Friday, November 16, 2007
This is an opportune moment to mention, in case you hadn't noticed, that I've revamped this blog, and added links to all the articles and reviews of mine that can be found online, some of which go back as far as 1993, as well as listing all the tags I use.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
There are annoying bits, of course. I could do without Cleopatra's bikini bottoms, which make her look just a bit too much like a porn star. Augustus' narration of his past by slipping into lengthy anecdotes at the end of arguments is clumsy, and makes you think everyone around him must have thought he was really, really boring. And my jaw bounced off the floor when I realized that the incredibly camp individual introduced midway through the first episode is meant to be Augustus' literary-minded friend Maecenas.
There's some whiting of people out of existence. Maecenas disappears after the conquest of Egypt, with no hint that he continued as Augustus' helper for a number of years yet. Gone are Cleopatra's son by Caesar, Octavia's children, Livia's second son Drusus and his sons Germanicus and Claudius, and Julia's daughter Agrippina, and the son with whom she was pregnant when she learnt that her husband Agrippa was dead. Agrippina's absence is particularly curious, as the series ends with Livia ensuring that Tiberius will reign after Augustus, and Augustus saying that 'Your son's blood will run in future emperors, not mine'. Yet by making Tiberius adopt his nephew Germanicus, who was Agrippina's husband, he actually set it up so that his blood would run in future emperors, after a couple of generations (as indeed happened).
But there are so many good bit. Nice little architectural touches, like the ships prows on the rostra, or being able to work out from the shape of the altar that a building is the temple of the Divine Julius before the dialogue tells you. The series remembers that Octavius insisted on being called 'Caesar' after his adoption. It finds space for calling the Senate 'conscript fathers', the reading of Antony's will, declaring war on Cleopatra rather than Antony.
Augustus' life is not easy to dramatize. Much of it is a tale of political reform. Most treatments of him either end with Cleopatra's death (Cleopatra, Rome), or pick up with the dynastic scandals of his later life (I Claudius). Imperium puts both together, running the story of Octavius' rise to power in parallel with the events leading to the Julia scandal. They do succeed in creating a coherent narrative.
Of course, the shadow of I Claudius hangs over this series, but it makes that work for it. Charlotte Rampling's Livia is presented in such a way as to play with perceptions raised by Sian Philips' Livia. The audience expects her to murder everyone between Tiberius and the throne, and the first episode ends with her apparently poisoning Julia's children - but she actually doesn't do it. Though she considers leaving Augustus to be assassinated, in the end she can't do it.
And then there's Peter O'Toole's Augustus. He doesn't get something as meaty as 'Is there anyone in Rome who has not slept with my daughter!', but where Brian Blessed's Augustus was losing his touch, and manipulated by his wife. O'Toole's is a relatively kindly man, but nevertheless, still in control, and aware that sometimes he has to do unpleasant things. I suspect the real Augustus had a touch more of the ruthlessness of Roddy McDowell's Octavian in Cleopatra, but this is one of the most complex portrayals of Augustus that I've seen. It helps that this is a European production, and so, unlike many American films and shows, is able to view the Roman empire as something positive that deserves saving, rather than an inherently corrupt oppressor.
So it's a surprise when the very last line of the film is 'In the twenty-third year of my reign, in the province of Judaea, Jesus of Nazareth was born'. This is exactly the sort of reference to the coming of Christianity that Quo Vadis and Spartacus have. There, it's meant to show that Christianity will sweep aside the corruption of the Roman empire, and make the world good again. What it's doing here I'm really not sure.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Then there's profile of Mary Beard.
Both pieces are worth reading, and stimulating me to thinking about various stuff, but I don't have time to write them up in detail.
Monday, October 29, 2007
But there are no a priori reasons for believing that there must have been a 'Latin library'. It's entirely possible that all the works there are Greek. A philosophical library might just possibly produce unknown works of Aristotle - just one of his dialogues, the works that made Aristotle's reputation, would be a sensational find. But the chances of Euripides or Sophocles are slim, I'm afraid. Indeed, it's possible that the new floors of the villa that have been found and not yet properly explored were never part of a library, and will produce no new literature.
It's much more likely that major new discoveries will emerge from the still incompletely studied Oxyrhynchus Papyri. These have produced, as well as the Menander Beard mentions, parts of lost plays by Euripides and Sophocles, poems of Sappho, and the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia. There is undoubtedly more to be found.
Nevertheless, it is fun to play the game Beard does, of naming what one would most like to see come out of the library (though I'm not going to follow her in sticking to Latin works). Of course, the closing of the archive in AD 79 means that it can't possibly include the lost Latin works I'd most like to see, the missing parts of Tacitus' Annals and Histories. We don't have those parts of the Annals that give his account of Caligula's reign, or the beginning of Claudius' or the end of Nero's, and have to fall back on other sources. But what I'd most like is the Histories. We get some of Tacitus' attitude to the emperor Domitian in the Agricola and elsewhere, but it would be marvellous to have his full account of Domitian's reign. I'd also like to see his account of the destruction of Pompeii, since we have two letters that Pliny the Younger wrote to him when asked for research materials, and I'd like to see how Tacitus used those.
One of the comments on Beard's post names the works of the emperor Claudius, and I'd endorse that, particularly the autobiography. I'd also add the autobiography of Augustus (not to be confused with the Res Gestae).
More Greek tragedy would of course be wonderful. I'd particularly like Aeschylus' Myrmidons, at the time better thought of than the plays that now survive. But I'd also like some plays that would give us another complete trilogy - the whole of the Prometheus trilogy would be nice, if only to settle which order they came in. Or perhaps Euripides' Andromeda. This was parodied by Aristophanes in the Thesmophoriazousae - we know this because Aristophanes tells us as much. But only once in all of Aristophanes' parodies of Euripides do we have both parody and object - a burlesque of the Helen in the same Aristophanes play mentioned. Possessing the Andromeda (or the Telephus) would tell us much not only about Euripides, but about Aristophanes as well.
I'd like Theopompus of Chios' lost Hellenica. This would provide new information about the fourth century BC. Plus, it would answer the vexed question of whether he was the author of the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia. The latter work is a fourth-century history, known from two quite significant fragments. It is generally felt that such a significant work can't be by an author that we've never heard of. But all the candidates advanced can be objected to on various grounds - my own preferred choice, Cratippus, I advocate merely because he is the least unlikely. Failing Theopompus, I'd like the title page of the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, with the author's name on it.
While we're on the subject of fourth century historians, I wouldn't say no to Ctesias' Persica. Like any Greek writing about the Persians, he'd have to be taken with a pinch of salt. But he spent many years at the Persian court, and would be an invaluable source for the later Achaemenid empire.
Finally, I'd like a work in neither Latin or Greek. In his Letters from Pontus 4.13, Ovid reveals that he has written a small book (libellum) in the language of the Getae, the people amongst whom he had been exiled. We might not be able to read it, of course. Indeed, it may not even exist. According to Ovid its contents were praise of the new emperor Tiberius, and his only reason for mentioning of it was to highlight the lengths he would go to, and the depths he would sink to, to praise Caesar, and please can he come home now? So he may have made up the work. But I'd love to have it, and prove that thought wrong.
There's much else as well. Some other tragedians than the Big Three. Any Old Comedy other than Aristophanes. The forensic speeches of Pliny the Younger (post AD 79, but never mind). But before I leave this subject, if you think the loss of creative works like this is something that affects only ancient literature, then talk to some historians of early film or early television. Theda Bara in Cleopatra, or most of the first series of Callan, or much of Doomwatch, are just as gone as Euripides' Palamedes, save that they are better documented, and some of them live on in the memories of those lucky enough to have seen them.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
But somebody plainly felt that there was a better chance of promoting the film over here. They may have a point. The Last Legion is a terribly British film, with a cast full of the usual UK thesps: Colin Firth, John Hannah, James Cosmo, Kevin McKidd (last seen working the Roman side of the tracks) in a silly beard, as well as Kingsley himself. The nearest to the sort of US star usually felt desirable to make this sort of film work is Deep Space Nine's Alexander Siddig.
