Tuesday, November 04, 2008

May I borrow your teacup please? I have a storm.

The Daily Telegraph reports that certain councils are banning the use of certain Latin phrases, such as ad hoc or ex officio in official documents (it's also been reported in the Daily Mail, but since (a) their article plagiarizes the Telegraph, and (b) it's the Mail, I shan't provide a link). Mary Beard describes such a policy as "ethnic cleansing applied to language."

It may surprise some of you that I'm on the side of the councils. Yes, of course, Latin enriches the English language, and it is true, as Harry Mount says, that these Latin tags express certain concepts far more neatly than equivalent English circumlocutions. But, crucially, only if the reader already knows the meaning of the phrase. If not, then use of such terms becomes a bar to communication. Peter Jones complains that "This sort of thing sends out the message that language is about nothing more than the communication of very basic information." But communicating basic information is precisely what council documents are supposed to do. They don't have literary aspirations, and need to be written in a language comprehensible to their readership. Terms like ad hoc or ex officio may be part of the common vocabulary of educated middle-class people who read the Telegraph or take Classical subjects in prestigious universities. But they're not part of the language of EastEnders, and that is the language council documents must be written in. Yes, of course it's a good thing to encourage immigrants to aspire to a vocabulary that includes Latinisms. But you don't do that by including them in basic council documents.

We all adjust our language according to the audience. I would happily use terms like this in documents for the Open University. But in my day job, I produce process documentation. I would never put terms like ad hoc or ex officio in those, because the readers wouldn't know what they meant. All the councils have done is suggest that certain terms be avoided (not, incidentally 'banning' them).

This doesn't, of course, mean that I or the councils are advocating the expunging of all Latin derivations from English, or those derived from other languages. Words like 'virtue' or 'cul-de-sac' are commonly understood, so there is no need to find alternatives. To move the argument onto such vocabulary is setting up a straw man, unrelated to what the councils are actually doing. Referring to "ethnic cleansing" seems a bit silly.

At worst, the councils have been overzealous in the terms they have excluded. Most people probably understand 'etc.' or 'N.B.' (which are terms I've used in process documentation). But even the most obvious terms aren't always as broadly understood as you might expect - I've lost count of the number of reasonably intelligent and educated OU students I've had who don't know the difference between 'e.g.' and 'i.e.', so I can see the argument for using 'for example' and 'that is' instead.

The bottom line is that councils have a responsibility to communicate clearly to all people likely to be using their documents. It may be regrettable that this means many Latin phrases are no longer appropriate for use. But it's unfair to blame councils for acknowledging reality.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Camelot! Camelot! (It's only a CGI effect.)

Yes, I watched the BBC's new fantasy series, Merlin.

Good things about Merlin:

Unlike the last two screen examples of Arthuriana, I've seen, King Arthur and The Last Legion, there is no attempt here to do a 'historical Arthur'. Instead, it's all set in a timeless quasi-mediaeval fantasy world (seemingly using leftover sets and costumes from Robin Hood). In general, I approve. When Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes wrote down these stories, the main fonts from which all subsequent versions come, they set them in a timeless mediaeval fantasy world. Doing a historical Arthur strikes me as slightly missing the point.

Gwen from Torchwood! Actually showing more acting skills than she's ever displayed in that role.

Bad things:

Richard Wilson's frightwig is rather unsettling.

The music, overly dependent on Howard Shore, and over-emphasizing the emotional content of each scene, which seems to be the fashion these days.

And there's not much of a sense of otherness about Camelot. Everyone talks, behaves, even to a degree dresses as if this is 2008 London. Roll that up with a bunch of cliches (the bullying prince, the servant who saves everyone but can't tell), and, though this is not bad, it doesn't climb much above most other semi-competent Arthur versions.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Forthcoming films?

There's a Facebook group for people interested in Classical reception studies. I don't look at it as often as I should, though it's pretty quiet most of the time. When I looked today, there was a news item with a list of Greek and Roman themed films that we can look forward to, nine in total (and that list leaves out John Boorman's Memoirs of Hadrian, and I, Claudius, which has just leapt back to life with Jim Sheridan supposedly attached). And I found myself wondering, how many of these films will ever get made. I may be cynical, but I'd be surprised if more than ten percent actually appear in a cinema.

All these projects are in 'pre-production'. What this means is that people have talked about maybe making a movie. Perhaps some actors have been sounded out. Maybe even a script is being laboured over somewhere. But only a small proportion of films that get announced as in pre-production ever actually get made. As Gideon Nisbet says, advance publicity is 'so much hot air until someone starts nailing a set together'. So, Variety may announce that Zak Penn, writer of X-Men 3 and The Incredible Hulk, has signed with Twentieth-Century Fox as writer and producer of The Argonauts, but that doesn't mean that they are committed to putting serious money behind it, however much the publicity department may talk as if this is the case. Reading between the lines, it looks like this is a pet project of Penn's, that he's got some money out of Fox to write a script for. What will become of it depends on a variety of different, and unpredictable factors, not all of them relating to quality.

Last year, for instance, there was much talk of a film of Robert Harris' novel Pompeii, to be directed by Roman Polanski. Plans were afoot to begin filming in Italy, with Orlando Bloom and Scarlett Johansson 'in talks' (another term which, like 'pre-production', covers a multitude of sins) to star. Then the project was delayed due to the possibility of a strike by the Screen Actors Guild, Polanski couldn't commit to the revised schedule, and various distributors pulled out. No new director has been assigned since Polanski left, and though the film still appears on the Internet Movie Database, it seems to me not unreasonable to assume that the project is dead in the water.

What's happening at the moment is that the success of 300 last year has encouraged studios to look at more similar ideas, in the hope of repeating that film's success. The present vogue for films adapted from comic books is also a factor; Hercules: The Thracian Wars is a comic that has been optioned. But this is just a cycle that comes and goes. People talked up the epic when Gladiator was a hit, then talked it down again when Alexander flopped. If Watchmen tanks, comic book films may go out of fashion.

So, I don't expect to see most of the films that have been announced. Some I'm sure will never happen. Vin Diesel has been trying to get his Hannibal the Conqueror since at least 2002. No-one seems interested (Gideon Nisbet has an interesting examination of why this might be in Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture), and I certainly don't believe IMDb's suggestion that it will get a release in 2009, when not a frame of film seems to have yet been shot. Even the animated prequel, which at one point had its own webpage, suggesting it might really happen, seems to have gone into limbo.

Of all these films, Boorman's Hadrian has the most chance of actually appearing. It's got a name director, a big name star in talks (Daniel Craig, or is is Antonio Banderas? Personally I'd like to see Peirce Brosnan in the role, but that's just me, I guess), and a schedule to start filming next spring. But it's currently no more solid a prospect than Pompeii was this time last year, just before it all fell apart. For a film to get made requires not just the allocation of a budget, but some serious spending of it, not just on rights and scripts (relatively cheap in the overall scheme of things), but on locations, and sets and actors.

Once that investment starts, a film can survive all sorts of disasters, and usually (though not always) will make it to the screen. Gladiator's second script got thrown out just before filming started, and Oliver Reed died before completing his scenes, and that still got to the multiplexes. Of course, sometimes it takes a while, if the execs are worried that their project isn't any good; The Last Legion was delayed by over a year.

I'd love to be able to see a classically-based film in the cinema about every other month over the next two years. The Hadrian and Claudius pics have the potential to be classy pieces of work. But until the cameras start rolling, I'm not holding my breath.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The matter of Troy

By coincidence, my last trip to the comics shop I patronize produced the last issue of Marvel Illustrated: The Iliad, and the latest issue of Age of Bronze. Which gives an opportunity to compare two completely different approaches to reinterpreting the Trojan War.

