Britannia, Season 3 – Sky Atlantic


   I’m pretty sure that there’s nothing in my history books about the Roman occupiers of Britain being cannibals, but, according to “Britannia”, they were just that.  Well, one of them was, anyway.  The poor bloke who ended up being served up at a banquet wasn’t even chopped into pieces and put in a stew.  He was wheeled to the table in a long silver dish, intact,  covered in a) all the trimmings and b) his helmet.

It all started off quite peacefully.  New series, new theme tune – Children of the Revolution.  Who knew that Ancient Romans and Celts were into Marc Bolan?   The Roman general with the Scouse accent had now got a nice pad in St Albans, but was in the doghouse all round because he’d lost track of the mysterious girl with magic powers, and wasn’t having much joy getting any information out of the guy who previously claimed to be 10,000 years old.  To add to his woes, his wife turned up.  This was when the rot set in.  First of all, she told him off for putting on weight.  Then she asked him where his sword was.  It was at the polishers, claimed he.  Ah.  Well, what was the sword that’d been found sticking out of a stump, then, asked she, brandishing it about.  He tried to claim that it wasn’t his, but failed dismally because it’d got his name on it  Engraved on it, that is, not marked with a Cash’s name tape.  She also crawled about sniffing the floor for any signs that other women had been in the place.  As you do.

Having found that he did, indeed, have a mistress around the place, she said that it was better than doing unspeakable things with his socks.  Too much information.  And then she had his mate served up for tea.

Meanwhile, Phelan, the dispossessed prince, was training as a druid, and was told to change his name to Quant.  Maybe druids were into Mary Quant make-up as well as glam rock.  Or maybe they just didn’t want their new guy being associated with Pat Phelan.  He was dispatched into the woods to find some moss, but sat around chatting to a centipede and then came back empty-handed.  And then the girl with the magic powers stabbed the guy who’d claimed to be 10,000 years old because he’d forgotten her name.  Or something.

I don’t know what the scriptwriters on this are on, but I suspect that it’s something rather stronger than mead.  Or vino.  And I think they may have had a little too much of it.  But at least it was entertaining.  It was so totally bonkers that you just had to laugh.  I mean, what on earth?!

Domina – Sky Atlantic


  This wasn’t bad.  Given that Sky Atlantic aren’t exactly the masters of historical accuracy, I was prepared for all kinds of bizarre goings-on.  When we started with a bride-to-be, our heroine Livia Drusilla, being told to inspect a naked male slave so that she’d know what bits were where before the wedding night, and then overhearing her relatives discussing murdering the bridegroom, I thought, oh dear, here we go.  But, after that, it wasn’t OTT at all.  In fact, some of the second episode felt a bit like a 1970s sitcom, as a leading Roman patrician got in a strop because no-one’d told him the dress code for a party, and he’d been the only one who’d turned up in a toga.  At the said party, the women’d sat at one end of the room, bitching about the decor, and the men’d sat at the other, discussing chariot-racing.  This was after an earlier party, at which the host had explained to Octavian that their toilet was now connected to the aqueduct, so it didn’t smell like the old one did.  I’m not sure that Octavian needed to know this.

In between the parties, the political history was actually pretty accurate, as we saw Livia’s father back the losing side, fighting with Brutus and Cassius against Octavian and Mark Antony, and killing himself after their defeat at Philippi.  It’s a well-known part of Roman history, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone consider its effect on Livia before.  If people write about the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, it’s usually either “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” or accusing Livia and Agrippina of poisoning everyone.  This series is certainly something different.

Impressive array of local actors.  Young Gaius/Octavian/Augustus is from Bolton.  His older self is from Atherton.  His second wife is from Rochdale.  And his chief general is from Wigan.  In fact, young Gaius actually seems to be rocking a “Madchester” 1990 image, with the floppy black hair.  Just needs a hooded top and a pair of Joe Bloggs jeans instead of the maroon toga.

It was rather confusing, because we kept flashing backwards and forwards in time, but a lot of TV series, films and books do that now.  And the Julio-Claudians are confusing generally, because they’re all known by umpteen different names, all have the same names as umpteen other people, and keep changing their partners; but that’s not Sky Atlantic’s fault.

Our heroine Livia Drusilla, aka Julia Augusta, was Octavian (referred to in the programme, accurately as we’re in his early years, as Gaius, but I’m used to thinking of him as Octavian, and his official emperor name was Caesar Augustus)’s third wife.  She was previously married to Tiberius Claudius Nero, the one who got the dress code wrong.  Not to be confused with the Nero, who fiddled whilst Rome burned.  That Nero, the one who fiddled, was directly descended from Livia/Julia, via her son Tiberius, whom she was expecting with her first husband when Gaius/Octavian/Augustus ordered him to divorce her, at the same time as which divorced his own second wife (Scribonia from Rochdale), who was expecting their daughter, also Julia, who later married Tiberius.  Tiberius was Julia’s third husband.  She was previously married to Agrippa from Wigan.  And someone else (not at the same time).  I did say it was confusing.