Britishness aside, the film defines itself within the first ten minutes, through reference to other, better, movies: Gladiator, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars. That pretty much tells you what you can expect, and the film doesn't deviate much from that, as it throws in further nods, to innumerable Alexandre Dumas and Errol Flynn swashbucklers for the most part, but also to James Bond movies, and, in the most absurd moment of the film, The Great Escape (or was it The Outlaw Josey Wales?). The resolution of the final battle is entirely predictable, and it even cops out of a noble death. And that's the trouble with this film. There is nothing in it you haven't seen before. It never does anything novel and interesting with its materials, nor does it do what Martin Campbell's The Mask of Zorro achieved, and tell a traditional story so well that one is reminded why one liked these sort of films in the first place. Doug Lefler has worked on Hercules and Xena, but brings none of the charm of those series with him.
Historically, it's nonsense, of course. The Last Legion sits in the same tradition of placing the Arthur legend in a historical framework as does 2004's King Arthur. But unlike that film, it makes no claims to historical authenticity, and is therefore less absurd. Indeed the film sets out its attitude very early. In the opening narration Tiberius is described as "the last in Julius Caesar's line", and described as a great emperor. That is so far removed from anyone's perception of the historical reality around the tyrannical old pervert that it's as if the film's creators say at this point "look, we have no intention of allowing historical fact stand in the way of the story we want to tell." And why should they? The Last Legion is no less historically accurate than the 1930s and 1940s swashbucklers it emulates. One might have thought audiences had become more historically sophisticated since, but the BBC's Robin Hood works on the basis that they haven't, so why shouldn't this film? So, for instance, there is a distinctly Islamic tinge to the mis-en-scene of the representatives of the Eastern Roman empire, regardless of Mohammed's birth being a century in the future.
One presumes that Valerio Massimo Manfredi's original novel, which I haven't read, paid more attention to known historical fact. But though Manfredi is credited as "historical consultant", the film is only "based in part" on his novel, and though Manfredi provided the original story treatment for the film, that was reworked by Carlo Carlei & Peter Rader, and then again in Jez and Tom Butterworth's screenplay. It is presumably then that the deviations from Manfredi (such as the replacement of his Italian warrior woman Livia with the Indian Mira, presumably to bring in the Bollywood demographic), from history, and, arguably, from sense, came in.
Nevertheless, real history seeps through, presumably from Manfredi. Through the appearance of the Goth leader Odoacer, and the magister militum Orestes, there's a fair bit of the actual story of the deposition of the last western emperor Romulus Augustulus, though it's been confused by adding the sack of Rome from a half-century before. Other elements, such as the Ninth Legion in Britannia, show more familiarity with Rosemary Sutcliff than anything else. The presence of Hadrian's Wall is just gratuitous, and perhaps unwise in the light of its use in King Arthur. (And which way is is meant to be facing? North or south?)
Manfredi's adult novel causes problems in another area. Is this a film for adults, or, because it centres on a the adventures of a prepubescent boy (though played by then sixteen-year old Thomas Sangster), is it a film for children? This was evidently a problem during filming - so when Aishwarya Rai climbs into bed with Colin Firth, both are fully clothed, and they do nothing but cuddle. It's also a problem for the film's distributors - when I saw it the accompanying trailers veered from violent blockbusters like American Gangster and The Kingdom, to the unashamed kid's fare of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium.
This is not a particularly dreadful film; but neither is it very inspiring. It will not be much remembered amongst the ranks of Roman empire movies.
Friday, October 19, 2007
There's something about the life of Alexander the Great that, though it makes for glorious biography, resists dramatization. I think it's because it's essentially anti-climactic. His life story builds to a crescendo through the great battles of the Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela, to which the occupation of Babylon should be a coda. But then he lived, and continued to campaign, for another eight years. These years are filled with episodic incidents, that it's hard to sew a dramatic thread through that. Alter the order of events, and a writer will be castigated for inaccuracy. But try as hard as possible to be accurate, and the writer ends up with a sprawling shapeless account, and the harder one adheres to history, the less dramatic the story becomes. Such issues plagued Robert Rossen's 1956 film, and Oliver Stone's 2004 version (which I discussed here, and a little bit here).* I haven't read the trilogy by Valerio Massimo Manfredi (of whom more in my next post), but Paul Cartledge puts the boot into it in his Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past, calling it "unimaginative" (p. 240) and complaining of its "dullness" (p. 312), so perhaps the same problems afflict that work.
How does Renault deal with this problem? Essentially, she sidesteps it, by not really telling Alexander's story. Indeed, to describe the three Alexander novels as a 'trilogy' is misleading, as they do not really link up into a single narrative.
The first time she wrote about Alexander,** in The Mask of Apollo (1966), he is a walk-on, as a fourteen-year old, at the end; this novel is not his story at all. Four years later came her next novel, Fire from Heaven. This is Alexander's story, but it is the story of his youth. It climaxes at a logical point for a climax, at the death of Alexander's father Philip, and his acclamation as king. In her 'Author's note' at the end, she explicitly directs the reader to Plutarch's Life of Alexander or Arrian's Expedition of Alexander for what happened next. The implication is that she had no intention of tackling the later events of Alexander's life herself.
Nevertheless, two years later (and interestingly, at the exact moment that Robin Lane Fox was preparing what remains the best-known academic account of Alexander's life),*** Renault published The Persian Boy, which takes events up to Alexander's death in 323 BC. But it is not Alexander's story. It is that of Bagoas, the eponymous Persian Boy, who narrates the novel. Alexander is a supporting character, albeit the most important one by far. Over a hundred pages pass before Alexander is brought on stage, though his actions influence Bagoas' life long before. In that offstage period are all of the climactic actions of the first part of Alexander's life - the battles, the visit to Egypt, the conquest of Babylon. Alexander is brought on at the beginning of the episodic eight years mentioned above. But it is still not Alexander's story. The dramatic thread is presented by Bagoas' progression, from a novelty at Alexander's court, to his sexual partner, and to eventually becoming Alexander's partner is almost every aspect of his life, accompanying him on his harshest campaigns. Conveniently for Renault, Bagoas' life story is under-reported in the sources, allowing the dramatist considerable scope.
The key crisis of Alexander's later years was the difference between him and his Macedonians over his orientalizing. I have always felt that Alexander saw that he had become the new Great King of Persia, and it was necessary for him to act the role. The Macedonians, on the other hand, saw Persia as conquered territory, and viewed with suspicion Alexander's use of Persians in his administration, army, and his adoption of Persian practices and dress. Renault evidently shares that view. And having a Persian narrator allows her to dramatize that conflict from a Persian perspective, to show how Persians thought it humiliating for Alexander to be addressed in the rough comradely manner his Macedonians used; most historians tend to view this to one degree or another from the Macedonian side, if with more understanding of Alexander's position. (I also think that, wanting to pick up Alexander after Babylon, Renault was more-or-less forced into choosing a Persian central character.)
I also find that it is in The Persian Boy that Renault made the suggestion that has always appealed to me, that when asked to whom he left his empire, Alexander may have said not to kratisto ('to the strongest'), but to kratero ('to Krateros').
Renault clearly found she had more to say about Alexander, but had left herself little room to produce more fiction. So, for the first and only time, she wrote a book of adult non-fiction, The Nature of Alexander,**** which was published in 1975. It is more of a defence of Alexander than anything else - she had already railed against some modern scholars (and the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus) in the 'Author's note' for The Persian Boy. It's a minor work in terms of Alexander scholarship, and blighted by her somewhat blinkered view of Alexander, who for Renault is largely shorn of any possibility of being seriously flawed (though she may well be right about the implausibility of Alexander as alcoholic). But as a means of understanding Renault's attitude towards Alexander, and the way the shadow of William Tarn falls across her, it's a fascinating document.
She put Alexander aside for a while, writing The Praise Singer, before returning to the theme in her final novel, Funeral Games. Again, this is not Alexander's story, though his shadow falls on everything that happens. The novel begins where The Persian Boy ends (indeed slightly before, so that some events are featured in both books), at the deathbed of Alexander. He has already slipped into a coma, and is dead within a few pages. Renault then tells the story of the next fourteen years of struggle for Alexander's legacy. It is a bitty story, due to the nature of the events it describes (and indeed, the struggle for Alexander's empire was not really resolved for another decade after the point at which Renault ends, with the murder of Alexander's son and wife). But there are a number of points of interest. Renault follows the sources in making Krateros a rather shadowy figure, whose actions all seem to take place offstage. And she seems to relish the opportunity of presenting what other people thought of Bagoas, suggesting he is not perhaps as meek and insignificant as he sees himself.
