17 September, 2007

If you can't trust your Latin teacher, whom can you trust?

(Tiberius:) Gaius Caligula, you are a marvel. I will make you my successor, and raise you as a serpent in the heart of Rome.

Is that a joke, uncle?

Not yet, but it will be!
I've been watching I, Claudius, a late 1970s BBC series, and three things about it amaze me.

First, how well written and acted it was. It's filled with hilarious phrases like the one above, where the Emperor Tiberius clearly insults Caligula at the same time that he promotes him. Or take this remark from the Empress Livia when she discusses with her husband Augustus what to do about marrying Claudius off:
Most women marry fools, but it takes them a while to find out. With Claudius, it's as plain as the nose on his face.
My wife would sympathize.

As for the acting: wow, Patrick Stewart had hair once! Okay okay, that's not an acceptable evaluation of his acting skills, but wow, he had hair once! Oh yeah, he did a nice job as Sejanus, too. Still, John Hurt as Caligula outshone even Stewart. The writers handed Hurt a delicious part, like a head on a platter, say, and while some of the actors seem to sleepwalk through the series, this fellow playing Caligula is unforgettable. Perhaps I've merely been blinded by the radiance of his divine face.

Second, the sound on the DVDs is atrocious, and there are no subtitles. I have to strain to understand the dialogue, and my wife has given up. This is true about several BBC DVDs I've seen. It's irritating that the BBC, of all media companies, should put out such classic shows with such abysmal audio—and no subtitles! Even conceding that three decades of Thatcherism and New Labourism has likely decreased the subsidies, haven't they heard of "return on investment"? Abominable socialists with their ignorance of basic economics... That said, it's a little hypocritical of me to make that criticism, considering that I've been borrowing the DVDs from the local public library. Moving on...

Third, much of the film corresponds remarkably to the histories my high school Latin teacher told us of the first emperors of Rome. Especially that bit about the empress Livia poisoning pretty much anyone who stood in her son's way, including her husband Augustus. Down to smearing poison all over the fig tree to which he resorted once he realized his own wife might be trying to poison even him!

So I was at first impressed by the historical accuracy, that a television show should so closely follow my Latin teacher's account of Imperial history. Then I went onto Wikipedia and learned that... well, the actual history may well be different. The series is based on a book by the early 20th century novelist Robert Graves, who was writing a novel, not a history. So, he filled it with the juiciest stories he could find, especially when they fit with his own preconceptions of how the world works. As I understand it, this approach makes him a very good historian.

(My sincere apologies to Clemens; I mean no offense. I'm referring to Herodotus, of course, as well as some of Graves' sources.)

Here's an example of what I mean, from today's version of the Wikipedia article:*
Graves was selective in his use of the ancient sources (primarily Tacitus and Suetonius), not always following their assessments. ...[T]he worst allegations against Tiberius and Caligula are repeated as fact, while similar allegations against Augustus focus on Livia's influence.
Whom should I trust, then? Robert Graves and my Latin teacher, whose graduate degree in Latin was from the University of William and Mary?** or should I trust Wikipedia instead? If you can't trust your Latin teacher, whom can you trust? Si doctrina magistrum vera non erit, quia auscultare?***

For myself, I'm somewhat partial to Wikipedia's warning. The series portrays Tiberius as a little too indifferent and incompetent to believe. Caligula, by contrast… Wow. have I mentioned what a great job the actor did?

On the other hand, I find this interesting: Wikipedia notes that several Roman emperors who traditionally have been esteemed as wicked or insane (Caligula, Nero, others) may be the victims of biased sources. The articles imply that the emperors' popularity with the people suggests a more complicated story. For example,
Though very popular with the Roman public throughout his reign, all surviving ancient sources write that Caligula was an insane tyrant.
However, some ancient sources also indicate that Nero was quite popular with the common people during and after his reign.
Maybe I'm reading those however's too strongly, but should popularity should be grounds for sanity, especially if this popularity is based on draining the treasury to curry favor with the mob? Both Caligula and Nero appear to have done precisely that. Even the mob has been known to change its mind when such masters lack, or lose, their ability to govern. Personal corruption adds spice to the story, especially when it's true. Last year's election comes to mind.

I have quite a few more episodes to go, so I won't be finishing the series anytime soon.

*The usual warnings regarding Wikipedia apply. The top of the page today warns that,
This article or section is in need of attention from an expert on the subject.
Now, there's an understatement. Can they put that warning on the home page?

This is the biggest problem with Wikipedia; any fool can edit any article, and a number of fools often do. I should know! I have personally contributed to a few mistakes on Wikipedia at one point or another. One of them was especially egregious; I realized my error a day or two later, and fixed it immediately, but that only proves the point.

**My Latin teacher had a great deal of potential, and I learned a great from her, about life as well as Latin. Sadly, she was saddled with half-wits. Guidance counsellors in our district tended to regard Latin, an unpopular language with few enrollees, as a dumping ground for students who weren't sufficiently motivated to choose the barbaric languages of Spanish, French, or—eeyugh—German. Even that wasn't sufficient to preserve Latin at my school; after my freshman year I had to leave school during the middle of the day to take a school bus to another high school for Latin.

***Latin experts can laugh all they want, but for a brief moment I looked edjumacated, no?


Clemens said...


Glad you have discovered the delights of "I Claudius". I watched it the first time it ran having already read both Graves' novels. He based it mainly on Suetonius, though he did a lot of other research too. You might say he had a few axes to grind - having survived the trenches of WWI he retired to a lovely island off the coast of Spain to write "Good-bye to All That." "All That" being virtually everything that supposedly made the British Empire great.

He makes it clear in the novels that we are to make the connection that the Roman Empire = the British Empire = the Evil Empire. He was not interested in the latest research on the era. In fact, back when he wrote the novels the latest research hadn't yet been done.

I agree with everything you say about the series. Caligula was great, and the actress who played Livia was the best of a brilliant lot. It was heady stuff to see here in America on PBS, even though the wimps over here cut scenes that were considered a little too 'adult' for American audiences.

As for Latin, I was in my little country barbershop the other day, watching a truck driver overseeing his two kids getting haircuts, when I saw a teenager wearing a shirt that said on it "Bona lingua sola, lingua mortua est." He said it was for his high school Latin Club. I was charmed.

Clemens said...

One more thing:

I think I should add "This article or section is in need of attention from an expert on the subject" to my blogs, at least, if not to all political blogs of any sort.

jack perry said...

That is a great T-shirt. I need one of those.

...even though the wimps over here cut scenes that were considered a little too 'adult' for American audiences.

I agree that there's nothing gratuitous about the scenes of nudity. Did they cut any of the violence? I didn't think there was that much.

jack perry said...

By the way, I appreciate your comment. I haven't read the novels (though I really want to, now) and I didn't realize that Graves meant to equate the British Empire and the Roman Empire.