Versailles: The Man Who Would Be Queen


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One of the things that really stands out in Versailles is its depiction of Louis’ brother Philippe, the duc d’Orleans (Alexander Vlahos), as blatantly and unrepentantly homosexual. So this post is going to look at how accurate that depiction is.



In the Show

Versailles’ Philippe lets it all hang out, so to speak. In the first episode, he makes out with his boyfriend, Philippe, the Chevalier de Lorraine (Evan Williams) as servants wander by. (To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to this Philippe as the Chevalier.) He openly flaunts the Chevalier in front of his wife Henrietta (Noémie Schmidt) and pretty much everyone else. He has a taste for group sex with men. Most startlingly of all, in one episode he comes to a formal event wearing a dress (well, skirts and a corset without a proper over-dress–thanks, Frock Flicks, for pointing that out!) and when someone sniggers about it, Philippe draws a knife and stabs the man in the eye.


Vlahos as Philippe, getting very unhappy that someone doesn’t like his outfit

The Chevalier eventually gets entangled in a plot to overthrow the king and gets sent into exile, but early in season 2 he’s back and being fabulous, making grand statements about which color is going be the winter color this year. At the same time, someone poisons Henrietta, who dies in bloody agony.


In Reality

The show’s depiction of Philippe is broadly accurate. If anything, it tones him down.

Louis and Philippe were the sons of Louis XIII, who had a great deal of trouble with his younger brother Gaston, who was Louis’ presumptive heir until the birth of his nephew Louis in 1638, just four years before the end of Louis XIII’s reign. That fact made Gaston the center of a great deal of intrigue and he twice had to go into exile for plotting against his brother. When the Fronde (a revolt of the nobility against the Crown) broke out, Gaston fought on both sides, and at the end of the revolt, he was sentenced to internal exile at Blois. As a result of this, Louis XIII’s queen, Anne of Austria, was extremely worried that Philippe might grow up to become a problem for her older son.


Philippe, duc d’Orleans

Anne feared that Philippe might some day challenge Louis or become a center of opposition to him, so she seems to have intentionally tried to cultivate a taste for feminine things in her son as a way to make him less threatening and perhaps even distasteful to the nobility. She referred to him as “my little girl,’ declared that he was “the prettiest child in the whole world,” and dressed him more as a girl than as a boy. That shaped him for life. As an adult, he was always comfortable in women’s clothing, and frequently attended balls dressed as a woman. He was noted for his love of ribbons, perfume, rouge, and high heels, although those things were not necessarily gendered female in the 17thcentury. Both Louis and Philippe was quite short and wore heels to add inches to their stature. So the show could put him in women’s clothing a lot more than it does without distorting the facts. This is a rare case of the media toning down historical excess instead of exaggerating it or making it up.


That’s Philippe on the right

Anne was probably relieved when Philippe began to show a taste for men. In 1658, when Philippe was 18, rumors began to circulate that the duke of Nevers had “corrupted” Philippe with the “Italian vice”, and it was around that time that he first made contact with the Chevalier, with whom he formed a life-long, though hardly faithful, relationship.

Throughout his life, and regardless of his two wives, Philippe displayed a marked taste for handsome young men, whom he tended to shower attention and money on. He blew them kisses as he walked through Versailles, and much court gossip turned on the question of his favorites. Since Philippe was the king’s brother (and accorded the courtesy appellation of Monsieur, something the show leaves out), he was invariably an important political figure, although after the birth of Louis’ first son, his importance declined slightly. Who he was sleeping with was therefore an issue that could affect politics, especially in the intrigue-filled environment of Versailles.


The Chevalier de Lorraine

The Chevalier was, strictly speaking, not French, since Lorraine was outside the royal domain. He was described as being “as beautiful as an angel,” although portraits of him don’t apparently do him justice, at least not by modern standards, He was considered vain, arrogant, greedy, and manipulative, and Philippe was an ideal partner for him. The perception at court was that he could easily manipulate Philippe into doing what the Chevalier wanted, since Philippe loved him deeply.

The result of this was that Philippe’s domestic life was exceptionally complex, even by the standards of a Jerry Springer show. Philippe’s first wife, Henrietta, was understandably jealous of the Chevalier, who lived in the same household with her. Philippe told her that he needed the Chevalier’s permission to sleep with her. In 1670, she persuaded King Louis to first imprison the Chevalier and then exile him. But Philippe prevailed upon his brother to call the Chevalier back after just a few months. When Henrietta died a few months later, there were rumors that the Chevalier had orchestrated her poisoning, although an autopsy determined that she had died of peritonitis. (Note that the show gets both the order of events and the cause of Henrietta’s death wrong.)


