Fall of Eagles: First Thoughts


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Apparently my requested reviews of I, Claudius inspired another reader to donate to my Paypal account and request a review of Fall of Eagles, a 1974 BBC miniseries. So my next couple of posts are going to be looking at this sprawling series. 19th century European history is a good ways outside of my wheelhouse—I’m not familiar with the current scholarship on Imperial Germany or Russia, for example—so watching the series was a fun expedition into a period I know less about than I would like. Unfortunately, that also means that I’m less likely to catch serious errors of fact or interpretation. Hopefully I won’t make too many mistakes in my comments.


Fall of Eagles tells the story of the end of three great empires brought to ruin by the Great War, namely Hapsburg Austria, Hohenzollern Germany, and Romanov Russia (each of which used an eagle in their heraldry hence the title of the series). It starts in 1848 and runs down to 1918, managing to cover about 70 years of history in 13 episodes. Unlike most miniseries, such as I, Claudius, Fall of Eagles is not a continuous narrative but is more like 13 fifty-minute plays that attempt to show the viewer the reasons why World War I was fatal to these three dynasties. Each episode focuses on one of the three states in question. The three Austria episodes are almost entirely self-contained in terms of their cast. The later Germany and Russia episodes do occasionally have some cross-over, with Kaiser Wilhelm II (Barry Foster) appearing in a couple of the Russia episodes. In some cases, the same actor plays a particular character in multiple episodes, while in others, the same person is played at a later stage of life by a different actor. Like I, Claudius, one fun element is spotting famous British actors in these historical roles. Among the bigger names in the series are Michael Gough, Freddie Jones, Gemma Jones, Colin Baker, Patrick Stewart (in a particularly impressive performance as Lenin), John Rhys-Davies, Miriam Margolyes, and Marius Goring. It’s amusing to watch Alfred Pennyworth plot to smuggle Captain Picard and Gimli son of Gloin into Russia to establish the Soviet Union.

One downside to this 13 short plays approach is that the episodes are somewhat inconsistent in their quality. Whereas most episodes of I, Claudius were written by Jack Pulman and therefore had a consistent voice and characterization, most of these episodes were written by different authors, with the result that the episodes veer in their treatment of various characters. Foster’s Wilhelm II is mostly a vain, foolish man given to absurd gestures such as mailing his cousin Nicholas II (Charles Kay) unwanted allegorical paintings, but in the last episode he suddenly becomes much more reflective, insightful, and serious; in some episodes he loves Nicholas, while in others he thinks the Tsar an idiot. In some episodes the Russian city is referred to as St Petersburg, while in others it’s Petrograd. In one of the Austrian episodes, the emperor is consistently referred to as the All-Highest, following the strict court protocols, but in the other episodes, he’s referred to more familiarly.


Willy loves fancy clothes

The series has a LOT of story to tell, and sometimes struggles to find a way to convey all the necessary information. The series mostly concentrates on the three royal families, but episode 9, “Dress Rehearsal,” rather jarringly focuses on the Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Izvolsky and his meetings with other European foreign ministers as he tries to orchestrate free Russian passage through the Dardanelles. Most of the episodes employ an omniscient third-person narrator (Michael Hordern), who explains developments like riots and battles as the series shows maps, line drawings, photographs, and early film footage. At other times, one of the characters offers in-story narration in the form of letters or diary entries from their point of view. The result is a valiant but not entirely successful mélange of drama, history lecture, and primary source reading that makes the series half-documentary, half-dramatization.

But if you watch the series closely, you realize that each episode shows one or more steps down the road to ruin. For example, episode 7, “Dearest Nicky,” shows how the 1905 Russo-Japanese War revealed Russia’s profound military weakness and how Wilhelm II tried to use the situation to persuade Russia to abandon its alliance with France and Great Britain. The failure of those negotiations meant that Russia remained committed to going to war against Germany even though it was clear that it lacked the resources to do so successfully. “Dress Rehearsal” deals with Austria’s decision to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina, thereby setting up the motive for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Peter Woodthorpe) in the next episode, and Izvolsky’s failed maneuverings reveal just how politically incompetent Russian leadership was by this point. So unlike most historical series, this one is actually intent on teaching the viewer something about the past more than just telling an entertaining story.

Another problem with the series is that it wasn’t willing to directly depict violence, even when that violence was integral to the story. Episode 4, “Requiem for a Crown Prince,” opens with the discovery that the Emperor’s son and heir has just committed suicide and closes with the narrator basically saying “Oh, by the way, the empress was assassinated a few years later.” Episode 10, “Indian Summer of an Emperor” culminates in the assassination of the Austrian Archduke, but the whole incident is simply described by someone rather than shown. In the next episode, “Tell the King the Sky is Falling” Grigory Rasputin (Michael Aldridge) is shown becoming an enormous problem for the Tsar’s government, undermining every attempt to solve the empire’s political problems. The next episode starts with the narrator essentially telling us “Rasputin was murdered and thrown into a river.” The whole effect is to somewhat obscure key moments in the narrative by shoving them off-screen. The fate of the Romanovs is only obliquely described by the German empress, leaving the viewer entirely in the dark as to why they were executed. Obviously, standards for violence on television were quite different in the 70s than they are today, but they could easily have shown scenes leading up to the violence and then cut away.

The series offers some fine performances. In addition to Stewart’s excellent turn as Lenin, there’s Foster’s pompous Wilhelm II, Gemma Jones’ bitter Empress Victoria of Germany, Rachel Gurney’s grieving Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and Gayle Hunnicutt’s increasingly neurotic Empress Alexandra. Kay manages to make Nicholas II simultaneously ineffectual and sympathetic, which is no easy feat.


The doomed couple

Overall, Fall of Eagles is not as good as I, Claudius, and in some ways it feels a bit like a dry run for the more successful BBC series that came the next year. But as a historical series that actually tried to educate its viewers, it’s an impressive experiment, though one that was never repeated (to the best of my knowledge).

As noted, this is a requested review. If there is a movie or tv show you would like me to review, please make a generous donation to my Paypal account and let me know what you would like me to review. If I can get access to it (and think it’s appropriate for this blog), I’ll review it. Just don’t make me review Empire again.


Want to Know More? 

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats.

Wonder Woman: Just a Few Thoughts


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I saw Wonder Woman last week. I loved it, despite a rather plebian third act that was, frankly, boring and generic. Patty Jenkins brought plenty of feminist elements to what might otherwise have been a rather weak Zach Snyder script. I thought I would offer just a thought or two about things that particularly connected to this blog’s purpose, namely history.


Spoiler AlertIf you’re one of the few people in the country who hasn’t seen the movie yet, you may want to put off reading this until you do, because I discuss a couple major plot points.


Wonder Woman and WWII

When I heard that the movie would be set during the Great War (World War I) instead of World War II, I was puzzled. Wonder Woman is in origin a World War II character. She debuted in 1941, and was to some extent a nod to the role women had taken in the US Armed Forces during the war. While women did not hold combat positions, they played a range of important roles during the war. WACs, WAVEs, WASPs, SPARs, Marine Corps Women’s Reserve members, and others served in a wide range of roles, including typists, secretaries, nurses, air traffic controllers, weather forecasters, interrogators, intelligence interpretation, drivers, mechanics, and even pilots. By 1945 , there were more than 100,000 American women in uniform, with 6,000 of them being officers. Several dozen US servicewomen died during the war and others became POWs, and many received Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, and other medals. So a female superhero was an obvious choice for a time when women were demonstrating their ability to directly contribute to the US war effort.

Wonder Woman’s origin involves an American pilot, Steve Trevor, crashing his plane near Paradise Island (later renamed Themiscyra). Although the comic never definitely stated where Paradise Island was located, it was broadly hinted that it is somewhere in the Pacific Ocean (although how Greek Amazons got to the Pacific Ocean was not explained). A location in the Pacific makes sense, since the US probably had a larger Air Force presence in the Pacific theater than the European theater and because Paradise Island was located a long way from civilization; it’s unlikely a solo American pilot in Europe could be a long way from civilization.

Wonder Woman’s original costume strongly emphasized her specifically American identity. Her costume is red, white, and blue; she has an eagle on her bustier; and her skirt is blue with white five-pointed starts.


Note her costume


In the early comics, she frequently fought Nazis and Japanese, as most superheroes did. Her first recurring villain was the German spy and saboteur Baroness Paula von Gunther. The villainous Dr. Poison was revealed to be a Japanese princess. Other Nazi opponents included Mavis and Gundra the Valkyrie. The Duke of Deception turned out to be the driving force behind Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union. In the 4th issue of Wonder Woman (April-May 1943), she led a group of marines in an attack on the Japanese, and for a while her battle cry was “Keep ’em flying”, a common WWII slogan.


Why the Great War? 

So initially I was really puzzled why the decision was made to push Wonder Woman’s origin back two decades and have her involved in the Great War instead. On the surface, it’s a little forced. The film has to contort things a bit in order to make the American Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) be able to crash on Themiscyra, given that the Americans only got into the war comparatively late, in April of 1917. Trevor must be a damn good spy to be able to fake being a German fighting ace and sneak into a secret munitions base in modern Turkey. Apparently in this film, Themiscyra is located in the eastern Mediterranean (which makes more sense in terms of the Amazon origin story, but not in terms of comics history).

But very soon after Diana (Gal Gadot) and Trevor get to Britain, I realized that transplanting Wonder Woman to the Great War actually makes good sense. Diana’s mission is to put an end to the whole idea of war by locating the god Ares and killing him. The idea of killing the very concept of war echoes the post-war notion that the Great War as the War to End All War, a war so awful it would teach people not to wage war. That makes Diana essentially the incarnation of this optimistic approach to the horrors of the war, and her essential optimism starts to seem both realistic and impossibly idealistic at the same time. Faced with the horrors of the Great War, how could she not want to end warfare once and for all, but how can she possibly accomplish such a huge goal?

