Sunday, March 23, 2014

300 Sequel Stylishly Lays Waste To History

An ancient history resource article by  © 2014

Note: although this article refers to historical sources, film viewers unfamiliar with history may consider some of the examples provided as spoilers.

Years ago when I went to the theater to see "Troy" and within the first few minutes saw Menelaus skewered by Hector, I muttered to myself, "So much for Homer". To me, that plot point signaled that I shouldn't expect much as far as literary parallel was concerned. I felt the same way watching 300: Rise of an Empire" when Themistocles drew a bead on Darius and skewered the great king with an arrow during the battle of Marathon. At least Menelaus was at the siege of Troy! Darius wasn't even present at the battle of Marathon and I'm afraid Xerxes wasn't either!

However, at least Themistocles is thought to be was one of ten strategoi (generals) that rotated command at Marathon. But, It was Miltiades who was credited with the charge that ultimately succeeded in routing the Persians.

Relief of the Persian king Xerxes (485-465 BC) in the
doorway of his palace at Persepolis, modern-day Iran.
The bearers of the parasol and the towel-and flywhisk
symbolize the royalty and power of the monarch.
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Remembering the appearance of Xerxes in the original "300", I was surprised to see an average-looking Xerxes at the beginning of this sequel. The battle of Marathon, of course, preceded the battle of Thermopylae so this little flashback is provided to give us insight into Xerxes development. The backstory reveals how the rather ordinary princeling is bullied by Artemisia into undertaking a mysterious religious rite that converts him into the towering God-King dripping with gold chains attached to a plethora of body piercings that we first encountered in "300".

Bas reliefs at Persepolis do depict Xerxes as significantly taller than his servants but size differences were often used in ancient art to indicate differences in social status. And as for Xerxes fashion sense, he is shown wearing the traditional royal robes of an Achaemenid ruler and sports the intricately curled beard in fashion with Persian nobles at the time - a far cry from the hairless punk rocker pictured in the film.

As for Xerxes deification, there is some disagreement among scholars as to Xerxes religious beliefs. But, Herodotus reports Xerxes claimed he ruled by divine rite bestowed by Ahura Mazda - a clear reference to the Zoroastrianism adopted by his father Darius and an acknowledgement of a power greater than him.

So, what of his fetish for gold? Xerxes actually punished his subjects in Babylon by destroying their temple of Marduke and melting down the god's golden statue. None of the ancient sources say what he did with it.  I suppose the imaginative among us could propose he ordered a pair of gold speedos but I seriously doubt it. The gold was most probably used to finance Xerxes' ambitious building projects. According to Herodotus, Xerxes oversaw the building of the Gate of all Nations and the Hall of a Hundred Columns at Persepolis, which are the largest and most imposing structures of the palace. He oversaw the completion of the Apadana, the Palace of Darius and the Treasury all started by Darius as well as having his own palace built which was twice the size of his father's.  He also maintained the Royal Road built by his father and completed the Susa Gate and built a palace at Susa. With Xerxes' taste for projects even more gigantic than his father's I doubt that there was a lot of that gold left by the time Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BCE.  It's too bad the film makers couldn't have worked that into the story to lend at least a little authenticity to the "god-king" claim.

Xerxes I lashes the sea for destroying his first
bridge across the Hellespont during the second
Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE.  Image
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I was surprised, though, that Xerxes played a much more minor role in this film than he did in the original. He appears to have been used by the filmmakers as a visual linchpin to the original film but little else. Most of the action is centered squarely on Themistocles and Artemisia. We get a little backstory on Artemisia that is pure comic book fantasy in which she is captured and abused until near death. Then a kindly passing Persian saves her and trains her up to be a great warrior. This fictional background is provided to explain Artemisia's bitterness and rather homicidal behavior.

But, in fact, Artemisia's father was the king of Halicarnassus, Lygdamis I and she was probably raised in a palace. How she developed her leadership skills was not divulged in the ancient sources.  Herodotus does not describe her martial prowess either, just her considerable cunning. But I doubt Xerxes would have entrusted the care of some of his offspring to Artemisia after the battle of Salamis if she had been the female psychopath portrayed in the film.

The film makers do not provide any significant backstory for Themistocles. This is where the film makers drop the ball. Themistocles' mother was born in Hallicarnassus - a countrywoman of Artemisia. His mother's ancestry was a major obstacle to Themistocles in his rise to political prominence in Athens and it could have served as a basis for heightened tension between Themistocles and Artemisia if Themistocles psychologically transferred his deep seeded resentment of his mother's heritage to Artemisia. But, perhaps this would have been considered too "intellectual" for the film's targeted demographic.  Instead we get a revenge-crazed female super warrior taking on a representative of male martial superiority.