Anyway, Livia’s a pretty interesting character, who was married to Octavian for over 50 years, held far more power than most other Julio-Claudian women did,  and, depending on what you read, was either a domineering dowager who went around poisoning people or else was a paragon of all the virtues.  There was a lot of talk in this first episode about women only being valued for childbearing and weaving, so I assume this is going to be a feminist take on things.

It wasn’t brilliant, but it certainly wasn’t bad.  I shall keep watching!

Meet the Romans with Mary Beard – BBC 4


According to Mary Beard, who’s always so infectiously enthusiastic about Ancient Rome, the reason that the city, the centre and capital of a great Empire, flourished in the first century AD was that people bonded during visits to the Colosseum and the public toilets.  I’m not quite getting the toilet thing, but I can’t wait until I can bond with 78,000 other people at Old Trafford again.  And watching enslaved prisoners of war being paraded through the city in chains was a great time to try to pick up a new girlfriend or boyfriend.  Also, it was a brilliant time to be a baker.  This was far more interesting than Caesar’s Gallic Wars, which I was forced to read when I was in the Sixth Form … although, being minus Caecilius & co, it wasn’t as good as the Cambridge Latin Course 😉 .

This was originally shown in 2012, but I can’t remember whether or not I watched it the first time round.  The general idea was that Rome was “the great blender”.  People came there from all over, either by force as captives from newly-conquered territories or by choice in the hope that the streets of the city were paved with gold.  Mary didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that they’d been slaves, and kept pointing out what great opportunities they had, and showing us a lot of tombstones of people who’d been brought from other parts of the Empire as slaves but had then been freed and done well for themselves.  As she said, they all seemed very keen on having their jobs mentioned on their tombstones – and Rome was one of very few places at that time where people actually had specialist jobs.

We also heard a lot about all the food brought in from different parts of the Empire … a bit like Britain in late Victorian and Edwardian times.  A lot of it came from other parts of Italy rather than from far and wide, though, especially olive oil and grain.  It’s a favourite point of hers, and an extremely good one – that Rome needed the Empire to keep going, so it was all kind of self-perpetuating.

Another favourite point of hers is ethnic diversity, but, as she kept saying, there were no “quarters” in Ancient Rome, where particular groups lived.  It was all about becoming Roman – and, preferably, eventually being able to say “Civis Romanus sum”.

And, once you were a Roman citizen, you could go to the Colosseum.  Yay!  Although, if you were female, you could only sit in a certain area.  And, if you were a bottom of the pecking order type citizen, you could only sit up in the gods, whilst the Roman equivalent of the prawn sandwich brigade got the seats with the best views.  But, as long as you were there, you could watch the gladiators, and bask in the feeling that you were a civilised Roman and they weren’t.  And so all the Romans bonded.  Alternatively, you could bond by gossiping in the public toilets.  Well, men could, anyway.  I’m not sure when gossiping in toilets became a female thing rather than a male thing, but never mind.

I can’t say that this was the greatest historical documentary I’ve ever seen, people’s job titles being engraved on their tombstones not actually being all that fascinating, but it wasn’t bad, and I’ll be watching the two other episodes in this series.  Mary Beard reminds me of one of those teachers who are so into their subject that they just can’t even conceive of the fact that someone else might not find it interesting: she just looks so fascinated by all of it!  And, this not being school, if someone’s watching a programme on Ancient Rome then the chances are that they do find it interesting.  So go Mary.  And what a great lockdown mate she’d be, because she’d tell you that having long grey hair was actually the way to go!






Before Bethlehem by James Flerlage


Biblical novels, notably The Red Tent, can be very good.  This one’s only so-so, but it does have a reasonable stab at setting the nativity story in the historical context of the struggles faced by the people of Judaea and Galilee under the control of both the Romans and the religious courts.  It’s easy to forget that the nativity story’s set only 70 years or so before the outbreak of the war that culminated in the mass suicide at Masada, because no-one ever really talks about the two things as part of the same history.  It also includes some interesting Tudor-esque suggestions about Herod’s fears of being overthrown by either the line of the Maccabees or the line of King David.  However, the author’s unwillingness to choose between a Red Tent-type novel presented as historical fiction and a religious story with angels and divine messages means that the book doesn’t really work that well as a whole.

