Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Bush and Caligula

I would not be surprised if, given our Emporer's wacky interpretation of world events and his summer reading, and the potential influence of the new HBO series, "Rome," he decided to emulate Caligula, and wage war on the ocean in revenge for hurricane Katrina. I can imagine the strategy exactly. Rather than hitting the Gulf stream directly, he could suggest that the troops gather on the shoreline in another region, perhaps the Atlantic coast of France, in order to launch a surprise attack and of course, draw the terrorists there in order to keep them from us here. Line up and start picking up seashells, men!
I'm thinking about ancient Rome because I was cleaning out my office in preparation for the new year, and found a packet of instructional materials sent to me by HBO, which is marketing its series as a supplement to ancient Western civ. classes at the college level. Some of the sample activities suggested in the packet include having students research Roman "unemployment" and the "grain dole" in Rome, and to compare it to issues surrounding American welfare. This sounds reasonable, right? But, not to a historian, because unless you're Andre Gunder Frank, you don't think Ancient Rome was an example of a capitalist economy, so it's hard to see how "unemployment" as a concept even makes sense.
I'm sure the students will all want to research Roman sex. There's a lot of it in the first episode. I can see it now, "And now students, please go home and do your assignment of watching soft-core porn interspersed with battle scenes and assasination plots." I do have a question though, to which I couldn't find the answer. Did the Romans really have sex in front of their slaves?
The fact is that all Ancient history profs. will now be forced to watch the series in order to respond to such questions in class, but I am amazed at HBO's pretense to academic seriousness with a show that Newsweek describes as "I, Claudius on Viagra."
I did teach ancient history once, and I recognized some actual historical events in the first episode, but like a lot of historical dramas, its focus on historical accuracy seemed to be on costume and set design rather than on say, language. It's not that I expected them to speak Latin, or put all the verbs at the end of the sentence, but is is because of "I, Claudius" that all the characters in Rome speak with British accents? Who knows, but judging from what I've seen so far, I think it comes from Suetonius who's a lot of fun, but my 8th grade Latin teacher told me to take him with a "serious grain of salt."
It does seem apropos for "Rome" to be the new media sensation; maybe a really historically accurate Rome makes great 21st century TV because of all the sex, violence, animal sacrifice, etc. That says something about our contemporary empire...we'll watch "bread and circuses," but with a critical, perhaps an "ironic" eye. In all the presentist questions on HBO's packet, why is that no one asks, "What was the effect of the empire's spread on the political character of the Roman republic?" Now that's something that concerned even the Romans.


Anonymous said...

I think the thing about hurricane Katrina that makes me feel the most like I am reading about some failed civilization is that they put the poor folks in the Superdome. (I Can't believe I am capitalizing Superdome but I think that's correct).
New Orleans is built below sea level and on the gulf coast but the shelter of last resort when there is a hurricane, the most stable and permanent structure is a football stadium. What kind of priorities are those?
Part of the roof of the dome blew off and there is no air conditioning. The national guard let people sleep under a ledge outside. Mind you according to reports it was not cots spread across the playing field but as far as I could tell people were in the seats. Maybe they were given some foam "we're number one" fingers as pillows.

reb said...

that is a very good, and very sad point you make, Matt.

Anonymous said...

So far... just from seeing two episodes ... I find the tv series for HBO entitled " Rome " ... as nothing more than rated x crap , cloaked in " historical " (they wish ) worth. No, to answer you ... they did not have their slaves watch them during ... let's call it mating acts. They may have well watched the slaves ( I'd not doubt ) but they would have found this behavior ( being watched by underlings ) as insulting.