Classically Inclined

August 20, 2013

Book review: Coalescent – Stephen Baxter

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:12 am
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I picked up Coalescent because it was recommended in a panel at Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space – mind you, so were plenty of other books, but Coalescent got to the top of the queue because it felt like a good choice for summer holiday reading. I’m not going to discuss it from an SF perspective, mainly because I don’t know the genre well enough to comment on how it tessellates with those expectations. What I found particularly interesting was the way that Baxter uses Roman Britain and late antiquity as a space for constructing a science fiction narrative which has consequences which spread into the distant future.

Warning: here be spoilers.

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June 5, 2013

Film review: Centurion (2010)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:28 am
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This film forms a group of ‘recent films on Roman Britain’, the others being King Arthur (2004), The Last Legion (2007) and The Eagle (2011). There are some interesting resonances starting to develop between these films, but each of them uses the Roman frame to do something rather different as well.

2852-FINAL_CENTURION 70x100op 50 %.inddThis is the first film I have watched for a while where I have felt the hand of the director shaping the material quite as heavily as I did here. The director in question is Neil Marshall, whose work was summed up by mrph2 on Twitter as “visit Scotland, die horribly”. I hadn’t realised that this was a Neil Marshall piece, but watching it, I felt that it had resonances with two particular films – Valhalla Rising (2009), a particularly dreadful Scandewegian piece with Mads Mikkelsen which tries to be Aguirre but fails, and Dog Soldiers (2002), a Marshall film about squaddies becoming werewolves whilst out on a routine military exercise in Scotland. The parallels with the latter were, unsurprisingly, particularly strong, given that the basic plot elements of squaddies, Scotland and people who don’t play by the rules all feature heavily.

But this brings us to one thing that particularly stood out for me in the film, which was its depiction of the squaddies in the Roman army as – well, squaddies. They drank a lot, pissed up against trees, generally did all sorts of squaddie-esque things. Now, there may be some ways in which this is an anachronistic reading of modern soldierly behaviour back into the past, but on the other hand, chatting to one of my colleagues about his research into the Roman army has made me realise that we have plenty of evidence for the sort of behaviour which Marshall puts on screen. There’s a tenderness to the depiction too – at one point, all the soldiers who have survived a Pict attack are sitting in a cave sharing a bit about their backgrounds, and it’s all a bit male-bond-y and reminding us that trained vicious killers are people too – so there’s a nice balance in representing these people are human rather than as either scum of the earth or alternatively as systematically heroic and noble. I can’t think of an example which has bothered to fill in the characters of the average soldier, as opposed to the commanders, as well as this film does.

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May 20, 2013

The Roman Baths at Bath

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:11 am
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It has been ages since I went to visit the Roman baths at Bath. I think the last time was a school trip when I was somewhere around year nine – certainly not for a while. (I don’t count the very nice afternoon I spent there a couple of days after returning from the US for a friend’s hen do, as the purpose of that visit was strictly to visit the Pump Room rather than the baths themselves.) I recently had the opportunity to go along and visit the baths properly on my travels, and I thought now was as good a time as any to refresh myself with the evidence for the baths that we have. I’ve been trying to incorporate as much material from Bath into my teaching as I can – this is part of a broader pedagogical commitment to using as much Roman Britain evidence as possible, partly for my own professional development and partly to incorporate provincial evidence alongside more mainstream Roman and Italian approaches. Last year’s Religion, Myth and Ritual course, for instance, made good use of Bath as a site that demonstrates syncretism (the combination of local and Roman deities, as in Sulis Minerva), and also the expansion of Roman religious structures into the provinces. It has turned up less in this year’s Roman Life Course teaching, but I wanted to see the site for myself and decide what I made of it.

The Great Bath; image courtesy of Chris Gunns.

The Great Bath; image courtesy of Chris Gunns.

The site is well presented and preserved – the free audiotour, narrated by Alice Roberts, also gives you plenty of light background information on what you are seeing (although I will say I found it rather less informative than I would have liked – something I didn’t feel with the audiotour of the Royal Academy’s Bronze exhibition, even for commentary on the Greek and Roman items). The visitor is quickly given a sense of the scale of the complex, how little of it is actually on display compared to how much is buried beneath the streets of modern Bath, and the sort of activities that would have taken place there. The intersection of bathing and religion is a fascinating one, particularly given the provision in the bathing complex of a pool of water pumped directly from the sacred spring (courtesy of a surviving lead pipe similar to the one found at Carleon); the reconstruction of buildings from the temple complex also suggest that the practice of incubation took place here. This is the posh name for when people seeking an oracle or healing slept overnight in a small purpose-built structure in the temple courtyard; they would then report their dreams to the local priest, who would interpret them. The act of sleeping in the god’s domain overnight was also itself supposed to act as a cure.

