Saturday, January 28, 2006

Sign of the Pagan

Of the many sword-and-sandal epics made after the Second World War, 1954's Sign of the Pagan is one of the maddest. It's not just Jack Palance blacked up to look like a Klingon, or the fictitious daughter Kubra acting as a proto-Xena until she see the Christian light. It's little bits like Attila, who seems to have been talking to someone about the Divine Right of Kings, saying "how could a mere centurion become emperor of Rome?" when centurions had been gaining the purple for two centuries. It's the complete re-arrangement of chronology. It's Jeff Chandler's prematurely grey hair.

There's the eastern bias to the whole thing. The western emperor Valentinian appears briefly, and his general Aetius, who actually defeated Attila at the battle of Chalons, is omitted entirely. Curiously the same year saw another movie, Attila, with Anthony Quinn as the Hun (Hollywood in the 1950s had a real difficult casting Central Asian war leaders, as anyone who's seen John Wayne as Genghis Khan can attest - though Attila was actually an Italo-French production). This version, which I haven't seen, seems from the cast list to take a western approach - Valentinian, his sister Honoria, their mother Galla Placidia, and Aetius all appear, but Theodosius seems not to.

I am particularly amused by the transformation of Pulcheria, elder sister of the eastern emperor Theodosius II and wife of his successor Marcian. Gone is the fifty-something chaste ascetic, and in her place is a picture of Italian voluptuous sensuality (yes, I know Ludmilla Tcherina was Franco-Russian, but the whole film looks Italian, despite hardly any Italian involvement) - I doubt this Marcian will be respecting his new bride's vow of chastity.

Sign of the Pagan in an oddity for a Hollywood Roman epic. In most, the Roman empire (as opposed to the Republic) is depicted as inherently corrupt and corrupting. Even good emperors like Marcus Aurelius cannot stand against the tyrannical nature. However, there is an underlying message that the advent of Christianity will make everything right - this can be found in the voice-overs at the start of Spartacus and Quo Vadis. But Sign of the Pagan depicts a Christianized empire. Valentinian is depicted as a coward, and Theodosius selfish, but at the end Theodosius is deposed, Valentinian runs off, and Marcian marries Pulcheria and becomes ruler of a united empire. What's the message there? Here's to benevolent dictatorship?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Forthcoming TV

Boris Johnson's two part series Boris Johnson and the Dream of Rome begins on Sunday, on BBC2 at 8 pm.

I'm going to quote the blurb off the website here, in case it disappears once the programme has been broadcast:

In this two-part series, journalist, editor of The Spectator and MP Boris Johnson asks: how did the Romans run a united Europe? And why does the European Union seem to find the same task so difficult? In this first programme, Boris Johnson talks to leading historians and archaeologists, in Rome, France and Germany, to find out how the Romans actually ruled.

It wasn't all at the point of a sword. Roman government was surprisingly light. But how did the Emperor rule? Where did he get his dosh? What sort of bureaucracy was there? How did he keep the million strong populace of Rome happy and content? The answers to these questions are by turns shocking and depraved.

The Romans ran a vast empire, covering what was then half the known world. How did they control their conquered territories, containing between 50 and 100 million people, of many ethnic groups, so much so that the locals happily threw off their trousers and donned a toga? How did the Roman Empire make these people safer, and better off? How much were they taxed? What can we modern Europeans learn from what Boris Johnson calls the fish paste technique? And what about the barbarians, the Euro-sceptics of their day?

Boris Johnson's journey takes in Rome itself, the ancient harbour city of Ostia, Provence and the Rhineland.

I already have a few thoughts about how this may come out, but I shall reserve judgment at least until I see the first episode.