Henrietta of England

In 1682, the Chevalier got in trouble again, this time for introducing Louis’ illegitimate son Louis de Bourbon to part of their circle. Philippe and the Chevalier had established a sort of secret club for men who liked men. This club met at taverns and brothels and had elaborate rules of a somewhat sacrilegious nature. When Bourbon was 15, the Chevalier introduced him to the club and required him to sign an oath of obedience to the club’s rules, an oath signed not in ink but in Bourbon’s semen, which the Chevalier helped him to collect. Eventually rumors of the club’s orgies reached the king, Most of the club’s members were exiled as a result, but Bourbon simply got sent to fight in the Netherlands, where he died the next year..

Back at court a few years later, the Chevalier got in trouble a third time for orchestrating the illicit marriage of Philippe’s son to one of Louis’ illegitimate daughters.

But Phillipe living with his wife and his boyfriend was just the start. He was also involved with another member of his household, Armand, the Comte de Guiche, who like the Chevalier was handsome, vain, and manipulative. Armand was Philippe’s lover, but he is widely thought to have been Henrietta’s lover as well. That apparently wasn’t enough for Guiche, because in 1665 he also tried to romance Louise de La Valliere, who was Louis’ chief mistress at the time. Louis exiled him in 1662 for plotting with Henrietta to break up Louis and Louise.


The Comte de Guiche

On top of all that, Philippe also found time for a relationship with Antoine Coiffier, a minor noble who served as his head huntsman (whose father, incidentally, may have been a lover of Louis XIII). He is also rumored to have had a mistress, who might have been the married duchess of Mercoeur, since he flirted with her in public.

That last one demonstrates that Philippe might have been bisexual. He definitely had a complicated relationship with his first wife, with whom he had four children, as well as two miscarriages. When he married his second wife, the German Elizabeth Charlotte, he remarked that her plainness meant it would be hard for him to make love to her, but he still managed to father three children with her, including his only surviving son. So while he clearly had a strong preference for men, he doesn’t seem to have been exclusively homosexual as the show presents it.


Philippe and Louis

The two brothers had a rather complicated relationship, something the show manages to capture. In the show, Philippe says on more than one occasion that he was raised to not be the ‘cloud that covers the sun’, and whether or not the real Philippe ever said that, it certainly does describe the way their childhood played out. Anne expected Louis to be a very studious boy, but discouraged Philippe from book learning and encouraged him to play and be frivolous. The duc de Saint-Simon, whose enormous memoires are our best window into life at court, says that as an adult, Philippe was weak of mind and body, excessively timid, obsequious to his brother, and loved to gossip, often making up rumors just to see what would happen. He was also quarrelsome. But despite that, he was well-loved and a central figure at Versailles. When he died of a stroke in 1701, he was deeply mourned and Saint-Simon says that the court felt lifeless and still.

Louis, perhaps following Anne’s advice, worried that Philippe could have become a threat to him and worked to keep him away from any real power, and generally ordered him to leave when it was time for Louis to conduct business. Despite that, Louis adored his brother, who was his only sibling and probably the only person who could really understand him. We might imagine that Louis envied Philippe a little the freedom that he had. Although Louis seems to have despised homosexuality, which was a capital crime in 17thcentury France, he tolerated Philippe’s taste in men, although he was not willing to extend that tolerance to Philippe’s lovers when their other affairs became public. When Louis’ second wife complained that he needed to stamp out homosexuality at the court, Louis replied “should I start with my own brother?” That may explain why Louis was willing to turn a blind eye to the same-sex shenanigans at his court. He loved his brother too much to punish him, but punishing other examples of homosexuality at court would have made him look too much of a hypocrite.

To add further complexity to their relationship, Philippe was a far better soldier than Louis was. In 1667 he handled himself well during an invasion of the Spanish Netherlands. In 1677, he led the French forces at the Battle of Cassel against William III of Orange. He routed William and won the admiration of the court, but his victory irked Louis, who wished to be seen as a conqueror, and who may have worried that Philippe’s accomplishments were making him a threat. As a result, Louis never allowed his brother to participate in military matters again. What seems to have impressed people the most about Philippe’s victory was his intense bravery during the battle; it was joked that he was more afraid of getting sunburned or blackened from gunsmoke than he was of getting hit by a musket-ball.


Louis loved paintings that presented him as a conqueror

So overall, Versailles’ depiction of Philippe and his relationship with his wives, his brother, and the Chevalier all seem pretty reasonable. Although the show tones down some of the luridness of Philippe’s private life, I think it captures something of his complex relationship with Louis and with the Chevalier. Was he actually as frustrated with his situation as the show makes out? I don’t know, but it’s not an unreasonable take on him.

If you’d like me to review a particular film or show, please make a donation to my Paypal account and request one.


Want to Know More?

Versailles is available through Amazon.

