ricardienne: (tacitus)
So I started Pierce Brown'a Red Rising -- basically, it's as if Brown read the Hunger Games and thought, "you know what this needs? More gritty manly realism and more angsty chosen-one manpain. Let me take care of that." Our hero is a young, hardworking everyman "Red" (ie low-caste) in a hardscrabble mining colony in District 12 on Mars in a future that uses classical names for everything; when his beloved wife is executed for a simple act of defiance, he falls in with The Rebellion and learns that Everything The Government Tells Us Is a Lie: Mars has been terraformed for centuries, and while his people labor in slavery beneath the surface, the ruling elites of the Capitol the Gold caste lead lives of absurd excess.

Where I am right now, our hero is undergoing a process of having his body remade into that of a Gold so that he can infiltrate the Hunger Games the academy where the sons and daughters of the elite fight it out in brutal game of survival of the fittest in order to determine who dies and who goes on the be the next generation of Ruthlessly Evil Overlords of Mars. Okay, yes, it's terrible, and I am really annoyed that the whole plot is motivated by manpain over the Death Of My Beloved, My Angel, The Gentle Light of My Life Whose Beauty and Inner Strength Made Life Worth Living. But (a) the writing isn't awful and (b) I have an obligation to read all the terrible faux-Rome sff.

Anyway, there was this paragraph:
“My body is not all that changes. Before I sleep, I drink a tonic laden with processing enhancers and speed-listen to The Colors, The Iliad, Ulysses, Metamorphosis, the Theban plays, The Draconic Labels, Anabasis, and restricted works like The Count of Monte Cristo, Lord of the Flies, Lady Casterly’s Penance, 1984, and The Great Gatsby. I wake knowing three thousand years of literature and legal code and history.” (ch. 12)

So...a mix of "classics" and made-up "future classics", but I don't get the narrative that they are trying to tell -- apart from the fact that, uh, I guess the only books that survived into the future were the contents of an American high school English classroom? This kind of passage seems like a great place to briefly tell a narrative what this future-evil-privileged society values and fears. Apart from the fact that I don't trust the author enough to be sure that when he says "Ulysses" he means James Joyce and not the Odyssey (ditto for Metamorphosis: Kafka's Die Verwandlung or Ovid's Metamorphoses?), I don't really get what this set of texts is supposed to do: the Iliad and Anabasis makes a certain kind of sense as classics for a military elite; I suspect that (the?) Metamorphoses(?) is a nod to the transformations that the elite of this society undergo to become superhuman (but...I'm pretty sure that either Ovid's or Kafka's would be on the "restricted" list as far as messages about metamorphosis and society and the fate of the human when s/he is forcibly transformed by (unjust) power structures. Ditto Sophocles. For fuck's sake. Have any of these people read the Antigone?). The Odyssey is probably there because this is all about our hero's love for his wife.

However, I think that overall, these are pretty terrible lists to represent a ruthless, power-hungry, corrupt class of Rome-emulating rulers. Where the fuck is Thucydides? Where's Machiavelli? Where's Ayn Rand? HOW CAN YOU HAVE REALPOLITIK WITHOUT THUCYDIDES? (and where's Tacitus? How can you have imperial Rome without Tacitus. YOU CAN'T.) Where's Lucan? I bet this society would love Lucan. And, of course, let's not even ask why this is completely euro-centric reading list.

I also think that one could be cleverer with the whole "restricted reading" list, although it hangs together a bit (themes of dystopia, Hobbesian excess, and revenge). I mean, 1984, Lord of the Flies...can you be more cliched? Put some real protest writing or anti-injustice writing on there. Make a more explicit allusion to your antecedent of the Hunger Games (wouldn't that be clever?) Or put the Aeneid (!!!!!). When I write a trashy ya dystopia novel about a futuristic oligarchy that models itself on Rome, remind me to throw in an aside about how the Aeneid is a deeply subversive and restricted text because of Vergil's problematization of empire and ambivalence about power. We'll call it The Revenge of the Harvard School.
ricardienne: (christine)
It seems that the publishing industry is trying to make Cleopatra Selene into the new 'Tudors' -- this is the third recent historical fiction treatment. I haven't read Michelle Moran's Cleopatra's Daughter, but I have read the first two books in Stephanie Dray's trilogy, and now, Vicky Shecter's Cleopatra's Moon.

The tropes seem to be pretty constant: Cleopatra's family is extremely (and un-historically) Egyptianized, Selene is a devotee of Isis (Isis rigorously part of the Egyptian pantheon, usually) and a complete, patriotic partisan, Octavian/Augustus is the evilest person who ever eviled, Greco-Egyptians are cultured, intellectual, open-minded and gentle while Romans are brutal, patriarchal, and uncivilized.