The story follows an Orthodox tradition that Joseph was a middle-aged widower with several children when he met Mary, and is told from the viewpoint of James, his youngest son. I understand that all the details of Joseph’s family as given in the book – his children, his brother and sister-in-law, the name of his first wife – come from the same tradition.  He’s shown as being a reasonably well-to-do man, rather than a “humble” carpenter.

I’m hardly an expert on the Bible, but I don’t know that it actually says anything about Joseph not being well-to-do.  Is the “humble” idea some sort of English thing from the Peasants’ Revolt and “When Adam delved and Eve span”, or am I overthinking this?  And the idea that Joseph was a fair bit older than Mary makes sense, because he disappears from the story fairly early on – although I suppose he could just have died young.  Anyway, whatever, this is the picture we get.

Archaeologists agree that Nazareth, as it is now, was only a two bit village at the time, and the book shows Joseph and his family being based in Sepphoris, a now-ruined city nearby, but also owning and farming some land at Nazareth. It suggests that Herod wanted to force all the builders/craftsmen in the area to leave their homes, close to harvest time, and go and work on constructing his new city at what’s now Tiberias.  Tiberias is – thank you, Wikipedia – supposed to have been founded quarter of a century later, but, OK, I suppose people must have been working on it beforehand.  I’m not sure how well this idea works, but it does get across the point that everyone in the area was very vulnerable at the time – you couldn’t really argue with either the Romans or the religious authorities, and just had to try to keep your head down.

Unfortunately for Joseph, in the story of this book, he not only caught the eye of Romans looking for workers but also caught the eye of the religious authorities, who were looking for a husband for Mary. And this is where the author gets himself all tangled up.

By this point, around a thousand years have passed since the time of King David. The Bible is a historian’s nightmare and it’s well nigh impossible to be sure who did or didn’t really exist, or when, but it’s generally accepted that the reign of David was around a thousand years before the birth of Jesus.  However, according to all the sources, there were still people whose line could be traced back to David, and Joseph – so the New Testament says – was one of them.  And Mary was, according to the book, considered special because she was descended from Aaron, brother of Moses (I think that’s quite a common tradition?) and had been dedicated to the Temple from birth by her parents.

This would make any child of theirs a double threat to Herod. Think Katherine Grey and Edward Seymour, or Arbella Stuart and William Seymour!   This idea works really well, and would explain quite logically why Herod might have had it in for Joseph and Mary.  Herod was only king because he’d sucked up to the Romans.  He’d replaced the Maccabee dynasty.  Yes, all right, all right, it’s officially called the Hasmonean dynasty, but (the nickname) Maccabee works better.  You don’t get football teams called Hasmoneans, do you?  He’d married a Maccabee princess, but she wasn’t his first wife or the mother of his heir.  Meanwhile, most people still regard the descendants of King David as the rightful heirs.

The nativity story totally contradicts itself on this bit. The “king” has to be descended from King David.  Joseph is descended from King David.  Therefore Jesus has to be descended from Joseph.  Let’s not go there, because people can get very offended if you start questioning religious texts, but, as a historical novel, this seemed at this point to be working really well – it was all very plausible.

It was also very interesting, with descriptions of life at the time, of the harsh punishments meted out by the religious courts, of the issues of Roman occupation, and of James and Joseph journeying to Jerusalem and their time there. The idea was that Joseph had agreed to marry Mary – who was very young, and came across as being rather a brat –  in exchange for the religious authorities using their influence with the Romans to get him out of having to work at Tiberias.

However, it then all goes a bit awry, because the author presumably couldn’t bear to abandon the religious story, and brought in angels and miracles. He couldn’t bear to leave Bethlehem out of it either, even though historians can’t find any evidence to support the census story and it’s likely that Jesus was actually born in the Nazareth area and the stable/Bethlehem stuff was “created” to provide a link to Royal David’s City.  He doesn’t go with the census story, and instead, having included angels – although he doesn’t actually show angels appearing in Nazareth, instead saying that they’d appeared “offstage”, whilst Mary was staying with her cousin Elizabeth – and insisted that it’s a miraculous virgin birth, says that they decide to leave Nazareth to get away from the gossip, the scandal, and, above all, fears of punishment by the religious courts.

No stable as such. Instead, the birth takes place in a watch tower.  On the Day of Atonement.  Well, it couldn’t have been December, or shepherds wouldn’t have been watching their flocks by night – and the idea is that they originally went to Jerusalem but the reason everywhere was full up was because there were loads of pilgrims there.  That makes sense, I suppose.  And then three astrologers sent by Herod turn up, everyone keeps going on about miracles and messiahs, and they head off to Egypt.

So it’s a strange mixture of actual, practical history, Orthodox tradition relating to the life of Joseph, and a religious-miracle element which the author evidently couldn’t bear to be without. I’m not knocking religious-miracle stories, if that’s what people are into, but I don’t think that trying to work them into a historical novel really works very well.  It would have been much better to have stuck with the idea of Herod being after Joseph and Mary because he was worried about the threat from a scion of the rightful ruling dynasty.