The film positions her in a remarkably complex war that ought to serve as a good foil for her goals and idealism, because it is hard to say who were really the good guys and bad guys in this war, as opposed to just who were the winners and losers. As has been pointed out, however, the film betrays this approach by making it clear that the Germans really are the bad guys, since they’re willing to embrace Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and her murderous super-weapon, and Gen. Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is willing to negotiate an armistice in bad faith, while the British are sincere in their desire for peace.


General Ludendorff

Erich Ludendorff was a smart choice to serve as a major protagonist for a heroine who wants to end all war, because he was one of the most militaristic of German generals during the Great War. He was a brilliant general. He was an advocate for ‘total war’ in which the German military essentially took control of much of the German government and geared Germany’s economy toward the waging of war. Although he never completely accomplished that during the war, his approach still helped drive the collapse of the German economy by the end of the war. He pressured Kaiser Wilhelm II into permitted unrestricted submarine warfare against Britain, ignoring the warnings that sinking US ships might bring the US in to the war against Germany, which in fact happened after the sinking of the Lusitania. When an armistice was proposed in 1918, he advocated for using it to quickly rebuild and then launch a renewed attack on France. This was a man who truly was committed to warfare and so he makes a plausible candidate for the mortal incarnation of the God of War. And he was in Belgium in 1918, which is when the film has to be set.


Gen. Erich Ludendorff

However, he didn’t slaughter the rest of the German High Command, and he wasn’t killed in the waning months of the war. He survived the war, opposing the German surrender because he refused to accept that the German army could possibly be defeated; he denied reports that German army units were refusing to obey direct orders. He was suffering from severe sleep deprivation, which may account for his growing fanaticism at the end of the war. He was briefly exiled, but returned to Germany in 1919. After the war, as he began to be blamed for the failure of the war and the collapse of the German economy, he resorted to promoting the theory that the real reason for the German defeat was the ‘Stab in the Back’, the notion that the German army and government had been betrayed by unrecognized traitors in their midst. He blamed the Stab in the Back on German Jews, thereby helping promote the anti-Semitism that became such a major element of Hitler’s ideology. And he was an early supporter of Hitler, although he began to become disillusioned with the man during the 30s. He died in 1937 for liver cancer, not a sword through the chest.


Want to Know More?

Wonder Woman is still in the theaters, so it’s not available for home viewing yet. But you should read about Wonder Woman’s history, because it’s really interesting. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, lived a very…non-traditional life, and is credited with helping invent the lie detector (the Lasso of Truth…). He was a bondage fetishist, a female supremacist, and had a polyamorous marriage long before that was a thing. So take a look at Jill Lapore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

The Last King: Norwegians on Skis


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The Last King (aka Bierkebienerne, 2016, dir. Nils Gaup, Norwegian dubbed into English) tells a story famous among Norwegians but probably obscure to most other people of how two farmers saved the life of an infant king by taking him on a cross-country ski trip. But it doesn’t tell the story well. Or accurately.


The Norwegian Civil Wars

The period in Norwegian history from 1130 to 1240 is generally called the Norwegian Civil Wars because of a series of succession disputes. During these conflicts, two major factions emerged, the Baglars and the Birkebeiners. The Baglers were the faction of the aristocrats and the clergy, broadly speaking, while the Birkebeiners were essentially peasants and landless men who supported the power of the crown as a check on the aristocracy and clergy. There was also a geographic dimension to this struggle, with the Baglers dominating the southeast and the Birkebeiners dominating the west of Norway, especially around Trondheim. (The term ‘Birkebeiner’, incidentally, originated as a slur against them. It means ‘birch leggers’ and derives from Bagler claims that their opposition was so poor that they had to tie birch bark around their legs as clothing. In contrast, ‘Bagler’ refers to a bishop’s crozier, designating them as the party with ecclesiastical support.)

In 1177, Sverre assumed leadership of the Birkebeiners, married Margaret Eriksdottir, the daughter of the Swedish king, and reformed the Birkebeiners, purging the movement of its early criminal element. In 1184, he became king of Norway, but in 1194 he was excommunicated during a dispute with Church officials, which provoked another round of civil war. When he died in 1202, he was succeeded by his illegitimate son Haakon III, who got on poorly with his father’s wife. Margaret attempted to return to Sweden with her daughter Kristin, but Haakon prevented this. At Christmas in 1203, Haakon fell ill after undergoing a bloodletting, and died on New Years Day, 1204. Margaret was accused of having poisoned him, and one of her men underwent a trial by ordeal to prove her innocence. He failed, and she was forced to flee to Sweden without Kristen.


King Sverre

The unmarried Haakon was succeeded by his 5-year old nephew Guttorm, but the boy died in August of the same year. By this time, the Birkebeiners were politically ascendant, which alienated the Baglers, who put forward Erling Steinvegg, a supposed son of Sverre’s predecessor as king, with the support of the king of Denmark. The Birkebeiners favored Inge II Baardsson, the jarl of Trondelag. A low-level civil war ensued, which Inge essentially won by outliving Steinvegg in 1206, but the Baglers put forward another candidate and conflict continued.

However by 1206, it had became known that Haakon III had had an illegitimate child, Haakon, by a woman named Inga of Varteig. Inga was living in Bagler-controlled territory in the southeast of Norway, so when the Baglers starting hunting for her baby, a group of Birkebeiners fled with Inga and Haakon in the middle of winter, trying to reach King Inge in Nidaros (modern Trondheim). The party became snowed in, so two of the best skiers in the group, Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka, took the young boy and skied over the mountains from Lillehammer to Osterdalen and eventually got to Nidaros, where Inge took charge of the boy and raised him. The Baglers’ new candidate, Philip Simonsson, reached a deal with Inge in which Philip was given the eastern third of Norway to rule, but as a jarl rather than a king. He also married Kristin Sverresdottir.

Eventually, in 1217, when first Inge and then Philip died, the 13-year old Haakon emerged as one candidate in a four-way contest that also included Inge’s illegitimate son, Inge’s half-brother Jarl Skule, and a fourth candidate. Haakon had widespread support, especially after his mother Inga successfully underwent an ordeal to prove his paternity. Ultimately, Skule was made regent for the boy and given Philip’s portion of the kingdom, which he held onto until 1239. After years of resisting Haakon’s adult rule, he went into open rebellion, but Haakon’s men burned down the monastery he was in, killing him and ending Norway’s civil wars. Haakon emerged as a powerful king who played important role in German politics. He helped import broader European culture into Norway and his reign, down to his death in 1263, is often called Norway’s Golden Age.


Haakon IV

The perilous trip by Skevla and Skrukka was memorialized in the early 20th century with a cross-country ski race in Norway, and today there are no fewer than 5 Birkebeiner races, including three in Norway, one in Canada, and one in my home state of Wisconsin, with the American Birkebeiner being reportedly the largest cross-country ski race in the world.

The Last King

The Last King focuses entirely on the brief moment when the young Haakon’s life was in overt danger. The incident of the daring flight on skis is justly famous in Norway, so it makes sense to build a film around it. After a brief opening in which Skjervald (‘SHARE-vald’) Skrukka (Jakob Oftebro) is established as a simple farmer with a wife and child, the film focuses on political machinations, but sort of assumes the audience will understand who the characters are, so it does a rather poor job of explaining who people are.

Gisle (Paal Sverre Hagen) is the younger brother of Inge Baardson (Thorbjorn Harr). This character is a messy mix of Philip Simonsson and Jarl Skule, whose only clear motive is that Inge has always ignored him. Gisle is having an affair with the widowed Queen Margaret and hatches a plan with her to poison Haakon III. Her motive for participating in this is unclear, since the plan requires her to immediately flee home to Sweden while leaving her beloved daughter Kristin (Thea Sofie Loch Naess) in Nidaros, even though the plan is to somehow implicate Inge as the poisoner, based on the fact that he’s the ‘obvious’ person to want to kill Haakon. So when Haakon dies from Margaret’s poison, Gisle immediately orders Inge’s arrest.


Tom Green wasn’t available to play Gisle

The film establishes that there is a rift between the Baglers and the Birkebeiners and that it has something to do with the Baglars being allied to the Church and the Birkebeiners being the farmers, but it’s all very muddy. The Baglers are apparently based in the royal palace at Nidaros instead of in eastern Norway, but almost everyone else in Nidaros seems to be a Birkebeiner, including the chancellor of Norway. The fact that Gisle is apparently a Bagler while his brother is a Birkebeiner never seems to make anyone suspect that maybe Gisle is the bad guy here.

As he’s dying Haakon tells his men that he has an illegitimate young son in eastern Norway. Gisle announces that they want to rescue the previously unknown boy and bring him to Nidaros, while the villainous bishop of Nidaros, who is never given a name, declares that now is the time to end the rule of kings and let the Church rule everything, which Gisle seems to agree with, even though it would mean that he won’t get to become king. So the Bagler soldiers are given orders to kill the boy that Gisle has just announced needs to be rescued. Like I said, it’s all very messy, but it establishes the basic plot of the film, which is that the Birkebeiners need to save baby Haakon from the ruthless and nameless Bagler soldiers trying to kill him.


