Friday, December 29, 2006

A Neapolitan Aphrodite

A couple of months back, one of the memes floating around the blogosphere was The Greek Mythology Personality Test. When I took this test, I came out as Nemesis, but that's not particularly important. What I want to talk about is the illustration chosen for those whose result was Aphrodite. The creator of the test used this:

This is the Aphrodite Kallipygos, "Aphrodite of the Beautiful Arse". I make no apologies for the vulgarity. I'm translating Aristophanes at the moment, and pyge is a good Aristophanic word, for which translations such as 'buttocks' or 'behind' seem too tame.

There are many different 'types' or patterns of Aphrodite statues. You may be familiar with the coy nudity of the Capitoline Venus, or the disinterested self-regard of the Capuan Venus, of which the best-known example is the Venus de Milo. The Aphrodite Kallipygos is less well-known - I'm not aware of any other examples. But the Kallipygos is my favourite piece of ancient sculpture - I have loved it since first encountering it in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples back in 1999.

It is well-named, even if some argue that the statue described as the Aphrodite Kallipygos in antiquity, from the sanctuary of Aphrodite in Syracuse, was not the original of the statue in Naples. Attention is focused on the exposed bottom. If one goes around the other side of the statue, there is less emphasis on nudity, and certainly less than in the Capitoline and Capuan versions. The breasts are largely covered, though one nipple is exposed, and while the pubic area is not concealed, the drapery falls in such a way as to suggest that actually it is. And the tilt of the body is encouraging you to go round behind her. Again, the use of the drapery actually makes the body more erotic than the total nudity of other Aphrodites.

I like this statue because of the humour here, which I think is not to be found in much statuary. And, as anyone who has compared Priscilla Presley in Dallas and Priscilla Presley in The Naked Gun will know, a female who is funny is sexier than one who is not. I love the way that Aphrodite is caught checking out her own lines. She personifies a certain sort of shallow vanity, that can be found in many sitcoms - she is obsessed with ensuring that her body is as perfect as it can be. (The character Lydia Weston in Less Than Perfect is an example.) But of course, as she is divine, her vanity is justified. It is a beautiful arse.

Interestingly, the humour I see in this almost completely derives from the seventeenth-century restoration of the statue by Carlo Albacini. The sculpture was found in the area of Nero's Domus Aurea (and isn't it exactly the sort of statue you would expect that emperor to surround himself with?), and passed into the collection of the Farnese family. In those days, people restored the missing parts of statuary - in this case, including the head and shoulder. So Aphrodite's gaze is directed by Albacini; we really don't know if the original statue was depicted with her looking lovingly at her bottom. But I'd like to think that it was.

But I don't really care. What is important is that this statue delights me, and will continue to delight me, and I wish to introduce her to as many people as I can, so they may share my delight.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Orestes: Blood and Light

Orestes: Blood & Light
By Helen Edmundson, based on Euripides
Shared Experience/Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn

Performance seen: November 30th 2006

One of the pleasures of teaching for the Open University is the wide variety of backgrounds from which your students come. So it is entirely possible to be leafing through the programme for a production in a north London community arts theatre, and discover that the costume supervisor is a former student. But enough of that ...

Given how everyone talks about how rarely Euripides' Orestes is performed, it seems a bit of a luxury to be able to see two productions in the space of just over a year. Even more to be appreciated is that both productions have been very good. But there comparisons have to stop, as the two versions are very different. The Oxford Greek Play from last year was, bar a few chops here and there, a faithful performance of Euripides' text. For Helen Edmundson, writer of Shared Experience's version (which has previously been performed in the same venue as the Oxford version), Euripides is merely the starting point. Whole characters and scenes are lost (Pylades, the Chorus, Apollo and the deus ex machina, the Messenger, and to all intents and purposes the Phrygian slave, made into an African woman and with her role much curtailed). Those characters that remain are given things to say that Euripides never wrote. The result is something that is a work in its own right. At one point, as Electra and Orestes carefully and tenderly planned to take their own lives, I actually thought that the play would end here, a long way from Euripides. It is entirely correct that Edmundson's name comes before the Athenian's in the credits. And this is no bad thing.

In place of the removed characters and scenes, Edmundson gives a much expanded role to Electra, that Greek girl with an excessive interest in the male members of her family. This Electra is as complex as ever (and Edmundson includes explicit references to Euripides' other portrayal of the character in his Electra). She can see through the lies of others. She has a scene with Tyndareos in which she shreds his self-righteousness to pieces. But she is in her own way as insane as her brother. Electra takes Pylades' role in driving events forward. It is Orestes' sexual desire for his sister that reignites his desire for life, and Electra that suggests the murder of Helen. (Yet at one point Orestes deserts he to plead his case, feeling that she will be a hindrance - this is perhaps a reference to something similar in Euripides' original, where Electra is excluded from Pylades and Orestes' plotting, and treated as a junior partner.)

Helen is given a larger part. Ironically, this makes her less sympathetic. He defence of her own and Clytemnestra's actions contains a strong element of hypocrisy, and rejection of personal responsibility. She fled with Paris because of lust, and that is her excuse.

Menelaos is also a lesser person than Eurpides depicts. In many of the plays that Eurpides wrote about Menelaos, he is either manipulative (Iphigenia at Aulis, Andromache), or foolish (Helen, Trojan Women). In Orestes, however, Menelaos is the most honest character, who never promises more than he can deliver (for which he is condemned by Orestes as a fair-weather friend), and he never allows his temper to affect his judgment (unlike Orestes and Tyndareos). Edmundson's Menelaos on the other hand makes promises to Orestes that he has no intention of keeping. And in that he helps bring about the destruction of his family.

In the end, the theme of Edmundson's play seems to be responsibility, and the avoidance of same. Orestes and Electra claim that they are acting on Apollo's command, Helen blames lust, whilst Menelaos betrays his responsibility to his brother's children. All this leads to an ending that returns to Euripides' apocalyptic vision, shorn of the cop-out of the deus ex machina.

The cast are excellent, though their different ethnic background requires a greater suspension of disbelief to accept that they are all related to one another. The lighting makes effective use of the theatre space. And yes, my student's costumes were good.

I'm not sure whether I agree with Edmundson's reading of Eurpides as an out-and-out anti-warmongering writer (a reading of the play also to be found in Philip Vellacott's introduction to his Penguin translation). But overall, this was a fine piece of work, which I enjoyed rather more than some of the critics seem to have.

Friday, December 01, 2006

November Carnivalesque

The November edition of Carnivalesque Button, the pre-modern history blog carnival, is up at Even in a little thing. This is the bimonthly ancient/mediaeval edition (on alternate months it's early modern).

The next ancient/mediaeval Carnivalesque will be hosted in this very blog, in late January. So drop me a line, to the contact email in my profile, with any ancient/mediaeval blog entries you think particularly memorable. It's a bit like Pick of the Week, really. Only without Chris Serle.

It's a pity that I've got some time now to actually do more entries here, as I would be honour-bound not to include them in the next Carnivalesque.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"I see your point but it's all lies"

Weird comment of the week: (scroll down to the end)

I mean, where does one start in responding to something like this? My first instinct was just to delete it, but it's so out-field that I've decided to keep it.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

What year is it?

Last night the BBC carried this news item,* about a Roman cemetery under the Vatican. This particular bit of cemetery was discovered three years ago (though that there was a cemetery under the Vatican has been known for a very long time, and other tombs have been known for years, including one which may be that of Saint Peter). Clearly it's been tarted up for public display (something to do next time I'm in Rome).

However, I'm blogging this because of the text that was given to newsreader Huw Edwards to lead into the item, and which is repeated in the text accompanying the online video version. It's not the implication that this is a new discovery - that's typical hyperbole. It's the age given, 3,000 years old. The report itself says that the tombs date from the time of Christ. Which, unless I'm mistaken about the current date, is rather nearer 2,000. A bit of a failure in basic maths, there, rather like that in Battlefield Britain, where the Battle of Hastings (1066) was described as 'nearly a thousand years' after the Boudiccan revolt (AD 61), or Rageh Omar's slip in his otherwise interesting series on the miracles of Jesus, where he gave the dates of birth (63 BC) and death (AD 14) of the emperor Augustus, and then said that Augustus was dead at the age of forty-nine (he was, of course, seventy-six).

(Note that what is on the website may change, as I am going to drop a line to the BBC.)

* Actually, if you search under 'Rome' on the BBC website, you'll find a link to a rather better quality version.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Lucian, Satirical Sketches

Lucian, Satirical Sketches, translated by Paul Turner

One of the things I do is collect Penguin Classics. I particularly keep an eye out for ones that are currently out of print. Sometimes, I forget what I already have (especially as my library is rather disorganized at present). So when I decided that it was about time I read Lucian's proto-sf story The True History, I forgot that I had actually picked up this 1961 Penguin of Lucian at a recent Classical Association conference. But then I turned it up, and read the whole volume, because, as Adam Roberts says in his recent History of Science Fiction, The True History needs to be read in the context of Lucian's other writings. It's an interesting miscellany. Turner only has room for about a quarter of Lucian's surviving output, and has deliberately selected those of Lucian's works that have a satirical nature, so no place here for the more didactic works such as How to Write History and On Salaried Posts In Great Houses (in this online translation called The Dependent Scholar). Lucian reveals himself in these works as having little time for charlatans, philosophers, and other pseudo-intellectual wasters of other people's time. Those writing about the history of sf often forget that, as Brian Stableford points out in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, The True History is a parody of the genre of the fantastic voyage, not an endorsement of it.

I'm currently working through Roberts' History, with a view to writing a blog entry about his chapter on sf in the ancient novel. I've also promised an article on The True History to the sf fanzine Banana Wings, but that won't appear until some time next year. Right now, I have Ben-Hur on DVD out from Blockbuster, which I've actually never watched all the way through, so that will fill out the rest of the evening.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Grooming young Classicists

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I gave a talk to a group of primary school children.

My eldest niece has just started learning about the Romans as part of Key Stage 2. So my brother asked me if I'd be interested in talking to her year, and then talked to the teachers about it.

I had very little idea how to go about this, and how to pitch it. The only seven-year old I've ever tried to talk to about the Romans is my niece, and I'm not sure I did a great job of that. I did look at some material on the BBC website (which I found whilst looking for something else) - but the trouble is, Key Stage 2 covers 7 up to 11, and I got the impression that the BBC material was aimed at the top end of that range.

Still, I had some ideas. Pictures seemed like a good idea. I knew the kids had a visit planned to Verulamium, so I could try to tie what I said into that. (This meant I had an excuse for going to St Albans, which I'd never done, and always wanted to - a possible trip a couple of years ago fell through due to bureaucratic inertia, but I will be leading a trip next year, and experience has shown that I need to go and look at places before I can tell other people what they ought to be looking for. Plus I got to meet up with an old school friend who teaches Classics at St Albans School, whom I hadn't seen for several years, and his family, who I hadn't seen for even longer.)

Kate advised me to talk about people, rather than buildings, and to include as many stories and gory bits as I could. And I also employed a couple of techniques that I use on adult students: I tried to make links between life in Roman times and life today, and I had some replica artefacts - the wax writing tablets seemed especially appropriate, as these were what Roman children would have used for their school exercises.

So, I did some mugging up, I prepared my Powerpoint presentation, and I visited St Albans. At 9:30, I was in front of about forty to fifty children, ready to give a talk on life in Roman Britain, and the changes towns brought, with reference, where possible, to Verulamium.

I'm never wholly at ease when I'm not working from a prepared script. I feel I tend to trail off when making my points, and go 'er' a lot. There seemed to be a lot of fidgeting in the ranks, and I felt I was losing them. This wasn't helped by the fact that I kept looking at the back of the classroom rather than at the kids. But some I noticed seemed to be paying close attention. So I kept going for forty-five minutes, until I was at the end of my slides. Then I answered questions. For another half an hour, and they would have kept going had it not been break time. So that rather shows that they were paying attention.

