Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

Baron Alexander

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on March 11, 2022

This week I ordered a copy of The Hammer Vampire Scrapbook by Wayne Kinsey. It hasn’t arrived yet, but I’m already fascinated by this page (one of a dozen made available as previews on the Peveril Publishing website, and which I hope they therefore won’t mind me replicating):

It shows the signet ring David Peel wore as the Baron Meinster in The Brides of Dracula (1960): something I’d never previously noticed when watching the film. Checking back, I could see why. It isn’t very prominent. However, Peel certainly is wearing a signet ring in the film, and after revisiting it and some of its publicity materials, I’m pretty convinced it is indeed the one shown in Kinsey’s book.

The signet part of the ring seems to be an ancient coin. Although the pictures in Kinsey’s book don’t show the back, presumably at some point the ancient coin was welded onto a modern ring so that it could be worn, and in the bottom of the two images it seems to be standing propped up on that ring.

But the image on the ring isn’t the Emperor Constantine, as Kinsey has it. It is most definitely Alexander the Great. If you need convincing on that point, here’s a page of the coinage of Constantine, and here’s an equivalent for Alexander the Great. They lived 600 years apart, and it’s not just that their portraiture is different: their coinage is technically and stylistically extremely different too.

I’m not saying this purely to be pedantic. I’m saying it because I think knowing that David Peel wore an Alexander the Great signet ring to play the Baron Meinster adds at least two, possibly three, extra little windows of insight into Brides of Dracula as a film.

1. The Queer

Recently, I took part in a livestreamed webcast with notorious Hammer-enablers and all round lovely fellows Hammer Gothic and exclusivephd. We talked our way through the first three of Hammer’s vampire films, including Brides, and very much agreed that all three are absolutely dripping with queer subtext. There is a long-standing tradition in both literature and film of vampires being coded as both queer and gender-transgressive anyway, while a large part of Hammer’s approach to vampirism was to treat it more or less directly as a metaphor for sex, inviting those themes ever closer to the surface.

In Brides specifically, the queer coding around the Baron Meinster includes the way his mother keeps him out of the public eye and talks about how she is ashamed of his lifestyle, and the final confrontation between him and Van Helsing, in which the Baron swings a chain at his opponent, chokes him and then bites him. After the bite, we get a close-up view of the Baron’s face with Van Helsing’s blood dripping down his chin, followed by a cut to Van Helsing, his face beaded with sweat, his clothes askew, and the open wound on his neck oozing with those same bodily fluids. I am just telling you what’s there on the screen.

It’s possible that some of this came to the fore within the narrative because David Peel, who played the Baron, was gay: at least as far as we can reliably say for someone who died in 1981 and couldn’t have been publicly out in 1960. Certainly, although there are ways in which Christopher Lee’s Dracula is also queer-coded and gender-transgressive, we never see his character biting another man on screen. Perhaps Peel was willing to play up those angles in ways that Lee wasn’t, or other members of the production team found them easier to imagine?

Back to the Alexander the Great signet ring. Alexander’s sexuality is even harder to pin down in modern terms than Peel’s. He lived in a time when there was no real concept of a person’s sexual identity, and the sources for him are highly mythologising anyway. But he is widely regarded as a queer icon. Here’s just one rather good blog post on the topic.

In that light, knowing that in Brides the Baron Meinster wears an Alexander the Great signet ring definitely adds to his queer coding. In fact, I wonder if that little touch came from Peel himself. Wikipedia tells me that when he moved out of acting only a few months after completing Brides of Dracula, one of the alternative careers he pursued was in antiques dealing. If he had that interest and those contacts already when making Brides, it might explain why he had such a ring or understood its historical resonances. Perhaps in fact it was simply a ring he wore regularly himself as a veiled way of expressing his sexuality? I’d love to know.

2. The Pagan

Another aspect of Brides of Dracula which I’ve always loved is the way it casts vampirism specifically as a pagan cult. At one point, Van Helsing explains to the local priest, Father Stepnik, that vampirism is ‘a survival of one of the ancient pagan religions in their struggle against Christianity’. This doesn’t come out of nowhere. Stoker’s novel contains references to pagan deities such as Morpheus and Demeter, and at one point when things are going badly with Lucy, Van Helsing exclaims: ‘Is there fate amongst us still, sent down from the pagan world of old, that such things must be, and in such way?’ The zodiac wheel on the library floor in Dracula (1958) is also inscribed with some distinctly pagan texts. But Brides states it outright as an explicit part of the equation.

Again, Alexander the Great adds to this. He lived in a pagan world, but more than that the specific image of him shown on the Baron’s signet ring reflects the ways in which he used religion to enhance his position as a ruler. It shows him in a divine guise, his head adorned with the horns of Zeus Ammon, whose priests hailed Alexander as his son when he visited Ammon’s sanctuary in Egypt. Alexander seems to have encouraged this belief in life, but the coin used for the Baron’s signet ring in Brides is actually a type widely minted by Lysimachos, who became king of Thrace after Alexander’s death. Here’s a typical example. By the time Lysimachos was minting those coins, Alexander was being treated posthumously as the object of religious cult in his own right, so the coin shows a chain of divine descent: Lysimachos’ patron deity, Alexander, with horns indicating his own connection to Zeus Ammon.

Going back to Brides, there are all sorts of things we can do with this. Was the pagan religion Van Helsing referred to the cult of Zeus Ammon? Or perhaps of Alexander himself? Perhaps the Baron is like Lysimachos: an aristocratic ruler drawing his power partly from association with the patron deity whose image he bears on his signet ring? Again, not to be pedantic, these possibilities aren’t available for consideration if we think the signet ring bears the image of Constantine. Indeed, it would make absolutely zero sense for a vampire in the Hammer-verse to be wearing the image of a Christian emperor.