Inga and baby Haakon

The soldiers come to Skjervald’s farm, somehow knowing that he knows where the baby is, and they get the information out of him by threatening to kill his wife and son. After he tells them, naturally they kill the wife and son anyway because that gives Skjervald some manpain and a motive to hate the soldiers. He escapes by slapping on a pair of skis and eluding the soldiers long enough to get to the farm where Inga of Varteig (Ane Ulmoen Overli), her son (who seems to be about 6 months old), and Torstein Skelva (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju) are staying. But the evil soldiers show up right behind him and massacre everyone except Inga, who inexplicably survives, while Skjervald and Torstein flee on skis carrying the baby.


Skjervald, Haakon, and Torstein

This is the best part of the film. There’s some gorgeous camera work in the majestic Norwegian landscape, and the idea of an extended chase scene on skis feels pretty fresh. Our two heroes are clearly the better skiers, but the fact that there’s a blizzard setting in cranks up the tension. But the film falls into a pattern in which every time Skjervald and Torstein get to safety, the bad guys show up right behind them (apart from a brief break for sleep and character development), and somehow when they get to the next farm, Inga has magically gotten there first. Her sleigh-driver must be pretty damn good.

Meanwhile, there’s a really dreary sub-plot about Gisle wanting to marry Kristin. It keeps popping up to interrupt the main plot and theoretically provide some tension, but it’s hard to care very much about any of the people involved since their motives are undeveloped. It’s never even established that if Gisle marries her, it will give him a claim to become king.

Eventually, Skjervald and Torstein raise a small band of Birkebeiner fighters and decide to ambush the pursuing soldiers with a team of crack ski commandos. While sort of an interesting scene, it devolves into a highly improbable chase scene in which Inga’s sleigh is being pursued by the leader of the Bagler soldiers on horseback, while a trio of riderless horses pursue him, towing a wounded Skjervald behind them on his skis as he tries to kill the leader with an arrow. The horses rather improbably just keep running after the leader at full gallop for what seems like a mile or more without slowing down or veering off into the trees.

Ultimately, Skjervald saves Inga and the baby by killing the leader but dies in the process. Torstein gets the baby (who now seems to be at least two years old—I guess it was a really long chase) to Nidaros just in time to stop the villainous bishop from marrying the distraught Kristin to the villainous Gisle more or less over the corpse of the unwitting chancellor. Gisle, following the tradition of bland, uninteresting villains everywhere, just gives up without a fight.


Mawiage is what brings us togethew today

Inge is released from the dungeon and declares that he will ‘guard the throne’ until Haakon is old enough to rule. As the epilogue text tells us, “In 1217, 13-year-old Haakon Haakonsson took over the throne from Inge Baardsson and held it for 46 years. During his reign, there was peace in Norway.” That’s quite a simplification of what actually happened, but right in line with the film’s approach to the facts.

If you liked this review, you can support my blog by making a donation to my Paypal account.

Want to Know More? 

The Last King is available on Amazon.

So far as I know, there isn’t a good English-language book on the Birkebeiners’ famous escape on skis, but there is a really charming children’s book about the incident, Lise Lunge-Larsen’s The Race of the BirkebeinersIt’s never too early to get your children hooked on medieval history. It tells the story much better than this movie does.

If you’re looking to learn more about Norwegian history (and Scandinavian history in general), I strongly recommend T. K. Derry’s A History of Scandinavia, which covers all of Scandinavian history in about 450 pages. It’s a very good intro to the subject. There’s also Birget and Peter Sawyer’s excellent Medieval Scandinavia.

Empire: The Battle of Mutina


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I hate Empire with a surprising passion. I want nothing better than to forget the 6 hours I spent watching it, but somehow I just can’t seem to stop writing about this turd, sort of the way I couldn’t stop picking at a wart that I once had on my right hand, even though picking at it hurt in a bad way. The worst thing ever filmed about ancient Rome culminates in the Battle of Mutina, a very odd choice, but no odder than the other shit that gets dropped into this film.



The Battle of Mutina

Historically, the Battle of Mutina was a fairly minor conflict, usually barely even mentioned in modern histories of the Late Republic. In 43 BC, the negotiations between the Senate and Mark Antony broke down. Antony insisted on being given a 5-year governorship in Gaul, the way Caesar had before him. Gaul was close enough that Antony could swoop down into Italy if he disliked what was happening in Rome. But the post had already been given to Decimus Junius Brutus, one of Caesar’s assassins. So Antony laid siege to Decimus in Mutina (modern Modena). The two consuls, Pansa and Hirtius, and Octavian all hurried north with forces to break the siege. Antony’s army ran into Pansa’s forces and routed them, mortally wounding Pansa in the process, but then retreated as Hirtius’ troops showed up.

The two sides clashed again somewhere outside Mutina. The battle doesn’t seem to be well-enough documented to enable a full reconstruction of it, but it went poorly for Antony. Hirtius’ forces were able to attack Antony’s camp, but Hirtius was killed in the assault. Octavian performed well in the battle; when the standard-bearer was killed, Octavian took it up and carried it for an extended period. After the battle, the Republic was now without consuls. Decimus tried to take control of the troops, but Octavian refused to surrender control over them. So Decimus tried to flee to Macedonia where Brutus and Cassius were gathering troops, but he was caught and executed. Mutina helped establish Octavian as a major leader, despite being only 19, and created the conditions that forced Antony to make common cause with him against the Liberators. But it wasn’t the end of the struggle between Antony and Octavian by a long shot, since Octavian only finally defeated Antony at Actium in 31 BC, 12 years later.


Empire’s Version of Mutina

I was saddened to discover that instead of shelling out a couple of bucks for the DVD of this wretched miniseries, I could have just watched it on Youtube. But it does mean that you can have the pleasure of watching this shitty battle scene for yourself.

The set-up for the battle is all wrong. Pansa and Hirtius are nowhere around, having already been executed by Mark Antony (Vincent Regan), and poor Decimus isn’t even a character in the story. Instead, Antony has become a vicious tyrant in Rome and Octavius (Santiago Cabrera) has run off to Gaul and found Julius Caesar’s legendary 3rd Legion sitting around in Gaul for the past two decades. He’s persuaded them to fight. But they’re (of course) badly outnumbered; they’re just the remnant of the 3rd Legion and 20 years older than before, while Antony has six legions. (But don’t worry; being outnumbered never has any impact on the battle whatsoever.) Antony is accompanied by General Rapax (Graham McTavish) and Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), while Octavius has Marcus Agrippa (Chris Egan) with him. None of that makes any sense whatsoever, but you shouldn’t be surprised by that at this point.

The clip opens with Antony and Rapax on horseback. Rapax is so bad a bad guy that they’ve given him black armor, while Antony is proving he’s a bad guy by ordering Rapax to kill people during a battle. Antony’s armor has at least a vague resemblance to what actual Roman soldiers wore in this period (although he’s not wearing a helmet), while Rapax’s armor is just silly. But it’s positively museum-grade compared to the nonsense that Octavius and his forces are wearing, which is just a mishmash of generic crap armor.


I couldn’t find any pics from the Battle of Mutina, so here’s how a much better show dressed their Roman soldiers

The battle takes place in a forest. While we don’t really know much about the topography of the real battle, it’s pretty damn unlikely it was fought in a forest, because forests are lousy places to fight pitched battles. The trees and uneven terrain make keeping a solid formation nearly impossible, and loss of formation was typically deadly to Roman troops. Since both sides are Roman soldiers, they ought to be drawn up in very tight ranks, shoulder to shoulder, with multiple ranks standing behind the front line. The men on both sides ought to be carrying scuti, curved rectangular shields that cover much of the body, and gladii, short swords. Some of Antony’s troops are equipped roughly the way they ought to be, but are not in proper formation. Octavius’ troops, however, are just milling around in disorganized clumps, and are carrying anachronistic small round shields.

Antony’s forces come running through the trees in a disorganized mess, some of them on horseback. In this period, cavalry was usually kept on the wings of the army, used to make flanking attacks and to prevent the opponent from maneuvering on the field. Octavian responds by ordering his men to do an all-out charge (when in reality Roman advances were done at a slow run so as not to lose formation). Octavius’ archers then begin firing into the melee, presumably killing and wounding men on both sides. So we’ve established that no one involved in the production of this miniseries knew a damn thing about Roman warfare, or in fact warfare at all.

The battle is depicted as having no formation or structure at all, with individual pairs of combatants scattered around the battlefield, and troops from both sides coming in from both sides of the screen. After killing someone, the surviving combatant then looks around for another person to attack. So each man is fighting without any support from his fellow soldiers, and can easily be attacked from behind. Antony fights from horseback with a gladius, a really dumb thing to do, because on horseback a gladius isn’t long enough to reach foot soldiers. None of the principle characters wear helmets, obviously because the viewer has to be able to identify them. Normally I can accept that convention, but here, surrounded by so much egregious stupidity, it just looks moronic.


Vincent Regan makes a habit of appearing in things I violently dislike


Then at the 1:47 mark, Agrippa tells Octavius “they’re rolling over us.” Octavius’ response is to shout “hold the line!” This is stupid for two reasons. 1) It amounts to shouting “fight harder!”, which probably isn’t helpful battlefield advice to beleaguered troops, who are probably fighting as hard as they can not to die. 2) More importantly, THERE ISN’T A LINE TO HOLD, YOU IDIOT! YOU SENT THEM INTO BATTLE WITH NO FORMATION! ‘Hold the line’ means ‘keep in formation.’

Then Tyrannus, using his patented Badass Two-Gladius Fighting technique kills someone who says “Hail, Caesar,” like that means something, and Tyrannus realizes he’s fighting on the wrong side and decides to start killing Antony’s men, and his soldiers decide to switch sides too, becauase they’re none too keen to be fighting under a general named Rapax, I guess, because when you work for someone whose name is the ancient equivalent of Johnny McPsychopathicKiller, you probably start of suspect he’s a bad guy and you might be on the wrong side.