When people retell the tales of Troy, there are four aspects that I think are always worth looking at (these are notions I've developed partly out of conversations I've had with the likes of Nick Lowe, Paula James and Lynn Fotheringham, so they deserve credit). First, there's the issue of the 'canon'. Most of us know these stories in their most famous versions, and this can sometimes lead to imagining that they are fixed in that form. This tends to manifest itself in attacks by some classicists on retellings for 'changing things', which was the fate of Wolfgang Petersen's film Troy. Other treatments stick pretty closely to the received version, such as Daniel Morden and Hugh Lupton's version of The Iliad, which, as I recall (it's a while since I saw it), only deviates in certain minor details (and even this received criticism from some quarters). In fact, the 'canon' is a mirage. Euripides, Chaucer and Shakespeare did not feel themselves bound by Homer, and it is unfair to expect modern writers to be (see here for a fuller discussion of this in relation to Petersen's film).

Then there's the scope of the retelling. Most versions choose to tell 'the story of the Trojan War', from the rape of Helen to the Wooden Horse; Petersen's Troy fits into this, as does Lindsay Clarke's The War At Troy, and indeed Morden and Lupton's work. But Greek and Latin versions don't do this (as far as I'm aware - I may have missed something minor on this point). For an ancient author, the Trojan War was like World War II is to modern writers, a background against which to tell stories, rather than a story in its own right.

Thirdly, the attitude to the gods. Most modern treatments don't like the gods - they don't know how to cope with them. So they get removed, along with most other elements of the fantastic, leaving little more than prophetic dreams. Again, Troy is a good example of this.

Finally, there's homosexuality. Homer does not emphasize a sexual side to the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and it can be argued that he did not intend one to be read into his writings. Nevertheless, people have done so, ever since the fifth century BC at the latest, and it is a potential nightmare for anyone coming to the story in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Play the relationship up, and conservative critics will attack the work - but play it down, and activists will comment on the removal of a gay subtext. This happened to Troy, though I have suggested (in a piece for CA News in June 2006) that, whilst the film plays the gay relationship down in the dialogue, it is restored in the visual semiotics.

So how do these comics stack up against these points? Marvel's Iliad is part of a line of retellings of well-known literature, taking up the mission of the Classics Illustrated line. So it is the Iliad, not the tale of Troy. A prelude explains the background, but writer Roy Thomas sees no reason to add a postscript describing the final fall of Troy - the comic ends where Homer ends, with the funeral of Hector. In terms of the Homeric canon, obviously there are no conflicts. There is much omitted, as you'd expect when compressing twenty-four books of poetry into eight issues of a comic, but no changes.

And the gods are present. When you actually think about it, this is hardly unexpected, even were it not for the requirement to tell the Iliad, in which the gods are crucial. Roy Thomas has been writing superhero comics since 1965, in which gods like Hercules and Thor have regularly featured. So it's not too surprising that he has no issue with writing the gods here. If anything, they come across as better rounded characters - Thomas seems to have enjoyed writing the gods more than writing the heroes.

Pity about the art by Miguel Angel Sepulveda. It's serviceable, and at least it's not ugly in the way a lot of superhero art is these days. But all the women look like Californian porn stars, and Athena is dressed up like an Amazon from Xena: Warrior Princess.

Eric Shanower's award-winning Age of Bronze is a different matter entirely. Shanower is very definitely telling the story of Troy, according to the ancient accounts, except carefully writing out the gods, beyond the dreams of Cassandra and other prophets. Key events of divine intervention, such as the Judgment of Paris or Iphigenia being spirited away from the sacrificial altar, are reported, by people who may not be telling the truth. It's meticulously drawn and meticulously researched. Shanower makes sure to set the War against the geopolitical background of the twelfth century B.C., so far as that is known. Everyone is clothed in Bronze Age outfits, in contrast to Marvel Illustrated: The Iliad, where the arms and armour of historical Greece are depicted.

The trouble is, it's also very slow. Shanower is determined to get every part of the 'Trojan story', so we have seen the stories of Telephus, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the story of Palamedes. Every possible author, from Homer and Aeschylus, down to obscure Latin playwrights like Accius, is drawn upon. As a result, ten years and twenty-seven years down the line, and we're only just getting to the first Greek attack on Troy. This amount of characters makes it difficult to keep track of who's who (especially on the Trojan side, where many of the main characters look alike). And combining so many different stories means that, as a whole, Age of Bronze lacks dramatic shape.

Besides, setting the story in an authentic historical background may seem like a good idea, but I can't help but feeling that, like 'historical' King Arthur stories, it's ever so slightly missing the point. These are timeless legends, that have become unshackled, at least to a degree, from whatever historical origins they may have had, and exist in an invented time that never truly was. In that respect, Sepulveda's Corinthian helmets, and the like, which look right to the general reader, are perhaps truer to the spirit of Homer, who happily mixed up elements remembered from the past and from his own time, than are Shanower's boar's-tusk helmets, which are right for the Late Bronze Age.

Shanower does make explicit a sexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, something Marvel Illustrated: The Iliad doesn't really engage with (but then neither does Homer, so you can see why). But Shanower does this in a very twenty-first century way. Achilles meets Patroclus, falls in love with him, and immediately loses all interest in his wife Deidamia. To me, this doesn't really accord with Greek attitudes.

I feel quite bad about my reaction to Shanower's work. It's beautifully drawn, an obvious labour of love, and unquestionably, it's a more serious piece of art than Marvel Illustrated: The Iliad. But the latter seems in some respects a little more successful.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Tutankhamun at the O2

Last Monday, I finally got around to seeing Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, and, incidentally, making my first ever visit inside the Millennium Dome. Seeing this has made me appreciate the British Museum's Hadrian: Empire and Conflict rather better than in my somewhat lukewarm write-up. I'm not saying that Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs is a bad exhibition - it isn't. But it's nothing like as good as Hadrian.

Let's start with the things I did like. I was a little concerned that it would be overly theatrical, but after an opening video (90 seconds of Omar Sharif), and despite the fact that some of the staff are expected to wear Pharaonic headdress, there is very little overtly contrived in the presentation. The objects are laid out in reasonably spacious and well-enough lit galleries, and the numbers admitted kept to reasonable levels. So there aren't many jams (except at the beginning, where they keep you waiting before admitting you and letting you watch the video), it's never impossible to get up close to a case, if you're prepared to wait, and only occasionally is there not a clear route through the exhibits, leading to confusion as people try to go in different directions. I particularly appreciated the repetition of labels in large print on the tops and sides of cases, allowing one to read about the contents even when there's a crowd in front; other exhibitions could learn from this. Those labels seemed to me concise, and informative (though my companion thought they were dumbing down).

I liked the opening galleries, that set Tutankhamun in context, by displaying objects and images associated with his predecessors in the Egyptian royal family, to whom the boy-king was clearly related (though the exhibition makes clear that exactly how is still up for debate). And it was a bit of an eye-opener how many of Tutankhamun's own objects emphasize military prowess, and victories over the Nubians to the south.

That said, the exhibition is slightly disappointing. None of the really famous Tut objects have travelled from Cairo - no chariots, no couches, no sarcophagi, no death mask (the image used to promote the exhibition is actually a miniature coffin for the Pharaoh's viscera). Contrast this with the impressive centrepieces of Hadrian - the Sagalassos head, the Beth Shean bronze. And there's less than Hadrian - I got round in an hour, whereas I'd allow two for Hadrian (the first time I went it took three, but that was reading everything and listening to all the audio guide).

And there's a certain lack of purpose. Hadrian categorically sets out to educate the visitor about Hadrian, and to change their mind about some things they may have believed. Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs doesn't have much more of a purpose than showing off some nice (if minor) objects from Tut's tomb. The labels convey concise information, but there's not as much to get your teeth into as in Hadrian.