The questions were a mixed bunch. Some were very broad - 'Are you going to say anything about the gods?' or 'Are you going to tell us about Boudicca?' As one of the teachers said afterwards, 'You'd think we hadn't given them lessons about those subjects, but we have.' But, of course, what the kids were doing was testing their teachers against a real expert, and, more importantly, showing that they had heard about these subjects. I tried to answer appropriately - with Boudicca, rather than rehash what they would already have been told by their teachers, I made points that the teachers might not, such as that we know Nero seriously thought about giving up the province, probably after the Revolt. On the gods, I started talking about the Pantheon, before realizing that I would not remember all twelve - so, in a moment I'm proud of, I threw the question back at the kids, and said 'what gods do you know of?' We didn't get all the Pantheon (poor old Minerva got overlooked), but they felt involved. When the questions were out of left field, I tried to bring them back to telling them something about the Romans - answering a question 'who rules Rome now?', I managed to bring out the continuity of the role of the Pontifex Maximus, appropriate given that this was a Roman Catholic school. I was less successful with the questions about how old Romulus and Remus were, and what Romulus used to kill Remus, saying that I didn't think we know (Livy doesn't seem to say), though I'd guess a spear was Romulus' weapon of choice.

There was one awkward moment at the first question. I'd shown a picture of St. Germain's Block, a surviving portion of the city wall of Verulamium, and pointed out that much of the material from the wall had ended up in buildings like St Albans Cathedral. A girl asked why there was a round hole in the wall, and a teacher told her off for not listening, because she'd just been told. However, I believed that this particular hole was actually the result of mediaeval use of the wall, perhaps as part of a chapel. I agonized about whether to undercut the teacher's authority, but in the end, truth won out. Unfortunately, it turns out that I've misunderstood a guidebook, and the teacher was right after all. Oops.

Overall, though, the adults who were there, two teachers and my brother, who video'd proceedings, were impressed and enjoyed it. My brother said I pitched it exactly right, and also that he ended up learning stuff. Afterwards, he drove me around Amersham looking for a couple of Roman Villa sites.

I very much enjoyed doing this, and I'd certainly do it again.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The end of coursework?

On the BBC this morning there was a report about the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's desire to end GCSE coursework in a number of subjects, including history and Classical subjects. I've thought about this, and I'm agin.

My reason for this is that in my view assessed coursework helps develop and tests skills that otherwise get overlooked. Basically, this means library work, gathering information, the ability for students to produce their work surrounded by notes and books, and the opportunity to give their work a considered revision (yes, I know most don't, but that's not the point). I don't think a controlled assessment (which essentially looks like just another exam) can develop those skills. So one result of this is that school leavers will be even less prepared for university, where such activity is a vital part of their education, than they already are.

Why is the QCA doing this? From the television report you'd get the idea that it's all to do with preventing students downloading their essays off the Internet. But only a minority of teachers are worried about this, and I think the majority are right. I've always felt that students clever enough to plagiarize in such a way that it can't be spotted are clever enough to have no need of such underhand approaches, whilst those who are too lazy to write their own work are generally too stupid to hide their plagiarism.

The QCA report, on the other hand, seems to have decided that coursework is an inappropriate method of testing learning outcomes. I'm not impressed with this as a reason. I have always felt that coursework and exams test different skills, and an exam-only assessment, which is the way the QCA are heading, discriminates against students who are good in coursework but less good at exams. Since I can't imagine that students will no longer be required to write essays, it's only fair that those essays contribute towards their final mark - otherwise students may feel that essays are a waste of time, and not work too hard on them, with the result that they won't be as well-prepared for the exams as they should be. If, as the QCA suggests, assessed coursework is unfit for purpose in a culture of league tables, perhaps it's the culture that is wrong.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Arthur Marwick

To my shame, I've never actually read The Study of History by Arthur Marwick, though I do own a copy. However, the way I do history has almost certainly been influenced, at one remove or more, by the way Marwick did history. And he was an important figure in the early years of the Open University, an insititution for which I have the highest regard, and which has given me opportunites I might not otherwise have had. And now he's dead.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Another Big Series

I have seen the trailer for the first of the BBC's new drama-documentary series Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. This first episode deals with Nero, and Michael Sheen has been cast in the role. I note that this is one of those occasions, which are not too common, when someone close to the right age has been cast. Nero was thirty when he died, but looked older; Sheen is thirty-seven, but looks younger. Often someone significantly older is cast - Derek Francis was forty-one in the Romans story in Doctor Who, Patrick Cargill was fifty-two in Up Pompeii! (mind you, that's set in AD 79, so Nero would have been forty-two, had he been alive then - which he wasn't - Up Pompeii!'s no particular respecter of chronology), and Christopher Biggins twenty-eight when playing Nero at sixteen. On the other hand, two of the most famous portrayals are exceptions; Peter Ustinov was thirty-one when he made Quo Vadis?, and Charles Laughton thirty-two in Sign of the Cross. I note without comment that Sheen can also be seen on our screens playing Tony Blair in The Queen.

Fifty years ago this story would have been written with a clear reference to Aristophanes' Lysistrata (which was picked up by both the immediate sources that brought it to my attention). Sadly, this either is thought too highbrow for the readerships concerned, or the journalists themselves don't know - so kudos to The Washington Post.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

I, unreliable

There's a very interesting article by Barry Unsworth about Robert Graves' Claudius novels in yesterday's Guardian. I am particularly drawn by the section where Unsworth talks about how Claudius is an unreliable witness. I have been telling people for several years how important it is that the first novel is I, Claudius, that Graves presents the material as an autobiography. I don't believe Graves intends the reader to believe every word Claudius says. I don't mean that Claudius lies to us, but that his interpretations of motivations, and accounts of events he was not present at, are inevitably partial. It's nice to see I'm not alone in this view.

And Unsworth is correct in his final point, that one must remember that these works are fiction, however well-researched. One must be careful not to take Graves' version, or the television adaptation, which as Mary Beard has reminded us, is as much Jack Pulman's work as Graves' - it's clear that Pulman went back to the original sources - as what actually happened.

At a study weekend I taught recently, after my well-received lecture on Rome in films, I was asked which Roman character I'd put on film if I had the chance. I avoided the question, but now I have to say, hubristic though it would be, I'd like to do Claudius again. My Claudius would be a skillful politician, one who marries his niece and adopts her son not because he has been enticed by her sexual wiles (Tacitus' version) or to discredit the empire (Graves and Pulman), but to avert civil war and ensure a smooth succession (you can see why I think this here). I might even be mischievous, and pick up the suggestion that some have made that Claudius was the one pulling the the strings behind the assassination of Caligula, or my own speculation that, on his deathbed, he commissioned Seneca to rubbish him in the Apocolocyntosis, to boost Nero's reputation (and yes, I know that one's wacky). But however much I believed it was plausible, it would still, like Graves, be fiction.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Shell shock

So it appears that the British government is to seek a pardon for soldiers shot for cowardice in WWI. Parliament's granting of that pardon will presumably be a formality.

Professor Garry Sheffield of KCL has his doubts, though. He points out that a blanket pardon was refused in 1998 because it was now impossible to distinguish those who had been suffering from shell-shock from the genuine cowards and deserters, the paperwork having been long since lost. "That struck me as being true in 1998 and equally true today," he adds. I agree with that judgement. Where I do not agree is with the implication that because one cannot tell which cases are worthy of a pardon and which aren't, pardons should be granted to none of them. British legal precedent, and the presumption of innocence unless guilt is proved beyond reasonable doubt would rather weigh on the side of pardoning them all, even if we know that some were guilty as charged. Defence Secretary Des Browne said "We can't be in a situation morally where we cannot redress injustices because we don't have paperwork in relation to an individual case." And he is entirely correct. Now, if he could just explain this principle to his colleague in the Home Office ...

Saturday, August 05, 2006

For UK-based digital television owners

Tonight (August 4th), BBC Four begins showing all of I Claudius nightly for two weeks. Essential viewing for those of you who don't have it on VHS or DVD.

Perhaps even more importantly, each episode will be followed by an episode of Up Pompeii, smutty '70s British comedy at its very best.

There's also a documentary on Togas on TV, to be shown before tonight's episode, and tomorrow at 23:25. Tomorrow it's just before an excellent documentary on Edward Gibbon.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hadrian's Wall

Mile Castle 42
Originally uploaded by drtonykeen.
Castle Nick Milecastle (MC42)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Catch-up reviews

[Here's a couple of reviews I've had written for ages, but not had time to post. I'm off now, for two weeks on Hadrian's Wall, in which I won't be posting, though I may send the occasional photograph. Captions will have to wait until I get back.]

La Belle Helene, 6 May 2006

The last time I saw a performance of Offenbach's operetta La Belle Hélène, I described it as "moderately funny". I wouldn't be so dismissive of the English National Opera's witty and sexy production.

To elaborate ... Tone can be difficult to get right with something that effectively is making light comedy out of the start of a war that killed thousands - it's a bit like a frothy musical about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But the ENO manage it pretty well, by more-or-less ignoring the consequences of Helen's abduction. Offenbach pretty much does this himself (though he could trust his audience to be familiar with the tale anyway) - he concentrates on applying to the story of Helen and Paris the mores of Second Empire France, where to be a cuckolded husband was not so much a shame as an occupational hazard.

Kit Hesketh-Harvey provides an English book and libretto that is full of the sort of with that will appeal to Radio Four listeners, and that's no bad thing. I was particularly amused by Agamemnon asserting his superiority through song because he is 'polysyllabic', whilst the two Ajaxes proclaim how full of 'vim' they are (a joke that will probably pass by anyone under thirty). There are, however, some truly terrible puns.

On the sexiness side, Orestes' two courtesans, Leona and Parthenis, are suitably lithe and underdressed. Orestes being played by a woman allows the Sapphic frisson that cross-dressing usually brings. This is not to say that the production appeals on this level only to heterosexual males. Paris appears with his shirt off quite a lot, and at one point quite gratuitously wearing nothing but a towel. When the dancers dressed in swimsuits introduce the third act, it's not clear if the wolf-whistles are male or female.

Helen herself is played by Dame Felicity Lott. I confess I don't usually think of Helen as in her late fifties, though one can still see why Paris should want to bed this Helen. But it's actually a solution to the perpetual problem of casting the role, which I've gone on about in this blog before. By casting someone like Lott, who looks good for her years, the production can suggest that in her prime this truly was the most beautiful woman in the world. And it lends Helen's quest for love an air of quiet desperation. This is a woman who has been ground down by decades in a loveless marriage to a man who has grown old, fat and bald. And no doubt snores.

The costume designer certainly had fun. This staging opens in Helen's bedroom, and so costuming through much of the first two acts has a nightwear theme - not just Helen's negligee, but the Greek kings' armour on top of pyjamas. Calchas, meanwhile, is dressed in half civil service suit (literally - it has been divided lengthways) and half priestly robes. In the final Act, set at the resort of Nauplia, a variety of beachwear is seen.

What struck me most about this production is how well sung it is. This is especially true of the large Chorus, who have clearly worked hard on their harmonies. Most of the solo performances are also top class.

Finally, a word in praise of the programme - one of the better ones I've seen, with a number of interesting articles in it....

Storytelling the Odyssey, 20 May 2006

Just before this show started I realized that Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden, performers of the version of the Odyssey staged as part of the Brighton Festival, were the people who had received the 2006 Classical Association Prize, and whose interpretation of the Iliad I had seen at the CA Conference in Newcastle (which I meant to blog but didn't). I should have realized this before, but I don't have my wits much about me these days.

A review of the Conference in the latest issue of CA News has the following complaint about Lupton and Morden, "why, oh why, did they have to 'improve' Homer?", followed by a list of points at which their version differs from Homer. This strikes me as a bit of a silly complaint. I'm sure that Lupton and Morden weren't setting out to improve Homer, but like any artists, they want to do their own version of the story. Othewise, what is the point - they might just as well stand up and read out Lattimore's translation. As I've said before, Classicists do themselves no favours if they act as if these stories must be frozen in aspic in the manner in which Homer told them, thus denying modern writers the creative freedom that brought the Iliad and Odyssey into existence in the first place. No Greek would have thought like that.

