Classically Inclined

January 2, 2018

Myths & Monsters – now on Netflix

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 8:29 am
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Happy new year! I know I’ve been a bit absent from this blog, mainly because I’ve been channeling most of my energy into researching and writing the Monster Book. I’m not expecting much to change as far as that’s concerned for the next few months, but hopefully by the summer I’ll be writing a bit more regularly.

In the meantime, I’m delighted that the television series I did some interviews for as a talking head, Myths & Monsters, is now available on Netflix! Here’s the trailer:

I’ve only watched the first three episodes so far, but I’ve enjoyed them as good, accessible, interesting television with some great visuals. It’s also been quite enlightening in terms of my first go at doing television work; the series consists of six 45 minute episodes, and over the course of three interviews they must have that much footage of me on my own! So I’ve been very interested to see what’s happened in terms of taking that much material and condensing it into a programme alongside other academics and the series presenter.

Anyway, regardless of whether this looks like your cup of tea or not, I hope you are all refreshed after the break and wish you all a joyful 2018.

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August 24, 2016

What would Cato have made of the Great British Bake Off?

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 2:11 pm
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It’s a Wednesday towards the end of August, and that can only mean one thing – the British viewing public are gearing up for the return of the Great British Bake Off to their screens this evening. If you have missed this landmark in British cultural history, it is essentially a baking competition where twelve bakers compete in a marquee over who can bake the best version of whatever fiendish concoction Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have come up with to vex them, while Mel and Sue (now so well known they no longer require surnames) try to get as much smut into their commentary on proceedings as possible. One evening this week, after I reminded my husband that the annual baking fest was about to revisit our screens, he came up with a great test of true cultural value – what would Cato the Elder have made of it all?

For those unfamiliar with Cato the Elder, who lived during the middle of the Roman Republic, there were two things he was particularly famous for: his unabated hatred of Carthage and his commitment to traditional Roman virtues, exemplified by his personal behaviour and his actions when he held the office of censor. During this period, a pair of censors were appointed every five years to review the membership rolls of senators and knights, and remove those who were deemed unsuitable; the review of Cato and his co-censor Valerius Flaccus was particularly severe. One good source we have for Cato’s life is the Parallel Life that Plutarch wrote about him; while it was written many years after Cato’s death, and in all likelihood a lot of popular stories about Cato less than completely grounded in fact have found their way into the narrative, it’s a good way to think about how the Romans defined quintessentially Roman behaviour. Even though a lot of his behaviour seemed unpopular, taken together they created a figure who was respected for his “wise leadership, sober discipline and sound principles” (Life 19). So what would Cato have made of Bake Off?

Why are these people cooking? Our first instinct might be that he would disapprove of freeborn citizens baking at all – ancient Rome was, after all, a slave-owning culture, and surely that’s what slaves were for. Cato was, however, a bit different in that respect. Despite his own position of authority, he worked alongside the labourers at his farm (Life 3), and bought the fish and meat for his own dinner at the market (Life 4). So perhaps the idea of people wanting to demonstrate their grasp of skills his fellow Romans might have deemed below them would not have shocked Cato.

The ‘new men’: in an odd sort of way, Cato may have found himself having a love-hate relationship with the particular genre of reality television that Bake Off belongs to, where one wins based on actual hard-won talent and skill rather than popularity. As a new man, or novus homo, Cato himself had no prior familial advantage to give him a leg-up into public life, so he may have found the ability of someone to enter the public eye through demonstrating mastery of a particular skill (and so gain glory within the state) weirdly appealing. At the outside edge of possibility, I can almost imagine a scenario where he might argue that given the debased state of our political system, finding alternative ways to demonstrate one’s excellence was the only possible route for a sensible person to take, but I’ll admit that’s pushing it. (more…)

September 2, 2014

Classics on television: Plebs

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:07 am
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I wrote this post last year and then forgot to post it… as the second season has been announced, I thought now was as good a time as any to post it. Enjoy!

