strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
Very neatly, [ profile] wig tagged me for this meme on LJ, and TAFKAK tagged me for it on Facebook on the same day last week. So I shall answer it in both places, but obviously LJ lends itself better to nice formatting and having space to make some actual comments about the books. I have taken the concept of the books 'staying with me' seriously, and thus listed ones which both meant a lot to me at the time of original discovery and to which I have returned regularly since. They are listed (as best as I could remember) in the order in which I first encountered them.

L. Frank Baum (1900), The Wizard of Oz
This stands for the whole series, of course. I was certainly quite obsessed with them by the age of six, and indeed a picture of me reading one of them to my friends on that birthday can be seen here. The 1939 film was important too, of course, and I'm pretty sure I had seen it by that age, but there were more of the books, with far more wonderful characters and adventures than the film could deliver. Dad used to read the books to me as bedtime stories, I used to read and re-read them myself, and of course there was a great deal of dressing up, playing at being characters from the books and so on with the very friends shown in the picture, and especially [ profile] hollyione. A lifetime love of fantastical stories was to follow...

Alison Uttley (1939), A Traveller in Time
Did loads of other people read this as children? I don't hear it mentioned very often as a children's classic, but it was another big favourite of my childhood, and has literally stayed with me in the sense that I still have my copy of it. I haven't done that for many of my childhood books - though the Oz series are another exception. Doubtless one of the attractions all along was the fact that the main character, a young girl from the 20th century, is called Penelope. But also, time travel! While staying in a Tudor manor house, she repeatedly finds herself slipping back to its early days, and interacting with characters from the reign of Elizabeth I. Clearly at the roots of my love of both fantastical time travel stories, and the real-life dialogue between present and past.

Bram Stoker (1897), Dracula
Ha, I hardly need to explain this one right now, do I? See my dracula tag, passim, for details. First read, as far as I can tell, in early 1986, when I was nine years old, on the back of having seen the Hammer film the previous autumn. Left me with a love of all things Gothic, which has waxed and waned but never really left me ever since. As the wise [ profile] inbetween_girl once said, you never really stop being a Goth. At best, you're in recovery. Or perhaps lapsed, would be another way of putting it.

Diana Wynne Jones (1977), Charmed Life
Initially read via a copy from the school library aged 9 or 10, this came back and 'haunted' me with memories of a book of matches, a castle and a strange magical man in my early 20s. By then, the internet was advanced enough to have forums where I could ask what the title of the book I was remembering might be, and to deliver an answer within a few hours. So I bought a copy, swiftly followed by copies of the other Chrestomanci books, and then copies of multiple other DWJ books (see my diana wynne jones tag for details). As an adult, I can see that the real appeal of DWJ's writing lies in the combination of her light yet original prose style, imaginative vision and sharp understanding of human interactions, but as a child I'm pretty sure it was all about the unrecognised magical powers and multiple interconnected magical worlds. As per the Oz books, I really love that stuff.

Gene Wright (1986), Horrorshows: the A-Z of Horror in Film, TV, Radio and Theatre
In 2010, Mark Gatiss presented a documentary series called A History of Horror, during which he held up a book about horror films which he had owned since childhood, and explained how it was his personal Horror Bible, which had opened up to him the wonderful world of the genre. From the reaction on Twitter, it instantly became clear that everyone who had grown up loving horror films before the emergence of the internet had also owned such a book, and this is mine. I bought it at a book fair in about 1987 or 1988, devoured it greedily, and have been faithfully ticking off every film in it which I have seen ever since. Of course, the internet has long rendered such books obsolete, and insofar as this one was ever comprehensive at the time of original purchase, it certainly isn't now. So it is utterly meaningless to tick off all the films in it, as though somehow the end goal is to tick off every single film in the book - at which time, I don't know, a fanfare will sound and a man in a rhinestone suit will pop out to tell me I've won a prize, or something? But I still add a tick each time I see a new film from within its pages anyway, because heck I have been doing so for 25 years, and I'm not going to stop now. Besides, it's not like I care about horror films made after 1986 anyway (I struggle to care about those made after 1976, TBH), so it doesn't matter to me that it is enormously out of date.

