Monday, October 22, 2018

Review: Roman Empire, A Netflix Original Series

The recent Netflix docudrama series Roman Empire, now in its second series reveals once again the failings of this genre. Gone are the days of the fabulous BBC docudrama Pompeii: The Last Day (2003) which illuminated its subject with heart and poignancy, fleshing out the bare bones of history.Unfortunately Roman Empire is not cut from the same cloth. When we are not being treated to some truly substandard acting and ridiculous writing, we are assaulted and insulted by the inaccurate voiceover of the narrator (Sean Bean for the first series and Steve West for the second) who makes unsubstantiated claims or outright historical fallacies. The producers of this piece of theatre (and I call it theatre because there is little historical value to be found within) care more for spectacle than historical accuracy while delivering neither.

The first series titled Reign of Blood which deals with the life and reign of the Emperor Commodus (r: 180-192). While going some way to correct a few of the historical misconceptions arising from Ridley Scott’s best picture winning film Gladiator (2000), such as the belief that Marcus Aurelius did not wish Commodus to succeed him (a common trope among works of historical fiction) or that he was slain by his former friend and general turned gladiator in a public spectacle (both of these plot points are found in Gladiator and the infinitely better Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)). It nevertheless fails to either inform or to entertain. Marcus Aurelius, possibly most famous for being a bearded philosopher emperor and the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors, is instead portrayed as a cynical soldier emperor in the style of the barracks emperors of the third century (without a beard?) caring little for the senate and solely focused on his campaigns in Germania. Whereas the historical Marcus Aurelius was a learned man and a philosopher in his own right who’s unfortunate reign saw him battling the Germanic and Pannonian tribes along the Danube frontier in present day Austria and Hungary. Commodus is suitably obnoxious and spends a great deal of his time on screen topless (not a toga to be seen anywhere in sight) or wearing a leather curiass without a tunic (chaffing anyone?). Now this is not uncommon when depicting Romans on screen, it seems that they are forever in military garb, even during a wedding as depicted in the second series, but having the Emperor of Rome dressed in a full military kit while attending the senate is not something even the hated emperors Nero or Caligula would have countenanced, let alone Marcus Aurelius. But poor costume design and casting are not Reign of Blood’s greatest failings, it is its stilted dialogue and plodding plot together with its flawed depiction of Imperial Rome that together make this such a difficult pill to swallow. The historical information provided is limited and suspect at best, despite the best intentions of the talking heads, who offer brief historical insights which are supposed to enhance the viewers knowledge of Ancient Rome. Unfortunately, these asides often interrupt what little drama is occurring on screen. All this combined makes the first series such a disappointment, but the worst is yet to come.

The second series, titled Master of Rome, which tells the story of Julius Caesar’s rise to power, is perhaps worse than its predecessor. Whereas Reign of Blood at least tries to hit the historical marks in a semblance of order, Master of Rome cares little for historical accuracy or realism. One wonders if the writers only consulted other works of historical fiction when researching it. Caesar is depicted as a humble and grizzled soldier who climbs his way to top of the Roman Republic to become what the narrator and actors call a console (sic), he is neither portrayed as being particularly politically astute nor ambitious. The consulship is depicted as being something in the vein of the American Presidency. Instead of two annually elected consuls it is a singular appointment with no apparent set term of office. Caesar is later angered when Pompey and Crassus force him out of it and prevent him having a second term of office(?). He apparently cares nothing for his governorship seeing it as exile rather than the culmination of his political rise to power. Notable players in the Late Republic such as Cicero and Cato are surprisingly absent, so too is Caesar’s legate in Gaul and later enemy Labienus. The civil war is reduced to a simple conflict between Caesar and Pompey, driven more by Pompey’s jealousy of Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul than by the political conflict between the Optimates and Populares which consumed the later years of the Roman Republic. Where is Cato and his obstinacy or the charismatic Clodius and his gangs of street thugs? All could have been included for dramatic and historical effect but feel to me like a missed opportunity. The talking heads, who include historical documentary stalwarts such as Barry Strauss, Katherine Tempest, Corey Beaman and others including podcaster and author Mike Duncan, often contradict what is taking place on screen but do not provide suitable clarification in any substantial manner. Anyone familiar with the History Channel’s Barbarians Rising (2017) will immediately recognize the format. At least Roman Empire strays away from having CEO’s and American politicians weighing in as ‘experts’ on Roman history. Ultimately the Caesar and Rome depicted in Master of Rome bear little resemblance to history or even Shakespeare for that matter. This Caesar is a political simpleton, easily bidden by figures such as Crassus, Pompey, or Cleopatra, lacking either the ambition or the ingenuity of the historical figure. One feels the moralizing hand at work. Attempting to make Caesar more palatable for a modern audience and thereby stripping him of his political motivations and accomplishments. The writers even get the date of Caesar’s assassination wrong. It's the Ides of March, 44 BC or March 15 in our calendar, not the 14th as the narrator asserts. This is a small detail but one that reveals the writer’s lack of any attention to historical accuracy. If they can get this commonly known fact wrong what else have they misrepresented. A lot is the answer! 

