it doesn't take much to imagine it as a Roman basilica (Christian cathedrals took the much of the building form of the multi-purpose Roman halls), full of people busting about their business, with the local dignitary presiding over court proceedings or some such in the raised apse at the far end. Around the side is a collection of fragments from the original building, including some architectural features reused from even earlier buildings.

Then off for lunch, where Mum showed me photos she'd taken at various sites she'd been too. She took some nice photos, which she was good enough to give me a disk of, though sadly most of those in the Domus Aurea didn't come out very well.

After a flop, Mum, Kate and I headed out for the weekend walk which Kate made a New Year's Resolution to do (though we actually forgot that what we did was justified as this until we got back). I wanted to go again to Monte Testaccio. This is a little-visited site, but fascinating in its own way. In the second century BC, Rome moved its docklands area from by the Isola Tiberiana south to an area enclosed on three sides by a bend in the Tiber. This area became known as Emporium (a Latin term applied to a commercial port area). Among the imports offloaded here was olive oil. However, the Romans believed that the amphorae the olive oil came in, once emptied, could not be reused. So they broke them, and stacked them in neat rows in an area behind the wharves and warehouses. After several centuries, this resulted in a small hill, which is now, after a millennium and a half of erosion, about 35 m high. For the most part, the neat stacks have been broken and worn away at the surface of the hill, but on the north side there's a section where it's been restored, and you can see the amphorae fragments as they would have been. Mum took a nice photo of this.



Monte Testaccio. Photo Ann Keen 2004.

From there, it's a short trip along another section of the Aurelian Wall to the Pyramid Monument of Gaius Cestius.

Monument of Cestius and Porta Ostiense

Monument of Cestius (l) and Porta Ostiense (r).


The Pyramid is the mad creation of Cestius, an important Roman of the first century BC. When he died, his slaves were freed under the terms of his will, and built the monument (presumably this was also part of the terms of the will). The gate to the right of the photo above is the Porta Ostiense, also called the Porta San Paolo, because the Via Ostiense, the road to Ostia, takes one past San Paolo fuori le Mura. This became cut off from the rest of the walls by traffic 'improvements' in the 1920s. There is a museum inside it, but I don't fancy your chances of getting to it!

Behind the photographer is the station from where the trains to Ostia depart. So it's a lovely place for me, with archaeology on one side, and trains on the other.

That did for Sunday, and I went to bed reading about the Roman Forum in the rather excellent guide (warning: this links to a page in Italian) the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma produce. These guides are well worth picking up if you're in Rome, and I learnt a lot from reading them. Occasionally, however, you can tell it's an Italian text translated into English, such as the point at which they mention a "circular square". In context it makes sense - 'square' is translating some Italian word for a public space.

Monday we had all day for sightseeing. We got to Termini, where we would leave our bags, by tram and bus. We avoided the train, partly because we weren't sure our all-day tickets would be valid (they would have been), and partly because we wanted to see a bit more of Rome.

A Roman Tram

A Roman Tram.


The No. 8 tram brings you to Largo Argentina (the name comes from a name given to a building by an important local dignitary, and has nothing to do with South American countries - a sign at the site gave the exact details, but I can't recall them now). Here we paused to look at the four Republican temples. These all sat in a row in front of the Portico of Pompey. It was in this Portico that Julius Caesar was murdered, though not necessarily (as my Mum thought the notice said) in the bit exposed by the excavation - in fact he was probably killed at the other end, by Pompey's theatre.

The four temples in the Area Sacra Argentina, with Temple D, so-called Temple of Juturna, nearest camera

The four temples in the Area Sacra Argentina, with Temple D, so-called Temple of Juturna, nearest camera. Photo Ann Keen 2001.


From there, a bus led us around the Forum, around the backs of Trajan's Markets, and past the Baths of Diocletian, before depositing us at Termini. There I pointed out what remained of the walls of the Servian period (sixth century BC), walls Rome had outgrown by the early empire, the city being effectively unwalled from then until the time of Aurelian (AD 270-275).