Of course anytime you have a contentious male-female relationship, Hollywood cannot pass up the opportunity to inject a lascivious sex scene. The one in " Rise of an Empire" is nothing short of raw brutality. There is no seduction and definitely no submission - just a vicious wrestling match with each participant trying to end up on top. I certainly hope young male viewers do not idolize this approach to human sexuality.

The climax of the film is even more comic book fantasy. Rather than portray Artemisia's actual hair-raising escape from the Greek trap at Salamis by ramming friendly ships that got in her way or quickly switching flags to confuse pursing Greek ships, film makers give us a fight to the death that simply never occurred.

I was also dumbfounded by the appearance of a Spartan fleet that supposedly saved the day. Spartan warriors were admired for their prowess on the battlefield but Sparta was not a formidable sea power. In fact, I didn't even think they had any warships but found in my research that they did contribute a meager 16 ships to the Greek allied fleet. In contrast, Athens manned about 180 ships at Salamis.

I was also exasperated by the film makers inferring that Themistocles did not really plan the trap in the straits of Salamis but merely fought the battle as it developed out of sheer desperation - a great disservice to the genius of Themistocles!

In summary, I admit that I enjoyed the male eye candy as much as any other female viewer, but I would encourage anyone truly interested in the actual events and the amazing female admiral that survived the real battle of Salamis to check out Herodotus' actual account.

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review: Pompeii: A Tale of Murder in Ancient Rome by Robert Colton

An ancient-themed historical fiction review by  © 2013

An ice storm and four day power outage gave me the opportunity to finally read a Kindle version of this book by new author, Robert Colton.

A fictional 19-year-old protagonist named Marcellus Sempronius Gracchus (yes, a descendant of the famous Gracchi brothers) and his Egyptian slave, Tay, are touring Roman sites around the Mediterranean before Marcellus reports for military duty in Syria when Marcellus receives a letter from his uncle that his father is dying in Rome.  The uncle provides all of the transportation arrangements for Marcellus to return home so Marcellus and Tay board a ship to return them to the Roman mainland.  It is late in the sailing season and a difficult passage results in the ship needing to stop for supplies in Pompeii.  There, Marcellus witnesses a funeral procession for a local magistrate that catches his attention.  His interest is piqued still further when a trip to the baths yields gossip that the magistrate was probably murdered.  But Marcellus cannot linger to learn anything more.

When Marcellus and Tay resume their journey, they find that an elderly freedman named Darvus, who has boarded their ship, carries a letter from the widow they had witnessed in the funeral procession to a woman named Helen in Rome.  But the obviously ill old man dies before they reach their destination.  Before dying, however, Darvus asks Marcellus to deliver the letter for him and this task serves as the event that will launch Marcellus and Tay on an investigation that will be the basis of the plot for the rest of the novel.

Colton does a good job of recreating the ancient world, fleshing out his characters and writing dialogue. But as you read the backstory of his protagonist, Marcellus, you discover he is a rather feckless young man who has very little ambition and has spent much of his time since donning his toga virilus chasing married women and drinking himself insensible.  His slave companion, Tay, in contrast, is far more  astute in the ways of business and social relationships and experienced in physical combat.  Where Marcellus is an outright coward, Tay faces threats with a clear head and, if need be, a swift, lethal response, making Tay the more dynamic character.  But Tay is not framed as the main character, creating a problem with balance in the narrative.

When the pair arrive in Rome, Marcellus is surprised to find his hateful father still alive and we learn that father and son have had a contentious relationship for most of Marcellus' life.  When Marcellus mistakenly sends the secretive Helen the wrong letter from the stack in his father's office, Helen storms into Marcellus' home during the morning salutatio and confronts Marcellus in front of his father, who promptly suffers a fatal heart attack.  His father's old clients waiting in the atrium rush in and see blood all over the floor and will not believe Marcellus' father merely struck his head on the corner of his desk when he fell.  Helen, not wishing to become involved with imperial prosecutors, rushes away and Marcellus, without a corroborating witness is wrongly accused of patricide.  So, Marcellus and Tay must flee Rome to escape retribution from the unstable emperor, Nero.

As the pair gallop back toward Pompeii, slave and patrician reverse roles as a disguise in an attempt to elude authorities .  This plot twist, however, further exacerbates the character imbalance between the protagonist and his slave companion as Tay is now dressed as a wealthy Roman merchant and Marcellus is following along in the role of a mute valet.