Additionally, those of you who like mad Roman epics may like to know that Sign of the Pagan (none madder) is on Channel 4 tomorrow at 1.50 in the afternoon.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I, Wiki

Today's featured article on Wikipedia is Claudius. It contains at least one thing I wish I'd known when I wrote this article: that Claudius revived the rumour that his father Drusus was actually the illegitimate son of Augustus (a rumour that started because Augustus married Drusus' mother Livia when she was still pregnant with the boy). I argued in my article that one of Claudius' problems was the lack of a direct blood or adoptive relationship to Augustus, and that this was the most significant factor in his choosing to marry Agrippina the Younger and adopt the future Nero, since both of those had such a relationship (the Wiki article agrees on that point). It fits neatly with that theory that, whilst not officially denying his father's legitimacy, which would have carried with it a whole new series of problems, he might revive a rumour that would suggest that, even though he 'officially' had no blood relationship to Augustus, in reality such did exist.

I don't agree with Wikipedia's poo-pooing of the notion that Claudius might have died of illness or old age. The argument is based on the fact that his uncle Tiberius, grandmother Livia and mother Antonia all lived into their seventies or eighties, whereas Claudius was sixty-three. However, the other three were in generally good health throughout their lives, which Claudius was not. As I've pointed out, he was seriously ill and expected to die a full year before he actually did.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Four Musketeers

Kari Maund & Phil Nanson, The Four Musketeers: The True Story of D'Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos

A fascinating and clearly-written book on the historical characters behind Alexandre Dumas' romantic heroes, giving what is known about them, and mapping out their fiction after-life. The only unanswered question was how this happened. The real d'Artagnan was a figure of some importance, but the three companions he is given in Dumas were quite obscure (Athos, for instance, we know almost nothing about). They were associated with d'Artagnan by Gatien Courtilz de Sandras, who gets a chapter all to himself, but it's never clear to me why Courtilz chose Armand d'Athos, Isaac de Portau and Henri d'Aramitz to be his characters, nor indeed, given that he seems not to have been a diligent historical researcher, how he even knew about them.

That aside, this is plainly a labour of love, and should be anyone with an interest in the Musketeers or the seventeenth century, or indeed just anyone who liked Neil Stephenson's Quicksilver.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Spielberg and history

There's an article in today's Guardian on Spielberg's forthcoming Munich, and its apparently tenuous relationship to what actually happened. The final quote is: "For a director who delivered such historical works as Schindler's List, his conduct in this case resembles that of a cub journalist who chooses to run a great story rather than confuse us with the facts." I found that interesting, because one could say exactly the same thing about Saving Private Ryan.

The issues about accuracy in historical fiction are also discussed in an interview with E.L. Doctorow on tonight's edition of Front Row, which will be available for a week on the marvellous 'Listen Again' feature for a week from when the broadcast finishes.

Oh, drat!

I completely forgot to watch the second part of Richard Dawkins' The Root of All Evil. Which is probably a shame, because according to this blog the second part was rather better.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The fall of the Roman empire?

I briefly touched in another forum upon my view of the 'fall of the Roman empire'. That view is that this term is rather a misnomer if one is talking about the fifth century AD. Of course, everyone knows the eastern empire continued until the fifteenth century, but the division into 'western' and 'eastern' empires, with one falling and one surviving seems to me a false one. I thought I might set out my view here in more detail.

I should state that Late Antiquity isn't really my period. However, I am told (by Penny Goodman) that my views are close to the modern orthodoxy on the period. I'm not really up with the current orthodoxy in this field. Most of the books on Roman emperors/general Roman history I have on my shelves end at AD 476 (even Averil Cameron's The Later Roman Empire tidies itself up then). About the only book I have consulted that emphasizes continuity in this area is John Julius Norwich's History of Byzantium, as fine a work of modern historiography as I know - the description of the final days of Constantinople is suffused with pathos, and very moving. Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire has been receiving good reviews, but I've not yet read it myself. My own views have been developed largely on the basis of reading those works that speak of the fall, and thinking, 'no, that's not right, surely'.

For a long time I was under the impression that Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire did what most modern histories of the Roman empire do - end with the deposition of the western emperor Romulus Augustulus in AD 476. But Gibbon doesn't. He takes the story all the way up to the fall of Constantinople to Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453.

Good for Gibbon, I say.