It might be worth a read, if only for people to remind themselves of the historical context. As I said, no-one ever really relates the nativity story to the issues of Roman rule in Judaea and Galilee.  The Christian stories move on to Rome and Ephesus and don’t cover the destruction of the Second Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Siege of Masada, and the Jewish stories don’t do Jesus, so you don’t get them together. But trying to combine a historical story and a religious-miracle story can get a bit muddled.

Pompeii’s Final Hours: New Evidence – Channel 5


I was hoping for a few mentions of Caecilius, but there wasn’t even one. Instead, we got John Sergeant prancing around half-naked and eating bulls’ testicles!   Aidan Turner wandering about with no shirt on is all very well 😉 , but, whilst I’m sure John Sergeant is a very nice bloke, I didn’t particularly need to see him bare-chested and having oil rubbed all over his back. Kudos to him for having the confidence to be filmed doing that, though. I scuttle off to pull a full-length wrap on over my substantial swimming costume the second I get out of the pool!

Anyway, moving swiftly on! It was all a bit confused, because they said they’d be talking about the three days leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius, but then they kept going off to talk about new excavations and scanning casts. That was all very interesting, but I don’t know where the three days thing came into it, except that John Sergeant got to wander round food stalls in Naples, eat a large banquet whilst dressed up as a Roman senator, visit a bath-house (hence the bare chest and the oil), hang around playing cards in a Neapolitan bar, and take a boat trip round the bay. Nice work if you can get it!

The idea seemed to be that everyone in Pompeii spent the city’s last few days out enjoying themselves. Six hour working day, then off to watch a gladiator show or sit in a bar. This presumably applied only to well-to-do men. I think the idea was that it was like the image of everyone on the Home Front enjoying the war – eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. They kept saying that people must have realised that something was seriously wrong, because of the earth tremors. But they also kept saying that people there were used to earth tremors so they wouldn’t have been unduly worried. As I said, it was all a bit confused!

The dates were confusing, apart from anything else. The date usually given for the eruption of Vesuvius, based on letters written by Pliny the Younger, is 24-25 August AD. Channel 5 kept giving the date as 24-25 October AD. A lot of evidence points to the eruption having taken place in the autumn rather than the summer, and many people think that the date given by Pliny may have been misread or copied down wrongly – but, as the August date’s still the one generally accepted, they really should have explained why they were giving the October date instead. They didn’t explain that, but they did helpfully point out that people in Pompeii didn’t eat pasta or tomatoes. Or drink orange juice. And they provided subtitles for Italians speaking in perfectly clear English.

OK, enough sarcasm. Bettany Hughes and Raksha Dave did actually get to see some new excavations. Only two-thirds of the city has been excavated, but new excavations are rare. Cynics think that this is to avoid disrupting tourism. Seeing the newly excavated buildings, and even the ones excavated years ago, was genuinely moving, as was seeing things like loaves of bread, perfectly preserved. It’s like a story out of the Bible, or a legend, or a sci-fi novel. One day, life was going on as normal, and then everything was just destroyed … and preserved, in ash. All those casts – they were all real people, who lived and breathed and led their lives, and were then just cut down in the street, like the White Witch turning people in Narnia into stone where they stood … except that the Narnians got to come back to life. It’s almost unthinkable.

Some of the casts were taken to a hospital in Naples, and scanned in a modern day scanner and some of the bones were taken for detailed analysis. That – hooray!! – genuinely was new evidence. It was strange. Hospital staff had given up their time to do this, and they were all crowding round the casts – as Raksha Dave said, like some weird version of Casualty, but with people who’d been dead for nearly two millennia. I’m never sure how I feel about that sort of thing. Would you want your remains being examined for a TV programme, in two thousand years’ time? Or is the concept so hard to grasp that you wouldn’t really care? Anyway, the scans showed that a cast thought to be male was actually female, and a cast thought to be that of a gladiator was actually that of a young lad! Although the one thought to be a muleteer really was a muleteer.

Incidentally, Herculaneum barely got a mention. I recently read a book which compared Herculaneum to Nagasaki (i.e. and Pompeii to Hiroshima). Poor Herculaneum. No-one ever talks about it!  But Pompeii’s been talked about a lot – and most of what was in this three-part series was same old, same old. It was interesting, and it was sad, but putting “New Evidence” in the title was pushing it a bit! The series didn’t really seem to know what it wanted to be. One minute, it was genuine history and archaeology. The next, it was pending-doom music with commentary on what was happening with the eruption at a particular time of day. The next, it was John Sergeant eating bulls’ testicles. Stuffed with pepper, fennel seed and cumin, just in case anyone wants to know.