Douglas Adams (1979), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
First read c. age 11, and read at least another 8 times since. I know this because I have kept a tally of how many times I read it in the front of the book - classic geekish behaviour, of course. Once again, it's basically all about travel to wondrous other worlds, but this time instead of being magical (Oz, Chrestomanci), historical (A Traveller in Time), or supernatural (Dracula, everything else in Horrorshows), they are in space! It's not actually like I discovered adventures in space for the first time from Hitchhiker's, because of course I was also watching Doctor Who on a regular basis in parallel with all of this reading material, with which of course Hitchhiker's is intimately linked. But yeah - given everything else which has already appeared on this list, it is no big surprise that I loved Hitchhiker's.

C. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. AD 120), The Twelve Caesars
And now my list radically changes tack, because having established that I love stories about the fantastical, the rest of it is made up of books which mark key stages in the emergence of my academic interest in the ancient world. I am not, of course, unaware that this in itself also basically boils down to yet another interest in a wondrous other world, albeit one which actually existed in this case. Really, the mode of engagement is very similar - we have little snippets of information about the Roman world (texts, objects, places), just as we have little snippets of information about fictional fantasy worlds (texts, screen portrayals, merchandise), but there is also so much we don't know, and are at liberty to extrapolate from what we do. Plus the similar-yet-different qualities and the opportunity to compare and contrast can let us think about our own world in ways that just don't open up if we only think about it directly. And so I found a way to apply the thought-patterns and approaches I'd been developing from early childhood to something which grown-ups thought was admirable and serious, and which it was possible to acquire prestige and eventually even money through studying. As for Suetonius himself, he is here because he was one of the earliest ancient authors I really came to feel familiar with and fond of, mainly during A-level Ancient History. Tacitus may well be clever and sharp, but there is always a judgemental, sanctimonious undertone with him that I don't very much like. The things which interest Suetonius, by contrast, make him seem so utterly human - but there are also all sorts of clever structures and allusions to discover in his text on close reading, which together make him incredibly rewarding. I once literally hugged my Penguin copy of Suetonius to my chest as a sort of talisman when feeling alone, upset and in need of comfort. I can't really imagine anyone doing that with Tacitus.

J.B. Ward-Perkins (1991), Roman Imperial Architecture
One of the first books I bought about ancient material culture (as opposed to texts), in the context of a module on Roman architecture which I did in (I think) my second year as an undergraduate at Bristol. While strictly about buildings rather than cities, it nonetheless includes a lot of material about how those buildings fitted into the urban landscapes where they were located - unsurprisingly, since Ward-Perkins himself was really interested in cities first and architecture second, and wrote one of the earliest English-language books on the subject. So it is to this book which my interest in Roman urbanism can really be traced, and I still turn to it occasionally when I need to get to grips with a new (to me) city.

Christopher Hibbert (1987), Rome: the biography of a city
This one is from my third year at Bristol, and the best undergraduate module I ever did - Responses to Rome with Catharine Edwards and Duncan Kennedy, which was all about post-Classical responses to ancient Rome from the medieval period to the present day. I sat in those classes falling in love with Rome, and then went home to pore through this book and the wonders within. I still return to it in order to refresh my memory of medieval myths about the city's ancient past, Grand Tourism or fascist appropriations, all of which I have needed to do in the past few years.

Greg Woolf (1998), Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul
And finally, the book which I consulted most frequently while writing my PhD thesis. It had utterly redefined thinking about the relationship between Rome the state and its provincial populations, killing off tired old paradigms of 'beneficial imperialism' (think: What have the Romans ever done for us?) for good, so would have been important no matter what province I had used to look at the relationship between Roman ideas about the urban periphery and the reality on the ground in a provincial setting. But since I had chosen Gaul as my own main case-study anyway, it was gold-dust. Fifteen years later, it remains at the forefront of scholarly thinking on the topic, and thus still features regularly on my module reading lists, amongst my recommendations to research students, and indeed in the bibliographies of my own published works.

I'm not tagging anyone, because pretty much everyone in the world has done this meme already by now - but feel free to take this post as a prompt to do it yourself if you haven't and want to.