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April 8, 2013

Chesterton on Roman Britain

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:49 am
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I’ve just finished reading G.K. Chesterton’s Short History of England. I don’t intend to say much about it here, but I did very much like this passage on the Roman heritage that underpins our world:

Every now and then there is discovered in modern England some fragment such as a Roman pavement. Such Roman antiquities rather diminish than increase the Roman reality. They make something seem distant which is still very near, and something seem dead that is still alive. It is like writing a man’s epitaph on his front door. The epitaph would probably be a compliment, but hardly a personal introduction. The important thing about France and England is not that they have Roman remains. They are Roman remains. In truth they are not so much remains as relics; for they are still working miracles. A row of poplars is a more Roman relic than a row of pillars. Nearly all that we call the works of nature have but grown like fungoids upon this original work of man; and our woods are mosses on the bones of a giant. Under the seeds of our harvests and the roots of our trees is a foundation of which the fragments of tile and brick are but emblems; and under the colours of our wildest flowers are the colours of a Roman pavement.

April 24, 2012

Film Review: The Eagle (2011)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 12:29 pm
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On the Friday afternoon of the Classical Association conference, rather than go on an excursion I decided to stay behind and watch The Eagle (2011), in a showing which at times resembled one of the offerings of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The Eagle is one of four ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ films which have come out in the last ten years – the others are King Arthur (2004), The Last Legion (2007) and Centurion (2010). The Eagle has a literary pedigree, in that it purports to be the film version of Rosemary Sutcliff’s popular book The Eagle of the Ninth, which I have yet to read (so this review will include very little about that aspect of the film). Tony Keen’s theory is that the four films also all aspire to be westerns – but again, I have insufficient knowledge of the western genre to make much of a comment on that, and I await Tony’s further development of his theory with interest.

But what I do have is a bit of a critical eye and a heavy dose of cynicism, on which these thoughts are based. First off – the cinematographers needed to be told when to back off with the whole light/dark/sun/shade thing. Particularly as symbolic of Marcus Flavius Aquila’s battle with his own sense of identity and failure and coming into the light from the darkness. This led to a number of scenes with faces half in shadow looking broody, shots of trees and shade falling attractively, people walking from darkness into incredibly bright light, shots framed so that the sun nearly obliterated everything in them – you get the idea. It didn’t help that the sun-god/Mithras figure object of worship thing at the start of the film was also pulled into this nexus of meaning to add a vague wifty spiritual overtone to it all. I don’t want to sound philistine – I’m all for meaningful cinematography and sensitive mise-en-scène. But that does include knowing when to stop.

The second thing to point out is the whole negotiating identitytheme, done with about as much subtlety as the light/dark theme. There are multiple elements of this – Roman vs. Britain, free vs. slave, father and son, soldier vs. civilian, soldier vs. politician. There’s a lot in there about the importance of naming and speaking (who gets to name whom, the significance of the trinomina when Aquila is passing as a slave among the Seal People, the fact that only Esca can speak whatever it is that’s passing for Universal Briton), which all links together the idea of naming as identity. Aquila spends a period as his slave Esca’s slave once they’re over Hadrian’s wall, thus illustrating the ‘walk a mile in another man’s shoes’ cliche rather too tidily, which I think is the most heavy-handed part of the theme – but it fits into a general pattern in recent films set in the ancient world with a male protagonist (i.e. most of them) of a young man at a transitional period working out where he fits in the matrix of the world. In this particular case, Aquila has to cleanse his family name from the shame at his father losing the eagle of the Ninth Legion up beyond the border, but that’s used as a hook upon which to hang a whole load of other contemporary identity issues.

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February 16, 2012

Classics on television: Bullets, Boots and Bandages 1

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:42 am
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I sat down the other day with the BBC iPlayer and watched the first episode of Bullets, Boots and Bandages: How to Really Win at War. The official Twitter account of Vindolanda had mentioned that the fort was going to feature on the program, and I thought it would be interesting to see the material presented from a military historian’s perspective (in this case, the military historian is Saul David).

The program was very interesting, and I did get a different perspective on the Vindolanda evidence, especially from David’s progression to more modern examples. This episode’s focus was on the supply chain – so how you keep troops fed and watered, and generally in healthy conditions. The comparanda in question were Henry V’s French campaign; Wellington’s campaign against Napoleon; and the trenches of the First World War. (And also a communications disaster which I have completely forgotten the name of.)  There were two things that particularly jumped out at me that I thought deserved comment.