On the road to Pompeii, Marcellus and Tay cross paths once more with Helen who has left Rome to return to Pompeii as instructed by the mysterious letter.  Marcellus is desperate for Helen to bear witness to the actual events leading up to his father's death to clear him.  But the heavily pregnant Helen is already engaged in a secret mission for the widow Fabia in Pompeii and tells Marcellus his favor must wait until she fulfills her other obligations.

But Helen meets a grisly end before she can bear witness for Marcellus.  So Marcellus and Tay must find Helen's companion, Marcus, who has also disappeared, to act as witness.

Once back in Pompeii, Tay, now a Roman businessman named Octavius Regulus with a mute valet named Demetrius (the former Marcellus),  plans is to embed himself in Pompeii society so he and Marcellus will not be viewed as suspicious as they investigate people who might know where Marcus may be hiding.  Tay begins by entering into a business relationship with a pretentious brothel owner named Popidius. (Marcellus has sent a secret letter to his wealthy friend Petronius requesting financial help and Petronius has responded with the delivery of a heavily laden strongbox.  So, money is the least of their worries at this point.)

But, the devastating earthquake of 62 CE (some sources claim 63 CE) strikes Pompeii and Regulus and Demetrius are left with a brothel full of alluring women and murder suspects lurking behind toppled columns and collapsed buildings.

I thought Colton did a particularly good job of describing the aftermath of the earthquake and the rescues and rebuilding efforts of Pompeii's citizens.  He also describes the activities of the brothel and religious activities of the period quite well, too.

But a weak protagonist who simply allows himself to be propelled by events rather than driving the plot is a fatal flaw in the narrative and diminishes the story's overall impact.

Although the murder mystery is ultimately resolved, I found it disconcerting that Marcellus was never vindicated for the death of his father and never can be under the parameters established by the author (which I found unconvincing in the first place).  So, I'm afraid the ending left me unsatisfied.  But I admire the obvious research and hard work that went into this first effort.
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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Dying Gaul on view at The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Beginning Dec 12!

An ancient history resource article by  © 2013

As part of the "Year of Italian Culture in the United States" project, the Capitoline Museum has graciously loaned the moving sculpture known as "The Dying Gaul" to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. where it will be on display from December 12, 2013 to March 16, 2014.  The sculpture  is a 1st - 2nd century CE Roman marble copy of a lost Hellenistic bronze that is thought to have been commissioned between 230 BCE and 220 BCE by Attalus I of Pergamon to celebrate his victory over the Galatians in Anatolia. The  identity of the sculptor of the original is unknown, but it has been suggested that Epigonus, the court sculptor of the Attalid dynasty of Pergamon, may have been its creator.

The Dying Gaul photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy by
 © 2005.
This breathtaking masterpiece I have had the good fortune to view at The Capitoline Museum on both of my visits there, is thought to have been discovered during excavations of the Villa Ludovisi, built upon the remains of the Gardens of Sallust, in the early 17th century.  It first appeared on an inventory of the powerful Italian family's collections in 1623 CE. In 1633, Pope Clement XII acquired it for the Capitoline collections. In the late 18th century, Napoleon acquired the sculpture under the terms of the Treaty of Tolentino.  It was subsequently exhibited in The Louvre until 1816 when it was returned to Rome.

Originally, it was thought to have depicted a defeated gladiator and was dubbed "The Dying Gladiator" or "The Dying Murmillo".  But subsequent scholarship identified it as a Celtic warrior by the 19th century.

This wonderful closeup by Professor Steven Zucker clearly shows the neck
torc (torque) worn by Celtic warriors.  Torcs are found in the Scythian, Illyrian,
Thracian, Celtic, and other cultures of the European Iron Age from around the
8th century BCE to the 3rd century CE. Often made of precious metals, torcs
were a symbol of rank and were often awarded to warriors for their bravery by
their chieftains.  They were also valued as plunder if a Celtic army was defeated.
The Roman Titus Manlius in 361 BCE challenged a Gaul to single combat, killed him,
and then took his torc. Because he always wore it, he received the nickname
Torquatus (the one who wears a torc). Pliny the Elder records that after a battle in
386 BCE the Romans recovered 183 torcs from the Celtic dead. Quintilian says
that Gauls presented the Emperor Augustus with a symbolic gold torc weighing
100 Roman pounds (nearly 33 kilos).
 Photo © 2010 by
Although heroic nudes are frequently depicted in ancient art, this particular portrayal of a nude warrior is historically accurate based on ancient descriptions of some Celtic fighting groups.