Again, I find myself agreeing with Renault, in this case in her interpretation of the actions of Ptolemy. As the Successors prepared to fight over Alexander's legacy, Ptolemy got himself assigned as satrap to Egypt. Renault gives him what I have always believed to have been his motive; when all the others wanted to take over the whole empire, Ptolemy recognized that none of those with ambitions to rule would accept one of their fellows as their ruler, and without Alexander, to whom they had all deferred, the empire could not hold together. So he identified that part of the empire that could most successfully maintain its independence from the rest (as Egypt often had from Persia in the past), and set about making it his own kingdom.
At the heart of Funeral Games, however, is Alexander's cousin Eurydike. She clearly appeals enormously to Renault. Trained in hunting, accustomed to wearing man's clothes, Eurydike is someone who prefers the company of men, though not for sex, and wishes she were a man. One suspects that Renault herself shared many of those qualities, though she recognizes that Eurydike's failure to conform to what is expected of her is a factor in her downfall.
One last point is to say how much Oliver Stone's film is influenced by Renault, as recognized in an unpublished paper by Shaun Tougher, and emphasized by Stone's participation in the 2006 documentary. He could not have the rights to Renault's novels (HBO and Mel Gibson's Ikon were contemplating a mini-series based on them), but a number of Renault scenes get into Stone's script. Alexander being in his mother's bedroom when his father enters to rape her, is out of Fire from Heaven, and the decision to use Ptolemy's history as a framing device may have been derived from Renault's coda to Funeral Games (though it may also have been a spoiling tactic against the Baz Luhrmann/Dino de Laurentiis Alexander, which was to use Manfredi's trilogy, which purports to be Ptolemy's History). And would Stone have given the limited prominence to Bagoas that he does had the eunuch not featured in Renault's novel?
I'm glad I've read these novels.*****
* There's a typically entertaining discussion of screen Alexanders in Gideon Nisbet, Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture, pp. 87-135.
** According to the abstract for a paper given by Shaun Tougher, 'Images of Alexander: the case of Mary Renault', he appears in her 1956 novel The Last of the Wine. He is not included in this list of the novel's dramatis personae, but he may be mentioned in the novel's postscript, set a couple of generations after the main action. I don't have the book to hand to check.
*** For all that other academics can sometimes be sniffy about it.
**** She had written a children's non-fiction work in 1964, The Lion in the Gateway: The Heroic Battles of the Greeks and Persians at Marathon, Salamis, and Thermopylae.
***** There's another review of the trilogy by Jeanne Reames here: http://myweb.unomaha.edu/~mreames/Beyond_Renault/renault.html (you'll have to cut and past the link, because something sucks like a sucky thing, and I can't get the HTML to work). She makes some interesting points, but I think she misreads what Renault is trying to do with The Persian Boy.
Edited 23/10/07: A correspondent tells me that the mention of Alexnader in The last of the Wine is that the manuscript that the novel purports to be is being sent to Alexander; so he doesn't actually appear as a character.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
1) There seems to be an awful lot of "OMG! The students are doing something that we don't control!" Yes, of course they are. They have their own lives, and universities do not own them 24/7. Get over it.
2) "[M]ost [sixth-formers hoping to go to university] ... resented the idea that [social networking sites] might be invaded by academics." This is hardly a surprise. Most sixth-formers think of academics as being just like school teachers. Ask the same question to a bunch of first-year undergraduates, who have had time to learn that there's a difference, and you might well get a different answer.
That said, of course certain spaces within social networks are student spaces (though not, of course, Facebook itself - students have no more right to ownership of that than any other section of the population), and tutors should not barge in there uninvited. There are a couple of online student fora I read, and occasionally contribute to - but I'm very careful what I do or do not say, and not to assert any authority. And there are some areas within those fora into which I won't go. (As a result, I have apparently acquired a reputation as someone who is terribly helpful. But then these are OU students, who are different from the normal run of 18-22 year old undergraduates.)
3) "Because students are going on to Facebook and using it with their friends, there is informal learning occurring and students may be blocking certain people out of this." Yes. So what? If a subset of students go down the pub and talk about their lecture, there's informal learning going on, excluding those who aren't there. Should universities be insisting that students only go in the pub as a full group? (Difficult in a course with 100 + students, I'd have thought.) If a student reads a book not on the reading list, there's informal learning going on, from which all their fellows are excluded. An individual learning experience cannot be micro-managed in this way. Again, get over it.
5) "I'm on Facebook and I have a laugh with friends ... But, if it comes to academic work on Facebook, it's totally inappropriate." Twaddle. You can make academic use of Facebook, as I do, to network with other academics - academic networks are social networks too, you know.
6) "Students are using these social-networking sites, and they often appear less keen on using the virtual learning environment. In fact, [Jo Fox] suspected, the popularity of one was leading to her increasing lack of success in getting interactions going in the other." Again, is this a surprise? Students who are unresponsive in seminars may become very animated once down the pub. Worrying about what students are doing outside of class isn't a productive use of time.
The people who really wish this wasn't the case, of course, are the university administrators pushing Virtual Learning Environments, in the hope that it will enable them to stop worrying about scruffy lecture halls that eat all that maintenance budget. They don't want to be told why this will not work, and think that if only the students weren't distracted by Facebook, students would put all their energies into the university-approved VLE. It doesn't work like that. Don't get me wrong, I think the VLE can bring much (particularly in an institution like the OU). But it isn't a magic solution to all problems, and needs to be treated as a supplement to other parts of the learning experience, not a substitute.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
2007 Cambridge Greek Play, Cambridge Arts Theatre
Performance seen: Saturday 13th October 2007 (2.30 pm)
The Cambridge Greek Play chose to avoid the Muslim country background that is now common in modern settings of Greek tragedy, not least because they were one of the pioneers of it in the 1998 production of Trojan Women, set in the Balkans. Instead, Annie Castledine and Clive Mendus' production takes place in 1912 England. The background is the challenge to male patriarchy that the suffragette movement represented, and the Chorus are clothed as suffragettes. This presents a different dynamic between Medea and Chorus to that normally seen. In most cases, the Chorus are Medea's friends, and their support for her is initially offered out of friendship, until they are repelled by what she plans. By then, of course, she has trapped them into silence, and they can do nothing. This Chorus, on the other hand, supports Medea on ideological principle, because she is a woman. But at the same time, they are frightened of her, and retreat before her rages in terror.
The historical setting has another link back to the original performance. In 1912, England, and the rest of Europe, stood on the brink of a devastating war. That was also the case for Athens in 431 BC - Sparta's ultimatum had been rejected in the previous months, and as the City Dionysia took place in March, Theban troops were attacking Plataea.
Less successful are the occasional brief Edwardian song-and-dance routines performed by the Chorus. I appreciate that movement and music should be part of any Chorus, and approve of all attempts to convey that. But it doesn't always work, and these examples are too reminiscent of Half A Sixpence for my liking.
A more successful injection of music, perhaps, is the sing-song delivery of Holly Strickland's Tutor - never quite an aria, but not quite normal speech either. Of the other secondary characters, Frances Stevenson's Nurse is seemingly costumed in oriental dress, which looks a little odd juxtaposed with the 1912 setting for everything else. Robert Lloyd-Parry, being older than many of the undergraduate cast, brings a gravitas to Aegeus that might otherwise be missing, though he is still portrayed as a slightly buffoonish figure, as is common (it is possible to bring more depth to the character, as the Lazarus production showed). All these are wholly competent. All the actors deliver the Greek in such a way as to indicate that they know the meaning of what they are saying, not just the sounds, though some, such as Matthew Hiscock's wheelchair-bound Creon, cannot conceal that this is not their first language.