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strange_complex: (La Dolce Vita Trevi)
This is the sequel to The Rich Are Different, which I reviewed here and which translates the story of Julius Caesar's dictatorship and death, followed by Octavian's rise to power, to the finance houses of New York in the 1920s and '30s. This second volume takes up a few years after the last left off, and follows events equivalent to those which happened in ancient Rome between 23 and 2 BC - or, in the story, between 1949 and the late 1960s. It is long and complex, running over more than 600 pages and with six sections each narrated by a different point of view character: Sam Keller (Agrippa), Alicia (Livia), Cornelius (Augustus), Sebastian (Tiberius), Scott (Iullus Antonius) and finally Vicky Van Zale (Julia). We learn a great deal about all of them, not to mention many others, and there are multiple sub-plots, emotional crises and personal revelations along the way. I'm not going to try to summarise the whole thing, but will instead concentrate on how it works as a (loose) Augustus novel, and as a reception of Roman history.

I will start, though, by mapping out how the characters in this novel match up to their Roman equivalents )

Cornelius / Augustus: public success and private unhappiness )

Vicky / Julia: finding happiness in a parallel universe )

Howatch's historical and literary canvass )

All in all, then, I was extremely impressed with this novel, just as I was with its predecessor. Its approach to the basic Augustus-story at its heart may be more or less conventional, but only within a pretty small pool of novels or screen portrayals which attempt to do this at all. Meanwhile, the translation to the world of New York banking loosens the tie to its historical foundations just enough to give Howatch room to do some interesting and original things with the source-material, while the wide range of historical and literary allusions develop the story considerably further. In fact, that aspect of the book reminded me sometimes of the way Diana Wynne Jones uses similar material, such as the story of Tam Lin in Fire and Hemlock or Donne's poem about a falling star in Howl's Moving Castle. In short, there is rather more to this novel than the family saga story which most of the internet seems to have it down as, and I am looking forward to putting this review on my real-name blog to help balance out that impression.

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strange_complex: (Corpus Agrimensorum colonia)
Ludicrous though this may seem, I am still working through my 2011 book reviews. So here's a review of a book I read a year ago. Yay!

I bought this after reading an enthusiastic review of it on [ profile] nwhyte's journal, and was glad I had done so. It tells the lively, funny and yet also tragic tale of Zuleika, the daughter of Sudanese immigrant parents living in Roman London at the time of the emperor Septimius Severus. Spoilerific plot summary )

I was a little apprehensive before I started reading about the fact that the book is written entirely in verse, but I didn't need to be. This isn't the dull, pretentious poetry of school anthologies, but lively rhythmic stanzas which rattle along, sparkling with wit and infused with Evaristo's love of language and detail. A fairly typical extract runs thus )

That gives a pretty good idea of how Evaristo captures the feeling of a multi-ethnic empire, blending loan-words from Latin, cod-Latin and several other European languages into Zuleika's English, which itself expresses her unique blend of a street-urchin upbringing and the education which her husband has paid for. The balance varies from character to character, so that Zuleika's Sudanese parents speak with a more obviously exotic accent than she does, her bar-keeper friend Venus is a cheerful cockney who calls her 'ducky', and even the emperor himself uses the halting African accent which the Historia Augusta claims he retained into old age. And modern London is all part of the mix, with it night-life, its people and its place-names recognisable amongst the dinner-parties, amphitheatres and atria of the Roman city. It works well - not over-done or obscuring the differences between the two cultures, but helping to bridge the gulf between present and past, and revealing the cultural differences between the Romans and us all the more strongly for putting them alongside the similarities.

Evaristo wrote this book during a period as writer-in-residence at the Museum of London, and it's clear from the funeral instructions which Zuleika delivers to her life-long friend Alba as she dies that her character was inspired by the occupant of the lavish Spitalfields burial found in 1999. Actually this was recognised pretty much from the start as belonging to the early fourth century AD, rather than the early third when Evaristo's story is set, and DNA testing has also revealed that the Spitalfield lady's ethnic background was probably Spanish rather than Sudanese. But the third-century setting allows Evaristo to bring Zuleika, such a characteristic product of the Roman empire's capacity for enabling ethnic mingling and social mobility while still perpetuating huge social inequalities, face to face with the emperor at the centre of it (himself a product of those same systems), in a way that a fourth-century setting would not. And if the Spitalfields lady herself was not actually an African immigrant who had achieved high social status, then the Ivory Bangle lady from York shows that she had contemporaries on these isles who were.

