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).