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.


Gabriele Campbell said...

The University library of Göttingen has the book. Shall I order it and take a look?

We need a CSI Roman Empire, it seems. *grin*

Tony Keen said...

Oh, I can get hold of a copy easily enough - I just don't have it on my shelves.

Carla said...

If you haven't already seen it, you might be interested in Alex Bordessa's commentary on the programme from an archaeologist's viewpoint. Also not very impressed. I wonder if the popular drama-documentary format has a lot to answer for? It seems to me that it encourages (demands?) tidying-up of inconvenient facts and alternative theories in the service of 'telling a story', and the result is often unsatisfactory either as drama or as documentary. What do you think?

On the plus side, though, it's good to see history on prime time TV at all.

Tony Keen said...

I'd seen Alex's posts before the programme went out, but not followed up her blog for post-screening views. Thanks.