Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The abuse of history, part whatever

The Open University Student Association's conference for the AA309 Roman Empire course has been full of discussion inspired by the following article about the notion of a 'political correctness eradicator', discussion which has centred around whether one should use BC/AD or BCE/CE:

What no-one seems to have noticed is that Philip Davies, the Tory MP whose idea this is (and despite the way it's been written up by the BBC journalist, it appears to be his idea alone, with, as yet, no support from Central Office), has got his facts wrong.

He cites an (unnamed) Somerset museum, and says: "Somebody decided that BC - Before Christ - was going to be offensive to other religions, so they changed BC to BP, which was Before the Present, I think it stood for."

The trouble is, 'BP' is not a politically-correct alternative for 'BC' - it's a shorthand way of saying 'x years ago', and it is used of archaeological material from a prehistoric context, e.g. 10,000 BP, 50,000 BP, 100,000 BP, etc. It actually originates from carbon dating practices, where of course the data comes out without the Christian era taken into account, but it is also true that the bigger these numbers get, the less sense it makes to lop two thousand years off. (Plus, for me at least, c. 8000 BC implies a greater level of precision than c. 10000 BP.) Conversely, the closer one gets to the start of that era, the less useful and more confusing it is to use the seemingly movable BP. In fact it's not movable, as the 'Present' is fixed on 1950, but that's not obvious to most people.

Nevertheless, some archaeologists do, for consistency's sake, use BP right down into the Iron Age. But only for archaeological material of imprecise date, where the margin of error could be fifty or a hundred years. One would never replace say, 54 BC, with 2003 BP, not least because one might at first assume that AD 2 was meant.

Obviously, without going to the museum concerned, I can't check, but I would expect that the use of BP was confined to prehistoric material that could not be precisely dated, and was done for reasons of archaeological practice rather than of ideology. Mr Davies, who has clearly received this information at second- or third-hand, either was told by someone at a party, or has got the story from some newspaper more concerned with sensation than accuracy.

On the wider question that has been vexing students, well, personally, I use BC/AD, but more out of habit and a feeling that it is more commonly understood than any conviction that it is right. I can see that there is force in the argument that those who do not accept Jesus as their Lord might well prefer the compromise of the Common Era. I certainly wouldn't resent being told to use it in publications, or dismiss it as silly.

This is rather emblematic of what I find in many stories of 'political correctness'. Certainly there are some examples of silliness, but if you dig deeper you'll often find, as in this case, that it's less unreasonable than the anti-PC brigade have suggested. At the heart of the notion of 'politically correct language' is the notion that one should try to use language that does not automatically offend. Often, those most vociferously anti-PC are those who don't see the need to be polite to everyone, and behind their campaign against 'silliness' one often suspects a desire to return Britain to a society where white male Protestants could do what they liked without having to apologize to anyone. From the sort of pronouncements Mr Davies makes, I do rather fancy that he is such a person.

Frankly, I don't think I want to return to those old days. And I do think it behooves those who condemn 'nonsense' to themselves have a clue.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Oh dear, I expected better

Brian Sewell has just rather blotted his copy book by suggesting that the Pantheon in Rome was built in the lifetime of Christ. This is true neither of Marcus Agrippa's original Pantheon, which date to 27 BC, and so is about a quarter century before Christ's birth, nor of Hadrian's replacement, the building that survives today, which was constructed in AD 125. Now, I expect to disagree with Sewell's views at times (like his preference for the dubious charms of Naples over the fantastic Rome), but I never expected him to slip up on basic facts.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Boudicca yet again

Given that I've written before about Boudicca, some comment on Five's Boudica's Treasures might be expected. Well, it was no better nor worse than I expected. There were some sensible points made - the fact that 'Britain' as a concept wouldn't really be acknowledged by Boudicca. But as ever there was a tendency to over-romanticize the Celts, who were 'in touch with the natural world as no other people have been'. The Romans, of course, are brutal conquerors, taking British young men off to the army (which I'm not sure there is evidence for,* plus service in the army was actually a relatively cushy job and a good way of improving one's status), and pursuing a campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' (I'll grant Tacitus does say that British tribes that had been disloyal were treated with fire and sword, but the same writer also says that more damage was done by famine, due to men being pulled off agricultural duties). London was 'a city of vile moneylenders', and Boudicca's own atrocities are passed over and granted a sheen of legitimacy - destroying the Romanized British city of Verulamium is acceptable because the city was run by a 'Quisling aristocracy'.

The main thing that was different with this programme was tying the account in with Neil Faulkner's archeological excavation in northern Norfolk. This is a site which is in the right area, and dates to the middle of the first century AD, and so it of the right period. But there was nothing presented in the programme to directly tie the site in with Boudicca. What this actually served to demonstrate was the way in which archaeological material and historical material tend to answer different questions. The study of the site, interesting though it was, didn't really help tell the story of Boudicca.

Not as bad as the Battlefield Britain programme on the subject, but not as good as Michael Wood's from nearly twenty-five years ago.

Edit 19/07/2007: Okay, yes there is - Tacitus, Agricola 15.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

David Gemmell's Troy reviewed [Edited 05/11/07: This is now a dead link.]

David Gemmell has apparently wanted to retell the story of Troy for a long time. Now, finally, he has got his wish, and has begun a three-volume epic. Lord of the Silver Bow is the scene-setter, describing the escalating tensions between Greeks and Trojans that will lead to the catastrophic Trojan War. It is not a tale any ancient Greek would have attempted in this form. To them, the Trojan War was not a story in its own right, but, as the Second World War is to us today, a background against which to set smaller tales - there is a reason Homer sings of the wrath of Achilles and not of the war at Troy.

But the compression caused by the passing millennia makes the task seem less daunting. First things first. Gemmell's Troy is not, at least on the evidence of the first volume, a fantasy novel such as one might have expected from the author, but quite unequivocally historical fiction, merely set in a period that predates the recording of history. There are no gods in Lord of the Silver Bow (which is in fact the usual approach of moderns retelling the ancient stories), no magic, and no monsters (save in the tall tales spun by Odysseus). The closest one gets to a fantastical element is the fact that some characters (most notably Cassandra) have accurate premonitions of the future. But this is a device historical fiction has employed many a time, from Shakespeare onwards, and does not in itself a fantasy make.

The second point is that this is far from being a standard retelling of the Homeric legends, fleshed out with further details from later sources. Some of what Gemmell does has been seen in recent adaptations. As in Wolfgang Petersen's film Troy, the root cause of conflict between Greeks and Trojans, is not the abduction of a queen, but the ambitions for power of King Agamemnon of Mykene and his desire for control of the lucrative trade routes through the Hellespont. As in Eric Shanower's graphic novel Age of Bronze, the story is placed in the context of the political geography of the Eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age, a political geography absent from Homer. Priam's Troy is a vassal of the Hittite empire. This also couches the war in terms of an east-west conflict, something also not to be found in Homer, but which colours classical Greek and subsequent versions, and may have some foundation in historical events of the time. (Though the shadow of modern politics lies over much of Gemmell's narrative.) Gemmell even manages to get in the battle of Kadesh, the great clash between the Egyptians and the Hittites.

But if you thought Petersen's Troy took liberties with the original myths, you may be shocked when you see what Gemmell has done. From the very beginning he twists ands turns the mythological material, fictionalizing with the sort of gay abandon employed by the creators of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. The individuals named on the dust flap, Helikaon, Andromache and Argurios, are hardly those an audience would expect to lead them through a Trojan epic. The last seems to be entirely Gemmell's own invention (it's a common modern Greek name, but seems not to crop up in myth). The central character, the heroic Helikaon, is a very minor figure in the Trojan myth cycle, though one whom Odysseus saves in the sack of Troy, a scene that one suspects will recur, given the friendship shown between the two in this novel. But then Gemmell reveals that Helikaon is actually someone more familiar. Individuals who in legend survived past the end of the Trojan War are already dead before Gemmell's novel opens. Odysseus recounts around a fire the story of the Cyclops and other mariner's tales that The Odyssey places after the war. The 'Trojan Horse' is the name of Priam's elite cavalry.

An example of what Gemmell does can be seen in his treatment of Laodike. In myth the most beautiful daughter of Priam, she falls in love with Akamas, a Greek herald sent to demand the return of Helen; later she is married to Helikaon. In Lord of the Silver Bow she is plain, but with a winning smile, carries a torch for Helikaon, and then falls for the Mykene warrior Argurios.

On the whole, Gemmell's attitude to his mythological material, that he considers it a source of elements to be used in a tapestry of his own design, is a good thing. These myths were never immutable, right from the first retelling, and Gemmell's imaginative approach appeals as much as, if not more than, the highly reverential take of Shanower. After all, the true historical events that lie behind the Trojan War are all-but irrecoverable now, and Gemmell cannot be shown to contradict what actually happened. As long as he does not miss the point of the original stories and characters, or makes a convincing case for changing the point, it is churlish to object.

So what is Gemmell's point? Pretty much that war corrupts, and that total war corrupts totally. Helikaon is essentially virtuous and wants to live in peace, as long as his people are protected. But as a warning to his Mykene enemies, he allegedly commits what is perceived by them as an atrocity, one he certainly does not deny, though the reader is only given other people's reports of what happened. This leads to acts of revenge on the Mykene's part, which ignite an ever-growing cycle of retaliation, with worse and worse atrocities on both sides. Gemmell's novel catches the sense of inescapable doom that characterizes a Greek tragedy. This is a tale of well-intentioned individuals who weave their destructions through their own errors (hamartia is Aristotle's term for this). This Greekness of Gemmell's text is complemented by John Bolton's part-title illustrations, that echo classical vase paintings.

Gemmell's authorial sympathies are with the Trojans, as is common (see Petersen's Troy again). Nevertheless, the Mykene are not portrayed as blacker than black villains. The best of them have a warrior code they live by, and the worst of them, though they commit morally reprehensible acts, are portrayed by Gemmell in such a way that the reader can understand what motivates them, why they believe that they are doing the right, or at least the necessary, thing, and how they live with their consciences. This is not a morally black-and-white story; Gemmell seems to be asking if it is truly more morally acceptable to be vicious and sadistic towards those who deserve it, because of their own sadistic actions, than to treat innocents in such a way.