Shecter, like Dray, seems to be hampered by history, which puts an awkward necessity (there will be spoilers coming up) on the way that their narratives go. Spoilers for History )

In conclusion: You could write so many awesome YA novels set in this general period. Livia in the late 40's and 30's: 16 years old and newly married, watching her male relatives get killed, fleeing around the Mediterranean and doing everything she can to protect who's left. "Turia", also newly married and having to play party politics and work really hard in a man's world to keep her family hidden and get amnesty for them. On a lighter note, Sulpicia and the Tibullan circle hanging out, writing love poetry, and maybe getting involved with Gallus and that whole debacle. Heck, someone should take Julia seriously, and not just dismiss her has the frivolous, immoral daughter of Augustus with a million affairs (it's frustrating that these Cleopatra Selene novels, in trying to rehabilitate one or two ancient women, just reapply and intensify the stereotypes to all of the other (in)famous women of the period) -- recall that all of the men she was rumored to have been involved with were *also* all of the remaining descendants of the oldest senatorial families. Julia the dedicated republican idealist, anyone? To move a bit later: what about a novel about teen-aged Agrippina the Younger and her mother? What about Epicharis? What about Berenike? (What about the Arrias and the Fannias? What about Servilia?) The field is wide open, people!
ricardienne: (christine)
I'm reading Vicky Alvear Shechter's CLeopatra's Moon, yet another YA novel about Cleopatra Selene (daughter of THE Cleopatra), because we aren't ever going to get *good* Roman-world YA novels unless people demonstrate that they read even the terrible ones. (No, I am not really deluded into thinking that my library account does anything in this regard.)

It's really bad, though. There was a really awful scene where the main character goes to a synagogue in Alexandria and debates a Rabbi (nb it's clear Shecter has forgotten that Judaism was a sacrifice-religion at this point.) about free will and the role of women in the Edenic fall, and ZOMG totally stumps him wow!1!. And just. You know, if this guy supposedly hangs out with the scholars in the Library of Alexandria, I'm thinking he would be able to explain the philosophical principles of his religion to an 8-year-old.

Of course, Cleopatra's Greek tutor appears not to have read Homer, let alone be aware of, oh I don't know, the philosophical and scholarly work that was the WHOLE POINT OF THE LIBRARY, so maybe it isn't strange that Mr Rabbi has gotten complacent.
"And what does our Greek heritage say?" Euphronius asked us.
"That we cannot outrun our fates," I answered. "Hubris, the great crime against the gods, was thinking that we could. And hubris took down even the best of men, like Achilles and Oedipus." (p. 30)

"Now, Euphronius continued, "how can Achilles' great rage be the fulfillment of the will of Zeus?"
"Because everything that happens, even bad things, must be the will of the gods, otherwise they would not happen," Alexandros said after our tutor called on him.
"Euphronius turned to me. "And what happens when humans try to escape their fates?"
"They either end up dead like Achilles or blind like Oedipus," said Euginia.
"Yes. Now let us look a little closer at what we really mean by hubris...," Euphorion continued. (p. 36-7)

I mean, I know that it's probably not fair to expect a YA novel to represent the past at this level of detail, but I will point out that we do actually know a lot about the standard schoolroom exegesis of Homer in antiquity! A correct answer to the first question, as it happens, would be "Because, as the Cypria tells us, the Trojan War was Zeus's plan for ridding the world of surplus population, and the death among the Greeks caused by Achilles' quarrel with Agamemnon served that plan." (I'm not saying that it's a particularly brilliant interpretation, but that's ancient primary school for you!)

But I really object this claim that's she's had them make twice, Achilles' death is somehow caused by his attempt to circumvent fate and that this demonstrates that mortals have no free will (apart from the fact that being punished for attempting to oppose the will of the gods kind of *does* imply free will. But let's ignore that for now). Um, have you read the Iliad, Vicky Shecter? You know that part where Thetis tells Achilles that he has two possible fates: to go home and live a long life in Phthia without glory, or to die young in battle and win kleos aphthiton? I suppose you could make the argument that Patroclus dies as punishment for Achilles' contemplation of the former choice. But ultimately, Achilles very definitely chooses the latter. And he dies in battle, through some fairly dodgy divine machinations, but in no way as the result of having "tried to escape his fate".

And I'm not even going to rant about this bizarre, reductive, and completely wrong definition of hubris. ARGH ARGH ARGH PEOPLE ARE BEING WRONG ABOUT THINGS I KNOW THINGS ABOUT.
ricardienne: (christine)
...I still don't know how I didn't read Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth before. It is my favorite kind of old-fashioned (or new-fashioned) children's story: all about epic friendship and undying loyalty across a slightly uncomfortable status divide.* Marcus, young, painfully upright Roman centurion badly wounded in his second year of service; Esca, the young British slave he saves from the gladiatorial arena. Becoming fast friends; embarking on an adventure to recover the lost standard of the IX Hispania. Sutcliff is a brilliant writer, and she does quite a good job both capturing the Roman mindset and portraying the complexities of Roman-British interactions, hybridity, tension -- much better than one might expect for a book published in 1954.