There’s not a lot available in English about Philippe. Nancy Nichols Barker’s Brother to the Sun King: Philippe Duke of Orleans is probably the best option. But it’s been criticized for a very negative depiction of Philippe’s homosexuality, so read it with care. You might also think about reading Saint-Simon’s Memoires, which are a remarkable and lively account of life at the court of the Sun King. Lucy Norton’s translation has been much praised for its style (although it is not the full text).

If you want to know more about homosexuality in Europe in this period, take a look at The Pursuit of Sodomy, edited by Kent Gerard and Gert Hekma. It has articles on a range of issues.


Versailles: The Queen’s Baby


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I’m a bit late to the party on this show, but I finally found the time to sit down and watch Versailles, the Canal+ series about the court of Louis XIV. I’d heard that the show was pretty wackadoodle, but as I watched the first episode, I didn’t see anything that I thought was outrageous. Then I got to the end of the episode and, yeah, ok, I see why some people think the show is over the top. There’s a lot for me to talk about in the first season, so you’re gonna get a number of posts on it. Hope you like the series.


The first season is nominally set in 1667, but in reality it covers events from that year down to about 1670 or a little thereafter. Instead of offering a look at Louis (George Blagden) as an somewhat jaded older man, as most film treatments of the subject tend to, it offers us a Louis of only about 30 who is still working to master his kingdom. In the first season he decides to turn Versailles from a hunting lodge into a grand palace (in reality, that project had already begun in 1661), and he offers his court a vision of Versailles as the cultural center of the universe. Naturally, for any story set at Versailles, literal palace intrigue plays a major role in the story.

Incidentally, if you want to know about the show’s visuals, the ladies at Frock Flicks have rendered their verdict on the costuming and it’s not bad, other than the poofy shirts the men frequently sport. I was very skeptical about the hair, since Louis’ reign was famous for men in wigs, but apparently the wigs were more of a fashion statement later in Louis’ reign and the hairstyles in the show are not unreasonable for the 1660s and 70s.


The Baby

At the start of the show, Louis’ wife Maria Theresa (Elisa Lasowski) is pregnant. She’s presented as a dark-haired Spanish beauty, instead of the rather plain-looking blonde woman she was (like all the Hapsburgs, she had a great deal of German blood). At the end of the episode she goes into labor and much to the surprise of the king and his physician, she gives birth to a black girl. The official word is that the baby was stillborn.

VERSAILLES Saison 1 - Episode 7

Lisowski as Maria Theresa


The physician offers the rather improbable sounding theory that Maria’s black dwarf jester Nabo played a joke on her and scared her so badly that it darkened the baby she was carrying. While that theory would be pretty bizarre if a modern obstetrician proposed it, 17thcentury doctors were constantly offering that sort of guess because they believed that a mother’s emotional experiences during pregnancy could have a profound effect on the fetus (a theory that was still circulating at the end of the 19thcentury). (And in fact the comment is based on something that Maria Theresa herself actually said.) Nevertheless, everyone who knows about the black baby assumes that the queen was getting it on with Nabo, and by the end of the second episode, Nabo turns up dead in a fountain.

In the third episode, Louis receives a visit from a Senegalese prince, and since he met the queen once before, it’s broadly hinted that he might be the real father. During the negotiations between Louis and the prince, Louis uses the baby girl as a bargaining chip of sorts, and the episode ends with the prince taking the baby with him.

So is there any truth to it?



Yes. Not much, but a little. First, it has to be said that the show takes liberties with the timeline (I know, shocking that an historical show would do that, right?). There is no way that Maria Theresa had a baby of any kind in the summer of 1667. On January 2nd of that year, she gave birth to the king’s fourth child, Marie-Therese, who was very definitely white. She gave birth to their fifth child, Philippe Charles, on August 5thof 1668. Even if Louis had knocked up his wife immediately after Marie-Therese was born, the baby wouldn’t have been born until October, and Louis would certainly have allowed his wife to recover for a few months before resuming intercourse with her. In 1667 he had two known mistresses, so it’s not like he was having trouble finding a date.

That being said, in 1664, Maria Theresa gave birth about a month prematurely to a baby girl named Marie-Anne, who died about a month later. Maria Theresa had been sick for more than a month before the birth and only recovered in January of 1665. Our best source of information about Marie-Anne was the duchess of Montpensier, a cousin of the king who is today remembered for her memoires, an important source of information about Louis’ court. Montpensier says that Philippe, Louis’ younger brother, told her that the baby was born with a very dark, almost violet complexion. If true, the cause of the baby’s coloration was probably a lack of oxygen. Maria Theresa was devoted to Louis, and also probably quite aware of the danger of cuckolding the king, since that would be treason punishable by death. So it is rather improbable that she had an affair with Nabo, or a visiting African prince, or anyone else. The fact that he remained married to Maria Theresa until her death in 1683 is perhaps the best evidence against the rumor that she had given birth to a black child. But the fact that the queen was quite fond of Nabo may well have helped trigger the rumor that he had fathered a baby with her.

