Wednesday 19 June 2019

Representing Rome by L.J. Trafford

 My post this month is inspired, in part, by a happening on a Roman Facebook group. A member had posted an Edwardian painting of a female Roman slave and this set off quite a debate. One poster had strong views, saying that Edwardian paintings depicting ancient Rome had no place on the group. We should study the primary sources on Roman slavery, not consider a painting painted 2000 years after the event. Which got me thinking about how Rome is represented, how different societies at different points in history have taken parts of ancient Roman life and depicted it.

That the times you live in influence how you see ancient Rome is illustrated by this jaw dropping sentence in Jerome Carcopino’s Daily Life in Ancient Rome:
 "The practical good sense of the Romans, no less than the fundamental humanity instinctive in their peasant hearts, had always keep them from showing cruelty towards their slaves. They had always treated their slaves with consideration." 

There’s also a chapter entitled “Feminism and Demoralization” . Which is quite a corker and contains such gems on women as:
 “Were not content to live their lives by their husband’s side but carried on another life without him at the price of betrayals and surrenders”.


“If the Roman women showed reluctance to perform their maternal functions, they devoted themselves on the other hand, with a zeal that smacked of defiance, to all sorts of pursuits which in the days of the republic men had jealously reserved for themselves.” 

Jerome is very much of his time. Though, it should be added, a good read brimming with information.


A search on Internet Movie Database for Ancient Rome set movies since 1950 brings up 47 titles. Here’s the top 20:

1. Gladiator (2000)
2. Caligula (1979)
3. Pompeii  (2014)
4. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
5. Spartacus (1960)
6. King Arthur (2004)
7. Ben-Hur (2016)
8. Life of Brian (1979)
9. Ben-Hur (1959)
10. Centurion (2010)
11. The Eagle (2011)
12. Cleopatra (1963)
13. History of the World: Part I (1981)
14. The Last Legion (2007)
15. Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra (2002)
16. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
17. The Arena (1974)
18. Quo Vadis (1951)
19. Asterix and Obelix: Mansion of the Gods (2014)
20. Asterix at the Olympic Games (2008)

Caligula - even this acting talent can't save it.
The first thing to be noted about this list is, don’t bother watching Caligula. Really don’t. It’s terrible and all the naked bodies and soft porn content cannot lesson the impact of quite how bad it is. The second thing that’s noticeable is the religious aspect: The Passion of the Christ, Ben Hur (both versions), Life of Brian, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Quo Vadis are all about Rome’s contact with Christianity. Just outside the top twenty are The Robe and King of Kings which are similarly about Christianity.

Also noteworthy is the number of films that are predominantly about the Roman army: Centurion, The Eagle, The Last Legion, King Arthur. Maybe at a push Spartacus and Gladiator too, since both feature excellent battle scenes involving the Roman army.

The ending of Gladiator is a good example of what we, the viewers, find acceptable. Historically Commodus was at least 87% more odd than depicted by Joaquin Phoenix (see my post here for quite how odd he was) and he was strangled by a wrestler named Narcissus rather than killed in the arena by a hunky Gladiator. For a feature film both are acceptable changes in my view. Would audiences have sat through 2 plus hours of Joaquin Phoenix decapitating ostriches and mixing excrement in nice Derek Jacobi’s dinner? That Commodus is killed by Russell Crowe, whose journey we have followed throughout the film makes perfect narrative sense, given what’s gone before. 

Russell Crowe sadly demised, the writers whip out a happy ending with nice Derek Jacobi declaring Rome is now a Republic and there shall be no more emperors. Now this, obviously, is rubbish, Rome continued to be ruled by emperors for a good two centuries after Commodus’ death. But it is an ending palatable for the modern audience. Russell Crowe has created a democracy by his death. What actually happened was a bloody civil war and a new emperor installed in Rome. The writers have decided that the audience won’t accept another autocrat taking over as a happy ending. 

Let us take a look at historical fiction set in Ancient Rome. Ploughing through the Waterstones best sellers in Historical Fiction, I found: Simon Scarrow, Ben Kane, Robert Harris, Anthony Riches, Lindsey Davis, Conn Iggudon, Robert Fabbri. Again there’s an emphasis here on the Roman army, alongside Harris’ political drama and Davis’ mysteries.

With my writer hat on, setting a fictional tale in the Roman army makes perfect sense. You can move your characters around to exotic locations, a set piece is at your fingertips with an easily inserted battle and your characters can be set against adversity, with drama created in their reactions. They make for a cracking read.

Walk into any bookshop and a book cover with the figure of a legionary/centurion/other rank of soldier staring off into the distance is shorthand for a story about ancient Rome. The army, legionaries and battles are what we like to read about ancient Rome.

Roman Concerns
As a member of many, many Roman history Facebook groups I can verify that the most posted subjects tend to be: favourite/least favourite emperors and generals/battles. What doesn’t feature anywhere is what is the best kind of dinner party. Which is odd because this is one of the primary concerns of the poet Martial and letter writer extraordinaire Pliny the Younger. Martial in particular frets about getting a dinner invitation at length: 
“I angle for your dinner invitations (oh the shame of doing it, but I do it!)”