And they seemed determined to make out that modern-day Naples was just like Pompeii – hence the aforementioned food stalls and bars. And complete with curses. Well, if they used them against Juventus, they didn’t work very well.

So I’m not really sure what I thought of it, quite honestly. It was all a bit muddled. I’m just rather narked that they never mentioned Caecilius. How can anyone make three programmes on Pompeii and not mention Caecilius?!

Julius Caesar Revealed – BBC 1


Mary Beard really doesn’t like Julius Caesar, and she did a very good job of letting us know why – in particular, presenting him as the prototype for certain current politicians whom most of us probably aren’t particularly keen on either.  And, towards the end of the programme, she pointed out that removing a dictator without any sort of plan as to what system of government you’re going to put in his/her place can end up making things worse rather than better.

The trend these days does seem to be for historical documentaries to draw as many comparisons as possible between the figures and events of the past and those of today.  I’m never sure whether or not that’s a good idea.  If I’m watching a programme about Julius Caesar, do I really want to be thinking about Vladimir Putin?  I’m watching it because I want to be thinking about Ancient Rome, not about 21st century Russia.  And making those sorts of comparisons isn’t really very fair to anyone.  It’s not very fair to compare Messi or Ronaldo to Pele or Bobby Charlton or Eusebio, never mind to start comparing politicians across a distance of more than two millennia!   However, it did make for very entertaining viewing.  Mary Beard is great!  And isn’t it nice to see a female presenter who doesn’t feel obliged to tart herself up in order to be on TV?

Julius Caesar, then.  The anti-establishment candidate.  The one who wasn’t part of the Roman political elite.  Nothing wrong with that in itself: I certainly can’t be doing with the political elite.  But, as we all know, it can sometimes get out of hand.  In Caesar’s case, that didn’t involve the sort of shift towards extremism that we’re currently seeing in parts of Central and East Central Europe; but it did lead towards dictatorship.  If we’re doing comparisons, think the 1920s and 1930s.  So how did he do it?

The Gallic Wars.  Honestly, that book is so boring.  My main recollection of it is of my Latin teacher droning on and on about it on the day on which the draw for the next round of the 1990/91 Cup Winners’ Cup was due to be made.  If the lesson finished on time, I was going to be able to whip my Walkman out of my schoolbag, put my headphones on, and hear the draw whilst on my way along the corridor to the next lesson.  Back then, draws didn’t take an hour like they do now.  But no.  She waffled on and on, and I missed the draw.  Obviously that wasn’t Julius Caesar’s fault, but it made me dislike De Bello Gallico even more than I did anyway.  Also, every time anyone mentions Julius Caesar, I think of Kenneth Williams in Carry on Cleo.  “I came, I saw, I conked out.”  “Infamy!  Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”

Anyway, to get back to ancient Rome, the Romans got De Bello Gallico in small chunks – like Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, only hopefully with rather better grammar and syntax.  Caesar, whilst he was off in Gaul and therefore away from the centre of power, sent these dispatches back and got people to read them out in the street.   Mary Beard made some very good points about how much easier it was to put forward your own view of events, especially in wartime, in the days before TV and cinema, or war photography.  It was probably the 1991 Gulf War – “The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated …” – which ushered in the era of what’s pretty much live coverage of warfare, but, even before that, pictures like the famous, horrific images of the aftermath of napalm attacks in Vietnam were making it difficult for politicians to give the impression of “mission accomplished” without any counting of the cost.  None of that for Caesar: he could say whatever he wanted.  At least that’s one thing that’s changed.  Then again, pictures can be manipulated too … but, anyway, photographic evidence was something that Caesar didn’t have to deal with.

And he came up with clever soundbites.  “Veni, vidi, vici” – “I conquered” rather than “I conked out”.  He really pioneered the use of the soundbite, and it’s a technique which is, obviously, still in use, probably more now than it’s ever been.  Having gained power, he was the first person in the West to have his portrait stamped on coins.  And he had busts of himself sent out all over the Empire – think of all those statues of Lenin and Stalin, and those huge pictures of Mao Zedong, Hitler and Mussolini.  She also suggested that he liked wearing laurel wreaths to cover up his bald patch, which was quite an amusing thought.

And he was hugely popular.  This was despite the fact that some of his actions in Gaul and elsewhere were controversial even at the time.  Mary Beard even used the word “genocide”.  Even if not that, they seem to’ve been as much about his personal ego as anything else.  What some politicians and military commanders will do because of their own ambitions and their own egos … now there’s something that’s true in every era.