All of which might not matter so much were Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs not significantly more expensive than Hadrian. I'm still glad I went, but it's far from being the most impressive exhibition I've seen.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Marking an anniversary

On the morning of 24th August AD 79, the long-dormant volcano of Vesuvius blew its top. The events of the next forty-eight hours resulted in the provision of a unique insight into daily life in Campania in the first century AD, through the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae, and other sites, such as the villas in Boscoreale and Oplontis. I've been to Pompeii four times over the past twenty-two years, and to Herculaneum three times, and there's lots still to explore. I will go again.

I've only written a few posts about Pompeii, and it's not my area of expertise, though I have taught the material quite often. There are many books, of course. The Electa Guides to Pompeii and Herculaneum are excellent, as is only to be expected. I'd definitely recommend Alex Butterworth & Ray Laurence, Pompeii: The Living City. I haven't looked inside Joanne Berry, The Complete Pompeii, but it seems likely to be impressive, and has been favourably reviewed. And there's a new book on the city from Mary Beard.

Anyway, I don't have much to say on this, but thought the date should be marked.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What's the message here?

I've just read a review in the Wall Street Journal by Sir Peter Stothard of Maria Wyke's Caesar: A Life in Western Culture. I haven't actually read the book myself, though I know I really need to at some point. And I'm not going to do more than note the slightly sniffy tone Sir Peter takes towards the field of reception studies.

What drives me to comment is the following sentence:

Ms. Wyke, however, is a sophisticated practitioner of her craft, a professor of Latin at University College London and a graduate of the British Film Institute.

For me, this raises the question: if Sir Peter knows Wyke is a professor, then why not refer to her as "Prof. Wyke"? Instead, Sir Peter uses "Ms. Wyke" throughout. This looks, on the face of it, an instance of diminishing the status of female academics, by not using the same courtesy title as one would grant to a male. It's more common than you'd think. As a male myself, I've largely been insulated from it, but a Ph.D.-qualified friend of mine described receiving an e-mail from a female student that correctly referred to two of the academic's male colleagues as 'Dr', but addressed her as 'Miss'. And this wasn't the first time something like this had happened to her.

But perhaps I'm being unfair to Sir Peter. I'm fairly sure this is Sir Peter's choice, rather than something imposed by a WSJ sub-editor, as it's repeated in his blog entry referring to the review. Now, as far as I recall, the practice in Oxbridge colleges used to be to refer to members of staff as 'Mr' or 'Ms', regardless of doctorates or chairs. Sir Peter is a Trinity, Oxford, man, so perhaps he's following that practice.

Well, no. Glancing over Sir Peter's blog, his practice appears to be to refer to male writers by surname alone, without title. Perhaps Sir Peter feels he's being polite and courteous by using 'Ms.' for a woman, but actually it strikes me as rather patronizing. I'm not for a moment accusing Sir Peter of being deliberately misogynist or sexist. But it remains all too easy for males (and not for a moment do I except myself here) to slip without thinking into unexamined chauvinist attitudes.

There's still a long way to go before women are treated equally for doing the same work as men. But we can certainly make a step in the right direction if we remember to refer to, e.g., Maria Wyke as "Prof. Wyke", or "Wyke", but never "Ms Wyke".

Monday, August 18, 2008

I, Hadrian

Well, I've now seen the exhibition three times, read both the books, heard an introductory lecture from the curator, seen the DVD, and read a lot of press coverage. So what did I think?

The first thing to say is that the space in the Reading Room is well-used. It's certainly a lot better than that used for the Persian Empire exhibition a few years back, and possibly they've laid things out more effectively than for The First Emperor. There are points at which the crowds clog up (Vindolanda Tablets, Cave of the Letters material), but by and large I didn't find this oppressive. I was a little concerned that the floor wasn't as solid as it might be beneath my feet, especially as I watched the Beth Shean bronze Hadrian wobble as people walked by.

I've already posted some preliminary comments on what I thought the BM was trying to do with this exhibition, capitalize on the name recognition whilst drawing in people who don't actually know much about the emperor's life, but want to learn. And there's definitely a sense that they want to overturn some myths.

First target is Hadrian as the philosophically-minded philhellene. The recent revelation that the statue of Hadrian in Greek dress is a Victorian composite of Hadrian's head and someone else's body helps this. The notion that the emperor grew his beard in imitation of Greek practice is rather pooh-poohed - soldiers grew beards on campaign, and Hadrian probably picked the habit up in the army. For a British audience, this, I think, is somewhat pushing at an open door - I was introduced to Hadrian the soldier long before I read about Hadrian the philhellene. But it's worth remembering (as, of course, the curators of this exhibition know) that the philhellenic Hadrian is not entirely dependent upon a single statue - rather the statue was composed to reinforce what was already believed of the emperor, though the works of Philostratus and Hadrian's donations in Athens (little touched on in this exhibition). It's also worth bearing in mind what a radical departure Hadrian's portrait was in terms of imperial iconography. Up until Hadrian imperial portraits had, to one degree or another, followed the lead of Augustus, and been clean-shaven, with straight hair, close-dropped in a fringe. Hadrian's full beard and mop of curls was something new.

The other myth attacked is Hadrian the peacemaker. Hadrian's Wall (which from the illustrations one might almost think only survives from slightly west of Housesteads to slightly east of Housesteads) is presented not as a peaceful demarcation, but a symbol of power intended to divide an humiliate the locals, with more than a little in common with the Israeli Wall in Gaza and the planned fence along the Mexican border. There's not much new in this for anyone who's been teaching or studying Hadrian's Wall recently, but the general public perhaps haven't kept up.

Emphasizing Hadrian as a war leader, there is a large section on the Bar Kokhba rebellion in Judaea, which ended with the expulsion of Jews from the province, an act that we are still dealing with the consequences of. At moments one feels the despair of the last of the rebels, trapped in small caves above the Dead Sea, unable to escape, or even get out in the light very often. But one of my students noted a tendency in the labelling to distance Hadrian from direct responsibility.

And that fits in with the general tenor of the exhibition. For all the questioning of certain aspects of his image, I emerged from this exhibition with the feeling that almost all involved (with the exception of the Jewish archaeologists who brought the Bar Kokhba material) retain an enormous amount of admiration for Hadrian. Little controversies are swept under the rug. Hadrian's birth in Rome is taken as a given fact, not, as some have argued, something Hadrian made up in his autobiography to make him seem more authentically Roman. The deathbed adoption of Hadrian by Trajan is only said to lead to rumours and uncertainties - little space is given to the notion that the adoption might have been concocted by Trajan's wife Plotina and the Praetorian prefect Attianus.

My own relationship to Hadrian is very ambivalent. I was brought up to admire him as one of Gibbon's Five Good Emperors, but the more I read about him, the more I feel that we let Hadrian get away with stuff that the likes of Nero would be pilloried for. Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli is every bit as grandiose and indulgent at Nero's Golden House or Tiberius' Villa Jovis at Capri, but Hadrian's does not have the same bad associations, perhaps because it was not in the centre of Rome, taking up people's home's as Nero's was, or inaccessible from the capital as the Villa Jovis.

But I don't want to come across as having a go at the exhibition. It's a good exhibition, with a good collection of material. I'm not sure how much I learnt from it, but then I'm probably spoilt for a lot of this material. I hear people around me being surprised at the notion that Hadrian was from Spain, not Italy, which is something I've known for decades. I'm clearly not the target audience. Nevertheless, there were some things I hadn't seen before. The busts of young Hadrian show him looking like nothing so much as a European prince of the 1830s (and also bearing a resemblance to some portraits of Nero). And it was nice to see Gismondi's model of Hadrian's Villa. And the Mondragone head of Antinous is as sexuality-transcending as it ever was.