Diodorus Siculus reported that "Some use iron breast-plates in battle, while others fight naked, trusting only in the protection which nature gives." Polybius wrote an evocative account of Galatian tactics against a Roman army at the Battle of Telamon of 225 BCE:

"The Insubres and the Boii wore trousers and light cloaks, but the Gaesatae, in their love of glory and defiant spirit, had thrown off their garments and taken up their position in front of the whole army naked and wearing nothing but their arms... The appearance of these naked warriors was a terrifying spectacle, for they were all men of splendid physique and in the prime of life." - Polybius, Histories II.28
The Roman historian Livy recorded that the Celts of Asia Minor fought naked and "their wounds were plain to see on the whiteness of their bodies".

The statue has been so admired over the centuries that it was considered a "must see" for aristocrats taking the "Grand Tour" of the classical world.    The famed poet Byron even commemorated his visit to see the statue with a short but poignant poem, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:

I see before me the gladiator lie
He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one...

If you have the wonderful opportunity to visit Rome, don't miss the Palazzo Altemps on your list of must-see museums, either.  There, you will find another outstanding statue commemorating the valor of the Celts known as the Ludovisi Gaul.  It depicts a formidable muscled warrior in the act of plunging a sword into his chest rather than be captured by the enemy.  He grips the arm of his dying wife whom he has slain in a final act of love.

The Ludovisi Gaul photographed at the  Palazzo Altemps,
Museo Nazionale 
Romano in Rome, Italy by   ©2009.
 The Celtic warrior's heroic nudity is in contrast to his modestly-dressed wife whose attire would have been familiar on the streets of ancient Rome. This dramatic sculpture is thought to have been commissioned by Julius Caesar in the 1st century BCE after his defeat of the Gauls at the famous battle of Alesia in modern day France.  It, too, is thought to be a copy of a Hellenistic original bronze by Epigonus from a grouping at Pergamon.

The Ludovisi Gaul is depicted with the iconic "long hair"
 and thick mustache described by the Romans in the ancient sources.

Photographed at the  Palazzo Altemps, Museo Nazionale  Romano,
Rome, Italy
 I noticed that Wikipedia mentioned another important Celtic statue called "The Kneeling Gaul" that is in the collections of The Louvre.  Unfortunately, when I visited Paris in 2008, it was not on display.  I wish I could have seen it!

The Kneeling Gaul at The Louvre in Paris, France courtesy of
As I look at the image of The Kneeling Gaul I am struck by the facial similarities to a sculpture of Medusa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini I photographed at the Capitoline Museum back in 2005.

Medusa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1630 CE.
Photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy by
 © 2005.
I see that Bernini produced his Medusa in 1630, about the same time the Kneeling Gaul was discovered in the former Gardens of Sallust.  I wonder if the Kneeling Gaul provided Bernini's inspiration for his Medusa figure?

If you get a chance to visit Washington D.C. in the next three months, be sure to stop by The National Gallery of Art and experience "The Dying Gaul" for yourself.  After all, this is its first appearance outside of Italy in over 200 years!  I think it will surely inspire you to seek out other magnificent works of art from the ancient world!

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: "Blood Oath" and "Blood and Fire", Books I and II of the Gladiator School Young Adult Series by Dan Scott

A historical fiction review by © 2013

Book 1:  Blood Oath

Lucius, a 13-year-old son of a Roman senator, has just had his world turned upside down.  The emperor Vespasian has died and his successor, his oldest son, Titus, wants to sweep the Palatine clean of informers who capitalized on his father's preoccupation with treason by denouncing people, many innocent, as enemies of the state.  Unfortunately, one of the enemies of Lucius' father uses this change in administration to frame Quintus Valerius Aquila as the notorious informant "The Spectre".

Aquila must flee Rome before he is arrested, leaving Lucius, his older brother, Quintus, his younger sister Valeria and their mother adrift and alone in the wreckage that was once a comfortable and respected existence.  Aquila's brother Ravilla steps forward to "look after" the bereft family but his motives are soon suspect as he sells off all of his brother's assets and deposits the family in a tiny dank flat in the squalid Sburra district of Rome.

This scenario is actually quite historical.

"He [Titus] worked skilfully and specifically to rebut charges of cruelty, extravagance, self-indulgence, and greed, and he is credited with an improvement in public life.  The state of the sources obscures detail, but Titus' commonplace opening move, renunciation of treason trials as a remedy for slander, was reinforced by punishments." - Vespasian by Barbara Levick
The Roman emperor Titus ruled on two short
years from 79 - 81 AD.
 Photographed at the
Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy by
 © 2005.

