Review– Roman Empire: Reign of Blood

Salvete, readers!

In my last post, I mentioned that I finally cracked and got Netflix. What did I watch first, you ask? Did I go to Stranger Things? The Crown? The Expanse? A Series of Unfortunate Events? Daredevil? Jessica Jones? One of the many shows which demonstrate we are living in the golden age of television? Oh my, no. Me being me, I typed ‘Roman’ into the search box, and this led me straight to Roman Empire: Reign of Blood. Ooh, I think, Netflix takes a shot at Roman historical drama! Netflix has a Midas-like effect on TV shows, right? They can tell any story they want, free from the constraints of network television. Surely this was going to be a different take on Commodus’s story? They wouldn’t just repeat a bunch of lazy Hollywood tropes, would they?

Heh, heh, heh. Silly Past Julian.

Basically, Roman Empire: Reign of Blood follows the Roman emperor Commodus from his boozy adolescence to his rise to power. Comparisons to Gladiator are inevitable; it features many of the same historical characters. The show is a ‘docudrama,’ alternating between scenes of fictional dramatization, interviews with various talking heads, and sequences in which vast swathes of story are narrated by the venerable Sean Bean. Given that Sean Bean dies in every movie, I can only assume the narrator was crushed by a vending machine on his way out of the studio. It’s an interesting idea to merge documentary and drama, but by trying to appeal to fans of both genres it fails to please either.

The problem is that by relying on narration and interviews to carry so much of the story, the viewer never really gets the chance to get to know the characters. The series doesn’t show us who these people are so much as it tells us. We’re told in the narration, for example, that Marcus Aurelius is a great philosopher. But we never see this—not in the pilot at least. As a piece of historical fiction, I have my issues with Gladiator, but the way the writers worked lines from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations into his dialogue was a clever way of telling us he was a philosopher. Here we’ve just got to take Ned Stark’s word for it. The drama scenes feel unfinished. Just when we might get sucked in, it cuts away to somebody talking at us. It would have been far more effective to do either a documentary or a drama, but not both simultaneously. Of course, I’m not sure they had the budget to tell the story as a drama. I can’t help but admire the tenacity of the film-makers as they to make everything look bigger than Ben-Hur, but there’s no getting around the fact that the sets are tiny. Seriously, don’t try to tell me that Commodus is fighting in the Colosseum when it looks smaller than a college amphitheatre.

Any shortcomings in the production values would have been overcome by deep characterisation. I, Claudius had a budget not much greater than old-school Doctor Who, but still was absolutely riveting. Roman Empire is content with sword-and-sandals clichés. We’ve seen this story a million times. It’s basically a bargain basement version Fall of the Roman Empire, with gratuitous sex and violence thrown in for fans of HBO’s Rome. You know what made HBO’s Rome great? It wasn’t the boobs or the blood. The show worked because it subverted stereotypical portrayals of the Romans and invested so heavily in the characterisation. You won’t find that here.

It might seem like I’m venting my spleen at the show, and that’s probably because I am. As a classicist invested in historical fiction, I get frustrated when the same stories get trotted out over and over. Greco-Roman antiquity is such a vast, rich, fertile place for the imagination. There’s a world of stories out there. Did you know that the Roman empire gave us the first romance novels in history? There’s got to be more to historical epics set in antiquity than a bunch of sweaty dudes shouting and swiping at each other with sharp bits of iron. There’s got to be more to Roman female characters than maternal figures and scheming manipulators, more to their sexuality than simply performing for the male gaze. I love Agora not because it’s particularly faithful to the primary sources—it’s not—but as an intellectual character study of Hypatia. I love Centurion because it’s a survival thriller that just happens to be set in antiquity. Novelists have done so many interesting things with the Roman world—detective novels like those Lindsey Davis, children’s adventures such as Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries. Tansy Rayner Roberts goes so far as to invent a whole new subgenre in Love and Romanpunk.

By and large, TV and movies just haven’t caught up yet. This is a crying shame. I would argue that Greco-Roman antiquity is uniquely suited to long-form story-telling, as it allows writers the time and energy it takes to get readers to invest in what is essentially an alien world.

To put it bluntly, we don’t need another Gladiator rerun.

So there.

Until next time,

Valete

Historical fiction: embracing authenticity

Salvete, readers!

In last week’s blog post, I mused (okay, pontificated) about the inadequacies of ‘accuracy’ as a framework for understanding historical fiction. This week we turn to the idea of authenticity. Let’s start by defining the concept.

An historically authentic piece of fiction evokes the spirit of a time period and is sympathetic to the source material. It’s the type of historicity which really gets under the skin of a particular time and place. For me, historically authentic historical fiction is analogous to deep world-building within fantasy fiction. Though the author will always make changes for the sake of the story, he or she considers whether or not such changes are plausible within their imagined world. The world must be internally consistent—this is paramount. Nobody is going to believe in the world you construct if it doesn’t play by its own rules.