And through all of this, the face of the emperor follows you. There are fourteen statues or portrait busts (plus one headless, and a few coin portraits), and you are presented with the image repeated in photographic form throughout the exhibition. And that is the impression I will take away with me - the face of the emperor, and perhaps a sense that I know the complicated man behind that face a little bit better.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A couple of discoveries

It's been a week for archaeological discoveries. and for once I'm not blogging them because I disagree with something that's been said about them,* simply because they're interesting.

First of all, a colossal head of a Roman imperial woman was found in Sagalassos in southern Turkey, in the same baths complex where last year the remains of a statue of Hadrian were found. My first thought was that this might be Hadrian's wife, Vibia Sabina. This also was the first thought of the excavators, but they soon realized that this doesn't look like most portraits of Sabina (that's a statue from Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli, like the Sagalassos head of Hadrian, currently in the British Museum's Hadrian: Empire and Conflict exhibition, which I will blog about - I'm going again tomorrow). Instead, they now think it's Faustina, wife of Hadrian's successor Antoninus Pius. David Meadows on Rogueclassicism kindly provides another example for comparison. I'm not absolutely sure I buy the ID, but it certainly isn't Sabina.

Accepting that it is Faustina, this doesn't mean it's not connected with the statue of Hadrian. Sagalassos was an important centre for the imperial cult (Hadrian had made it so), and what one could have here is part of a group of statues from the Antonine period, with the emperor's deified (adoptive) father, and his deified wife. The excavators suggest that the statues come from a Kaisersaal ('emperor's room') from within the baths complex. There's no word in the reports as to whether the female toes found last year, and thought at the time to be part of a stature of Sabina, go with the head, but it's surely plausible.

The other discovery, again with a Hadrianic connection, comes from Newcastle, where two Roman sarcophagi have been found. What's refreshing about this are some of the comments made by Richard Annis, in charge of the dig. I can't now find where these comments were made, so you'll have to take my word for it, but instead of saying "this completely changes our picture of Roman Newcastle", what he said was that the dig confirms what had always been thought to be the case. Just about every fort along Hadrian's Wall has produced evidence for a vicus or civilian settlement, with Vindolanda, Housesteads and Birdoswald merely being amongst the best known. It stands to reason, then, that the Roman fort at Pons Aelius (now under Newcastle Castle Keep) should have had something similar. These excavations, with the discovery of buildings and roads as well as the cemetery, now prove it.

* Well, apart from a comment about Vibia Sabina being "forced into a marriage with the homosexual emperor [Hadrian] at the age of 14", which is calculated to make the readers view the marriage of Sabina in twenty-first century cultural terms.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Roman Tombstone

This is the tombstone of Insus, son of Vodullus. It was found in Lancaster in 2005, and a BBC news report last week (from which I have taken the photo) talked about plans for it to go on display in the Museum of Lancashire by the end of the year. The inscription reads:


which means (filling in the gaps):

To the spirits of the departed. Insus, son of Vodullus, citizen of the Treveri, cavalryman of the Ala Augusta, curator [a junior officer] of the troop of Victor. Domitia [made this?].

But what I want to talk about is a comment by Stephen Bull, the Museum's curator of Military History and Archaeology. He says:

To depict him in such a dramatic and war-like position, when none of the other tombstones of this period show such a thing, makes it very likely that we are looking at something either real, or very similar to an event that happened.

I find that a very curious thing to say. Because this sort of image, of a cavalryman riding down a barbarian, is not uncommon on Roman tombstones. As it happens, I've been making student assignments on this sort of image over the weekend. This, for example, is the tombstone of Flavinus from Hexham Abbey:

Other examples I can think of are those of Longinus Sdapeze from Colchester, Rufus Sita from Gloucester, and Sextus Valerius Genialis from Cirencester. It's also found in non-funerary contexts. This is a detail from a distance slab put up by the II Legion Augusta on the Antonine Wall, found in Bridgeness and now in the National Museum of Scotland, where I was admiring it on Saturday:

According to this report, there are a dozen such reliefs that have been found in the UK. The beheading shown on the tombstone of Insus does appear to be unique. But is there any need to see this as anything more than a variation on a theme? Is it even necessary to connect it with Celtic head cults, as David Shotter does? Real events were sometimes depicted on tombstones, as, for example, when Tiberius Claudius Maximus depicted his encounter with the dying Dacian king Decebalus. But he also added a detailed text explaining the event. This is not the case with Insus.

Some of Bull's other comments (e.g. "The carving and inscription will add detail to what we know about the Roman auxiliary cavalry and its equipment.") seem perfectly sensible. What I think has happened here is that he has succumbed to the temptation to 'sex the story up' by suggesting that there is an actual event being depicted, rather than just generic imagery. It's the same motivation, to make things more concrete, that is behind suggesting that a Roman bust is of Julius Caesar when there isn't really any evidence.

But perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps Bull (an expert in 20th century military history and that of the English Civil War) has addressed these issues. He has written a pamphlet on the tombstone, which I'll be following up. If nothing else, I want to know what he thinks about Domitia. A lot of tombstones have text at the end suggesting that the soldier's heirs (usually fellow soldiers) set the tombstone up. Sometimes it's someone else. Here it's Domitia. Who was she? soldiers weren't officially allowed to marry, but often had common law wives. Is that who Domitia was?

* There's a nice picture of the inscription on this webpage, though their translation is a bit odd.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

They found Boudicca's brain!

Bonekickers is a show that seems to divide people. The division is between those who think it's utter nonsense, and those who think it's utter nonsense but enjoy it anyway.

This week's seemed more nonsensical than usual, but perhaps because I know the history that's being abused more than in previous episodes. But maybe it's the arsenal of live Roman napalm grenades. It's almost not worth listing all the lunacies in this. Mosaics on walls? Well, perhaps. The Life of Marcus Quintanus is, of course, completely made up - but can you really imagine that if they'd been researching this they wouldn't know that there were other more complete copies? And palimpsests made out of printed pages? Do what, guv'nor? And why does Professor Parton wear his hat at night?

It might have been interesting to spin off this into a discussion of the attitudes towards Boudicca that the programme shows, especially Boudicca as British queen, sheltered by villagers in the West Country, when there's no evidence that she cared about them or that they cared about her. But really, this is so bonkers and bears so little relationship to history that it's hardly worth it. (If you want to read what I think about Boudicca, it's all here.)

But yes, I'll be watching next week.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Hadrian is probably emperor of whom people in Britain are most likely to have heard, through his association with the Wall that runs across Northumberland and Cumbria. But not many people will know much more than that about him. His biography has not really seeped into the public consciousness. I can't, for instance, think of a single screen portrayal of Hadrian off the top of my head, whereas I can immediately think of at least two or three for the likes of Augustus, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, and other first century AD rulers. I'm sure such portrayals of Hadrian exist, and if anyone wants to point them out I'll be happy to hear of them, but it doesn't change my point. The fact that I can't think of any shows how little Hadrian is known in this respect.

The British Museum's new exhibition clearly means to change that. I'll be talking about the exhibition itself after I go on August 3rd. What I want to write about now is the media commentary that's appeared in advance of the opening. There have been articles in The Guardian, The Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, Times and Sunday Times. The BBC repeated a somewhat superficial Timewatch programme on Hadrian's Wall, featured the exhibition on Newsnight Review, and showed a not-too bad, if occasionally overheated, documentary by Dan Snow (all of which are still available, if you're in the UK, on the BBC's iPlayer page, though they'll gradually disappear over the next week). And that no doubt only scratches the surface.