In The Odyssey, as with The Iliad, Lupton and Morden present a simply staged retelling of the story,with just one or the other one speaking at length to the audience - in this redition Morden takes the role of Odysseus as he relates his wanderings to the Phaeacians, whilst Lupton narrates ther hero's arrival on Phaeacia's shores and his return to Ithaca. In the X-Box age something this stark is held to be beyond our attention spans, especially those of children. But Lupton and Morden show that this is not true. They achieve this partly through some of the effects Homer himself used - the use of key repeated phrases, and attention-concentrating details.

If you get the chance to see them, take it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

If only Classics was really like this

Currently on the television is Boy on a Dolphin. It appears to exist not simply for the purpose of having a very young Sophia Loren get soaking wet in a thin shirt, though clearly that was one of the objects. It also, somewhat preposterously, has Alan Ladd as an archaeologist. Still, there's some pretty shots of the remains of Delos and Athens.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

For UK readers

If you've not yet seen the BBC4 Mary Renault documentary I wrote about in April, it's on BBC2 tonight at 11:20. Very worth seeing, as an all-too-rare example of what happens when documentary makers get it right.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Pompeii ... Live!

Five, a television channel in the UK, has just shown a live broadcast from Pompeii and Herculaneum (though many of the sections were pre-recorded).

Overall: I don't think the gimmick of the live framework adds anything at all, and for a programme called Pompeii ... Live! they spend an awful lot of time at Herculaneum. But then Herculaneum's a fascinating site, perhaps more so than the over-familiar Pompeii. There's an awful lot of interesting stuff in these two hours (well, just over an hour and a half when you take the adverts out), and I learnt stuff I didn't know before. I hardly found myself shouting at the television at all (except at the very silly bit where the horizon of Vesuvius was used to illustrate the rise and fall of the Roman empire).

See, it is possible to make television programmes about the ancient world that aren't one-sided, sensationalist, or just plain ignorant.

Monday, June 19, 2006

War of the World

From some of what I'd read, I had got the impression that Niall Ferguson's new tv series War of the World would see the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History acting as an apologist for imperialism. Well, not exactly. If anything, the direction of this series is anti-racist rather than pro-imperialist. Ferguson puts the blame for some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century firmly upon racial tensions created by the forming of nation states out of nineteenth-century empires. But understanding that doesn't necessarily mean that he thinks that empires are a good idea. He's certainly scathing about the habit of the western empires to sit back and do nothing whilst ethnic cleansing takes place.

I wonder if there isn't some confusion here in the criticism of Ferguson, a simple-minded assumption that pointing out what happened as a consequence of imperial fall means a wish that imperial fall did not take place. I think it is actually quite difficult to argue against the proposition that the way in which the old empires of (in particular) Ottoman Turkey and Austria-Hungary were carved up into nation states (by the other empires that were still prospering at the time) caused the creation of ethnic enclaves within those nation states that contributed to subsequent conflicts, in the Second World War, the Yugoslav wars, and Iraq, to name but three. Denying that means that we are ill-equipped to stop it happening again.

I may not agree with all of Ferguson's views (he was for the invasion of Iraq and I wasn't). But I'm going to listen to what he has to say.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Terry Jones' Barbarians

[Revised on 30/06/2006.]

For the last four weeks, Terry Jones has been giving television viewers a revisionist view of the peoples who lived outside the Roman empire. Traditionally, we have been taught the Roman version of these 'barbarians' - that they were uncivilized savages who needed to be brought the values of Rome. As Jones says in an article in The Sunday Times, "It is a familiar story, and it's codswallop."

Now up to this point, I'm in some sympathy, though it's hardly as ground-breaking as press releases suggest. Yes, the Celts and Germans and Persians achieved a great deal, and we should not denigrate those achievements just because sources from the Roman empire condemn these people. To that extent, some of the criticism levelled against him has missed the point. I'm talking about that along the lines of "if the barbarians were so great, how is it that we have the Roman culture to admire, not theirs?" This simply shows that those individuals have bought into the Roman propaganda that Jones rails against.

But Jones goes further. In order to drive home his point, he ends up demonizing the Romans, portraying them as nothing but destroyers and conquerors. As a result, he ends up giving a picture which is just as much codswallop as the story he is railing against.

I don't want to go through everything I objected to in this series, but here's a representative sample:

The first programme looked at the Celts. Well, for a start, a lot of modern archaeological thought disputes the notion that there was such a people as the 'Celts' - it's seen as an artificial view imposed by the Romans. But Jones is happy to talk of a "Celtic empire". Differences between individual tribes within the Celtic world, differences which, according to our sources, were important to the invasion of Britain, are overlooked. Instead, Jones' Celts do nothing but trade with each other, and acknowledge the wise leadership of the Druids.

I often wonder about the Druids. According to Caesar's account, the Druids were independent of the political structures within the tribes. Anyone familiar with the reigns of Henry II and Henry VIII of England should know that enormous problems could be caused by a religious establishment whose first loyalty lay outside the political unit they were operating in. Perhaps many of the elites of Britain, those that had chosen to adopt the trappings of Roman culture (and they did exist, even before the conquest of AD 43), weren't too sad to see the back of the Druids.

Not so in Jones' view. For him the Druids were heroes of nationalism. The stories of human sacrifices found in Tacitus are dismissed as Roman propaganda. Now, I'm open to the possibility that Druidic human sacrifice is an exaggeration of the sources. Aldhouse-Green does say it was hypocritical of Roman writers to moralize about Druidical sacrifice whilst overlooking gladiatorial games, and there's some truth to that (though here and elsewhere in the series the degree to which Roman writers criticized the Games was somewhat elided). One can describe the execution of prisoners as part of the gladiatorial games as 'killing in a ritual context'.*

It's not the same, however, as suggesting that the Roman writers made it up. And one needs to note that other Tacitean stories, such as the presence of wild women amongst the Druids as the Roman army advanced on Mona, are accepted quite happily by Jones. My point is not to dismiss the notion that Roman sources exaggerate, but to argue that one can't pick and choose what one considers exaggeration and propaganda simply on the basis of what one would like to be true. This review of Jones' book points out that Jones states that Caesar's motivations for attacking Gaul are distorted (almost certainly true), but accepts Caesar's figures for how many Gauls he killed or enslaved (which are almost certainly inflated to reflect well on Caesar).

This is an attitude to Roman sources I've seen before in pro-Celtic treatments - there is an understanding that the ancient writers cannot be taken on trust, but that becomes a justification for indiscriminate cherry-picking from them. If the evidence suits the picture wanted, it is accepted; if it doesn't, it's propaganda, or just overlooked entirely. Approaches to Boudicca provide good examples of this. Cassius Dio tells us that when her army burnt London and Colchester, captured women were hung up by their breasts. That's unpleasant, so sometimes gets dismissed, but Dio's description of Boudicca, as a tall, fair-haired woman with a harsh voice, is often repeated without question, because in 2006 such a woman is not a frightening prospect, but someone we might quite admire. But for Dio this appearance makes her as much a monster as atrocities in London. Meanwhile, the burning of Verulamium, a city of Romanized Britons rather than a Roman creation such as Colchester or London, often gets overlooked (Jones does so).

This cherry-picking seems to extend to the talking heads used. Quite a lot of archaeologists and historians are talked to. But not many of them are scholars working on Rome, as opposed to mediaeval or Celtic scholars. Jon Coulston and Peter Heather turn up in the second programme, and Heather's in the fourth a lot - but there are none in the first and second. This results in an unbalanced story. I'd like to have seen someone with good knowledge of Roman society asked to comment, some who could point out, when Miranda Aldhouse-Green states that you'd never find in the Roman world a woman with as much wealth as the woman buried at Vix in the Bourgogne, that this simply isn't true.

For a start, there are the imperial women like Livia Augusta and Agrippina the Younger. These women were influential in their lifetimes, and in Livia's case, honoured after her death. Lower down the social scale, there is the Pompeian priestess Eumachia, who paid for a portico on the forum at Pompeii out of funds she controlled, and had a monumental tomb. There wouldn't have been many women like this, but I doubt there were many rich Gallic women like the Vix 'princess' either. What Jones and Aldhouse Green are doing is comparing exceptions in the Celtic world with the norm in the Roman. But if one wants to prove that the condition of women was better in the Celtic world than in the Roman, it is necessary to compare norms.

The position of women in Roman society was rather more complex than the picture of automatic subordination to men put forward in the programme (it is notable that the programme uses up-to-date research on the Celtic world to attack an outdated view of the Roman empire that goes back to the 1950s). For the Celtic norm, we are poorly informed. Jones' programme adduced evidence from Irish laws of the seventh century AD to tell us about the position of women in Celtic society in the first century BC. I am not altogether convinced. Early mediaeval Irish society was not the same as first century BC Gallic or British society, and whilst it might be possible to postulate some continuity, any not supported by contemporary evidence must be conjectural. A friend who knows these sources rather better than me concurs, and suggests that selective reading of the Irish evidence is necessary to justify 'feminist' views of what that society was like.

There's a lot of wishful thinking employed by a certain type of feminist scholar, that seizes on anything that might suggest a certain society had a far more enlightened attitude to women than previously thought. Bettany Hughes, in many ways a first rate television historian, has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to this, and is always searching for the strong powerful woman. So she presented ancient Sparta as a liberated society in that respect, whereas I feel that if you actually look at the 'freedoms' enjoyed by Spartan women, they were almost all geared towards making them more efficient baby factories.

I don't, of course, have anything against feminism - in fact it's an idea of which I wholeheartedly approve. Nor do I object to feminist scholarship - I think it's important to illuminate the lives of women, especially as many male scholars would still rather look at something else. I have argued elsewhere that we still need a feminist archaeology. What I object to is reading in to the evidence attitudes that simply aren't there. I don't think it empowers women to represent ancient societies as less patriarchal than they actually were.

Unfortunately, this sort of special pleading is found throughout the series. The third programme looked at the Greeks and Persians. Well, for a start, the Greeks weren't barbarians. They were part of the same culture as Rome, and the Romans knew this. Jones is happy to describe the Greek historian Polybius as Roman, but the Antikythera mechanism, found in a Roman ship in an area of the Aegean that at the time of sinking (c. 80 BC) was part of the Roman empire, is 'barbarian'. Jones aligns the Greeks with other eastern barbarians such as the Persians and Parthians - but no Greek would have accepted such an alignment.

Jones further over-simplifies by comparing the Roman empire with the Achaemenid Persian empire of the sixth to fourth centuries BC. Why? Because he wants to imply that Achaemenid institutions and attitudes to government persisted in Rome's enemy Parthia.

Firstly, the Parthians were not the Persians. They invaded Iran, conquering it from the Macedonian Seleucid kingdom. When the Parthian empire fell, it fell to Persian nationalism, as personified by the Sassanids. Secondly, whilst it is true that the Achaemenid empire had great tolerance for local customs, they were not tolerant of revolt, and were an expansionist empire. The Cyrus Cylinder, which Jones makes great play of as an early 'human rights charter', does, one must not forget, result from Persian military conquest of Babylon. And political power was confined to an Iranian elite, to which outsiders could not gain entry. Greeks or Egyptians could make some progress, but as with most empires, they would soon hit a glass ceiling. There was one empire in the ancient world that didn't act like this, where elites of conquered territories were incorporated into the overall ruling elite, and were granted access to high ranking positions, perhaps even the throne itself. What was that empire? Oh, yes. Rome.

Jones has an agenda, of course, one some right-wing commentators predicted early on, and which emerges most strongly in the programme on the 'barbarians' of the east. That agenda is the equation of ancient Rome with the modern United States. So, the Roman occupation of north-west Europe is a 'war on the Celts', and he talks of how the Romans came a cropper in the Middle East, just as the Americans are now doing (Jones doesn't say this out loud - he doesn't have to). (Here, Jones has his cake and eats it - the Parthians beat the Romans because their values were utterly different from Rome's, whilst the Sassanians prevailed through being exactly the same as the Romans, only more so.) As it happens, I tend to agree with Jones' opinion of the foreign policy of the Bush administration. But this simplistic equation helps us understand neither Rome nor America.