The only wrong note is sounded by Virginia Corless' Messenger. Clad in modern dress, when she arrives on stage she leaps over one Chorus member, and kicks another up the bum. This portrayal of the messenger as a trickster figure, for me, drains the pathos from what she has to say - the full horror of what she is reporting is not conveyed, because really, she doesn't seem all that bothered by it herself.
The key relationship in the play is that between Jason and Medea. All three productions I have seen this year have chosen to present that relationship as one which retains a great passion and desire, especially on Jason's part. Marta Zlatic, an impressive Hekabe in 1998, plays Medea as a monster, but a compelling one. She has an excellent foil in Misha Verkerk's Jason. Not only does he deliver the Greek convincingly, he is extremely handsome; one can see why any Greek woman should want him, and why none would want to give him up.
Castledine is quoted in the programme as telling her cast never to judge Jason too harshly. At first this seems odd. Doesn't Euripides himself judge Jason harshly? In the debate between them both, it seems obvious that Medea is the winner, and the Chorus as much as tell him that they are not going to be taken in by his sophistry. But some of the things Jason says would have been heard differently by the original audience. When he tells Medea that she is privileged to have lived amongst Greeks instead of barbarians, a modern audience laughs at such blatant chauvinism. But an Athenian audience would have agreed with Jason. They would probably have done so again when he says that it is better for wives to be sensible when their husbands find new bedmates. So perhaps Castledine has a point.
She certainly gives Jason the last word, after an impressive deus ex machina scene (as with Bacchae, the deus ex machina is also the protagonist of the action). Euripides' text ends with five lines for the Chorus. This is cut here, making the last utterance the despairing curse upon Medea of the devastated Jason.
A last noteworthy point is that there is an element of performance in the round in this staging. There is seating at the back of the stage. I presume the intent is to recapture some of the intimacy and sense of community of an Athenian staging, but for those in the stalls, like me, then the performers addressed the seats on stage, they often had their backs to us, and it became a distancing element. More successful was the musicians, not only placed on stage, but reacting to the action as if they were part of it.
Overall, this version is a success. If it is the least of the three Medeas I have seen this year, and definitely not as enjoyable as UCL's stunning 2006 production, this should be taken as an indication of the high standards set by those productions, not an indication of any failing by this.
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
Friday, September 28, 2007
Lazarus Theatre Company at Theatro Technis
Performance seen: 27 September 2007
And now they act as the venue for Lazarus Theatre's Medea, directed by Ricky Dukes. Medea seems quite popular at the moment. This is the second production I've seen this year (after an enjoyable staging by London Ensemble Production, back in March, which I never got round to blogging), and next month it will be the Cambridge Greek Play. And, taking into account last year's UCL play, it seems to bring out the best in companies.
Much play has been made in publicity for this production of it being set in Afghanistan.* In the end, that amounts to little beyond costuming, most notably giving the female cast members head-scarves, and the use of a jet bomber sound effect at the beginning and end of the play. And nothing about any of this says Afghanistan as distinct from any other Muslim or partially Muslim country, such Iraq or Kosovo or Bosnia. Over the past decade or so I've seen plenty of productions of tragedy that have dressed their casts much the same (I think immediately of the RSC's 2005 Hecuba at the Albery, starring Vanessa Redgrave). All that changes are the nations that one first thinks of when presented with such imagery.
Such universality is no bad thing, really. It certainly suits the text, which is a straight reading of the play, preserving all character and place names. Without the programme, one would assume that the play is set in Corinth, and so it should be.
There are a few changes. As often, the Tutor (Stephen Chertion) is given the Messenger's Speech. More unusually, the Chorus is reduced down to a single person. Lydia Larson delivers a disengaged and aloof Chorus - many of the lines where the Chorus are actively trying to dissuade Medea are given instead to the Nurse (Carrie Whitton), and some Chorus lines are even given to Medea. And the Chorus' greatest moment of horror and pathos - their indecision as Medea murders her sons, is cut altogether.
Kevin Cooke's Aegeus is less of a bumbling old fool and more of an ethically-minded statesman than I’ve seen in the past. And Cooke’s performance is so successful that I was surprised when I looked in the programme and saw that the same actor played Creon. I had not spotted this, so different are the performances.
A production of Medea stands or falls on its lead actress, of course. In Louise Coleman, Lazarus has a Medea who is compelling, who dominates the stage from when she first emerges through the doors from the backstage area. She is denied her apotheosis (as was the case in the production from March) - instead her final confrontation with Jason (played by David Seymour, who rises fully to Coleman’s challenge) is visceral, physical, and violent.
I don't think this production is as innovative as it likes to think it is. What it is, however, is a good solid production, that understands what the play is about, and doesn’t mess around. I could do with more like this.
* It's not really worth mentioning that the one piece of press coverage on display talked about classical drama being 'a millennia old'. Oh dear. On so many levels.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
One of my hats is as incoming London Meetings Organizer for the British Science Fiction Association. It's a fun role, that allows me opportunities to have interesting conversations with sf authors.
Last night's guest was Juliet E. McKenna. In the course of being interviewed, the subject of the extreme Marxism that popped up in Greek history in the 1980s (Juliet read Classics at Oxford about the same time I was reading Ancient History and Greek in Edinburgh). ("Is that like Extreme Sports?" asked the interviewer, hero of the BSFA Graham Sleight).
The book on the right is not the only instance of extreme Marxism in ancient Greek history, but it is the fountainhead from which all the other instances flowed. G.E.M. de Ste. Croix. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World was published in 1981 (by which its author was already 70). It is an overtly Marxist theoretical work, that looks at the whole of the history of the Greek world, from as the subtitle says "the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests" (so much of it covers what is often considered to be Roman history). It's a hefty tome, weighing in at 700+ pages including appendices, notes, bibliography and index. If you were an aspiring Greek historian in the 1980s, as I was, it was a book you simply had to have.
But I suspect it was a book more owned than read. Classicists are en masse a very conservative bunch, and much further behind most academic disciplines in adopting the latest trendy theory - post-modernism, for instance, has never really caught on. I think this theoretical conservatism is both a blessing and a curse, but that's a debate for another time. For now, I'd just say that this attitude means that Class Struggle is probably more respected by Marxist academics than by Greek (and Roman) historians, though its subliminal influence may be greater.
For myself, I can't say I've opened it very often, even when I did a lot of research into Greek history, which I haven't for a decade now. I used to refer to it as "The Big Red Doorstop", which says something about my attitude to it. When I pulled it off the shelf last night, I was surprised to find that the frontispiece is Van Gogh's 'The Potato Eaters', though I'm sure I must have occasionally consulted it in the past , and that this is not the first time I've actually opened the book.
On the left is de Ste. Croix's other famous book, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War, published in 1972. My copy of this is rather more well-thumbed than Class Struggle - the pages are slightly dog-eared, the spine beginning to crack, and there are pencil annotations in the margins (yes I do write in my books - why do you ask?). It's also listed in the bibliography for my own book.* And it's something that used to come up time and again in other works. I rather think that, within the field of Greek history, this will be the more influential of his two major works. (And it's lighter.)
I never met de Ste. Croix, but I did see him across the common room in New College one time when I was visiting. This was in the early 1990s, and I gather that by this time he was quite unwell, and his faculties were not all they once had been. Yet he still continued to write up to his death in 2000.
In other news, Doctor Who is doing a story set in the Roman empire, the first since 'The Romans' in 1964. Be assured that I shall be blogging that when it is broadcast.
* Amazon appear to have misspelt my name. There was a time when this book was credited to 'Antony G. Keen' and 'Anthony G. Keen'. Clearly someone thought, obviously that's the same person (correct), and deleted what they thought was the least likely spelling, without checking the actual cover of the book (incorrect).
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith
Performance seen: 19 September 2007
The horror of the final denouement, as Agave comes on stage bearing the head of her son Pentheus, whom she and her sisters have torn apart, is unsurpassed. This horror is heightened because of its inevitability. The audience knows that Pentheus' destruction is inescapable, because Dionysus, whose true identity only the audience knows, has told them.
But it is also a funny play. There is a deep level of irony, as Dionysus warns Pentheus that (to paraphrase) 'if you insult me you insult the god.' Pentheus takes it metaphorically, but Dionysus means it literally. And when Pentheus is dressed as a Maenad, the audience is clearly meant to laugh. This laughter, as Pentheus can be seen walking into the trap, heightens the horror.