What strikes me is how pro-Hadrian almost all of this coverage has been. A good example is this Guardian editorial; faults are noted, but overall he's seen as a good thing. Snow, though not ignoring such things as the suppression of Jewish identity, in an event as traumatic as the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in AD 70, cannot hide his admiration of the man. Articles talk admiringly of how Hadrian pulled out of a war in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq (take heed, America's new president, seems to be the message).

But are these pieces all treating him as too modern, too much the benevolent dictator, too much someone we can identify with? After all, this was a man who was so hated by the Senate that only the threat of civil war forced through approval of his deification. His relationship with Antinoos always seems accompanied in these modern reports by a comment to the effect that such a liaison would not raise an eyebrow in the Roman world. Well, yes the ancients had different attitudes to sex between men than those we have, but, as Dan Snow reveals as he reads a passage from Aurelius Victor (De Caesaribus 14), reporting rumours attacking Hadrian for his lasciviousness, there were some Romans who though Hadrian went too far in this respect. I don't particularly want to go on about this, not least because I've already written on the subject, but I do wonder if we still can't see this emperor clearly.

Fortunately, we still have Mary Beard. She concludes a lengthy piece in The Guardian by pointing out how Hadrian's image is something that we have invented for ourselves, the modern version going back I would say to when he was canonized by Gibbon (whom Beard does not mention) as one of the good emperors. She points out how the goalposts are moved, partly because of the state of the evidence. Where Nero can only be seen as a tyrant, she says, if Hadrian does the same thing, it gets a much more favourable spin put on it. She's absolutely right.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Historical consultants

UK TV History are currently repeating Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, the BBC's 2006 drama-documentary series. On an internet conference I frequent, someone said that it should be all right, because Mary Beard was the historical consultant on some of them.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that.

Mary Beard is undoubtedly a fine scholar. But the role of historical consultant in these sort of programmes is an advisory one. They are someone that the programme-makers turn to for ideas, but they do not write the scripts, or dictate how the programme should be made. They do not have the final say, and one suspects that they are often overruled. As a for instance, Mark Horton is the archaeological consultant on Bonekickers. Now, he may well have told the creators that anyone using a magnetometer must ensure that they have no metal about their person. He may even have said that this includes underwiring on bras. But I doubt he explicitly endorsed a scene where students are told by a member of staff to remove their bras, making that instruction in front of another, male, member of staff (something that I would expect to lead to a complaint of sexual harassment in any university I've ever been associated with).

The power is with the programme and film-makers. The historians only know how to write books; the directors and producers are (they will argue) the ones who know what will work on the screen. And sometimes they will be right - good history does not always make good drama. Just look at Oliver Stone's Alexander, a film that (in my view) is dramatically weak because it pays too much respect to history. But sometimes decisions seem to me to be symptomatic of a lack of faith in their audience.

Beard's post about her involvement with Ancient Rome is interesting. At a seminar, the producers explained that their prime objective was to prevent people changing channel. A lot of careful research has been done into people's viewing habits, and this is used to shape programmes. So complexity is avoided, for fear that people will change channel to something less taxing. If they want to get more of the story, the idea seems to be, they can always buy the accompanying book (I've certainly had that argument put to me, though not by a programme-maker).

This seems unethical to me. History programmes should not be in the business of falsifying history. It's not enough to say that the true story is in the book - most viewers won't read the book. And the BBC's reputation as a maker of historical documentaries was not built on catering to the lowest common denominator. Programmes like Civilisation assumed an interested, intelligent audience, who might not know the subject being discussed, but didn't need patronizing.

To return to my point about consultants - why do programme-makers make such a play of using consultants, if they will overrule them where necessary? Because consultants lend authority, to give the impression that their programmes are unquestionably historically accurate. This is important to programme-makers - a lack of perceived authenticity will hit their audiences. By hiring Mark Horton, the makers of Bonekickers hope to promote the notion that the show displays an authentic version of life in an archaeology department (which it isn't, of course). The hiring of Mary Beard and others allows the makers of Ancient Rome to back up their opening caption that the programme is dealing with real people and events, based on ancient accounts (as if those weren't problematic), and with the collaboration of modern historians. So what you see is true. Personally, I worry about the pernicious affect of such statements, and the way that the drama-documentary actualizes a particular version as The Way It Happened. Take, for instance, the programme on Tiberius Gracchus. Not only does the version show excise Tiberius' brother Gracchus from the account (too complicated, one presumes), but at the start brings together two pieces of evidence in a way that may not be sustainable. We know that Gracchus was present at the fall of Carthage in 146 BC. We also know that he won acclaim for being the first onto an enemy city's wall in the African campaign. But we don't know what the programme postulates, that the city concerned was Carthage. Indeed, one might suggest that it probably wasn't Carthage, as if it was, our source, Plutarch, might have been expected to tell us. Television drama strips this from the accounts. So, remember, don't consume the packaging. The quality of historical consultant is not necessarily a guide to the historical integrity of a programme.

So why do historians still serve as consultants on these programmes? Obviously, I can't speak for anyone. And I shall put aside the notion of sheer ego-boost from being connected to the telly, though were I ever to be offered such a role (which is highly unlikely) it would be an influential factor for my decision. I think many get involved because they see an opportunity to do some good, at the very least to stop some mistakes being made. Bonekickers has its clearly 'educational' moments, such as the mini-lecture on how Bristol, though built on the profits of the slave trade, never actually had slaves in its ports. And Mark Horton has a series of mini-films on the website on the background. So those interested in learning more about the history can be directed. Maybe that's the right attitude, as long as your ambitions aren't too lofty - in which case you'll be disappointed, as Kathleen Coleman was when she worked on Gladiator. But maybe it's appeasing the enemy? Will Bonekickers have the same effect as Time Team, in encouraging a false view of what life in an archaeology department is like? I'm not sure I know the answer to that one.

Edit (23/07): There's a good article here by Paul Cartledge, talking about his involvement in The Greeks, why he did it, and why he'd do it again (as indeed he did, for The Spartans).

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


There was a time when, whenever Time Team started, I'd turn the sound down and hum the theme to The Avengers, because I thought sometimes that this was the feel Time Team was going for. For Bonekickers, the new BBC1 action-drama about a team of dedicated archaeologists, I guess it should be the music from Torchwood (if it was more memorable).

And that's basically what Bonekickers is - Time Team meets Torchwood. There are plenty of visual references to both shows. In terms of archaeology, there are a few authentic touches - points are scored early for telling people not to stand at the edge of the trench. This and other similar moments are no doubt down to archaeological adviser Mark Horton, who has lent the show the authority of his name, and apparently his wardrobe, to judge from how Hugh Bonneville is dressed.

But anyone whose had any contact with real archaeology departments will soon notice the differences. For a start, the show promulgates the Time Team myth that all archaeologists have limitless supplies of top-of-the-range equipment. And I've never been to a black tie do-cum-book signing-cum-professorial welcome do. And certainly archaeologists, even on rescue digs, don't work round the clock unless there's a really good reason to do so, and never have their labs open all night.

And they don't have silly adventures either. But then Bonekickers wouldn't be much of a drama otherwise, I suppose. It's not that it's particularly bad - it's no worse than Torchwood. It's just not particularly good. And there is a problem with shows like this, or Channel 4's unlamented Extreme Archaeology, that try to make archaeology breathlessly exciting. Archaeology's excitement is not of the adrenaline-rush variety; it's much more cerebral. You can communicate this through television - just ask Mortimer Wheeler, or (since Sir Mortimer's dead) Julian Richards. But I can't see Bonekickers succeeding, or getting a second season.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


I found this image in the Bridgeman Education database.