Lucius is certain his father is innocent but his older brother Quintus rails against Aquila for deserting the family and committing such dastardly acts.  Left with barely enough to eat, Quintus decides to take the "blood oath" of a gladiator and join his uncle's gladiator school. There he hopes to earn enough money to restore at least some dignity to the rest of his family.  Concerned for his brother's safety and suspicious of his uncle's motives, Lucius asks for a job at the gladiator school doing whatever errands are assigned by either his uncle or the lanista, Crassus.
Quintus trains as a retiarius or net man fighting with only
 a weighted net, trident and straight-bladed dagger.
His flared galerus (shoulder guard) often depicted
mythological scenes.
 Drawing courtesy of author .

As readers follow Lucius around the gladiator school each day, they learn about the type of weaponry used by the different types of gladiators, the food they eat, the brutal nature of their training and how matches are arranged and even financed.  The author uses footnotes to explain Latin words that are incorporated into the narrative or cultural practices that Lucius encounters.

Quintus is particularly gifted in the martial arts and is soon slated for his first official match.  But Lucius, aided by a young Egyptian slave girl, has discovered some very disturbing information about his uncle's business activities and a new red-haired gladiator seems to be watching Lucius' every move.  Lucius has also received secret messages from his father asking for Lucius' help in finding evidence to clear his father of the false informing charges.  So the tension builds as the story progresses, keeping readers engrossed in the lives of the characters and interested to learn who betrayed Lucius' father and whether Quintus will succeed as a retiarius or meet an early death.

Scott does a good job of creating the primary characters and bringing the world of a 1st century gladiator vibrantly to life for young readers without glamorizing it.  The gladiatorial combat scenes are exciting without being overly graphic.  In keeping with a young adult novel, physical relationships between male and female characters are omitted and  the friendship between Lucius and the young female slave, Isadora, is kept strictly platonic.

But there is enough suspense to propel the story nicely and instructive material is woven expertly into the narrative so learning occurs naturally through the main character's observations without extended dull or tedious explanatory passages.

Although Lucius will discover some evidence to point to a primary suspect in his father's disappearance, his father's fate is not resolved in this first book, setting up its sequel(s).

Book II: Blood and Fire:

Lucius and Quintus find themselves ordered to accompany a troup of the school's gladiators  to Pompeii to compete in a spectacle there just a few days before the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  Quintus has survived his first official combat and is now a veteranus so he will face off against a local gladiator from Pompeii. But Lucius is puzzled why he was asked to go with the troupe, especially since he finds little to do upon arriving at the gladiator barracks in Pompeii.

Lucius follows his brother to town and there meets a strange little girl with silvery blue eyes who tells him the city will be destroyed soon by fire and ash.  She is so convincing Lucius is troubled by her prophecy.  When he returns to the barracks, the lanista, Crassus, asks him to deliver a message to the sponsor of the games and see if Lucius can find out what kind of a man this Marcus Nemonius Valens is.  Crassus wonders if Valens will be merciful to the gladiators or if he will be the kind of man who will give in to a blood-thirsty crowd and order their death.

When Lucius arrives at the sponsor's villa, he is ushered inside and Valens appears to take a personal interest in him.  Valens also claims to have known Lucius' father and speaks kindly of him so Lucius thinks he has found a potential ally in his quest to prove his father's innocence.  Valens asks Lucius to come to work for him for a few days if the lanista does not need him and Crassus readily agrees since it will give Lucius a chance to observe the man more closely before the games.

But things are not at all what they seem and, before long, we find both Lucius and Quintus fighting for their lives in  a city rife with blackmail and murder overshadowed by loud rumblings from nearby Vesuvius.

Since much of this second novel takes place in the villa of Valens, young readers will learn about Roman patron-client relationships, elite Roman banqueting and the types of food prepared for it, Roman heating systems and aristocratic living spaces.  Two of Valens' frequent visitors are competing for a public office so readers will also learn of the generally corrupt nature of Roman politics.
The palaestra or athletic training field adjacent to the amphitheater in Pompeii.
Photographed in the archaeological site of Pompeii by  © 2007.

Pompeii itself is accurately described as best as I can remember having been fortunate enough to have visited the archaeological site twice.  It is also portrayed as a rough-and-tumble almost "frontier" town and this too is accurate.  For years I thought Pompeii was more sophisticated than Herculaneum but discovered it was just the opposite after studying books written by Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill who oversees excavations at Herculaneum.

Scott has also obviously carefully researched the stages of the Vesuvian eruption and expertly worked them into the plot line.  Once more suspense propels the narrative and narrow escapes should keep young readers turning the pages eagerly.

The next installment in this series is due to be published shortly and I look forward to reviewing it as well.

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