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.