The database tells me that it is of Mercury, from Pompeii, now in the Naples Archaeological Museum, is in the Fourth Style of Pompeian wall-painting, and dates to the first century AD. What it doesn't tell me is which house in Pompeii it's from, and I can't find this painting illustrated in any of my books on Pompeii. Googling isn't producing anything. Anyone out there know?

Monday, July 07, 2008

What sort of emergency?

You may well have read over the weekend about a 'state of emergency' being declared at Pompeii. To anyone with an interest in Roman history, this will not exactly be a surprise. One regularly sees papers, or chapters, or news items, about how Pompeii and Herculaneum are about to be lost for ever. From personal experience, I can tell you how much less of the site (particularly in the private houses) was open in 2007 as compared to 1999 or 1986. It's not too surprising. Pompeii was never meant to last as long as it has. The bright colours of the graffiti on the walls was only meant to last for a short period, weeks, or moths at the most - it's not surprising that after two hundred and fifty years of being exposed to the Italian summer, it's all faded. The interior decoration was mostly repainted every decade. The houses were probably meant to be more robust, but most of them lost their roofs, and hence their structural integrity.

What interests me is some radical differences in how the story had been reported. The BBC report is much as you'd expect - statistics about how much is being lost every year through lack of funds. The Guardian has a rather different approach. Hardly a word there about the threat to the archaeology. Instead, the report is all about the poverty of the tourist experience:

The daily Corriere della Sera this week deplored the squalid conditions at Pompeii, where visitors run a gauntlet of hawkers and self-appointed car park wardens to a vast and poorly signposted complex with no restaurants and just three toilet facilities.

For a start, this seems a bit unfair. There aren't many toilets, but it's five, rather than three, and, unless it's closed in the past year, there is a restaurant in the shell of the Forum Baths. There are free maps given out at the entrance, and the official guides published by Electa Napoli in collaboration with the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei are as good as any other Electa publication (i.e. an exemplary model of how to do an archaeological guide).

The real question, though, is which report represents the intent behind the move to appoint a special commissioner. If he is to be led by the need to protect the archaeology above any other considerations, then that's by and large a good thing (though giving his salary directly to the Soprintendenza would be better). But if the initiative is to be tourist-led, then I rather share some of the qualms of Mary Beard (who, of course, blogged this before I got around to it). There are no toilets except by the exits and entrances because there's no running water on the site. Do we really want the roads of Pompeii ripped up to lay water pipes? Or Portaloos outside the amphitheatre? And where would one put further restaurants? In some of the houses? In one of the large gardens at the eastern end of the site?

So what is this all about? Protecting the site, or (as is mentioned in the video accompanying the BBC report) exploiting a cash cow?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Judea AD 33. Saturday afternoon. About tea time.

When I see a headline stating 'Doubt over date for Brit invasion' (original press release, and another report), I expect to find a dramatic change, redating it to 56 BC, or AD 54. Instead, it turns out that the date is being shifted by a mere four days, from August 26/27 to August 22/23.

So it's not really that significant. In any case, what do either of these dates mean? I can tell you what they definitely don't mean - they don't mean the 22nd/23rd or 26th/27th days of the month Sextilis (not renamed August until 8 BC) in the consulship of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus (yes that Pompey and that Crassus). The Roman civic calendar was in a mess by the first century BC. A failure to apply intercalary months properly meant that the Roman civic year was about three months ahead of the solar year, something that Caesar had to rectify in 46 BC. So the last week of 'August' would have the conditions that would now be expected in May. This is certainly not when Caesar invaded Britain. He clearly states in De Bello Gallico 4.20, that the invasion was launched when there was little of the summer left (exigua parte aestatis reliqua). So 'August 22/23' actually means 'the equivalent of August 22/23 if the Roman civic calendar and the solar year were properly aligned' (i.e. on the Julian calendar). At which point the dates become, for me, rather meaningless.

I'm not even sure that the event can be dated to where August would have been. Apart from the reference to the summer, the only other dating evidence is that the landing took place four days before a full moon. I'm not sure why September is ruled out - in 1940 the Germans were certainly contemplating invasion in late September. Perhaps the astrological work and the studying of the tides demonstrates that the invasion cannot have been four days before a full moon, but eight or nine days (a textual correction proposed by R.G. Collingwood in 1937). But even this may be open to possible objections (as raised by others) that changes to the coastline over two thousand years have altered the currents. In any case, neither the 'traditional' date nor the new one seem to me to be terribly helpful.

At least these dates are less meaningless than the recent attempt to date the return of Odysseus (full article) to April 16, 1178 BC, on the basis of astronomical evidence from the text. Now, I'm happy with the notion that genuine astronomical phenomena are described in the Odyssey. It may be that the reference to the obliteration of the sun at Odyssey 20.356 is meant to be an eclipse. What I find far less plausible is the notion that Homer is able to insert consistent astronomical data into his imaginative account, that point to an eclipse five centuries before he wrote. Even the authors concede that their theory only works if one assumes that Zeus sending Hermes to Ogygia represents movement of the planet Mercury. Given that there are perfectly good dramatic reasons in the framework of the Odyssey for this trip (he's been sent by Zeus to tell Calypso to release Odysseus, and who else would Zeus send than the messenger god?), I don't see the need for an allegorical interpretation.

What both these items share, it seems to me, is a positivist outlook on the ancient world. Caesar invaded Britain on a particular day. Odysseus returned on a particular day. Since these are facts (an arguable proposition for Odysseus' return), then, the idea seems to be, it must be possible, with enough investigation, to discover those facts. With my own little post-modernist toolkit, I conclude that some facts simply aren't recoverable.

The title of this post, by the way, is a quotation from Monty Python's Life of Brian a series of captions that satirizes exactly this sort of attempt to advance precise dates.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Me vs. Wikipedia

Shortly before writing this post, I went to Wikipedia to correct the entry. I've just found that those changes got reverted almost immediately, by someone citing Lofficier, Pixley, and the Discontinuity Guide. To be fair, I hadn't added comments to the effect that my edit was based on the actual episodes (which trump anything in secondary sources). I have now restored my changes, and added an explanation. I've also edited the Doctor Who Wiki. let's see how long those changes last.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bust of Caesar?

You may have seen reports (e.g. here, here, here or here) that a bust of Julius Caesar has been found, that dates to the last five years of his life. Mary Beard fairly comprehensively demolishes most of the claims made for it; in short, there's no evidence that it's Caesar (though it might be, with the eye of faith), none that it dates to the early 40s BC, and none that it was thrown in the river in the aftermath of Caesar's assassination (which is intrinsically unlikely). The best we can say for sure is that it's Roman.

It all reminds me of an edition of Hidden Treasure, BBC's rather breathless archaeology programme of a few years back, when they talked about the quality of the torc from the Winchester hoard, and concluded that it was 'very likely' a gift from Julius Caesar to a British chieftain, on the flimsiest of evidence.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Science Fiction as a Literary Genre

I went to a one-day symposium on this on Thursday. But rather than write it up, I'll point you towards this report.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Four pieces on Watchmen: #4

Part 1 here

Part 2 here

Part 3 here

And finally, here’s something new on the subject.

It’s been noticed that the first season of Heroes lifts a main feature of its plot from Watchmen, specifically the conspiracy that sees the destruction of New York as a means of promoting a better world. By killing millions in New York, they will be able to save billions throughout the world. The difference is, where Watchmen is ambiguous about whether Veidt is doing the right thing, Heroes is clear that Linderman and his associates are wrong, and must be opposed. They are nutters, and their plan won’t work; in fact, it will make things worse. The show establishes through another steal from comics history, the ‘Days of Future Past’ story from Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men. Hiro and Ando travel forward in time, and learn the consequences following from the successful implementation of Linderman’s plan.