Highly recommended for anyone who loves Roman history, the city of London, well-developed female characters and / or deftly deployed language.

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strange_complex: (Cicero history)
(This is another instalment in me trying to catch up on unwritten book reviews from 2010. I took a few notes on this one at the time, but they're pretty sketchy, so this review is probably quite unbalanced.)

After reading the first of Harris' Cicero books, Imperium, and being pretty underwhelmed by it, I resolved not to bother reading any more in the series. But I guess the prospect of the young Octavian (later Augustus) appearing in the final volume proved too much of a temptation. Eventually, this series is going to come under the remit of my interest in receptions of Octavian / Augustus, and I want to be ready when it does.

In the meantime, this instalment mainly covers the year of Cicero's consulship and the Catilinarian conspiracy in 63 BC, but Harris also follows up on the consequences of all that for Cicero in the form of his exile in 58. The title of the book, which refers to a purificatory sacrifice performed once every five years, thus refers to the span of time which it covers - though I'd personally have preferred the much prettier alternative term, quinquennium, myself.

Most of my impressions of the first book held true for this one as well. Tiro remains an effective narrator and Terentia a surprisingly-plausible (if minor) secondary character, while the politics is generally deftly handled. But most of the characters are fairly two-dimensional, and the events described lack emotional weight.

Catiline's conspiracy did make for a slightly more exciting narrative than the previous instalment, while I felt that the smells, sounds and topography of the city of Rome were nicely evoked. As for Harris' Pompeii, it was pretty clear that he had written this book, too, with a map of late-Republican Rome in front of him, and had thought carefully about how the spatial relationships between (for example) Cicero's house and the Forum would affect the behaviour of his characters, as well as how the experience of being in the city would change with the seasons and the time of the day or night. I also recognised direct echoes of several of the relevant primary sources, including Plutarch's Caesar and Cicero's own Pro Rabirio, Pro Murena and In Catilinam I, all of which were very effectively used.

But Harris remains fundamentally second-rate as a novelist for me, and for all his (obvious) careful research, a fair few historical errors crept in as well. I noticed that Cicero's daughter, Tullia, was "all veiled and dressed in white" for her wedding (so what of the famous flame-coloured veil?), while the senate seems to have regular daily meetings and a parliamentary-style recess (in fact, it met in this period on an ad hoc basis, whenever summoned by one of the magistrates). I also felt that Cicero seemed far too well aware in advance of the potential consequences of his decision to have Catiline's supporters imprisoned without a proper trial. I can see how his concern would serve as valuable dramatic foregrounding for what does happen later on as a result of this, but I'm pretty sure he just thought he was being decisive and heroic about it at the time, and I would have preferred to see his shock and humiliation at being completely unexpectedly attacked for this by Clodius instead.

In short - not a complete and utter waste of paper, but to be honest I'd still recommend just reading Plutarch's Life of Cicero instead.

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Weekend doings

Monday, 8 March 2010 11:52
strange_complex: (La Dolce Vita Trevi)
As for the weekend, I spent Saturday sleeping in blissfully, and then lounging around in my dressing-gown on the sofa, drinking coffee, writing about Doctor Who and finally watching the end of Dollhouse. Even the Sci-Fi channel had clearly more-or-less given up on this, as last weekend they stopped bothering to show it one episode a week, and just broadcast the three remaining episodes in one blast after midnight on Saturday. I couldn't watch it at the time due to preparing for my Newcastle paper, but recorded it, and watched the rest over the course of the week.