In my view, one of the keys to authenticity is to go deep into the characters’ viewpoint and show how the age in which they live influences perceptions of reality. How would their social context shape their decisions? Rather than trying to construct the past in a moralising or judgemental way, the storyteller makes a concerted effort to get inside the cultural and (if possible) linguistic context of the period they seek to portray. Going deep into characters’ viewpoint in an historical setting is an act of imagination, of living in what is ultimately another world. And you have to take up residence in that other world, otherwise your protagonists will simply be modern people playing dress-up in historical clothes. The difference between historical authenticity and inauthenticity is like that between living in another country and visiting as a tourist.

One of the greatest benefits of going deep into an historical viewpoint is that it empowers authors to subvert readers’ expectations about a period. It allows you to defy the stereotypes and tell a fresh story. Often, when striving for ‘accuracy,’ we just perpetuate stereotypes which don’t bear scrutiny but adhere to commonly held views of the past. Let’s look at an example. Say you’re writing a novel about a Roman woman of the Third Century AD. Let’s call her Lucia. She’s a freeborn citizen of the Equestrian order, well-educated. Lucia is in an abusive marriage. Time and again I’ve seen the same story play out in narratives set in the Roman world: Lucia has no way out. After all, everybody knows a Roman woman was her husband’s property… right? Certainly, I’ve marked more than one first-year paper that has argued thus. And so we’re stuck with an old trope, and a tired old story in which Lucia stoically endures a tragic life. Usually it’s male novelists who cling to this trope, but that’s another story.

Lucia’s story is kind of drab so far, don’t you think? Yet if we go deeper into the time period we see just how problematic the stereotype really is. The kind of manus marriage in which the woman was basically her husband’s property was disappearing in the Roman world by the Third Century. Divorce was easily available for elite women of the empire, if the legal texts of the jurists are anything to go by. And of course when we look at the evidence of the jurists really carefully, we find all sorts of interesting tidbits about the rights a woman could enjoy during this period, which make for a much more lively story. For instance, according to Gaius Institutes 1.145.194, freeborn women were freed from male guardianship if they had three children. She’s using her social context of the world she knows to her advantage.

So maybe instead of a story of acquiescence to oppression, this becomes one of liberation—Lucia doesn’t have to be the long-suffering matron we’ve met in a squillion historical dramas. Wouldn’t it be great to make her a carefree character who kicks up her heels and starts her own business? Importing, I don’t know, monkeys? Yep, that was a thing. And if we think about the period a little more deeply, complexities in the characterisation arise. Despite her legal rights, Rome was never anything but patriarchal.  What manner of opposition might Lucia face? What of her birth family? She would in all likelihood be a slave-owner—how would her own experiences of violence influence the way she disciplines them? Also, a bit of further research reveals a papyrus letter from Roman Egypt, in which a woman has to petition the local prefect to be able to enjoy her right to live without a guardian. Ergo, despite whatever rights Lucia theoretically holds, the fact that she’s got to appeal to have her legal rights upheld tells us volumes.

The storytelling possibilities skyrocket when we throw away the shackles of ‘accuracy’ and instead throw ourselves into the period. One of the strengths of embracing authenticity rather than accuracy as a tool for historical fiction is that it lets the writer present a more nuanced viewpoint. Through deep research and critical engagement with primary sources, you’re empowered to tell a story that’s all your own.

In future weeks, I’d like to explore more aspects of historical authenticity—how, for instance, can an author use deep viewpoint to the best effect? Where does anachronism fit? How do we make dialogue sound historically authentic? Can we ever really escape the influence of the present in our constructions of the past? And when the time is right, I’ll share a bit more about how I apply my own principles in writing my novel, an historical fantasy based on Vergil’s Aeneid.

Until next time,

Valete

Julian

Book announcement: Tertullian and the Unborn Child

I’m thrilled to announce the release of my first academic book, Tertullian and the Unborn Child: Christian and Pagan Attitudes in Historical Perspective.

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What’s this all about, then?  

I’ll let the blurb do the talking.*

Tertullian of Carthage was the earliest Christian writer to argue against abortion at length, and the first surviving Latin author to consider the unborn child in detail. This book is the first comprehensive analysis of Tertullian’s attitude towards the foetus and embryo. Examining Tertullian’s works in light of Roman literary and social history, Julian Barr proposes that Tertullian’s comments on the unborn should be read as rhetoric ancillary to his primary arguments. Tertullian’s engagement in the art of rhetoric also explains his tendency towards self-contradiction. He argued that human existence began at conception in some treatises and not in others. Tertullian’s references to the unborn hence should not be plucked out of context, lest they be misread. Tertullian borrowed, modified, and discarded theories of ensoulment according to their usefulness for individual treatises. So long as a single work was internally consistent, Tertullian was satisfied. He elaborated upon previous Christian traditions and selectively borrowed from ancient embryological theory to prove specific theological and moral points. Tertullian was more influenced by Roman custom than he would perhaps have admitted, since the contrast between pagan and Christian attitudes on abortion was more rhetorical than real.