As a school child and undergraduate, I was always taught that the Roman empire ended in the fifth century AD. The Byzantine Empire centred on Constantinople was something different, something belonging to the different field of mediaeval history (and an aspect of mediaeval history I learned almost nothing about at school, as the lessons I had were only interested in the history of England). But as I've got older, I've come more and more to the conclusion that this is simply wrong-headed, a distorted western viewpoint. The bottom line is that the Byzantines did not see their empire as anything different. All the emperors up to Constantine XI saw themselves as heirs of Augustus. And they were all addressed as 'emperor of the Romans'. To see the emperors in Constantinople after AD 490 as being different, and to sneeringly describe their rule as a mere 'continuation' of the Roman empire, is a view that privileges the western European experience.

More sophisticated commentators tend to talk of 'the fall of the western Roman empire'. But even that seems to me a misnomer. It implies that the western empire was a separate political state. People talk of the 'formal division of the empire' on the death of Theodosius the Great in AD 395 (Francis Pryor does so in his recent book Britain A.D.).

But no such formal division ever took place. What happened was that Theodosius left the empire jointly to his sons Arcadius and Honorius. Arcadius' sphere of responsibility was in the east, and Honorius' in the west. But they were joint rulers of the empire, and legislation promulgated by one applied in the other's territory. It had been the case for much of the previous century that there had been more than one Augustus (the term used by then to designate the emperor), and that each Augustus had certain geographical responsibilities. But the empire remained one, and could in theory be reunited at any point. For the eighty years after Theodosius' death it wasn't, and each eastern and western emperor was replaced by another emperor whose responsibilities were only in half of the empire. Yet there remained co-operation, and each emperor took an interest in the appointment of his colleague. In particular, the eastern emperor, clearly the senior, took close concern over the appointment of the western Augustus, and anyone wishing to be western emperor who couldn't get Constantinople's approval wouldn't last long (I don't know of any evidence of the reverse taking place - when the eastern emperor Theodosius II died in AD 450, no-one seems to have been much concerned about any theoretical claims that Valentinian III in the west might have had, and Valentinian himself doesn't seem to have pressed them). So, there were two emperors, but the empire remained one.

What happened in the twenty years after the assassination of Valentinian III in AD 455 was that various Germanic warlords in the west tried to get their puppets appointed western Augustus, sometimes succeeding, but sometimes having to accept the eastern appointee. None of these lasted very long, because of a military crisis in the west. Sometimes, there were a few months when wasn't a western Augustus. But this wasn't considered a desperate problem, because there still was an emperor ruling the empire, and he would appoint a colleague when it became necessary.

This chaotic period is generally considered the 'fall of the west'. Clearly, there was fragmentation and loss of control in the western provinces, to the extent that by AD 476 the empire's authority in the west extended little beyond Italy. However, it seems to me that seeing the processes of the collapse of the Roman way of life in the western provinces as the fall of a separate western empire is a misleading way of looking at it. What was happening was not the fall of the western empire, but the empire losing control of the western provinces, being unable to sustain itself at its current size, and contracting until it stabilized around what had by then become the centre of imperial gravity. Many of the problems associated with understanding the fifth century go away if looked at from this perspective.

It has been noted by scholars that any explanation of why the western empire fell has also to explain why the east survived. But look at the empire as a unity, and ask the question, 'why did the empire lose control of the west?' and it becomes easier, I think. As the political centre of the empire moved east to Constantinople, so control of the western provinces became ever more problematic, until finally it collapsed altogether. As Richard Baker has reminded me, Constantinople would have been more concerned with the Persian frontier. A collapse in Gaul posed no immediate threat to Constantinople. A collapse in Mesopotamia and Armenia, on the other hand, would raise the spectre of Persians rolling up Anatolia (and a collapse on the Danube would similarly be a more immediate problem than anything in Germany or Gaul). Of course, the western Augustus would have had a different view, but, as noted, the western Augustus was the junior imperial partner.