And that’s helped me to see one of the problems I have with Watchmen. It’s that, by not having a similar moment, Watchmen is a morally compromised work. It leaves the reader with what I referred to in 1988 as The Big Moral Dilemma – six million New Yorkers or the world? But if you are thinking that’s your choice, then you’re already lost. The true moral choice is to reject the terms of the dilemma, to say that mass murder cannot be justified on such mathematical grounds, because what if you’re not right? Even Veidt is not infallible or omniscient. The moral choice is, like the Petrellis, Hiro and the rest, to find another way.

Four pieces on Watchmen: #3

Part 1 here

Part 2 here

Part 4 here

Thirdly, we have a letter I wrote last year to Foundation, and which appeared in issue 101, pp. 5-9. My thanks to current editor Graham Sleight for permission to reproduce it here. Looking back at this letter, I now think it’s rather grumpy, but never mind.

I read with interest Elizabeth Rosen’s article on Watchmen in Foundation 98 (“‘What’s that you smell of?’ – Twenty years of Watchmen nostalgia”, pp. 85-98). Whilst I have always been less convinced than most that Watchmen is an unalloyed triumph, it is not on these grounds that I wish to comment on Rosen’s piece. And I find her reading of Watchmen as both a critique and an example of nostalgia for the superhero comic, and her view that the development of superhero comics since Watchmen brings a new resonance to that nostalgia, interesting, and I don’t disagree with either point. However, a number of observations occur to me.

If Watchmen is all about nostalgia, then one of the most important aspects of the comic is its origins in a commission to rework the Charlton heroes, characters from the late 1960s, fondly-remembered by many comics fans. Yet Rose delays mention of this until p. 93, three-quarters of the way through the article. This seems odd, given that the original Charlton characters dictated the characteristics, to one degree or another, of the leading players in Watchmen, especially Rorschach.

This seems symptomatic of a lack of context provided in Rosen’s paper. Watchmen did not spring out of nothing. Alan Moore had already been deconstructing the notion of the superhero for some years, most notably in Marvelman (later retitled Miracleman) from 1982, and then in some of his earlier work for DC, especially ‘Roots’, the story in Saga of the Swamp Thing #24 (1984) that guest-starred the Justice League of America. Of these Rosen only mentions Miracleman, and then only very briefly. More time is given to a comic contemporary with Watchmen, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight, as the other foundation stone of revisionist superhero comics (though for all its revisionist gloss, Dark Knight is fundamentally true to the character as established by Bob Kane and Bill Finger). Again, context would help. Though Moore would not have read Dark Knight before starting on Watchmen, Miller was working with themes he had first drawn out in his work on Daredevil (1979-1983). Moore was an avowed fan of this, and wrote a text piece for Marvel UK’s The Daredevils #1 (1983) on Miller.

In general, the atmosphere in superhero comics in the early 1980s was conducive to the development of more ‘relevant’ and ‘realistic’ stories. This was especially true at DC, who had a taken a creative lead by building upon the sort of sophisticated storylines that Chris Claremont had developed in his popular run on X-Men over at Marvel (beginning in 1975). Stories like Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s two-part ‘Runaways’ (The New Teen Titans # 26-27, 1982-1983) and their later stories dealing with drug abuse may seem naïve now, but at the time they were groundbreaking and hard-hitting. Of DC’s output in these years, Rosen only mentions (in a footnote) Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985-1986), without giving a date, and in such a way that an unwary reader might not realize that it preceded Watchmen and Dark Knight.

One could further suggest that the notion of the ‘realistic’ superhero comic actually goes back to Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories from 1970-1972. Or it could be traced back further to birth of the ‘Marvel Age’ in the 1960s, driven by Stan Lee and his collaborators, in particular Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four (1961 onwards), which Rosen mentions in a footnote, and Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man (1962 onwards). These would be comics that Moore and Dave Gibbons would have read as youngsters, but though Rosen comments in a general way about their nostalgia for old superhero comics, she doesn’t mention them, leading me to wonder if she has read much of 1960s superhero comics herself. Many of these are now, through Marvel’s Essentials and DC’s Showcase lines, more easily available than they’ve ever been since first publication, allowing the reader to see the influence of, for instance, John Broome and Gil Kane’s Green Lantern (1959 onwards) upon Gibbons’ art and Moore’s sf stylings.

This lack of context means that when Rosen talks of the ‘Golden Age’ and ‘Silver Age’, a reader ignorant of comics might come away unsure of what the terms actually mean. I’m sure Rosen knows. But I think that the terms need explaining for the non-expert, with clear discussion of the collapse of the market for superheroes at the end of the 1940s, that ended the Golden Age, and the revival of that market in the late 1950s that began the Silver. (And surely the start of the Silver Age is more clearly datable than the ‘roughly’ 1959 she suggests – the first appearance of the second Flash in Showcase #4 in 1956 is usually, and I feel rightly, held as the first Silver Age superhero.)

A similar lack of context appears when discussing what came after Watchmen. Moore’s complaints about post-Watchmen imitators are noted, but no examples put forth. There is no shortage. Just staying at the quality end of the genre, there are John Smith and Jim Baikie’s New Statesmen (1988-1990), the various comics in the Stormwatch and Authority series (1993 onwards), and Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates (2002 onwards). As an example of what Moore calls ‘any poor wretched innocent Golden Age character … re-imagined’, one could point to Grant Morrison and Duncan Fedrego’s Kid Eternity [which I didn’t date in the original letter – it’s 1991]. John Byrne’s 1986 revamp of Superman is too early to be post-Watchmen (though the influence of Watchmen and Dark Knight is clearly felt in the 1992-1993 ‘Death and Return of Superman’ sequence), but is worth mentioning here as it was preceded by a two-part Moore story, ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’ (Superman #423, Action Comics #583), that features the nostalgia for superheroes that characterized Moore’s work when he returned to the genre in 1993. Even when Rosen does mention later comics, such as Marvels, Astro City and Kingdom Come, in the context of a return to nostalgia, no dates are given, so the reader cannot see how they relate to Watchmen (they are 1994, 1995-2000, and 1996).

There are also two points at which I think Rosen misreads the characters. It is true that Rorschach’s world view and rigid morality is often undercut by Moore, and that Moore does not intend the reader to accept it uncritically. But it’s not that simple. Rorschach is the only one of the main characters who emerges from the story with his moral integrity intact and uncompromised, even if this gets him killed. (It may be worth noting that the two deaths Rosen focuses upon, those of the original Nite Owl and Rorschach, are among the events that appear to me most jarringly imposed upon the narrative, rather than arising out of it naturally.)

In the first issue of Watchmen we see one 1940s hero, the first Silk Spectre, being sexually assaulted by another, the Comedian. As the story develops, it transpires that the two subsequently developed a relationship, and that the Comedian is the father of the Silk Spectre's daughter. For Rosen, this is problematic, and she says in a note that ‘[f]or a writer who has, in the main, been sensitive and outspoken in his work in his support of women, gay rights and other minority issues, [Moore’s] depiction of Sally [the Silk Spectre] falling in love with her rapist seems an incredible misstep.’ This appears dogmatic to me, as if a feminist writer cannot depict attempted rape (and, whilst not wishing to excuse the Comedian, his assault is interrupted before it becomes actual rape) and its consequences in any but the most black-and-white condemnatory terms. Moore is many things, but dogmatic is not one of them. He has always been interested in understanding what motivates people, even where their actions may not appear admirable. We all know that women stay with and continue to feel affection towards partners who sexually abuse them, however much we might wish it wasn’t so – is Moore wrong to depict that? Moreover, it seems strange to draw such attention to the way Moore presents attempted rape, whilst passing over the way in which the villain apparently gets away with murdering three million people, with no more consequence than vague hints that his plan might come unstuck. (I think in the final panel Moore is making a nod towards the 1950 Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, but the difference is that the audience there knows that Dennis Price’s confession to murdering his family will undoubtedly be found, whilst there is every chance that Rorschach’s journal won’t be.)