And it was despite the fact that he wasn’t really a very nice bloke, and that his personal life seemed to consist of one scandal after another.  Yep. It wasn’t hard to see what sort of comparison Mary Beard was drawing there.  One comparison she didn’t make was the way he got himself appointed dictator for life, in which there’s an obvious parallel with Xi Jinping, but I think this might have been filmed before the latest political reforms in China.

Having said all of that, I thought she could have given him a bit more credit as a military commander.  You have to do that with Napoleon as well.  And he did sometimes show compassion towards his enemies.  Also, to be fair to him, the Roman political system was a corrupt mess, and it badly needed sorting out.  It’s just that, when someone comes to power promising to sort out the mess … well, look what tends to happen in any country, in any era, following a coup or a revolution.

The lesson to be drawn from a lot of this was that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  I want to credit Jon Bon Jovi with that line, but apparently (thank you, Google) it comes from a 19th century French writer called Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr.  But the main point of it was that Caesar pioneered so many of the techniques used by modern politicians, and how great his influence was.  The Julian calendar was in use across Europe until … well, the 16th century in some countries, the 18th century in Britain, and the 20th century in what was then the Russian Empire.  The terms “Tsar” and “Kaiser” both come from “Caesar”.  We still talk about “crossing the Rubicon”, or being “stabbed in the back”.  How many other people, ever, have had that sort of influence on politics and culture, and still have it after over two thousand years?  It’s incredible: it really is.  So can you really compare Julius Caesar to anyone else?   And yet much of what he did was so similar to what certain politicians do today – because he showed how to do that and how to make a success of it.

And yet he ended up stabbed in the back.  By members of the elite.  And what happened next?  Civil war.  Caesar being deified!  And one man rule.  Overthrow a dictator without having some pretty clear plans as to what’s going to happen next, and things tend to go rather horribly wrong.  Iraq.  Libya.  There are a lot of other examples, over the centuries.  You can even say England – Oliver Cromwell was worse than Charles I.  That’s Charles I, “King and Martyr”.  Nicholas II of Russia, “Bloody Nicholas”, is a saint in the Russian Orthodox church.  Then again, even well-planned political reforms can end up going horribly wrong.  I’ve often wondered what Mikhail Gorbachev makes of Vladimir Putin. Apparently he told Interfax the other day that “The situation hasn’t been this bad in a long time, and I am very disappointed in how world leaders are behaving themselves. We see evidence of an inability to use diplomatic mechanisms. International politics has turned into exchanges of accusations, sanctions, and even military strikes”.  That’s as sensible a comment as I’ve heard from anyone recently.

Anyway, back to Julius Caesar.  The Roman geezer, who squashed his nose in a lemon squeezer – sorry, just had to get that it somewhere.  Mary Beard’s main point, I think, was that Julius Caesar, more than two thousand years after his death, is still hugely influential.  And perhaps that, as much as you have to admire him for that, it’s not necessarily a very good thing.

What is good is Mary Beard.  She’s brilliant!  Studying Roman history’s fallen out of fashion.  If anyone can bring it back into fashion, she can.





Britannia – Sky Atlantic


The main thing we learnt from the first episode of this much-publicised new Sky hysterical “historical” drama series (other than that King Cogidubnus appeared to have been spirited away and replaced by Zoe Wanamaker) was that it is a very bad idea to pray to Mars (or presumably any other god/goddess) whilst on the toilet, especially if one is a bloke and therefore incapable of multi-tasking.  So doing runs the risk of being taken unawares by the enemy, dragged off, tied up, tortured and then thrown over a waterfall.  Such was the unfortunate fate of a Roman legionary from Numidia who, having been advised by his general (David Morrissey, disappointingly not playing the general with a Scouse accent) that the best way of conquering a country was to relieve oneself all over its woodlands, went off to do so, decided to offer up a few words of supplication to the god of war at the same time, and was captured by a single unarmed Celt who just happened to be lurking about.  Right.

This wondrous series is set during the second Roman invasion of Britain – i.e. not the one led by Julius Caesar (covered in Carry on Cleo with a fairly similar degree of accuracy to that employed in this), but the one 87 years later, in AD 43.  Obviously the Romans didn’t realise that things had switched from BC to AD, but that’s beside the point.  It was explained that none of the Celts had realised that the Romans, led by Aulus Plautius (the aforementioned general, who’d obviously heard about the British weather, because he was wearing a fur coat) were coming, despite the fact that the Roman army had been marching north-westwards for weeks, because they were all too busy scrapping amongst themselves to take any notice of what was going on elsewhere.  Despite this, there was some talk of making an alliance with the Gauls, apparently involving a British woman, who’d already got a British husband, acquiring a French husband as well.  Obviously bigamy is a very bad thing, but it certainly sounds a lot cheaper than paying £45 million to boost security around Calais.  However, the Gauls evidently hadn’t managed to tip off the Britons than the Romans were heading their way.  So much for Entente Cordiale.

