Monday, June 27, 2011

The Eagle – Review

There's nothing like the boredom of hot summer months. Makes you do the darnedest things, like watch Hollywood movies set in ancient times. You know they're gonna stink, but you watch them anyway. So a few days back I sat down with a beer and watched “The Eagle.

Here's the thing: “The Eagle” is an action-adventure movie, and it counts on your suspension of disbelief. Grant it that, and it not a painfully bad movie. It has a bunch of historical anachronisms, not worse than other movies of its kind (the most annoying for me is the consistent use of stirrups – thought Hollywood would eventually learn, but they're there all the time). The action is also predictable – probably the result of being based on a book for teenagers. Oh, and the leading character's name is Aquila. Shesh! We get it already!

It's got Channing Tatum, with relatively convincing bangles (but that's about everything that's convincing about him), a likable Jamie Bell, who didn't shine, but made me somewhat curious to see what else he can do, and an underused and spectacular supporting cast. You'll recognized a lot of actors in secondary roles, but watch out especially for the talented Tahar Rahim from “The Profet”. I'll give you a piece of candy if you recognize him before his final scene. There are no women whatsoever in “The Eagle”, thus making it a passable chick flick, with a decent homoerotic storyline (but doesn't excel at that either).

The natives looked like ripped off from a prehistoric Mad Max. I don't claim I know how they looked back then – I only wish they weren't so cartoonized in “The Eagle”. I appreciated however that they weren't forced to speak English, and we, the viewers, had no idea what they said. Kinda put everything in a Roman perspective. (And, if the natives actually looked like that, made you understand why Romans used them for entertainment.)

Ignoring everything you know about fighting tactics and formations at the time, some of the battle scenes are really good. But the strongest feature of the movie is the eery landscape (is it so awful to say something like that about a movie?), highlighted by the great work of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (remember him from Lars von Trier's "Antichrist"?)

There are movies worth seeing, and there are movies that happen to be there on a rainy Sunday afternoon. If you've got nothing else to do, watch “The Eagle”, it won't make you wanna rip your eyeballs off.  

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Yet More Ancient Plumbing!
Flushed by W. Hodding Carter – Review

Yes, I know, I have a fixation with ancient plumbing and toilets. Is it creepy that I find them entertaining? Especially the ancient Roman toilets, where people could have a nice chat and catch up on the news and gossip while doing their... business.

Well, at least I'm not the only one with such a problem with ancient plumbing, as proved by “Flushed – How the Plumber Saved Civilization Proves”. W Hodding Carter is funny and charming and turned this book into a really easy reading experience.

The journey starts from the earliest times, spends a lot of time in ancient Rome, moves on to worse experiences in the overcrowded London a millennium and a half later, and ends up with our modern facilities. Everything is spiced up by the author's attempts to recreate ancient toilets in his own backyard. (He did it so we don't have to.)

Flushed is funny, relaxing, and kept me awake on an airplane trip, which says a lot.

Don't buy it if you're an expert in plumbing or the history of plumbing and you're looking to expand your knowledge into what's already your area of expertise. It's not technical, and doesn't bring anything new. (Even if it's not a technical manual on how to build your own ancient Roman plumbing system, it could have benefited from some pictures and illustrations – which, sadly, are not there.)

Also don't buy it if you're a history buff and you're going to frown upon every little inconsistency. The sources are secondary, at best, and the accuracy is questionable.

If you're everybody else on the planet, go ahead and read it. You'll treat your toilet with much more respect after that.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Differences Between Aphrodite and Venus – Part II – The Extended Family

Did you miss part I – Differences Between Aphrodite and Venus? Go check it out.

It took a while before Rome adopted Venus, but when it did, it went all the way. Like most Roman gods, Venus did not have stories of her own, just “inherited” those of Aphrodite. And one of those stories made her the central character for Rome's history.

See, Aphrodite caused the Trojan war by making Helen fall for Paris. She remained loyal to the Trojan side, lost the war, the city, Helen and watched as all inhabitants were killed or enslaved. But she did manage to help a handful of people escape from the burning ruins of Troy, including Aeneas, her own son. (What? Gods getting a bit of nepotism in play? No! Who would've thought?!)

Son of Aphrodite, who was now slowly turning into Venus, Aeneas had an odd behavior, rejecting love for duty and filial piety, and ended up founding the Roman Empire, and continued one of the most complicated family trees in history, which started with Zeus and Electra, continued with Aphrodite and Anchises, then with Rhea and Ares (at this point fully converted into Mars) and ended with the Julio-Claudian family.

Do you know any Julio-Claudians? Look at them carefully, they are descendants of at least three major gods. The most famous of the Julio-Claudians, Julius Caesar himself, couldn't stress enough his relation to Venus. In one of his classic conceited propaganda moves, Caesar issued a coin which depicted Venus on the obverse and Aeneas with his father on the reverse. The text on the coin was clear and simple: “Caesar”.

Caesar insisted on a form of cult that gave the Greek Aphrodite a very Roman name: Venus Genetrix – Venus the Mother, the Birth-giver. Makes you think what all those births did to her figure.

Caesar allegedly took an oath to dedicate a temple to Venus in Rome if he won the battle of Pharsalus – which he won. He commissioned the Venus Genetrix statue to a certain sculptor named Arkesilaos, who did what artist of the time did best: he copied a Greek original. The Roman Venus Genetrix, clothed with a peplos that only underlined her female forms, was copied after a Greek Aphrodite sculpted by the famous Callimachus.

Caesar took the opportunity to add a status of himself and one of Cleopatra in his new temple of Venus. I wonder how Cleopatra felt, when she was compared to Venus on a daily basis.  

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Between a Muse and a Mermaid, with a Touch of Harpy

That's a siren for you: a reversed muse, a degenerate mermaid, a harpy with a harp. C'mon, the harpy with a harp part is funny.

To begin with, the sirens looked like harpies: half women – half bird, with claws and wings. And even if the bird used to manufacture a siren was just a common and humble sparrow, they were by no means less threatening: the sirens' song drew sailors to their island like a magnet. The island was surrounded by sharp rocks, which tore boats apart, leaving the shipwrecked sailors to die on the sirens' island. The entire island was covered with the white bones of those unfortunate sailors, and the sirens used those bones to make musical instruments. Gruesome. Though it's not clear who ever managed to get so close to the island to get this accurate description.

A random muse

The sirens were descendents of the muses, daughters of either of Melpomene (who was initially muse of song, before becoming the muse of tragedy) or Terpsichore, the muse of dancing. Initially fair maidens who accompanied Persephone, they were transformed into bird-women and received their wings after Hades kidnapped Persephone, so that they could fly and find her faster. Others say that they got the feathers as punishment, because they weren't able to protect Persephone. And there are even some who claim that they were punished by Aphrodite, because they despised the pleasures of love and swore to remain maidens forever (but, seriously, we're too eager to blame Aphrodite for everything).

More random mermaids 

Because of their association with Persephone, queen of the Underworld, the sirens are sometimes considered the muses from below, offering inspiration to the damned and leading souls astray. Despite their association with sailors, sirens are not aquatic deities, even if they'll soon end up in a fishy form. See, they were so proud of their singing skills, which lured humans into their deadly trap, that they though they could challenge the muses to a duel. The scene is depicted on a Roman sarcophagus currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Sirens are often found in funeral art, because they're all-knowing creatures, like the sphinx, and thus they can help humans find their way in the world of the dead. Or because winged creatures look sort of cool.)

Needless to say, the sirens lost. So the muses plucked their feathers as punishment. No longer able to fly, the sirens adjusted and developed a fish tail, so that they could move at least in the water. Hence their association with mermaids. But sirens are not aquatic deities. For reasons that I fail to remember right now, it's important to keep that in mind.

Odysseus and Sirens. Image PD

The sirens could live only until a man heard their song and survived. The lucky one was Odysseus, returning from Troy, who tied himself to his ship mast, and thus heard the sirens' song, but could not follow them to their island of doom. (The Argonauts also passed safely by the sirens, but that's only because they had Orpheus aboard, who rocked way louder, so they couldn't hear a thing. So that doesn't count.)

So after that, the sirens killed themselves. The end.

Sirens were slightly resurrected during the Middle Ages, and popped up in various more or less documented writings. A certain Jesuit scholar wrote that women have “the glance of a basilisk and the voice of a siren – sight and voice together bringing voice and destruction”. Told you we should stop blaming Aphrodite for everything.  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

More Ancient Roman Sewers and Toilets in the News

Who doesn't like news from the sewers? Ancient Roman sewers, that is, and some toilets and aqueducts and everything you need to flush properly.

Archaeologists have recently uncovered one of Rome's 11 aqueducts known as Aqua Traiana (5 points if you've figured out why it's called like that.) They found it by accident (aren't all great discoveries made like that?) when they were looking for another aqueduct – good thing there were so many of them!

The basin that collected water is richly decorated, painted with the expensive Egyptian blue; it contains a nyphaeum and a small temple, and might have been inaugurated by Trajan himself. The site is currently a waste dump for a pig farm.

Another striking discovery comes from Portus (one of Rome's ports, close to Ostia) where archaeologists recently unearthed a small, but stylish amphitheater, which might have been used by visiting emperors. They also find an elegant Ancient Roman toilet there, with marble walls and floors and three seats, for the emperor to have company when he was... well, busy. Now archaeologists are collecting dump from this Ancient Roman toilet to find out what people ate back then. They have all the fun, really they do.

Last but not least, a few years back Emperor Vespasian's summer villa was found North of Rome. I don't have a description of its toilets, but there must have been some, therefore I found it fitting to include the discovery in this small collage. After all, Vespasian did die of diarrhea, a fitting punishment from the toilet god for introducing a tax on urinals in Rome.