3. The Hair?

The third aspect I’m not so sure about, but I’ll put the idea out there anyway. In Brides of Dracula, David Peel sports not his own natural dark hair, which can be seen here, but a blond costume wig with a sort of curled quiff at the front. In keeping with a trope already established in Dracula (1958), we see this in two guises: neatly ordered when he is engaged in passing as human for nefarious purposes, and tousled when his bestial vampiric nature comes to the fore.

Peel’s hair in this film is normally discussed in terms of appealing to the teen market by presenting him as youthful and charming, but as it happens, Alexander the Great was also blond, and his portraiture showed him with tousled hair and curls breaking over his forehead.

We don’t need to believe that anyone in the Hammer make-up and wardrobe department was familiar with the ancient portraiture of Alexander the Great to draw a link between the two, because there had been a recent intermediary. Richard Burton’s title character in Alexander the Great (1956) also sports curly, tousled hair in a very similar strawberry-blond shade to the Baron Meinster’s.

The styling isn’t quite the same, of course, which is why I’m not sure I really want to commit to this one. But it’s just possible that the Baron Meinster’s curly fringe and tousled vampire-mode hair were designed as another way of evoking Alexander the Great: specifically as portrayed in the 1956 film.

I’d love to be able to close the loop at this point by saying that such a connection also feeds back into the Baron’s queer-coding, but there things definitely fall apart because Richard Burton’s Alexander is thoroughly straightwashed. But it doesn’t really matter. We have an image of the real Alexander on the signet ring right there in the film, and that’s enough for me.

Posted in art, classical receptions, films, greek history, horror, sexuality | Leave a Comment »

Lecturing in Rome without the Rome

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on February 16, 2021

A couple of weeks ago I delivered the annual joint British School at Rome / Institute of Classical studies lecture, on ‘Thinking about encroachment in the cities of the Roman west’. Alas for me, it was via Zoom rather than in Rome 😭, but on the plus side that means it was recorded and you can watch it here!

I am thrilled that they made the title slide purple for me, without me having said anything to suggest such a preference.

The paper basically argues that encroachment happens in every society which recognises property-ownership, that it has become seen as characteristic of late antiquity but actually occurred in the high empire too, and that we could do with reflecting on what we mean by it anyway.

There are examples from Timgad, Pompeii, Caerwent and Bulla Regia, covering ‘encroachment’ clearly done with the knowledge and permission of the local authorities, more clandestine appropriations of space (what most people really mean by ‘encroachment’) and one case which the perpetrator may have been forced to remove.

I enjoyed giving the lecture and a very lively discussion afterwards (not included on the recording) and it was a huge honour to be asked. I quaked hearing the names of the UK scholars who’d gone before me during the intro, though: Michael Crawford, John North, Roy Gibson, Greg Woolf, Catharine Edwards. These are some of the foremost eminences in my field, so quite a set of acts to follow.

However, the hosts were lovely and the questions (and a few emails over the next few days) expressed a lot of appreciation for the talk, so I think I delivered as expected. Just a bummer that I missed out on dinner and drinks in Rome afterwards!

Posted in pompeii, roman cities, roman history, rome, urban geography | Leave a Comment »

Quatermass and the Mithraeum

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on September 2, 2018

The BBC recently put the original 1958-59 TV serial of Quatermass and the Pit on iPlayer, so I grabbed the chance and watched it. I’ve seen the Hammer version so I knew the story, which is much the same here as in the film. But, obviously, the six-episode format here gave them more space to develop the characters and settings, and just to play things a little slower. I was quite surprised by how high the production values were for a piece of television made in the late 1950s. This is all well covered on the Wikipedia page, and included the use of film (rather than video) as a default format, a mixture of live and pre-recorded footage, at least two studio sets and really quite extensive special effects. All this before Doctor Who even existed, but the influence of Quatermass on both the general characterisation of the Doctor and some particular stories has been widely noted.

According to Wikipedia, Nigel Kneale wrote this story in part as an allegory for and critique of contemporary racism, and the last episode in particular certainly does contain plenty of dialogue about how the urge to attack those different from ourselves is in all of us and needs to be controlled. There seem to have been some genuine efforts (by the standards of the time) to put together a diverse cast of characters as well. There is one (1) black construction worker at the beginning, who speaks with the same “I have Caribbean origins but also learnt RP at drama school” accent as Don Warrington in Rising Damp. There is also the Canadian archaeologist, Roney, an Irish newspaper editor (played by Actually Irish actor Tony Quinn, not somebody doing paddywhackery), several working class characters and a non-zero smattering of professional women (though never in leadership roles, just as the only black guy is a labourer).

Construction workers

Some sense of international ramifications is of course important to the story Kneale is trying to tell. It has to be about the impact which the Martians have had on the whole human race, not just London, and I think that is why we also get the scene of two American pilots reporting to a newsroom back home on the strange phenomena they are witnessing over London. But amongst it all, we still have Barbara, the most prominent female character in the story, proving to be the most ‘susceptible’ to alien influences, which is exactly the same trope (women as all about emotions and sensitivities) that annoyed me so much when I watched Kneale’s The Stone Tape that I couldn’t really enjoy the rest of the story. It’s not as bad here, because it’s nothing like as central to the plot, but it still made me grimace. It also didn’t entirely make sense to me that Martians would have conducted a race purge on their home planet to remove all forms of mutation, and yet also seek to colonise the Earth by genetically splicing their intellects and values into primates. Surely only survival in a pure form would do for them?