I must confess that I had come to this novel with no direct experience of Gemmell's writing, but expecting turgid fantasy-novel prose. Instead I found that, whilst Gemmell is no great stylist, he is certainly readable, and pulls the reader in as the story progresses. What he is particularly good at is populating his world; this is not a dry Bronze Age of scanty historical facts, but a lived-in Mycenaean age that the reader can connect with.

This is not to say that Lord of the Silver Bow is free of cliche. Early on in the novel a new crewman on Helikaon's ship says some frank things about his captain without realizing that it is Helikaon to whom he is speaking. Helikaon's oarsman Epeus is a typical doomsayer, who always assumes that his leader's plans will go wrong. Helikaon's ship-designer, Kalkheus, doesn't like being called 'the madman of Miletos', because ... he's not from Miletos.

To counter what is now perceived as the sexist treatment of women in myth, there is the usual strong fighting woman making her way in a male-dominated society. In this case, Andromache is made into an ersatz Amazon and a dab hand with a bow (this reminds me of the transformation wrought upon Guinevere in the 2004 film King Arthur). Now it is true that women in Greek myth have little to do other than be wives, mothers or whores. But is anachronistic to try to pretend that it was otherwise. (It also provides Gemmell an opportunity for some unnecessary - and coy - lesbianism.)

One might also question some of Gemmell's odd linguistic formulations. Why 'Egypte' instead of the more recognizable 'Egypt' or the correct Greek 'Aigyptos'? Why 'Kretos' rather than 'Krete' or 'Kreta'? Why 'Kios' in place of 'Khios'? His fictional characters often have slightly odd names. One is called Skyros, actually the name of an island, and another is Xander, a modern diminutive of the more ancient 'Alexander', another name for the Trojan prince Paris (indeed I thought this might be Paris until Gemmell introduced the latter).

Nevertheless, I find myself wanting to know what Gemmell will do in the next two novels. Given what he has done in Lord of the Silver Bow, nothing can be taken for granted. Clearly the destruction of Troy will feature, but the consequences are likely to be catastrophic for all concerned. I would guess that Aeneas and his band of refugees will escape to Italy. I would not be surprised if Gemmell ties the fall of Troy in with the collapse of the Bronze Age societies that seems to have followed within a generation of the Trojan War's traditional date. But Gemmell's willingness to make changes provides one of the more interesting retellings of the myth. Not a great novel, but by no means a bad one either.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Hannibal the Cannibal - oh no, the other one

Five's Hannibal of the Alps is one of the worst history programmes it has been my misfortune to sit through in quite a long while.

On the good side, the programme did at least point out that in strategic terms Hannibal's elephants were a non-event. They all died as a result of crossing the Alps, and played no significant part in any of his victories over the Romans. But that was about the only good point.

The film compressed the events of the Second Punic War, which took sixteen years, into sixty minutes. Inevitably there would be some details passed over rapidly. But that is no excuse for the utter distortions. Hannibal was betrayed by his fellow Carthaginians not immediately after Zama, but six years later. The younger Scipio did not get his extraordinary command in the immediate aftermath of Cannae, as the programme implied - it came six years later. Scipio did not lead an army to Spain after Cannae, and the Roman invasion of Spain was not launched across the sea. The truth is that the Romans were already there even before Cannae.

The elder Publius Cornelius Scipio was consul, and at the beginning of the war had been sent to fight Hannibal in Spain (this was not, as the programme suggested, him being picked for command, but as elected consul it was his responsibility to lead Rome's forces). As his army advanced through Provence, he learnt that Hannibal had slipped behind him into northern Italy. He could have decided at this point to turn his army round and chase Hannibal, and this indeed is what the programme implied he did. What he actually did instead was to decide that his duty as consul meant he must return to face the Carthaginian invasion, but that, despite the fact that Hannibal was no longer there, the Roman invasion of Spain should still go ahead. So he handed the bulk of army over to his brother Gnaeus Scipio. This was undoubtedly the correct decision. Hannibal had invaded Italy in order to seize the strategic initiative, and prevent the Romans fighting the war the way they wanted to. By carrying on with the invasion of Spain, the Scipios ensured that Hannibal was only partially successful. The Spanish campaign tied down Carthaginian troops that might have reinforced Hannibal from that direction. And this fighting sucked in further troops from Africa. Because the Iberian peninsula had to be fought for. Spain was the basis of Carthaginian power, just as Italy was Rome's, so each enemy was striking at the other's heart. And in the end, the Romans did so more successfully, for the Second Punic War was decided in Spain, not Italy. Effectively, even before Hannibal had won a single victory, Scipio had taken the step that would win the war.

The programme was a pretty conservative look at Hannibal's career, as one could tell from the selection of talking heads, that favoured authors of popular history over university academics. It presented a viewpoint that Hannibal was foolish not to march on Rome after the victory at Cannae. But many scholars believe, and I think rightly, that Hannibal knew he did not have the siege equipment to take Rome, and could only succeed if the Romans surrendered in shock. There was a possibility that might have happened, but it was equally, if not more likely, that the Romans would defy him, and then his essential powerlessness against Rome's fortifications would be exposed. All the propaganda gained from the victories of Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae would have been undone. This view was given no screen time. In fact, though a stunning tactical victory, Cannae was a strategic failure. Some areas in southern Italy did desert Rome, but not enough to break Rome's power. To bring more desertions, Hannibal needed more set-piece victories, and Cannae had persuaded the Romans that engaging Hannibal in set-piece battles was the worst thing they could do. Instead they retreated behind the walls of their colonies, a network of fortified cities throughout Italy, about which Hannibal could do nothing.

One view that was given screen time was that the Carthaginian state betrayed Hannibal, that after Cannae they decided that Hannibal should be deniable, and that the war was his own affair. This was propounded by Professor Barry Strauss of Cornell University. The trouble is, the theory doesn't hold up. For a start, a mere two years previously, the Carthaginians had gone to war with Rome rather than give up Hannibal. Why not decide then that he was deniable?

And it really is a misrepresentation of the strategic situation facing Carthage after Hannibal's victory at Cannae. For one thing, Hannibal had got himself in a position where he was very different to reinforce. He was bottled up with his Greek allies in the southern part of the Italian peninsula. The obvious route to reinforce him was by sea from Africa - but this was blocked by Roman naval power. That left the land route from Spain. Making the journey across the Alps had cost Hannibal nearly half his army, and any reinforcements would have to traverse Roman-controlled Italy. The Romans were scared of Hannibal, but they were not afraid of any other Carthaginian forces, judging correctly that Hannibal was a one-off.

And reinforcements from Spain could only come if they could disengage from the Roman forces there. This was not easy, and the one serious attempt to take troops from Spain to Italy was an act of desperation after Iberia had been effectively lost. Those troops did manage to cross into northern Italy - where the Romans annihilated them.

There were other demands on Carthage's resources than Hannibal. These other campaigns are often presented as sideshows, and this is very likely the way Hannibal himself felt. But that is not fair. As already noted, Spain could not be abandoned without effectively losing the war. The Carthaginians also sent troops to Sicily. This, to my mind, demonstrates a commitment to Hannibal that is not always acknowledged. Yes, there was an issue of pride concerned; the Carthaginians wanted to regain control of the island they had lost at the end of the First Punic War. But if they succeeded, it would then become much easier to reinforce Hannibal, sending troops across the relatively short sea-crossings from North Africa to Sicily and from Sicily to Italy, reducing their exposure to Roman sea-power.

The one area that could be seen as a 'sideshow' was the campaign in Macedonia and Greece. There was no particular strategic value to Carthage in this. But by bringing Macedon into the war against Rome, the Carthaginians could drag in far more Roman forces to face Macedonian manpower than they would have to commit. So the Macedonian campaign reduced Rome's ability to fight Carthage effectively. The Romans realized this, which is why the First Macedonian War was ended in 205 BC with a peace that was favourable towards Macedon.

The truth is that after Cannae, Hannibal became the sideshow. He stayed in Italy for another thirteen years, but achieved very little. The war was won and lost on other fronts, principally, as I say, Spain.

One last point. Five's publicity talks about the programme "Exploring the latest archaeological discoveries, ancient historical sources and cutting-edge DNA technology" - but of the first and last there was no evidence. As the Sunday Times preview suggested, stick with Channel 4's two programmes on Carthage from 2004, which, though not without their faults, were much better than this.

This entry is dedicated to the memory of Geoffrey Lewis, from whom, twenty years ago, I learnt much of what I know about Hannibal.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Rome in the papers

A couple of articles from the weekend papers about Rome.

First off, a news article from the Sunday Times, which reveals that Michael Apted, director of the first three episodes, was not consulted about the BBC's decision to edit those down into two. He seems pretty pissed off, and rightly so. Personally, I don't believe this nonsense about the Beeb deciding that British audiences didn't need so much background information. I reckon that some idiot executive watched the first couple of episodes, decided that they were too slow, and ordered the trims. If the driving factor was to cut out what's unnecessary, then Octavia's disrobing scene could easily have gone. It's already obvious that Atia is prostituting out her daughter to Pompey, and we don't need to see the lecherous old general watching her undress to get that. But that scene had some tit and arse in it, so can't be cut. All the sex and violence has been kept (because it sells), and as a result what gets cut is the story. As Apted says, the end product is something that is quite hard to follow. Let us hope that the British audience really are as educated as the BBC assume, as I can't imagine anyone without some basic knowledge of the fall of the Roman Republic being able to understand what is going on. A.A. Gill's complaint about the programme elsewhere in the same paper, that it was "a mess of confusing storylines. Almost every utterance had to move great marble slabs of plot. It looked like a case of too many producers re-writing editing and patching up," is partly the result of this editing.

It is difficult to imagine something this crass being done with I, Claudius. But that was in the days when producers made decisions about programmes. Now, in the post-Birtian BBC, all power lies in the hands of administrators, such as Roly Keating, controller of BBC2, who has defended the series against claims of prurience by saying "Ancient Rome was a very violent society with utterly different moral values from ours. The series has been written to give the audience an authentic and unsparing portrayal of life in that era at all social levels." Unfortunately, this defence does not work when some of the scenes are made up and never happened. Which leads us to ...