A number of people, such as A.A. Gill in The Sunday Times (again) have compared Barbarians to Boris Johnson and the Dream of Rome; so I will too. First of all, most of these commentators seem to have missed the point of Johnson's series - it seems to be assumed that Johnson was, in Gill's words, using "Rome ... as a symbol and argument for European union". That's not my reading at all. Johnson admires ancient Rome, and is an enthusiast for the idea of European union - but the thrust of Dream of Rome was to show that Rome is actually not a good model for a united Europe, and the problems that have arisen when it has been so taken. Be that as it may, for all his admiration of Rome, Johnson is never sentimental about it. Jones, on the other hand, is sentimental about the barbarians. And so he falls into the trap that awaits many a sentimental scholar, of attributing to barbarian societies qualities - being peace-loving, non-sexist, socially-responsible, etc. - that they think make up a society they would want to live in. It's remaking ancient society in our own image, and we should be much more wary about this than people often are.

I should say that I've not much patience with apologists for the Roman empire either, people who tolerate and argue away aspects of Rome that they wouldn't accept in more modern imperial states. We can't reach a fair assessment of the Roman empire if we distort the facts, from whichever direction.

As a result of his attraction towards the barbarians, Jones ends up being unfair to the Romans. It's right to emphasize the brutality of the final settlement of Dacia, but it's unfair to reduce the Dacian Wars to a single campaign, overlooking that the Dacian king Decebalus came to terms with Rome, which he immediately repudiated, prompting the brutality of Trajan's Second War. It's right to emphasize that the Arabs preserved much of the scientific learning of Greece, but unfair to pretend that the Romans did nothing but try to destroy knowledge, overlooking the contributions made by the great libraries of the Roman world. It's unfair to portray the Romans as fundamentally against knowledge and learning for its own sake, or to overlook the contributions of the Latin poets.

The irony at the heart of this series** is that, for all his rejection of Roman values, Jones is locked in a model of historiography created by the Romans. The model is one in which we define ourselves in relation to the Other, the people who are everything we are not and would never want to be. The Romans put the barbarians into the role of the Other, demonized them, and romanticized themselves. Jones simply swaps the model round, demonizes the Romans, and romanticizes the barbarians. But if we're ever to truly understand the so-called 'barbarians', we need to reject the model altogether. We need to understand that Alaric the Goth's sack of Rome may not have been the act of utter destruction that tradition asserts, but nor was it quite the polite sightseeing tour that Jones implies.

I don't want to suggest that Jones' programme is entirely without value. It's certainly useful for alerting people to evidence about the various barbarian cultures that they may not otherwise know about. But it is very, very one-sided. One might say that it's being 'revisionist', but I don't think being revisionist should allow programme-makers to get away with being one-sided and wrong-headed, and manipulating the evidence. Those involved, such as Jones, who is usually a reasonable scholar, and advisor Barry Cunliffe, who is a great archaeologist (if wrong about the first Roman landing in Britain), really ought to have known better.

* I'm going to hedge my bets on the archaeological evidence for killing in a ritual context in Celtic society that might be derived from, for instance, the well-known bog bodies. Human sacrifice is one possible explanation of what happened to Lindow Man et al., but I'm not sure the evidence is clear enough to say it's the only explanation.

** Another, lesser, irony, is the way Jones' words get undercut, for anyone with their own knowledge, by the images on the screen. Trajan built most of the Rome we see today, he says, as the camera pans over the Forum Romanum, an area entirely devoid of Trajanic building. When Jones is talking of how the Roman Catholic church took on the Latin language from the Roman empire, a Catholic priest is shown holding up a book emblazoned with an Alpha and an Omega.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Aeschylus, Persians

The Persians by Aeschylus
Adapted and directed by George Eugeniou
Theatro Technis, London

Performance seen: 31st May 2006

The play is not a celebration of Athens's greatness but a great warning to all empires ever since.

So states Theatro Technis' press release for this new production of the oldest surviving piece of western drama, Aeschylus' Persians. I have to disagree, at least partially. I think Persians is a celebration of Athenian greatness, and praises the virtues of democracy over an empire led by an autocrat. It appeals to Athenian prejudice by portraying the naval battle of Salamis as the decisive event in the repelling of Xerxes' invasion of Greece, rather than the later battle of Plataea, in which Athens' rival Sparta took the leading role; in this it has been agenda-setting right down to the present day.* And, I believe, it was meant as a reminder to the Athenians of the achievements of Themistocles, architect of Athenian victory, and, in my view, recently exiled from his home city.**

None of which, of course, means that Persians cannot also be "a great warning to all empires ever since". Great art functions on more than one level, and at a time when imperialism, armies of occupation, and overstretch, have become terms regularly debated, to focus on this aspect of Aeschylus' play it is exactly the right line for a modern audience.

Much of this production is quite traditional, the way I remember Greek plays being presented from the 1980s, with everyone dressed in long shifts from some indeterminate ancient period. There's nothing wrong with that of course, if done well, which it is here, with clear diction.

But Eugeniou reminds us from time to time that what we are watching is not just a slightly older version of Shakespeare and Marlowe. His first device for this is to cast two actresses to play the central role of Darius' queen Atossa. One (played, according to the programme on alternate nights by Josephine Short and Jessica Martenson) speaks her lines in English. The other, Tania Batzoglou, speaks in Greek (and a beautifully enunciated Greek at that, but then she's clearly a native speaker). Batzoglou takes the role twice. Once at the very beginning, when she recites Atossa's dream as three masked actors, who are in position when the audience takes their seats, enact it before us. It might not be clear what is going on at first, but it sticks in the mind sufficiently that when the English Atossa (Short the night I saw it) tells the same story at its proper place in the text, everything falls into place. The second occasion is when Atossa speaks to the ghost of her husband. Here, Darius' answers are in English, and this, and the fact that we have heard much of what Atossa will report already, enables the audience to understand what the queen is saying.

On both occasions Atossa is masked, as is the ghost of Darius, a device that otherwise Eugeniou does not use. Additional devices that take us away from a cosy play are: the performance of Felipe Cura as the Messenger, exhausted, physically broken and driven half-mad by his journey and the terrible news he brings; and the summoning of Darius, an orgiastic scene of shamanic ritual that will appeal to the anthropologically-minded.

In the Chorus Eugeniou has added Persian Women to Aeschylus' Persian Councillors, perhaps under the influence of other Choruses, such as in Euripides' Trojan Women. The Chorus begins by being quite static, lit only by tea light candles (the lighting throughout is muted, which suits Theatro Technis' stage area best). They stand still, though the words flow from one member to another in a skilful fashion that is no doubt difficult to master. (It is not quite clear if the moments when they cut across each other are deliberate or mistakes.) Gradually, they start to move more, and are circling the stage by the end.

One can raise small criticisms. Whether played by Short or Martenson, Atossa is too young (though Short is very good in the role). The device of having members of the Chorus depart to play other roles works best when they return masked, but is often too obvious, especially when Short rejoins. On the other hand, the device also gives Batzoglou one of the best moments -– as the Chorus enthusiastically chant the names of lands, cities and islands over which Darius held sway, she returns to them, having shed the mask of Atossa, and stops them dead with 'Salamis', next in the list of Cypriot towns, but namesake of the island where Persia has been defeated.

Any criticisms are quibbles. This is not the best production of Greek drama I've seen, but it's still pretty good, and very intense. If you're in London, the run has been extended until June 10th, and apparently will be on in Oxford in July. It's worth a look.

You can see another review here.

* My own view is that, despite the loss of the Persian fleet at Salamis, Persian land forces could still prevent the Athenians from returning to their city, and so potentially bring about Athens' surrender. Only with the defeat of Persia on land was the threat to Greece ended. (Wikipedia suggests that Plataea was the subject of one of the other plays produced with Persians, Glaucus Potnieus, but I don't think that's generally accepted, and I certainly don't believe it.)

** This, I will admit, is a minority opinion. Themistocles' ostracism and subsequent exile is not in doubt, but the date is. Usually it is placed in the late 460s BC. This is because Thucydides states that Themistocles fled to the court of the Persian King Artaxerxes, whose reign began in 465 BC. However, other sources state that Themistocles arrived in the Persian empire in the reign of Xerxes. Personally, I've always felt that the late chronology for Themistocles' exile is problematic, cramming too many events into too short a time period, and that this is one of the rare occasions when Thucydides is wrong and other sources correct. That would put Themistocles' ostracism and exile into the late 470s BC, coinciding with the first production of Persians, known to have been in 472 BC - and perhaps providing an explanation why Themistocles' name is not mentioned (though the theme of collective Athens against individualist Persia could also explain that).

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

London adventures

I've had my attention drawn to the following two news items concerning Roman (or maybe-Roman) sites in London.

First, Bucklersbury House and the area around London's Mithraeum, or Temple of Mithras, are to be redeveloped. It's not completely clear from the article, so I wouldn't like to say for sure what they're going to do with the Mithraeum without actually seeing the plans; but it would appear that the idea is to create an area called Walbrook Square, which presumably will open just off to the west of the current Walbrook. The Mithraeum will be in the centre of that, so approximately back in its original location (though presumably not at its original depth) and original orientation (the Times article says that the temple has been reorientated from north-south to east-west, but it's actually the other way round). This will make many historians and archaeologists very happy (notably Roger Wilson, who complains at length about the current presentation of the Mithraeum in A Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain). Of course, it may be that the money will run out and they'll end up building the development around the Mithraeum's current position. But that seems unlikely. Hopefully they will have the sense to ditch at the same time the crazy paving that currently mars the Mithraeum.

The other thing is that the building in which the London Stone is displayed is also coming down (planning approval was actually granted as long ago as 2002). The Stone itself will go into the Museum of London for while, before being put back into a better display in the new building on the current site.

The Stone is a bit of a mystery. It's been suggested that it was either a milestone from which all distances in the Roman province of Britain were measured, or that it was part of a stone circle that stood on St. Paul's. Unfortunately, there's no documented reference to it before 1198, though John Stowe, writing in the sixteenth century, claimed that there was a tenth-century mention of it. It is generally accepted that there's a lot less of it than there once was (and I mean a lot - what's now no bigger than a large television was described as 'very tall' in 1598). And that's about it. My gut instinct tends to be 'not Roman', but I don't have a good reason for believing that, and I'm not too happy about a pre-Roman existence either, which tends to get mixed up with mediaeval legends of the pre-Roman foundation of London - legends I don't believe, as I think they're more about promoting the new Anglo-Norman capital of London at the expense of the old Anglo-Saxon capital of Winchester.

Anyway, I'm pleased that both monuments will get a better display than they currently have, and perhaps Londoners will become more aware of their heritage. Both objects feature in my regular walk for the students around Roman London (as well as the very neglected Roman beam in the forecourt of Church of St Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames Street), though I'm guessing that this may be the last year that I'll be able to visit them both.

And what nobody's mentioned is that these two redevelopments offer opportunities for some very exciting archaeology. I bet MoLAS (Museum of London Archaeology Service) are champing at the bit for a chance to get back to the Mithraeum site.

Simon Brown, Troy

Just posting a link here to a review in Strange Horizons of Simon Brown's collection of short stories inspired by the Trojan War, by Ben Peek. This is as much so that I remember it as anything else, as this sort of thing is, of course, important for my project on SF and the Classics.

Whenever I see something like this, I always think "Oh, I wish someone had asked me to review this book!", but such is life. And I suspect from the book's absence from that it's only been published in Australia. Some of the short stories, however, are on Brown's website (which hasn't been updated since 2003), and I shall catch up with those sometime.