And now I am feeling a strong urge to write fic -- possibly about the legal shenanigans that Marcus's friend the Legate has to go through to see that Esca's manumission is legitimate. Possibly in Latin...
ricardienne: (tacitus)
Book Review: Song of the Nile by Stephanie Dray. This is the sequel to Lily of the Nile, and takes Cleopatra's daughter, Cleopatra Selene, from young adulthood through her marriage to Juba, the client king of Numidia and the early years of her reign, as she negotiates with Augustus and tries to regain her ancestral throne in Egypt.

I am arguably one of the worst people for this book, because I care very deeply about a completely different, slightly overlapping set of trivia about this period and place. It is very hard for me not to judge this book on its depiction of Vergil, for example, (that sound you hear? The gnashing of my teeth). But I shall try to put that out of my mind, discussing instead things that are of general interest. (But before I do that, one more tiny nitpick: Dray has her characters call Parthians "the Parths" as, apparently, an ethnic slur. And this just doesn't work for me at all, because the Parthians are properly Parthi, that is, you can't shorten the name any further because it's already a monosyllabic stem! Even if Romans formed diminutives (whether affectionate or contemptuous) by shortening, which they didn't. Seriously, what's wrong with parthiculi or parthelli? OK, consider that nit picked. Back to our regular programming.)

The audience for this must be YA. But there's some pretty heavy stuff -- (semi-graphic) rape (of a minor), internalized victim-blaming, extremely messed up sexual politicking, the virgin/whore dichotomy, not to mention incest, but that's the healthiest relationship in the book, honestly-- and the complexities aren't morally signposted the way they usually are in YA. Either it's careless and irresponsible, or it demands a high level of critical thought from the reader.

I don't really know what spoilers one should give with historical fiction. On the one hand, yes, the broad outline is fixed. On the other hand, if you don't happen to be up on your history of the last couple decades of the first century BCE, the plot isn't really any more fixed for you than the plot of Hamlet or Oedipus the King is fixed for someone who isn't familiar with those stories. And it's no easier to find out whether Selene ever returned to Egypt than it is to find out whether Hamlet ever killed Claudius (and the former is a much more obscure piece of trivia than the latter!).

Here there be spoilers, if you think such things can exist here )
ricardienne: (heiro)
At last we are finally getting beyond Wives of Henry The Eighth Syndrome in YA historical fiction!

I've been preparing for months to sneer at Stephanie Dray's Lily of the Nile, the first book in a trilogy about Augustan-era daughter of Cleopatra Cleopatra Selene. In fact, I quite enjoyed it, and found it a much more respectable contribution to the (admittedly small) set of novels about Ancient Rome for girls. But -- a summary: after Actium, Selene and her brothers Alexander Helios and Ptolomy Philadelphus are captured, forced to march in Octavian's Triumph, and then made wards in the puritanical household of the princeps. Selene determined to be true to her faith and place as priestess of Isis and to return to her rightful kingdom in spite of her hated captors, but she has to decide how best to serve her goddess and her people in the brave new world of Augustan Rome.

To begin with, there were three surprisingly excellent things about this novel. First, magic/miracles/actually supernatural goings-on have a small but significant place, as I think they should in a novel about the ancient world. Second, the Romans are pretty unambiguously the bad guys -- brutal severe jack-booted conquering thugs -- but considered from a Roman perspective, they appear pretty acceptable. To be sure, Selene and her Alexandrinian-Ptolomaic background are made rather more acceptable to 21st century norms that they probably should be, but Tacitus would probably be disgusted at how sympathetically and eulogistically Dray portrayed Augustus! Third, this is (historical spoilers!) a novel about a protagonist who is forced to compromise in unheroic ways and who sacrifices (at times) her principles and her freedom for her security. Which is...interesting.

But Lily operates on a number of generic axes, so to speak, and they interact in strange ways. A part of this story is the story about the girl from a warm and temperate and tolerant clime forced into the hands of cruel and puritanical guardians -- think The Witch of Blackbird Pond or even A Little Princess -- who rant about Sin and Evil and won't let her play music or dance or wear bright colors or express her femininity at all.

It's also the story about the girl with a strong and personal faith in a miraculous and loving savior, forced to live among people who mock and persecute believers, but with whom she is anxious to share the truth salvation of her religion. Dray is pretty explicit about the parallels she is drawing with Christianity -- rightly so, I think, at least as far as the prevalence of mystery religions in the period. I've read the Christian versions of this story, however, and it's interesting that essentially the same story -- no longer popular among increasing modern discomfort with Christianity presenting itself as gentle and persecuted -- as Elsie Dinsmore. Only with Isis.