Roman control in the western provinces did eventually end. But not in AD 476. That year did not mark the end of Roman control over Italy (never mind that Justinian would reconquer the peninsula in the next century). Yes, the 'last emperor', Romulus Augustulus, had been deposed, and the man who did it, Odoacer, did not seek to get a replacement appointed. But he still acknowledged the sovereignty of the eastern emperor, Zeno, who even forced Odoacer to issue coinage in the name of Julius Nepos, Augustulus' predecessor, who lived on in exile in the Balkans. So really Nepos was the last western emperor.

I don't want to minimize the importance of what happened in AD 476 (or AD 480, when Nepos was murdered). It was a significant change in the way Roman rule was exercised in the west, a transformation from direct rule to vassal kings and one which was largely forced upon the empire rather than being of its choosing. But it was a change, and not the end. Roman rule was flexible enough to accommodate vassal kings, and this had been a method used throughout Roman history (so, maps of the extent of Roman rule at the empire's height ought to - but rarely do - include the Crimea, where Roman emperors determined the rulers of the Bosporan kingdom). That this had now happened to the metropolitan territory of the empire must have been a psychological blow, but I think it shows the strength of the empire that it could survive such a blow. No western emperor was appointed after Nepos' death, presumably because Zeno felt that the new system and the collapse of Roman control through much of the western provinces meant that one was no longer needed (and I daresay even he thought 'for now', and was open to restoring the post should the need arise). Odoacer, and then Theoderic the Ostrogoth, acted as Constantinople's servants, in much the same way as the western Augustus had, save that these men were clearly not the emperor's equal. One can certainly argue that the acknowledgement of Roman authority by these Germanic kings was somewhat nominal, and that largely they did what they wanted to - certainly Justinian felt that the situation wasn't acceptable, and re-established direct rule. But one shouldn't completely ignore the lip-service paid, and the fact that clearly Odoacer and Theoderic felt that they had, or indeed needed, to be seen to act in the emperor's name.

So, the Roman empire did not fall in AD 476, but changed. The emperors continued to have authority in Rome - when the Pantheon was given to the Pope in the early seventh century, it was the emperor Phocas did so, on a visit to Rome. Roman authority in the city was not really ended until the eighth century, and a Byzantine presence in southern Italy lasted until the Normans drove them out in the eleventh century. The Roman empire's fall came in AD 1453. When Charlemagne was crowned Augustus by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day AD 800, from which event the Holy Roman Empire began (something else about which I was shamefully not taught in history classes at school), it was not the revival of a title and empire long departed, but a direct challenge to an empire that still existed. (In fact, the throne at Constantinople was occupied at the time by the Empress Irene, which in Leo's eyes meant that it was empty, so he elevated the Frankish king in order that there should be an emperor. The Byzantines told him to get stuffed.) William the Conqueror, Robert the Bruce and Geoffrey Chaucer all lived in a world where the Roman empire still existed. Richard the Lionheart even went there, and Harald Hardrada, loser at Stamford Bridge, worked for the Romans for a time. Remember that, when you next think about the Romans, and how remote they seem.

It's amazing what you find when you Google your own name

Remember this post? Well, I found it picked up on this blog.

Helpfully, Alun links to a couple of news items that provide more information, most importantly naming the Somerset Museum in question. It's the Cheddar Man & The Cannibals museum in the Cheddar Caves & Gorge. As I suspected, it's a museum concerned principally with prehistory. It is simply easier to present to a visitor the notion that Cheddar Man is from approximately 9,000 years Before the Present than to date him to approximately 7050 BC, and leave it to the visitor to add the extra 2,000 years.

Unfortunately, of course, the labels were read by some idiot who didn't understand what they meant, and couldn't be bothered to find out, but leapt to conclusions that fitted with a particular bee in their bonnet, complained to the museum, and then couldn't wait for the museum to explain itself before writing an angry letter to the local paper (or however it was that they got the press involved). As is often the case, people are complaining about what they think is being said, rather than what is actually being said. Remember the controversial 'gay' sketch in The Eleven O'Clock Show, in which a TV director is making a sensitive documentary until he storms out on discovering that his subject is living with another man? That produced a storm of complaints for being anti-gay, but if you actually saw the sketch, the gay characters were portrayed with dignity, and the target was actually the homophobic director. But people weren't watching properly, so they sounded off. The Cheddar case appears to me to be a similar one. It then got picked up by a Tory politician. Well, you expect them to use evidence partially to support whatever molehill they want to turn into a newsworthy mountain, without getting the whole story (see Michael Howard's election campaign, passim).

