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

http://news.diversebooks.com/article.pl?sid=05/11/08/187225 [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?