It was very much about getting the plot finished in the end, to the extent that I found myself caring less and less about most of the characters with each subsequent episode, even though I had two seasons of investment in them behind me. I could have done without the programme's one portrayal of an emerging lesbian relationship appearing as such a very token, last-minute gesture, and it also didn't make much sense to me that those characters who wanted to retain the changes which they had experienced since the mindwipe technology was first applied needed to stay underground for an entire year to escape the potential effects of Topher's 'reset' pulse. All the same, it's nice to see it all wrapped up, and I genuinely did like the way that the relationship between Adelle and Topher was portrayed in the final episode.

Sunday dawned all bright and springy, so I leapt out of bed and cavorted around the house to 1920s music, cleaning and vacuuming, before heading over to Harrogate to spend the afternoon with [ profile] kissmeforlonger in the Steam Baths. This was something I'd never done before, and I really enjoyed it - partly for the experience in itself, but of course also because of its Roman resonances.

The décor was a luxurious Victorian take on Turkish / Moorish architecture: all carved wood, coloured tiles and more-than-semicircular arches. But there were elements which were definitely reminiscent of Roman baths, such as marble benches and in some rooms mosaic under-heated floors. I'm not sure whether these were straightforwardly preserved in the Moorish tradition, or re-integrated into the mix when the idea of steam bathing was re-discovered by northern Europeans. The big difference from Roman bathing is that most of the rooms did not have pools for complete immersion in the water - there was only one, for cold plunging. But the sequences of rooms - warm, hot, steamy and cool - were very much in the Roman tradition. And I made damn sure that I gave myself a good dunk in the cold pool at the end, because this is one of the aspects of Roman bathing which modern observers find hardest to grasp - "What? They sat around in increasingly warmer rooms all afternoon and then jumped in a cold bath? Were they mad?" Actually, though, it was (as [ profile] kissmeforlonger had promised me), very invigorating after all that lying around and sweating, and nothing like as much of a shock to the system as I'd expected, given that I was already so very thoroughly warmed through.

We went to a ladies-only session, which was course again entirely in keeping with Roman practices. And, on a modern level, it was very lovely to just sit around alternately chatting to one another, and listening to the voices of the other women around us lazily reverberating around the tiled walls. There was a lot of just lying there and letting the warmth lull us into a delicious trance; and afterwards when we came out we found that we were both almost too sleepy to think, and just wanted to go home and go to sleep. Which was largely the point, I think.

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strange_complex: (Urbs Roma)
Though obviously of relevance to my subject, I view this as part of my leisure reading. In August, [ profile] nwhyte established [ profile] reading_gibbon, an LJ community based around reading weekly chapters from Gibbon's magnum opus, and discussing them in a reaction post. I decided that this was a golden opportunity to get better acquainted with one of the seminal works of Ancient History as we know it today, so have been reading and commenting along as we've read. We intend to read all six volumes in due course (so there's still plenty of time to join us if you'd like!), but given that each volume was originally published sequentially as an independent instalment, I think it is reasonable enough to treat volume I as a 'book' and write up an overview reaction here.

My previous exposure to Gibbon has included a short selection of extracts (mainly from chapters 1-3) released as part of Penguin's 60s Classics series in 1995, and occasional choice extracts quoted by more modern scholars. A typical example of the latter tends to run thus:
"Famously, Edward Gibbon, inspired by the secularist thinking of the Enlightenment, blamed Rome's fall in part on the fourth-century triumph of Christianity and the spread of monasticism: 'a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity'." (Bryan Ward-Perkins (2005), The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, p. 40).
This had given me a rather warped idea of the nature of Gibbon's work, though. In a context like that, the quoted extract is bound to be one in which Gibbon is articulating an argument, but when I began reading him properly I was surprised to find that (in volume I at least) the ratio of argument to narrative in his prose is much lower than I was expecting.

This shouldn't really have been a surprise, though, if I'd thought about the state of Classical scholarship at the time when Gibbon was writing. A generation before him, people still didn't really see any point in trying to write narrative histories of the ancient world. They thought that, since ancient writers like Thucydides and Tacitus had already done that, then all you needed to do if you wanted to know what had happened was to read them. Instead, most publications about the ancient world tended to be uncritical compilations of what the ancient sources had to say on particular themed subjects, like Basil Kennett's The lives and characters of the ancient Grecian poets (1735), or (illustrated) encyclopedias like Bernard de Montfaucon's L'Antiquité expliquée, et représentée en figures (1719-24). This was antiquarianism, and its adherents were concerned to catalogue and admire the ancient world, but it had not yet occurred to them to criticise or analyse it.