One of the few significant differences between the TV serial and the later Hammer film is that in the Hammer film the Martian capsule is discovered during work on the London Underground, but in the TV serial it emerges during construction work in Knightsbridge (though Quatermass does discover evidence of disturbances in the same area when the local Underground line was built in 1927). I’m not sure why the change was made for the Hammer film, but I did quickly realise as I watched that the original setting as conceived for the TV series carried some very specific and significant connotations indeed. This is mainly thanks to the recent coverage of the re-siting and re-opening of the London Mithraeum, which has meant in turn that pictures of its original discovery and excavation in 1954 have been floating around the internet. Well, whaddaya know? It turns out that the plot and design of this story, written just a few years later, were quite clearly directly inspired by the discovery of the Mithraeum. It is actually alluded to very early on in the dialogue, when the construction workers are wondering what to do about the skull they have found, and deliver the following exchange:

WORKER 1: Reckon we ought to report it? You know – to a museum or something?
WORKER 2: That’s right – like them Roman remains.

I’m pretty sure most viewers would have thought of the Mithraeum site straight away on hearing that dialogue, and that Kneale intended them to, but much more ample confirmation of the link between the two comes from the design of the sets. Have a look first at these pictures of the actual Mithraeum excavation:

Mithraeum queues

WFG445_45

Visitors on the Temple of Mithras excavation site , Walbrook London, 1954

Some particular characteristics to note here include: a construction site surrounded by hoardings in central London, signs painted with block letters indicating the name of the development and construction company, access via a ramp, shorings holding up the edges of the site, a construction workers’ hut (again with the name of the company on it in block letters) and of course queues of people who have come to see the finds. Now check out how every single one of those features is faithfully replicated in Quatermass and the Pit:

Construction site overviewConstruction site signSite with concrete rampRamp after they have uncovered the capsuleHut and siteCloser look at hutQuatermass dropping onto roof of hutPublic queuing

See what I mean? There’s no way that is coincidental – although oddly I can’t seem to find anyone else around the internet who has pointed it out before. And the connection matters for our reading of Kneale’s story. If his capsule full of Martians is in part inspired by the Mithraeum, then his tale of Martian colonisation inevitably acquires Roman resonances. Indeed, it does draw very nicely on the long-established narrative of the Romans as aliens from a brutal, martial society who came to Britain, changed us fundamentally and then left again. There’s also a long history of seeing Mithraism as a diabolical counterpart to and rival of Christianity which nicely underpins the idea that the Martians are at the roots of folk beliefs about the Devil in Quatermass and the Pit – the witch-marks in the capsule (for some reason called ‘pentacles’ in the dialogue, even though they clearly aren’t), the horned figure, the way it can be defeated with iron. All in all, in fact, there’s a pretty good case for saying that the story of Quatermass and the Pit is an imaginative re-working of the discovery of the London Mithraeum, with the Romans re-cast as Martians. And as both a Romanist and a cult TV fan, that gets a big thumbs-up from me.

Posted in classical receptions, doctor who, roman history, roman religion, sci-fi, television | 1 Comment »

Iris Project publication: How to win an election in the Roman Republic

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on April 24, 2015

It’s General Election season, and the Iris Project, which promotes Classics to schools and young people, are seizing the opportunity to run some topical articles on how ancient election campaigns compare and contrast with what we do today. I was asked to cover the case of Republican Rome, and my article has gone up online today. I will put the first couple of paragraphs up here as a teaser:

The UK is deep in the grip of election fever. Party leaders are touring the country in battle-buses, shaking hands, announcing policies, and chasing photo opportunities – all in the hope of winning over voters. But what did aspiring politicians need to do to get elected in ancient Rome? To answer this question we first need to understand some of the differences between the Roman political system and our own. While some aspects of campaigning persist across the ages, different systems reward different behaviours. In other words, it took different tactics to win a Roman election than it does a British one.

For one thing, there were no party leaders – or indeed political parties – in ancient Rome. Politicians stood for election as individuals, running largely on the basis of personal reputation rather than any policy platform. This is extremely clear from the Commentariolum Petitionis (‘Little Guide to Electioneering’), an ancient text giving advice to Cicero in his campaign for the consulship of 63 BC. Cicero (figure 1) is told that while a candidate he “must not pursue political measures, either in the senate-house or in public meetings” (Comm. Pet. 13). Instead, he should hold back, and allow himself to be judged on his established reputation and character. To win, then, it was more important to be seen as a good sort, generally capable of running the state, than it was to put forward particular ideas about how this should be done.

And you can read the rest here. I’m really pleased with how it has come out.

Posted in cicero, julius caesar, politics, publications, roman history | Leave a Comment »

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 »

Fidelis et mortem: making sense of Dracula’s family motto

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on January 25, 2014

I must apologise for neglecting this blog somewhat recently. Most of my effort at the moment is going into my Commemorating Augustus project website, which is busier than ever now that we have reached Augustus’ bimillennial year. In between matters Augustan, though, I’ve recently been having a lot of fun revisiting Hammer’s Dracula (1958).

Since the discovery in 2011 of some lost scenes from this film and the release of a new Blu-Ray / DVD edition complete with those scenes lovingly restored, it has been enjoying quite a renaissance. Late last year, I had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen as part of Manchester’s GrimmFest 2013, and soon afterwards I bought my own restored copy and got stuck into the DVD extras.