Robert Harris, writing in the Telegraph, delivers a historical critique of the programme, and explanation why that matters, with which I am pretty much in agreement. If a programme puts so much effort into saying how 'authentic' it is, then it's legitimate to point out that this is undone by including scenes that simply didn't happen, especially when such scenes have no purpose other than to get in a bit of gratuitous nudity. Atia is portrayed as she is in Rome not because there is any evidence that she was actually like that, but because Livia and Messalina were memorable characters from I, Claudius, and the writers of Rome wanted a someone to fill that role. Cato becomes a doddering old codger presumably because some one in casting has heard the term 'Cato the Elder' (though this Cato is actually Cato the Younger). The danger is that all the guff about authenticity will lead people to think that this is how it actually happened, and thus educational standards are set back even further.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Rome - not the whole story

One thing I didn't realize when writing my previous two entries on Rome was that the BBC, in its infinite wisdom, have chosen to edit the first three episodes into two. The excuse - I hesitate to call it a reason - is that we Brits are sufficiently clued up about Roman history that we don't need to have all the background information. Passing over the implicit cultural arrogance of that assertion (and it did occur to me that if you don't have any background in Roman history, it might be rather difficult to understand Caesar's motivation), I would like to know if the editing was done by people involved in the original production, or whether it was some junior bloke who was told "edit it into two episodes, don't cut any of the sex".

Essentially this means I can't give a decent judgment on the first couple of episodes, because they are not as originally intended. This sort of editing can play merry hell with the structure of a show, and it may well be that some (though I doubt all) of my criticisms would evaporate if I actually saw the full-length episodes.

Great care will have to be taken when DVDs become available, to ensure that I end up with the proper version.

Sex and the ancient city

Yes, I know everyone will be using that gag, but I'm afraid I'm not used to anything else but the Sex In The City theme tune following the HBO placecard.

In another forum, some comments have been left on my opinion of Rome. It's interesting to note that there's often an implicit assumption that my objection is on historical grounds. Now it is true that, as a historian, I do tend to spot historical inaccuracies, and sometimes point them out, especially if a production is trumpeting itself as 'the way it really was'. As a result, I guess I give the impression that this is what is most important to me, and why I have problems enjoying films and television series set in historical periods. But if you look at what I've written about historical films, such as about Troy or Kingdom of Heaven I think you'll find that I am often more exercised by poor dramatic structure than by poor history. And so it is with Rome.

This is what I wrote in response to one comment:

I should make clear that my main problem with the series is not that it's bad history. Hell, I like Gladiator, and Rome is much more historically accurate than that. My problem with it is that it seems to me to be bad drama, that it can't make up it's mind whether it's I, Claudius for the 21st-century or a Roman Upstairs, Downstairs. As a result we keep being pulled away from the main story to these two characters who not even the writers seem terribly interested in, and I'm certainly not.

'Speed bumps' only throw me when they don't make sense in context. Take, for instance, the invented husband of Octavia. Now it is entirely true that on the death of Julia, Caesar proposed a marriage alliance between Pompey and Octavia, which would have involved he divorcing her husband. But Pompey refused the alliance and the divorce never took place. By having the divorce take place before making the marriage proposal, an entirely fictional husband has to be invented. More importantly, the scheming cunning Atia ends up looking stupid, someone who acts before she needs to. And we have to believe that the fictional Glabius is a person of no importance, because Atia would be even more stupid to dissolve a marriage alliance with one family if she did not have another better one securely in place. Which contradicts what has already been established, that female relatives of important men are used as political pawns - they don't get to marry for love. Again, my problem here is not that it's bad history (though it is), but that it's bad, incoherent writing. The main object of the sequence appears to be to get Kerry Condon to take her clothes off. (Almost all the nudity in Rome fails the 'dramatically necessary' test.)

My other problem (and it's really more of a comment than a problem) is the 'Emperor's New Clothes' syndrome, that the programme has been sold as something it isn't. It's the same issue I have with Saving Private Ryan, which was sold as something Big and Important rather than the updated John Wayne war movie that it actually is. Your comment 'I'm ravished by the show. Lots of gratuitous sex and violence, by ROMANS!!!!' is illuminating, It shows that you're enjoying this as a Roman romp, in the full excessive tradition of Spartacus, Cleopatra, etc. Which is what it is. But the publicity has tried to sell it as something different, something serious, something that hasn't been seen before. And it's none of these.

I will still watch the series, and doubtless still have fun watching it. It's certainly not boring, or completely unwatchable. But it's not genuinely serious drama either - more The Cleopatras than I, Claudius.

And to another:

I got the feeling that the writing perks up when dealing with the historical individuals as opposed to the fictional ones, but that may just be me not being particularly interested in Vorenus and Pullo. But yes, it's the indecision that causes problems for me. Either there should be more Vorenus and Pullo, to make it their story, or none at all, and stick to the historical principals. As it is, Vorenus and Pullo are in it enough to be distracting, but not enough to make me care about them.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


Well, I knew it was going to be nonsense, but I didn't realize it was going to be that much nonsense!

Spoiler details will follow. You may want to look away now. Or you could find out what happens by reading a history book.

First of all, what on earth are those two blokes Vorenus and Pullo doing in it? Do they actually serve any narrative purpose within the show? As far as I can see, no. The political story, Caesar versus Pompey, which is the story the series wants to tell, and be narrated perfectly well without recourse to these two individuals - indeed, for the most part, it does. Inserting these two tends if anything to slow up the action, and leads to such ridiculous ahistorical moments as the theft of Caesar's eagle and Octavian's kidnapping.* I'm pretty sure nothing like this ever happened (though please tell me if I'm wrong) and the whole thing is invented simply to get the fictional characters involved in the story. Oh yes, they're supposed to be viewpoint characters for the audience, but on the whole there's not many first century legionaries watching the series, so they don't do that very well. You might argue that it gives a more rounded picture of Roman life, shifting away from the elite bias that concentrating on the political narrative would do, but I don't think we actually get enough of the soldiers to make that work.

As it stands, I reckon it's an incredibly clumsy dramatic device, symptomatic of the spreading abandonment of basic narrative coherence in a lot of American cinema and television. It's like Pearl Harbor, which can never make up its mind if it's From Here To Eternity, Tora! Tora! Tora! or Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.

Next, on Today this morning 'historical consultant' Jonathan Stamp (who is actually a producer of historical documentaries) was talking about how the series was avoiding 'HollyRome'. This might be true in the way that the city is depicted, looking more like a mediaeval city such as you might see in Kingdom of Heaven than what has been seen before in movies about Rome. Which is fair enough - ancient Rome was probably much more like a mediaeval city than is often thought. But in plot structure and approach many elements have been lifted from previous renditions. As in de Mille's films, Rome is a symbol of excess (like the very silly bull's blood scene - I don't believe you can get so soaked simply from cutting a beast's throat). And as usual the audience is both critic and voyeur, censuring the excess whilst enjoying all the gratuitous nudity and sex going on (all heterosexual, I notice - no sign of Caesar's alleged more than familial liking for young Octavian). The characterization of Atia is lifted straight from I, Claudius; like Graves' Livia Atia is manoeuvering to make her son most powerful man in Rome. And I doubt the real Atia was quite so ready to hurl off her kit and grab the nearest erection. Meanwhile, her son Octavian appears to have been cast for his resemblance to the young Roddy McDowell, in what seems a deliberate reference to the 1963 Cleopatra.

And then there's the comedy references. Some of the humour, like the troops waiting while Antony has a shag behind a tree, is deliberate. But sometimes comedy is unconsciously echoed. As Vercingetorix laid down his arms at Caesar's feet, I couldn't help but think of the same scene at the beginning of Asterix the Gaul. The opening titles, innovative though they are, remind me of the end titles of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and I can't help but feel that it would look better to the theme from Up Pompeii. And I'm sure you can guess what I was thinking as they nailed Gauls to bits of wood. ("Crucifixion's a doddle!") I also laughed at the dormouse, but this was because of Mary Beard's mention of the 'dormouse test', a measure of the subtlety of a reconstruction of Rome by how long it takes anyone to be offered a dormouse, in Saturday's Guardian (I won't link to the piece, as it requires registration).

I don't want to be picky about details, like Caesar's laurel wreath, which he began wearing to hide his baldness, on a decidedly non-bald Ciaran Hinds, or the fictional first marriage of Octavian's sister. And I had fun watching it, and will watch more episodes. But in the end this is a made up piece of nonsensical fluff, that tries to impress the audience through scale (note how much of the publicity quotes statistics - 4,000 pieces of wardrobe, 750 extras, biggest set ever, etc., etc.). It's nothing more than this, and isn't half as important as it thinks it is.

* Yes, I know he ought to be Octavius at this point, but such a nitpicking name change would just confuse the audience.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Well, well, well

I am quite pleasantly surprised at how Not Stupid Richard Hammond is when he's not talking about cars.

Countdown to Rome: A tale of two buildings

The cover of the new Radio Times announces the arrival of Rome. A Roman soldier takes an aggressive stance, sword drawn, while a nubile Roman woman lies at his feet. This image speaks volumes about the approach the series will take, and the tradition into which it fits. But here I'm interested not in the figures in the foreground, but in the edifice behind them. This has a typical classical columned portico with pediment, behind which is a drum-shaped main building. It looks very like a scaled-down version of Hadrian's Pantheon, without a dome.

Hang on, you may think. The Pantheon? Isn't that a bit anachronistic?

Well, yes. Hadrian's Pantheon was built around AD 125, and was a radically new design at the time. The dome was the most original feature, but not the only one (and interestingly the original production sketches for the show also included a dome). Rome is set in the 50s and 40s BC, and it's most unlikely that there was anything that looked like the Pantheon around at this time.