Gibbon represents the emergence of a quite different approach. He is one of the first narrative historians, and as such takes a more critical view of his sources than his predecessors in an attempt to achieve a more or less comprehensive and reliable account of ancient actions and events. So of course his text needs to contain a great deal of narrative before he can get on to making any arguments, because nobody before him had really tried to write a continuous account of the period he was dealing with. He is doing that for the first time, and setting out to analyse the factors which gave rise to the behaviour and events which he is describing. It is a truly monumental achievement, especially when viewed in the context of the time when it was produced.

He is almost deceptively modern in his approach, in fact. Sometimes I found myself criticising him in our weekly discussion posts for taking sources at face value - but of course that is exactly what most of his contemporaries were doing, and I'm always quite happy to make due allowance for them because of the scholarly context in which they were writing. It is just that Gibbon is for the most part so far ahead of his contemporaries that I sometimes forget when he was writing, and expect him to meet standards which plenty of Classical scholars were still not meeting in the earlier half of the twentieth century. Some sources were not as easily available to him as they are to us now - there were no systematic catalogues of coins or inscriptions, for example. But considering the tools at his disposal, he was actually doing an amazing job. He tried to draw on coins and inscriptions when he could, and overall his use of literary texts is actually pretty thoughtful and perceptive.

Of course there are things which reflect the climate of his time, though. Like most white men of his day, Gibbon was both racist and sexist, in ways which also map very closely onto the attitudes he was encountering in his sources. He also clearly believes that it is possible to know exactly what happened in the past, as long as the sources are read carefully enough, since his prose lacks the phrases such as 'probably', 'may have', 'this suggests', etc. which modern historians use to signal the fact that they are merely offering a plausible interpretation, rather than a definitive and irrefutable account of events. But that too was a practice which was only seriously challenged in the 20th century, so it is no great surprise to find him subscribing to it.

Meanwhile, his overall prose style is, to me, the biggest reason for reading his work. He uses more commas than most modern readers will be used to, and some editions of his work (though not all) preserve antiquated spellings. But once you've got the hang of all that, his prose is rich, stylish and extremely readable. In particular, he has a brilliant line in very precise and biting sarcasm, as well as a rather amusing tendency to use his footnotes as a vehicle for snarks at contemporary fellow-scholars. Plenty of examples of both have been nicely picked out by [ profile] nwhyte in the [ profile] reading_gibbon community, so I will leave interested readers to browse through them there.

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have made it through the entirety of this first volume without the weekly posts to keep me supplied with targets to aim for as I went along, so I'm very grateful to [ profile] nwhyte for putting that system in place. Whether I'll make it through the entire six volumes, I don't know - I fear I may lose interest after the fall of the western empire. But I'm definitely staying on board for the time being.

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strange_complex: (C J Cregg)
I can't help feeling today rather like the Italian allies apparently felt on the eve of the Social War in 91 BC. They fought alongside the Romans on campaign, and were therefore profoundly affected by Roman foreign policy. Rome's enemies were their enemies, and Rome's campaigns were their campaigns. But they had no vote in Rome, and thus no say in the decision-making process that lay behind declarations of war.

Velleius Paterculus describes their situation thus:
In every year and in every war they served with twice as many foot and horse as the Romans, and yet were not given the right of citizenship in the very state which had reached through their efforts so high a position that it could look with contempt on men of the same race and blood as if they were outsiders and foreigners. (Roman History 2.15.2)
Their reaction was to rebel against Roman power, causing warfare throughout Italy: an action which in fact resulted in them getting exactly what they wanted, since the Romans realised that extending the vote to the whole of Italy was a small price to pay for peace and stability on their doorstep.

I'm not saying anything of the sort is either desirable or necessary now - it would be far better if the United States simply stopped throwing its weight around so much, and dragging the rest of us into its ill-thought-out wars. But I empathise with that sense of frustration. Today the world's future is being decided by the electorate of one nation. And all the rest of us can do is stand there crossing our fingers.