I'll comment briefly on a short passage from the end of Peek's review:

Comic writer and artist Eric Shanower is brilliant at recreating the Iliad, in his series Age of Bronze, as a realistic historical drama without any element of the fantastic; fantasy author David Gemmell is set to release Troy: Shield of Thunder, the second book in his Trojan War reimagining later this year ...

Note how Peek talks of Gemmell being a 'fantasy author', rather than describing his version of Troy as fantasy. This is important, because, as I've noted, the first in the series has no more of the fantastic than Shanower's version.*

* By which I am not as impressed as some. The artwork is beautiful and meticulous, and the research behind it extremely thorough. But because Shanower is telling the story of the Trojan War, rather than using the War as a background against which to tell stories, as the Greeks did, and because he includes nearly every single incident recorded in any source, the narrative can be quite shapeless and dull. Also, he's nowhere near recreating the Iliad yet - as of the most recent part published the Greek army has yet to arrive outside the walls of Troy.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Chuffed by Carnivalesque

This month's Carnivalesque, the pre-Modern history blog carnival, is up, hosted at Siris. This is one of the bimonthly ancient/mediaeval ones. Go have a look. It shouldn't take long to see why I'm quite pleased with myself right now. But there's also plenty of stuff linked there that will be worth reading.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Hannibal starring Alexander Siddig

Oh dear.

Again, I wasn't watching this as closely as I should have been, as I was taping it as well - but I managed to put the wrong tape in, and it ran out, so I can't go back and watch it all properly. Never mind, I doubt it would be worth the effort. I did catch things like the younger Scipio's opposition to Fabius Maximus' policy of non-engagement, and Hannibal's assumption that an attack on Rome would be unnecessary. Now, neither of these is impossible. Scipio's clash with Fabius is not backed by evidence, but I suppose it's not impossible given Scipio's links to the Aemilian faction in the Senate. And people do often find it hard to imagine why Hannibal should not have attacked Rome after Cannae - personally I find rather more plausible the notion that he knew he couldn't besiege the city and take it. The trouble is, the authorial narration that this film had makes people think that this is how it is definitively known to have happened - this is backed up by an opening caption that the film is 'based on actual events ... recorded by the historians of the time, verified by scholars of today'.

In which context, the misrepresentation of what happened in Spain is unforgivable. From this film, one would assume that nothing happened in Spain until the younger Scipio arrived to take over in 210 BC. This is not true. Scipio's father in 218, when he found out that Hannibal was heading for Italy, had returned himself, but sent his army with his brother on to Spain. The film acknowledges that Scipio did not take his army back to Italy, but raised a new one (actually took over two legions that were already there), but does not say where the army went. When the younger Scipio arrived, he was taking over a campaign that had already been going on for eight years under his father and uncle, who had both just been killed, not launching a new initiative as the film implied.

The elder Scipio is, I feel, always undervalued. His decision to continue the war in Spain (he went out to take command in 217) arguably resulted in Hannibal losing the war. (Given that Hannibal has a line in the film about invading Italy in order to protect Spain, you might have thought it was worth mentioning that his strategy didn't work.) The film's failure to mention this strips context away from the Carthaginian Senate's decision to send reinforcements to Spain rather than Hannibal. This wasn't purely jealous pique (though Hannibal probably believed it was) - there was a genuine threat to Carthage's territories that had to be faced.

In the end, this was not that much better than Channel 5's documentary from last year, which I've written about before.

Edited two hours later to add: Well, the film may have distorted the chronology of the Spanish campaign, but at least it didn't leave it out altogether. Which is what the accompanying documentary did. You can't discuss the Second Punic War and leave out the Roman campaigns in Spain - it's like providing an overview of the Second World War without mentioning the Eastern Front.

It's a shame, because up to that point the documentary had been fairly sensible. It did reveal that the notion that Hannibal expected the Romans to roll over after Cannae is that held by Adrian Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy is a pretty sensible historian, but I'm not sure this reading of Hannibal's motives can be demonstrated. He certainly hoped that Rome would give up or that Rome's allies would desert if he could humiliate the Roman army. But he may have realized that this was a gamble. It might not have been a surprise that Rome didn't give up after Cannae - but there wasn't much else he could do about it.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


As you'll see, I've changed the template for this blog. Partly this was out of boredom, but I think the end result looks nicer, and allows me to include larger pictures without interfering with text in the sidebar. I've gone back over several entries and increased the size of pictures. I've also revised this post, replacing, where possible, photos taken off the Internet with photos from my own collection (and adding a couple - completion of this process will have to wait until my next trip to Rome).

Oh, and that's the statue of Augustus as pontifex maximus in the top left corner, taken in the Muzeo Nationale at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Recent TV

Sunday night ITV3 had a programme called Boudicca. With the usual dramatized reconstructions, it purported to be a historical account of Boudicca's life, but pretty soon it was making things up. Of course, you almost have to do that to get an hour's programme out of Boudicca's life, as the sources are so patchy. But this sort of programme is very bad at making clear what is backed by evidence, and what is speculation. And once something is stated with authority, it gets treated as a 'historical fact', regardless of evidential foundation. So, for instance, this programme had a detailed list of the tribes that joined the rebellion, whereas there is only evidence for two. All the others have been added by 'later tradition', which could be no more than someone's guesswork in the eighteenth century. But it's not worth going on about this. I've set out my opinions on Boudicca, and most modern treatments of her, here, here and here (and you can find a bit more if you scroll far enough down the comments here).

Rather better were Monday and Tuesday's repeats on UKTV History of the Greek Gods and Goddesses series, presented by Olympic athlete Jonathan Edwards. I wrote a little bit about the first one, on Jason and the Argonauts, when discussing Michael Wood's programme on the same subject. There were a few mistakes in this programme - not all Hollywood versions of the story keep Heracles to the end, the famous 1963 version getting rid of him mid-story, as per the legend, and the encounter with the Sirens belongs to the return from Colchis (which was misspelt on a map), not to the journey out. And it is interesting to see Medea presented as exemplary of good helpful womanhood, editing out her betrayal of her brother and her subsequent crimes. But I found interesting the presentation of the Jason legend as a 'rites of passage' tale, and a series of lessons about what Greek men needed to know. I still think one needs to be aware of the possibility that the original legend has grown in the telling - both Heracles and the Sirens I think are later additions. But that doesn't necessarily invalidate the reading Edwards presents of the story as it stands.

The second programme, on the Odyssey, had the potential to be more clearly focussed, centring on the tale as told by Homer, rather than a general aggregation of various tellings. Unfortunately, it cherry-picks the story to such a degree as to give a somewhat distorted version. Gone are the Lotus Eaters, Aeolus, the Laestrygonians, Circe, and the cattle of Helios. More importantly, gone is the theme of the wrath of Poseidon, and Odysseus' tendency to lie is underplayed. And the sanitization seen in the previous programme's view of Medea takes over at the end, and the slaying of the Suitors is completely excised.

This morning I also caught Alexander Siddig on BBC Breakfast (there's an article with a link to the interview here), talking about his role in Hannibal, to be broadcast this Sunday on BBC1, with a documentary on BBC2 either later the same night (if you believe the BBC History page), or the following night (if you believe the BBC Two listings). Siddig was talking about what a great general Hannibal was, almost as good as Alexander. Well, tactically, yes, and as a leader of men. But strategically Alexander succeeded and Hannibal failed (though his high-risk gamble was admittedly about the only thing that was likely to bring Carthage success against Rome). We shall see what the programmes are like. (Tom Holland apparently wrote about the programme in the Daily Mail, but I can't find it online and wouldn't link to it if I could.)*

Winner, predictably, was BBC4's programme Lost In Egypt on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, misleadingly sold in the listings as giving an insight into ancient Egypt, though actually they reveal daily life in Roman Egypt, and lost literature of ancient Greece. Lots of people I know or know of as talking heads, all done with BBC4's usual intelligence. This one will repay rewatching when I'm not distracted by making the dinner and feeding the cats.

* Please note, this is due to an objection to the Daily Mail, not to Tom Holland.

Monday, May 08, 2006

I appear to have been flamed


Predictably, I suppose, it's on the King Arthur post.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Minor housekeeping

I've just updated this post, to replace the pictures of buildings in Pompeii that I'd pulled of the Internet with my own photos (and to correct the misidentification on a tag of the theatre at Pompeii as that of Ostia.

Can't do anything about Nimes, though, as I've never been there, and have no other good pictures of large amphitheatres that aren't the Colosseum.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Headless Romans

I didn't watch tonight's Timewatch, 'The Mystery of the Headless Romans', as closely as I'd intended. I thought I was taping it to watch properly later, but unfortunately my video decided not to work properly, and this being BBC2 rather than BBC4, there's no quick repeat planned (though there might be a signed version in the wee small hours some time).

However, from what I did manage to catch, I wasn't too impressed. It seemed to be ploughing the common furrow of 'Weren't the Romans awful?' Now, I'm all for not romanticizing Rome, but I'm not keen on distorting the evidence to make them seem worse than they were. And this programme seemed to do this. For instance, it was stated that Septimius Severus pursued a scorched earth campaign in Scotland, and quoted something he said in support of this.

Let no one escape sheer destruction, no one our hands, not even the babe in the womb of the mother, if it be male; let it nevertheless not escape sheer destruction. [This is apparently a quotation from some literary work, but I don't know what it might be.]

Now, all well and good, except that our source for this, Cassius Dio 77.15.1, places this remark after Severus had returned from campaigning and was now south of Hadrian's Wall. He had made terms with the Caledonians and Maeatae, the tribes who lived in Scotland. When he had departed, in AD 210, the Maeatae revolted, and it was only then that Severus issued the instruction to kill everyone. It was not, as the programme implied, his policy from his first invasion of Scotland in AD 208.

Nor did I care for the depiction of the relationship between Severus' sons, Caracalla and Geta. Caracalla was portrayed as a nasty man, out to eliminate his brother to become sole ruler. Fine, I have no problem with that. What I have a problem with is the implication (by omission) that his brother Geta was somehow better. He has a better press, because he befriended the literary elite in Rome, but reading between the lines would suggest that he was almost as nasty and ambitious as his brother.

Finally we come to the very sensible Tony Birley's theory about who the headless Romans in York might be, enemies of Caracalla dispatched after Severus' death. That is not implausible, but the narration implied that these included prominent people such as Severus' chamberlain Castor and Caracalla's tutor Euodus. Well, yes, we know that Caracalla had these people killed, even before Geta's murder, though many more happened after. But we don't know that these executions took place in York, or even in Britain. All we can say is that Dio implies that they didn't take place in Rome. On the forum someone has rightly pointed out that the facts that none of these bodies were over forty, and some had been shackled for some time, do not sit easily with the what the narration implied about swift executions of Severus' secretariat. So it's wrong to say, as the programme does, that we know who these people in the graveyard were - we only have a theory about who they might have been.

The portrayal of the tutor Euodus is a bit perplexing. For a start, there's an implication that Euodus was executed for counselling reconciliation between Caracalla and Geta - but as far as I can tell, it was another tutor of Caracalla, the senator Lucius Fabius Cilo, who did that. I'm not sure what the evidence for Euodus being from North Africa is either, though since Septimius was from Libya himself, and tended to surround himself with others from that area, it's certainly possible. But the actor playing him is an African of sub-Saharan descent (as was a actor portraying an African soldier), and I'm not sure that's right at all. But here we get into the knotty problem of the inability to distinguish between northern and sub-Saharan Africa, which has led to Septimius Severus appearing on a list of great Black Britons (he was neither black nor British). Curiously, in this programme Septimius was portrayed as a white European, suggesting an ethnic divide between him and the tutor Euodus which, if the latter was from North Africa, was almost certainly not there.

Unfortunately I don't have access to Tony Birley's Septimius Severus: the African emperor. I suspect I need to have a look to see what he says about some of these matters.

Overall, not very impressive for the BBC's flagship history programme, and one where supposedly the Open University works in partnership, to produce something so indifferent to the order in which events actually occurred.