But there’s another complication to the story. The same year that Marie-Anne was born and died, another black girl was born. This girl, Louise Marie-Therese, grew up to join the Benedictine convent of Moret-sur-Loing, and was known as the Black Nun of Moret. Although not a lot is known about her, she clearly had some connection to the royal court. Her portrait was painted by an unknown artist who also painted portraits of 22 French kings including Louis XIV. She is mentioned by at least six different authors with connections to the royal court, including Montpensier; one of Louis’s mistresses; and Louis’ second wife, Madame de Maintenon. The duke of Saint-Simon, another important memoirist about court life at the time, says that Louise once greeted Louis’ son as “my brother”. Louis arranged for a rather handsome pension for her. As a result, some have conjectured that Marie-Anne did not actually die but was smuggled out of court and dropped off at Moret.


Louise, the Black Nun of More


However, that scenario is probably untrue, because there’s a much better candidate for her parents. Louis had a Moorish (that is, black African) coachman who had a baby girl. Louis and Maria Theresa acted as godparents for the girl, a not-uncommon gesture for royal servants. After the coachman and his wife died, Madame de Maintenon arranged for the child to be placed in a convent as a favor to the parents. However, that’s not slam-dunk proof, because sometime around 1683, Maintenon secretly married Louis. Her claim that she had given this baby to a convent only dates from the period after the marriage, and it looks like it could be an effort to suppress the rumor that the unusual black nun at Moret could actually have been Marie-Anne. Could Maintenon have lied about the baby in order to help cover up the evidence that Louis was a cuckold?
It’s possible, but like I said, I doubt it. The best evidence points toward Marie-Anne being dark-skinned because she was premature and sickly. But it’s worth noting that what happened to Nabo is unknown. Maybe Louis did have him drowned in some fountain somewhere.

The up-thrust of this is that it’s wildly unlikely that Maria Theresa gave birth to a Senegalese prince’s son. But at least Versailles grounded its rather dramatic story in an actual rumor that was circulating at the time and didn’t just resort to making shit up whole cloth (cough Reign cough).


Want to Know More?

Versailles is available through Amazon.

Louis XIV has been the subject of numerous biographies. Anthony Levi’s Louis XIV is well-regarded.

Tulip Fever: Love Amidst a Speculative Bubble


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Tulip Fever  (2017, dir. Justin Chadwick, based on the novel of the same name by Deborah Moggach) is a modest little movie set in Amsterdam (I think) in 1637. It tells the story of Sophia (Alicia Vikander), a young orphan married to Cornelis (Cristoph Waltz), a wealthy merchant. As usually happens when Hollywood presents May-December marriages, Sophia has an affair with a man closer to her own age, Jan (Dane DeHaan), a painter that Cornelis has hired to do a portrait of the two of them. What sets the film apart from every other iteration of this film are two things, the attempted resolution to the adultery and the fact that history’s first economic bubble, Tulip Mania, was happening at the time.


Spoiler Alert: If you’re thinking about watching this film, you might want to stop reading, since I give away a couple of big plot points.


The Plot

The set-up is, as I’ve already said, pretty familiar. You’ve probably seen a dozen films with that Spring-Winter love triangle. Sophia is Cornelis’ second wife, his first wife having died in childbirth along with the baby. After three years of marriage, Sophia has not produced a child and Cornelis is beginning to talk about divorcing her (which he could have, although realistically Dutch religious authorities only granted divorce in cases of adultery). When Sophia meets Jan, the two of them quickly begin an affair, with a little help from Maria (Holliday Granger), Sophia’s servant and confidante. But then Maria’s boyfriend gets her pregnant and disappears, leaving her staring down the barrel of social ruin. The two of them, aided by an unscrupulous physician, hatch a plot to solve all three problems at once. Sophia will pretend to be pregnant while they hide Maria’s condition from Cornelis. When Maria gives birth, the baby will be presented to Cornelis as his, but they will claim that Sophia died in childbirth, allowing her to run off with Jan. Needless to say, things don’t work out as planned.

The film offers a nice look at how all of those portraits that you see in museums were painted. Jan spends some time making sketches of the couple, and paints their faces onto canvas, but then uses stand-ins and manikins dressed in the subjects’ clothes to paint most of the rest of the painting. He makes multiple studies of their faces and other details before finally executing the commissioned painting. He also talks about the symbolism of the various objects included in the painting: a globe to hint at Cornelis’ occupation as a spice merchant, a pair of scales to indicate an awareness of God’s judgment, and a skull to demonstrate an awareness of mortality. 17thcentury Dutch Calvinists were expected to show off both their economic success and their godliness, so an expensive painting could do both simultaneously. The portrait is intended as a way of saying “Look at me, bitches, I’ve got money, but I know it’s really just a temporary blessing from God.”