Bacchae is a very intertextual play, putting on stage the god who was already placed in the theatre in wooden statue form. Reference to earlier plays can be seen – Tiresias, for instance, appears fixed in the 'old man' persona that Sophocles had made famous in the Antigone and Oedipus, despite the fact that Bacchae takes place generations earlier. And it was probably influential from even before it was performed. When Aristophanes premiered his Euripidean tribute/parody Frogs in January of 405 BC, he made Dionysus lead character. Though Bacchae was not produced until later, probably in March of the same year, coincidence seems unlikely. Aristophanes might have seen the text found amongst Euripides’ papers after his death in 406.
That influence of Bacchae echoes down the ages. It seems to have influenced some accounts of the death of Orpheus, in which the poet is torn apart by Maenads at Dionysus’ instigation (though in others, such as Ovid, Bacchus punishes those responsible); like Pentheus, all that is left of Orpheus is his head.* Anthony Shaffer must surely have been thinking of the play when he wrote The Wicker Man, in which the upright and rational Sergeant Howie is entwined in the schemes of Dionysiac pagans, and part of the trap involves dressing Howie in clothes appropriate to the pagan celebration.
The National Theatre of Scotland's production, directed by John Tiffany and starring Alan Cumming as Dionysus, comes to Hammersmith laden with expectation, having been the hit of the Edinburgh International Festival. By and large, I think it lives up to those expectations, though it does have something of the curate's egg about it. In many ways, it's a fairly traditional approach. The play's Theban setting is retained, rather than a modern relocation, though the production is in some ways very Scottish – Tony Curran's Pentheus belongs to the line of Glasgow hardmen that James Cosmo and Billy Connolly have played so successfully on screen. The idea of Dionysus as rock star is not particularly novel – I saw it used in a production of Frogs back in 1996. And the androgyny of the god is inherent in his origin myth.
Central to this version, of course, is Cumming's performance. He enters in a deus ex machina brought to the beginning of the play, with his bare arse forming one of the play's main talking points. The night I saw the play, he seemed to be suffering from a cold, and sounded flat in his first song. Nevertheless, his sheer exuberance carries the play along well, together with some impressive special effects (one of which threatens to give you sunburn), and I found it impossible not to have a big grin on my face through much of the play.
The Chorus are portrayed as a group of black women, clad in red, singing and dancing across the stage. They are also made into more active participants in the play. They are not just Dionysus' audience and fan club. They know who he is (which in Euripides' text they do not), and Dionysus disguises them as Theban functionaries, to help him weave his web around Pentheus (the Times reviewer found this distracting, but I think that's unfair). I always intrinsically approve of a staging that restores music and movement to the Chorus (though at least one production has done this in a manner that actually put me off), and I thought the choreography and harmonizing effective and exciting (even if it did remind me of Return to the Forbidden Planet at times). The connection with gospel music highlights (if not, perhaps, deliberately), that the Chorus, and indeed Greek tragedy as a whole, emerged from religious ceremony.
I also like that not only the Chorus sing, but both Dionysus and Pentheus get musical numbers (and Cadmus and Tiresias do a little bit of soft-shoe shuffle). Arias were an important part of Euripidean tragedy. They are difficult to do in a modern production, and it’s nice to see someone try.
For me, the weakness comes at the end of the play (an opinion shared by a number of friends who've seen it). Previous productions I've seen (such as Peter Hall's at the National Theatre in 2002) have tended to play down the comedy. This staging plays that up, which causes problems on the transition to the horror of the end (not helped by bringing Pentheus' remains on stage in a bin bag). Not until Paola Dionisotti's Agave finally realizes what she holds in her hands does the right emotional pitch get hit, and silence descends on the auditorium. And then Cumming comes back on and slightly spoils it all.
So splendid as the god in human disguise, he can't quite carry off the god as god, despite a bank of bright spotlights behind him (though it surprised me that there isn't a costume change to underline the change in status). Instead, he comes across as a petulant child. Faced with Cadmus and Agave’s reasonable statements that the punishment they have received does not fit their crime, Dionysus says that it's not his fault, it's theirs, it serves them right, anyway Zeus approved his plans - he does absolutely anything rather than accept any personal responsibility. This is explicit in Greig's translation - what Euripides intended is hard to divine, as the text is defective at this point, but I suspect he may have intended to convey more of a sense that justice of a sort has been done (compare the end of the Hippolytus). Cadmus (Ewan Hooper), on the other hand, emerges as the only character with his dignity intact.
Despite my qualms, however, this remains a memorable production of a memorable play.
* Edit 21/09/07: A little extra reading shows that this is wrong. Orpheus’ death at the hands of Maenads inspired by Dionysus featured in Aeschylus' lost Bassarae, and so that legend may have influenced the depiction of Pentheus' death, which is not attested in literature before Euripides.
Sunday, September 09, 2007
The Scoop at More London
Performance seen: September 7th 2007
Steam Industry Free Theatre's approach in this production, directed by Phil Wilmott, is slightly different. They don't neglect comedy, by any means. Menelaus' shipmate, here named Atticus and demoted to the rank of slave [Edit 18/08/09: I let myself down here with a lack of familarity with the play - Meneleus' shipmate is clearly marked out as a slave in Euripides' original text.], is outrageously camp in the portrayal by Nick Smithers, whilst Paul Critolph's Theoclymenus is full-on pantomime villain. But Wilmott's adaptation seeks to find the seriousness in the play. Kerry Skinner's Helen is a woman wronged by malicious gossip, whilst Stewart Alexander's Menelaus, if sometimes confused, carries enough dignity to suggest why his wife should actively want him back.
This is quite a lean Helen as well. The action is got through in about seventy-five minutes. This is largely achieved by cutting most of the choral odes (which in any case don't directly address the action in the way most Greek choruses do). But Helen's explanation of her plan to Menelaus is also cut, so both she and her husband are presented as making up their deception of Theoclymenus as they go along. This is both funnier, and makes Helen and Menelaus more admirable. (On the other hand, Atticus' role appears to have been slightly expanded.)
Other changes involve the replacement of Helen's opening monologue with a dialogue conveying the same information to the audience, between her and the god Hermes, as he abducts her from Sparta. Hermes also returns in place of the Dioscuri at the end. Atticus and Teucer deliver the messenger's speech between them (and to the audience, not to Theoclymenus), and minor roles such as the door keeper are subsumed in the the Chorus.
The stage set has the look of a beach on the Indian Ocean. This is rather dictated by the need for it to also serve for an earlier performance of The Jungle Book on the same day. But the costumes are made to fit, with the Chorus clad in long skirts and midriff-baring tops, with the male members clad in baggy multicoloured shirts and shorts. (The beach effect was emphasized when I saw the play by a co-operative stiff breeze down the Thames.)
Steam Industry have often used the Scoop, the small open theatrical space (inaccurately described as an amphitheatre) in in front of City Hall on the south bank of the Thames, to stage Greek drama (Oedipus, Agamemnon and Children of Hercules). But this is the first time I had seen it. Though the space has nothing like the scale of a true Greek theatre, the tiers of stone backless seating and the open-air environment conveys some of the same effect, though Euripides never had the benefit of radio mikes.
I shall watch out for further productions in this venue.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Why does this matter to us in the sf community? Because the TPA's second example of a 'non-course' is the University of Glamorgan's BSc [Hons] in Science: Fiction and Culture.
At the heart of this particular instance, of course, is the old argument used to discredit Media Studies degrees - 'I can watch television programmes, so clearly a degree in them is just rubbish'. Well, I'm sure these people can read books as well,* but that doesn't invalidate English Literature degrees. To suggest that the study of sf does not require academic rigour is insulting. But I am hardly surprised.
* Actually, I'm not completely sure about that.
Monday, August 13, 2007
What is wrong with the OCR? Earlier this year, they were planning on scrapping the Ancient History A-Level. In May, they said that they'd changed their minds, having been put under a great deal of pressure from the universities and government and opposition ministers. Yet here they are, three months later, seemingly going back on what they said, and indeed apparently taking an even more extreme approach. Do they somehow think that people won't notice? Presumably they will argue, as they did before, that they aren't abolishing the particular subjects, but continuing them in a different format. That didn't wash last time, and I doubt it will this. The chief executive may say that all the classicists he's talked to think this is the best way forward, but I can't imagine any of the ones I've heard speak about this taking the same view.