The one I enjoyed most was a half-hour documentary with Christopher Frayling, entitled ‘The Demon Lover’, in which he explains how Hammer introduced full-blown sexuality into the Dracula story for the first time, effectively making it a metaphor for a couple (Mina and Arthur) overcoming the threat of an adulterous relationship (between Mina and Dracula). I’m a big fan of Christopher Frayling, and I think this reading is absolutely spot on. But in the course of pursuing references to the adultery theme through the story, Frayling picked up on the family crest which is visible over the fireplace in Dracula’s castle:

Dracula fidelis et mortem fireplace

Between two sea-creatures and underneath a shield surmounted by a sailing boat, the motto reads ‘Fidelis et mortem’. In case we are any doubt about what it says, the same motto is also visible on the letter which Dracula leaves out for Harker when he arrives at the castle. Here, the ‘F’ on ‘fidelis’ is just out of shot, but there is enough to see that the motto is spelt the same way:

Dracula fidelis et mortem letter

In his documentary, Frayling makes a point of saying that ‘Fidelis et mortem’ means ‘Faithful and dead’. The same translation is also repeated (presumably on the basis of Frayling’s statement) by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby on the commentary track.

However, they are all wrong.

In fact, the motto is not even good Latin in the first place. That’s no great surprise. Film and TV productions are full of mangled Latin – indeed I’ve written about a similar case in Doctor Who before. But it’s when people start offering up incorrect translations of the mangled Latin, which then in turn get treated as though they are authoritative, that the Classicist in me feels the need to step in and call a halt.

So what do we have here? First, the motto as it stands: ‘Fidelis et mortem’. ‘Fidelis’ does indeed mean ‘faithful’ (an adjective), as Frayling says. But ‘mortem’ is not an adjective – it is a noun, and thus means ‘death’ (not ‘dead’). At best, then, we have ‘Faithful and death’, which is already a bit meaningless.

But ‘mortem’ also has an accusative ending. This should normally mean it is the object of a verb, but there is no verb within this motto, or any very obvious absent verb which we can understand. The wrongness of this can’t really be conveyed very easily in English, since we use word order rather than word endings to show how the parts of a sentence relate to one another. But the best way of getting it across would be to translate the motto as something like ‘And death faithful’. That’s about how much sense the Latin makes.

So someone’s Latin was a bit shaky – probably production designer Bernard Robinson‘s. It’s likely that what he was actually aiming at was something more like ‘Fidelis ad mortem’, which is perfectly good Latin, and means ‘Faithful unto death’. This is the motto of (amongst many others) the NYC Police Department.

But to my mind, that still doesn’t suit the Dracula story, or its main character, very well. After all, Dracula is immortal and undead, so nothing needs to stop with death for him – not even fidelity. And in fact, part of the reason why Frayling mistranslates the motto in the first place is that this is the point he’s making about the Dracula character – that even in death, Dracula is attempting to pursue his own tragically-distorted form of fidelity.

The film begins after all with him in what might well be the vampire equivalent of settled domesticity – he has a(n unnamed) vampire bride, and possibly even wears a wedding ring (though it may just be a signet ring) on the little finger of his left hand. We might surmise that all is not well chez Dracula, since at the first available opportunity the vampire bride begs Jonathan Harker to help her escape, tells him how awful Dracula is, and then bites Harker, very obviously against Dracula’s wishes. But it’s reasonable to assume that at least at one time, Dracula liked having her around. Certainly once she has gone his entire motivation for the rest of the film is the attempt to replace her – first with Lucy, and then, when that is scotched by Van Helsing, with Mina.

So that’s why amending the motto to ‘Fidelis ad mortem’ doesn’t work for me. Dracula is not merely ‘faithful unto death’. In his own way he is ‘faithful and dead’, just as Frayling says. But that still isn’t what the Latin over his fireplace says.

Thinking this over, I came up with another solution. It’s obvious that there’s an error here, but what if it isn’t the substitution of an ‘et’ for an ‘ad’? What if instead we knock the final ‘m’ off ‘mortem’ to get ‘Fidelis et morte’? Once we’ve done that, it puts ‘morte’ in the ablative case, and this allows it to mean ‘in death’. Meanwhile, the Latin word ‘et’ is actually quite flexible. It doesn’t just have to mean ‘and’, but can equally cover ‘also’ or ‘even’. So we can translate ‘Fidelis et morte’ as either ‘Faithful also in death’ or ‘Faithful even in death’ (both are essentially the same).

That works for me as a Classicist, and I’m ready to guess it would work for Frayling as a film critic, too. Maybe it’s even what Bernard Robinson actually intended?

This is as far as I got with the motto under my own steam, anyway. But when I asked a few friends on Facebook about it, the brilliant Peter Olive (who is available for Latin tutoring) came up with an even better solution. Remember how I said that the ‘mortem’ in ‘Fidelis et mortem’ has no good reason for being in the accusative case, since this is normally used to mark out the object of a verb? Well, Peter pointed out that there is another rather specialist use of the accusative known as the accusative of respect (no, really!), which allows a word to be translated as meaning ‘with respect to’.

If we apply this to ‘Fidelis et mortem’, we can now translate it as ‘Faithful even with respect to death’. Suddenly, everything falls into place! It has the merit of preserving the motto as we actually see it on screen, which is something I’m definitely in favour of. Otherwise, we have to assume that Dracula isn’t very good at Latin, which is at odds with what we know about his historical counterpart. It also suits the character of the Hammer Dracula perfectly, preserving Frayling’s idea of the lonely immortal who is really just after a vampire bride to call his own – doggedly faithful to the pursuit even in death.