In another layer, however, it's the colonial story: a person who is derided as an immoral Other and who is tragically forced to lose/hide/change her cultural norms to comply with those of her conquerors in order to effect anything. Dray decided to go the route of "the Ptolomies are Egyptianizing and essentially Egyptian," and I was all set to sigh over that when I realized that this post-colonialism-inflected story might actually be a more important and significant story to tell than the story of a privileged Hellenistic princess who loses her royal autonomy. Nevertheless, there's a way in which this is A Little Princess: Selene may think of herself as Egyptian but she's the foreign dynast imposed by conquest in Egypt as much as Augustus!

ricardienne: (tacitus)
What is it with Pliny the Younger? You may remember the worst Roman mystery series ever (where Pliny was Sherlock Holmes and Tacitus was a really dim incarnation of Watson). And now there seems to be a new series by Bruce Macbain, who is a real live Ph.D. in classics: the "Plinius Secundus" mysteries. The inner flap promises that Pliny will be paired with Martial to solve the murder of a notorious delator in the last years of Domitian's terror.

I will probably do a full review/rant when I finish (and it's a fleet book), but I'm now six chapters in. There is a LOT of info-dump, to the point where it the author periodically drops his novelist persona and starts writing an introductory textbook on Flavian Rome. That said, it appears to be a decent, if not super-subtle, textbook, and Macbain is not so in love with Pliny as a modern avatar that he can't integrate him into Roman elite norms and show him as a patriarchal, self-important pompous ass. It's still a much more positive and moderate picture than just about anyone who reads Pliny's Letters comes away with.

The thing that is ridiculous about historical novels based on literary figures is that they inevitably adopt absurdly biographical readings of their work -- it's a problem I'm not entirely sure can be avoided. Nevertheless, Martial is pretty entertainingly drawn, if with a certain amount of eye-rolling "grit and realism", and I'm a little impressed that Macbain appears to be going the Roman pederasty route with one of his main characters.

There is someone who seems, dare I say, conspicuously absent from this novel, however. Tacitus, one of the more notable of Pliny's acquaintances, does not appear in the list of characters, and I'm fairly sure he won't be appearing in this mystery. What's odder, though, is that Tacitus doesn't appear anywhere in the "for further reading" afterward. Macbain recommends Cassius Dio, for crying out loud (not that there's anything wrong with Dio), but he omits Tacitus?

Now I do know that Tacitus doesn't have to be everywhere, and not everyone has to love him, and that Tacitus is inevitably going to overshadow Pliny whereever the two appear together. Furthermore, we don't have a sustained Tacitean narrative of the end of Domitian's reign. But when you have your hero pondering the question of whether "a good man can exist under a bad emperor" and justifying his own "useful obedience" with "those senators who insisted upon throwing their lives away in futile defiance," it's a little ungrateful not to acknowledge that author anywhere. I'm just sayin'.

ETA: Ultimately, a decently-balanced book. Having Martial as a cynical scrappy secondary point of view who can see through Pliny's self-delusion really helped, and Pliny, I have to say, was done really quite well as an ambitious time-server who tells himself that he is serving the public good so he doesn't have to face his share in the collective shame of serving a tyrant, &c. A few really howler-ific lines, as when Pliny muses that "anyone with a bit of philosophy knows that slavery is unnatural." There was ultimately a single reference to Tacitus, where Pliny recalls Annals 15.44 (it seems unbelievable that Tacitus would be known as a historian at all at this point, let alone be giving recitations from the Very Freaking End of his extant work, but whatever), but Tacitus continued to be pervasive: if someone hypothetically read this mystery, and was interested in Life Under Domitian (at least as the senators tell it), sure, I would advise hir to read some of Pliny's letters (the Regulus ones, the one about the hair-cutting ghost, the ones about Fannia and Arria), but the main thing to read would be the Agricola.
ricardienne: (Default)
I finally found a copy of All Roads Lead to Murder for a price I was willing to pay (read: v. cheap). Given how awful the title is, I wasn't too optimistic, and yet... Pliny and Tacitus solve murders! And the author is a semi-legit scholar (PhD, a few articles on Pliny in respectable journals on JSTOR), so how bad can it be?

The answer, one chapter in, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, is very. First, the writing is bad: unprofessionally awkward and clunky, full of "as you know, Bob Publius" info-dumping. Secondly, and I am trying not to be judgmental here from a modern liberal perspective, or a pedantic Romans-actually-weren't-like-that perspective, or a Tacitus-fangirl perspective, but perhaps it is clear that there are issues in all of these areas.

