Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

Archive for the ‘roman cities’ Category

Pompeii (2014), dir. Paul W.S. Anderson

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on July 22, 2014

It’s a couple of months now since I went to see Pompeii at the cinema with a very patient and generous friend, but I have been running around the place giving talks about Augustus so much since that I’ve only just had time to sit down and write about it. In fact, though, there is a lot I don’t need to say, because plenty of other Classics bloggers have already put fingers to keyboard. So I will start off by building on what they have already written.

Helen Lovatt in Pompeii: The Curious Case of the Body Casts discusses the prominence of the casts of Pompeii’s victims in the film, which begins with them and also closes with its romantic lead couple being transformed into casts as they kiss at the end. Helen notes that the casts have always been prominent in Pompeian receptions because of their apparent ability to bring us face to face with the real people of the ancient world in a way that mere artefacts, buildings and texts cannot, and cites some recent examples of the phenomenon (the British Museum exhibition, a documentary and a song). But she also says herself that she isn’t really into swords and sandals films, and I think if she had seen a few more she would have been able to slot what Pompeii (2014) does with them into a wider nexus of cinematic appearances. In fact, the device of positioning a film about Pompeii as a story about the casts ‘come to life’ is such a hoary old cliché that it is used to comic effect in the film version of Up Pompeii, where the regular characters all turn into ‘casts’ at the moment of the eruption, with some of them deliberately choosing the poses in which they wish to be preserved for posterity. Up Pompeii then ends by transitioning to the modern day, where tourists look at those same casts and wonder what the people they represent were like.

One thing which this use of the casts has in common with Pompeii (2014) is the way it plays upon, or at least does not bother to correct, the popular misconception that the Pompeian casts are like fossilised remains created naturally in the course of the eruption, rather than plaster casts made by archaeologists. This idea is so widespread that it’s a plot point in the Doctor Who episode Fires of Pompeii, where the Doctor comments that the effects of the Pyroviles mean that “The people of Pompeii are turning to stone before the volcano erupts.” And I do see why – coming to the site of Pompeii without any knowledge of how the casts were made, but with an awareness of the concept of fossilisation and a hazy idea of the difference between palaeontology and archaeology, it’s an easy mistake to make. More importantly, it is a very romantic mistake, which I think is what really gives it its staying power even when people have had the opportunity to learn the truth. The idea of the volcano itself preserving the bodies of people even as it destroys them, literally freezing them in time at the very moment of death is potent indeed – much more so, I think, than the prosaic and slightly morbid reality of cavities in the ash layer, funnels and plaster of Paris.

Peter Kruschwitz in Pompeii 3D says, yes, it’s historically inaccurate, and yes, it’s a rip-off of a whole bunch of existing ancient world and disaster movies, but more seriously it is badly acted, badly plotted and a wasted opportunity to make the most of what could have been a really exciting and engaging story. I agree wholeheartedly with this, and am particularly sorry that the almost-half-a-million people who went to see the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum last year got nothing better than this to carry forward their interest and enthusiasm. Those who are interested in this latest film’s roots in earlier cinematic takes on the destruction of Pompeii will be well served by this page.

Virginia Campbell, who was asked to comment on how important accuracy would be for the film before it had even been released, and thus before she had the chance to see it, argues in Pompeii and circumstance that accuracy isn’t necessarily that important for most moviegoers, and that the story of Pompeii is capable of fascinating and compelling without needing to be accurate in every detail. I’m guessing that Virginia would agree with Peter that it’s all the more pity, then, that in practice this film neither fascinated nor compelled. I’d also add that while she is right that total accuracy of the kind academics tend to yearn for isn’t necessarily what most film audiences want (indeed, it would probably put them off), non-expert viewers do still seem to talk about accuracy issues a hell of a lot when they discuss films with a historical setting. The message boards, ‘goofs’ section and user reviews on this film’s IMDb page are full of it, and every single professional review I’ve seen seems to have felt obliged to discuss the film’s accuracy too. I don’t think historical accuracy would have saved this movie if the standard of acting, story-telling, directing etc had remained otherwise unchanged, but I do think it is something film audiences look for and judge movies on when they present themselves as grounded in real historical events.