In the end, Frayling is still wrong to translate ‘Fidelis et mortem’ as ‘Faithful and dead’; and I also very much doubt that Bernard Robinson knew about the accusative of respect when he designed the props and sets for the film. But by applying the collective talents of a few Classicists, it’s turned out that we can smooth over the gap, and get the Latin as it appears on the screen to make sense grammatically, as well as to work in service of the story. Now that is satisfying indeed.

Posted in films, horror, latin | 23 Comments »

A little scepticism for Claudius’ birthday

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 1, 2013

Claudius oak crownIt’s August 1st, and that means it is the Emperor Claudius’ birthday – his 2022nd, to be precise. I’ve always had a soft spot for old Claudius. I’m sure Robert Graves and Derek Jacobi have quite a lot to do with that, but the narrative of the underdog who was sidelined and belittled for years but still became emperor anyway is inherently endearing. I also love the fact that he was a historian, just like me. Right now, in the thick of my research into receptions of Augustus, I would give anything to be able to read the history of the aftermath of Caesar’s death which he wrote (even though he was advised to omit the civil wars between Octavian and Antony which followed).

But I must say I’ve always found the date of his birthday just a little bit too convenient. I don’t have any evidence that he wasn’t born on August 1st, of course. But every time it comes up, I find myself unable to help thinking, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

The key evidence for Claudius’ birth-date comes from Suetonius, and it reads as follows:

Claudius was born at Lugdunum [= Lyon] on the Kalends of August [= August 1st] in the consulship of Iullus Antonius and Fabius Africanus [= 10 BC]; the very day when an altar was first dedicated to Augustus in that town.

Suetonius, Divus Claudius 2

Other sources, such as Cassius Dio and the military calendar from Dura Europos also confirm that August 1st was the date celebrated as Claudius’ birthday in antiquity. But that doesn’t necessarily prove that it was the real date of his birth. Everyone, including Claudius, could have been labouring (*boom-tish*) under a common illusion about it. There was no state-controlled system of birth registrations in the Roman empire, and indeed it’s perfectly clear from the ages recorded in documentary texts such as papyri and inscriptions that many people at that time had no idea how old they were or when exactly they had been born. Even within the imperial family that Claudius was born into, it would have been quite easy for a small number of adults to collude in perpetuating a falsehood about his date of birth – and what strikes me in this case is that there were some good reasons for Claudius’ family to want to do just that.

What I think is most important about the Suetonius passage, above, is the link which he draws between Claudius’ birth and the altar to Augustus dedicated in Lyon. Firstly, when Suetonius says that Claudius was born on ‘the very day’ (ipso die) that the altar was dedicated, he doesn’t really mean the same day, but the same date. We know from other sources that the altar was dedicated in 12 BC, not 10 BC – so two years before Claudius was born. What Suetonius is saying is that Claudius was born on the exact anniversary of the original dedication of the altar – i.e. August 1st. On one level, that’s just a coincidence, but by pointing out the link between the two events, Suetonius strongly suggests that he thinks it carries some kind of symbolic significance.

So let’s talk about this altar. It was the centre-piece of a large sanctuary, where a religious festival in honour of Augustus himself and the goddess Roma was held every year on the anniversary of its dedication – August 1st, as we’ve seen. Each year, the 60 communities which between them made up the populations of the three northern Gallic provinces would send one representative each to a provincial council based at the sanctuary, where they conducted sacrifices in honour of Roma and Augustus led by a high priest elected from amongst their number. In other words, this altar was the most important centre for the imperial cult in the whole of northern Gaul.

Meanwhile, the very reason why Claudius was born in Lyon in the first place was that his father, Drusus (younger son of Livia and step-son of Augustus) was at that time serving as governor of Gaul, and using the city as his administrative head-quarters. A late, and very brief, summary of books 138-9 of Livy’s History covers Drusus’ activities as a governor in Gaul, including the foundation of the altar at Lyon. This is what it says for the year 12 BC:

Agrippa, the son-in-law of Caesar [Augustus], died.
A census was organized by Drusus.
The Germanic tribes living on this side of the Rhine and across the Rhine were attacked by Drusus, and the uprising in Gaul, caused by the census, was suppressed.
An altar was dedicated to the divine Caesar at the confluence of the Saône and Rhône, and a priest was appointed, Gaius Julius Vercondaridubnus.

Livy, Periochae 138-9

So Drusus has just had to suppress riots sparked off by his organisation of a census. That’s an age-old story, of course. The purpose of the census was to register both people and land-holdings for the purpose of taxation, and this was the first time it had ever happened in Gaul – still at that time a relatively newly-conquered province. In fact, the whole situation is rather similar to the surveys conducted for the Domesday Book in England in the wake of the Norman Conquest. Naturally, the locals were not very pleased at the prospect of suddenly becoming liable for a whole load of new taxes.

The summary of Livy doesn’t quite draw a causal link between the suppression of the riots and the foundation of the altar, but Cassius Dio does:

The Sugambri and their allies had resorted to war, owing to the absence of Augustus and the fact that Gauls were restive under their slavery, and Drusus therefore seized the subject territory ahead of them, sending for the foremost men in it on the pretext of the festival which they celebrate even now around the altar of Augustus at Lugdunum.

Cassius Dio, 54.32

So the foundation of the altar, and the religious festival which took place there, seems to have been part of a programme of pacification following after the census and the riots which it has sparked. Dio is pretty cynical about Drusus’ behaviour, suggesting that he deliberately called leading representatives from the troubled communities to Lyon in order to get them out of the way and make suppressing the riots easier. Perhaps that was indeed his plan, but the move can also be seen in a more constructive light, especially from the perspective of the communities who were not rioting. Establishing the altar, and the council of community representatives who met there, would have helped to foster a new sense of collective identity for the peoples of northern Gaul, and to ensure that the focus of that identity was firmly fixed upon the emperor and Rome. It drew them into the new social and political order, ensuring that their leading representatives had a regular reason to go to Lyon and meet with the governor, and encouraging them to display loyalty to the emperor and the state while they were there.