“Our dinner invitations are one-sided: When I ask you, you usually come; yet you never ask me” 

And then when he receives one spends a lot of time slagging off the food, host, guests and entertainments:
“Why should I put up with your second-best menu when you invite me out?” 

It makes you wonder whether the world we depict of Rome would be recognisable to the ancient Romans themselves? Would they see their everyday concerns and experience represented?
Which brings me to another ancient Roman set film: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Originally a stage musical by Stephen Sodheim this was made into a film in 1966 staring, among many marvellous actors: Michael Horden, Michael Crawford, Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers. What is interesting about A Funny Thing is that it is based on the plays of Plautus, which were written in the 2nd century BC. This is not a representation of Rome written two thousand years later: this is a play written by a Roman, about Romans, for an audience of Romans. Thus it gives us an insight into the actual concerns, worries, joys and humour of ancient Romans.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a musical farce detailing the efforts of the slave, Pseudolus to set his young master up with the girl of his dreams, rescue said girl from the brothel next door and ensure she is not claimed by her solider fiancee who is on his way to claim her as his bride. As in any good farce there are endless complications, misunderstandings and great gags:

Hero: For us there will never be happiness.
Philia: We must learn to be happy without it.

Or the classic:

If I've told you once, I've told you a hundred times; do not fan the girls when they're wet! But you'll never learn, you'll be a eunuch all your life. 

What struck me the first time I saw A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, one dull Sunday afternoon when I was a teenager, was the representation of the Roman army. The first view of the Roman army is when they march behind their General Miles Gloriosus, as he belts out the song “My Bride”. They are pelted with cabbages and other missiles by the locals, and jeered at. To someone whose previous exposure to Roman history was one of great reverence for their army, this was quite revolutionary. 

A Roman comedy mask as would have been used in performances of Plautus
Mosaic with Comedy Mask (Old Slave); Villa in Centocelle/Rome (Italy); 2nd century AD
Att: Anagoria

Indeed the lyrics of My Bride poke fun of the soldier conqueror image:

Make haste! 
I have no time to waste: 
There are shrines 
I should be sacking, 
Ribs I should be cracking, 
Eyes to gouge and booty to divide. 
Bring me my bride!

I, Miles Gloriosus, 

I, slaughterer of thousands, 
I, oppressor of the meek, 
Subduer of the weak, 
Degrader of the Greek, 
Destroyer of the Turk, 
Must hurry back to work. 

The braggart soldier is a stock character in Roman comedy. He boasts about his great courage and fighting, though we never know if these tales are true or not. Clearly he is a recognisable type to the audience, an audience which would contain a sizeable number of those who had served in the army or had relatives who were serving.

Other characters include Pseudolus, the wily slave, another stock character, who is the chief aid to his young master in his pursuit of love. Which is an interesting look at how the Romans viewed their slaves, not necessarily as beasts of burden (though Roman comedy is full of jokes about slaves being flogged) but as trusted confidants and helpers.

What is great about A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is that it's not about big battles or big events or bigged up emperors, the like of which us modern audiences lap up. Like Martial's dinner party woes, the film is about small things; a boy who has fallen in love, a slave who is worried about displeasing his mistress, a henpecked husband with a stern wife, a boasting soldier. 
To my mind it is the most accurate depiction of Ancient Rome ever filmed.
Now, who wants to co-write a farce about a boastful soldier trying to obtain a hot dinner party invite with the help of his wily slave?

L.J. Trafford is the author of the four emperors series of books which are, of course, all about big battles, big events and bigged up emperors.


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

My immediate thought went to TV in the 1970's 'I Claudius' for serious drama and 'Up Pompei' for burlesque comedy with Frankie Howard. Oh and then there was a Carry On film too wasn't there? The title escapes me! Carry on Caesar? with Kenneth Williams declaiming 'Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me!'

LJ Trafford said...

Carry on Cleo! A favourite of mine.

Andrew Preston said...

Know what you mean. When I was 16, at school, immersed in Latin translations and Roman history..., they all seemed to be about Caesar's Gallic Wars, or Pliny and Pompeii.

Not a single word about the Roman orgies, not one.

LJ Trafford said...

I know Andrew! What is that all about! I found my old school text books and for Romans I drew plans of Roman army camps and coloured in a little map of europe with the provinces.
Nobody mentioned eunuchs or orgies or Nero pretending to be a bride and 'marrying' his freedman.

Savvy said...

Excellent post! So nice to see something on the REAL life of Romans. I want to invite you all to a magnificent dinner party!! Side note, though: I’m unclear what part of “the romans treated their slaves well” surprised you. In fact slaves were considered to be part of the family. They were buried alongside the family, often married into the family, ate the same food as the family. It wasn’t like what we consider Alavert to be today. All races mixed freely—so long as one spoke Latin, one could buy freedom and become a citizen. They were actually pretty darned enlightened folks.