As if to prove my point, Caroline Lawrence offered a list of 12 Pompeii Movie Bloopers, which evidently reflects what she felt her readership (mainly young fans of ancient Rome) would be interested in. Along similar lines, Juliette Harrisson in Pompeii (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014) found it in her heart to love the film for its utter bonkersness, but also did a great job of unpicking some of the weirdly inexplicable things it has done with the historical material, and pointing out where it has rehashed familiar clichés from a whole range of other ancient-world and fantasy films as well. Juliette’s film and TV reviews are always fantastic value, and I am very glad indeed that she has given Pompeii a good going-over so that I don’t have to!

That said, I will add comments of my own on four aspects of the film which either haven’t been covered at all in the reviews above, or have been touched on only briefly:

1. Londinium. So frustrating! What Pompeii gives us is a beautifully accurate representation of Roman Londinium, complete with CGI fly-over… exactly as it was in the third century, i.e. about two hundred years after this film is supposed to be set. That’s like doing a biopic about Queen Elizabeth I, but putting her amongst the streets and buildings of 18th-century London without any comment or explanation. I mean, don’t get me wrong – historical stories can of course be successfully translated to other periods, as e.g. the BBC’s Sherlock shows. But there is a difference between doing that carefully and knowingly, and just getting the historical setting wrong. Roman-world films have, of course, always suffered from this, with my favourite and most reliable diagnostic being the Bust Of An Emperor Who Hasn’t Reigned Yet (which Pompeii also has). It reflects a view of ancient history as all happening at once in a single anachronistic melting-pot, which I think also affects the medieval world, but which no-one would dream of applying to any period of European history after about 1500 – and it takes quite some unpicking when students arrive at University.

2. Pompeians as somehow ‘not Roman’, and under the iron thumb of nasty, brutish military generals sent from Rome to keep them under control. This is complete and utter hog-wash for anywhere in Italy in the AD 70s, and double hog-wash for any city which had had a colony of Roman citizens imposed on it at any point in its history, as Pompeii did after its defeat in the Social War. In fact, the Pompeian elite (just like that of any other Italian town) had been busy putting up buildings which directly imitated those in Rome pretty much ever since, in a sort of ‘keep up with the Joneses’ move to demonstrate how much like the inhabitants of the fashionable capital they were. The complete erasure of all this in favour of the ‘nasty imperialist Romans’ trope obviously reflects the long history of using Rome on film as a cipher for modern imperialists, and particularly the British (as demonstrated by Kiefer Sutherland’s fake British accent), which is apparently so powerful that it has to be adhered to even when historically completely out of place. It is annoying, because it perpetuates myths and misunderstandings about how the Roman empire actually operated, which again have to be unpicked at University level. But actually here it is so obviously inappropriate for this historical and geographical setting, that I wonder if the trope has to some extent managed to undermine itself by ringing false and encouraging viewers to ask questions about what being ‘Roman’ or ‘not Roman’ even means which it doesn’t normally set off when it is used in (for example) Roman Britain? Certainly, I notice that one of the commenters on Caroline Lawrence’s blog post was obviously a bit puzzled by it, and wondered if it really applied in 1st-century AD Pompeii. If other viewers also found themselves raising questions about Roman identity and the relationship between Rome and its subjects as a result of the way the trope is mis-applied in this film, that’s all to the good.

3. The idea that Cassia’s father, Severus, should be hoping to secure imperial support so that he can build aqueducts, circuses and the like at Pompeii as an ‘investment’. Lol no! Ancient urban elites built public buildings as an investment, all right, but not a financial one – that is an entirely modern, capitalist concept. Instead, they paid for the buildings out of their own money and then gave them to the local community for free in order to win prestige and political support. They did not hope to get rich out of economic rents generated by the buildings themselves, which is very definitely what is suggested here. I think this error annoys me disproportionately as an urbanist – it’s no more egregious than the many others which Juliette and Caroline have already pointed out, and only adds to their number as yet another way in which the creative team behind this film have utterly failed to understand how and why the Roman world is actually different from our own. But annoy me it does. Also, Pompeii already had a perfectly good aqueduct, which all evidence suggests was functioning nicely in the run-up to the eruption, and there is no way it would ever had acquired a circus, since the only cities in Italy which ever got one were those used as imperial capitals – Rome, Milan and Ravenna.