I know that Pliny always gets the short end of the Pliny/Tacitus duo because on the one hand, the greatest historian ever of Rome, and keen observer-critic of Power and Dissimulation and Realpolitik; on the other, lots of letters of a nice Roman gentleman about how nice and gentlemanly he is. (Also the Panegyric, which doesn't exactly endear him to anyone). And obviously, that isn't completely fair. BUT, making Pliny out to be the superior intellect and deeper ethical thinker just doesn't work. In fact, it's ludicrous, and annoys me, and, insofar as one might want to base these characters on their literary representations on themselves (not that one should, at all), isn't true to what Pliny depicts of their relationship. And the author's note notes that the model for this relationship was Holmes and Watson. Um. Actually, I don't think that I can argue this rationally, because my argument does come down to: "no, but Tacitus was the intellectually superior one!"

And then there is this weird business where Tacitus has bisexual proclivities, and since Pliny does not approve of either homosexuality or marital infidelity (nb as of yet, T. has not actually propositioned P., but has just made passes at pretty slave boys and women, which it seems is nearly as bad; obviously, I am holding out for the former, because if you are going to make a big deal about this kind of thing, you might as well go all the way), this is the source of some tension between the two friends. At which point, two things came to mind: (1) The author is an ordained Baptist minister, and teaches at a small Christian college, neither of which *should* be meaningful, and yet... (2) seriously, would Pliny have been likely to care about this?

Also, the plot seems to revolve around a slave girl (T. has yet to seduce here, but I'm only a few chapters in) and an abusive master, and so far Pliny has been flipping between a very modern-compassionate "slaves are people too means you shouldn't beat them" and a Roman "this is not my business." I'm afraid it won't end well. But consistency is the least of the problems I'm finding, I suppose.
ricardienne: (Default)
So I have a stomach bug today, and I feel crummy. I should go to bed, but I don't want to go to bed.

Read most of Catilina's Riddle (Steven Sayler); today, while moping around. About 30 pages from the end, I got frustrated by the twistyness (SPOILERS?) of the MC's theories, by which Cicero was actually machinating everything, and using his spies to plant and instigate all of illegal activity/apparent illegal activity among the so-called conspirators, which, okay, is not that implausible, because doen't the FBI do that now, sometimes, but anyway, I skipped and read the author's note at the end, and and found my suspicions confirmed, because "I am not trying to rehabilitate Cataline like Josephine Tey and Richard III, but OMG ALL THE SOURCES ARE TOTALLY BIASED."

Which is true, except that Sallust was an enemy of Cicero, so you do have at least two sources which would be inimical to each-other agreeing.

(Also, I am not in a good position to judge how plausible all of this convolution is, partly because I am sick, partly because what I remember about Cicero's version is "quouseque abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra" and the bit about Catiline's followers being the types to dance naked at parties, and the post-conspiracy debate between Cato and Caesar from Sallust. Although I think that A Slave of Catiline had more or less the outline, except for the bizarre bit with Cicero handing off the mantle of future rescue of the res p. to Caesar at the end.)

Um. So the point of this post, I think, was to wonder about how someone with the username "ricardienne" can get annoyed by historical conspiracy theories. It's true that I no longer either 1) care so much about Richard III's innocence as I did in, say, 8th grade, or (shall I be honest here?) high school, or 2) think that he was TEH EPITOME OF INNOCENCE (although maybe he was a moderately decent person who tried to do some kind of right thing most of the time, and didn't necessarily murder his nephews). Seriously, there was a point when I used to lie awake at night getting angsty with doubt about R3's True Character.

I also like Cicero, and I think he gets bashed a bit unfairly. Just because he was a lawyer and a politician, and ambitious and vain and left an immense body of writing to document it all... but then, all that writing survived because he was a freaking brilliant writer and intellectual and orator, too. (Why don't people ever mock Caesar, hmm? He doesn't even get a bad rap in Asterix, for crying out loud?). So if feels like a cheap shot to say "oh, Cataline: probably innocent, because, after, all it's Cicero who's going on about it, and we all know what his agenda was like."

Even though that's PRETTY MUCH THE SAME ARGUMENT that gets used in defense of R3. So maybe I'm just encountering this later in life, when I have, *sigh*, grown more *conservative* and don't want to start anything too *radical* within the historical canon.

Whatever. Maybe I will finish the novel: I kind of what to find out where the headless bodies were coming from. Also whether there will be a giant family feud over Cicero vs. Catiline.
ricardienne: (snail)
I. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (M.T. Anderson). I had been meaning to read this ever since it came out, but I could never bring myself to pick it up. It always felt like a book I *should* like -- historical fiction, literary narrator, twisty views on the heroical revolution -- and so I kept on putting it off. Then I found a completely new copy for 10¢ at the library sale table (my mother made me put in a dollar). I read it on the plane: one quarter of the novel for every couple pages of Cicero. And, Reader, this is a fantastic novel. Octavian grows up in a strange but retrospectively fortunate household, where a host of neo-classical scholars and Enlightenment intellectuals known only by numbers tutor him and flirt with his mother, an African princess in exile, as he is told. Gradually, the outside world begins to intrude, and Octavian realizes that what is really going on is rather different and rather more horrible than what he has been allowed to know.