But maybe I'm being unfair. When planning just to get rid of Ancient History, a spokesman stated that the OCR board still offered "a comprehensive suite of A-levels". The only thing I can see on OCR's own website is a news item about their plans for the new revision of an Ancient History qualification within the Classics A-level suite. Looking at the subjects there, it seems quite a comprehensive and intense list, and there's easily enough material for two years' school study. What it looks like to me is that there is planned to be a single Classics A-level, with Latin, Greek, Ancient History and Classical Civilization options.
Okay, so perhaps one can argue on that basis that the OCR are preserving coherent A-level syllabi in all four subjects. But the crucial question is whether students will be able to take this Classics A-level suite in more than one form. I would think not, otherwise why not keep them as discrete A-levels.
And that I think would be a problem. When I was at school, I took Greek, Latin and Ancient History A-levels. It looks to me as if such an option be not be available under the OCR's plans. As a result, no school child will get the same education in the Classics that I benefited from. Someone who takes a single Classics A-Level will not learn as much about the subject as someone who takes three.
Having lost over Ancient History (though now apparently pretending that they haven't), I expect OCR might well lose over this as well. I will be following this story with interest.
Friday, August 10, 2007
It's a rather splendid discovery, of course. But what interests me is the sociology of the BBC report, and what it says about the way we view Hadrian. All the usual motifs are there - Hadrian's Wall, Hadrian as a good military administrator, Hadrian as one of the 'five good emperors' (a position into which he was canonized by Edward Gibbon).
This fits in with the way Hadrian has always been viewed in England. Because of his association with the Wall, he has, more than any other Roman emperor, been adopted by the English as practically an honorary Englishman - only Constantine comes close in the affections of the English (I refer, of course, to the increasingly small portion of the English population that cares about Roman emperors at all). Hadrian the soldier is highlighted, making him the sort of emperor that retired Guards colonels can identify with. One can't imagine the British press making much of a fuss about a colossal statue of Marcus Aurelius or Gallienus.
There is, however, a different side to Hadrian. That is Hadrian the lover of all things Greek, to such a degree that he was mocked in his youth as a 'Greekling'. (I often wonder if it is coincidental that, in the reign of Hadrian's predecessor Trajan, the satirist Juvenal is, in his vicious attack on Greeks in his Third Satire, using exactly the same word , Graeculus, as was applied to the young Hadrian.) There's Hadrian the homosexual, whose passionate affair with Antinoos scandalized some sections of Roman society, as did the way in which Hadrian mourned Antinoos' death, with an intensity that matched Victoria's mourning for Albert. That's hardly the sort of thing to appeal to retired colonels. (Mind you, having seen some of the images of Antinoos assembled for an exhibition in Leeds last year, I can see Hadrian's point - I mean, I'm a straight bloke, and I'd have done him.) There's Hadrian the capricious tyrant, who exiled and then had executed the architect Apollodorus (who to a degree only had himself to blame - asked for his opinion of the emperor's architectural plans, he made the mistake of giving it), and who executed Senators both at the beginning and end of his reign. Hadrian was in fact, so hated by the Senate that they tried to block his deification after his death, and only the threat of new emperor Antoninus Pius to step down, thus plunging the empire into civil war, browbeat the Senate into acquiescing.
This Hadrian has rather a lot in common with the previous emperor to take up wearing a beard, Nero. (Both emperors wrote poetry, for a start.) What differentiates the good emperor from the monster seems to me to come down to the fact that one survived, and one didn't, and Hadrian survived because he (a) didn't push things as far as Nero - no actual public performances for this emperor - and (b) always knew that the army was on his side (they were always on Nero's side as well, but Nero didn't realize this, and so panicked).
So perhaps Hadrian is the worst of the 'good emperors'.
On a wholly different subject, the Today programme featured an item this morning about an English Heritage sponsored debate that will take place over the weekend, concerning who England's greatest monarch was. This was Today at it's worst. The show always likes to set up confrontations between opposing views, which blights a lot of its non-political reporting, which sits uneasily in such a format. This was particularly unedifying, as Alison Weir, Sarah Gristwood and Martyn Downer, making the cases for their respective choices (Henry VIII, Elizabeth II and Victoria), rapidly came down to 'my monarch's bigger than your monarch'.
In any case, they're all wrong - it should of course be Charles II.
Saturday, August 04, 2007
I am ambivalent on the rights and wrongs of the Elgin Marbles argument, and I don't intend to get involved in the debate here. But I have thought before that the Greek government does its case no favours with the attitude it sometimes takes to those culturally-important monuments it does have.
(Link seen on rogueclassicism.)
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
If children learn ethnic studies, in ten years they will earn absolutely nothing from it. The ones who learn Latin will be the ones who will be able to go on to jobs in the City, or as lawyers, or journalists. I think it's deeply patronising for people to suggest that pupils in ethnically mixed state schools should not learn the subject that is going to get them into the best paid jobs.
This isn't an uncommon idea for Classicists to promote. It is true that there are a fair number of people in top jobs who have some sort of Classical study in their educational background. But I wonder whether this isn't a case of the post hoc ergo propter hoc* logical fallacy.
To help explain, let me turn to the history of the Roman empire. In the Open University course I teach, the students are about to embark upon study of the Second Sophistic, an intellectual movement that flourished in the first to third centuries AD in the eastern, Greek-speaking provinces of the empire. The chief historian of this movement was a man called Philostratus, who presents in his Lives of the Sophists a picture where the leaders of this movement were movers and shakers in their local communities, and in the wider empire. The clear implication is that they were influential because they were sophists.
For a long time, in the positivistic way that Classicists used to (and still often do) approach ancient evidence, this was accepted as they way it was, and is enshrined in Glen Bowersock's 1969 study Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire. But E.L. Bowie's 1982 article 'The importance of sophists' (Yale Classical Studies 27, pp. 29-59), for me, comprehensively demolishes such a view. Bowie shows that the sophists came almost exclusively from the political and economic elite of the Greek cities, and that their influence arose as a result of that elite status, not directly from their activities as sophists, which were almost incidental.
Which brings us back to Latin in modern Britain. Yes, many people in top jobs went to elite** schools where they were taught Latin (often compulsorily). But did they get to the top because of their Latin study? Or because they went to elite schools, where they mixed with other children of the British social and political elite, and through that had opportunities they would not have had in comprehensives? I rather think it's the latter.
I have nothing but respect for what Lorna Robinson*** is doing with the iris Project, and have contributed to the next issue of the magazine. I'm all for getting more people to learn about the classical world, because (a) it will help them understand their own world better, (b) as Boris Johnson says in the Indy piece, it's socially unjust not to give opportunities to everyone to study the subject, and (c) Classics is cool. But if we as Classicists tell the kids Robinson teaches in Hackney (and I should stress that I've no reason to believe that Robinson herself says anything of the sort) that Latin alone will allow them free entry into the social, political or economic elites of this country, then I think we're selling them a pup.
And do we have to tear down other subjects to promote our own? This is again something often done by Classicists. Boris Johnson, in his mostly enjoyable The Dream of Rome, says that people studying Media Studies would be better off doing Latin. But I don't see why Media Studies should be any less rigorous than Latin. I know it's often presented as just watching television instead of working, but both are subjects that require critical study of texts (in the widest meaning of that term); the only fundamental difference between Classics and Media Studies is the nature of the texts studied. And someone who in ten years' time is working with their local community (and we will always need people in these jobs) might well find Ethnic Studies more useful than Classics.
The trouble with this sort of attitude is that associating Latin with top jobs, and asserting its superiority over other disciplines, gives Classics a snob value. Frankly, this sort of arrogant elitism has done Classics as a discipline no good at all over the years. It has, I suspect, provoked a reaction against the subject, which left Classics departments in schools and universities vulnerable to cuts. The recent resurgence of the subject has come partly as a result of discarding such attitudes, and being more inclusive. And that's right. I would never for a moment say that the study of Classics is for everyone. But I don't think social background should be a factor in deciding whether or not it's for you.