We know from all the previews that two tribes of Celts are going to band together to try to see off the Romans, but, at the moment, they’re very much separate, which all got a bit confusing. The first lot we met, the Cantii, consisted of a lot of Druids, some men who weren’t Druids, and some women with Northern and Midland accents who bossed about the men who weren’t Druids.  I was rather concerned by the unfortunate lack of woad.  They all had white stuff on their faces, but no woad.  Anyway, they were all busy with a solstice ritual when along came the Romans, who killed some of them and took the rest prisoner.  However, one young girl was rescued by an attractive outlaw.  I’m not sure whether the idea was that the Celts all spoke Latin, the Romans all spoke ancient Brythonic or both, but no-one seemed to have the slightest trouble understanding each other.  Also, there was a lot of swearing.  I thought it was supposed to be the Anglo-Saxons who swore all the time?  Never mind.  Even worse, some of the Roman soldiers split their infinitives.  I can’t stand it when people split their infinitives.

The other Celtic tribe, the Regni, led by Zoe Wanamaker, did have woad. Hooray!  Zoe plays Queen Antedia.  Regrettably, Queen Antedia never actually existed. As far as we can make out, the resistance to the Romans was led by two brothers (supposedly the sons of Cymbeline, about whom Shakespeare wrote a play), Caratacus (no relation to the dad) in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Togodumnus.  Caratacus is sometimes identified with the legendary Welsh king Caradog, who is also supposed to have been connected with King Arthur, which doesn’t really work as King Arthur, if he existed, wasn’t around until several centuries later.  Togodumnus, more realistically, is sometimes identified with the King Cogidubnus, the one who appears in Stage 2 of the Cambridge Latin Course and is the intended victim of a plot in which Quintus, our old pal from Pompeii, gets tangled up.

Now, Cogidubnus was the King of the Regni/Regnenses. So where was he?  There is definitely no reference in the Cambridge Latin Course to a Queen Antedia.  I think we should be told.

Er, yes. Well, none of this makes very much sense.  Let’s face it, no-one really knows that much about what actually happened, other than Boudicca’s Revolt and that wasn’t until AD 60 or AD 61.  But I’m quite sure that Tacitus never said anything about anyone being captured whilst praying on the toilet.

The whole thing was an absolute load of rubbish. But, do you know what?  It was entertaining.  I was laughing all the way through it.  I don’t think it was meant to be funny, but it was.  It was one of those things which are just so bad that they’re good.  I am definitely watching the rest of series!  Bring it on!

Eight Days That Made Rome – Channel 5


Ah, this is proper old-fashioned history!   Real “1066 and all that” stuff – big characters and big events.  Eight days which Bettany Hughes deems to have been crucial in the development of the Roman Republic and Empire.  So far, we’ve had Hannibal’s last stand, the Spartacus Revolt and Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and we’ve still got, amongst other things, Boudicca’s uprising and Constantine’s conversion to Christianity to come.  Hannibal, Spartacus, Caesar … names that everyone’s familiar with.  The terms “Spartacist” (although I’m never entirely sure why so many Russian football teams have got “Spartak” in their names, even if Moscow is the Third Rome!), “crossing the Rubicon” and (to some extent) “delenda est Carthago” are still in use.  You can’t really say that about the three field system or the daily lives of medieval monks or some of the other stuff that comes up in school history lessons.  Not that fields and monks aren’t important, but start with the big names and the big events: they’re what get people interested.

And the way in which it’s been presented has been very impressive. Channel 5’s idea of historical drama-documentaries often leaves a lot to be desired, but this has been really good.  The dramatisations have been convincing and not OTT, and Bettany Hughes has done a lot of dramatic striding around across hills and visiting archaeological sites, interviewing present day historians and reading from the works of Roman historians.  It’s all been put together very well … except that the Romans are being made out to be the baddies in everything, and we haven’t even got to Boudicca yet

OK, the Romans did some rather nasty stuff. (Certain elements of Roma and Lazio’s support still do, but that’s beside the point.)  “Nasty” is putting it mildly.  Burying a vestal virgin alive to appease the gods after defeat by Carthage.  Wrecking Carthage and selling the entire population into slavery.  Crucifying thousands of rebel slaves.  They don’t tell you any of this in the Cambridge Latin Course: I bet kids would pay a lot more attention in Latin lessons if they did :-). (Or do teachers think that it would it all be too much for snowflake types?!)  But, come on, we do owe the Romans rather a lot!  Give them some credit for the good things they did, as well as the bad.  Is this just Bettany’s take on things, or is it some sort of PC anti-imperial thing?  Either way, give the Romans a break!

