Classics on TV
The much-trumpeted HBO/BBC joint production reached the UK last week (November 2005). I really wanted to love it: it's well-acted (Kenneth Cranham is pure Pompey), well-shot and there's excellent pace throughout - never a dull moment in fact. But as usual with such offerings, the accumulation of small things which jar and irritate cancel out the merits. I'm not going to bang on about the sex and the showering in bull's blood - these are the sort of scenes which must be assumed to be obligatory in any Roman epic - despite the complete lack of evidence that such things ever occurred, if it's Rome, there must be an orgy (or two or three). Fair enough - film-makers have to live. What is inexcusable is the total perversion of the known historical record; and they are dealing with one of the best-documented periods in all history. Gaius Octavius was born in 63 BC (Cicero's consulship). Episode 1 of Rome is set in 52 BC. Octavius - anachronistically called Octavian which he did not become until his adoption by his great uncle Julius - sets out alone on a magnficent white charger to visit said great uncle, fresh from his triumph at Alesia, in Gaul. He may well have delivered a speech at his father's funeral at the age of 12, precocious brat that he was. But how can we have him riding off to Gaul at the age of 10 or 11? Ludicrous. Homer at least had Odysseus hang around for 7 years with Calypso, so that Telemachus would be old enough when his father finally met him in Ithaca. And the Oedipal relationship with sex-queen Atia is equally absurd - Octavius lived with his grandmother(Caesar's sister) from the age of 4 , and after her death with Marcius Philippus. No more.
- Nero was framed
how current events affect history! Nero - for so long one of the world's
greatest mass-murderers - along with Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot - has
been recently undergoing retrospective rehabilitation. Not long ago
he would have been more likely to have been compared with Bin Laden:
now he's more of a Bush - a victim of terrorism. A Channel 4 documentary
(based on the work of Professor Gerhard Baudy of Konstanz University)
claims that the great fire of Rome in 64 AD was not Nero's doing, but
perpetrated by evil fundamentalists. The 1st century AD Al-Qaida was
a revolutionary cell of extremist Christian fanatics - who, like their
21st century counterparts, detested the only superpower of the time,
and believed they were doing God's work in giving Armageddon a helping
hand. Because Christianity ultimately triumphed in Rome, its apologists
were able to rewrite history, and put all the blame on poor old Nero.
And Tacitus (originator of the "fiddling while Rome burns" cliché),
though not a Christian, was a puritanical Republican - hence his eager
slander of Nero in his lurid account of the fire and its aftermath (300
Christians tarred and set alight to illuminate Nero's gardens for his
crepuscular strolls). Personally I've always believed the fire was an
accident (Juvenal says how common fires were) - and I never rated the
alternative theory: Nero, the aesthete, as a sort of Prince Charles
who so loathed the architectural mess of ancient Rome that he burned
it down to make room for his much more tasteful Domus Aurea.
- Top Spinners
In a programme called "A Brief History of Spin" broadcast tonight, the
Oxford Historian Felipe Fernandez Armesto awards the second prize for
the greatest spin doctors of all time to Gaius Maecenas, publicist to
the emperor Augustus. He manipulated his patron's image so successfully
that few outside the ranks of ancient historian realise that the man
who "found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble" (not a
bad sound-bite) began his career as a world class mass-murderer. Forget
Ted Sorensen and Pierre Salinger, forget Peter Mandelson or even James
Carville - this guy could have made Pol Pot into Mother Theresa (and
who did her publicity?). [Leviathan, BBC TV September 25
- "I see the Tiber foaming with much soap"
Filming began last week in Rome of a 13-part soap to be called SPQR.
It promises a story of "betrayal, lust, class conflict, corrupt politicians,
rigged elections, tax-evasion and unmarried girls becoming pregnant."
Rumours that newly-unemployed ex-ministers in the UK Tory Party have
been taken on as script consultants have been hotly denied. The show,
which will have 168 characters and a budget of $10 million will save
on set-construction by using existing locations. The Appian Way, Colosseum
and Baths of Caracalla are believed to be conveniently nearby. In a
sense this will only be soap returning to its roots: the original 70s
BBC series I Claudius was generally admitted to
have inspired Dynasty. [report in The Times May