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strange_complex: (Leptis Magna theatre)
And so, welcome to the 'all about my holiday' entry. I'm going to keep it pretty minimal, actually, as I have a lot of work I need to get on with now. But, in simple list form:

This is what we did )

And these are the pictures )

I have, incidentally, submitted both of the purple Sshhh bag pictures shown above to the library's bag travel map, along with the signpost one from Belfast, since that one seems to have been the eventual victor in my poll.

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strange_complex: (Corpus Agrimensorum colonia)
I bought myself a copy of CivCity: Rome in mid-April, but hadn't dared play it until I knew I had some proper free time to devote to it. This weekend, I've been finding out how wise that policy was!

Late-night gaming )

What I thought of it )

On dialogue between gamers and academics - or the lack of it )

So the right sort of noises are beginning to be made on the academic side, and the interest is clearly flourishing on the gaming side. We just need to stretch our hands out - that - little - bit - further...

Past and present

Thursday, 16 March 2006 17:34
strange_complex: (Latin admirable sentiment)
In November, I made a passing comment in my LJ about using the word 'fuck' in one of my lectures. I'd done so, perfectly legitimately, because it cropped up in an accurate translation of some Pompeian graffiti I was covering in a lecture on literacy. My comment was tongue-in-cheek, but the point I was making in the lecture was serious. I was showing the class that writing wasn't just used to display educated erudition in the Roman world, but as a means of expressing the simple pleasures of the flesh: much as it is on walls today.

Now, I've learnt that a High School teacher in America was recently suspended for using what I presume must have been much the same material in a Latin class.

I realise that this is a one-off case, and it's clear from the link above that plenty of parents associated with the school were shocked and horrified by the suspension, and fully in favour of their children encountering the material which had prompted it. But that this should have happened at all is to me a sad reflection on the current cultural climate.

I believe that learning history, and the languages which help us to access it, is about broadening our horizons. It's about coming into contact with cultures whose values may not be in keeping with our own, and / or encountering aspects of human experience which we may not have encountered before. The knowledge so gained allows us to assess, understand and re-evaluate our own lifestyles and beliefs. It gives us the chance to ask whether, just because we have always done or believed X, that is necessarily the best available option, given that others prefer, or have in the past preferred, Y. And it helps to reveal to us the great wealth of variety which has always characterised, and will always characterise, human interests and experiences.

The same, in fact, could be said to apply to almost any avenue of intellectual exploration. Scientia est potentia, no? But it is history that is at stake here, so forgive me if I restrict my focus to that topic.

Does it harm a High School Latin student to learn that the inhabitants of Pompeii paid for sex, and then wrote about it cheerfully and explicitly on the walls of their city? If that was the truth of their experience (which it was), then, I believe, no. In fact, to try to pretend otherwise is willingly to apply blinkers which surely have the potential to cause far more harm than the use of the word 'fuck' in a Latin lesson ever could. The Romans were not emotionless automatons who spent all day sitting on pedestals, composing lofty poetry or designing aqueducts. They fucked, they shat, and they enjoyed a good knob joke: just as we do today.

If we cannot accept their humanity, how can we ever learn to accept - or to manage - our own?
strange_complex: (Claudius god)
Because, when looking up primary texts to illustrate a lecture on Augustus' use of imperial freedmen, you find gems like this:

Cassius Dio, Roman History 54.21.2 (on the year 15 BC) - 'Not only had the Gauls suffered much at the hands of the Germans, but much also at the hands of a certain Licinus. And of this, I think, the sea-monster had given them full warning beforehand; twenty feet broad and three times as long, and resembling a woman except for its head, it had come in from the ocean and become stranded on the shore.'

Presumably this 'sea-monster' was actually some kind of whale. But yes, of course: when a whale gets beached on your shores, you just know financial exploitation (Licinus' main crime) is bound to be around the next corner. Good old Dio.
strange_complex: (Urbs Roma)
Happy 2111st birthday to everyone's favourite embodiment of dignitas and humanitas: Marcus Tullius Cicero!