We got a Metro to the Colosseum, which Kate particularly wanted to see (we went in after I'd been rude about the Arch of Constantine, which I find vulgar, not least because of the way it liberally steals its decorations from other monuments). I'd been in this three times before, so was able to give Kate a quick overview, before we prowled around. Then, in one of the arcades, we came across an exhibition called Nike, which was all about games and athletic competitions in the ancient world - we managed to go through it backwards. They had some famous artifacts there, such as the Hellenistic seated bronze boxer found in Rome, and two bronze runners from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, usually in the National Archeological Museum of Naples. But I was most interested in the graffiti from seats in the Colosseum. Here was the evidence of people whiling away the long days watching the gladiatorial fights, etc., by scratching pictures into the marble.

From there we had lunch; afterwards, Kate caught me out by asking what a building was. I didn't know. It was the Ludus Magnus, the training arena and barracks for the gladiators who fought in the Colosseum.

Ludus Magnus

Ludus Magnus. Photo Kate Bodley 2005.


Then we went to the Forum, where I wanted to take photos of various buildings for my teaching. Kate very patiently followed me round and helped take photos, and then we headed out, via the Forum of Julius Caesar, and various other Imperial Fora, and back to Colosseo Metro station. Along the way, I noticed properly for the first time the back of the Basilica of Maxentius, which I'd never really looked at before. It's pretty impressive from the Forum side, but somehow it seems more so from the Via dei Fori Imperiali.

Basilica of Maxentius, from Via dei Fori Imperiali

Basilica of Maxentius, facing the Via Sacra

Basilica of Maxentius. Top: From Via dei Fori Imperiali. Photo Tony Keen 2004. Bottom: Facing the Via Sacra. Photo Tony Keen 2005.


From there we split up. Kate went shopping, whilst I went to the Ara Pacis. Unfortunately, this is still invisible, as they have not finished the new museum (it was meant to be completed in 2000), though the Mausoleum of Augustus is still to be seen. But left that, as I had a number of places I wanted to visit. First up was the Egyptian obelisk that stands outside the Palazzo di Montecitorio (where the Italian Parliament now sits). This had once been the pointer of Augustus' massive sundial in the Campus Martius. It wasn't too easy to get to, as I found my direct route closed off by the Italian police.

The Obelisk of Montecitorio

The Obelisk of Montecitorio. Photo Ann Keen 2001.


Then I headed back to the centre. I got distracted by a sign to the Pantheon, but though I found the Temple of the Deified Hadrian, which I hadn't seen before, I have to concede I got a bit lost. By the time I'd sorted myself out, I realized I had gone beyond the Pantheon. Time was now running out if I wasn't going to miss the bus to the airport. So I headed down the Forum Boarium, by the river, passing the Capitoline Hill and the replica equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the way. Then to the Theatre of Marcellus, where I actually managed to get a decent photo. Unfortunately, most of the photos I'd taken with Kate's camera were too dark, as it was taking the light reading off the sky. But here I managed to block the sky out.



Theatre of Marcellus. Photo Tony Keen 2004.

I wandered down to the two temples of the Forum Boarium, among the oldest temples in Rome, and among the best preserved.

Temples of Hercules (l) and Portunus (r)

Temples of Hercules (l) and Portunus (r).


By now I was exhausted. I wandered to the bus stop, barely noticing the Bocca della Verita, an ancient drain cover now mounted in the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. I waited for a bus. A bus didn't come. I started to flap. What if the bus didn't come? What if it took ages? What if it didn't come at all? I decided that i could probably walk to Termini in the time I had left, set off to do so, and then realized the smart thing to do was walk through the Circus Maximus back to the Metro. So I did that. The Circus is, as my Mum observed, not as impressive as you might expect. But it is less littered with discarded condoms than when I first came here in 1986.

And that was more-or-less it. The last ancient monument I saw was on the bus back to Ciampino, as we went out through yet another gate in the Aurelian Wall, this time going past the Amphitheatrum Castrense, a small, late amphitheatre that was later built into the wall, and its arches bricked up.

Amphitheatrum Castrense
Amphitheatrum Castrense

I didn't see that much on this trip I hadn't seen before. But that was okay. Kate hadn't seen it. And we'll go back.

(Click on the photos without credits for sources and more information.)