However, there's more to this story than simply dressing up a set with an anachronistic building because it's Roman anyway, and most of the audience won't notice. The background for the Radio Times cover is a composite made up of elements of the Cinecitta set, rearranged for impact. But all the buildings are to be found on that set. Looking at the HBO site, it is apparent that this particular building is meant to be the Senate House, sitting in the north-west corner of the Forum Romanum. Now, it happens that there was indeed a circular edifice at approximately this point in the Republican period. It was not the Senate House, but the Comitium, where sat the popular assemblies of the Roman people, the ones which, in theory, elected the magistrates who ruled Rome. And it wasn't a building, but a circular square. The actual Senate house, the Curia Hostilia, was a rectangular building adjoining the Comitium to the rear. But this is a distinction one can expect a work of fiction to pass over. I don't believe that the real Republican Curia was anything like as elaborate as the building that Rome's producers have put in its place - with the portico, which the Curia certainly lacked, this is more elaborate than the Curia Julia built by Caesar after the Republican Senate house had burnt down - but more thought has gone into this bit of the set than might first appear.

There seems rather less justification for the Temple of Venus which the set designers have placed next to the Senate house, but perhaps they should be allowed some artistic license. But how much artistic license should be permitted to a series that, like many epics in the past, trumpets its 'authenticity'?

Is it enough to permit the triumphal arch in the corner of the Forum? This arch is modelled on the Arch of Titus, dedicated in AD 81. But there were certainly triumphal arches in the Roman Republican period. And there was indeed a triumphal arch where this one has been placed. But that was a triple arch, rather than the single one built for the set. And it was erected in 19 BC, commemoration of Augustus' diplomatic triumph in Parthia (which was regularly portrayed in imperial iconography as if it was a military victory).

Which leads on to one last thought. The first season of Rome goes as far as the assassination of Julius Caesar. It has been renewed for a second, which presumably will cover the war with Caesar's assassins and the Second Triumvirate, and take the story down to the battle of Actium in 31 BC and the defeat and deaths of Antony and Cleopatra. (According to this piece, James Purefoy, who plays Antony, has been contracted for six years, but even if one assumes it takes two years to make a season and that the six years includes the two spent on season one, it's hard to see how he can get that much work before his character is eliminated.) If it goes to a third season, that would presumably (as Penny Goodman has opined) deal with the reign of Augustus. This was a period of unprecedented development in the Forum - so will the Cinecitta set be torn down?

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Plato as done by Tarantino

This has been going around the web recently. It's moderately amusing, but what I find interesting is that originally it dates back to 1994. Yet it's being talked about as if it's brand new.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Tom Holland's "No sex please, we're Roman"

The BBC has a new epic Rome coming next month (warning: whoever did the BBC website can't spell Mark Antony's name). I had the following article from the Sunday Times, in relation to this series, brought to my attention:,,2092-1838250,00.html

Holland makes some interesting points about the way in which Roman attitudes to sex have been distorted and taken out of context, to make them seem more sexually amoral than they actually were. However, I think he rather over-reacts, and ends up painting an equally unrealistic picture of Roman mores. First century Rome may well not have been a society where people shagged at the drop of a hat, but equally it is not true that everyone observed the morality espoused by the aristocratic writers of the senatorial order, any more than all inhabitants of the British Isles in the nineteenth century adhered to what are now encapsulated as Victorian values. For a start, there's the 'no smoke without fire' point, that the fact that senatorial writers were railing against sexual immorality shows that some people were indulging in it, regardless of public disapproval. There may not have been as much bed-hopping as the senatorial writers say - like Daily Mail leader writers, they tend to exaggerate. And some of those professing the 'proper' Roman morality would have been the ones disregarding it in private - sexual double standards were as common then as now.

But other people had a more free-thinking attitude to sexuality, and this is to be found, for instance, in the works of Ovid. I have to say I find it odd that Holland writes about Roman sexual mores without mentioning Ovid. It means he is as guilty as the producers of Rome of not presenting the whole picture.

I'm sure the series will be sufficiently bonkers.

Helen of Troy

I watched Channel 4's much-trailed Helen of Troy documentary, presented by Bettany Hughes.

On the plus side, this is a programme that makes no attempt to talk down to the audience. Hughes is happy to throw in Greek verbs (or even just the concept of the verb) and assume the audience will keep up.

On the minus side, I think the programme is flawed by an attempt to do two separate things, to investigate the 'real' Helen and to examine Helen as a symbol, and blurring the distinction between the two. Hughes talks about her conviction that behind the legendary Helen lies a real Bronze Age queen. She offers no evidence to prove this, because, as she admits, there is none. This doesn't mean that she's wrong, of course. Mythology often coalesces around real individuals (just look at the American West for an example where we can still trace the historical personages concerned), and I am not unhappy to imagine that there might have been a 'real' Helen, or a 'real' Agamemnon, etc. But, as with King Arthur, I wouldn't go much further than that. It's okay to look at what we know of the lives of women in the Mycenaean period. It's okay to look at how archaeologically-attested details turn up in the later legend. It's okay to look at how the political reality revealed by Hittite documents is partially preserved in Homer. It's okay to look at how Helen developed as a symbol for later Greeks (though here Hughes cheats a little, saying at the beginning that we must strip away later interpretations, but being happy to use material from later sources when it suits her). The moment, however, that you begin to retroject details from the legendary Helen to tell the story of the 'real' queen, you're in trouble. The legends have passed through many hands even before they are first written down. Each retelling will add something new, and by the time it gets to Homer, much of the story will be made up. Homer will make stuff up himself - it's what writers do. This isn't to say that some of what we find in the legends of Helen doesn't go back to a real person's life, but to say that it is irrecoverable what is real and what is made up.

Take, for instance, the eloping of Helen and Paris. Now, it may very well be the case that had a foreign prince arrived at Sparta as a xenos, a 'guest-friend', then it would be a very serious breach of etiquette and protocol to run off with the king's wife, and that this could have very serious consequences. Hughes points to records of two Hittite vassal states coming close to war over a princess. But Helen and Paris is also a great romantic story, and simply showing that it is plausible that states might go to war over a woman doesn't show that this story is true.

This programme took the most recent developments in archaeology and Hittitology (which seems to have moved on considerably since I last had any idea what was going on) and weds it to a very traditional approach, the search for the 'truth' behind the legend.

Monday, October 24, 2005


Euripides' Orestes, Oxford Playhouse
Performance seen: Saturday 15th October (evening)

As a rule (as I've probably said in this blog before) I don't have high expectations of student performances of Greek tragedy. Undergraduate actors can often lack the necessary emotional maturity to cope with the texts, and there can be a slightly amateurish sense to proceedings.

Every so often, however, I encounter a student production that blows all my preconceptions out of the water. The Oxford University Classical Drama Society's staging of Euripides' Orestes, in the original Greek, is one such. One or two minor points aside, it looks like a professional staging (partly due to the involvement in the crew of people with considerable theatrical experience), and is one of the best productions of Greek tragedy I've seen. Certainly it stands favourable comparison with the RSC's recent London production of Hecuba.*

Orestes is rarely seen, being rather over-shadowed by Aeschylus' Oresteia, which Euripides clearly had in mind when he was writing. The action of Orestes takes place between the second and third plays of the earlier trilogy, and explicitly refers to the famous trial in Eumenides. The characterization of Orestes and his friend and companion Pylades clearly riffs off how they appear in Aeschylus. And, as one of my fellow theatre-goers pointed out, a line where Orestes praises Electra for being a woman with a man's heart echoes a line in Agamemnon where the same quality is thrown at Clytemnestra as an insult (clearer in Morshead's "She in whose woman's breast beats heart of man" than in Browning's near-incomprehensible "The man's-way-planning hoping heart of woman").

There is much else of interest. A work of Euripides' old age, Orestes is the last play that survives which was written before he left Athens (Bacchae and Iphigenia at Aulis were composed in Macedon). It may be a four-actor play.** It has the most sympathetic of Euripides' five portrayals of the Spartan king Menelaus, a character who clearly fascinated him.

It is also the most extreme expression of the deus ex machina that was a noted feature of Euripides' work, whereby conflict is resolved by divine intervention. At the end of the play Orestes and Pylades have murdered Helen, are threatening the life of her daughter Hermione, and have set fire to Agamemnon's palace. Menelaus is raising the population of Argos to storm the building. Just about everyone is going to die, and nothing can avert that. Only the intervention of the god Apollo can restore the characters' destinies to what the audience knows them to be. It's a ridiculous rabbit-out-of-the-hat moment, and is of course meant to be - Euripides is mocking easy solutions and those who proffer them.

As noted, this production is in the original Greek, with English surtitles giving an abridged version of the dialogue, a fairly recent innovation at Greek plays of which I thoroughly approve, as it increases the audience's ability to follow the action (even if, like me, you were so close to the front of the auditorium that it was a bit of a strain to look up from the action on stage to the surtitles). The text itself has been trimmed a bit - a couple of interjections by the Chorus into dialogue between actors appeared to have been lost, and the second half of the Phrygian Slave's scene, his confrontation with Orestes, has been wholly excised. None of these cuts harm the play as a whole. (Also, mischievously, a reference was included in the surtitles to the loss of a bottle of oil, alluding to Aristophanes' send-up of Euripides' style in Frogs, where he demonstrates how many of Euripides' prologues can be ended with 'lost his little bottle of oil'. As far as I know, that line is not actually in Orestes, nor indeed anywhere else in Euripides' extant writings.)

The first thing that impresses one about the Oxford production is the set design. The action is transferred from Argos, where the tragedians placed Agamemnon, back to his Homeric location of Mycenae, which is where a modern audience automatically associates with him. The set is made to look like Mycenae's ruins, because, as director Pippa Needs says in the programme, "the way in which we all interpret these relics says as much, if not more, about us today as ... about the ancient Greeks." It also conjures up, deliberately or not, the spirit of Michael Cacoyannis' films of Euripides (Electra, Trojan Women, and Iphigenia at Aulis). The set is cleverly lit, with the lighting changing to reflect the mood of the action.

Then there is the acting. Rose Heiney's Electra makes the language emote. Matt Trueman as Orestes takes the character from a tortured soul who has the audience's sympathies to an out-of-control paranoiac who rails at anyone who frustrates his wishes (the point at which this is made clear to the audience is a scene which appears at first redundant, where Orestes explains to Pylades the action of the first half of the play - the point is that Orestes' version of events is so far removed from what has been seen that it signals his disconnection with reality). Alex Kalderimis gives us a Pylades clearly more interested in Orestes than Electra, and carries well the moment that he goes beyond the loyal friend to psychopathic killer (one of few moments that elicit laughter from the audience, but this is in reaction to the text in the surtitles, not to Kalderimis' performance). Sheridan Edwards invests the Phrygian Slave with both comedy and dignity. Best of all is Himanshu Ojha as Menelaus. Clad as an eastern prince (presumably a deliberate visual echo of Tyndareus' accusation that Menelaus has 'gone native' after a decade in Troy), this is a Menelaus worth watching even when he isn't speaking - through facial expression Ojha tells us much about the thought processes going on in Menelaus' head. He also doubles up as the Messenger without making it too obvious to the audience that it is the same actor.