Unfortunately, the paintings that Jan does in the film look a lot more like an mid-20thcentury portraits than 17th century ones. But let’s not quibble.


Jan deciding how to pose Sophia


Putting the Tulips in Tulip Fever

A key part of the story is the wild speculation into tulip futures that today is known as Tulipmania. Both Maria’s boyfriend and Jan get involved in speculating in the tulip market. Jan borrows heavily to purchase a rare bulb that he plans on selling to finance his intended life with Sophia. So let’s look at Tulipmania.

The Tulip was introduced into Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the mid-16thcentury, and it became extremely popular in the Netherlands in the 1590s, owing to its deeply-saturated color. By this point the Netherlands was rapidly rising in wealth due to the strength of its maritime trade; in the 17thcentury, the Dutch enjoyed the highest per capita income of any people in the world (one reason for all those Dutch paintings). The Dutch had a lot of money to spend, just like Americans in the 1980s, and the result was a thriving market for luxury goods like flowers. The most highly-prized were the ‘Breakers’, tulips that had a primary color broken with stripes of a different color, caused the Mosaic Virus. The most highly-prized were the ‘Bizarres’, which had yellow or white stripes on red, purple, or brown backgrounds. (The film gets this wrong, claiming that the most covered were white tulips with red streaks. I think they decided that red on white was either more striking on the screen or else that red on white had a nice symbolism for Sophia’s lost moral purity.)


Man with a wife and a tulip


In the 17thcentury, the Dutch had perhaps the most sophisticated financial sector in the world, with a thriving futures market. By the early 1630s, a market developed for speculation in tulip bulb futures, in which prices for the more unusual Breaker bulbs rose rapidly, and by 1636, the market for unbroken bulbs also heated up, and tulip bulbs became the fourth-most important export of the Netherlands. In 1635, one sale of 40 bulbs netted 100,000 guilders; for comparison, a skilled labor might earn between 150 and 350 guilders a year. So these bulbs were pretty much worth their weight in gold.

At that point, the market got quite complex. Investors bought contracts for future bulbs and then turned around and sold them immediately. What was changing hands was not the tulip bulbs themselves (which were still in the ground), but the contracts for ownership of those bulbs when they came out of the ground in the summer. Most of the people who bought the contracts never saw the bulbs they technically owned. Trading was done in taverns, with a small fee charged on each sale going to pay for wine, and one can easily imagine that some degree of inebriation played a role in the rising prices.

But then, in February of 1637, the market abruptly crashed. A group of buyers refused to show up to a sale in Haarlem because of an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city. The government declared that anyone could void a purchase contract by paying a 10% penalty, and as lawsuits occurred, judges concluded that these contracts were a form of gambling and thus unenforceable. And later in the month the Florists’ Guild decreed that those who held the futures contracts were not obligated to purchase the bulbs; in effect the futures contract became an option contract.


The Semper Augustus Breaker tulip


In 1841, the first modern account of Tulipmania was published by the Scottish author Charles Mackay. In Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Mackay reported stories of mass irrationalities, lumping together the Crusades, dueling, fortune telling, and (most importantly for our purposes) economic bubbles. He identified Tulipmania as one of three major examples of speculative bubbles. An economic bubble arises when the trade price of something irrationally exceeds its intrinsic value. People buy the asset expecting the price to continue rising and then turn around and sell it, pocketing the difference between the purchase price and the sale price as profit. Eventually, however, the bubble bursts. People realize that the asset is over-valued and stop buying. That causes the prices to start coming down, and there’s a sudden scramble to unload the asset, generally at a loss. (The 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Housing Crash of 2008 are both examples of speculative bubbles.)

Mackay’s description of Tulip Mania presented it as a madness that caught a hold of the general Dutch population, with everyone from nobles down to chambermaids and chimney sweeps getting into the market. He reports a story in which a sailor mistakenly ate a rare bulb, thinking it was an onion. (The story is probably false because while tulip petals are edible, tulip bulbs are both unpleasant-tasting and poisonous to humans unless carefully prepared.) Contracts supposedly changed hands hundreds of times. When the bubble burst, thousands were left destitute and some supposedly committed suicide by throwing themselves into the canals.