So from the point of view of Augustus and the imperial family, the altar at Lyon was a very important tool in the careful, gradual transformation of northern Gaul from a fractious collection of loosely-federated tribes into a loyal and coherent Roman province. Picture the scene, then, in 10 BC – two years after the altar was founded. Drusus has just been dealing with another bout of unrest on the German frontier, this time led by the Chatti. Cassius Dio relates that Augustus himself came to Gaul himself during this period, where he was ‘tarrying in Lugdunensis’ while he monitored the progress of the campaigns. In other words, it is very probable that Augustus himself was actually staying in Lyon at Drusus’ family residence. Meanwhile, the annual festival is coming up, the representatives of the sixty Gallic communities are arriving in the city, and Drusus’ wife, Antonia, is heavily pregnant.

How very convenient it must have been, then, to be able to announce an imperial birth just at that moment. With the frontiers still needing constant attention, and all hopes of keeping them secure resting heavily on the continuing loyalty of the already-conquered Gauls, what better sign of a bright future could the imperial family wish for? How nice, how neat to be able to announce to the members of the Gallic council, as they conducted their annual worship of Augustus, that a new grand-nephew / step-grandson (for Claudius was both) had been born to him on that very auspicious day, carrying with him great hopes for the future of Augustus’ family – and hence of Rome, and hence of themselves as Roman Gauls. If Augustus was indeed there, perhaps he made the announcement himself, and maybe even held up the howling infant in front of the adoring crowds?

How nice, how neat: how rather too good to be true.

After all, could you tell the difference between a genuine new-born and a child born, ooh, anything up to a month earlier in an open-air sanctuary over the heads of massed representatives drawn from across Gaul? I know I couldn’t – and given how politically expedient it was for the imperial family to be able to announce a birth on that very day, I can’t help but be suspicious. No wonder they wanted to underline the link, now preserved in Suetonius’ text, between Claudius and the altar.

I can’t prove any of this at all. It is pure speculation. And of course it doesn’t matter, anyway. Time is arbitrary, and August 1st is as good a day to celebrate Claudius’ birth as any other. After all we are quite used to celebrating the Queen’s Official Birthday on a date which isn’t actually the anniversary of her birth, but which happens to be convenient.

Speaking personally, I’m happy to take August 1st at face value for Claudius’ birthday, because my own birthday is tomorrow, and that makes us birthday neighbours! But I do think it’s a nice example of the fun we can have in the very large gaps between the lines of Roman history – especially if we set off armed with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Posted in anniversaries, augustus, claudius, roman emperors, roman history | 4 Comments »

Myth and legends at the Knaresborough bed race

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 16, 2013

Last Saturday I met up with some friends in Knaresborough to watch the 48th annual Great Bed Race. This is the type of utterly mad local event which small English communities seem to specialise in, and it involves teams of six runners pushing a passenger around the town on what is called a ‘bed’, but is really more like a sort of wheeled trolley.

The course starts out in a lovely park by the river, and this was where we sat on a grassy bank in glorious sunshine drinking beer and eating burgers and candy-floss. As the teams ran past us, the terrain was relatively level, but they soon had to slog up a steep slope through the town, along the High Street and back down the valley again, before finally plunging into the River Nidd (trolley, passenger and all) to swim along for several metres pulling the trolley, before hauling it out again onto the opposite bank and reaching the finishing line. The race rules, of which we were handed a copy when we arrived, state:

“Each bed must have a built-in buoyancy aid capable of supporting the bed and the passenger for not less than five minutes, and have an aperture large enough to allow the passenger to escape quickly if required.”

And well they might!

All of that is entertaining enough, but for extra fun the teams also take part in a parade before the race begins. For this, they decorate their beds and dress up themselves according to a theme, which this year was ‘Myths & Legends’. We got a great view of this from our bank in the park, with all sorts of imaginative tableaux parading past us involving the Loch Ness Monster, leprechauns, fairies, the Knights of the Round Table, vampires, Roswell / Area 51, various sporting legends, pirates, samurai warriors and so forth.

What really made my day, though, was the fact that out of 91 teams in total, fifteen had drawn their inspiration from the myths and legends of the Classical world. That’s nearly one in six, maths fans – and a great testament to how important Classical stories still are in the imaginative landscape of modern Britain. So I leapt into action with my phone-camera, and managed to capture pretty decent images of every single one of these teams. The photographs follow below, grouped roughly according to when the legends which they depict were supposed to have taken place, and accompanied by some comments on what I think the teams’ choices tell us about how Classical stories are perceived today, and how people tend to learn about them.

Older than time itself, of course, are the gods. Two teams went with this theme, as follows (click on either picture for a closer look):

01 Ripon Runners gods of Olympus 06 Welly Wheelers temple 2

I can’t be certain whether either team was thinking of the Greek or the Roman pantheon, though my guess would be Greek. Certainly, most of the teams in this race were drawing on Greek rather than Roman myths, and I’ll say a bit more about why later. Also, the racing context may well have encouraged people to think about the Olympic games, Mount Olympus itself and hence the (Greek) Olympic gods. But in any case, both sets of gods map very closely onto one another. On the left-hand team I can identify Zeus / Jupiter (beard and thunderbolt), Poseidon / Neptune (tripod) and Helios / Sol (radiate crown), but I must admit I’m stumped by the fellow in what looks like a yellow Christmas hat and the round-topped sceptre held by the young person carrying the charity collection bucket. Two more team-members just seem to be wearing generic togas / chitons and laurel wreaths. Perhaps they are meant to be Olympic victors?