4. The destruction scenes at the end. Yeah, these were inaccurate too, but this time in ways I actually really liked. They built on a lot of the tropes already established in earlier versions of the destruction of Pompeii, right from the fireballs and falling masonry of Briullov’s The Last Day of Pompeii to the full spread of previous film versions, while adding some great new motifs of their own. I particularly liked the sight of ships from the harbour being washed up along Pompeii’s streets, which I’m pretty sure must have been inspired by footage of recent disasters such as the Japanese tsunami in 2011. This is the sort of blurring of the lines between ancient and modern which I think films about the ancient world should do – drawing on equivalent modern situations to humanise ancient events and make them feel immediate and relatable for the audience.

In fact, the contrast between my reactions to the inaccuracies I’ve moaned about in points 2 and 3 and the treatment of the eruption in point 4 helps me to reach a better understanding of my own position on issues of accuracy and inaccuracy in ancient-world films. I think it comes down to the difference between one-off events, where there is room for doubt on how they unfolded and they need to have dramatic potency, and the fundamental social and political structures of the culture which is being depicted. On the treatment of the eruption, I would agree with Virginia Campbell that accuracy shouldn’t get in the way of telling a good and immediate story. We’ve got no evidence that ships were dragged along the streets during the destruction of Pompeii, and indeed the evidence we do have strongly suggests that they weren’t – but the image does convey the magnitude of the catastrophe in terms that a modern audience can quickly grasp. On the other hand, the total distortions of the basic dynamics of Roman politics and society covered in my points 2 and 3 don’t do anything to improve the story, but do perpetuate stupid myths and misunderstandings – and make no mistake, historical myths can be dangerous. It is here that I have to disagree with Virginia, and say that accuracy on these sorts of points does matter, and indeed that as an academic it is part of my job to point out why and how a portrayal of the ancient world is wrong. Whether film-makers choose to listen or not, of course, is up to them.

Posted in classical receptions, films, pompeii, roman cities, roman history | 6 Comments »

Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on May 6, 2013

I recently spent a very enjoyable day at the British Museum, first delivering a paper at an OCR teachers’ conference, and then going to see the BM’s current major exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which it was designed to tie in with. Well over a hundred very engaged and enthusiastic teachers attended the conference, demonstrating the thriving current interest in Classical subjects at school level, and I’m pleased to say that they seemed to enjoy hearing my thoughts on the disparities in living standards at Pompeii and the tendency for elite houses to be surrounded like islands by smaller houses, shops and workshops. I certainly enjoyed sitting amongst them and hearing Alison Cooley showing the audience what stories the collections of writing tablets from Pompeii and Herculaneum can tell us about the lives and status of their inhabitants, Ray Laurence exploring the question of whether or not carts really made up much of the traffic in Pompeii, and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill sharing some of the important insights into life in Herculaneum which have come out of a project originally designed ‘just’ to conserve the standing remains.

I allowed over two hours in the Pompeii exhibition before I would need to leave to catch my train, Bacchus Vesuvius snakebut in fact there was so much to see that I rather wish I had allowed three. Though I had a fair idea of what the exhibition would contain before I stepped through the doors, and had seen most of it before in books and on websites, I had forgotten just how much more you can get out of looking at even familiar art and artefacts in real life. I spent a great deal of time peering closely at items such as this painting of bread handouts and the full set to which this painting of gamers belongs, noticing details which I had never spotted before; or walking around this sculpture of hunting dogs attacking a stag and the various items of charred wooden furniture to fully experience their effect in three dimensions. I especially enjoyed being able to read tiny painted or inscribed texts for myself, and realised for the first time that while the rest of the famous painting of Bacchus and Vesuvius (right) is in extremely good condition, the head of the snake is considerably worn – presumably because the inhabitants of the house where it was originally set up liked to touch it for luck as they went past. (Yes, snakes were considered lucky in the ancient world). It was also nice to see some recent finds, such as items from the sewer excavated by the Herculaneum Conservation Project.