Rapax is just about to kill Agrippa when Tyrannus distracts Rapax by throwing one of his swords at him. In general, while throwing swords looks cool in movies, disarming yourself is a really dumb thing to do when you’re surrounded by guys who want to kill you. Then Tyrannus says “we who are about to die, salute you,” as he kills Rapax, because that sounds really cool and sort of clever if you don’t bother to think about it at all.

Then Antony meets Octavius and they fight. Despite the fact that Antony is obviously a much better fighter than Octavius, Octavius disarms him and forces him to surrender, but chooses to be merciful and not kill Antony. Historically, it’s correct that Antony survived the battle, because, as I explained last time, the two of them created an alliance and ruled the Empire jointly for several years before having their final falling out and fighting and Octavian winning and Antony committing suicide. But the miniseries presents Mutina as the end of the whole conflict, and suggests that Octavian became ‘Caesar’, by which it means emperor, in 44 BC, rather than in 31 BC. So not killing the deranged guy whose gone on a murder spree looks pretty dimwitted because what’s to stop him from throwing more orgies and trying to kill you with asps again? Still, the thought that they might have tried to cover the next 12 years of history and add a couple extra hours to this shitstain of a miniseries makes glad that everyone involved just threw up their hands and called it quits after Mutina.

I feel like a need an exorcism to get this thing out of my head.


This Klingon Beauty Queen is much more authentic than anything in this miniseries

This set of reviews was paid for by Victor, who viciously  generously donated to my Paypal account and asked me to review Empire. So, umm, thanks, Victor. I think. If you want me to review a movie or show, please make a donation to my account and tell me what you’d like me to review, but please, make it something a little better than Empire, because I don’t know if I can handle another one like that. Assuming I can get access to the film or series, I’ll do a review.



Empire: What the Hell is Going On?


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Watching Empire has made me reflect on all the poor life choices that brought me to this moment. If I had decided to study accounting rather than history, I doubt that I would have hit such a bottom watching this wretched ABC mini-series. Still, history only moves in one direction, so I guess I have no choice but to keep going with my review.


The biggest problem with this mini-series is the plot, which lurches around like a bus whose driver is having a seizure, taking out pedestrians, street signs and the occasional parked car before careening off a cliff and exploding in a huge burst of suckage. But in order to explain what is wrong, we need to take a fairly long detour into the actual past.


The Late Republic

By the 2nd century BC, the Roman economy was undergoing significant change, as large numbers of slaves flooded into Italy as a result of Roman victories during the Punic Wars and its slow expansion around the Mediterranean. These slaves forced the value of labor sharply downward and helped force large numbers of citizen farmers off their farms. These displaced farmers tended to do one of two things. Many entered the Roman military, an honorable activity that helped further the expansion of the Empire, which increased the numbers of slaves and perpetuated the forces that were forcing farmers off their land. After a successful military campaign, these men hoped to receive a grant of land in the conquered region, enabling them to return to the ranks of the farmers. But that required someone to enact a specific law granting those soldiers land, and the most logical person to press for that was their general, who used his successful conquest as a stepping stone to high political office. As a result, the military became deeply politicized, with the soldiers viewing their general, rather than the Roman state as a whole, as the natural focus of their loyalty.

The other thing those displaced farmers tended to do was migrate to the cities, especially Rome, in search of employment. But because the growth of slavery had forced down the value of work, most fell into severe poverty, and so Rome developed large slums. Although these men were poor, they could do two things. They could riot, thereby destabilizing Roman politics in unpredictable ways, and they could vote.

These changes caused the development of two new political factions (too loosely-structured to be political parties). One faction, the Optimates or ‘best men’, were traditionalists who appealed to those who were uneasy with the changes taking place. They championed the traditional center of Roman government, the Senate and the consuls, and targeted their political appeal at the aristocratic elites. The other faction, the Populares or ‘men of the people’, were aristocrats who sought political support among the large crowd urban poor, who had emerged as a new factor in Roman politics. They championed the Tribunate, essentially a second parallel branch of Roman government that possessed many (though not all) of the powers of the consuls and who were traditionally much more responsive to the will of the general population. They promised various reforms designed to please the crowd, such as redistribution of land, the distribution of subsidized grain (perhaps the first welfare measure in Western history), and free entertainment in the form of gladiatorial games and other sports. While the Optimates emphasized tradition and the Populares invokes the rights of the people, both groups  were essentially ambitious politicians seeking to advance their own power.

Starting in 133 BC, the conflict between these two factions gradually tore the Republican system to shreds. Over the course of the next century, civil war became a regular problem, as ambitious generals used their armies to pursue political victory through military conflict. Assassinations, conspiracies, judicial murders and political purges, and the wholesale violation of the legal framework for politics left Rome at the mercy of whichever faction could achieve temporary dominance.

Finally, in 48 BC, Julius Caesar, the leading Popularis of his generation, defeated the last great leader of the Optimates, Pompey the Great. This left him the unchallenged politician at Rome, and he immediately set about establish political dominance. The Senate was forced to declare him Dictator in Perpetuity, essentially giving him a higher political power than anyone else, using an office that was supposed to be used only in times of crisis and which theoretically had a term limit of 6 months. Normally, the Senate would debate an issue and then give the consuls a recommendation for the consul to issue a law. But Caesar would announce an issue to the Senate, skip the debate, and just issue laws. He repeatedly made clear that he felt no respect for the Senate, and his actions, including accepting deification, strongly suggested that he intended to overthrow the Republican system entirely and establish a new monarchy.


A coin of Julius Caesar

Many of the last remaining Optimates joined with some of Caesar’s closest friends who were troubled by the direction he was taken, and formed a conspiracy to murder him. This group was led by Gaius Cassius Longinus, Decimus Junius Brutus, and his more famous relative, Marcus Junius Brutus (the guy everyone refers to as ‘Brutus’; I’ll call the less-famous one Decimus). These men considered Caesar to be a tyrant who was oppressing Rome and therefore called themselves the Liberators, determined to restore freedom to Rome.

On March 15, 44 BC, a group of about 40 men stabbed Caesar to death in the Senate house. They were in such a frenzy that several of them wounded each other in the process. The rest of the Senate fled in panic, and Brutus marched to the Capitol, declaring that he had liberated Rome. But he and the other Liberators, who had expected to receive a hero’s welcome, were shocked by the hostile reception. As aristocrats who feared being closed out of political power, they had failed to realize just how popular Caesar was with the Roman crowd. As rumors began to spread about what had happened, many Romans barricaded themselves in their houses.

Marcus Antonius, Caesar’s right-hand man, had been slowly drifting away from Caesar for a while, but seized on this opportunity to grab at the reins of power. He negotiated with the Senate and conceded an amnesty to Caesar’s killers, but at the price of their legitimizing all of Caesar’s decrees and appointments. As the crowd became angry, the Senate fearfully voted to declare Caesar a god in an effort to appease them. Brutus gave a speech denouncing Caesar as a tyrant, and for a moment, it seemed that the crowd might be mollified.


Marcus Junius Brutus

But then Caesar’s will was read out. It did three things. 1) It named his grand-nephew Octavius as the heir to his vast fortune and adopted him. 2) It named Decimus as the alternative heir if Octavius was dead. 3) It granted every male citizen in Rome a modest cash gift. (The fact that Caesar could afford to do that and still leave his heir the richest man in Rome demonstrates just how staggeringly rich he was.) These three points all mattered. The first point made it clear that Antonius was not the unchallengable successor to Caesar’s position. The second point made Decimus’ participation in Caesar’s death an impious patricide. The third point reminded the crowd of Caesar’s past gestures to them, which tipped the balance against Brutus’ denunciation of Caesar.

Violence erupted. The Senate house was burned and an unfortunate tribune, mistaken for one of the Liberators, was torn to pieces in the streets. The Liberators fled Rome and Cassius and Brutus seized control of the Eastern Mediterranean portions of the Empire, raising legions for what became a renewed civil war, the Liberators’ War.

Back in Rome, Antonius made common cause with Octavian and Caesar’s cavalry general, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, forming the Second Triumvirate, to which the Senate cravenly turned over complete control of the government. Antony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia. To secure control of Italy, they enacted a brutal purge, the most notable victim of which was the great orator Cicero, Antonius’ personal enemy, whose head and hands were cut off and displayed publicly in Rome.

In 42 BC, the two sides clashed at Philippi in Greece, in two battles about three weeks apart. The Triumvirs won both battles; after the first Cassius committed suicide and after the second, Brutus did so as well. This battle is essentially the end of the Optimates as a group with any meaningful power in Rome.


A coin issued by Cassius, celebrating Liberty

As a result of their victory, the Triumvirs divided the Empire into thirds and ruled as dictators. In 36 BC, Lepidus and Octavian quarreled, Octavian got the upper hand, and forced Lepidus into domestic exile. Meanwhile, Antony had taken up with Caesar’s ex-girlfriend Cleopatra. He repudiated his marriage to Octavia and married Cleopatra, which triggered the final falling out with Octavian and the last civil war of the Republican period. In 31 BC, Octavian’s forces defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium and they both committed suicide, leaving Octavian the undisputed master of the Roman world.

Meanwhile, in Bizarro Land

In theory, this is the story Empire is telling, but any resemblance to historical facts is entirely coincidental. At the start of the series, Caesar (Colm Feore) is the dominant man in Rome, but there’s no mention of the civil war with Pompey or the fact that he’s a perpetual dictator who just runs roughshod over everyone else. The Optimates/Populares rift is reduced to ‘everyone likes Caesar except the Senate.’ which is mostly just Cassius (Michael Maloney) and Brutus (James Frain). Caesar has some sort of formal position, but he’s not a dictator, and it’s not clear what his position is, except that his title is apparently ‘Caesar’ (which is at least a half-century too early for it to function as a title instead of just a family name).