But still, this is turning out to be a very enjoyable series. Roman history gets rather overlooked these days.  May we have a series on the Greeks as well, please?  And preferably one on the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians as well?  Well done, Channel 5 – you don’t always get it right, but this time you definitely have done!

Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit – BBC 2


Word PressStupid title (sounds like a computer game), but an interesting programme.  I did start wondering if there was some sort of political agenda to it, but I don’t think that’s Mary Beard’s style: all the talk about refugees and asylum seekers and single currencies and so on was presumably there to try to make it seem relevant to today!

Much of this first episode was about the idea that Rome was created by its Empire rather than the other way round.  Mary Beard argued that Rome didn’t set out to build an Empire, but that it just sort of happened.  You could probably say that about Britain as well, whereas I don’t think you could about, say, Castile/Spain and Portugal.  The argument was that, whilst other city-states just went raiding and trading, Rome brought other places into its Empire, and gave their people the chance to become citizens of Rome.  I’m not 100% convinced about the first part – there were Carthaginian settlements in Spain (we all know the Barca story, even if it isn’t true!) and Greek settlements in all sorts of places – but the point about Rome incorporating places into its empire and the better-off classes, at least, having the chance to become Roman citizens is certainly very interesting.

So too was the point about Rome effectively grabbing bits of other people’s cultures!  How many Greek sculptures ended up in Rome?!  And then there was the point about the “alternative” myth of Rome’s founding, i.e. the Aeneid.  I’m not sure that it actually is an “alternative” myth, because the idea of the story is that Romulus and Remus were descended from Aeneas, so it’s more of an add-on myth, but what Mary was saying was that Rome, at the time of Virgil when it was close to the height of its power, was coming up with a founding myth involving a foreign prince.  Am I the only person who doesn’t get this obsession with being descended from the Trojans?!  You get it in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “history” of Britain as well.  I know the Trojans were supposed to be very hard-working and very honourable and all the rest of it, but, come on, fancy falling for that story about the horse!  Anyone could have seen that it was a trick!

Anyway.  The main thrust of this programme seemed to be that Rome a) didn’t actually set out to become a mighty Empire and b) incorporated other cultures rather than just conquering them.   I’m not sure that this really is “myth-busting” because I think we knew that anyway, but it was a well-presented programme and made good watching.

Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard – BBC 1


Word PressCaecilius est pater.  Metella est mater.  Quintus est filius.  Grumio est coquus.  Clemens est servus.  Cerberus est canis.  See, I am an expert on Pompeii ;-).  I really was rather put out that Mary Beard got through a whole hour of talking about Pompeii without mentioning Caecilius & co.  Has she never heard of the Cambridge Latin Course?!  Oh well.  There’s something very emotive about Pompeii.  It’s like some sort of legend, the city that was suddenly destroyed as people were just going about their everyday business, and frozen in time like a Sleeping Beauty story but without a prince to come and wake it up again.  Those plaster casts of the people who were killed by Vesuvius, at Pompeii and also at Herculaneum … it’s really is like a cross between a Greek legend and a science-fiction story, but it’s real, and they were real people.

For all the scientific advances, the questions about who these people were can’t be answered.  Mary Beard did a lot of talking about were the two women found together perhaps mother and daughter, and was the toddler the child of the young couple found close to him/her, and was the other child nearby also part of the family, and how you have to hope that they were because then at least they were all together; but no answers could be provided.  It’s so, so sad.  And … I don’t know, maybe it’s none of our business who these people were, but another way of looking at is is to think, as Mary Beard said, that we’ve got a duty to them to try to tell their stories.

The digital imaging provided more answers, and we were shown maps and plans of how Pompeii would have looked just before it was destroyed, complete with the names of some of the people who ran the important businesses of the city.  Quite a lot of talk about what went on in the baths.  Use your imagination.  Well, in the men’s baths, anyway: the women’s baths were much smaller and less grand; but, hey, at least they were there!   We also heard about the lives of the workers in the laundry, and the lives of slaves, and were shown a picture of some boys at school.  An everyday Roman city, going about its business.  There are an awful lot of ruined cities about, and they’re all very interesting to visit, but there’s something so poignant about Pompeii, just cut down one day, frozen in time.

I’m not sure how many “new secrets” were actually revealed by this programme, but it was still quite interesting to watch.  But I do wish we’d got to see the house of Caecilius.  Actually, it’s thought that Caecilius himself died during the earthquake of AD62, 17 years before Vesuvius erupted, but part of his house is still standing in Pompeii to this day.

Oh well.  For all the scientific advances, we can only speculate about who the people behind (inside?) the plaster casts were, and how they lived.  They can’t tell us their secrets.  But it’s fascinating even so.  Frozen in time.  Fascinating and tragic.