It is to the credit of speech coach Ben Cartlidge that this production is never hurt by the typical curse of Greek plays, cast members who appear to be reciting their lines with no real idea of the meaning of what they are saying; instead everyone conveys an awareness of both the literal and emotional content of the text (though occasionally a line gets forgotten). It's a pity, then, that Cartlidge's own performance as Apollo seems rather stilted, though, as the same companion said, it could be argued that this is deliberately emphasizing the artificiality of the deus ex machina ending.

One might find fault with some of the other performances. After a strong start, Heiney is a little single-level in the second act, shunning opportunities to vary her tone. Guy Westwood is visibly too young and lacks enough gravitas in his voice to fully carry off Tyndareus (one of the moments where the student nature of the production shows through). But it should be emphasized that these are merely moments of actors being less good than others in the production - overall, the standard of acting is high.

The Chorus rightly blend movement and music in measured proportion. Again, the music is often reminiscent of Cacoyannis and his use of traditional Greek music, but other influences, such as from the European classical tradition are allowed, particularly in the second act. Impressively, the production attempts arias for the actors as well as choral songs. These were an integral part of the original performance, but are often difficult to carry off with a modern audience. This production gives Electra a sung lament, and the Phrygian Slave's conversation with the Chorus is conducted part spoken, part sung, almost like Gilbert and Sullivan. Both of these work, and rather better than the attempts at the same approach in the RSC's Hecuba, where Vanessa Redgrave's (lack of a) singing voice imposed severe limitations.

A great deal of thought has gone into this production - this is emphasized by a moment noted by another companion, Dr Penny Goodman, where Orestes pleads with Menelaus in a pose of supplication taken from Greek vase painting, clasping Menelaus' knees and beard. The result is a bold, imaginative and high quality production, that all involved can be proud of.

* I got halfway through writing a blog entry about that production, but never finished it. To quickly summarize, I thought it was an interesting production rather let down by a muted performance by Vanessa Redgrave in the title role.

** Early on in the play Helen calls her daughter Hermione on stage to instruct her in making an offering at Clytemnestra's tomb. Two other actors apart from Helen are already on stage, as Electra and Orestes (though the latter has yet to speak). Hermione says nothing at this point, but does when she returns on stage later on. So either the role was meant to be played in the first scene by one of the non-speaking performers who often took the roles of slaves or children (such as Oedipus' daughters at the end of Oedipus the King), and only later played by one of the actors - which would be perfectly possible in a masked production - or there was a fourth actor who played Hermione. Given that Sophocles appears to be doing something similar at the end of Oedipus at Colonus (where either there are four actors or the role of Ismene is split between two), I like to think that towards the end of the fifth century the tragedians were experimenting with going beyond the rigid three-actor format.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Publicity for an upcoming Greek play

The Oxford Greek Play, Euripides' Orestes, has just got mentioned on Newsnight Review. They did mention that it's being performed in the original Greek - but interestingly didn't put it in context that this is a long standing tradition (the first Greek play was done 125 years ago, though they don't put one on annually as King's College, London do). Also, it wasn't mentioned that this is a student production - perhaps the BBC haven't realized.

I'll let you know what I think of the production after I've seen it next Saturday.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Claudius, Nero, and the Imperial succession

[The following is an article that I had in the summer 2005 OU Classical Studies Newsletter. I've taken the opportunity of making a couple of minor corrections, and adding the source passages.]

Claudius, Nero, and the Imperial succession

This short paper intends to examine some issues relating to the emperor Claudius' apparently strange decision in AD 49 to marry his niece Agrippina, and advance her son Nero towards the imperial throne, at the expense of his own son Britannicus. It derives from a tutorial I have presented to students taking [the OU course] AA309 Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire.

The first thing to note is the intrinsic bias in the sources against Claudius, to which students are introduced in AA309 Block One, section 3.4. In essence, most of our sources represent the senatorial tradition. This tradition was hostile to the very idea of the principate, though reluctantly accepting its necessity (the debate in the Senate following the death of Gaius Caligula considered not just the restoration of the Republic, but also, more realistically, the elevation of one of their number to the purple). It was also hostile to Claudius in particular, for two reasons. First, Claudius' physical disability (sometimes thought to be cerebral palsy) meant that he was believed to be a fool, and senators were unwilling to accept that they had been wrong. Secondly, he took away much of what had previously been the Senate's responsibility in the running of the empire; like Tiberius, he attempted to co-operate with the Senate, and like Tiberius, often faced stalemate in trying to get them to do what he needed them to do. But where Tiberius had given up in despair, Claudius took the Senate out of the equation.[1] Finally, the tradition was hostile to Claudius' niece and wife Agrippina, because it was intrinsically hostile to powerful women.

Figure 1 Gold aureus of Nero, AD 54, obverse. Facing portraits of Nero and Agrippina the Younger. Legend: AGRIPP. AVG. DIVI CLAVD. NERONIS CAES. MATER ('Agrippina Augusta, wife of the Divine Claudius, mother of Nero Caesar'). Found at Herculaneum, among victims of the eruption of Vesuvius. Naples, National Archaeological Museum. Photo: Barbara McManus. (

But however appalling his reputation, it paled into insignificance in comparison with the reputation of Nero's mother, Agrippina. She was universally regarded as the wickedest woman in Rome - a very hotly contested title, but Agrippina won it. There wasn't any immorality that she hadn't been involved in, and there was no crime that she hesitated to commit. She'd been born into the imperial family and, to be fair, that might have warped anybody. Her father, Germanicus, was poisoned. Her mother was murdered ‚- so were two of her brothers. Her third brother became the insane emperor, Caligula, who threatened her life. She survived, but I suppose her lack of caution and good sense was down to her background.

This extraordinary woman resolved to make her son Nero emperor of Rome. The existing emperor was her uncle, Claudius. Claudius liked as wives exciting immoral women, and he had a whole string of them. When the last of them went a bit too far and had to be executed, Agrippina resolved to take her place. She had, of course, all the qualities necessary for the job, and the Emperor Claudius enjoyed all the benefits of wedlock well in advance of the ceremony. So the uncle married the niece, which was of course incest, and created a bit of a scandal in the Senate, which had to be bribed a bit and threatened a bit. Once Agrippina was Empress she quickly cleared the remaining obstacles out of Nero's way to the throne, including Claudius himself.

This quote comes from Brian Walden's 1999 television programme on Nero, from the series Walden on Villains, and gives a common modern view of Nero's approach to the throne; Walden presents Nero as a usurper, advanced to the principate by his ambitious mother. This is a picture that goes back to the ancient sources. Cassius Dio (History of Rome 61.34; passage (b) below) says that Britannicus by rights should have succeeded. Tacitus (Annals 12.1-3; passage (c)) and Suetonius (Life of Claudius 26; passage (d)) present an account in which Agrippina used her sexual wiles to win over Claudius after the execution of his previous wife, Messalina, for treason.

Figure 2 Head of Claudius, found in River Alde, Suffolk. British Museum, London. (Photo © British Museum.) From AA309 Illustrations Book, Plate 4.15.

However, behind this tale of tabloid sleaze lies serious dynastic politics. Cassius Dio's opinion is based on the empire of his own time, when the son of an emperor would be an obvious candidate to succeed his father (though the truth is that the Roman empire never formalized the process of succession until the time of Diocletian). Matters were somewhat different in the Julio-Claudian period. If one looks at the family tree a different picture emerges. A biological link can be traced between Nero, through his mother Agrippina the Younger, her mother Agrippina the Elder, and her mother Julia the Elder, to Augustus himself. Nero was Augustus' great-great-grandson. The importance of this has been noted by Barrett (1996, p. 97), and though Fagan (1998, n. 24) is sceptical, it seems to me that the relationship is key to the promotion of Nero.

Augustus, perhaps aware of the weak position only being Julius Caesar's testamentary heir had put him in, had pushed the blood relationship to himself as an important qualification for the principate. He first marked out his son-in-law Marcellus as a potential successor, with the intention that the children of his daughter should eventually succeed. For the same reason he adopted his grandsons Gaius and Lucius Caesar. When he adopted Tiberius as his son, he made Tiberius adopt Germanicus; the importance of the adoption was that Germanicus was married to Augustus' grand-daughter Agrippina, so that the succession, after passing through Tiberius and Germanicus, would revert to Augustus' blood descendants, as it did with the accession of Gaius.[2] As Robert Graves put it (I, Claudius, ch. 13): 'It was a satisfaction to Augustus that Germanicus ... was Tiberius's natural successor, and that Germanicus's infant sons ... were his own great-grandsons. Though Fate had decreed against his grandsons succeeding him he would surely one day reign again, as it were, in the persons of his great-grandchildren.' Despite the different attitude of Romans to adoption compared to our own (see Jones and Sidwell, 1997, p. 216; passage (e)), this blood relationship was evidently extremely important to Augustus. Even the descendants of his sister Octavia, often held up as being significant in terms of the succession, were mainly used by Augustus as husbands, wives and guardians for his blood descendants. Hence, Agrippina could view the principate as her son's birthright.

A similar connection cannot be traced from Claudius or his son Britannicus to Augustus. Claudius did not even have an adoptive link with Augustus, as his uncle Tiberius and his brother Germanicus had. He took the name Caesar on his accession, but had no title to it other than that he gave himself and a tenuous descent from Julius Caesar's father, through four generations of women. He was descended from Augustus' sister Octavia; but so was Nero. (It is reported that Claudius revived a rumour that his father, with whom his grandmother Livia was pregnant when she divorced her husband to marry Augustus, was actually Augustus’ illegitimate son, a rumour that would allege the blood relationship that Claudius otherwise could not prove.)