Tulip Fever definitely presents this view. Maria’s boyfriend buys a batch of plain white bulbs, hoping to make a small profit, but gets lucky when one bulb turns out to be a red-on-white Breaker. He pays 18 guilders for the lot and sells the Breaker for 920 guilders, but then gets robbed. The Breaker’s buyer then donates the bulb back to the convent that grew it, enabling the abbess (an underused Judi Densch) to sell it to Jan, who goes deeply in debt to buy it. Buying it for 1200 guilders, he sells it for 8000. But his creditors refuse to let him leave to fetch the bulb, so he sends his drunkard servant (played by the always-annoying Zach Galifianikis) to pick up the bulb from the abbess, who jokingly tells him it’s an onion. On the way back, he eats the bulb, thus ruining Jan. The market inexplicably collapses the same day.


If you’re a fan of big ruffs, this is the movie for you


The film mis-presents what’s going on. Instead of futures contracts, it shows the actual bulbs changing hands. The buyer gets a contract that is redeemed with the grower, who hands over the bulbs. I suspect the decision to show it this way was made because futures sales are a fairly abstract concept that is likely to confusing many viewers. But it’s hard to understand how a bubble could develop the way the film shows, since bulbs obviously take time to grow, which would probably act as a brake on the market. It was the very intangeability of the bulbs as an asset that allowed the market to get overheated. Also, if the bulbs themselves don’t change hands, that key moment of Jan’s bulb getting eaten can’t happen.

Nor does the film connect Tulipmania to the growing prosperity the Dutch were enjoying in the 1630s. As in 2008, there was too much money chasing too few investments and people felt flush with cash. Detached from its economic setting the whole Tulip Mania element of the film just feels a bit silly.


More Importantly…

Mackay’s story of Tulip Mania is wildly exaggerated. Mackay was a great story-teller, but he wasn’t an historian. In the 1980s, economists began digging into the facts behind his narrative, and much of the story collapsed, its own kind of narrative bubble. Mackay drew on a number of pamphlets written by religious authors who were hostile to the idea of a futures market in tulips because they saw it as immoral. These pamphlets argued that the crash was due to an improper concentration on material things rather than salvation. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence for the movement of tulip prices; the vast majority of evidence comes from 1637, making it hard to say for certain that the prices were actually in a bubble. Contracts did not in fact change hands hundreds of times; the most-traded contracts changed hands five times, and usually much less than that. No one committed suicide over the crash.

More importantly, in contrast to Mackay’s claims, most of the evidence suggests that the people who were investing in tulip futures were wealthy merchants with excess cash to play with, not poor laborers hoping to get rich. Only 37 people are known to have spent more than 300 guilders on a purchase. Whereas Mackay claims that thousands were financially ruined, in actuality, it was probably more like 5 or 6 men who lost their shirts. In fact, most sales didn’t involve actual money changing hands (that wouldn’t happen until the final buyer actually picked up the bulbs in May or June), so unless someone had bought a contract on credit, they wouldn’t have lost much when the market crashed. The only people seriously at risk were those who were expecting to get paid for their bulbs. They still had their assets, but if they had borrowed money on the expectation of the sale, they could have been in serious trouble.

So while the price of tulips did suddenly crash in February of 1637, the scenario that the film presents is basically untrue, though not entirely without foundation. Overall, Tulip Fever is not a bad little film but it’s not exactly a great movie either, and it’s easy to see why it came and went last year without attracting much attention. Maria starts blackmailing Sophia, Jan doesn’t seem like a man likely to inspire adulterous passion, and Cornelis becomes quite sympathetic as the film goes on, leaving the viewer not sure who to root for by the film’s denouement. For a romantic drama, it has a surprising amount of humor, although Cornelis’ repeated struggles to get his “little soldier to stand up” get kind of creepy.

If you have a film or tv show you would like me to review, please make a donation to my PayPal account and request one.


Want to Know More?

Tulip Fever is available on Amazon. Deborah Moggach’s novel Tulip Fever is also available.

If you want to know more about Tulipmania, Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is still in print, and gets updated periodically. Or you could get Anne Goldgar’s scholarly study of Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age, which debunks much of Mackay’s narrative.

Pose: Life on the Margins


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FX recently debuted a new tv series by Ryan Murphy, and I’m really enjoying it, so I’m going to post about it, even though it’s only on its first season and I’ve only seen the first four episodes, which are all that’s been broadcast.


Pose is Murphy’s effort to present the ball culture of Harlem in the 1980s to modern Americans. The show serves as an examination of the lives of gay and trans black people in that period, the AIDS Crisis, and the whole ‘Greed is Good” era, all at once. Its four main characters are Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), a latina transwoman; Angel (Indya Moore), a latina transwoman; Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a young gay black man; and Stan (Evan Peters), a white stock broker who works in Trump Tower.


Ball Culture

Ball Culture has its roots as far back as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when an annual drag ball was an important social occasion in the black community. Modern Ball Culture was founded around 1968 when a black drag queen, Crystal LaBeija, became frustrated with the racism of mainstream drag pageants and chose to found her own pageant for black drag queens, the House of LaBeija Ball. By 1987, when the show opens, Ball Culture was flourishing within the Harlem gay and trans community (and it still continues today).