I’m sure most of you picked up on the ITV2 show Plebs that finished its first season recently. I’m not planning to say a great deal about individual episodes – Juliette Harrison has done that much more eloquently and systematically already – but I did want to make a few observations, not least because this is the first Roman-based television series to be done for a while in UK television. It’s playing with a couple of traditions of British comedy – when the series was first announced, parallels were drawn with Chelmsford 123, while in execution it definitely acknowledges its debt to a particular form of British awkward comedy serials like Gavin and Stacey and The IT Crowd. So, how successful was it?

plebs-itvTime to invoke the first rule of classical reception – this is not about accuracy and whether the slum hovel that the boys rent is an accurate representation of slum hovels in ancient Rome. Plebs made no secret of the fact that it saw itself as primarily being about what would happen if you took modern people and stuck them in Rome – it’s not interested in doing the sort of thing that even Spartacus: Blood and Sand does in exploring the life of a gladiator, sex, brutality and all (and also far fewer intentional laughs, but I digress). It’s not particularly interested in getting historical accuracy – but it does capture some very Roman attitudes, and once the series gets going it starts to engage with some elements of historical fact in interesting ways.

That ‘once the series gets going’ is quite important, to me at least – I found that I enjoyed the series a lot more once the pace had settled down and the writers had got the bodily function stuff out of the way. Humour is one of those very personal things, I know, and I don’t mean to seem prudish, but scatological jokes have always been a negative for me, and I did get perilously close to not finishing the series after That Scene With The Togas. However, it seems as if the writers were having a bit of an insecurity moment, and once they’d got past that phase, the jokes started to feel funnier.

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July 9, 2013

Classics on television: Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses

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

March 12, 2012

Inspector Morse and Classical Red Herrings

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:49 am
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It may come as a surprise to some of you to discover that I had never, prior to this year, watched any Inspector Morse. In retrospect, it’s something of a surprise to me as well, particularly as I’m discovering that I’m rather partial to a good dose of murder mystery (Poirot, Miss Marple, Mrs Bradley, Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane et al), so long as there isn’t very much blood and gore (which puts things like CSI Right Out). I think I had always assumed that Morse fell more into the blood and guts category, for no particularly good reason, but G called me on this and said that we must watch some Morse.

We started from the very beginning of the series, because that’s the proper way of doing this sort of thing – and I cannot tell you how glad it made me to discover that the very first episode of Morse is stuffed full with classical reception! And with classical reception of a particularly sneaky tint, as I shall hitherto divulge.

The plot revolves around the suicide of a woman called Anne Staveley, known to Morse since she used to sing in his choir and he had expressed some romantic interest in her, only to be rebuffed as there was another man in her life. She had a rather strange relationship with a young student called Ned Murdoch, a musician by inclination although hypothetically a lawyer by degree, and most certainly an addict by nature. The post-mortem discovered that Anne was pregnant, and had had a child previously; conversation with Anne’s mother revealed that this child had been born some twenty years previously and had been given up for adoption. There had been some suggestively-shot scenes and an ambiguous phone-call earlier in the episode that suggested Anne and Ned were romantically involved; Ned blinds himself while he suffers particularly severe withdrawal symptoms. When Morse finds a copy of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex by Anne’s bedside, it seems the solution to the crime.

Of course, Morse is utterly wrong (I shan’t give the plot away, and there’s another death in there tangential to this that confuses matters), but the fact remains that the plot of Sophocles’ play becomes a crucial factor in the unfolding of the episode, to the extent of Morse explaining the details to his deputy Lewis whilst in an Oxford pub (surely not the first time this has happened). What’s really interesting about this is that it inverts the normal ideas that are associated with classics. As I’ve said before, knowing classics and particularly knowing Greek is normally a short-hand for social privilege and intellectual excellence – an education which exposed one to the classical world produced the civil servants and politicians of most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Power is in the hand of classicists. But in this first episode, Morse sets a trend for being bloody-minded and ignoring these conventions – and shows how assuming that classics somehow possesses a privileged sort of knowledge does not always lead you to the right answer. Given Morse’s own cavalier attitude to convention and following the rules, there’s something rather delicious about the series declaring its loyalties by lampooning this particular sacred cow right at the outset.

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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