First of all, most of the book is O.'s narration, and it is beautiful to read. It's a brilliant character to have created: O. has a complete classical education, and has a huge breadth of literary, historical, and 'scientific' background with which to describe his increasingly (or maybe just increasingly understood to be) horrific experiences as his fortune changes from protegé to experiment, to slave, to captive and fugitive, and in the context of which to think about the inhumanity and insidiousness of slavery, and the evil behind the motto "revolution to protect our property." There i definitely an anti-capitalist strain -- the chief villain repudiates the liberal arts and insists that the only good is profit and hence utility, as well -- and a strain of "oh, yeah, so you thought the American Revolution was all about freedom and justice and the rights of man, did you?" I wasn't bothered by either, actually, as both mostly agree with my own feelings.

II. The Winter Prince (Elizabeth Wein). Another book that I finally read, one that I have been seeing for much longer on the library shelf. I don't like stories about Mordred, and Mists of Avalon pretty much ruined any Arthurian telling with Celtic names (exception: Mary Stewart's). So I was not ever about to pick up this YA novel, where "Medraut" is embittered over his father "Artos'" preference for his legitimate son "Lleu." (Lleu? Double ll's alone pretty much rule out the book!) But now the series is four books one, seems to involve a North African kingdom as well/instead, and is recommended by Meghan Whalen Turner. So I steeled myself, and read the first one.

And I liked it. It didn't thrill me, or jump to the top of any list, but it was compelling, one of the most interior fantasies that I've read. It also reminded me of Mary Stewart, in that it was mostly grounded in post-Roman Britain, with ruined villas and old mines, and kingdoms where the whole royal family has to get out in the fields at harvest time, and goes hungry if it's a bad year. The set up is more or less as outlined above, but is make particularly creepy by the fact that Medraut narrates it to Morgause (= the sister who slept with Arthur and the sister who is plotting against him, in this version). It's after the fact, before we know what the fact are, as if Medraut is explaining his actions, possibly trying to justify them, to someone he hates and fears, and maybe loves. Her relationship with her son, it is clear from the beginning, has always been strong and unpleasant, but the details only come out bit by bit. Not everything worked for me: the character of Lleu didn't quite solidify for me, and it was his developing relationship with Medraut that turned out to be the most important.

III. One or another of the "Gordianus the Finder" mysteries (Steven Saylor). This was my third foray into Mystery Series Set in Ancient Rome. The first was the one set in the late Republic, called SPQR, or something, about a young senatorial type, I think. I only read one book -- the one that borrowed its plot from Book I of Bello Gallico. The second was Lindsey Davis' Falco series -- 1st century A.D., plebian lowlife with an aristocratic girlfriend, v. funny. I read a bunch of those. Anyway, so this one is also late Republic, commoner -- I'm not sure what the angle is after only one book. It was okay. Gordianus was moderately fun as a protagonist, but I think I may stick to Sir Peter Whimsey.
ricardienne: (Default)
I started reading Corneille's Cinna, or The Clemency of Augustus yesterday, in translation, until they skipped a scene with the note that "this is always omitted in performance so we omit it here." So then I found an on-line version in French and finished it tonight in that. I'm pleased that I can still pretty much read French without a dictionary (maybe one word every 10 lines or so I had to look up to get the exact meaning). I also am very pleased with the play. Incidentally, the supposedly always-omitted scene was awesome: Augustus being whiny and angsty and Livia trying to talk sense into him. Actually, all of the men were pretty angsty and whiny, compared with the extremely sensibly Livie and extremely single-minded Émilie. There is probably something there in the background about different standards of intellectual activity/worry for different genders. I was struck by how reversed it is from what we tend to be told are "normal, maybe even biological" tendencies for men and women in terms of who agonizes and second-guesses and who is determined and strong-minded.

I think my translation may have been exceptionally crummy, because I started enjoying it so much more in the original, although that tends to happen. My memory of classical French drama had been that it was fairly static and not terribly interesting in terms of characters, but that was not the case here.

Finally, and maybe most of all, I was impressed, in the way that I shouldn't be anymore, but how nuanced Corneille's dealing with the whole Augustus issue. One expects it from Seneca (or does one? -- Well, in this case, one does, because Seneca is saying "EVEN Augustus, who was part of this horrible thing in his earlier days was merciful on the occasion of…"), but I have a bad habit of assuming that later generations, particularly if the are writing for Sun King, take Augustus at face value. Which is stupid, I know, and I shouldn't keep being surprised. But anyway, even though everything got kind of assimilated into an anachronistic divine-right happiness by the end, much of all the characters' speeches were quite ambivalent. Even Augustus was gripped by self-doubt ('though this is in Seneca, too): he was as much in need of the Augustan Myth as anyone else. I was going to comment that I was surprised at Livia's general sensibleness in this play -- not how she's usually written at all -- but then here she's the one who comes out and lays down the Divine Right law, promises the Golden Age, etc. In a way she's still completely in charge of everything that "Augustus" (as opposed to Octavian) means, which is v. appropriate.