In this culture, a Ball is a combination fashion show and dance competition. Competitors participate in various categories such as Military, Royalty, Femme Queen Realness, or Butch Queen in Pumps. Competitors were judged on their costuming, their appearance and attitude, and their dance skills. There are two somewhat contradictory goals that need to be achieved in order to score well. First, the competitor had to demonstrate ‘realness’, roughly defined as the ability to pass as a member of the category within the boundaries of straight white culture. Second, the competitor had to demonstrate an ability to call attention to themselves in a dramatic way, particularly with the extremely flamboyant style of improv dancing known as Voguing (made famous in 1990 by Madonna’s Vogue video), which makes use of elements like catwalking, duckwalking, and exaggerated arm and hand gestures.


Two men voguing


Ball Culture was (and still is) an expression of the complex social needs of black and latinx gay and trans people. Since these people tended to be rather poor, the balls gave them a fantasy of being well-off and ‘respectable’, while at the same time poking fun at a majority culture they couldn’t easily participate in. But it also showcased an important skill that many blacks and gays have to learn within a wider white heterosexual majority culture, namely the ability to pass as whiter, wealthier, and straighter than they actually are. The ability to pass as straight and middle class, for example, might enable a poor black woman to successfully navigate an encounter with a hostile bureaucrat or enable a gay man to avoid getting beaten up or denied a job. So while the balls were extremely playful, they were also a sort of training ground in which those who can figure out how to pass were rewarded by winning trophies while those who cannot pull off the intended look are scorned with poor judges’ scores and snide comments. While a majority of the contestants were gay or trans, there were categories, such as Military or Business Suit, where straight black men might compete in demonstrations of traditional masculinity, and black women had similar opportunities to showcase traditional femininity.

Because such a large portion of the Ball Culture were social outcasts due to their homosexuality or their improper gender identity, Ball Culture developed the idea of the House. Houses acted as alternative families whose members supported each other and often lived together. Houses were typically led by older or more successful members known as Mothers or Fathers who provided guidance, training in key skills, moral and social support, and perhaps economic assistance to their ‘children’. Members of a House usually adopted the last name used by their Mother or Father. For example, Crystal LaBeija’s ‘family’ were the House of LaBeija, and when Crystal died in 1982, another member, Pepper LaBeija, became the new Mother. Since Pepper’s death, the current Mother of the House is Kia LaBeija.



Ball Culture is the background to Pose. In the first episode, Blanca is a rather frustrated member of House Abundance, whose mother Elektra (Dominque Jackson) is both acid-tongued and ‘legendary’, meaning that she and her children have won a lot of ball trophies. She’s a tough, bitter transwoman who has a keen understanding of both how to make a splash at a ball and how harshly life can treat transwomen. She takes out her frustrations on Blanca and in the pilot she steals Blanca’s idea for a Royalty walk and then literally leads her children on a stealing spree from a museum. Later in the episode, Blanca gets the news that she’s HIV positive and this, coupled with her irritation with Elektra, goads her to strike out on her own and form the House of Evangelista. She recruits Angel, Damon, and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) into her house and moves them into a spacious but decaying apartment that she can somehow afford on her income as a nail technician.


Moore as Angel, walking in the category Royalty


In addition to its look into the world of Ball Culture, what I like most about Pose is its willingness to explore the tough lives and choices that gay and trans black people had in the 1980s. Damon, who dreams of becoming a professional dancer, is thrown out of his house by his parents because he’s gay, and he spends time homeless before Blanca invites him into her apartment and her House. Angel, like too many transwomen, is a prostitute and stripper at a peep show, at least until she meets Stan. Lil Papi is dealing drugs, despite Blanca’s ban on it. The show generally makes clear that its characters are poor and living a hardscrabble life, although it occasionally gets into a certain amount of fantasy about what’s possible; for example Damon’s homeless boyfriend somehow manages to keep his gorgeous jacket in pristine condition despite life on the street. But most of the characters engage in ‘mopping’ (shoplifting) to find items to wear in the balls.

The show is also particularly honest about its trans characters and the struggles they face. The show set a record for the highest number of trans actors in leading or recurring roles (five); Blanca, Elektra, and Angel are all played by trans actresses. These three characters all offer distinct viewpoints on the trans experience. Angel, despite being a prostitute, has a somewhat naïve longing for a traditional romantic life and when she meets Stan, she agrees to let him set her up in her own apartment and be a kept woman. Despite knowing that Stan is married with kids, she tries to engineer a semblance of a normal life with him, but cannot help but worry about his wife. She struggles to understand how a man who says he’s not gay can be attracted to a woman with a penis.