* "After this, therefore because of this".
** I'm using 'elite' because I can't think of a better word. I don't mean to imply that anything I describe as 'elite' is necessarily better than the non-elites.
*** That's Robinson, not 'Richardson' as the Indy seems to think.
Monday, April 30, 2007
A couple of things she says need interrogating. She points out that the common picture, of Hadrian's Wall as an extended city wall from which barbarians were repulsed, is incorrect - the Wall was never sturdy enough to repulse that sort of military assault. That's all perfectly true, and in any case the Romans didn't conceive of defence in that fashion - the Roman army defended the provinces by drawing attacking forces into open combat and wiping them out. But such an observation applies only to the actual curtain wall and associated ditches. The whole complex of Hadrian's Wall includes forts where the troops were based, milecastles, turrets for observing activity in the frontier zones, and outpost forts beyond the wall. It's a lot harder to argue that these could have served no purpose in the military defence of Britain.
And I wonder about the way she characterizes the way the Romans thought of the frontier. She says:
The Roman image of the frontier was usually much more subtly nuanced. The empire shaded into “foreign” territory across many kilometres that were melting pot of cultural difference and often a hot-spot of trading and commercial activity. It was a question of frontier zones, rather than frontiers – governed partly by Rome, partly by a whole variety of non-Roman powers.
Now, it's certainly true that the Romans tended to think of external kings who had made agreements with Rome as being essentially part of the Roman empire - 'client kings' were as much as anything an alternate method of governing areas within the empire to direct rule from Rome. Moderns don't always recognize this (I encountered this recently on a guided tour of Colchester Castle, where we were told that Prasutagus of the Iceni was not amongst the eleven unnamed British kings mentioned on an inscription in Rome as having submitted to Claudius, because he remained king - I'd argue that retention of his crown on Roman terms was, to a Roman, submission). But the picture Beard presents looks like a modern archaeological way of looking at the frontiers, rather than necessarily something a Roman might have thought.
I don't know of any ancient sources that present quite the view Beard has, though I'm happy to be proved wrong if anyone can cite something. There are plenty of texts that talk as if Rome has no limits at all, and the world is divided merely into areas Rome rules and areas Rome will rule. But, if I recall correctly (and again, please correct me if I'm wrong), many of these date to the Augustan period. There's a danger of being too simplistic when one talks about 'what the Romans thought', and forgetting that over a period of several centuries, prevalent opinions could change.
Hadrian's Wall is not quite as unique as Beard implies - there are other frontiers in Germany (where the linear barrier is a palisade), in North Africa (where the forts are scatted along a road), and of course the Antonine Wall, further north than Hadrian's Wall in Scotland. It seems to me that it was becoming possible in the second century for some Romans to think in terms of linear limits to the Roman empire, even if they still understood that their influence could project beyond it (which is no different from modern nations who believe that their influence goes beyond their borders).
What cannot be questioned is that linear barriers were built. And once one builds a fence or a wall across a piece of ground, one is making statements about the territory either side of that barrier. A barrier like Hadrian's Wall carries with it an emphatic statement that the territory behind it was Roman; but it also carries a (perhaps less emphatic) statement that the territory beyond the wall, if not entirely given up by Rome, was certainly somewhere that Rome did not maintain such a strong claim to.
Let's return then to George Bush's fence. I think this is rather more like Hadrian's Wall than Beard allows. Many purposes have been suggested for Hadrian's Wall, from giving the soldiers something to do, to securing lines of communications. beard lists most of the suggestions. It is entirely possible that many of them are valid - indeed, I think it likely; I've always been suspicious of attempts to find the One and Only Reason for historical events, as single causes rarely tell the whole story.
One of the suggestions is that the wall was meant to control the non-military movement across the frontier zone. I think there's a lot to be said for that, and if that's true, then is that not exactly the same as the stated purpose of Bush's fence? Bush wants the fence to prevent illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico into the US. This is what has been suggested for Hadrian's Wall - making sure people could only cross the frontier at manned posts, where they could be taxed, and their right to enter the empire be confirmed.
It has also been suggested (and again I'm sympathetic) that, regardless of any practical purpose, Hadrian's Wall had a symbolic function. It was meant to show to anyone crossing the frontier that they were entering a more powerful state than they had left. The Bush fence seems to me to fulfill the same purpose (as do the hoops that Immigration makes anyone trying legitimately to enter the US jump through).
And propaganda goes both ways. There's a case for saying that the Bush fence is meant to assuage the fears of people living in the southern States that they are about to be swamped by immigrants. Something Must Be Done, and it doesn't matter if it's practical, or if the threat is genuine, as long as action can be seen to have been taken, and that action can be seen as resolute.
And so I find myself wondering whether, if we knew more about the second century AD in Britain than the anonymous fourth-century concocter of the Historia Augusta did, would we see an emperor under pressure to Do Something about the barbarian threat, and choosing to produce something that might not keep the barbarians at bay, but let his subjects sleep at night?
Monday, April 23, 2007
For more consistently successful use of classical imagery in the 1960s than that achieved by Doctor Who, it is necessary to cross the
Captain James Kirk’s middle name took a long time to be established. Indeed, when he was first introduced, in the second pilot of Star Trek, ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’ (1966), his middle initial is shown on a gravestone as ‘R.’ This detail had been forgotten by the next time someone wanted to give Kirk’s middle initial, and so it became ‘T.’ But what this stands for remained unknown throughout the original run of Trek.
That it is ‘Tiberius’ was finally established in 1974, in an episode of the animated series of Star Trek that followed the original – ‘Bem’, written by David Gerrold. Almost everything that happened in the animated episodes is considered non-canonical for subsequent Trek productions. That is, they are never referred to, and no attempt is made to avoid contradicting them. But, curiously, the detail of Kirk’s middle name does get into the Star Trek canon. This suggests that it was series creator Gene Roddenberry’s notion, rather than writer Gerrold’s.
In Roddenberry’s novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), there is a preface made out to be by James Kirk himself. In that preface, Kirk shows his Classical credentials by stating that he has come to be seen as a new Ulysses, and that he is uncomfortable in the role. He also explains his name:
My name is James Tiberius Kirk. Kirk because my father and his male forebears followed the old custom of passing on a family identity name. I received James because it was both the name of my father’s beloved brother as well as that of my mother’s first love instructor. Tiberius, as I am forever tired of explaining, was the Roman emperor whose life for some unfathomable reason fascinated my grandfather Samuel.
Anybody who has read Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius, or is familiar with I, Claudius or Tinto Brass’ 1979 film Caligula, will know that Tiberius was notorious for the quantity, variety and invention of his sexual perversions. Several questions therefore clearly arise. What exactly was it about Tiberius that so fascinated Samuel Kirk? Do Samuel Kirk’s interests, together with James being named after his mother’s ‘love instructor’ (whatever one of those is), explain the voracious heterosexual appetite of the grandson? But above all, what was Roddenberry thinking?
The full establishment of that detail, of course, postdates the original series. Looking at the ‘classic’ episodes, and passing over the hyperbolic assertion of Allan Asherman that the second pilot, ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’, has ‘all the elements of a Greek tragedy’, the first episode that I will studied comes from the second season. Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon’s ‘Bread and Circuses’ (1968), which of course takes its title from a famous line of the Roman poet Juvenal (Satires 10.80-1: ‘The citizen anxiously wishes for two things only, bread and circuses’).
The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at a planet which has developed in much the same fashion as Earth (explained in the episode by a pseudoscientific excuse called ‘Hodgkins’ Law of Parallel Planet Development’), except that the Roman empire never fell. Thus the viewer is presented with a late twentieth-century Earth ruled by a First Citizen and a Proconsul, in which the leading car is called the Jupiter Eight. Slavery still exists, and imperial rule exploits the population and keeps it downtrodden.