On a completely different note, I got Miles in Love out, mainly to read "Winterfair Gifts." I think the cover art is getting worse as the series goes on: here M. is clearly taller than Ekaterin, and in spite of being several steps down the staircase from her! (I am not going to comment on the red latex gloves or the Star Wars costuming.)
ricardienne: (Default)
That would be Hannah's, not Thomas'. Although I wish Thomas More had written a Regulus, because that would be pretty awesome.

I'm not sure why I am fixating on this right now, but tonight I read my second post-classical Regulus play. I know of at least one more (Crowne -- the introduction makes it out to be unbelievably bad, possibly worse that the Havard, so that should be exciting).

Hannah More based her play on either a play or a long poem of an Italian poet, so I don't know which plot elements can fairly be called hers, and which are borrowings. But basically, this play had most of what I wanted in Regulus fanfiction an expansion of the story: there were no Carthaginian secret agents, in fact there were no villains, and the one character (the consul Manlius, more on whom later) who is presented as slightly less than good, turns out to be the Second Most Virtuous Roman. The plot mostly focuses around Regulus' family: son Publius (historically, either Gaius or Marcus, but we'll let that pass), daughter Attilia, and protegé and now tribune Licinius. Most of the play is Regulus storming on about virtue, with Publius protesting that he can't abandon his filial duty (but: "are you a son, or are you a Roman?"), Attilia weeping and wailing, and Licinius telling himself that if they can just save Regulus, he'll thank them later. There is also a small love triangle between Publius, Attilia's Carthaginian slave Barce, and Hamilcar, the Carthaginin ambassador, and a sort of half-baked romance between Licinius and Attilia. And Manlius appears to hit on Regulus at one point, just to complete the romantic entanglements, but I assume that wasn't intentional on the part of the authoress.

More follows Horace, in general, more than Havard, and this a good thing. (I think Horace is the most extended classical version, but I should probably check Appian, or Dio, or something). For my purposes, this means there is a hilarious/thrilling scene in the senate when Regulus refuses to sit (can a slave sit in the presence of senators?), then Publius jumps up (can a son sit while his father stands?) and Regulus more or less tells him to sit down and shut up (and if you were really a good son, you'd obey me). I think that the promise of this sort of thing is why I am hunting down Regulus sources: open discussion of hierarchy in terms of who is sitting when. I admit that this has fascinated me at least since I connected us all standing up in elementary school orchestra concerts when the director walked, with all of those scenes of standing up: when the judge comes in, when the President comes in, when, in movies and plays, the king came in, and realized that it was the same thing. Then I wondered whether it was supposed to be as meaningless a gesture as I mentally treated it, or whether I was actually supposed to be feeling some sort of sense of inferior status and/or respect due. Then I started to obsess, and the rest, as they say, is history. In my case, the history of rather a lot of my thought.

But anyway, what I liked about More's treatment of Regulus was that it mostly wasn't about Regulus. It was more about all of the people around him as they variously Don't Get It, then, Get It But Wish They Didn't, and, eventually, Come to an Understanding of It.

That said, I had one major personal issue with this treatment:
African vs. Roman. Now, in general, I don't get that uncomfortable with Roman moral division between themselves and "Africans." There are political reasons (124 year war, for example, plus that unpleasantness with Cleopatra later), and cultural prejudices going on that I don't feel guilty about, because I can distance myself. The Romans can be pretty condescending/prone to rude stereotypes about the Greeks, the Persians (as are the Greeks, obviously), the Germans, and provincials of all types, including people from the 'wrong' parts of Italy. But when an Anglo-American (obviously, Hannah More is only the former, and I probably shouldn't take them together, England having a different (maybe less problematic) history of race than we do, but I'm not talking so much about slavery as about racial attitudes in general) makes a big deal about this, I do get uncomfortable. And I couldn't help but read more into "African" than "Roman generalization about people from Africa" when the two Carthaginian characters most profoundly, and, actually, alone of the characters, didn't get it. They admired the amazing virtue and honor of the Romans, but completely failed to understand it. There was a really iffy scene where the Carthaginian ambassador decides that he's going to show Regulus that Carthaginians have honor too, and so offers to let him escape. Regulus rants a refusal, of course, but the ambassador doesn't even get that he doesn't get it. Very awkward.