This made Claudius' position very weak. He came to the throne largely through default, there being nobody better available; only by his promotion had a civil war between rival senatorial candidates for the principate been avoided. As the young Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (the future Nero) grew up, he would be a potential focus around which opposition to Claudius could gather. That opposition could be side-stepped by bringing the boy into his own family. By promoting a genuine descendant of Augustus as his successor, Claudius could strengthen his own position. Hence he rapidly made Nero his stepson, adopted son, and son-in-law. The dynastic arguments were so strong that Claudius was prepared to countenance a marriage that was, by Roman law, incestuous. From the moment of his marriage to Agrippina, Britannicus was sidelined. Given the fates of Agrippa Postumus and Tiberius Gemellus (see Goodman, 1997, pp. 48 & 54) he may well have recognized that he was effectively signing his own son's death warrant; but if so he clearly thought a smooth unchallenged succession, avoiding the possibility of civil war, more important.[3]

Figure 3 Detail of a statue of Augustus, found in Via Labicana, Rome. Date: after 12 BC (from the toga fold draped over his head, indicating his role as pontifex maximus). Muzeo Nationale, Rome. (Photo © Alinari.) From AA309 Illustrations Book, Plate 1.5.

There were other male descendants of Augustus around; the Junii Silani, Marcus, Lucius and Decimus. Their mother was Aemilia Lepida, who was daughter of the younger Julia, the eldest daughter of Marcus Agrippa and Augustus' daughter Julia. A number of these were alive in Claudius' reign, and older than Ahenobarbus (Nero). Why did Claudius not turn to one of them? Well, in a sense, he had. The second son, Lucius Silanus was, until Claudius' marriage to Agrippina, betrothed to Claudius' daughter, Octavia.

However, there was something about the Junii Silani that made them unsuitable as imperial heirs. Marcus had been born in AD 14, so was an adult at the time of the assassination of Gaius, who was only a couple of years older. Yet he was never considered a serious alternative to the disabled Claudius. Though the Junii Silani were an old Roman patrician family (they belonged to the same gens as the Junii Bruti, who had produced one of the founders of the Republic and, much later, Caesar's assassin Marcus Junius Brutus), they seem not to have had great standing with the army. Ahenobarbus, on the other hand, as well as being a descendant of Augustus, and also of his sister Octavia, was a grandson of Germanicus, who had been immensely popular with the army. Since Claudius' own elevation had shown the importance of the army in supporting the emperor, Ahenobarbus was a better-placed candidate.

One might ask why Claudius ever bothered with the Junii Silani at all. It's not very clear, but my own suspicion is that originally Claudius based his hopes for the succession around his son Britannicus. Lucius Silanus would be a suitable husband for his daughter, but would not prove a rival to Britannicus. Ahenobarbus would be a more significant threat to Britannicus' succession. Yet Claudius seems to have hedged his bets, and not taken permanent action to remove Ahenobarbus. His wife Messalina may have seen things differently. Suetonius certainly says (Life of Nero 6) that she saw Ahenobarbus as a threat to Britannicus, and alleges that she tried to have the child assassinated.

After the crisis of Messalina's conspiracy in AD 48 (possibly, though this is complete speculation, inspired by Claudius' failure to eliminate the growing threat from Ahenobarbus), things looked rather different. Claudius' own vulnerability was apparent, and there was now a cloud over Britannicus as the son of a traitor. In order the strengthen his own position, and improve the chances of a smooth succession, Claudius had to turn to Agrippina and Ahenobarbus. Agrippina subsequently engineered the disgrace of Lucius Silanus, and after Claudius' death made sure she eliminated his older brother Marcus. (It is notable that Seneca mentions the death of Lucius as one of Claudius' crimes in Apocolocyntosis 10, passing over the fact that his removal helped Nero's passage to the throne.)

As an appendix to this, it is worth considering the supposed murder of Claudius by Agrippina. All the ancient sources suggest this. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.148 (passage (f)), makes it a rumour, but Tacitus (Annals 12.65-9; passage (g)) and Suetonius (Life of Claudius 43-6; passage (h)) are quite certain that Claudius was poisoned. The tale, given by Tacitus and as one version by Suetonius, is that Agrippina administered a fatal dose of poisoned mushrooms to her husband. Most scholars accept the murder without question, feeling that Claudius' death comes too conveniently after the time when Nero was capable of taking the reigns of power himself (yet still young enough that he could be guided by his mother, who hoped to rule through him), but before Britannicus was old enough to do so. However, a number of points need to be considered.

First, this is exactly the sort of story told about powerful imperial women. A similar accusation was made about Livia, who was alleged to have killed Augustus in a very similar fashion (figs instead of mushrooms). Allegations of poison were easy to make and difficult to disprove, and unless any of the individuals involved confessed, which seems unlikely, the details of the murder can only be hearsay, and are contradictory in the sources - some, indeed, such as the poisoned feather that Tacitus says was administered by Claudius' doctor Xenophon, after Claudius had vomited up the original mushrooms, must be invention, as no poison known to the Romans was that fast-acting.

Secondly, Agrippina had already achieved her objective. Nero was the clear successor, and Britannicus was not a serious candidate. There might appear to have been no need to kill Claudius to secure Nero's position.

Thirdly, Claudius was gravely ill in late AD 52 and early AD 53, and some of his acts in his last years (see Suetonius, Life of Claudius 46) look like those of a man aware he had not much longer to live. Agrippina had only to wait.

On the other hand, if Claudius really was expressing intentions to put aside Nero, as Suetonius says he was (Life of Claudius 43), then it is not too surprising that Agrippina acted swiftly. She knew, having seen two of her brothers die in custody, that people could be easily taken out of the line of succession, and the consequences would no doubt have been fatal for her and her son.

The case must remain unproven.


The marriage to Agrippina


Pushed on by his overbearing mother, Agrippina, [Nero] was only 16 when crowned. Indeed it was his mother's machinations that had seen this patently ill-equipped and unprepared boy to power.

(Grabsky, 2001, p. 34)


At the death of Claudius the rule in strict justice belonged to Britannicus, who was a legitimate son of Claudius and in physical development was in advance of his years; yet by law the power fell also to Nero because of his adoption. But no claim is stronger than that of arms; for everyone who possesses superior force always appears to have the greater right on his side, whatever he says or does. And thus Nero, having first destroyed the will of Claudius and having succeeded him as master of the whole empire, put Britannicus and his sisters out of the way. Why, then, should one lament the misfortunes of the other victims?

(Cassius Dio, History of Rome 61.34)


1 Messalina’s death convulsed the imperial household. Claudius was impatient of celibacy and easily controlled by his wives, and the ex-slaves quarrelled about who should choose his next one. Rivalry among the women was equally fierce. Each cited her own high birth, beauty, and wealth as qualifications for this exalted marriage. The chief competitors were Lollia Paulina, daughter of the former consul Marcus Lollius, and Germanicus' daughter Agrippina. Their backers were Callistus and Pallas respectively. Narcissus supported Aelia Paetina, who was of the family of the Aelii Tuberones. The emperor continually changed his mind according to whatever advice he had heard last.

Finally, he summoned the disputants to a meeting and requested them to give reasoned opinions.

2 At the meeting, Narcissus reminded Claudius that he had been married to Aelia Paetina before; that the union had been productive (a daughter, Claudia Antonia, had been born to them); that remarriage would necessitate no domestic innovations; and that, far from entertaining a stepmother's dislike for Britannicus and Octavia, Paetina would cherish them next to her own children. Callistus objected that Claudius had divorced Paetina long ago and that this disqualified her – remarriage would make her arrogant, and Lollia was far more eligible since, being childless, she would be a mother to her stepchildren without jealousy. Pallas, proposing Agrippina, emphasized that the son whom she would bring with her was Germanicus' grandson, eminently deserving of imperial rank; let the emperor ally himself with a noble race and unite two branches of the Claudian house, rather than allow this lady of proved capacity for child-bearing, still young, to transfer the glorious name of the Caesars to another family.

3 These arguments prevailed. Agrippina's seductiveness was a help. Visiting her uncle frequently – ostensibly as a close relation – she tempted him into giving her the preference and into treating her, in anticipation, as his wife. Once sure of her marriage, she enlarged the scope of her plans and devoted herself to scheming for her son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, whose father was Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. It was her ambition that this boy, the future Nero, should be wedded to the emperor’s daughter Octavia. Here criminal methods were necessary, since Claudius had already betrothed Octavia to Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus – and had won popularity for his distinguished record by awarding him an honorary Triumph, and giving a lavish gladiatorial display in his name. But with an emperor whose likes and dislikes were all sug-gested and dictated to him anything seemed possible.

(Tacitus, Annals 12.1-3, tr. Grant, 1996, pp. 252-3)


Almost at once, however, he planned either to marry Lollia Paulina, Caligula's widow, or to re-marry his divorced wife Aelia Paetina; but it was Agrippina, daughter of his brother Germanicus, who hooked him. She had a niece's privilege of kissing and caressing Claudius, and exercised it with a noticeable effect on his passions: when the House next met, he persuaded a group of senators to propose that a union between him and her should be compulsorily arranged, in the public interest; and that other uncles should likewise be free to marry their nieces, though this had hitherto counted as incest. The wedding took place with scarcely a single day’s delay, but no other uncle cared to follow Claudius's example, except one freedman, and one leading-centurion [primus pilus] whose marriage he and Agrippina both attended.

(Suetonius, Life of Claudius 26, tr. Graves, 1989, p. 203)


Another striking freedom was over adoption. European aristocracies operating under feudal rules have been much encumbered by primogeniture (the automatic privileging of the elder son), absence of female succession, and impossibility of adoption. Roman rules not only treated all children more equally, but made it easy to produce substitute sons and heirs by adoption. By given rituals, a son passed from one familia to another (interestingly, the rituals might involve the same use of weights and scales as for the acquisition of a wife under coemptio, or a slave). But even if the formalities had not been completed, it was possible to use your will to nominate someone as heir to your property and name. Though this was not technically an adoption, the ease with which Caesar's testamentary heir (Octavian) passed himself off as his son shows that custom accepted the situation.