Finding Alun's post inspired me to go looking for other references to Memorabilia Antonina, and I found a that quite a few people are reading this, including David Meadows, who I remember from my days when I used to frequent Classics mailing lists. That gives me quite a warm feeling.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Aide memoire

Upcoming classical theatre in London over the next few months:

Greek theatre:

February 7-11: Euripides' Medea, UCL Bloomsbury Theatre (UCL Greek Play)

February 8-10: Ecclesiazusae, or Assemblywomen, by Aristophanes, Greenwood Theatre (King's College Greek Play)

September-December, Oedipus (Actors of Dionysus)

Modern theatre:

Until February 6: Paul, National Theatre Cottesloe

January 18-28: Sejanus: His Fall, Trafalgar Studios 1

April 6 - June 3: Phaedra, Donmar Warehouse


March 15-18: Hercules - Handel / Les Arts Florissants, Barbican Theatre

April 3 - May 19: La Belle Helene, Coliseum

April 15-28: Orfeo, Coliseum


February 1-11: Metamorphoses & Electra - Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices, Barbican: The Pit Theatre

June 27-July 1: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Barbican Theatre

Children's shows:

February 24 - April 21: The Odyssey, Lyric Hammersmith

February 25: The Legend of Perseus, Lyric Studio

March 14-18: Jason and the Argonauts, Greenwich

Of these I shall certainly be at the Medea and Ecclesiazusae, and Sejanus is very tempting. The rest I shall decide about later.

Richard Dawkins on religion

Well, I've watched part one of Root of All Evil?

The trouble with Richard Dawkins is something that the Evangelical Pastor he met put his finger on - he is arrogant. He's not conducting an investigation of faith - he's searching for evidence to demonstrate how bad religion is. He is constantly stacking the deck in his favour. Science is true, religion is based on nonsense. These are conclusions he has already drawn before he enters into any investigation. Dawkins is right to be concerned about the dangers of fundamentalism in all religions (though note how he has a tendency of speaking as if the Judaic-derived religions are the only ones that exist). But he goes wrong when he implies that any belief in faith fosters such extremism. He goes wrong, because it renders science open to the same criticism. It's all very well to say that a pilgrimage to Lourdes is the slippery slope that leads to suicide bombers, but one could just as easily argue that children with chemistry sets is the slippery slope that leads to the Nazis' eugenics experiments. Dawkins claims he wants people to think for themselves, but evidently only within the confines of the scientific method. And eliminating religion will not stop people wanting to see the world in black-and-white terms and denying the world's complexity.

The Root of All Evil? is a passionate piece, but one that is as vulnerable to criticism as the positions Dawkins attacks. Compare the rather more productive approach of Robert Beckford in Who Wrote The Bible? In the end, I don't think that science and reason are advanced by scientists being unreasonable.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Root of All Evil

As a pretty convinced atheist, I'm rather worried by Richard Dawkins' upcoming Channel 4 series, The Root Of All Evil?, at least to judge from the trails. He is heard saying that religion alone causes good people to do evil things - without it good people would continue to do good things, and evil people would still do evil things, but good people would not do evil.

There's just one problem with that - it's twaddle. Good people have done evil in the name of other things than religion. Nationalism springs to mind, and racism. The latter is particularly pertinent, as some of the racist theory that caused such suffering in the imperial colonies of the European parties was evolved by the sort of secular humanists of the Enlightenment that Dawkins, I suspect, would like us all to model ourselves upon.

It is undeniably true that many religious people these days are enemies of science and reason. But that does not mean that religion itself is an enemy of science and reason, and it is a betrayal of enlightened thinking for Dawkins to suggest otherwise.