The right-hand team have gone to the trouble of spraying themselves gold – a great way to signify divine status, which was done with literal gold-plating on ancient statues, and I think is also what the glowing CGI appearance of the Greek gods in the 2010 version of the film Clash of the Titans was trying to achieve. They have built a model of Zeus / Jupiter with his thunderbolt in front of the temple, and although I am not sure about the lion face on the front of the trolley, I wonder if it is meant to go alongside the red dragon-looking face on the far side and the possibly-a-snake on the near side to make up some kind of Chimera? If so, we are definitely in the Greek world. Meanwhile, amongst the team I can see Mercury at the back with his winged helmet and staff, and assume the fellow with the inflatable globe is Atlas (strictly a Titan rather than a god, but near enough). But the other person at the front doesn’t have any identifying attributes, and already I can’t remember what the fourth person who must be at the far corner looked like.

Next on the mythological schedule is the winged horse Pegasus. In ancient literature, Pegasus is associated with both Bellerophon and (later) Perseus, but both of these heroes belong to roughly the same era in the fictional world of Greek mythology – a time before both the Labours of Hercules and the Trojan war.

07 Brooks Blockheads 51 The Charvers pegasus 1 75 Meadowside Maidens pegasus 1 75 Meadowside Maidens pegasus 2

The wings on the first horse aren’t as obvious as the others, but they are there, represented by feathers along the side of the trolley. The second horse has a young lady in a fairy-princess costume riding inside it, while the close-up of the third horse in the final picture shows beautiful decorative details in rainbow colours and glitter. I think there is a definite note of magical fairy-lands about these latter two pegasi, reflecting the way that winged horses have found their way into all sorts of post-Classical fantasy stories – these days especially My Little Pony. But the overall aesthetic of all three teams is definitely Classical. Besides, the worlds of magical princesses and the Classical Pegasus were memorably brought together by Ray Harryhausen and Desmond Davis in the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans, what with its distinctly magical fairy-princess version of Andromeda being rescued by Perseus astride Pegasus. So I think these teams are picking up on that merged heritage.

Next comes the hydra, defeated by Hercules as one of his Labours:

28 Saint John's Juggernauts hydra 3

The hydra was a terrible creature with multiple heads, all alive and moving independently, and I love the way this has been captured by the model. Some of the heads are static, others are on sticks allowing them to be moved around by the team, while several of the team-mates also wear caps with the same monster-head design, all adding to the impression of lots and lots of horrible scary heads moving around and trying to eat you! And if you look carefully just behind the head of the girl carrying the charity bucket, you will see that one of them has obviously been successful – there is a trouser-leg with a shoes hanging from the end of it dangling from its jaws. Brilliant!

The hydra crops up in lots of modern tellings of the Hercules story, such as Disney’s Hercules (1997), and we’ll doubtless be hearing a lot about it at the conference on receptions of Hercules which my colleague Emma Stafford is running later this month. But Ray Harryhausen and Don Chaffey also added it to the story of Jason and the Argonauts – which brings me neatly on to the next two teams:

39 Knaresborough Scouts Argonauts 1 87 Scotton Lingerfield Argonauts 2

The designs here are quite different. The first team has referenced the Jason story directly by including the golden ram’s head on their ship’s sail. I presume the fellow with the breast-plate and shield is Jason himself, apparently on his return journey since one of his team-mates can be seen holding the fabled golden fleece. The second team have gone for more of a sirens theme, shown in the costumes of the runners and a large stuffed mermaid figure on their ship’s stern (of which only the tail is visible in my picture). But their design scheme too is definitely Greek, and what makes me think above all that they are referencing the story of Jason and the Argonauts is the big blue eye on the front of their ship, which the first team have also included on theirs. In fact, of course, this appears on the Argo in the iconic modern telling of the Jason myth – Ray Harryhausen / Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963):

jason-and-the-argonauts-argo Jason Argo

So between these ships and the fairy-land Pegasi, Ray Harryhausen’s vision of Classical mythology has clearly had a pretty bit influence on these teams – a real tribute to the enduring power of his films which I have also discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Moving a little further forward in mythological time, we enter the period of the Trojan war and its great hero, Achilles, who was immune to weapons over his whole body except for one heel:

15 Castle Clinic Achilles heel

These people are osteopaths whose trolley proclaims that they don’t just treat backs – presumably, Achilles’ tendons are on the agenda too. A clever move from them to use the mythological reference in promoting their business, and a good example of how Classical references are transmitted through our culture. According to Wikipedia, the practice of describing the tendon at the back of the human foot with reference the story of Achilles grew up amongst anatomists in the early modern period (it’s recorded as an established practice in 1693). This was a time when learned people were well-steeped in Classical texts – in fact, anatomists were still making substantial use of ancient medical writers like Galen and Hippocrates. So it’s not surprising that they reached for Classical stories like the Achilles legend to name human body-parts. Now that name has stuck, and it helps in turn to keep the story alive. I’m sure many people now hear of an Achilles tendon before they know the story behind it, and I hope it inspires some people to discover the story itself.

After the death of Achilles, the Greeks finally turned the war in their favour by building the Trojan horse, filling it with soldiers, and leaving the unsuspecting Trojans to drag it inside their city walls. Two teams had a go at making their own version:

25 P&G The Grads Trojan horse 50 Orion Trojan horse 1

I am not sure you could fit very many soldiers inside the first horse, but the second one is pretty epic! To my eye, it also looks quite similar to the horse featured in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004):

trojan-horse

They’re not exactly the same, for sure – the Petersen one has a much ‘rougher’ look, capturing the feel of something cobbled together out of bits of broken-up ships. But there’s something about the use of individual planks of wood in this horse, as opposed to smooth panels like the other one, which gives it a similar feel.