Rosemary Sutcliff

Discovery of yesterday was a couple of blogs about Rosemary Sutcliff. One is written by Anthony Lawton, her godson and (I believe) literary executor. It's updated irregularly, but it did provide a link through to a discussion of her linked Roman Britain novels, that I found quite interesting (if sometimes a bit inaccurate).

The other is more regularly updated, and produced by fans. Treasures found therein include a teacher's guide to Sutcliff's novels, and another article on the novels linked by the Dolphin ring (in three parts: I, II and III).

I learnt a lot of stuff I hadn't known in these pieces, such as the fact that The Shield Ring, in terms of internal chronology the last in this sequence, set in the Lake District in the time of Henry I (and which is slightly mixed up in my mind with the Norman novels of Jean Plaidy, which I read at about the same time), was actually written after The Eagle of the Ninth, but before any of the others.

I was trying to figure out why I hadn't read either Frontier Wolf or Sword Song, both of which are connected with the sequence. I haven't read all her works by any means, but I did make an effort to track down all of those with the Dolphin ring in them. But as I recall now, I was doing this in 1978-79, and these two novels hadn't yet been written.

There is one other novel in the sequence I haven't read: Sword At Sunset, her historical Arthur novel, and the only book she wrote for adults rather than for children. I did try. But, though Sutcliff said there was no difference between her writing for children and for adults, that's not how it felt to me. I found the prose in Sword at Sunset turgid and impenetrable.

Final note: the IMDB entry for the BBC TV version of Eagle of the Ninth makes no mention of Sutcliff. Naughty.

Fighting the blurring of terminology

For the benefit of travel book writers, tour guides, tourists and students everywhere (especially those having to do with the monuments of Roman Asia) ...


Theatre, Pompeii

is a theatre. The seating forms a semi-circle, or slightly more, around the performance area.


Amphitheatre, Pompeii

is an amphitheatre. The seating forms an oval around the performance area.

The terms 'amphitheatre' and 'theatre' apply to two distinct types of building, and are not interchangeable, even if gladiatorial games were held in both.

And while we're at it, this

Amphitheatre, Nimes

is not a 'colosseum' (or 'coliseum').


Colosseum, Rome

is the Colosseum. There is only one.

(This inspired by my recent trip to Turkey, where I found theatres at Side, Aspendos and Fethiye all labelled as 'amphitheatres', even in respectable volumes like the Dorling-Kindersley Turkey guide. They're not. There was even a little open air theatre in the hotel we were staying in, and that too was labelled as 'amphitheater'. Yet curiously, I saw no fights or wild beast hunts all week.)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Cocaine and Egyptian mummies

I'm sure that there will be some people reading this who will be able to answer the following question, brought to mind by something I saw in another journal. What's the current scholarly consensus (if any) on the presence of cocaine and nicotine in Egyptian mummies? I'm no expert on this, but I remember from Channel 4's programme Mystery of the Cocaine Mummies (transcript here) that some of the evidence isn't as easily dismissed as most crackpot theories. Which would seem to suggest that there must have been some form of trans-Pacific trade, as these products are only available in the Americas. However, I don't think, as most people who accept this evidence seem to, that this necessarily means Egyptians went to South America, or South Americans went to Egypt, or that either were aware of the other. Surely it needs no more than for there to be interlocking trade connections across the Pacific. I certainly don't see any difficulty in assuming that there was trade from Egypt down the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean. The problem is the eastern end, but Thor Heyerdal's work with Kon-Tiki would seem to suggest that it's not technologically impossible. So the material could potentially have crossed the Pacific, but by the time it reached Egypt, it would have become unprovenanced. Anyone know any better?

I'd have a look at Wikipedia, but it seems very ill today.

Discussion of sf models

I'm just adding a link to Alun's discussion of my sf models paper over on Archaeoastronomy, not for the sheer egoboo of it (look, people are talking about me!) but because I'm going to need to find it when I come back to revise the text.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Mary Renault

I've just watched a very interesting documentary on BBC Four on Mary Renault. It worked hard to put Renault's work in the context of movements in Classical education in the 1950s, and managed to pack much more into an hour than most history programmes do - at one point I looked at the clock and saw it had only been going on for twenty minutes, which I couldn't believe given what they'd managed to say.

The Usual Suspects (Tom Holland, Bettany Hughes, etc.) were among the talking heads, but there were also contributions from professional academics (and friends of mine) Gideon Nisbet and Nick Lowe. I shall clearly have to do something about reading more of Renault than just The Praise Singer. Curiously though, no mention of her one non-fiction book, The Nature of Alexander.

The programme is repeated at 00:50 tonight, and will no doubt appear on BBC2 soon. Watch for it.

More fame

At the Eastercon (the British National SF Convention) this weekend, I was on a panel on historical fantasy with Susanna Clarke, author of the best-selling and Hugo-winning Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. When we met before the panel, she asked me if I was the Tony Keen who had a Classics website, to which of course I said yes.

It's silly, I know, but this sort of thing still brings me a bit of a thrill.

Three books read

Rosemary Sutcliff, Song for a Dark Queen

Read because Kate was devouring my Sutcliff collection, and I hadn't read this one. Written in 1978, it's a lesser Sutcliff, without the fine writing seen in The Silver Branch or The Lantern Bearers.

I'm not sure that I believe that the Iceni were matrilineal, or that there were contingents in Boudicca's army from tribes as far away as the Brigantes, but this is a work of fiction, so Sutcliff is entitled to suggest that this was the case, as long as she doesn't completely violate what little is known for certain. Arguably she does this when she has the sack of Verulamium take place at almost the same time as that of Londinium, and carried out by a separate section of Boudicca's army. But I think she does this to speed the novel along, and also because her conception of the campaign has the Romans wintering in Chichester in the hope of getting reinforcements from Gaul. In any case, any errors in this are as nothing compared to, say, Eagle of the Ninth, where much of the plot depends on serious misunderstandings of the way the Roman army worked.

As the reviewer for, one David Langford, opines, Sutcliff does not spare her juvenile readers some of the horrors of the Boudiccan revolt, though she does find a circumlocution for 'rape', and the fate of the women of Colchester (hung up with their breasts cut off) is merely hinted at.

Lorna Hardwick, Reception Studies

Read to give some theoretical support to my own writings on the reception of classics in modern sf. It's a useful little volume, though I wish Lorna would use more commas. There were a number of times where I had to read sentences more than once to understand what she was actually saying.

Dan Simmons, Ilium

Finally got around to this, which I read for obvious reasons. As with most sf, it's far too long (and even at the end of 600-plus pages he story remains half-complete, with only two of the novel's three strands have been linked). But overall it works. At first the future Earth and future Mars stories seemed a distraction from the account of the Trojan War, but soon they gain momentum, and actually become more enjoyable. Many questions (how does this all link in with Homer? What are the gods?) remain for the sequel, Olympos.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

I, Cartagia

My paper from the academic track at last year's Worldcon, 'I, Cartagia: a mad emperor in Babylon 5 and his historical antecedents', is now up on the SF Foundation website.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The 'T' stands for Tiberius: models and methodologies of classical reception in science fiction

[The following is a paper I delivered at the 2006 Classical Association Conference in Newcastle. I had to edit it down to fit a twenty-minute slot, and what follows is the full-length version, with some changes as a result of points made in the subsequent discussion. I've also only included those of the illustrations I used in the lecture that are significant for points I'm making. I apologize for the fact the there are no links to the notes - this is beyond the frontier of my HTML expertise. Comments and corrections are warmly invited.]

This paper forms the introduction to a planned larger work looking at a number of different aspect of the way in which sf uses the Greek and Roman Classics. I shall start with two parallel, interrelating introductions.

Introduction number one: Studying the way that Classical antiquity is received in modern works of art and literature changes not only the way we look at those works, but also how we look at the source material. For instance, many of my thoughts on what Athenian dramatists were actually trying to say have been formed or amplified through observation of contemporary interpretations. Sometimes the insights are quite unexpected - it wasn't until I read Ulysses, and saw what Joyce was trying to do, to find the exact combination of English words that conveyed the precise nuance that he desired, that I finally understood what Thucydides was trying to do with Greek. And so it is with science fiction.

Introduction number two: I am aware that in looking at science fiction, I am in danger of being perceived to be engaged in the study of the 'banal and quotidian' that Charles Martindale condemned in the Reception debate at the 2005 Classical Association Conference in Reading. The frivolous response to such a charge would be to say that I'm just using this as an excuse to read all the books and watch all the television and films I would read and watch anyway, and call it 'research'; but that would be rather to denigrate my own work, and potentially that of everyone else working in reception. So instead I shall defend myself from such a charge in two rather more serious ways. First of all, sf is not intrinsically banal and quotidian. (I'm not going to argue this - it just isn't.) Secondly, even if it was, it wouldn't matter. Martindale's objection, in my view, confuses aesthetic value with cultural significance. I have no objection to people making aesthetic judgements, and make plenty of my own. But any such judgement I or others might make is unrelated to whether the piece of work judged is worthy of study in terms of its reception of Classical ideas. Put simply, one can say that Gladiator is a poor film, but it doesn't follow from such an opinion that Gladiator is not important. If most people are getting their experience of the ancient world through the banal and quotidian, then it is the banal and quotidian that must be studied.

Let us start then, as an example of how sf receives the classics, with Tiberius. Not the second Roman emperor, stepson and adopted son of Augustus; but arguably the single most iconic figure in all of science fiction, Star Trek's James Tiberius Kirk.

Captain Kirk's middle name took a long time to be established. Indeed, when he was first introduced, in the second pilot of Star Trek, 'Where No Man Has Gone Before' (1966), his middle initial is shown on a gravestone as 'R.' This detail had been forgotten by the next time someone wanted to give Kirk's middle initial, and so it became 'T.' But what this stands for remained unknown throughout the original run of Trek.

That it is 'Tiberius' was finally established in 1974, in an episode of the animated series of Star Trek that followed the original - 'Bem', written by David Gerrold. Now, almost everything that happened in the animated episodes is considered non-canonical for subsequent Trek productions. That is, they are never referred to, and no attempt is made to avoid contradicting them. But, curiously, the detail of Kirk's middle name does get into the Star Trek canon.[1] This suggests to me that it was series creator Gene Roddenberry's notion, rather than writer Gerrold's.

In the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), there is a preface made out to be by James Kirk himself. (The novelization is credited to Roddenberry, but reportedly is actually by Alan Dean Foster, so what we have here may be Foster pretending to be Roddenberry pretending to be Kirk.) In that preface, Kirk shows his Classical credentials by stating that he has come to be seen as a new Ulysses, and that he is uncomfortable in the role. He also explains his name:

My name is James Tiberius Kirk. Kirk because my father and his male forebears followed the old custom of passing on a family identity name. I received James because it was both the name of my father's beloved brother as well as that of my mother's first love instructor. Tiberius, as I am forever tired of explaining, was the Roman emperor whose life for some unfathomable reason fascinated my grandfather Samuel.

Anybody who has read Suetonius' Life of Tiberius, or is familiar with I, Claudius or Tinto Brass' 1979 film Caligula, will know that Tiberius was notorious for the quantity, variety and invention of his sexual perversions. Several questions therefore clearly arise. What exactly was it about Tiberius that so fascinated Samuel Kirk? Do Samuel Kirk's interests, together with James being named after his mother's 'love instructor' (whatever one of those is), explain the voracious heterosexual appetite of the grandson?[2] But above all, what were they thinking?

I'd now like to examine some theoretical models. Greco-Roman elements (or indeed elements from any historical culture) can be used in science fiction in a number of different fashions. What follows is a rough framework for discussion, and is not meant to be a rigid categorization of use of Classical elements, but a broad heuristic tool. It is a model, and like most models, breaks down when subjected to rigorous examination. And I remain firmly in the camp of those who would rather break the model than break the evidence.