Brutus and Cassius assassinate Caesar in order to restore the Republic from Caesar’s domination, but the show bizarrely presents this as a terrible thing, because Caesar loves the people and isn’t doing anything for himself and instead is doing everything for the people. Early in the first episode, Cassius sniffs that Caesar wants to make himself a king and a god, but it’s already clear that Cassius is an envious jerk, so the show explicitly positions the Republic as a bad thing that apparently involves the Senate running things, while the dictator Caesar is positioned as the defender of democracy.

Caesar’s life and death have been read for centuries as a cautionary tale. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar can be read as a warning against overweening ambition, while ever since the American and French Revolution, his story has been seen as a warning about how Republics succumb to tyranny. So the miniseries’ treatment of the material is startling in the nakedness of its anti-democratic stance.

Once you get beyond that, you realize that the show has no idea how Roman government actually worked. The Senate seems to be in charge, but never actually does anything, and I suspect the show thinks that people got elected directly to the Senate, rather than entering the Senate for life after being elected to almost any other public office; Caesar at one point comments that he “used to be in the Senate.” There are two consuls appointed after Caesar’s murder, Hirtius and Panza (which is actually historically correct), but they barely have any dialog and are only seen again toward the end of the series when Mark Antony (Vincent Regan) executes them for no apparent reason except to be evil. The Vestal ‘Order’ (‘college’ would be a more appropriate term) is described as having great political power but being studiously neutral until Camane (a horribly wasted Emily Blunt) decides to use their resources to duplicate Caesar’s will so everyone will know that  Octavius (Santiago Cabrera) is the rightful successor. The Senate has no soldiers of its own and has to make due by hiring gladiators, while various senators seem to own their legions.


You don’t pin a toga, you idiot!

Despite not having any troops, and despite everyone in the city hating them after Caesar’s murder, Brutus and Cassius somehow are in complete control of the city, enough so that Octavius, Tyrranus (Jonathan Cake), and Mark Antony have to flee Rome in danger of their lives and ride around trying unsuccessfully to find military allies. But later, Antony has enough soldiers to be back in the city bargaining with the Senate. He and Octavius sign a document making each other their heirs, and then he massacres all his guests at an orgy by dropping asps and wolves on them. And because of Octavius is out of the way, Mark Antony gets to be…Caesar? Something like that.

With Octavius seemingly gone from the scene, Mark Antony wastes no time in going insane and taking power. He exiles Brutus and Cassius from the city as a way to prevent Brutus from committing suicide and becoming “a martyr for Rome”. Leaving aside the fact that martyrdom was a Christian concept and there won’t be any Christians in Rome for more than half a century, exiling someone to stop them from committing suicide makes no sense whatever. Cassius comments, “we should be in Syria raising an army.” Yes, Cassius, you should be, because that’s what you actually did. But after that Brutus and Cassius mostly just disappear from the series. Not only does it make no sense logically or historically, but also it’s feeble scriptwriting to set up Brutus and Cassius as major villains and then simply hand-wave them away so the plot can focus on the struggle between Octavius and Antony. There’s no Liberators’ War or battle of Philippi, just the plot forgetting about them.


Antony and Octavian in front of bust of Caesar that looks nothing like Colm Feore

Octavius survives the poisoning because Camane does a blood-letting on his jugular vein with the help of Marcus Agrippa (Chris Egan). Normally it’s done at the wrist, Camane. Meanwhile Antony has inexplicably made Tyrannus a centurion in his army, where Tyrannus immediately starts pissing off General Rapax (Graham McTavish) by trying to be nice to the soldiers. And for no reason, Antony doesn’t have Cicero killed.

Octavian reads a story of Caesar’s ‘legendary’ 3rd Legion that was lost at the Battle of Bibracte in Gaul. He rides off to Gaul and stumbles into The Eagle of the Ninth, learning that the lost legion has somehow just been living in Gaul for the past decade without anyone noticing. So he persuades the remnants of the 3rd Legion to fight for him by letting them carve a trident into his shoulder-blade and then leads them against Antony at the Battle of Mutina, at which Tyrannus decides to switch sides and helps save the day and Octavius defeats Antony and inexplicably grants him his life, which somehow causes him the win the day and resolve the whole conflict, and then rainbows and unicorns fly out of his ass and everyone lives happily every after, because the Republic is going to get overthrown after all and Octavius gets to be the new dictator and take away everyone’s politial rights.

God I hate this miniseries.


Want to Know More? 

If after all this, you inexplicably want to see this steaming pile of crap, you can find Empire on Amazon.

There are lots of biographies of Augustus. The one I have on my shelf is Pat Southern’s Augustus.

Empire: Oh, God, I Can’t Take This Anymore


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More stupid crap in Empire:


No, the punishment for treason by a Vestal was not being buried up to the neck and then stoned. The Vestals were untouchable except for the severe offense of fornication. The punishment for that was being buried alive with a jug of water and a loaf of bread. The purpose of that was no specific person was responsible for the Vestal’s death, because that would have outraged the gods. Touching them, even to punish them, was unacceptable because it was seen as impinging on their chastity. Since their chastity was understood as vital to the health of the Roman state, the idea of punishing them in any way that involved physical contact was unacceptable.

No, Italy did not have a massive gladiator school somewhere in Mordor where Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), Octavius (Santiago Cabrera), and Senator Magonius (Dennis Haysbert) could be thrown after they are captured, only to fight their way out of. Gladiators were valuable property and were not forced to live like wild animals in a mine.

No, it did not take an enormous crisis for the Senate to have the authority to appoint a new Pontifex Maximus and no, Brutus was not appointed as said Pontifex Maximus so that he could forcibly take Camane from the Temple of Vesta. The college of pontiffs elected the Pontifex Maximus from their own number, and after Caesar’s assassination, the office went to Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who became an ally of Antony and Octavian.

No, Romans did not use medieval broadswords, even during gladiatorial training. Nor did they use medieval flails for gladiatorial training.

No, Romans did not say ‘Hail, Caesar!” during his lifetime. The phrase is a common modern misquote of the phrase “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant” (“Hail, emperor, those who are about to die salute you.” The only recorded use of the phrase dates to 52 AD when a group of fighters in a fake naval battle (technically these were not gladiators at all, but naumachiarii) greeted Claudius with the salutation. While widely known and misquoted today, there is literally no reason to think the phrase was customarily used by gladiators or anyone else.

No, ‘Caesar’ was not a title in this period. It was just a cognomen, which Octavian acquired as soon as he was adopted. When Cassius shouts “you’ll never be Caesar,” it’s like someone telling me “you’ll never be Larsen.” But then, we already know that movies and tv shows never get Roman names right.

No, Cicero (Michael Byrne) was not a supporter of Caesar and Octavius and an opponent of Brutus and Cassius. It was pretty much the opposite. He was politically opposed to Caesar, and Mark Antony (Vincent Regan) was a personal enemy of his. He was something of an ally of Brutus and praise Caesar’s assassination. He did to some extent befriend Octavius, but mostly as a way to play him off against Antony, and in the period 44-43 BC, produced a series of 14 Phillipic Orations against Antony.


Vincent Regan as Mark Antony

No, Mark Antony did not have a beloved dog named Sulla. How do I know this? Because Sulla was one of the optimates, the pro-Senatorial, anti-crowd factions in Roman politics, while Mark Antony was one of the populares, the pro-Tribune, anti-aristocratic elite faction (I’m oversimplifying, because many of the populares  were themselves aristocrats and senators). So naming his dog after one of the arch-optimates of the previous generation would be like Hillary Clinton naming her beloved dog Nixon. Nor is it likely that he would joke about his wife being his ‘commanding officer’, because submission to women was seen as a sign that a man was unfit to rule.

No, there were not people called ‘master assassins’ in ancient Rome. The whole concept of being a master at an occupation is a fundamentally medieval concept, only beginning to emerge in the 12th century with the guild system. The concept of people who were trained as assassins only emerged around the 12th century in the Middle East when the Ismaili section of Shia Islam was established, and even these people weren’t ‘professional’ assassins, but rather religious fanatics who went on suicide missions. And whatever assassins existed in ancient Rome sure as hell weren’t magical beast-masters who could see what their falcons saw and shape-change into wolves. This is supposed to be actual history, remember?

No, orgies were not regular features of Roman parties. While Romans had somewhat more lax rules about where and when and with whom sexual activity was acceptable than more Americans do, they regarded unrestrained sex parties with disapproval and suspicion as something likely to erode the morality of Rome and as potentially politically subversive. Simply a rumor about such activity was enough to get the cult of Bacchus banned in Italy in 188 BC. Stories about Roman emperors such as Tiberius and Caligula throwing debauched parties were told to demonstrate the emperor’s unsuitability to rule and may well simply be slanderous inventions. Even if these stories are true, later Roman historians report them disapprovingly, demonstrating that even a century after this period, Roman culture considered sex parties disreputable.

No, there was no mass murder of Caesar’s supporters using asps and wolves during an orgy in Rome. It certainly wouldn’t have been engineered by Mark Antony, because he would have been killing off his own supporters and allies.

And no, the screenwriters of this horrid piece of dreck should not have been allowed to write a mini-series about a historical period they clearly cared nothing about.

Want to Know More?
Go take a walk instead. It’s nice out. The exercise will do you good.

Empire: Caesar’s Will


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Empire  is quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever watched on ancient Rome. I’ve gotten freshman term papers on ancient Rome that were way more interested in the facts than this piece of crap is. But I’m getting paid to review it, so I need to do another post on it. Please bear with me.


The plot of the series turns on the question of who Caesar’s heir will be. At the start of the series, Caesar (Colm Fiore) is correctly positioned as the dominant man in Rome, although it’s not explained how or why he got there, except that the crowds of Rome love him. Early on, Brutus (James Frain) and Cassius (Michael Maloney) comment that Caesar wants to be both king and god, statements that are fairly accurate for 44 BC. When Caesar is assassinated in the Senate chamber, he tells Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake) that his heir is going to be Octavius (Santiago Cabrera), not Mark Antony (Vincent Regan). This comes as a surprise to everyone, including Octavius, who was under the impression that Caesar despised him. Brutus and Cassius are desperately trying to get Caesar’s will so they can quash this, while Cicero (Michael Byrne) and Camane (an utterly wasted Emily Blunt) are doing everything they can to disseminate the will so that everyone in Rome will know the truth, so that the Senate will have to…make Octavius king maybe? Something like that. I’m not sure the series knows, but who cares? It’s only the main plot of the whole goddam thing.

The reality is, surprise surprise, different. Julius Caesar had no surviving children, despite three marriages, but his sister Julia did have a grandson, Octavius, who was the logical person to make his heir. So late in 45, Caesar wrote a will that adopted Octavius and bequeathing him about 75% of Caesar’s considerable fortune. The will would have been given to the Vestal Virgins, who were responsible for keeping wills, and would not have been publicly announced until after Caesar’s death. It is not known if Caesar told Octavius about the contents of his will, but it seems to me highly unlikely that the will would have been a surprise to Octavius; he was the obvious choice of heir being Caesar’s closest male relative, he was a canny and astute politician (as his entire political career demonstrated) who must have known what his position in Roman society was, and Caesar was smart enough to have recognized that he would have to groom Octavius as his successor (although he certainly didn’t foresee getting murdered just a half-year after making his will). Additionally, as soon as news of the assassination reached Octavius, who was in Apollonia on the west coast of Macedonia at the time, he immediately began to act like Caesar’s heir, ordering that Caesar’s war-chest be sent to him in Apollonia. If he was unaware of his status as heir, it’s improbable that he would have done this.

However, the series’ assumption that Octavius found his designation as heir a surprise is not an entirely outrageous one, because we have no formal evidence that he was told about it before Caesar’s murder. So I’ll reluctantly give the series a pass on this one.

(A short aside about names is necessary here. When he was born, he was given the name Gaius Octavius, since his father was from the Octavian gens. Upon his adoption, he legally became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the ‘an’ element signifying that he had been adopted out of the Octavian gens. After he achieved complete domination of the Roman political world in 27 BC, he was given the agnomen Augustus, which he consistently used down to the end of his life. There is no evidence that he ever actually styled himself Octavianus (although some of his opponents did). He preferred to refer to himself as Caesar and later Augustus Caesar, using the formal ‘Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus’. However the universal modern historical convention is to call him Octavian (the anglicization of his name) for the period between 44 and 27 BC and then Augustus thereafter. Since his adoption was posthumous, the series is technically correct to call him Octavius, even though pretty much no one today ever uses his birth name unless they’re being super-precise.)


Octavian, being posthumously appalled by this series


According to Roman law, a posthumous adoption only applied to inheritance of property. Caesar had no legal way to pass on any of his formal political power or office, any more than John Kennedy could have bequeathed his presidency to one of his children, since in the Republic, all political offices were subject to public election and were not personal property. So what Octavian was technically inheriting was his adoptive father’s wealth and his name (since posthumous adoption typically required the adoptee to accept the adopter’s name). Informally, Octavian was inheriting the enormous goodwill the Roman crowd had for Caesar as well as the prestige of now belonging to perhaps the oldest and most glorious of all Roman gens. Since the anger of the crowd pushed the Senate to immediately declare the dead Caesar a god (something that Caesar seems to have been angling for already in the last year of his life), Octavian also acquired the huge and unprecedented clout of being able to style himself Divi Filius, ‘son of the god [Julius]’. In order to achieve his father’s political power, however, he was going to have use that inherited wealth, prestige, and goodwill to fight his way up to political power, especially because Mark Antony was the clear successor to Caesar’s military authority, since he was essentially Caesar’s lieutenant and an experienced soldier, while Octavian had no military experience to speak of, being only 18.

Whether his adoption surprised him or not, Octavian immediately moved to capitalize on the opportunity the adoption provided. As noted, he took charge of Caesar’s war-chest, sailed to Naples, and traveled north to Rome, collecting political support and a modest army along the way. He demonstrated a solid understanding of Roman politics, contacting key political figures for their support; he decision to land at Naples allowed him to meet up with Cornelius Balbus, one of Caesar’s most important supporters. At no point did he ever betray any sense that he was doing anything other than acting on his full legal rights as Caesar’s heir.

In Empire, however, Octavius is a cloth-headed idiot. When Tyrannus tells him that Caesar has named him his heir, Octavius initially refuses to believe it, and refuses to leave Caesar’s villa outside Rome until his mother warns him that he’s in a butt-load of danger and Tyrannus can protect him. Tyrannus insists on fleeing Rome entirely with no money or guards or anything else. The next morning, however, Octavius wakes up before Tyrannus, and rides back to Rome to see his girlfriend, some skank whose father is a senator but who immediately betrays him to the gladiator/soldiers who are looking for him. He gets chased, Tyrannus rescues him by magically knowing where he is, and Cicero gives them a list of supporters to track down. Then they ride out of Rome again. All of this is a real disservice to Octavian, who ranks among the savviest politicians in the history of the world.


Octavius and Camane, wishing they weren’t in this series


Brutus and Cassius, meanwhile, are torturing Octavius’ mother for the will, intimidating Cicero, and threatening the Vestal Virgins. They are having trouble with the crowd, which catches them trying to smuggle Caesar’s corpse out of the city, and seizes the corpse and burns it, which outrages Octavius even though it’s basically the way elite Roman funerals worked. Camane orchestrates a plan to produce dozens of copies of Caesar’s will and nail them up all around the city so everyone will know that Brutus and Cassius are dicks. They respond by lighting Rome on fire, which seems like something of an over-reaction, given that if the city is destroyed, there isn’t much of a Roman state for them to govern. Then they send an assassin after Octavius, but Tyrannus spots him because apparently in ancient Rome only assassins carry gladiator swords that are actually late medieval short-swords.

Then Octavius and Tyrannus run off to visit Senator Magonius (Dennis Haysbert), a black man who has a northern Celtic name at a time when senators were only drawn from Italy. Magonius refuses to give the gladiator/soldiers his legion (despite the fact that legions were only given to sitting or just-stepped down consuls at the authorization of the Senate). So, despite the legion Magonius owns, the gladiator/soldiers decide to make him a slave because in times of political unrest, historical accuracy is always the first casualty.


Brutus and Cassius with some woman who might be Servilla


Oh, and evidently because apostrophes haven’t been invented yet, the subtitles telling us where things happen never use apostrophes. So scenes take place at ‘Julius Caesar Villa’ and ‘Vestal Copy Room’.

You can do this, Andrew. You’re getting paid for this.

Want to Know More?

Well, if you insist, you can find Empire on Amazon.

There are lots of biographies of Augustus. The one I have on my shelf is Pat Southern’s Augustus.

Empire: God Help Me


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My review of I, Claudius inspired one of my readers, Victor, to make a generous Paypal donation and request that I review the 2005 ABC miniseries Empire, which, like I, Claudius, deals with the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. So you’re going to get a few more posts on Ancient Rome.


And hoo boy does the first scene promise a strong contrast with I, Claudius. Whereas Robert Graves was at pains to mine the historical sources for the facts, this show promises to mine absolutely nothing except old clichés. The show opens with a gladiatorial combat that works overtime to avoid anything resembling fact. The two fighters, one of whom is named Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), are equipped with gear that is almost entirely made up; he gets two short swords because that means he’s cool. The scene repeats the nonsense that gladiatorial fights always involve the death of all but one fighter. And then after he defeats his opponent, more gladiators surprise him and he has to fight them to the death too. I’ve already discussed everything wrong with this scene in a review of a different movie. (What makes this even worse is in a later scene, Tyrannus correctly describes how a Thracian gladiator is equipped.)

Then we cut to the ‘Vestal Temple’, where Camane (Emily Blunt), a virgin priestess, is praying in front of what is clearly a statue of naked Aphrodite, which is sort of like having a statue of a porn star in a Catholic convent. But she’s making a sacrifice of flower petals, so I guess that makes everything chaste. Octavius (Santiago Cabrera) asks her is “her gods” ever answer.

The show also doesn’t care about giving its characters real names. ‘Tyrannus’ is apparently his birth name, and his son is named ‘Piso’, which isn’t even a given name (it’s a cognomen). And what the fuck sort of name is Camane? It doesn’t even sound Latin! And instead of ‘Octavian’ (short for Octavianus), the kid’s name is Octavius.


Unsurprisingly, the costuming isn’t very accurate either

Then Julius Caesar (Colm Fiore) asks Tyrannus to be his personal bodyguard, overlooking the fact that he has guys like Mark Antony to protect him, and also overlooking the fact that in 44 BC, Caesar is the dictator, which comes with a staff of 24 lictors, who were also essentially bodyguards.

We’re only 20 minutes into this thing and I already I hate it.

Then Camane milks the ceremonial goats (wtf!) and they give only blood, which means bad things are coming. She has to warn Caesar for some reason, but the Chief Vestal tells her to forget what she’s seen, maybe because she knows there’s no such thing as ceremonial goats.

Then Piso’s mother buys something for “three cents” and it becomes clear that the film isn’t even trying. Piso disappears in the market place, and I see a whole lot of manpain coming for Tyrannus.

The Praetorian Guard exists, even though it won’t be created until there are emperors, since its job is to protect the emperor. Camane warns Caesar, but he declares that he’s lived his whole life in defiance of the gods, so he’s going to ignore the omen. Then he gets into a positively absurd-looking carriage with pillars, a couple centuries before the first thing that might be called a carriage will be invented.

Tyrannus is running around the marketplace looking for Piso, because Caesar, having commissioned him to be his bodyguard, has promptly left Rome without him.

Victor, could you make another generous donation? I think this miniseries qualifies for hazardous duty pay.

Then the Senate gaks Caesar and the assassins who are trying to kill Tyrannus tell him that it was all a distraction, which is really nice of them if you come to think of it, because it means he can run to the Senate house and find Caesar dying, who tells him to protect Octavius. And then Mark Antony (Vincent Regan) shows up and claims Caesar’s crown.


For Colm Fiore, this counts as a mercy killing, because he doesn’t have to keep appearing in this turd

Mark Antony is pissed because the senators asked to shake his hand without washing the blood off theirs first. This turns out to be a faux pas on the Senate’s part, because they don’t have an army and Antony does, so they have to raise an army of gladiators, led by General Rapax (Graham McTavish), who you know has to be a bad guy because his name is Rapax.

The show has by this point forgotten that Tyrannus is a slave because he’s just running around freely, giving Piso’s mother money to sail away from Rome, and so on. Having ridden back to Rome to protect Piso and his mother, Tyrannus then has to fight a dozen soldiers/gladiators so he can get horses to ride away on. This show can’t even keep track of its own material from one moment to the next, much less know anything real about stuff that happened 2,000 years ago.

Oh, god, make this stop, please!

Mercifully, this turns out to be the end of the first episode.


Want to Know More? 

No, trust me, you don’t.

Hugo: Cinema History Come to Life


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I know I promised to look at Empire, but I felt I needed a break from the Julio-Claudians. So last night I sat down and rewatched Hugh (2011, dir. Martin Scorsese, based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick).


It’s a charming film about an orphaned boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris at some point in the 1930s, where he maintains the station’s clocks and eludes the station’s inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who wants to send him to an orphanage. Hugo’s only possession is a broken automaton that his father was trying to repair when he died in a fire. He develops a complicated love/hate relationship with Georges (Ben Kingsley), who runs the station’s sweet and toy shop and from whom Hugo steals the parts he needs to fix the automaton. Eventually it’s revealed that Georges is actually Georges Mélies, one of the first commerical film-makers in the world. The automaton turns out to be something Georges created when he was a professional stage magician. But when his studio, Star Films, went bankrupt, Mélies lost the automaton as well as everything else except his mistress and later wife, Jeanne d’Alcy (Helen McRory), and was forced to make a living running his small shop in the train station.

Georges Mélies

Mélies (1861-1938) was one of the most important early film-makers, serving as screenwriter, director, actor, and producer, and churning out a staggering 500 films between 1895 and 1913, when bad business decisions left him bankrupt. The Great War put the last nail in the coffin of Star Films, and about 80% of Mélies’ ouvre was melted down for silver and celluloid, destroying them forever.


Butterfield and Kingsley as Hugo and Georges

Prior to discovering the new medium of film, Mélies had worked as a stage magician, and he brought a magician’s eye to his work as a film-maker. So he specialized in films that told fantastic stories and often employed stage magic tricks. For example, in Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb, considered one of the first horror films, Cleopatra’s mummy is chopped into pieces and then burned in a brazier, from which a woman emerges, while in The Famous Box Trick, a magician cuts a boy in half with an axe, producing two boys, whom he procedures to turn into other things. In his One Man Band, Mélies becomes seven different musicians playing a tune together.

He eventually moved up to telling stories with more complex plots. His most famous work, 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, tells the story of Professor Barbenfouillis, who builds a space-ship in the form of a bullet, which he fires at the moon, striking the Old Man in the Moon right in the eye. The crew nap until the goddess Phoebe causes it to snow on them, forcing them to take refuge in a cavern, where they are taken prisoner by the insect-like Selenites. Escaping, the crew climbs back into the bullet, which falls off a cliff and into the Earth’s ocean, where they are rescued and given a parade to celebrate their accomplishment.


In addition to being one of the first film-makers to tell narrative stories, Mélies also invented a number of simple special effects that he used repeatedly, including multiple exposure (filming something, rewinding the film, and then adding something to the scene, which is how Mélies become seven men playing instruments together), advancing the camera on a track to make something seem to grow in size, split-screen exposure, and dissolves. By putting a fish tank in front of the camera, he created the illusion that he was filming underwater. In his films, men and women turn into skeletons, butterflies, and other creatures, people explode in burst of smoke and sparks, travelers encounter fairies, aliens, and Satan, people take off their heads and argue with them, and many other delightful things happen.

The man was a visionary and for a period the most popular film-maker in the world, and he profoundly infuenced the development of all later film. In many ways, the film is Scorsese’s love-letter to Mélies, and an effort to make sure that this pioneer isn’t forgotten by modern audiences.

The film’s treatment of Mélies is pretty accurate. The middle portion of the film is a reasonably factual, though simplified, account of Mélies’ career. It omits the fact that his brother played an important role in his film company, and it condenses Mélies’ two wives into his second wife Jeanne (his first wife Eugenie having died young in 1913). He really did build an automaton that wound up in a museum where it was ruined. He really did go bankrupt (though less because of the Great War and more because of poor decisions) and wind up running a toy and sweet shop in the Gare Montparnasse. And he really did enjoy a final period in his life when film enthusiasts recognized his enormous contributions to the medium. It’s refreshing to see an historical film that actually tries to get the facts more or less correct.


Georges Mélies

The Train

But in addition to being a wonderful introduction to the work of Mélies, Scorsese has another point to make. Hugo was made in 3D, and Scorsese was trying to get away from the use of 3D to simply make the audience gasp, exploring its potential as a cinematic device. He plays with snow, steam, and a cloud of papers in a way that is reminiscent of the way Mélies played with his film tricks.

The film twices shows the famous early film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, a brief 1895 film that simply shows a train pulling into a French train station. The film repeats as fact what is quite possibly an urban legend that when the audience saw the train approaching, they panicked because they were unable to distinguish the film from reality because the technology of film was literally brand-new and the audience was unfamiliar with it.

Later in the film, Hugo has a dream in which he finds himself on the train tracks of the Gare Montparnasse as a train is bearing down at him. The train runs him over, jumps the tracks, and plows through the station, plunging out of a window and down to the street below. This scene is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it recreates an actual train accident that happened at the Gare Montparnasse in 1895 (the same year L’Arrivée d’un train was first shown). So Scorsese cleverly conflates the train footage with an actual train crash the same year.


The 1895 Montparnasse derailment

But what I find even more clever about this sequence is that by doing it with the relatively new modern 3D technology, he gives 21st century audiences an experience not unlikely the one the audience in 1895 had, of having a train appear to come hurtling toward them in a way that unnerves the viewer. In a film about the early history of cinema, Scorsese has brilliantly given audiences a sense of what it might have been like to be one of those early film-goers, thus increasing our ability to understand the whole point of the film.


Hugo’s dream of the Montparnasse dereailment

This isn’t the only time Scorsese references early cinema in Hugo. At one point Hugo, fleeing from the station inspector, is forced to climb out onto the minute hand of the station’s largest clock in a scene that directly references Harold Lloyd’s famous stunt in Safety Last. There are also more subtle homages to Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) and Jean Renoir’s La Bete Humaine (1938). And throughout the film, Scorsese and his team tried to work in as many of the techniques that Mélies pioneered as they could, so that the film’s cinematography and special effects were as much an homage as the story.

Want to Know More? 

Hugo is available through Amazon, as is Selznick’s Caldecott-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

You should totally watch Mélies’ A Trip to the Moon. It’s on Netflix, and also available through Amazon. Although its special effects are primative by modern standards, it really is a must-see. If you want to know more about Mélies, try Elizabeth Ezra’s Georges Mélies. It’s more a study of his films than a history of the man, but it treats him as a serious film-maker, not just a man playing around with special effects.

If you want to dig a little deeper in the film’s use of visual effects, here is a good page on the subject.

An Open Letter to Donald Trump


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Dear President Trump,

Normally this blog is about is the intersection of history with film and television, but occasionally I offer my thoughts about political comments about history. And recently you drew attention by saying “But why was there the Civil War? Why couldn’t that one have been worked out?” A lot of commentators have attacked you for asking the question and arguing that you ought to have known the answer. But as I tell my students occasionally, there is no shame in not knowing something about the past. The whole point of taking history courses is to learn things about the past that you didn’t know (and to learn a set of incredibly useful general skills that can be applied to almost any situation you’re in). So rather than shaming you, I’m going to answer the question for you.

As it happens, the answer to that question is both simple and complex at the same time. I’m not a specialist in American history but I do teach Modern Western Civilization pretty regularly, which requires me to discuss the issue, and here’s my take on the question. The Civil War couldn’t be “worked out” because 1) the Southern states were committed to the principle that black people were not truly humans but merely property that white people could own and use for labor, 2) the Constitution was written in such a way that, short of a massive change of heart across the South, there was no legislative solution to the dispute over slavery, and 3) Southern politicians were committed, not just to maintain their “peculiar institution” (as they liked to refer to slavery) but also to expanding slavery into areas where it was not currently allowed. (By the way, if you need to practice your writing, that previous sentence is what’s called a “thesis statement.” It summarizes my main point in this essay. You sometimes have trouble expressing your arguments clearly, so you might try using a thesis statement.)