(Jones and Sidwell, 1997, p. 216)

The death of Claudius


Now Claudius Caesar died when he had reigned thirteen years, eight months, and twenty days; and a report went about that he was poisoned by his wife Agrippina. Her father was Germanicus, the brother of Caesar. Her husband was Domitius Ahenobarbus, one of the most illustrious persons that was in the city of Rome; after whose death, and her long continuance in widowhood, Claudius took her to wife. She brought along with her a son, Domitius, of the same name with his father. He had before this slain his wife Messalina, out of jealousy, by whom he had his children Britannicus and Octavia; their eldest sister was Antonia, whom he had by Paetina his first wife.[5] He also married Octavia to Nero; for that was the name that Caesar gave him afterward, upon his adopting him for his son.

(Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.148, tr. Whiston)


65 However, the charge against Lepida[6] was attempting the life of the empress by magic, and disturbing the peace of Italy by failing to keep her Calabrian slave-gangs in order. On these charges she was sentenced to death – in spite of vigorous opposition by Narcissus. His suspicions of Agrippina continually grew deeper. 'Whether Britannicus or Nero comes to the throne,' he was said to have told his friends, 'my destruction is inevitable. But Claudius has been so good to me that I would give my life to help him. The criminal intentions for which Messalina was condemned with Gaius Silius have re-emerged in Agrippina. With Britannicus as his successor the emperor has nothing to fear. But the intrigues of his stepmother in Nero's interests are fatal to the imperial house – more ruinous than if I had said nothing about her predecessor's unfaithfulness. And once more there is unfaithfulness. Agrippina's lover is Pallas. That is the final proof that there is nothing she will not sacrifice to imperial ambition – neither decency, nor honour, nor chastity.'

Talking like this, Narcissus would embrace Britannicus and pray he would soon be a man. With hands outstretched – now to the boy, now to heaven – he besought that Britannicus might grow up and cast out his father's enemies, and even avenge his mother's murderers.

66 Then Narcissus' anxieties caused his health to fade. He retired to Sinuessa, to recover his strength in its mild climate and health-giving waters.

Agrippina had long decided on murder. Now she saw her opportunity. Her agents were ready. But she needed advice about poisons. A sudden, drastic effect would give her away. A gradual, wasting recipe might make Claudius, confronted with death, love his son again. What was needed was something subtle that would upset the emperor’s faculties but produce a deferred fatal effect. An expert in such matters was selected – a woman called Locusta, recently sentenced for poisoning but with a long career of imperial service ahead of her. By her talents, a preparation was supplied. It was administered by the eunuch Halotus who habitually served the emperor and tasted his food.

67 Later, the whole story became known. Contemporary writers stated that the poison was sprinkled on a particularly succulent mushroom. But because Claudius was torpid – or drunk – its effect was not at first apparent; and an evacuation of his bowels seemed to have saved him. Agrippina was horrified. But when the ultimate stakes are so alarmingly large, immediate disrepute is brushed aside. She had already secured the complicity of the emperor’s doctor Xenophon; and now she called him in. The story is that, while pretending to help Claudius to vomit, he put a feather dipped in a quick poison down his throat. Xenophon knew that major crimes, though hazardous to undertake, are profitable to achieve.

68 The senate was summoned. Consuls and priests offered prayers for the emperor's safety. But meanwhile his already lifeless body was being wrapped in blankets and poultices. Moreover, the appropriate steps were being taken to secure Nero's accession. First Agrippina, with heart-broken demeanour, held Britannicus to her as though to draw comfort from him. He was the very image of his father, she declared. By various devices she prevented him from leaving his room and likewise detained his sisters, Claudia Antonia and Octavia. Blocking every approach with troops, Agrippina issued frequent encouraging announcements about the emperor's health, to maintain the Guards' morale and await the propitious moment forecast by the astrologers.

69 At last, at midday on October the thirteenth, the palace gates were suddenly thrown open. Attended by Sextus Afranius Burrus, commander of the Guard, out came Nero to the battalion which, in accordance with regulations, was on duty. At a word from its commander, he was cheered and put in a litter. Some of the men are said to have looked round hesitantly and asked where Britannicus was. However, as no counter-suggestion was made, they accepted the choice offered them. Nero was then conducted into the Guards' camp. There, after saying a few words appropriate to the occasion – and promising gifts on the generous standard set by his father – he was hailed as emperor.[7] The army's decision was followed by senatorial decrees. The provinces, too, showed no hesitation.

Claudius was voted divine honours, and his funeral was modelled on that of the divine Augustus – Agrippina imitating the grandeur of her great-grandmother Livia, the first Augusta. But Claudius' will was not read, in case his preference of stepson to son should create a public impression of unfairness and injustice.

(Tacitus, Annals 12.65-9, tr. Grant, 1996, pp. 281-3)


43 In his last years Claudius made it pretty plain that he repented of having married Agrippina and adopted Nero. For example, when his freedmen congratulated him on having found a certain woman guilty of adultery, he remarked that he himself seemed fated to marry wives who 'were unchaste but remained unchastened'; and presently, meeting Britannicus, embraced him with deep affection. 'Grow up quickly, my boy,' he said, 'and I will then explain what my policy has been.' With that he quoted in Greek from the tale of Telephus and Achilles:

The hand that wounded you shall also heal,

and declared his intention of letting Britannicus come of age because although immature, he was tall enough to wear the toga of manhood; adding 'which will at last provide Rome with a true-born Caesar.'[8]

44 Soon afterwards he composed his will and made all the magistrates put their seals to it as witnesses; but Agrippina, being now accused of many crimes by informers as well as her own conscience, prevented him from going any further.

Most people think that Claudius was poisoned; but when, and by whom, is disputed. Some say that the eunuch Halotus, his official taster, administered the drug while he was dining with the priests in the Citadel; others, that Agrippina did so herself at a family banquet, poisoning a dish of mushrooms, his favourite food. An equal discrepancy exists between the accounts of what happened next. According to many, he lost his power of speech, suffered frightful pain all night long, and died shortly before dawn. A variant version is that he fell into a coma but vomited up the entire contents of his overloaded stomach and was then poisoned a second time, either by a gruel – the excuse being that he needed food to revive him – or by means of an enema, the excuse being that his bowels required relief and must be emptied too.

45 Claudius' death was not revealed until all arrangements had been completed to secure Nero's succession. As a result, people made vows for his safety as though he still lived, and a troop of actors were summoned, under the pretence that he had asked to be diverted by their antics. He died on 13th October,[9] during the consulship of Asinius Marcellus and Acilius Aviola [AD 54], in his sixty-fourth year, and the fourteenth of his reign. He was given a princely funeral and officially deified, an honour which Nero later neglected and then cancelled; but which Vespasian restored.

46 The main omens of Claudius' death included the rise of a long haired star, known as a comet, lightning that struck his father's tomb, and an unusual mortality among magistrates of all ranks. There is also evidence that he foresaw his end and made no secret of it: while choosing the Consuls he provided for no appointment after the month in which he died; and on his last visit to the House offered an earnest plea for harmony between his children,[10] begging the Senate to guide both of them with great care through the years of their youth. During a final appearance on the tribunal he said more than once that he had reached the close of his career; though everyone present cried: 'The Gods forbid!'

(Suetonius, Life of Claudius 43-6, tr. Graves, 1989, pp. 211-12; see Lewis and Reinhold, 1990, pp. 355-6, for chs. 43-4)


[1] This issue is gone into in more detail in Potter, 1982, pp. 27-9.

[2] Goodman, 1997, in the caption on p. 53, Plate 3, says that Augustus was Gaius' great-grandfather by adoption. This is true, but he was also his natural great-grandfather. In contrast on p. 56 he says that Nero's wife Octavia was descended from Julius Caesar, which is not true.

[3] There is, however, circumstantial evidence that Britannicus may have died not from poison, as alleged, but from an epileptic seizure; see Barrett, 1998, pp. 170-2.

[4] Note that Gaius Appius Junius Silanus, who was executed by Claudius in AD 42, belonged to a different branch of the family from that which had married into the descendants of Augustus (Robert Graves got this wrong in I, Claudius and Claudius The God).

[5] Actually his second.

[6] Domitia Lepida, mother of Claudius' third wife Messalina, and grandmother of Britannicus and Octavia. She was also Claudius' cousin, her mother and his being sisters, and therefore a great-niece of Augustus.

[7] I.e. as imperator. Hailing a new emperor as 'Imperator' was standard practice.

[8] Arguably, that description fitted Nero better.

[9] The Latin says 'the third of the Ides of October'.

[10] Britannicus and Nero are meant.


Barrett, A.A. (1996) Agrippina: Sister of Caligula, Wife of Claudius, Mother of Nero, London, Routledge.
Fagan, G.G. (1998) De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors, 'Claudius (41-54 A.D.)',
Goodman, M. (1997) The Roman World 44 BC - AD 180, London, Routledge.
Grabsky, P. (2001) 'Nero's pleasure palace', BBC History Magazine, vol. 2 no. 2, pp. 34-5.
Grant, M. (trans.) (1996) Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books. (First published 1956. Revised edition 1971. Reprinted with a new bibliography 1996.)
Graves, R. (trans.) (1989) Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus: The Twelve Caesars, revised by Michael Grant, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books. (First published 1957. Revised edition 1979. Reprinted with a new bibliography 1989.)
Jones, P. and Sidwell, K. (eds) (1997) The World of Rome: an Introduction to Roman Culture, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M. (1990) Roman Civilization: Selected Readings. Volume II: The Empire, New York, Columbia University Press. (First published 1955. Revised edition with new bibliography 1966. Third edition 1990.)
Potter, J. (1982) Rome: The Augustan Age, Unit 9: Tiberius, Gaius and Claudius, Milton Keynes, Open University.
Walden, B. (1999) Walden on Villains 'Nero', BBC Television (a transcript was available on the BBC's website, but has now been removed).


I popped into the British Museum on Saturday, to pick up the catalogue for the new exhibition, Forgotten Empire: the world of ancient Persia. I did this in preparation for going to the exhibition itself, which I shall probably do later in the month. Out of idle curiosity, I usually browse the bibliographies to see if I'm in them. I never am, of course. Except on this occasion. For there it is under 'K' - 'A.G. Keen, Dynastic Lycia'.