Three further observations:

1. About half way through, around the time when Regulus won his son over, I started to think about the division that seemed to be happening men Getting It and women Not Getting It. Obviously, women:emotion::men:reason, particularly with all the exhorting to repress ummanly passions that was going on. This was mostly confirmed when Attilia finally Gets It, although with much suffering and weeping, and makes the interesting claim that "Roman virgins should be better than women" i.e. not be weepy and wimpy. Again, clearly not original with More or her era, but nice to see a default vs. potential identity being applied. (On the other hand, what finally pushes Attilia into fortitude is her father's comment that since she can't do anything useful for the state, she can at least not embarrass him by making a scene.)

2. The more interesting division into Getting It and Not Getting it happened by class. By the end, we get a huge confrontation between the senators, led by Manlius, and the people, led by the still-misguided Licinius. The moral, as expounded by Regulus when he finally 'shames' the masses in acquiescence, is certainly "listen to your betters, damn it, because you're fools." And certainly, barring the Carthaginians, who never Get It, Licinius Gets It even later than Attilia, making patrician vs. plebeian possibly the more telling distinction. Except, of course, they are all Romans, and all basically committed to Doing the Right Thing. I should probably find out how (or whether) this is is relevant to Hannah More's politics, which I suspect it is, but I don't feel like it right now.

3. An amusing "hasn't language changed in 175 years moment" occurred when Manlius apostrophized Regulus as "thou awfully good Roman."

So. I think that's all for tonight.
ricardienne: (Default)
I have an acoustics exam tomorrow, but I really don't want to study, which is stupid, but instead, I'm reading Regulus: A Tragedy. I think it is quite possibly the lamest play I have read, certainly in a while. Part of the problem, I think, is that the Regulus story is basically a martyrdom story: exceedingly virtuous person does an exceedingly virtuous and upright thing even though it will kill him. The interest, I would think, should be internal. I'm imagining a successful play as something like Murder in the Cathedral, possibly centering around interaction with his wife.

Instead, we get all of these random and Carthaginian secret agents, whose only motive for wanting to Betray Their Country seems to be generally evilness and (also general) hatred of Regulus. They seem to be the main characters, actually, in terms of stage time and number of lines. The chief secret agent is also in love with Regulus' daughter, who is in love a worthy young man who had left Rome voluntarily to follow Regulus into captivity. (How this would work, since Regulus was, you know, captured in battle, and presumably, traveling out to North Africa for the purposes of surrendering to the enemy would be rather frowned on by prospective father-in-law.) There are lots of stupid speeches: Regulus and Decius (the Worthy Young Man) expound a lot about Roman Virtue, and the villains make wimpily angsty remarks about how much they hate Regulus. I am also disappointed that Regulus, on first meeting, got all lovey-dovey with his wife, instead of making some dramatic gesture of self-exclusion. And besides this (and some totally anachronistic ripping-off of Aeneid 6) Which is why, of course, I've been reading it straight through.
ricardienne: (Default)
So I started Roman Revolution this week. Syme is very entertaining, not least because he thinks he's Tacitus. Which makes it very readable. This is my favorite quote so far:
That the private life of the Caesarian soldier [sc. Antony] was careless, disorderly, and even disgraceful, is evident and admitted. He longed to a class of Roman noles by no means uncommon under Republic of Empire, whose unofficial follies did not prevent them from rising, when duty called, to services of consicuous ability or the most disinterested patriotism. For such men, the most austere of historians cannot altogether suppress a timid and perhaps perverse admiration. A blameless life is not the whole of virtue, and inflexible rectitude may prove a menace to the Commonwealth.*
*Tacitus commends to the voluptary Petronius, an excellent proconsul of Bithynia (Ann. 16, 18), Otho, who governed Lusitania with integrity (ib. 13, 46) and took his own life rather than prolong a civil war (Hist. 2, 47) and L. Vitellius: 'eo de homine haud sum ignarus sinistram in urbe famam, pleraque foeda memorari; ceterum regendis provinciis prisca virtute egit' (Ann. 6, 32). The same historian's cool treatment of the virtuous Emperor Galba will not escape notices (Hist. 1, 49)-- 'magis extra vitia quam cum virtutibus'.
In other words: the wicked and debauched are sometimes more fun, and it's okay to like them (I love the juxtaposition of austere historians and their timid and perverse admirations -- it makes me think of elderly British dons doing a Walter Mitty) because Tacitus did to. I think this is an excellent rule for historiography.
ricardienne: (Default)
Admittedly, I read it skimmingly.

1. Best line: "Gentle Achates, fetch the tinderbox." I suppose bronze-age peoples probably did use flint and tinder to make a fire, but even so.

2. Lesson learned: the whole damn thing could have been prevented if Aeneas had only taught his son not to take candy from strangers.

3. The end: it effectively counteracted any tragic sense induced by the introduction of Vergil's lines.


ricardienne: (Default)

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