Moving out of the realms of outright myths and into recorded history (which can still generate stories of legendary heroism, of course) it’s time to meet the Spartans:

35 Knaresborough Rugby Club Spartans 1

I think the combination of the shield designs, the helmets and the scanty tunics make it pretty clear that we are not just meeting any old Spartans here, but specifically the ones envisaged in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007):

300 Spartans shields

So we’ve now seen designs which are quite definitely influenced by 300 and Jason and the Argonauts, and probably also others influenced a little more indirectly by Clash of the Titans and Troy. Most Classicists today are already very well aware that one of the main routes by which non-specialists come into contact with Classical stories today is film and TV – indeed, my survey of which Roman emperors people in Leeds were familiar with showed much the same thing. But I think the choices made by these teams are one more proof of that, if anyone needs it.

Finally, we’ve not heard much from the Romans yet. That’s no big surprise. As Gideon Nisbet has shown, Greek mythology is big news in popular culture today, whereas the modern image of the Roman world is all about marching legions and gladiatorial games. So when people are dressing up to a ‘myths and legends’ theme, of course Greek stories are going to predominate. Nonetheless, three teams did lean in a Roman direction:

57 Commercial Estates ship 1

To be fair, this ship is quite multi-cultural. The overall design could be Greek or Roman, and alhough they’re not visible in this picture, it also had some quite Celtic-looking designs on the prow. If I could identify the picture of the female head on the stern, I might be clearer about where this team got their inspiration – but although I’m sure I’ve seen it before, I can’t pin it down now.

38 HACS Mythical Legends Boudicca 14 HPL Flyers chariot 2

These two are definitely Roman, though. The lady in the first chariot is clearly Boudicca, because she had the famous knives on her chariot wheels (not visible in the picture above, but see below right behind the two singers). I’m not so sure about the second lot – perhaps they were thinking of Boudicca too (especially since they are an all-female team), but decided to omit the knives? Or perhaps it’s a more general reference to Roman chariot-racing as seen in films such as Ben Hur? In any case, the net result is that the only identifiable story from the Roman period represented at the bed race was the story of Boudicca, who of course crucially wasn’t a Roman at all, and indeed stands in the popular imagination as a symbol of Celtic resistance to Roman imperialism. The many myths and legends which the Romans did actually have continue to languish in obscurity today, just as Wiseman has discussed.

For the sake of completeness, I should add that there was also a Roman rock band in the middle of the parade, featuring three dudes on guitars and drums in the back of a van, followed by two ladies on foot singing:

Roman rock band Roman rock band singers

Obviously they weren’t referencing any particular myth, but I’m sure their performances are legendary…

I’ll finish by saying that although I have concentrated on the Classically-themed teams here, because that’s my area of interest, the whole parade was brilliant, and the race itself was a thing to behold! There is a great video of this year’s race here, which shows some of the other teams and really captures the experience of the day as a whole, and I can really recommend going along to experience it for yourself if you get the chance:

Posted in classical receptions, films, greek mythology, ray harryhausen, rituals and festivals | 2 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 »

Publication: ‘I am Master of Nothing’: Imperium: Augustus and the Story of Augustus on Screen

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 2, 2012

I got an email late last night to say that an article about screen portrayals of the emperor Augustus which I wrote last Christmas has now been published. It’s always great to see another publication finally emerging into the daylight, but this one is particularly satisfying because it has been published in an online journal, so that anyone with internet access can read it for free!

The paper is entitled ”I am Master of Nothing’: Imperium: Augustus and the Story of Augustus on Screen’, and its official abstract runs as follows

The story of Octavian / Augustus’ life follows a rather problematic narrative trajectory. Reduced to its basic elements, it is the tale of a man who overthrew the Roman Republic and installed himself as an absolute monarch, yet enjoyed widespread contemporary acclaim and died peacefully in his bed. Lacking the moral complexity of Julius Caesar’s story, or the prurient thrills offered by proper ‘bad’ emperors, this narrative has rarely been tackled in full by western story-tellers. Instead, in the 20th century, Octavian / Augustus appeared most frequently on screen as a secondary character in the stories of others – particularly as a villainous foil to Antony and Cleopatra – while only a handful of novelists attempted a fuller biographical approach. Nonetheless, a popular appetite for screen portrayals of Roman history in the early 21st century has kept producers and screenwriters returning to his story, and one TV mini-series, Imperium: Augustus (2003), has now offered the first ever screen biopic of this contradictory character. This paper examines the narrative strategies used in this production and their degree of success in making the story of Octavian / Augustus palatable to contemporary western audiences. Making strong claims to historical accuracy, Imperium: Augustus builds on approaches already established in biographical novels, but also deploys characteristically filmic devices such as the flashback to help create a compelling drama. Audience responses suggest that it was only a partial success, but Augustus’ story still offers ample opportunities for exploring modern concerns such as the crafting of political personas or the relationship between security and civil liberties. These could perhaps be better satisfied in the medium of the documentary, and we can fully expect such treatments to appear in connection with the bimillennium of his death on 19th August 2014.

If you’d like to read more, you can find the full paper at New Voices in Classical Reception Studies 7: see the second item in the table of contents.

Posted in augustus, classical receptions, films, publications, roman emperors, television | 2 Comments »

 
%d bloggers like this: