Most recent update:6/1/2004; 5:08:50 AM

 Saturday, May 15, 2004


Well, yesterday was the debut of the film at Cannes and so we get another wave of coverage which took me forever to wade through. As might be expected in 'entertainment society', some of the actors were asked to be intellectual about the content of Troy as if acting the role gives them some special insight into the nature of Homer. Here's some stuff in this vein from Common Dreams (a "progressive" source):

The British actress, who plays Andromache in the film, said: "What's interesting for me about Troy and the story of The Iliad is its the eternal question of the futility of war, the weariness of war, and a terrible sense of dêjá vu of what the Trojans faced and what we face today."

The story, in which the Greek kings played in the movie by the British actors Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson, lay waste to Troy by use of the fabled wooden horse, was entirely pertinent to today, she said.

"You cannot watch a film that's a historical story without being somewhat informed by what we're all living through at the moment. I find it makes our story even more powerful. We're living in a time of great trouble," she said.

Pitt, who plays Achilles, said: "There's no way if you read The Iliad that you can't make a comparison."

The tragedy of war and the deaths it causes in the Greek classic were themes that clearly resonated today, he said.

But he added that the research he carried out for the physically demanding role suggested that what Homer, the author of The Iliad , wanted to show was an "acceptance of a greater humanity" and "how we get past these hatreds and resentments that build between us".

The 'homoerotic' side of Achilles is starting to pop up as well. A piece in the Australian includes the following tidbit:

Before the film's release this week, Petersen and his colleagues were extremely secretive about how much Troy would differ from Homer's original but Achilles at least has emerged as a traditional tortured hero rather than the (to us) more sexually ambiguous figure Homer described.

Now I'm confused ... isn't Homer traditional? On the review side of things (and the "rolling on the floor laughing my guts out" side as well), comes the review from Vincent Crampton of the Orlando City Beat, which includes:

Remember high-school English class, when you were assigned to read The Ilias? Years later, that wearying read has become an epic movie, Troy, starring Brad Pitt.

Just to refresh you, greedy King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) has conquered nearly every Adriatic nation except Troy. His brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) has made peace with Troy, but Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) decides he loves Menelaus' wife, the scrumptious Helen (Diane Kruger) and abducts her. This gives Agamemnon his excuse to attack Troy and defeat King Priam (Peter O'Toole)

Vince must have gone to high school in the seventies ... I don't remember much from those, ahem, times either. More reviews can be found in the Business Times  , the San Francisco Examiner , the Kalamazoo Gazette  , the Journal Times  , WESH , and the Portland Tribune , although none of them really say anything we haven't read before. There is a good roundup of soundbite quotes from various press reviews in the Guardian and at the BBC. I don't think I'll bother with reviews anymore (if any are forthcoming) ... hopefully we'll begin to see some good comments from Classicists on this in the press (as we did from New Testament scholars in regards to The Passion). A beginning of this, perhaps, can be seen in the interview with Peter Jones and Michael Wood at the BBC (realaudio ... I'm sorry if Michael Wood's comments make you gag). It would be really useful if we saw some non-nit-picky stuff -- i.e. no rants about there not being gods in the flick, but informed comments on costumes and the like. When there are major deviations from Homer's text, perhaps they can be used as a point of departure to get folks to read, say, some Aeschylus.

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GOSSIP: Empire Saved

A while ago we mentioned that budgetary considerations were threatening the production of the ABC-attempt-to-cash-in-on-the-popularity-of-the-ancient-world-series-called-Empire ... seems it will be saved:

ABC is planning to stick with its limited series "Empire" despite budgetary bloat and some behind-the-scenes shuffling. The show's run is likely to be reduced, however.

The network has decided to keep shooting the series, which is set in the Roman Empire in the days following Julius Caesar's (Victor Garber, "Alias") assassination. Its order will probably be cut back from eight to six episodes, however, to contain cost overruns.

Fluctuations in the exchange rate between the dollar and the euro and inaccurate projections of "Empire's" budget led ABC to consider pulling the plug on the series, which focuses on Caesar's nephew Octavius (Santiago Cabrera) and gladiator Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), who flee Rome following Caesar's death to protect the emperor's bloodline. [Zap2It]

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REVIEW: From Scholia

David Braund and John Wilkins (edd.), Athenaeus and his World: Reading Greek Culture in the Romen Empire

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CHATTER: Say What?

A piece on matters relating to torture in the Pakistan Daily Times suggests:

The dehumanisation of individuals is part and parcel of the military training process. To claim that armies do not engage in torture is about as naïve as the childish claim that soldiers do not rob, rape, and terrorise. An army that does not torture, kill, abuse, rape and terrorise is, in some respects, useless. After all, the army is not a pacifist institution made up and run by hairdressers.

The documentation of torture and abuse of prisoners is also a norm in all armies. One simply has to look at the frescos and statues in Athens to see that the celebration of blood and gore and downright murder and mayhem goes back to antiquity.

While I don't disagree with the point being made, I can't help but wonder at the sources this guy is apparently drawing on (and it's interesting that nothing Near Eastern is mentioned).

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CHATTER: A Roman Frontier Post now Online

The intro from the Scotsman is probably best for this one:

IT REMAINS one of the most remarkable Scottish archaeological excavations of all time, carried out by a self-taught amateur, and without the benefit of the aerial photographs and geophysical surveys that are considered essential today.

A hundred years ago a Melrose solicitor, James Curle, was hatching plans to unlock the secrets of the largest Roman settlement in Scotland, where Agricola’s army of 2,000 soldiers and 1,000 camp followers developed a sprawling fort and annexes on 340 acres in the lee of the Eildon Hills from 80AD.

His attention to detail in the project for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and the 420-page report he produced after the work at Trimontium was completed, survive as classic examples for modern Roman scholars and would-be archaeologists.

But copies of Curle’s A Roman Frontier Post and Its People have become relatively rare, often changing hands for £150 or more.

Now, thanks to an initiative by the Trimontium Trust, the book, complete with photographic plates and many of Curle’s pen and ink drawings, has been given its own internet site. [more]

And, of course, the site is worth a visit ...

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CHATTER: Omigod! Someone At the Globe Has Read the Iliad!

If nothing else, a major benefit of this Troy flick appears to be that journalists in Canada are starting to read something Classical for a change. Or at least one is (and context suggests it's 'for the first time'), and since it seems (to me) to be such an unsual situation, I won't put it in the 'Trojan Roundup' -- check out this piece from Ian Brown in the Globe and Mail which ties the Iliad to the situation in Iraq:

I was reading Homer's Iliad when the pictures from Abu Ghraib began to appear.

It was an unusual experience. One moment I was swimming through 15,693 lines of hexametric verse -- long stretches of which-god-did-what-infantile-thing-to-whom, interrupted by splurts of eye-poking gore and knockout stanzas of shattering beauty about rage and revenge. The next I was trying to decipher a digital snapshot of -- well, what was that square of interlocking human flesh supposed to be? And why did Private Lynndie England and her lover, Specialist Charles Graner, keep grinning and doing the thumbs up in their house of horror?


The plot centred on Hector, the prince of the ancient city of Troy, and his two great enemies: Agamemnon, the big boss of Greece, and Agamemnon's reluctant ally Achilles, Greece's most deadly soldier. Agamemnon was attacking Troy -- now, pay attention here -- to avenge his brother Menelaus, whose wife Helen (the face that launched a thousand ships) had flown the coop to Troy to be with her lover, Paris, Hector's brother -- really, it's more complicated than an episode of The O.C. Then Agamemnon commandeers Achilles' war loot (a hotty named Briseis) -- and this offends Achilles so much that he sulks off to his tent and refuses to fight, which in turn almost scuppers Agamemnon's campaign.

Perhaps that seems farfetched. But the Bush Administration launched an unsanctioned "pre-emptive" invasion of Iraq. Anyone not on-side was cut out of the oil and rebuilding contracts. This so infuriated France and Germany they refused to send troops -- one reason the U.S. is in trouble today, and why Pfc. England had to lend a hand dehumanizing the inmates.

Change a few details, it's almost the story of the Iliad, which has been around for nearly 3,000 years. Homer seems to have known what he was talking about.


"I can't think of a single incident of torture in The Iliad, or the Odyssey," Bernard Knox told me. He should know: At 90, he is still a pre-eminent classicist, and his introduction to the new Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad is the best guide there is to the poem. Still, he sounded surprised to have made his torture discovery. "There's the Cyclops, of course, who eats people. But he's a monster. He's not human. There are examples of mass butchery in Roman history. But anything quite like this sort of torture and sexual degradation, I don't know of."

That isn't to say torture doesn't work. But torture must blunt the judgment of the torturer: How else can you explain the presence of Lynndie England and her cohorts in their own photographs? They claim they were ordered to pose, but the testimony of Specialist Jeremy Sivits -- to say nothing of the glee in their faces -- suggests otherwise. Did they not imagine the pictures would be seen? Did they not care? Surely the only way you could pose for such photographs is by refusing to imagine any perspective but your own -- not even that of your mother seeing you on the front page of the paper back home, say, or that of Pfc. England's child, as yet unborn, 10 years from now, seeing mom heeling a naked, dark-skinned man on a dog leash.

Mind you, Hector's death is not the end of The Iliad. The end comes only after Hector's father, old King Priam (hence priapic: the man had 50 sons) begs Achilles for Hector's body. He asks Achilles to imagine his own dead father, and how the older man might have mourned Achilles had he been the one to die at Hector's hand -- to imagine a point of view other than his own, and thus to renounce his arrogance. They share a meal, talk into the night, and Achilles hands over Hector. In that moment Achilles becomes a human being -- fatally so, as it turns out. Robert Fagles calls it "one of the most beautiful things in all of literature."

I read the passage one last time, and put the The Iliad down. Already the moral valence of the Abu Ghraib affair was reversing itself, as the al-Qaeda beheading of an American named Nicholas Berg darkened the Internet. The Abu Ghraib jailers were creepy, but America's enemies were judged creepier.

I turned on the TV. There was Donald Rumsfeld, the chagrined but newly humanized Achilles of America, holding what looked like a town meeting -- in Iraq, of all places. He'd stopped reading the newspaper, he said, and was looking through a Civil War book about Ulysses S. Grant instead. Personally, I would have suggested The Iliad.

Well why didn't you? Think nationally, act locally.

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AWOTV: On TV Today

3.00 p.m. |DTC| Hannibal
No shortlist of the greatest generals in history would be complete
without the name of Hannibal, who was both feared and respected by
his enemies. Hannibal's tactical genius is illustrated with exciting
dramatic reconstructions of his victories.

4.00 p.m. |HISTU| Ancient Discoveries: Ancient Computer?
Journey back in time for an eye-opening look at the amazing ancient
roots of technologies we like to think of as modern. New research
suggests that many of the inventions of the last 200 years may, in
fact, have already been known to the ancients. In Part 1, we explore
the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient machine that was discovered
deep in the Aegean Sea. Could it perhaps have been an ancient
computer? Could Archimedes have had a hand in its creation?
5.00 p.m. |HISTU| Ancient Discoveries: Galen, Doctor to the Gladiators
In this fascinating series, we examine ancient inventions once
believed to have been created in modern times, and test the wits of
ancient inventors against some of the world's great modern inventors.
Part 2 uncovers the revolutionary work of Galen, the great Roman
doctor to the gladiators, who was performing brain surgery 2,000
years ahead of his time. We also explore the sophistication of Roman
medicine and compare it to modern techniques.

6.00 p.m. |HISTU| Ancient Discoveries: Heron of Alexandria 
In Part 3, we travel to Alexandria, Egypt--the home of inventors and
philosophers in ancient times. One of the greatest inventors was
Heron of Alexandria, a Greek mathematician, geometer, and worker in
mechanics, who taught at the famous Museum. His strange inventions,
such as automaton theaters--puppet theaters worked by strings, drums,
and weights--automatic doors, and coin-operated machines, were famous
throughout the ancient world. 

11.00 p.m. |HINT| The Greeks
Story of the brave Greek warriors who adorned themselves in gold,
fought under Alexander the Great, and became a virtually unstoppable
ancient war machine. Host Richard Karn.

Channel Guide

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