The first is the difference between Vindolanda and the rest of David’s case studies. Vindolanda was a settled camp, with a fixed location. That’s part of the pleasure of Vindolanda, being able to see the footprint of the permanent camp and get some solid evidence about the infrastructure of military installations on the provincial border. Getting a sense of how big rooms are, for instance, tells you a lot about the kind of living conditions the number of people billeted there would have endured (something David did not mention, despite praise of Roman glass windows).  However, all the other case studies were about armies on the move, shifting their location through enemy countryside, and how you would get provisions to them in good order. Dealing with supplies for a fixed spot would be a very different operation and, as my colleague Simon Esmonde-Cleary pointed out to me when we discussed the program earlier this week, meant that legions could send soldiers out on requisitioning missions all over the empire and have supplies brought back to them rather than vice versa.

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August 30, 2011

The Roman port at Caerleon

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 5:29 am
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Over the bank holiday, I went down to Cardiff to visit some friends of mine who are getting married in September, and to deal with some associated admin in my role as head bridesmaid and troublemaker. I had thought to myself “gosh, isn’t it a shame that I am going to be in Wales and not have an opportunity to go over to Caerleon to see the dig that has turned up a Roman port on the banks of the Usk, but I can’t possibly ask my friends to change whatever their plans are to humour my professional interests”. Imagine my delight when it turned out they had already decided to take me for a visit! Sadly I didn’t think to bring my camera with me so I don’t have photographic evidence. I should also mention that the dig has its own blog, with plenty of photos and narrative description, and it’s well worth clicking through to visit it.

As we went on the Sunday of the bank holiday, the site was properly set up for vistors, with plenty of volunteers and students from the University of Cardiff to show people around, explain selected finds and, erm, dress up in appropriate costume (come on, you can’t have an open day for this kind of thing without having someone dressed up as a soldier, there’s probably a law against it). The target audience was of all ages, with plenty of activities for the children, and good guided tours around some of the most interesting trenches for adults. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Luke, a second year at Cardiff, who acted as our guide – he was lucid, enthusiastic and did an excellent job of explaining what the team had found and why it was important.

And what have they found? If you’ve been following the coverage, you’ll know that they’ve found a port complex that appears to be part of a larger military settlement in this area. Just up the hill from the dig site is the Caerleon amphitheatre, which I’m shocked to say I didn’t know existed until visiting it, and a legionary camp; what the University of Cardiff thinks they have uncovered is the administrative buildings of the port which would have run alongside the River Usk. It’s a bit difficult to envisage how the site would have looked, because there’s now a blooming big hedgerow running alongside the river that blocks a direct view to the Usk, but we got a bit of an idea from standing on top of the amphitheatre to look out over the landscape. (more…)

July 25, 2011

Visiting the Billingsgate Roman house and baths

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 4:25 am
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I was very fortunate  to have a chance to visit the Billingsgate Roman house and baths at the weekend, which the Museum of London opened up to celebrate the Festival of British Archaeology. One of the things I’ve been looking forward to about being back in the UK is the chance to actually visit Roman sites, which tend to be a bit thin on the ground in New York. I jumped at the opportunity to visit this site, as it’s usually completely inacessible to the public. That’s because it occupies the basement of a particularly undistinguished office block on Lower Thames Street, just next to the river. You wouldn’t even know that the remains were there, if it weren’t for the posters advertising it outside the building (removed by the time I took the photo on the left, although you can still see the open door that leads down into the basement).

The site actually has quite a remarkable recent history. The “significant” bit, the bath house, was discovered in 1848 when the Victorians were putting up the Coal Exchange; as well-educated men of the period, they recognised that they’d got something important in the basement, and when the legislation for the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 went through Parliament, the bath house was one of the sites included under its protections (along with Stonehenge, which isn’t bad company to be in). When the Coal Exchange was demolished in the late 1960s and the current buildings put up, the presence of the bath house meant that Proper Archaeology had to be carried out into the surrounding area; it was those works that uncovered the footings of the house, and that ensured the remains were put into a basement that enabled them to be accessed and conserved. There was talk, before the financial crash, of demolishing the present building and putting something up that was less – well, concrete, and that had a purpose-built space for the remains, but obviously that’s not going to happen any time soon. The site is open for viewing, from what I can tell, about two or three times a year; the next opening will be in September, I believe, so I’m feeling jolly lucky that I happened to be in London this weekend.

The house itself has a pretty interesting history too, although I have to admit that I think it’s a bit of a sad one, mainly because I’ve recently been reading a lot about reconstructing the history of domestic spaces in Pompeii. That work relies a great deal on the detritus of everyday life such as dropped hairpins, lost bracelets and rings, forgotten children’s toys and so on. There appears to have been none of that sort of thing found at Billingsgate, which on the one hand means it’s a fascinating site for the history of building, but strangely missing evidence of human habitation. (more…)

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