I feel quite chuffed about that.

Of course, had my career gone the way I once hoped, this would be happening all the time.

Troy: a reflection

Writing up a piece for the Classical Association newsletter, I revisited something I wrote last year about Wolfgang Petersen's movie Troy, and which is now on the OU's website. I thought I'd post a link here:

[I should add, though, that I've changed my mind about whether the erastes-eromenos relationship can be read into Homer, as I will say in the upcoming article.]

The whole text follows:

Troy: views and reviews
A reflection by Tony Keen
The following is not intended as a review per se of Wolfgang Petersen's Troy. Rather, it seeks to examine some of the issues arising out of one of the most-discussed aspects, the changes made from the 'canon' of Greek mythology. I expected, from advance information, to spend the entirety of the film in open-mouthed shock at what had been done. I didn't.
The first reason is that it's quite obvious within the first ten minutes that this is Wolfgang Petersen doing (for reasons best known to himself) a Cecil B. DeMille movie, and what do you expect from such a film? Historical accuracy?
But there is a more complex reason, one which relates to what we consider important in the retelling of mythology and adaptation of literature. Back in the 1950s, an American television company made a version of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, in which James Bond was made into an American. Horrifying idea, isn't it? Yet when I actually saw said programme, what struck me was not how much had been changed, but how much of Fleming survived – even Americanized, Bond remains a nasty piece of work. And that's how I feel about Troy. It's not the departures from Homer you note – it's how much of Homer is still there, such as Paris' feebleness in single combat with Menelaus (even if Paris isn't here the sort of person to whom even his close relatives and lover say, "Go out and fight like a man, and if you get yourself killed, well, no real harm done"), and Priam's begging Achilles for his son's body.
Besides, these myths are not immutable. Homer himself probably altered some of the stories he used. The great Attic tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, certainly did. Three surviving plays by Euripides feature Helen of Troy on stage – all are mutually inconsistent. Virgil too modified the legends to suit his purpose of praising Rome and Augustus.
Some of the changes made by ancient authors are quite substantial, the most momentous being the tradition that Helen never went to Troy at all, the whole war being fought over her simulacrum or likeness. I wonder if the sort of people now complaining that Helen escapes the sack of Troy at the end of Petersen's film would be up in arms at Euripides' Helen: "A ghost Helen at Troy, and the real one in Egypt? What does this bloody playwright think he's doing, following Steisichorus?"
It's silly to be precious about these stories. Petersen and his screenwriter, David Benioff, are only doing what writers from the beginning of time have done. Granted, many of their changes are more drastic than those performed by any writer of antiquity, especially when all done at the same time. But let's face it, far less violence has been done to the stories in this film than in the average episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys or Xena: Warrior Princess. And I could always forgive Robert Tapert, Sam Raimi and their cohorts, because clearly they knew the material that they were transforming. And that's true of Troy's creators too – for instance, they know Homer well enough to have everyone call Menelaus 'Menelaos', in proper Greek fashion.
We have to remember that when Homer wrote the Iliad, everyone knew what happened before and after the small part of the story Homer chooses to tell. Nowadays, most of the demographic for Troy would have no knowledge that Agamemnon should go home to be killed by his wife, because of his sacrifice of their daughter, that Menelaus will be charmed again by Helen, and they will live in quite contentment, that Aeneas will lead a ragged band of escaped Trojans to found Rome (or London, depending on which empire the writer is living under). A movie that tried to tell the whole story, including the dispute over the armour of Odysseus and the suicide of Ajax, and that tried to fit in Hecuba and Cassandra and the fate of Astyanax, would be extremely long and very complicated, not to mention the fact that any modern Hollywood production would have great difficulty in dealing with the blatant unfairness of many characters' fates. Frankly, such a film would never get made. So I don't mind that the fates of Menelaus and Agamemnon are tidied up before the end of the film. Indeed, since Briseis in the film is a amalgam not just of Homer's slave-girl Briseis, and Chryseis, daughter of the priest of Apollo, but also of Cassandra, daughter of Priam, it is almost appropriate that she deals the fatal blow – it remains Agamemnon's lust that finally undoes him. This is what the film does all the time – remembers its primary audience is not familiar with the Trojan cycle, but includes little bits for people who are.
As for Menelaus and Helen, having established Menelaus as a violent and possessive man, the film could hardly have Helen meekly return to Sparta with him at the end. I think far more people would be offended by a film that suggested battered wives should go back to their husbands than by one which alters the eventual fate of Helen of Troy, and rightly so. Once that is decided, Menelaus plays no further dramatic role in the story beyond providing the excuse for Agamemnon's war, so it makes sense in terms of the film to get rid of him as soon as possible. But when Menelaus is killed the look of surprise on his face almost says, "I'm not supposed to die yet! What about Book IV of the Odyssey? What about the Andromache?"
Had the film killed Odysseus, then I would have been annoyed. That would have been to misunderstand something crucial about the character of Odysseus. Whether you admire him, as Homer does, or not, as per the tragedians and Latin poets, the whole point of Odysseus is that he is a survivor. Fortunately, as soon as the undiluted Sheffield vowels of Sean Bean (who I still think would have been better cast as Menelaus) are heard in the introductory narration, it is clear Odysseus will survive. The film even gives him an arch final line about "if they ever write my story ..."
Odysseus is not the only person whose broad characterization the film gets right. Achilles is a petulant baby, Agamemnon a manipulative tyrant, Menelaus a boorish prig. Hector is more noble and heroic than anyone on the Greek side can dream of being, whilst his brother is a pretty-boy who lacks the inner steel to make a true hero. Priam is everything a wise and noble elder statesman should be, except that every important decision he makes is wrong; Helen is tortured by her responsibility for the war, and by the Trojans' refusal to condemn her for it. Many of these characterizations can be found in Homer – almost all are in classical literature somewhere. But, of course, classical literature contains many different versions of these figures. I've already mentioned different views of Odysseus above; Helen is almost a tabula rasa to be depicted how one likes, from the now-dutiful wife who regrets her past that we find in the Odyssey, to the self-regarding manipulative bitch of Trojan Women.
What I am suggesting here is that, for all the variations in detail, Troy never actually misses the point of the Trojan War stories. Troy still falls. And if you think it's silly to suggest it might have been otherwise, something very similar has happened to Alexandre Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask. That novel concerns a plot to replace Louis XIV of France with his (fictional) identical twin bother Philippe. In Dumas, this plot is thwarted, and Louis remains King. In every single film adaptation, the plot succeeds.
The one change in Troy I didn't think was acceptable was Paris' survival, and that’s not because it breaks from the traditional legend, but because it's dramatically not right within the film. When he leaves Helen at the escape tunnel, and passes on the Sword of Troy to Aeneas (supporting his aged father, which I thought was a nice touch), Paris is having one of those moments where he knows, and so does Helen, that he's going off to die. Except he then doesn't die, and the last we see of him he is fleeing with Briseis, the implication being that he will get both of them to the escape route and safety. (And no, this can't be excused by saying, "Oh, but we don’t see that he escapes." The film gives us no reason to believe that he doesn't.) Quite what is supposed to happen when he rejoins his fellow escapees isn't clear – will he ask for the Sword of Troy back?
This mishandling of Paris is a shame, because otherwise, the deaths, at least of major characters, all take place for a good dramatic reason, because there is some flaw in each individual for which they must pay the price. Patroclus dies because he is too eager for the fray, Menelaus because he has not the wit to treat Helen as more than an object to possess, Hector because, for all his honour, he loves his brother more than he loves his city, Priam because he arrogantly assumes that the gods are on his side, Agamemnon because his lust for power blinds him to all else, Achilles because his lust for war leads him to care nothing about those he kills. Though Paris' discovery of archery skills (no typecasting for Orland Bloom there, then!) compensates for his earlier cowardice, he still ought to pay the price for carelessly stealing another man's wife, and for killing the hero.
The change that has excited most comment is the down playing of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Both Brad Pitt and Benioff have said that they can’t see anything in the Iliad to support a homoerotic subtext (has Brad really read all twenty-four books?), but that's because it was so obvious in the social context when Homer wrote that he didn't need to be explicit. In any case, any homoeroticism that Benioff removed in his script is put back in by Petersen. Not only are Achilles and Patroclus clearly doing it, for those who have eyes to see, but the film is packed full of athletic men with their kit off, lingering shots tastefully cut off just above the pubic hair. In fact, not since Batman Forever have I seen a Hollywood blockbuster quite so in love with the male body.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticise Troy (e.g. the embarrassing dialogue, the failure to make the battle scenes as exciting as Lord of the Rings or Gladiator, the varying level of acting), but it should be criticised on its own terms, and the artistic license the film grants itself should be allowed. By focusing on the changes made, and attacking them simply because they are changes, without trying to understand them in context, classicists and other critics risk appearing as silly pedants. Not to mention inconsistent. The license being denied to Petersen's film is extended without question to Euripides or Virgil, or even to modern playwrights such as John Barton, whose Tantalus cycle is quite prepared to bend the legends when it seems necessary. This raises suspicions of elitism, that what is permitted to ancient authors or on stage cannot be allowed in a populist film. Regular citations of the Iliad as 'the basis of western literature', and by implication somehow sacrosanct, do not dispel such worries.
Even in the arena of film people are being inconsistent. One film often mentioned as a better way to do Homer than Troy is the Coen brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou?, in which the Odyssey is taken as inspiration for a story set in the southern United States in the 1930s. Now, I am not going to promote the notion that Troy is a better movie than O Brother …, since it clearly isn’t, but I am interested in the idea that the changes the Coens make are more acceptable than those of Peterson's film. Are we really suggesting that it is intrinsically truer to Homer to shift him into the Depression (or, say, turn of the century Dublin), and make the free adaptation that such a setting requires, than to keep him in the Bronze Age, but then change some of the details?
One wonders whether critics of Troy might benefit from another read of the Iliad themselves. The central theme of the epic is Achilles' anger at the removal of Briseis by Agamemnon, an anger that blinds him to what's really important, winning the war. Troy is a blockbuster film, that will raise the profile of Homer and the Classics in general. Classics as a profession should be ready to take advantage of that. Instead, I have the impression we're sulking in our tents.