Straight retellings of mythological tales don't really interest me for the purposes of this paper or for the larger work. These stories, such as Weight (2005), Jeanette Winterson's recent reinterpretation of the Atlas myth, belong in the genre of fantasy rather than sf (where they do not, as David Gemmell's bestselling Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow [2005] does, belong in historical fiction). Of course, the boundaries between sf and fantasy are frequently blurred, as anyone familiar with the works of China Mieville will know. But I don't have time to go into a detailed discussion of the definitions of both genres, which would in any case only be my definitions, and would not necessarily be recognized by everyone. Let me just say that, in my view, science fiction assumes a rational explanation to everything, no matter how fantastic it might seem or how pseudo-scientific that explanation might be, whilst fantasy assumes the irrational. So, gods that are in fact super-powerful aliens are science fiction, gods that are gods belong in fantasy. And to this latter category we must consign, as well as retellings, new tales featuring mythological characters, such as the various different film and television series featuring Hercules, stories featuring new characters in a mythological past, such as Xena: Warrior Princess, tales of the fantastic set in historical antiquity, such as Gene Wolfe's Latro in the Mist novels,[3] or even tales of the gods still walking amongst us, such as the episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, 'Yes Virginia, There is a Hercules' (1998) and 'For Those of You Just Joining Us' (1999), where there is no science fictional element.[4]

What are the truly science fictional uses?


First is simple allusion, brief references to ancient history or literature that are not particularly central to the story being presented. This can manifest itself in titles, without carrying any deeper message. Stanley G. Weinbaum's 1934 story 'A Martian Odyssey', that later gave its name to a collection of his stories from 1949, has little in common with Homer's epic poem beyond both being about long journeys. The same appears to be true, at least on the surface, of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.[5]

Such title allusion can sometimes be not to the Graeco-Roman originals, but to other receptions, such as when Eando Binder (Earl and Otto Binder) entitled their short story 'I, Robot' (Amazing Stories, January 1939), referring to Robert Graves' classic 1935 novel I, Claudius. (The title was later stolen by Isaac Asimov's publisher for the first collection of Asimov's own robot stories in 1950, much to Asimov's annoyance, as he preferred Mind and Iron.)[6]

Allusions may be in the sf work in the form of names,[7] such as James Tiberius Kirk already mentioned; or the use of terms like 'imperium', as in Keith Laumer's Worlds of the Imperium, where the Imperium is the name of the principal state in the story.

In the latter case, as seen above, the name of that state may have inspired cover artist Ed Valigursky to put Roman-style helmets on the figures illustrated.[8]

More substantially, classical allusion may be used to comment on the situation in which the characters find themselves. One such may be found in an episode of the sequel to Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, 'Best of Both Worlds' (1990). Faced with the Borg, an implacable enemy that may destroy the Federation, Captain Jean-Luc Picard muses on whether this was how the emperor Honorius felt in AD 410 as the Goths descended upon Rome. The purpose of the allusion is not always so immediately clear. In Ken MacLeod's novel The Stone Canal (1997), two drunk men sit by the Forth Estuary and talk about how this is where Rome stopped (a reference in keeping with the theme of the Newcastle conference, 'On The Frontier'). The immediate significance of this isn't apparent on first reading, though there does seem to be something of a meme in recent British literary sf of scenes with two blokes drinking and talking about the Roman empire - in an appendix I've included a similar scene from Stephen Baxter's Coalescent (2003), though there it's more obviously relevant, as the story begins in early fourth century AD Roman Britain. This meme may go back to the American author Philip K. Dick, whose characters, as the sf critic Andrew M. Butler has shown,[9] often muse on Rome - even before Dick's (presumably drug-induced) visions of being himself transported back to the late first century AD.

However, MacLeod is a man with interests in classical antiquity - he is well-versed in the Epicureans and Stoics and the works of Lucretius and Marcus Aurelius[10] - so the reference in his case is unlikely to be gratuitous. As one reads The Stone Canal further, it becomes clear that the novel is very interested in the limits of empire, and that may be why MacLeod has included this scene.

These allusions make important points about popular understanding of antiquity. Classicists know that Honorius was actually in his capital Ravenna at the time of the sack of Rome, but the writers of Star Trek clearly don't. Ken MacLeod probably does know that to say that Rome stopped at the Antonine Wall is an oversimplification that ignores the Flavian, Antonine and Severan penetrations further into Scotland; but his characters, two drunk blokes talking shite, can't necessarily be expected to have that knowledge.


A step up from allusion is appropriation, the depiction of a society or individual which has in some method consciously modelled itself upon Greco-Roman (or other historical) precedents. For examples of this I turn once again (but for the last time) to Star Trek. A non-classical instance is the episode 'A Piece of the Action' (1968), in which a planetary culture is encountered that imitates Chicago mobsters of the 1930s. 'Plato's Stepchildren' (1968) provides a classical example. This episode was controversial in the United States because it reportedly featured the first depiction of an interracial kiss on network television, and was banned in the UK, probably because of a sado-masochistic whipping scene that suggests Jim Kirk may know more about his grandfather's fascination with Tiberius than he's letting on. But my interest in it is because it features a society that has allegedly modelled itself upon Plato's ideal state. However, I doubt Plato ever envisaged his philosopher kings as being in addition super-powerful psychokinetics, and I also doubt that the episode's writer, Meyer Dolinsky, had read much Platonic philosophy - certainly there's little sign of it in the episode.[11]

Allusion aside, appropriation is far and away the most plausible form of reception of the Classics in sf, as it is simply imagined societies and individuals doing what real historical cultures, such as Napoleonic France or Fascist Italy, did. However, it is also one of the least common. Nazis seem to be much more popular for this sort of story (q.v. Star Trek, 'Patterns of Force' [1968]).


More frequent is what I call, perhaps somewhat misleadingly (and not necessarily in honour of the 2005 Worldcon), interaction. This covers stories actually featuring the cultures or individuals (real or imagined) of the Classical past, or some continuation of the same. The locus classicus for this sort of tale, of course, is the long-running BBC television series Doctor Who, a show based around the concept of travel in time and space (in the unlikely event that there's any one reading this who doesn't know that). And indeed, the Doctor has on his travels visited Rome at the time of Nero, the Trojan War, and the pre-Hellenic Aegean in the age of Atlantis, and encountered displaced Roman soldiers and creatures of Classical mythology; and more such stories are to be found in spin-off novels and audio dramatizations.[12] But interaction can be seen elsewhere. There are two consecutive 1974 stories from ITV's 1970s rival to Doctor Who, The Tomorrow People. In the second, A Rift In Time, the Tomorrow People travel back to the Roman period (and inadvertently interfere in human history by bringing about the Industrial Revolution a thousand years too early, forcing them to go back and put it right). In the first, The Blue and the Green, more unusually, they find themselves up against entities which promoted the rivalry between factions in the Roman circus. For a literary example, Stephen Baxter's Coalescent, already mentioned, concerns a secret society whose origins lie in fifth-century AD Rome. Or one might encounter a Princess who comes from among the Amazons, who have kept themselves sealed off from Man's World for millennia (the origin of William Moulton Marston's superheroine Wonder Woman).

It is in these sorts of stories that I think one can start to see what science fiction can do that other forms of reception perhaps can't as easily.

As an example, I take Helen of Troy. Casting Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, is very difficult for a naturalistic stage, film or television production, since beauty is such a subjective concept. My favourite exemplar of this is Michael Cacoyannis' film of Euripides' Trojan Women (1971). Cacoyannis cast Irene Pappas in the role, who was his wife, and therefore his idea of perfection in female beauty. But she's not mine, especially not when the same film features Vanessa Redgrave at her most radiant in the role of Andromache. When Doctor Who tackled the Trojan War, in a 1965 story called The Myth Makers, writer Donald Cotton solved this problem simply by never bringing Helen on screen, and thus her appearance always remains in the viewers' imaginations. Now, it might well be said that any writer of historical fiction could pull the same trick, but I'm not sure that a non-sf treatment would think to exclude Helen in this way. More likely they would take the approach of Eric Shanower's series of graphic novels Age of Bronze (1998 onwards), where Helen's supreme beauty is a rumour spread by Odysseus to motivate the Greek army. This is a realistic approach, but for me lacks the elegance of Cotton's trick. However, the trick is not unique to sf, as Hector Berlioz in the nineteenth century omitted Helen from the onstage cast of Les Troyens, and it may well have been this which gave Cotton the idea.

If the example of Helen is something that genres other than sf can do, then a convincing portrayal of the Greek gods is much more sf's province. Nick Lowe has observed[13] that almost all recent treatments of the Trojan War have excluded the direct involvement of the gods, either through eliminating them entirely or through segregating them from the principal human characters. This is true not just of Wolfgang Petersen's film Troy (2004), which was much criticised for this aspect (as well as others),[14] but also of Shanower's Age of Bronze and Gemmell's Troy, and (as far as I am aware) of Lindsay Clarke's The War At Troy (2004) and Valerio Massimo Manfredi's The Talisman of Troy (2004). According to Lowe, the only recent treatment of the Trojan War to successfully integrate the gods is Dan Simmons' sf novel Ilium (2003; the sequel, Olympos appeared in 2005). There advanced technology takes the place of the divine power that seems to embarrass other writers interested in writing historical adventures; the gods' Mount Olympos becomes Olympus Mons on Mars.

Into this category I would also put stories dealing with alternate histories (or 'counterfactuals' for authors worried that they might otherwise be accused of writing science fiction), e.g. ones where Rome never fell. The two characters in Baxter's Coalescent are discussing what might have happened had the western Roman empire survived, and such a notion is at the heart of Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna[15] (2003), and of Sophia McDougall's recent Romanitas (2005). In Silverberg's collection of stories, the combined factors of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt ending in disaster, and a different emperor succeeding Septimius Severus, lead to the survival of the Roman empire past the twentieth century.

Alternate history, to my mind, makes us ask new questions of the ancient world. Classicists often look at, for instance, how the Roman empire worked, but less often, I feel, at questions of whether the Roman empire was a good thing or not. Would we want it to survive? Would we want to live in a state which, though it brought order and peace, was a slave-owning military dictatorship where freedom to criticize the government was severely limited? Looking at alternate histories prompt us to ask such questions, even if they were not always in the original authors' minds.

Sometimes the connection between alternate history and scholarship can be even closer, and alternate history can take on the form of academic discourse, as in Neville Morley's brilliant paper to the 1999 Classical Association Conference, subsequently published in 2000 in Greece and Rome - 'Trajan's engines', a scholarly examination of technological feats the Romans never actually achieved.[16] So well done is this that some were fooled, and it still crops up in some online bibliographies of writing on Trajan.


My fourth category, borrowing, is much like appropriation, in that elements of Classical antiquity are used to build an imagined society. The difference is that in this case only the author and audience are aware of the origins of features of the imagined culture - the members of the culture themselves are not, and cannot be, for there is no connection between them and Earth's antiquity.

Sometimes this borrowing can be as minor as simply the use of nomenclature. Greek and Latin can be a reliable source of names that are sufficiently unfamiliar to a readership to be credibly alien, yet retain the ring of something that might actually be spoken, rather than something that an author has made up off the top of his head. This is especially the case where a name does not conjure a particular individual in the popular imagination.[17] M. John Harrison takes the Roman name of Wroxeter, Viriconium, for a fictional city at the centre of a sequence of what are strictly speaking fantasy stories, but ones with a strong sf undercurrent.[18] In the paper that formed the other part of the panel in which the current paper was presented, Amanda Potter commented on the use of names like Apollo, Athena and Cassiopeia in the original Battlestar Galactica (1978);[19] I would also note the use in that series of the Zodiac to denote the Twelve Human Colonies.