About the series

Medicine and the Body in Antiquity is a series which fosters interdisciplinary research that broadens our understanding of past beliefs about the body and its care. The intention of the series is to use evidence drawn from diverse sources (textual, archaeological, epigraphic) in an interpretative manner to gain insights into the medical practices and beliefs of the ancient Mediterranean. The series approaches medical history from a broad thematic perspective that allows for collaboration between specialists from a wide range of disciplines outside ancient history and archaeology such as art history, religious studies, medicine, the natural sciences and music. The series will also aim to bring research on ancient medicine to the attention of scholars concerned with later periods. Ultimately this series provides a forum for scholars from a wide range of disciplines to explore ideas about the body and medicine beyond the confines of current scholarship.

How on earth did I come up with this topic?

Heh, I remember explaining my research to a class once. One undergrad rolled her eyes and said, ‘Well, that’s random.’ I gather this was meant to be a put-down. This is a very specialised topic, though one which has implications for broader society. Perhaps it is best to begin with the story. That’s kind of my thing.

It all started when my wonderful wife and I were expecting our first baby, and we were waiting for our first ultrasound. Right at that moment I was trying to think of a good topic for my PhD research—looking for an area where I could break new ground in a subject which meant something to me. Mostly I was interested in Roman social and literary history, so I figured I’d stay on that path. As we were sitting in the hospital waiting area, my mind put two and two together: how would the Romans would have thought about the foetus and embryo? It’s not like they could see what was going on inside the uterus.

Bing! That was a lightbulb above my head. How did the offspring in utero fit into Roman family life? There was no word in Latin or Greek for ‘foetus’ or ’embryo.’ What did that tell us, if anything? When did the Romans think the soul came into being? Some of the secondary literature I’d read suggested that abortion was a routine occurrence in pagan Rome. Was that really true? I was determined to find out. Oodles had been written on Roman attitudes towards children, but the story generally started at birth. This struck me as odd. After all, parents start to think about their future children long before they set foot in the delivery room.

Flash forward a few months, and I was swamped in research. I’d imagined that I wouldn’t find a lot of source material to work with, but the opposite turned out to be the case. It was clear I needed to focus the research more intensely. Wringing my hands, I went to my supervisors, who suggested the project would be a lot more achievable if it revolved around a single ancient source. Who though? Galen? Hippocrates? Maybe. But wouldn’t it be great to make use of the research I’d already done on Roman social mores and family life? I was curious as to the impact of medical and philosophical theory on Roman conceptualisations of the foetus and embryo.

And that’s how I made the acquaintance of Tertullian—I wouldn’t call him a friend, exactly, though he’s definitely one of the most interesting people I know. Fiery of temper, steeped in rhetoric, extremely well-read in ancient medicine and philosophy, and Roman down to his socks and sandals. Tertullian, as it turned out, was loquacious on the subject of the foetus and embryo. In fact, he was the first Christian source to address the subject at length, though others had touched on it before. Through the eyes of a Roman social historian I was viewing a question which was directly relevant to today’s world: where did Christian opposition to abortion come from?

Wait, what? That’s a pretty controversial topic!

Yes, it is. For good reason—we’re grappling with big issues. There’s no point pretending the history of abortion is not politically contentious. History plays such an important role in determining policies like Roe v Wade. Readings of early Christian sources are always influenced by modern controversy—indeed, this is true of all historical sources.

Over and over I’ve seen Tertullian and other historical figures conscripted as foot-soldiers in crusades for and against abortion. Rather than try to categorise Tertullian as a pro-life or pro-choice author, I aim to give readers a deeper explanation of his views on the subject. In doing so, I’ve made a very deliberate choice not to push any political stance for or against the legality of abortion.

Still, it would disingenuous to act as though I don’t have an agenda. Full disclosure: I seek to give an historical context to allow more informed discussion. One of the great justifications for the academic study of history is that the present informs the past and can thus tell us something about ourselves. For Classical history in particular, it is often claimed that the Greeks and Romans built the foundation of the modern West. On the subject of Christian conceptualisations of the offspring in utero, there is indeed a clear link between modern and ancient thought.

Who is the target market?

Like most academic books, Tertullian and the Unborn Child is primarily marketed and priced for university and college libraries. My research is meant to serve anybody with a scholarly interest in the history of Christian thought concerning abortion. For this reason I wrote the book for a broad academic readership. It will be of use to both specialists and non-specialists in Greek and Roman history.

An extensive preview of Tertullian and the Unborn Child is available via Google Books and Amazon. Here you will find the preface and introduction. It is available to purchase as a hardback or an ebook via the Routledge website and can be ordered through numerous online retailers.

Until next time, vale.

Julian

* Text and cover image not to be copied.