Meanwhile, if I am a little quiet myself at the moment, the start of term tomorrow is the reason. Back on full form by the weekend, I swear.

strange_complex: (All roads lead to Rome)
Initial reaction - I liked it a lot. Good characterisations, plenty of interesting details to look out for in the sets, and accessible without being too patronising. Sure, there are some historical liberties being taken. If little Octavius ever got captured by Pompey's agents in Gaul, the event was so successfully hushed up that there's absolutely no trace of it left anywhere, in any of the historical records. But it developed his character, and also helped to clarify the enmity between Pompey and Caesar.

I'm pleased, in fact, to see Octavius taking such a central role. In fact, I'd go as far right now as to say that it looks to my eye very much as though the whole production has really been conceived from the start as his story. Not Julius Caesar's, not Mark Antony's. It starts at the very point when the young Octavius is just beginning to become actively involved in the affairs of his family and the politics of Rome. Of course, his story involves some major secondary players, and I'm sure they will have their moments. But in terms of the grand arc of the production, it looks to me as though it is his life story that will form the central peg on which all others hang. And so it should, because he is amazing.

It's a pity, that being the case, that they've got his name wrong. He didn't officially become Octavian(us) until adopted by Julius Caesar, and he didn't use the name himself even then. And a pity that we didn't get to see his first real major public appearance in Rome - the delivery of the funeral oration for his dead grandmother, Julia. But I suppose that that would only have worked for an audience familiar with the device of the Roman funeral oration, and who wants to hear a long boring speech anyway, when they can see him nearly getting killed in Gaul?

On the plus side, his costume was excellent (a bulla! and a toga praetexta!), his physical appearance convincingly like his later portrait images (as indeed was the case for most of the major characters) and his characterisation just perfect. The nerdy kid with a vicious streak, already unnervingly au fait with Roman politics and keen to manipulate and control. Oh yes, all just ready to flower into a most excellent Augustus.

I look forward to seeing more: of him, of the sets, and of the fine details of HBO's Roman world.

Edited 03/11/05 to correct mistake about Julia.


Monday, 24 October 2005 21:48
strange_complex: (Claudius god)
My sister has just been telling me about an upcoming TV series which is certainly of interest to me, and I believe will be to others on my friends list. Entitled simply 'Rome', it is a co-production between HBO and the BBC, and is coming to the latter on Wednesday November 2nd at 9pm.

Judging from the webpages, it's not likely to be overflowing with historical accuracy. (Historical events, maybe, but that is not the same thing). I think what we have here is epic costume drama, with plenty of sex and violence: 'I, Claudius' with a big budget, perhaps, or maybe something more along the lines of other recent American mini-series such as Cleopatra (1999), Julius Caesar (2002) or Imperium: Augustus (2003) (which, coincidentally, I've just finally managed to win on Ebay - rah!).

But it does look like a feast for those keen on Classical Receptions issues. Why, even from the BBC website alone, I note that it is already inserting itself firmly into the epic tradition with statements such as: "Rome boasts the largest standing film set in the world, comprising five acres of backlot and six soundstages at the world-famous Cinecittà Studios" (has there yet been a Classical epic which didn't?) and "Rome used a peak of 40 horses in one scene, and on the largest day of shooting, 750 actors/extras were used for the scene of Caesar's triumph." (Cast of Thousands! See it with your whole family!). You can also already buy T-shirts and baseball caps with the series logo on them. How long will it be before there are Cleopatra perfumes and Nero boxer-shorts to add to the Christmas list?

My sister seemed to know on the phone that three series are planned in all, and also not only that the first series would be about Julius Caesar and his conflict with Pompey (which is clear from the website), but also that the second would be about Octavian's struggle with Antony (which I can't find online support for, but I'm sure she wouldn't have said without good reason). Presumably the third will be about the actual reign of Augustus, then. In that case, pity they didn't start screening it all earlier, as I could advise my Augustus students to watch the second and third series, and also cover them in the last two lectures of their course, which will be about Augustus in film. Ah well. I, Claudius and Imperium: Augustus should suffice between them.


strange_complex: (Default)

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