For those looking for an entertaining historical drama or an engaging documentary on the glory that was Rome you will find neither here. Instead you will find a plodding plot with stilted dialogue, poor acting and even poorer casting, coupled with an utter disregard for historical accuracy. Anachronism is rife. What little historical value provided by the talking heads is outweighed by the mountain of historical inaccuracies portrayed on screen. One expects such fallacies from a Hollywood film or television drama but when something purports to be a documentary series with historians as consultants you must hold it to a higher standard. Unfortunately that is not the case and once again proves that docudrama as a medium is horribly flawed. One would be better served by watching HBO’s Rome and following it up with PBS’s Roman Empire in the First Century or A&E’s I, Caesar. I cannot recommend this series on either an entertainment or historical level. One hopes that someday somebody will produce a historical documentary series that captivates the general audience as Netlfix’s Making of a Murderer did for the courtroom documentary. It has been too long since the glory days of PBS, A&E, and TLC documentaries on ancient Rome. We will have to wait and see. Hopefully the next series will be more engaging but I do not have much faith in that coming to pass. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Digging History 2.0

Digging History is Back!

Your one stop shop for all things BCE is back and better than ever.

This is a fresh start. I have been away for some time. My academic and professional pursuits have consumed my time and energies over the past few years. The core of the blog remains the same, to share with you my love for history and archaeology. But it will seek to go beyond just simply recounting historical events and archaeological sites. It will hopefully foster discussion and debate. To challenge assumptions and misconceptions that many of us have about history and archaeology. To answer questions and delve into the theoretical and scholarly debates that are raging across both history and archaeology today. I hope that it proves to be informative but also entertaining and above all makes you want to get out there and experience history for yourselves. To visit archaeological sites, to see the places where history was made, and to engage with history and archaeology as an informed individual.

I have kept my original first posts from way back in December of 2010 to give you an insight into my mind at the time and what I had hoped to accomplish. I still believe much of what I wrote then. I believe that archaeology is a viable career path, but one needs perseverance and determination to see it through. It is not for everyone, but as my mentor Dr. John Humphrey once said ‘It’s the best job in the world.’ Some of what I wrote was naive, born of youthful exuberance and a little hubris. I have changed my tact when it comes to learning from the past. I do still study the past to learn about the past but I believe it is imperative that we as a society learn from the mistakes and the successes of our forbearers. Past societies and cultures encountered problems that still plague modern society. It would be terribly myopic of me not to see parallels between them. This is not to say that we should do as the Romans did but maybe sometimes we should do as the Romans did not. If that makes any sense? have gotten off topic, a problem with ancient historians, we do so love an aside. I will not promise to avoid them outright but I will nevertheless try and keep them to a minimum wherever possible. Back to the matter at hand!

These posts will treat history and archaeology thematically instead of chronologically. Chronological history is important but in the less constricting confines of a blog I feel it is best to take some liberties and go rogue. Those of you looking for a simple rehashing of the history of western civilization and archaeology will still find posts about specific conflicts or periods maybe even a post here or there about a specific individual or archaeological site that I find particularly interesting, but they will be told in a thematic manner. This allows me to delve into the nuances of history or look at a particular problem from an angle that chronologically we might not be able to explore. I encourage you to ask me questions and I will endeavour to answer them to the best of my knowledge and will point you in the direction of useful scholarly resources where you might delve deeper yourself. I will on occasion review books and anything that has to do with the ancient world, be it films, TV documentaries or video games. As the title of this blog implies I truly dig history.