Another example came be drawn from the Planet of the Apes franchise. There the characters played by Roddy McDowall are called 'Cornelius' in Planet of the Apes (1968), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) (though there the character was played by David Watson), and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), 'Caesar' in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), and 'Galen' in the Planet of the Apes television series (1974). This is, it must be admitted, a slightly problematic case. Caesar appears in two films that take place in what was then the near future, when there would still presumably be access to Roman history. Though in the others knowledge of human history has been lost by the apes, it remains possible that some names might survive. However, this example does illustrate the way genuine Latin names can then be supplemented by ones with a pseudo-Latin feel, such as the orang-utan Dr Zaius in Planet ... and Beneath ....[20]

For an example where Classical sources have been used to help imagine an entire culture that can have no connection with those sources, we can go a long, long time ago to a galaxy far, far away. I am, of course, talking about Mike Butterworth and Don Lawrence's classic comic, The Trigan Empire, which has been described by Neil Gaiman as 'the story of something a lot like an SF Roman Empire on a distant planet'.[21] It is in fact a great deal more, and Butterworth and Lawrence used popular views of the Greeks, Mongols and Saharan nomads to populate the planet of Elekton. But it is the sf Augustus, Trigo himself, and the Roman trappings of his empire, that are always remembered.

It is also the case that George Lucas' Star Wars films (commencing in 1977 with Star Wars) take much of their political terminology (Republic, Empire, Senate, etc.) from Rome, and even the broad outline of the galaxy's political history (the change from Republic to Empire). Some of this has come via the influential Foundation novels of Isaac Asimov, which helped establish the popular space opera trope of the Galactic Empire, and themselves draw upon two Classically-related sources, Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) and Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.[22] But not all of the Roman elements in Lucas' work have come from Asimov. Lucas may not have consulted any Classical sources or works on Roman history himself, but he is clearly familiar with cinematic interpretations of Rome's past.

This is shown if we move from the sublime to the ridiculous, which in this case means moving from Episodes IV-VI of the Star Wars series to the more recently made Episodes I-III. In The Phantom Menace (1999), not only does the capital of the planet of Naboo draw its appearance partly from many reconstructions of ancient Rome, as well as being reminiscent of the modern city (and other cities such as Istanbul); but a triumphal sequence at the end is stolen shot-for-shot from Commodus' arrival in Rome from Anthony Mann's Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).[23]

Above: Naboo, from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).
Below: Reconstruction of the Roman Forum.

This sort of reception in sf through a previous reception can also be seen in the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death (1976).

The robot face illustrated here derives ultimately from a Greek comic mask[24] (itself presumably influenced by the archaic kouros). But the production designer for Doctor Who has gone not to Greek originals, but to the appropriation of Greek objects by the Art Deco movement.


My next category is one step up from borrowing - stealing. Here not just elements of the background or foreground have been taken from an ancient culture, but the story itself derives from a Classical original. This approach is, of course, not unique to sf. Two non-sf examples are James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), and the Coen Brothers' movie O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), both of which take Homer's Odyssey as their source text (though both depart from it considerably).[25]

In sf there is Brian Stableford's Dies Irae trilogy (The Days of Glory, In the Kingdom of the Beasts and Day of Wrath, all 1971), which draws heavily upon the Iliad in its first volume and upon the Odyssey in its second. The Odyssey is again used in R.A. Lafferty's novel Space Chantey (1968).[26] Robert Silverberg's The Man in the Maze (1968) is a retelling of Sophocles' play Philoctetes, even retaining Lemnos as the name of the planet to which his Philoctetes-equivalent has been exiled.

The use of the term 'stealing' is not necessarily meant to pass any judgement on the merit of works that take this approach. Some, such as Joyce's novel, are high art. However, sometimes stealing (or indeed borrowing) seems to encourage a laziness in writing, a sense that all the work has already been done for the writer, so they needn't bother. There are two Doctor Who stories from the late 1970s that exemplify this. One, Underworld (1978), is a reworking of the Jason and the Argonauts myth; the other, The Horns of Nimon (1979), retells Theseus' adventure in the Cretan Labyrinth. Neither is very good, and through the use of anagrams for names (for instance, Herick and Tala for Heracles and Atalanta in the first, and Aneth and Skonnos for Athens and Knossos in the second) come close to insulting the intelligence.[27] (I said earlier that reception studies allows one to revisit favourite works of art and media, but sometimes you have to watch The Horns of Nimon again.)


At Nick Lowe's suggestion, I have added a final category, ghosting. This covers stories where no direct influence of classical originals can be established, but where nevertheless there are strong hints of themes derived from antiquity. Once could in this category talk of the possible influence of the Jason myth upon 2001 - both are stories in which an adventurer goes beyond the limits of the known universe in order to recover wondrous artefacts. However, this category is inherently nebulous, and such connections can be difficult to establish. Moreover, one can start to see them everywhere, especially since, as most recently demonstrated by Simon Goldhill in Love, Sex and Tragedy (2004), western civilization is deeply rooted in the Classics.

That concludes my tentative framework. It oversimplifies, breaks down when applied to examples that cross the boundaries, and may be of little use to anyone else - but I find it useful for myself and for my work.

Given western civilization's roots in the Classics, it is inevitable that Classical references will be found throughout sf, and no study can hope to cover them all. But I believe that looking at how the two areas interact can be valuable for both. For Classics and science fiction are both areas that can be used to put a comforting distance between subject and audience.[28] It can be easier to comment on modern imperialism if you take as your background the Peloponnesian War or the far future.

It's worth noting the differences, though. Edith Hall has pointed out to me that Joyce in particular, and others, use the Classics as a peg of familiarity in order to allow himself to write a more avant-garde literary work. Derek Walcott does something similar when he uses the Odyssey for his ambitious poem Omeros. Sf, on the other hand, tends not to do this, as the genre can often be conservative in terms of literary form, and is already attempting to get its readership to buy into novel ideas, and cannot always afford to load novel structure upon that.

Nevertheless Classics will continue to be received in science fiction[29] - and indeed my next reading matter is Stephen Baxter's new novel Emperor (2006).


He nodded thoughtfully. 'Decline and fall, eh? But there were a few junctions in Rome's history where things might have turned out different.'

'Such as?'

'Such as the loss of Britain. Needn't have happened. Britain wasn't just some kind of border outpost. Britain was protected by the ocean mostly anyhow - from the pressures of the barbarians, and internally it was mostly at peace. For centuries it was a key source of wheat and weapons for the troops in Gaul and Germany, and it had a reserve of troops that could have been used to reverse the setbacks in western Europe. Even after the calamities of the early fifth century - if the emperors had won Britain back - they might have stabilised the whole of the western Empire. Maybe your granny understood some of this.'

'If she ever existed.'

'If she existed. Well, she was the daughter of a citizen, the granddaughter of a soldier. If you're living in great times, decisive times, you know about it, even if you only glimpse a small part of it.'

'Do you think this story of Regina can be true?'

'Well, I read the book. It's plausible. The place names are authentic. Durnovaria is modern Dorchester, Verulamium St Albans, Eboracum York. Some of the detail makes sense too. The old Celtic festival of Samhain eventually mutated into Halloween ... Trouble is, nobody really knows much about how Roman Britain fell apart anyhow. For sure it wasn't like the continent, where the barbarian warlords tried to keep up the old imperial structures, though with themselves on the top. In Britain we got the Saxons - it was an apocalypse, like living through a nuclear war. The history and archaeology are scratchy, ironically, precisely because of that.'

I nodded, and sipped a little more limoncello. The bottle was already getting low. 'And if the Empire had survived ...'

He shrugged. 'Rome would have had to fight off the expansion of Islam in the seventh century, and the Mongols in the thirteenth. But its armies would have handled the Golden Horde better than its medieval successors. It could have endured. Its eastern half did.'

'No Dark Ages.'

'The one thing you get with an empire is stability. A solemn calm, instead of which we got a noisy clash of infant nations.'

Stephen Baxter, Coalescent (2003), pp. 372-3


[1] Technically not until mentioned on-screen in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).

[2] Writers of 'slash' fanfiction featuring the unspoken love between Kirk and Spock (of whose work Roddenberry was presumably aware) might take such a statement as evidence that they were right all along.

[3] Soldier of the Mist (1986) and Soldier of Arete (1986), both set in the early fifth century BC.

[4] Where there is a science fictional element, however, such as in the Star Trek episode 'Who Mourns for Adonais?' (1967), or the use of gods in superhero comics, which are inherently science fictional milieus, then, of course, I am interested.

[5] I discuss deeper Homeric themes in 2001 in a paper entitled 'Odyssey or Argonautica? Classical themes in the "proverbial good science fiction film"', to be delivered at the 2006 Eastercon.

[6] I agree with the publisher - I, Robot is a much better title.

[7] Since classical names have been given to the planets, constellations and many stars, such names abound in those sections of sf that deal with space exploration (e.g. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars novels). Similarly Greek and Latin are hardwired into the language of science, and therefore into the language of science fiction. But one cannot cover these in detail as classical receptions in their own right - that way madness lies.

[8] It should be noted that Laumer gives a fin de siecle/Edwardian feel to his descriptions of the Imperium, and Valigursky may actually be referencing c. 1900 imitations of Roman attire. Incidentally, Damon Knight's cover quotation is quite curious, as the novel contains no time travel whatsoever.

[9] See Andrew M. Butler, Philip K. Dick (Pocket Essentials, 2000).

[10] As revealed in MacLeod's 2006 Guest of Honour speech to the sf convention Boskone, available on his weblog:

[11] Rather more knowledge of Plato is shown in the 1972 Doctor Who story The Time Monster, where minor characters have the names of Platonic dialogues.

[12] The stories referred to are The Romans (1964), The Myth Makers (1965), The Time Monster (1972), The War Games (1969) and The Mind Robber (1968). For relevant spin-off stories, see, e.g., Christopher Bulis' novel State of Change (1994), set around the time of Cleopatra, or the Big Finish audio story The Council of Nicaea (2005).

[13] In a paper entitled 'Little Iliads: Dramatising Homer from Rhesus to Troy', delivered at the Greenwood Theatre, 10 February 2005, immediately prior to a performance of the pseudo-Euripidean Rhesus.

[14] For my own views on the relationship between Troy and Greek mythology, see 'Troy: a reflection',

[15] Sic. I assume the corruption of Latin is a publisher's doing rather than Silverberg's.

[16] Neville Morley, 'Trajan's Engines', Greece and Rome 47 (2000), pp. 197-210.

[17] I owe this observation to Dr Eleanor OKell.

[18] The sequence began with The Pastel City (1971). The stories are collected in Viriconium (2000, reissued in 2005 with an introduction by Neil Gaiman).

[19] 'Pandora and the Pythia: Classics meets 9/11 in the current US TV Series Battlestar Galactica'.

[20] The Roman references are continued in Tim Burton's 're-imagining' of Planet of the Apes (2001), where the ape city is ruled by a Senate.

[21] In 2003:

[22] Foundation (1950, fixup of stories originally published in Astounding Science Fiction 1942-44), Foundation and Empire (1952, stories in ASF 1945), and Second Foundation (1952, stories in ASF 1945). For the classical roots of the series, see Martin M. Winkler, 'Star Wars and the Roman empire', in Martin M. Winkler (ed.), Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema (2001), pp. 272-90, with further references therein.

[23] It's known that during the making of Star Wars, before the special effects sequences had been filmed, Lucas used footage from WWII air combat films cut with what he had shot to illustrate how the final film would appear. I suspect the same technique was used for the triumphal scene in Phantom Menace, with Lucas recutting Mann's film to show Industrial Light and Magic what he wanted from this CGI sequence.

[24] This observation is also owed to Eleanor OKell.

[25] One could also mention poetic reworkings of classical authors, such as the anthology After Ovid (1995, ed. Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun), or Maureen Almond's transpositions of Horace into twentieth century Teesside (in The Works, 2004).

[26] Brian Stableford, in the entry on 'Proto Science Fiction' from John Clute and Peter Nichols, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993, corrected edition 1999) notes at least five sf versions of the Odyssey (p. 966).

[27] Compare also Asimov's transparent lifting of Belisarius as 'Bel Riose' in Foundation and Empire (1952).

[28] For the use of Classics in this way, see Lorna Hardwick, Reception Studies (2003), especially Chapter VI.

[29] Not least because of those sf and fantasy writers who have Classical backgrounds - e.g. Adam Roberts has a degree in English and Classics, Juliet McKenna one in Classics, and Harry Turtledove wrote a Ph.D. in Byzantine history.