Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

Archive for October, 2011

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 »

“You should have paid more attention to your history books”: The Highlanders and the end of an era

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 15, 2011

The Highlanders (1966-7) is very much a watershed story for Doctor Who. It isn’t actually Patrick Troughton’s first appearance, but it is Frazer Hines’ – and given that Hines is absent from only one Troughton story (The Power of the Daleks), his arrival seems to herald the true beginning of the Second Doctor era. That impression is strongly reinforced by the fact that this is also the last of the great ‘pure’ historical stories – a regular feature of the show since its beginnings in 1963.

In fact, this story’s approach to history reveals a lot about why the pure historical ran to ground here on these Scottish moors. Back in the show’s first season, William Hartnell’s Doctor was portrayed as aloof and self-serving – interested in other cultures only as scientific curiosities, and becoming involved with them only when he was (temporarily) unable to get back to the TARDIS. His approach to history fitted perfectly with this. When Barbara decides that she wants to try to save Aztec culture from destruction, his response shows that he basically thinks she is an idiotic dreamer:

“But you can’t rewrite history – not one line! Barbara, one last appeal: what you are trying to do is utterly impossible.”

Of course it was, because part of the fantasy which Doctor Who has always shared with its viewers is that its stories are on some level taking place in the same universe which we inhabit. It’s fun to imagine that at any moment we could turn a corner and stumble into the TARDIS. But if the Doctor or his companions change Earth’s history as we know it, that illusion crumbles. We all know what happened to the Aztecs, and if something different plays out on our screens, we have to conclude that the story is not taking place in our world.

That wasn’t a problem for the early Doctor. He didn’t want to change history anyway. But by the end of the show’s second season, he had started to develop some distinctly heroic traits – particularly obvious in The Time Meddler when he comes up against a villainous opposite number. Faced with the Meddling Monk, the Doctor takes on his now-familiar role as defender of the established time-line. But, paradoxically, this sort of behaviour was also turning him into a historical liability. The more audiences got used to him overthrowing oppressors and righting wrongs in future / alien settings (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Daleks’ Master Plan, The Ark, The Savages), the less it made sense that he wouldn’t also do so in Earth’s past.

And indeed he did. In The Gunfighters, he demands that Pa Clanton should call off “this ridiculous duel” – better known to history as the gun-fight at the O.K. Corral. In The Smugglers, he feels duty bound to save the Cornish village from the pirates. And by The Highlanders, the new Doctor and his companions seem to find it entirely obvious that their role in the story should be to save the rebel prisoners from slavery – not simply to escape at the first opportunity.

For the fantasy that Doctor Who is taking place in our universe to be maintained, these plans either had to fail, as in The Gunfighters, or take place around the edges of recorded history, as in The Smugglers and The Highlanders. Historical characters and events are referenced in these last two stories (the pirate Avery, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the battle of Culloden), but the TARDIS crew don’t get involved with them directly. Instead, they interact only with unrecorded people, and experience unrecorded events.

We’re basically working here with an implicit distinction between ‘history’, which has been recorded and cannot be changed, and ‘the past’, which hasn’t and apparently can. Obviously, this doesn’t make much sense to modern audiences used to the idea that any small action can have huge unforeseen consequences, and these days it seems to be covered instead by the idea (first expressed in The Fires of Pompeii) that some events are ‘fixed’ while others are ‘in flux’. But either explanation does the same job of providing room for creative manoeuvre in a historical setting. It leaves the field wide open for whatever the production team want to do – including portraying the Doctor as a moral hero.

Ultimately, though, that can be done even better without the dramatic constraints of a historical setting at all, and I think that must be one of the main reasons why the pure historical story had run its course by this point. I know most commentators focus on poor audience feedback and growing production-level hostility when explaining its demise, but to me the development of the Doctor’s heroism is a major contributor. The time was ripe for the pseudo-historical, in which he could instead fight for recorded history by saving the Earth from an unrecorded alien threat.

Meanwhile, it’s clear from The Highlanders that the original educational remit of the historical stories has been all but abandoned. When Ben asks what is wrong with attracting every English soldier within miles, the Doctor simply exclaims, “You should have paid more attention to your history books, Ben!” The broadcast of the Culloden documentary two years earlier probably meant that those audience members who cared were better-informed than Ben, leaving the script free to concentrate on romps and heroics instead. But not all historical eras could enjoy the same level of audience familiarity. The potential for lengthy explanations to get in the way of action and adventure must be another reason why the historical format was becoming undesirable.

The Doctor’s comment provides another index of changing approaches, too. He implies that history books are mainly useful as a survivor’s guide for time-travellers caught up in politically-sensitive situations. But compare Barbara’s exasperated comment to Ian during their argument over which side was ‘right’ in the French Revolution: “You check your history books, Ian, before you decide what people deserve!” This reflects a quite different vision of history – not simply an adventure to be survived, but a moral laboratory, where different ideologies can be weighed up against one another. For Barbara, history books don’t just provide practical survival tips, but offer a balanced viewpoint on issues which are hard to assess in the heat of the moment.

To me, Barbara’s approach allows for more satisfying drama. It’s noticeable that another thing we don’t get in The Highlanders, but did in The Reign of Terror, is much opportunity for the contemporary locals to voice their beliefs and motivations. Polly, for example, has some quite long (and pleasingly Bechdel-compliant) conversations with the Laird’s daughter, Kirsty – but she doesn’t show any real interest in Kirsty’s life beyond the immediate events of the story. They talk a lot about things which Polly has experienced and Kirsty hasn’t – matches, dog biscuits, fillings, women in trousers, money, piggy-backs. But Kirsty’s life experiences – cattle raiding, royalist exploitation, family servants – emerge only in passing and are never pursued by Polly. It’s taken as read that her family are fighting for the Jacobite cause – but why? What does it mean to them? In The Reign of Terror, clashes of ideology were central to the story, and the perspectives of both sides were explored. But in The Highlanders the clash has come to feel a lot more like a mere backdrop to a goodies vs. baddies adventure story.

Still, it’s all very well to sit here over forty years later and imply that Doctor Who should have stuck to doing intellectual historicals, rather than ripping good adventure yarns. I see why the change was made, and I’m sure it was vital to the continuing success of the series. But I can’t help wishing that Doctor Who had carried on for a while longer paying just a little more attention to those history books.

Posted in doctor who, history, reviews, television | 2 Comments »

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