I hope you enjoy this blog and please leave me your feedback and questions. I cannot wait to hear from you!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why study archaeology?

This is a surprisingly common question that many people ask me when they learn what I am studying at university. It is usually followed by "how are you going to make money doing that?" In our money obsessed society one is often defined by his salary. And for those of us in the "non-practical" fields, i.e. social sciences or humanities, we are often forced to justify our choice. When faced with such questions I usually respond with a fiscal response. Stating that the average tenured professor at the University of Toronto makes over $100,000 a year (source: Macleans). Or for archaeology in particular I usually mention the opportunities for paid travel to exotic locations around the globe. Yet these explanations are not the real reason why I study archaeology, instead they are simple answers for simple people. No one questions someone's motivation when they are a business major. Apparently devoting your life to greed is no longer a sin but a virtue. However, devoting your life to the pursuit of knowledge and scholarship is viewed as a wasted existence.
The real reason why I study archaeology and history in general is some deep felt passion within me. A passion to understand what has happened in the past and not just know some random facts. Yet that is a purely emotional reason for devoting one's life to archaeology and does not provide a practical justification, or maybe it does?
The pursuit of knowledge should be justification enough, which it was prior to the modern age. I often wonder if Socrates and Plato had to justify their pursuit of knowledge and understanding to their contemporaries. I imagine Socrates would have enjoyed questioning the person who asked him such a thing.
I do not buy into the notion that by studying the ancient world we can somehow better understand our own. That is a useless platitude which many scholars use to justify their studies. Numerous books are written on the subject. With titles like: How the Gauls Made the Modern World, or Why the Romans Matter. While it is true that many of our political institutions are based upon earlier Greek and Roman paradigms they are more products of our own time than of the classical world. One can see in the past case studies of human nature and see parallels with our own world but one should be wary of drawing too great a parallel with earlier periods of history. There is not and never will be a scientific law of human nature, we are unpredictable creatures who on occasion do things contrary to any sense of logic or commonsense. That said, I study the past to understand the past not the present. Too often modern governments and regimes use history to serve their own ends. One need look no further than some of the ethnic struggles in the Middle East and Europe to see instances where modern states use a historical connection to the land to justify their control or conquest of it in the present. It is often dangerous and frankly poor scholarship to draw such parallels. Unfortunately archaeology is often drawn into politics.
I will reiterate once again, I study the past to understand the past. Regardless of what others think of my chosen field of study I do it because the study of the past is fascinating to me. There is no thrill on this earth I have yet known to top unearthing an artifact that has not been seen or held for over 2000 years. To know that the last person who held that coin or piece of pottery was alive when Caesar or Alexander walked the earth allows me for the briefest of moments to be transported to that time and place. An indescribable connection with the past is forged. It becomes somehow alive and not just dry words in some dusty book. The past is better than any novel you will ever read, the entirety of the human experience is played out in its pages we need only decipher it, and best of all it is real. And that is the reason why I study archaeology. That and I like to nitpick and argue.

Ciao, ciao for now.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Digging History

As this is my first blog post I shall begin with a simple statement of purpose. That said, my purpose in writing this blog is to discuss various topics of interest pertaining to classical scholarship and archaeology, with the occasional digression on travel and any other topic that catches my fancy. The name of this blog "Digging History" refers to the actual practice of classical archaeology, since as a student of classical archaeology I quite literally dig history, and it also refers to my interest in ancient history. 
I hope that some of the topics discussed in this blog will help to fire further debate amongst my fellow scholars,  history enthusiasts, and hopefully the general public. I understand this is a grandiose purpose, but, what the hell, I am a grandiose kind of guy. I welcome your criticism and comments, however, I make no apologies for what I might post and may on occasion be less than "politically correct". Classical scholarship is in need of some controversy from time to time. That said, I hope to occasionally create some controversy and to hurt a few feelings but most of all to generate fresh debate. 
I hope those of you who chose to follow this blog enjoy it and those of you who do not can always read something else or check your facebook status instead. 
Ciao, ciao for now.