But although I enjoyed looking at the individual items, I found myself far less convinced by the way they had been put together. The publicity for the exhibition claims that it takes visitors to ‘the heart of people’s lives’ in Pompeii and Herculaneum, by focusing on domestic life. The items are grouped according to the rooms which they might originally have been used or displayed in, and the exhibition space is laid out to resemble the design of a Pompeian house (at least as far as the circular space of the old Round Reading Room allows). This is certainly a nice change from museum exhibitions which focus exclusively on the high art of the political elite, and it is a format which allows plenty of room for relatable everyday items such as oil-lamps, hair-pins, cooking equipment and jars full of ivory tooth-picks.

The problem, though, is that the British Museum’s ‘house’ presents visitors with a kind of pastiche. It contains a medley of items which have actually been drawn from many different houses (and indeed public buildings, bars and streets) in both Pompeii and Herculaneum, which date from different periods and which come from different social contexts. Of course this is how exhibitions work. To really wow visitors, the organisers aim to collect together the most interesting, well-preserved and beautifully-made items from the culture or context which they are concerned with – and the contents of any one individual house from either Pompeii or Herculaneum could not hope to match what can be cherry-picked from multiple different houses on this front. But I felt that putting them together in way which mimicked the experience of moving through a single house implied that they genuinely all belonged together, and robbed visitors of the chance to fully appreciate the range of different living conditions which Pompeii and Herculaneum actually attest.

Meanwhile, the same urge towards the spectacular has meant that in practice the contents of the exhibition reflects above all the lives of the wealthy. Yes, we do encounter freedmen and women, slaves, and people of more ordinary means. One cabinet, for example, displays the fine gold jewellery of the wealthy elite next to the cheaper imitations which most people would have worn instead, so that visitors can see the difference directly for themselves. But the sheer preponderance of marble sculptures, fine wall-paintings, silver tableware and beautifully inlaid furniture, as well as the decision to organise the exhibition according to the layout of an elite house, creates the impression that a ‘typical’ Pompeian or Herculanean lived a life of luxury and splendour.

Having just given a talk earlier in the day about the very different living conditions of the rich and poor in Pompeii, I found this very frustrating, and wished that the exhibition organisers had been more careful about it. I found myself imagining a rather different exhibition, in which the the ‘elite house’ experience had been shrunk down to make space for two more separate exhibition areas fitted alongside it – one showing life in a modest house of only a few rooms, and one going right to the bottom of the social scale to show us life in the back room of a shop or perhaps a poky upstairs apartment. They could even be linked together by a short section of street frontage, with doorways to all three opening off it, since people of very different social status really did live right next door to each other in Roman cities. All of the same items as are in the actual exhibition could still have been included, but dividing them up into different households would make the reality of life in Pompeii and Herculaneum much clearer, and counter the belief that ‘the Romans’ were a single homogeneous group who all thought and lived alike – something which I see all too often in student essays.

For all that, though, the exhibition is clearly incredibly popular. It is already solidly booked out until the end of May, and is obviously attracting a really diverse range of interested visitors. While I was there I saw families, be-suited city workers, people speaking French, Italian, German and all sorts of other languages which I couldn’t identify, and all of them engrossed in the exhibits, pointing things out to one another and exclaiming over them with great interest. The audio guide and app are obviously both a great hit, and of course the exhibition has spurred a whole range of documentaries and events to run alongside it – included the conference I went down to contribute to.

So although I can see room for improvement, I can’t fault the British Museum for connecting with the public, and I take my hat off to them for an exhibition which can only help to boost public interest in the Roman world. If you haven’t caught up with it yourself yet, you’ve got until September 29th to do so – but I recommend you make sure you have booked your tickets by at least the end of August.

Posted in exhibitions, pompeii, reviews, roman art, roman cities, roman history | 4 Comments »

Leeds Roman Terminalia walk

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 7, 2012

We’re going back a looong way here, to something which I actually did in late February. I half-wrote it up at the time, but then it got lost under a pile of other things and never posted. The Jubilee weekend finally gave me the time to finish the job.

Thursday February 23rd was the date of the Roman Terminalia, the annual festival of Terminus, who was the god of boundaries. A Leeds-based group of psychogeographers had decided to celebrate it by walking around the circuit of bar stones which marked the medieval / early modern city boundaries, and I went along to join them. Psychogeography is all about experiencing (mainly urban) landscapes from a personal, emotional and sensory perspective. It looks for a subjective geography of the city, informed by an individual viewer’s memories, experiences and associations, and actively sets out to explore urban landscapes in unusual ways in order to bring out ways of relating to urban space which most of us miss in the rush of day-to-day living. So I think that for most people in the group, the walk was a way of experiencing Leeds’ past and present urban landscape in a different way, helping them to see it and engage with it from an unusual angle, and particularly prompting thoughts about the many different kinds of boundaries – both physical and conceptual – which exist in our cities today.

I was interested enough in the psychogeographical side of the experience – I am both a scholar of urban space and an interested resident of Leeds after all. But linking it with the Roman Terminalia was the absolute the icing on the cake from my perspective. And it’s not just that that lent a Classical veneer to what would otherwise have been an interesting walk around the city centre anyway. It’s that I have specifically conducted research into and published work on Roman urban boundaries – it’s covered briefly in chapter 3 of my book, and a fuller paper on the topic will hopefully come out some time in the next 18 months. So for me, this walk was a way of experiencing for myself a reworked version of the religious practices which surrounded those boundaries in the Roman era, and perhaps achieving a better understanding of what boundaries meant in the Roman world as a result. It was like the subject of my research coming to life and manifesting itself in my own city. Basically, this event couldn’t have been more Relevant To My Interests unless perhaps we had done the walk all dressed up as characters from Doctor Who.

The fullest description of the Roman Terminalia is given by Ovid at Fasti 2.639-84, although references to rites in honour of Terminus specifically, and other religious rituals connected with boundaries more generally, crop up in a number of other sources too. Marking and commemorating boundaries seems to have quite an obsession with the Romans, in fact – and that is hardly surprising. Boundaries are fundamental to so many things – property rights, security, territorial control, spheres of power and privilege, social identities, and basic practical categorisations and definitions. In a polytheistic society it would be odd if they were not the objects of religious ritual – especially given that in many cases, religious sanction was their primary practical guarantor. In a world where few people had access to effective legal protection or redress, the religious authority of boundaries must have been the main thing which made people respect them, and thus also the fields, territories, concepts or spheres of social action which they defined. Indeed, although records showing the courses of physical boundaries clearly existed (see e.g. Tacitus on public documents showing the course of the pomerium at Rome), in a semi-literate society, annual ceremonies in which people physically went to their boundaries, observed where they ran and made offerings in their honour would also have been a very effective way of keeping them ‘alive’, and stopping them from being forgotten or ignored.

Ovid’s account of the Terminalia focuses mainly on the rituals carried out by ordinary farming families, marking and celebrating the boundaries between their own and their neighbour’s properties. He describes the offerings of garlands, cakes, grain, honeycombs, wine and sacrificial animals which they make at the boundary markers – but refers also to Terminus’ much wider remit, guaranteeing the boundaries of cities and kingdoms too, and ensuring peace between the peoples on either side. Ovid also mentions the public sacrifice of a sheep carried out on the same day at a shrine of Terminus which stood at the sixth milestone out from Rome along the via Laurentia. This shrine in itself was important because it was believed to mark one of the places where the boundary of the original rural territory controlled by archaic Rome intersected with the roads leading out from it. It was one of a series of similar places around the fifth or sixth milestones of some of the other roads which did the same job, and, according to Strabo (Geography 5.3.2), all received sacrifices on the same day as a means of marking and commemorating the boundary.

It’s unclear whether circular processions ever linked these shrines to form a huge ceremonial ring around the city, or whether the boundaries of the city of Rome received the same treatment on an annual basis either. We have references to ad hoc circular processions around the urban boundaries at times of threat – for example, one described by Lucan (1.592 ff = 1.642 ff. in this translation) which was supposedly undertaken while Caesar marched towards Rome in 49 BC, or another in the Historia Augusta (Aurelian 18-20) carried out during the Marcomannic wars of the AD 270s, when the Romans suddenly came face to face with the real possibility of a barbarian sack for the first time in several centuries. It’s also quite possible that the routes followed by the runners in the Lupercalia, and the procession in a triumph, were connected with the supposed original boundary of the city of Rome, believed to have been marked out by Romulus. But there doesn’t actually seem to have been an official annual beating-the-bounds style ceremony around Rome’s urban boundaries, as far as we know.

Still, Leeds was never a Roman city anyway, so I’m pretty sure we can do whatever we like – including reinterpreting ancient Roman religious ceremonies to suit our own needs and interests.

The basic format for the Psychogeography walk was to go clockwise around the city, visiting the locations of each of Leeds’ six bar stones, making Terminalian observances in accordance with Ovid’s description and generally thinking about boundaries as we went. I managed to find a map online of the six bar stones in relation to 15th/16th-century Leeds, as follows:

More about the bar stones, and our walk around them, after this jump

Posted in classical receptions, history, leeds, roman cities, roman religion, rome, urban geography | 6 Comments »

On civic status: from Royal to free

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 16, 2011

I’m very pleased today to see Wootton Bassett being granted Royal status. Not, I should hastily explain, because I feel entirely comfortable with the ideologies being expressed. But because it will make it a lot easier next year to help my City in the Roman world students understand the concept of a promotion in civic status. In fact, it has a lot of potential resonances for this year’s Augustus and his legacy students, as well.

Promotions of this type were common in the Roman empire, and both the process and the significance were remarkably similar to what is happening today. A good example is the Senatus Consultum de Plarasensibus et Aphrodisiensibus (decision of the senate concerning the communities of Plarasa and Aphrodisias, in Asia Minor), which granted what is usually described as ‘free status’ to them both in 39 BC. It’s a rather long document, but some of the key sections run roughly as follows:

It pleases the Senate that the inhabitants of Plarasa and Aphrodisias, as C. Caesar Imperator has decided, shall be free in all equity and honour, and that the cities of the Plarasians and Aphrodisians shall have the usage of their own law and justice… It also pleases the Senate that the people of the Plarasians and Aphrodisians should have the enjoyment of liberty and exemption in all matters, and since their city is one of excellent law and excellent right, the said city holds liberty and exemption from the Roman people, and has been made ally and friend.

Very much as in Wootton Bassett, Plarasa and Aphrodisias are basically being rewarded for having supported the prevailing powers in the state. The context here is one of recent civil war, and the grant of free status comes in return for having supported the side of Antony and Octavian (or C. Caesar Imperator as the inscription calls him) against Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Caesar, in 42 BC. Thankfully, the civil war parallel does not hold up, but Wootton Bassett too is being honoured for supporting military campaigns undertaken by the British government by turning out en masse to salute the coffins of soldiers killed abroad as they arrive back in Britain.

The inscription also reveals a similar distinction between real and ceremonial power to the one at work today in Wootton Bassett. Though Royal status has been granted formally by the Queen, the BBC reports that this is in response to a petition presented by David Cameron. Similarly, the grant to Plarasa and Aphrodisias came formally from the senate – but the phrase “as C. Caesar Imperator has decided” makes it clear who was really behind it.

Octavian (as we more usually know him) had not yet quite finished wiping out his rivals and taking complete control of the Roman state at this time, but with Antony in the east and Lepidus in Africa he was the most powerful man in Rome in 39 BC. This grant to two loyal communities was in his personal interests – a demonstration of the potential benefits of supporting him in a war, and perhaps one particularly worth making in the context of Asia Minor at this time, given that he already had reason to believe that Antony was trying to build up his own powerbase in the area.

Indeed, there is a touch of similar competitive politics going on here as well. A quick Google revealed that the Queen, in response to a request from a retired naval officer, asked Gordon Brown [warning - Daily Mail link!] to consider giving Wootton Bassett royal status in 2009. The fact that he didn’t, and David Cameron now has, of course translates into useful political capital for the current Prime Minister, in much the same way that Octavian’s grant amounted to a strike against Mark Antony.

There are differences too, of course. The practical implications of Wootton Bassett’s new status don’t seem to be very extensive. So far as I can tell, they now have a new name and a new coat of arms, and that’s about it. By contrast, after their grant of free status, Plarasa and Aphrodisias could pass their own laws (so long as they were compatible with those of the Roman state) and no longer had to pay any taxes to Rome. These are significant concessions which would have had a real impact on the communities concerned. In fact, free status was the greatest level of privilege available to the cities of the eastern Roman empire, and basically meant completely autonomous local government while still remaining under the protection of the Roman state and its armies. But that is an inherent difference between the Roman empire and modern Britain. The central government of the Roman empire was small, and most day-to-day administration was left in the hands of local communities. The political structure of modern Britain is much more centralised.

As to how the people of Plarasa and Aphrodisias celebrated their new status, history does not relate. But given the importance of the grant, I think we can take what is happening in Wootton Bassett as a minimum. It’s certainly very likely that the citizens would have gathered in the centre of each city while the leading local magistrates read out the letter declaring their new status, just as the mayor of Wootton Bassett has spoken to the local community today. That is, after all, how new laws and decrees were usually disseminated in the Roman empire – as they had to be in a world with such low literacy rates. And I’m ready to bet they had parades and music and religious ceremonies as well.

What they probably didn’t have was a visit from Octavian – unlike for David Cameron and Wootton Bassett, Asia Minor wasn’t just a quick car journey away for him, and besides he had rather pressing business in Rome at the time. But Octavian did travel through Asia during the winter of 30-29 BC, between his final victory over Antony and Cleopatra and his triumphal return to Rome. We don’t know that he visited Plarasa and Aphrodisias while he was there, but it would certainly have benefited him to pop in and reaffirm good relations with the local people. Given what a shrewd politician he was, I’m betting he did.

Posted in augustus, politics, roman cities | Leave a Comment »

Robert Harris (2003), Pompeii

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on May 21, 2010

I must have bought something in Waterstone’s around the time this book came out, because I remember seeing a pile of free pamphlets containing a sample chapter from it on the counter as I paid for my purchases. (The chapter in question was what I know now to be the book’s third, entitled ‘Hora duodecima‘.) Excited, I picked one up, took it home and read it… and was distinctly underwhelmed. There was nothing particularly stylish about it, the story didn’t grab or excite me, and, most of all, I was annoyed by the following paragraph (p. 56):

“A statue of Egeria, goddess of the water-spring, was set in a niche beside the door. At her feet lay a few stems of withered flowers and some mouldy lumps of bread and fruit – offerings left by pregnant women who believed that Egeria, consort of Numa, the Prince of Peace, would ease their delivery when their time came. Another worthless superstition. A waste of food.”

To me, there are two problems here: 1) anachronistic values and 2) intrusive explanations. On the first, I know that we can only ever see the past through the filter of the present, but if you end up writing fiction which entirely elides all the differences between the two, why bother looking at the past at all? Why not just write fiction set in the present? What Harris has done here is to make the main character of a novel set in an era when everyone worshipped the gods without thinking to question it into a religious cynic. For that to work, there needs to be some reason for it – something special or unusual about the character, such as him being a radical intellectual. I was pretty sure from the sample chapter that there wasn’t any such thing in this case – and now that I have read the rest of the book, I am certain.

Our main man, and the one whose views this paragraph is supposed to reflect, is no Cicero. Rather, he’s a fairly ordinary, practical fellow – an aqueduct engineer, in fact. Just not the sort of person in the ancient world likely to go around judging religious offerings ‘a waste of food’. Of course it makes him more accessible to a modern, secular reader. But wouldn’t it be far more interesting to set modern cynicism aside, and explore the very different mind-set of someone for whom the gods were real and active? We can be cynical as we read it if we want – but why write that into an ancient character? I clung to the vain hope that it might turn out to be the basis for some character development – that Attilius might be forced to change his perspective, or at least get into a confrontation with someone holding different views. But there was no such luck. It was just a modern mind, stuck clumsily into an ancient head.

As for the matter of intrusive explanations, I also now know that explanatory comments much along the lines of “Egeria, consort of Numa, the Prince of Peace” are rife throughout the whole book. Another example which particularly jarred was (p. 120):

“He saw them off from the pomoerium, the sacred boundary just beyond the Vesuvius Gate, kept clear of buildings in honour of the city’s guardian deities.”

This just made me think: well, if you feel you have to insert all that clumsy explanation to convey to your readers what the pomoerium is, why mention it at all in the first place? Why not just say ‘the city-limits’ or ‘the city walls’, which would be just as appropriate without needing an explanation? Or, alternatively, might it even be enjoyable for the reader to encounter terms like this without an explanation, as a signal that they are dealing with a strange and alien world? A clever writer could allow the reader to pick up the meaning of terms like this from context, without needing to ‘gloss’ them – and in fact I think that is part of what many people look for when they pick up a historical novel. Maybe I’m wrong about that, and only find such references annoying because I have the luxury of already knowing the territory. But I’m pretty sure explanations like that would put me right off even if I didn’t.

Anyway, with all that just in the sample chapter, I decided not to bother reading the rest of the book at the time when it originally came out. I’ve come back to it because the rumour-mill reports that Ridley Scott will soon be making it into a TV mini-series – and if I’m going to watch that (which I believe I am!) I’d like to have read the book first. It’s also likely that a lot of my ‘City in the Roman World’ students next year will be watching the TV series, so I’d like to be able to discuss the portrayal of Roman urbanism which it presents with them intelligently.

Reading the book with a close knowledge of Pompeii, I did appreciate the fact that Harris gives enough detail in terms of street directions and descriptions to identify the settings he is using – even when they aren’t actually named. With a map and a couple of books by my side, it didn’t take me long to work out that Popidius / Ampliatus’ house is, very suitably, the House of the Citharist / Lyre Player, which does indeed seem to have been associated with the family of the Popidii. The heart-stoppingly beautiful statue of Apollo after which it is named is actually mentioned in passing on p. 33. And I must admit that I scoffed at the idea of a Roman house having a swimming-pool that could be seen from its atrium (entrance-hall) when I read the description in the book – but to be fair this is actually entirely true for the House of the Citharist. Mind you, I can’t help but point out that the nearby set of baths, where Attilius encounters some of Pompeii’s chief magistrates, were no longer in use at the time of eruption.

Similarly, Africanus’ brothel is the famous lupanar which gives its name to the Vico del Lupanare in Regio VII, while Ampliatus’ baths are the Central Baths, indeed still under construction at the time of the eruption. I was baffled by the reference here to brass ‘handles to flush the latrines’ on p. 153, though. I presume what’s happened here is that Harris read some reference to ‘flush lavatories’ in these baths, but didn’t realise that in a Roman context, this means a row of seats continually flushed out by running water, rather than individual cisterns with release handles as we have today.

Other than that, though, the impressions I’d formed on reading the sample chapter were only confirmed by the rest of the book. I found the characters dull and one-dimensional, the pacing poor, the language unexceptional and the story surprisingly unexciting, given the potential of the setting. Even the details about the houses seemed to me like pedantry. It’s great that Harris has obviously done such extensive research, but it somehow doesn’t seem to have provided fertile ground for his ideas and characters to grow – only constrained him, really. Of course he’d read Pliny’s letters about the eruption, and other such worthy and relevant sources. But I would have liked to see him do something more than just replicating their details with a little extra description and dialogue. That may be ‘accurate’ (if anything about the ancient world ever really can be), but it is also dull.

Harris’s opening quotations from Tom Wolfe, Pliny the Elder and A. Trevor Hodge, and his closing account of the ancient sources which he used, suggest that he wants to present himself as a serious player in the grand tradition of Western literary responses to Pompeii. But for that to work, he not only needs to know his predecessors – he also needs to take us somewhere else; show us something new. For me, this book failed to do that.

Posted in books, classical receptions, pompeii, reviews, roman cities, roman religion | 14 Comments »

 
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