Classically Inclined

July 9, 2013

Classics on television: Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 2:42 pm
Tags: , ,

Given that I’ve yet to post my thoughts on Plebs (whoops), I thought I’d try to write something about Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses in a timely fashion. This is the first foray into television (as far as I am aware) by Professor Catherine Edwards of Birkbeck, and was screened over three weeks on BBC4. The aim of the series was to get women’s history out from under the shadow of the male stories of empire that dominate the standard historical fare, possibly with a bit of poisoning and adultery thrown in as an titillating extra. Edwards instead told the story of empire from the point of view of the women involved – their struggles, their choices (or lack of them), their motivations. For the first two episodes, it felt well done but familiar to me, as I think quite a lot about Roman imperial history from this sort of perspective; the third episode, however, made me see how unusual this format was. That episode focused on Caenis, the concubine of the emperor Vespasian; Queen Berenice, the lover of Titus before he became emperor; Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus and mother of the beastly Caracalla; Julia Soaemias, mother of Elegabalus, and her sister Julia Maesa, mother of Alexander Severus; and Helena, mother of  Emperor Constantine, later saint. As anyone who pays much attention to my research knows, my sandpit tends to stay within the first centuries B.C. and A.D., so the material from Julia Domna onwards was much more unfamiliar to me – which is why the positioning of women centre-stage made such an impact. I’ve always heard the story of Elegabalus as one about teenage decadence and rebellion, but in the context of a matriarchy begun by Julia Domna, the narrative of power struggle made a lot more sense and took on a very different tone.

Another thing that struck me was how the source material was handled. First, the problems with the sources were frankly discussed, particularly the problems about women simply dropping out of sources until they’re considered relevant, and the responses of later writers to active Julio-Claudian women. Many of these writers try to put women back in their place by demonising them – for instance, the stories of Livia as poisoner, made so much a part of popular history by Robert Graves’ I Claudius, come from writers like Suetonius and Tacitus who frankly disapprove of women having public power. Edwards’ discussion of the sources both acknowledged this veneer of gender policing, but also uncovered a believable set of motivations and aims for each woman; for instance, her analysis of Agrippina the Elder’s actions after the death of her husband Germanicus made me think about them in an entirely new way.

The other point about sources is that a program of this nature inevitably relies heavily on textual evidence. Unlike Mary Beard’s Meet The Romans, there’s little in the way of concrete material to look at – a couple of imperial portrait busts, the wonderful Julia Domna doll which cheers me up whenever it appears on television, but that’s about it. This means that the series included a number of shots of, for instance, tourists wandering around the Roman forum, or generic images of Stuff in galleries – but the brilliant thing (from my perspective) was that this didn’t actually matter. The story of the women was sufficiently compelling; that the story came mainly from texts rather than artefacts didn’t get in the way of good story-telling. As someone who works on text-based stuff, to see that it is possible to communicate concepts and ideas engagingly without having artefacts to fall back on is quite reassuring. (Not that artefact-based programs are bad, far from it, but I’m thinking about what you do with Seneca here.) There was the occasional spot of actor-in-toga pretending to be a historian, but the sections of text chosen to be read were all ones which lent themselves to dramatic emphasis. As a final thought, I also liked the fact that each of the three historians who appeared on screen had a glass of wine on their desks – obviously to fortify themselves after writing about these terrible, unconventional women.

These women deserve to have a higher profile among the public based on their achievements, not just the scurrilous tales told about them (although, let’s face it, they’re good value too). Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses has given them more visibility and more credibility – let’s hope this is the start of a wider trend.



  1. I loved this series, and I agree, the relative lack of physical material didn’t matter at all. I mostly treated it as radio and pottered about while listening, and wandered over to look at the screen whenever it sounded like they might be showing something from the period (I really liked the Julia Domna pot from York).

    Comment by Eilidh Nic Sidheag — July 9, 2013 @ 9:01 pm | Reply

  2. I loved Mary Beard’s Meet the Romans, but the fact that this is mostly based on literary sources – and that the limitations of the sources are actually discussed – intrigues me. Maybe I’m just unlucky, but I’ve never seen much in the way of a good documentary done on women in the ancient world that doesn’t sensationalise their parts. I will definitely have to look out for when this airs on one of the cable channels in Australia.

    Comment by Carla Schodde — July 18, 2013 @ 4:05 am | Reply

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