What is most interesting about this story is the gladiatorial show which takes place in the episode. It is an often-noted irony that
In one further point the story draws inspiration from
The gladiatorial motif is also used in another episode produced almost simultaneously with ‘Bread and Circuses’, ‘The Gamesters of Triskelion’ (1968),  written by Margaret Armen. In this aliens abduct
This is a far more straightforward treatment of the subject matter of bloodthirsty entertainment. The gladiatorial elements are ascribed to aliens, and thus distanced from humanity, whilst Kirk is seen verbally and physically to espouse the human (i.e. American) devotion to freedom and the human (i.e. American) ability to triumph over outstanding odds. It is poorly-written and clichéd, and entirely lacks the satirical edge of ‘Bread and Circuses’.
‘Bread and Circuses’ is an example of interaction with ancient
It’s interesting to quote what a 1988 article on Star Trek has to say about the Romulans:
Like the Klingons, the Romulons [sic] are a warrior-race, but one molded in the shape of the
There is actually quite a lot to disagree with in that statement. Decius in ‘Balance of Terror’ does have a Roman-sounding (indeed Roman) name. However, he is the only Romulan given a name in any of the original Star Trek episodes in which they appear (‘Balance of Terror’, ‘The Deadly Years’, 1967, and ‘The
Star Trek can make such use of the
Star Trek also deals with the Greeks, in three episodes. Two of these, one from the second season and one from the third, draw from Greek culture in a fairly transparent fashion. The first is Gilbert Ralston’s ‘Who Mourns For Adonais?’ (1967), most famous at the time for the costume worn by actress Leslie Parrish (it involved a heavy strip of material drawn up from the waistband, arranged across her breasts and then draped over her left shoulder, but not anchored in any way at the back, relying on the material’s weight to keep it in place). In this episode, the
The choice of Apollo is interesting. Star Trek emerged out of the optimism for space exploration engendered by the NASA programmes of the 1960s, and Starfleet appears a natural successor to NASA. By 1967, at the forefront of NASA’s activities was the Apollo programme to put men on the moon. First aired in September 1967, ‘Who mourns for Adonais?’ was undoubtedly written and filmed with the knowledge of the Apollo 1 fire of January 27th of that year. This may well have something to do with the sympathetic portrayal of the god.
Apollo never falters from his claim that he is a god, except in one scene where he almost admits to Carolyn Palomas (Parrish) that he and his fellows had a non-divine origin. This attitude is conveyed by a marvellous performance by the experienced Shakespearean stage actor Michael Forrest. Forrest had previously starred in Roger Corman’s 1960 Atlas, and so had previous association with the whole sword-and-sandal or peplum genre (the production team originally considered a British actor, but could not find one suitable). As Gideon Nisbet shows in his discussion of Atlas, modern American audiences find it hard to take seriously the notion that a man dressed in an ancient tunic and showing a lot of leg can be a virile male lead, unless they have a reluctant Christian girl to win over. Yet Forrest spends the entire episode dressed in a very short gold lamé tunic, which he apparently disliked, without ever once giving any suggestion of camp (though a ‘blooper’ reel does show him parading effeminately in it). The episode does this by drawing upon the conventions of Roman toga epic, and the central romantic clash between the pagan male and Christian female that often features. In this instance, for ‘pagan’ and ‘Christian’ read ‘irrational’ and ‘scientific’. Apollo claims divinity; Starfleet officer Carolyn Palomas has been trained to deny such notions (reflecting the rationalist outlook of the series as a whole). Yet despite this, Palomas falls for Apollo, and in an abandoned final sequence (reinstated by James Blish when he novelized the story in Star Trek 7 (1972)), falls pregnant by him.
This is one of the most philosophically interesting episodes of Star Trek. It ends, after the Enterprise crew have caused Apollo to destroy himself, with Kirk musing on whether it would have hurt them so much to gather a few laurels in Apollo’s honour.
The second Greek episode, Meyer Dolinsky’s ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ (1968; originally entitled ‘The Sons of Socrates’), comes from the third season. At the time, this episode was controversial in the United States, because it was reportedly the first television show to feature an interracial kiss (between Kirk and Lt. Uhura, though according to William Shatner the director refused to actually allow their lips to touch); in the UK, the episode was banned for over a decade, presumably because of a scene where two Enterprise women are threatened by Kirk and Spock with a whip and a branding iron.
In ‘Who Mourns For Adonais?’ the Greek elements are integral to the story. In ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, they seem more like window-dressing. There is no real reason for the Platonians to be followers of Plato, as the real story revolves around their possession of strong psychokinetic powers and their irresponsibility in using them. There is no good evidence from the episode that Dolinsky had actually read any Plato, unless you believe that the central message of Platonism is that the powerful should be self-indulgent hedonists and bully the less powerful.
Finally, there is ‘Elaan of Troyius’, again from the third season of 1968, written by John Meredyth Lucas. A Greek connection for this episode is often overlooked, but is clearly present in some of the names, and the basic premise, drawn from the Trojan War, though Lucas departs from that premise at many points.The beautiful Elaan is clearly Helen of Troy, who can make any man fall in love with her (given a pseudo-scientific explanation as being due to a biochemical compound in her tears). She is marrying the ruler of Troyius (
 This chapter concentrates on the original series of 1966-1969. Subsequent spin-off series were the animated series of 1973-1975, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), and
 At the time Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space was more popular in the ratings, but it is Star trek that is now iconic.
 This is left vague in the original series, with some episodes, such as ‘Tomorrow is Yesterday’ (1967), suggesting that it might be the 22nd century. The dates were fixed when Star Trek: The Next Generation was produced in the 1980s.
 Technically not until mentioned on-screen in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).
 Persistent rumour has suggested that this, whilst appearing under Roddenberry’s name, was actually written by Alan Dean Foster. However, though Foster had done the equivalent when he wrote the novelization of Star Wars (1976), which was published as by George Lucas, and though he was undoubtedly involved at an early stage in the screenwriting of what eventually became Star Trek: The Motion Picture, he denies writing the novelization, and David G. Hartwell, who edited the book, insists that it was written by Roddenberry (Ayers 2006).
 Writers of ‘slash’ fan fiction featuring the unspoken love between Kirk and Spock (of whose work Roddenberry was presumably aware) might take such a statement as evidence that they were right all along.
 Allan Asherman, The Star Trek Compendium (1987), p. 17.
 Duas tantum res anxius optat / panem et circenses. Recent translations tend to avoid ‘circuses’ for circenses; so Rudd in the Oxford World’s Classics edition has ‘bread and races’ (1991, 89), whilst Green in the Penguin uses ‘bread and the Games’. These, I feel, lose the cultural resonance of ‘bread and circuses’, which has passed into popular usage.
 Recorded after, but broadcast before, ‘Bread and Circuses’.
 There is also the first season episode ‘Arena’, in which Kirk has to battle an alien captain at the whim of god-like beings (which are not rare in Star Trek). This would be more a case of allusion than anything else.
 Up to a point. The Enemy Below ends with the destruction of both vessels, clearly not an option for an ongoing series like Star Trek.
 Rick Worland, ‘Captain Kirk: Cold Warrior’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 16 no. 3 (Fall 1988), p. 110.
 There is no doubt some truth in Worland’s assertion (op. cit., p. 112) that, to some degree at least, the Romulans stand in for Red China in an allegory of the Cold War, with the United Federation of Planets as NATO, and the Klingon Empire as the Soviet Union.
 The spelling is deliberate, after Shelly’s ‘Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats’ (1821).
 On this episode see now Otta Wenskus, “Star Trek: Antike Mythen und moderne Energiewesen,” in PONTES II: Antike im Film Film, ed. Martin Korenjak and Karlheinz Töchterle, Comparanda 5 (
 Wenskus 2002, 130, notes that the motto of
 This scene is discussed by Winkler 2005, 402.
 His name is spelt this way in the credits for this episode, though he has more often been credited as ‘
 See Nisbet 2006, 9-20.
 Since Kirk has been the prime mover in destroying Apollo, this line actually seems quite odd coming from him. William Shatner was rumoured to have ensured that he got all the best lines in the show, and one wonders whether this one was originally intended for another character, perhaps Dr McCoy, whose role is often to act as the crew’s conscience.
 Including by myself in earlier treatments of this topic, and I am grateful to Dr Alexandra Villing of the
 Gerry Turnbull (ed.), A Star Trek Catalog (1979), p. 130.