Monday, May 31, 2010

Why the Romans on screen are just like us

From Times Online
May 24, 2010

A new sword and sandals epic on TV just goes to show that we prefer our Romans to be a reflection of ourselves

I always assumed that most Classicists are noses-in-books people. Well, why leave the house when you have Homer and Virgil to hand? Real life can only disappoint. And cinema and television even more so: there were the occasional blips — such as Gladiator in 2000 and a couple of series of Rome on HBO — but our screens have usually been Roman-free.

Yet suddenly, the screens are awash with the Classics. It’s just a pity that they have all been rather lacklustre: Percy Jackson, Clash of the Titans, Agora and Centurion have all got their sandals out at a cinema near you in the past couple of months, and it’s tempting to wish they hadn’t bothered. They have committed the cardinal sin of historical drama: not inaccuracy — which is a given — but dullness.

Happily, the gore-fest, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which comes to British television this week, has embraced swords and smut with considerably more gusto. The low budget gives it a more multicultural air than Classicists may be expecting: the series was shot in New Zealand, which might explain the surprisingly large number of Maori gladiators to be found in this version of Italy in the 1st century BC.

Graphic violence in the arena was surely to be expected, but it isn’t the fighting that has our moral guardians up in arms. It’s that Batiatus, played by John Hannah, is shown being fellated by a slave-girl in episode two while conducting a conversation with his wife, Lucretia, played by Lucy Lawless. She is being pleasured by another slave girl in the same scene. If Mary Whitehouse weren’t dead already, this would surely have killed her.

But however shocking the sexual content might be, the characters still speak in reassuringly cod Classical-ese. “Fight well,” one gladiator explains to the new boy, Spartacus, “and you are rewarded with coin.” The show was written in English, so this isn’t just a bizarre translation: it appears to be how characters have ended up speaking in historical drama. The writers try to create something between formal speech and modern slang, and inadvertently light upon Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid.

Spartacus has already faced calls for it to be banned in America. Here in the UK, where a wardrobe malfunction barely provokes a raised eyebrow, it will be shown on Bravo and online, where Mediawatch-uk fear it will be easily accessed by children. One hesitates to point out to Mediawatch that, while Spartacus may be pretty shocking by the standards of television, it is extremely mild by the standards of internet porn. And hey, when the kids find it, at least they might learn a bit of Latin while they’re being corrupted.

Steven S. DeKnight, the creator of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, has sensibly avoided the part of the Spartacus legend that we already know so well from Kirk Douglas’s portrayal. He has focused instead on the original story; this is Spartacus, the early years. Virtually nothing is known for certain about the man, and this very vagueness allows the writers some dramatic licence: their gladiator — like Russell Crowe’s Maximus — needs a reason to fight. Betrayed by a venal Roman commander, and desperate to find his wife and rescue her from slavery, he can either die in the arena or fight his way back to freedom. At the heart of this brash, silly show is a romantic husband who loves his wife.

It’s a perfect example of the way that historical dramas reflect the time in which they are made. We want to watch the blood and guts of the ring just as much as the Romans did, albeit on TV. But we demand a back story that makes it morally acceptable: a husband trying to save his wife is a man we can watch wield a sword and take a life with a clear conscience. Especially when he is fighting against a man who has hurled our hero’s porridge to the ground that very morning.

Spartacus reflects so many of our current obsessions: the actors are uniformly gorgeous, toned and buff, like models. It’s never questioned. These are gladiators — they spend all day working out. Well, maybe, but think what the Romans and Greeks used to look like on TV: Peter Ustinov was no John Hannah. And it’s even more obvious when you look at Perseus in the original Clash of the Titans movie and this year’s remake. Harry Hamlin was very pretty, but he would have needed a year in the gym to look like Sam Worthington.

So while it’s tempting to believe that we are like the Romans that we see on TV — the sex, the violence, the swearing, the beautiful naked ladies and the hot, naked guys — the truth is that we are simply constructing a vision of the Romans that shows us as we would like to see ourselves. Which raises the question of how much historical accuracy matters in entertainment.

Is it important that in Agora Hypatia, a philosopher and mathematician, is portrayed as a scientific martyr, slaughtered by the bloodthirsty, anti-science Christians? The truth is that she was simply caught between two warring political factions. It would be a different film if they had stuck to the facts, and certainly a less dramatic one. Centurion, meanwhile, has the Ninth Legion wiped out in Caledonia in AD117, cheerfully ignoring that the Ninth Legion still existed after that point. The Eagle of the Ninth, which comes out this autumn, will suggest the same inaccuracy.

Of all the TV and film adaptations of ancient Rome, I, Claudius, first shown more than 30 years ago, is the one that retains the most credibility. Perhaps that’s because it had proper, serious actors in it, and a lot less nudity and violence than the current interpretations of Rome. But it’s also because Robert Graves had a close affinity to his source material: he translated the books of Suetonius, the ancient biographer, on which his novelisations are closely based. But that only begs the question: how historically accurate was the gossipy, prurient Suetonius, who wasn’t even born until after Claudius had died?

That I, Claudius is probably the most accurate interpretation of the Roman world we’ve seen on screen surely isn’t the most important thing for its audience; what matters is that it is the most entertaining. A good story makes a good TV show. Something that the makers of Spartacus might just have remembered.

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