One aspect of nostalgia that Rosen overlooks is the political nostalgia of Watchmen. In this world, Richard Nixon is still President in 1985. Gerald Ford is still Vice-President. Henry Kissinger is still Secretary of State. G. Gordon Liddy is still a presidential aide. The implication is that the entire 1973 Nixon administration is still in place. Moore would say that the presence of the near-omnipotent Dr Manhattan as a weapon in America’s arsenal has distorted US politics, but what he actually presents is a world in which politics has simply stopped. Alan Moore was twenty when Nixon resigned in 1974, and his motivation here seems to be a desire to play with the characters from when he first became politically aware.

Rosen’s piece seems insufficiently grounded in the history of superhero comics as a genre. I wonder if this might be because she has largely experienced superheroes through collections. One might deduce this from the title she uses for Miller’s Batman work – The Dark Knight Returns was originally the title of the first issue alone, though it has since been canonised as the title of the whole work. She certainly has only read Watchmen in the later collection. This is shown by her comment that Moore ends the work with Juvenal’s quis custodiet ipsos custodies. Though the source of the comic’s name, this quotation is nowhere to be found in the twelve original issues, which end with a line from John Cale’s ‘Santies’. The Juvenal was added when the work was collected. A better knowledge of the superhero genre might have meant that she would notice that the names mentioned in the Tales of the Black Freighter text piece are not just people who worked for EC comics, but more importantly were major figures in the development of DC Comics and their superhero lines – Moore’s point being that the existence of real superheroes killed off the market for superhero comics.

As I said, Rosen makes interesting points – but they would be so much better if they were grounded in a broader knowledge than the few creators she addresses.

Four pieces on Watchmen: #2

Part 1 here

Part 3 here

Part 4 here

The second piece is much more recent, a brief write up from 2006 on another blog after reading the comics again, together with responses to comments people left me. I’ve modified this to make it into a more coherent whole, but inevitably it looks like a bit of a cut-and-paste job. I don’t think it’s worth spending too much time smoothing out the joins.

I’m afraid my reaction to Watchmen is much the same as it was nineteen years ago. It is on the surface erudite and skillful – but at the core is a pulp sf plot which is really pretty stupid, and wouldn’t be tolerated in a novel or a film. So why should it be acceptable in what is supposed to be the best comics have to offer?

Of course Watchmen is better than most of the dreck that comes out of comics publishers, but I don’t think that means we should be blind to its faults. And I’m not for a moment suggesting that books and films don’t have stupid plots – but that the body of criticism would identify those plots as stupid in a way that hasn’t happened for Watchmen. I suspect that part of the reason it’s been let off the hook is that some of the critics have such low expectations of the medium that they will praise anything that’s half-decent.

I agree that much of Watchmen is very nicely put together. A lot of my frustration with reading it comes from the fact that the bits that don’t make sense spoil my enjoyment of the bits that do. And if Moore hadn’t made such a fuss about Watchmen being ‘superheroes in a real world’, I wouldn’t have minded so much.

I may be giving the impression that I think Watchmen is the suckiest thing ever. I certainly don’t. But it does have its flaws, and it is not the best comic ever, or even the best superhero comic ever, or even the best Alan Moore superhero comic ever, and it wasn’t any of these things when published.

I do still think that the core plot is dumb. A mad genius drops a giant squid on New York, killing millions, and persuades people that it’s an alien invasion, and everyone decides to be nice to each other. It seemed naive in 1987, and post-9/11 you couldn’t get away with it – we now know that the reaction to such an atrocity would be anger, and a need to collectively do something, a need that would be exploited by politicians for their own ends.

Signalling that the plot comes from an old Outer Limits episode does indeed say to the readers that it’s a ridiculous plot device. But it also says. “Remember everything I said about this being superheroes in the real world? Well, I lied.”

Now, you can say “it’s just a superhero comic”, but I don’t think that’s a legitimate defence. For one thing, Moore ostentatiously proclaimed the whole thing as “what if superheroes were real”, so it has to be judged on the more realistic standards to which it allegedly aspires. And secondly, I don’t think it works as a genre piece, because of the resolution, where the villain gets away with it.

Veidt gets away with his scheme, with nothing more than some odd nightmares. The heroes find out about it, but can then do nothing about it. it all leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It’s interesting that the recent article in Foundation [see next piece for details] commented on the problematic depiction of rape, but has nothing on the problematic depiction of mass murder. And yes, I know Moore’s asking his audience the question about how far do you take the good of the many vs. the good of the few, but for such a question to have meaning, it has to be couched in sensible terms. Which I don’t think it is in Watchmen.

I am told that Moore’s response to criticism of the plot was “You don’t think it would work. Veidt thinks it would, and Veidt is smarter than you.” That’s a clever response, but it’s not really an answer. And I’d be more convinced in Veidt as the most intelligent man in the world if he didn’t name his top secret holding companies after Egyptian things, when everyone knows he’s obsessed with Egypt.

My problem with Veidt’s plan is not answered by hints that it may not work in the long term. It really shouldn’t work at all, and certainly not in the short time scale that it is shown working in.

I don’t think “the villain might not get away with it if [Rorschach’s] journal gets picked for publication and they read it all and the editors believe what it says and they make the connection with the attack on New York and anyone believes what New Frontiersman publishes” is a satisfactory end for a genre piece. You couldn’t get away with it in a James Bond novel, for instance. You could pull it off in a John le Carré novel, but then le Carré breaks free of the genre restrictions in a way that Watchmen never quite manages.

I agree that Watchmen is about what would happen if people really did dress up in capes to fight crime, and if there was someone on the planet with superpowers. But in those terms, I feel the squid is a cheat. It crosses the line into “oh well, we can have anything we want happen”, and then Watchmen becomes just another superhero comic. A good one, it must be said, but one which fails in what it is setting out to do.

It’s partly because comics can be so much more than superheroes that I have issues with the praise lavished upon Watchmen. But I think there are better superhero comics – Dark Knight for one, because Dark Knight knows its limitations. The problem with Watchmen is that it sets itself up as “what if superheroes were real”. If you’re going to do that, then you have to be rigorous in the plotting – but Watchmen fails that test rather too often.

There is an essential contradiction between writing a superhero story and a realistic story. It’s a contradiction Watchmen never successfully solves.

And in the end, I feel that Moore can either have his open, morally ambiguous ending (which he wants because he’s still in his deconstructionist phase which he has, fortunately, subsequently grown out of), or he can have his ridiculous plot device. What makes Watchmen a failure in my view is Moore’s attempt to have his cake and eat it. Saying that of course it’s a ridiculous plot device and Moore knows this is really making my point for me.

The whole Nixon thing is another aspect I have a problem with. I can readily believe that the existence of Dr Manhattan and the way the US government uses him might change the course of American politics. But by having not just Nixon, but also Ford, and Kissinger, and Liddy, Moore is implying not that politics have changed, but that they stopped in 1971. And that I find implausible.

As Alan Jeffrey said, if you read Watchmen as a book, then the absurdity at the end isn’t too bad. One of the things that seemed a lot better on the reread was the pirate story. If, on the other hand, you have been reading chapters a month at a time, in the light of a flurry of interviews at the start talking about how realistic it was all going to be, the sudden appearance of a giant exploding telepathic mutant squid in issue #11 is a huge disappointment.

I think Watchmen is a bit like Babylon 5. Both are well-written and clever, and both definitely raised the bar in their respective fields. But I think both have structural problems at the end, and can’t be accepted as flawless works.