Classically Inclined

January 17, 2013

Book review: Nemesis – Lindsey Davis

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:44 pm
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I expect that a lot of people who read this blog are already very familiar with the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis – in case you aren’t, pop along to Lindsey’s website and get a flavour of what’s on offer. Falco is an informer (in the gum-shoe detective tradition) living in a Rome ruled by the emperor Vespasian; he’s done his duty in the army in Britain, came home to his mum, and then set about making a living. Through the course of the novels, the reader becomes familiar with the colourful cast of characters who populate his world. Nemesis is what looks like the final book in the series (fear ye not, there looks like there will be a spin-off!), so if you haven’t read any of the Falco books before, then come back to this post when you have!

There are a couple of reasons that I wanted to blog about Nemesis, not least of which is saying goodbye to Falco, who has been a very enjoyable companion in my reading since I was a teenager. But there were also a couple of things about the book which, oddly enough, happened to coincide with the work I’ve been doing to get the ad Polybium article up to scratch, and I wanted to draw out how Davis explores that knotty historical issue in fictional form.


December 5, 2012

Defining the Roman family

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:28 am
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I’ve been talking around the idea of the Roman family, and the idea is central to my work, but I’ve realised that I’ve never actually explained what the family is on this blog The Latin word for family is familia, but while the two words look more or less the same, familia represents a very different sort of concept – our idea of the nuclear family would have felt very foreign to the Romans. The Roman idea of familia had a primarily legal meaning, which encompassed only those blood relatives who are agnates, or related through the male line, and not cognates, or relatives through the female line. Marriage did not necessarily mean a close legal tie; if a woman married without manus, she remained in the legal control of her father and thus in his familia, not her husband’s. The consequence of this was that she would not legally be part of her children’s familia either.

Another way to define the familia was as those under the legal authority of the paterfamilias, the oldest and most senior male. This definition included the slaves belonging to a household as well as those biologically related to each other through the male line. In fact, familia can be used to refer to the slaves of a household on their own, not including any of the biological family members at all.


February 28, 2012

Film Review: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:27 am
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When you get an e-mail from your parents saying ‘did you know that this film was based on the rape of the Sabine women?’, then you don’t really have much choice but to sit down and watch it. (I had been meaning to anyway, but that e-mail was the necessary spur to push the DVD up the rental list.) The people who I’ve spoken to about it have mainly remembered the choreography, which is amazing – there is a barn-raising scene that is simply phenomenal, not to mention a number of other beautifully organised numbers. IMDB tells me this is because the men hired to play the brothers were actually professional ballet dancers and gymnasts, and I can well believe it. The songs are also pretty good, although they do occasionally stray into that trap of the musical, the song which does not appear to be serving any demand of the plot. I am particularly thinking of Lonesome Polecat, where lovesick men chop wood and sigh in the snow. The song includes the line “a man can’t sleep when he sleeps with sheep”, which apparently (again according to IMDB) only got past the censors as no sheep appeared in that particular shot.

But what I’m actually interested in, aside from the dancing and singing and general silliness (and may I add that Howard Keel makes a very fine backwoodsman protagonist, and that there is a fine collection of facial hair on display throughout), is the classical reception involved in the plot. The film is based on a story called The Sobbin’ Women by Stephen Benét, where the title obviously alludes to its classical predecessor, but a colleague informs me that it is also based on an actual event in the American West, where a group of men really did abduct women from the local town and take them up into the hills (whether they had read their Plutarch is uncertain). Their story had a lot less of a happy ending, as it seems to have resulted in a shoot-out with the parents of the women and the death of the abductors – but that wouldn’t make a particularly jolly musical, so the film plays with Plutarch instead.

The classical reception element takes a while to come through, because the plot begins with the oldest of seven brothers, Adam Pontipee, going into town to find himself a wife; he comes back with Millie (Jane Powell). While he seems to view her as essentially a household servant, she has a good influence on the all-male household (never mind the gender stereotypes here, it is the 1950s and I’ve not got the energy to deconstruct them) and attempts to civilize the rest of the brothers so that they too might obtain brides. The opportunity for their first attempts at courtship comes at a barn raising, but it descends into a punch-up between the Pontipee brothers and the men from the township, who are already pretty invested in keeping hold of the few women available.  The brothers, in true musical fashion, have been smitten by the women they have spent an afternoon impressing, and mope. Adam gets fed up and comes up with a solution – they will take their inspiration from the Romans, and just take the women they want! What could possibly go wrong? (She types, with irony.) The brothers mount their expedition, abduct the girls, there is a chase scene, and an avalanche blocks the pass so the girls are trapped on the brothers’ farm. Millie demonstrates outrage and protects the girls, but over the winter their rage softens and when spring comes we have a cheerful song about all the love and flirting going on in the barnyard. Including lambs. When the fathers come to reclaim their daughters, they don’t want to go, and the film ends with six surprisingly happy shotgun weddings.


May 25, 2011

When a thesis chapter breeds – the Stoic Exile article

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:39 pm
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Seneca's Tower on Corscia - © Ethelwulf

Sometimes, when you are writing a thesis chapter, you find yourself going off on a tangent. It’s a pretty tangent, with highways and byways and beautifully flowered verges, and you wander through it on your way back to your main point, and you think nothing of it, because it’s been part of your mental process to get where you are in your thinking about your material. Then you hand your draft to your advisor, who looks at it, raises an eyebrow, and wants to know how on earth this relates to what you said you were going to give her. Although in my case, she did it very kindly, and she was right. Chapter two of my thesis was supposed to look at the subject of brothers and the Stoic cosmopolis in Seneca’s de Consolatione ad Polybium, a really interesting treatise that gets maltreated because – well, there’s no way of getting around it, it’s a bit sycophantic. Seneca claims he’s writing to Polybius to console him on the recent death of his brother, but he writes with the agenda of getting himself recalled to Rome from Corsica, where he’s currently being held in exile. Let’s just say that he gets the tiniest bit florid, and over the years many academics haven’t reacted well to his stylistic choices.

I wanted to look at the relationships between brothers in the consolation, because my thesis was about the family. However, I ended up getting distracted by the representation of the Emperor Claudius, and how he gets described using several images that the Stoics use to talk about God. It’s all a bit complicated, as the same images are used to describe Jupiter, head of the Roman pantheon, but that’s part of the point. Anyway, I wrote a great big lengthy draft of this chapter and proudly sent it off to my supervisor; she duly worked through it and her feedback essentialy said that it was all very interesting, but wasn’t this chapter supposed to be about brothers and the ad Polybium rather than Stoicism and the ad Polybium? At which point I re-read what I’d written, groaned, and chopped about four thousand words out of the manuscript. They were there because they were trying to take over my chapter, and turn it into something else. It wasn’t that what I wanted to say about Claudius and the Stoic god and all my other shiny ideas weren’t worth saying – it was just that they didn’t actually contribute towards my overall thesis about how families work in Seneca.

I knew, however, that hanging on to those four thousand words would come in handy. (more…)

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