Southern Attitudes toward Slavery

My first point is that the Southern states were deeply committed to the principle of owning black people as property. You can see that in the statements the Southern states made when they were justifying their secession from the United States. For example, the Mississippi Declaration of Secession says in its second paragraph,

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

Seven of the ‘facts’ it cites are explicitly related to slavery and most of the remaining ones are indirect references to slavery or issues related to slavery.

South Carolina’s Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union takes somewhat longer to get to the point, but eventually explains that Northern states were refusing to live up to their Constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves (as expressed in as the Fugitive Slave clause) and that the non-slaveholding states have sought to undermine the ownership of slaves as property.

Texas’ A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union says in its third paragraph “[Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery – the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits – a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.” It goes to say a few paragraphs later that many of the Northern states have violated the Fugitive Slave clause of the Constitution, and that these states have formed a ‘sectional party’

“based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.”

Notice how explicit the Texas statement is about the moral value of slavery. It calls it a “beneficent and patriarchal system” supported by “the plainest revelations of Divine Law.” That sort of language is surprisingly common among Southern politicians in the decade before the Civil War. Albert Gallatin Brown, a prominent politician from Mississippi who served in the House of Representatives and the Senate and two terms as governor of Mississippi declared in his 1858 Speech at Hazelhurst, “I think slavery is a good thing per se; I believe it to be a great moral, social, and political blessing—a blessing to the master and a blessing to the slave, and I believe, moreover, that it is of Divine origin.” In the face of pressure from abolitionists, Southerners had developed a justification of slavery that argued that it was not just useful, but actually one of the greatest moral goods in human history. While shockingly racist by modern standards, these sentiments were quite common in the Old South.


Albert G Brown

The Confederate Constitution, which is largely modeled on the United States Constitution,   generally makes explicit references to slavery where the US Constitution was more discreet about the issue. It forbids the important of “negroes of the African race”. It declares that “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” (The italicized text is new.) Should the new Confederacy acquire new territory, “In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the states or territories of the Confederate states.” Clearly, the Confederate states wanted to ensure that slavery was guaranteed permanetly in their government.


Slavery in the Constitution

The American Constitution is in many ways a wonderful document. You should read it some time; my students are always surprised by the rules it establishes for how we can run our political system. But one of the places where it fails to live up to its promise is in its acceptance of slavery. The Constitution was very much a compromise document, seeking to balance the interest of large states against small states and of Northern non-slaveholding states against Southern slaveholding states. Without that compromise, it wouldn’t have been accepted by different states. It enshrines political compromise as a basic principle in our system. If the House and the Senate can’t agree on a law, that law can’t get passed, and if the President can’t agree with Congress, that law is probably not going to get enacted. One of the places where the authors of the Constitution compromised was by allowing slavery. In fact, slavery is written into the Constitution so deeply that achieving a legislative solution to the dispute over slavery was essentially impossible.

You might be surprised to hear that slavery is entrenched in the Constitution. The words ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ never occur in the document. But that doesn’t mean it’s not in there. The men who wrote the Constitution (James Madison in particular) were aware that Northern states were hostile to slavery, so they sought to disguise the presence of slavery in the document by referring to it obliquely. By my count, the Constitution discusses slavery 3 times, mostly with an eye to protecting it.


James Madison

For example, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 says “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” Did you catch that reference to slaves? They’re the “all other Persons” who aren’t “free Persons” or “Indians not taxed.” This is the famous 3/5th Compromise, which declared that slaves were to be counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of apportioning representation in the House.

Maybe you knew about the 3/5 Compromise, but you probably didn’t stop to think about what the practical effect of it is. By treating slaves as a form of property that still counts toward political representation, this clause over-represents the Southern states relative to the Northern states (which didn’t allow slavery). That guaranteed that even if there were an equal number of slaveholding and non-slaveholding states, the slaveholding states would always have a larger voice in the House, thereby ensuring that no law hostile to the interests of slave owners would be able to pass.

Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 states “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.” That sounds innocuous until you realize that the “importation of such persons” is a reference to importing blacks as property. The purpose of this clause is to forbid Congress from forbidding the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade until 1808 and forbidding Congress from trying to stop the trade by imposing steep tariffs on imported slaves.

Then there’s Article 4, Section 1, Clause 3, the aforementioned Fugitive Slave clause. “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” In other words, no runaway slave can escape his slavery by fleeing to a non-slaveholding state. Slave owners could legal require that the authorities in non-slaveholding states had to turn over escaped slaves. One could also argue that Article 4, Section 1, Clause 1, the Full Faith and Credit clause, deals with slavery as well, since it requires non-slaveholding states to acknowledge the purchase and sale of slaves in other states.

But that’s not the end of the ways the Constitution protects slavery. Article 1, Section 7, Clause 1 says that all bills dealing with taxation must begin in the House. That means that Congress would not be able to tax slavery out of existence, because slaveholding states were over-represented in the House. Article 1, Section 9, Clause 5 specifies that “No Tax or Duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State.” Slaveholding states were perhaps the major exporters in the United States because slaves were primarily used to run plantations that produced crops like cotton and indigo, so it would not be possible to abolish slavery by taxing the exports that made slave owners wealthy.

The 3/5 Compromise also affected the election of presidents, since the number of electors that a state received was based on the number of Representatives it had plus the number of Senators it had. So the over-representation of slaveholding states skewed the presidency toward slaveholding states. It’s no wonder that 10 of the first 16 presidents were slave owners, although two of them, Van Buren and W.H. Harrison inherited their slaves. (Despite being a Northerner, Harrison was a supporter of slavery.)


George Washington, slave owner

Eventually, the higher population growth of the Northern states began to enable the free states to overcome the artificial bonus that slaveholding states had, but at that point, the fact that all states got an equal number of senators began to work in the South’s favor by preventing anti-slavery laws from passing in that chamber. Since ties are broken by the Vice-President and a majority of the Vice-Presidents were supporters of slavery, slavery remained protected.

The cumulative effect of this entrenchment of slavery in the Constitution was that a peaceful, legislative solution to the dispute over slavery was nearly impossible to achieve, because slaveholding states and politicians had a decisive upper hand in the Federal Government. That meant that the only way slavery could be abolished was through violent conflict.

The Expansion of Slavery

Post-Civil War propaganda in the South has sought to depict the Civil War as a “War of Northern Aggression”, but the reality is that it was Southerners who wanted to expand slavery. Southern states insisted on the enactment of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which was designed to overturn Northern states laws intended to make the return of escaped slaves harder by fining government officials who did not arrest alleged slaves; the law provided that government officials had to accept a slave-owners sworn testimony that a particular black man was a runaway slave. This made it quite easy for Southerners to essentially kidnap free blacks into slavery. The 1857 Dred Scot decision declared that blacks could not be citizens and therefore could not easily bring lawsuits alleging that they were free. It also declared that the Federal government had no power to regulate slavery in federal territories acquired after the American Revolution. By suing to force the return of slaves from free states, Southern slave-owners were often seeking to overturn free state laws, thereby undermining the ability of free states to remain free states.

(My own state, Wisconsin, I am proud to say, openly defied the Supreme Court on this issue and refused to hand over the escaped slave Joshua Glover. A mob broke him out of his prison at what is today Cathedral Square in Milwauee.)


There was also a vehement quarrel over the admission of new states to the Union. Abolitionists hoped that by admitting more free states, they might eventually be able to overcome the lock the slaveholding states had on the Federal government. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 maintained the balance of power by admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state.

Southern states, in contrast, wanted to export slavery wherever they could. In Albert Gallatin Brown’s speech, he declares the importance of exporting slavery.

“I want Cuba, and I know that sooner or later we must have it. If the worm-eaten throne of Spain is willing to give it for a fair equivalent, well—if not, we must take it. I want Tamaulipas, Potosi, and one or two other Mexican States; and I want them all for the same reason—for the planting and spreading of slavery… I would spread the blessings of slavery, like the religion of our Divine Master, to the uttermost ends of the earth, and rebellious and wicked as the Yankees have been, I would even extend it to them. I would not force it upon them, as I would not force religion upon them, but I would preach it to them, as I would preach the gospel.”

Apologists for the Confederacy have often claimed that the Civil War was caused by the issue of ‘state’s rights’. But in fact, when you read the various Declarations of Secession, you find the seceding states complaining that the Federal government wasn’t enforcing the Constitution on the Northern states. So they were actually opposing the idea of state’s rights.

Obviously the causes of the Civil War are complex. I’m not a specialist in American history, and I’m sure a good Civil War historian could greatly elaborate on (and perhaps in a few spots correct) my argument. But that’s the basic reason why the problem of slavery couldn’t be “worked out.” All avenues for resolving the dispute peacefully had essentially been foreclosed by the way the Constitution was written and by the insistence of Southerners that their system was inherently good and needed to be expanded.

Most of the confusion about the Civil War’s causes has been due to Confederate apologists seeking to justify their failed secession after the Civil War and by 20th century racists who began to glorify the Confederacy during the Civil Rights era (for example by insisting on raised the so-called Confederate Flag at state-houses in the South). But that’s an issue that can be addressed with more emphasis on history education. I’d encourage you to do some reading about the subject or talk with an historian of the Civil War. Ignorance of the past is nothing to be ashamed of, but committing to ignorance of the past is.

Want to Know More?

One simple place to start is David Waldstreicher’s Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification. It does a good job of showing how slavery was enshrined in the Constitution.