Elektra is also a kept woman, but she has years of bitter experience that have made her hard; she has a keen sense of the limitations that transwomen of color face and her prescription for climbing the ladder is to accept those limits and learn to game them. At one point, she uses her ability to pass as a woman of means to sweet-talk a police officer into releasing Blanca after the latter is arrested. At the same time, while she looks down on many of the transwomen in the show, she is not above resorting to criminal behavior to achieve her goals. She longs to have what the show refers to as “transsexualism surgery”, but her man warns her that if she goes through with it, he’ll end the relationship.


Rodriguez and Curiel as Blanca and Lil Papi


Blanca, however, sees a better world, a promised land for transwomen where they can at least be fully accepted in the gay community; early on she stages a defiant protest of a gay bar that caters to butch gay men and refuses to serve transwomen. This is a particularly nice touch. As gay culture has been presented in the mainstream media, gay men are generally depicted to being fully accepting of transwomen (if transwomen are depicted at all). In reality, transwomen have occupied a complex place in gay society. While queens and effeminate men were the driving force behind the Stonewall Riots, the more butch elements of the gay community have often been unwilling to fully accept them; draq queens and transwomen are celebrated as entertainers but often rejected as sexual partners and scorned for being too effeminate. (On contemporary gay dating sites and apps, it’s common for men to describe themselves as ‘straight-acting’ or to say ‘no fems’.) So it’s good for a show to explore that tension a little bit.

The show also explores the realities of the AIDS Crisis. Blanca’s realization that she doesn’t have a long life ahead of her spurs her to try to build up something that will last, namely a House that will become legendary but will also take better care of its children than Elektra does hers. In the fourth episode, Damon gets sick and Angel discusses the symptoms of seroconversion with him, one of the more frank discussions of HIV I’ve seen on television. The emcee for the balls, Pray Tell (the stand-out Billy Porter), has a boyfriend Costas who is dying of AIDS, and apparently he’s had more than one, as so many gay men in the 80s and 90s did. When he visits the hospital, he discovers that the nurse on duty has refused to bring Costas’ food into his room, and has just left it out in the hallway. That sort of callous, fear-driven treatment of AIDS patients was sadly common in the early days of the AIDS Crisis, and it highlights the need for chosen family of the sort that Houses provided. Thousands of gay men died abandoned by families and medical practitioners, often having to be nursed at home by a lover or gay friend because they either couldn’t afford medical treatment or because hospitals treated them so poorly. At one point Pray Tell discusses how the AIDS Crisis weighs on him and his sex life, and says “I’m scared.” Blanca replies “What is scared to people like us? It’s like water to a fish.” That’s probably the best one-sentence summary of gay life in the late 80s I’ve ever heard.

Refreshingly, the show avoids stigmatizing its characters’ sexual choices. Angel’s life as a sex worker is presented in a very matter-of-fact way, without any shaming of her for it. There’s no indication of how Blanca got infected; was it from a boyfriend, or did she, like Angel have to turn tricks at some point? Damon’s decision to give up his virginity to his boyfriend is explored as a serious choice, the same way it would have been with a straight white teen character, and Blanca gives him a very frank lecture about the realities of gay sex, even explaining that in gay sex there are ‘tops’ and ‘bottoms’. Lil Papi admits to have allowing guys to give him blow jobs for money. Stan is shown using a condom when he has sex with Angel.

Meanwhile, Stan struggles with the suffocating materialism of 1980s corporate culture. He’s trying to work his way up the corporate ladder, keep his wife happy, and earn the bonuses that are a measure of status in his social group, and Angel seems like his lifeline to something real and genuine and only for him. James van der Beek plays his Gordon Gecko-like boss with crass enthusiasm; apparently Dawson grew up and sold his soul. The contrast between Stan’s wealth and the other characters’ poverty offers an implicit criticism of Reagan-era economics.

Overall, I really applaud Pose for its choice to focus on such an under-represented segment of society and for its efforts to be relatively honest about the challenges this community had to deal with. Thus far, the show has focused on its characters as sexual minorities and has not really looked at them as racial minorities. I hope it does, because understanding the layered nature of their minority status is key to understanding them. They are not just a sexual minority, they are also racial minorities and in several cases gender minorities as well. The gay community has not fully reckoned with the degree to which white privilege permeates its lobbying efforts, and Pose could help address that problem. Give the show a look.


Want to Know More?

Pose is on FX. The best introduction to Ball Culture is Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris is BurningIt’s an excellent introduction to the major elements of the culture, told primarily through interviews. It is also a good window into the lives of black and latinx gays and transwomen, who discuss their dreams and aspirations.

Troy: Fall of a City: Meh


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In my previous post, I talked about whether Troy was a real place and whether the Trojan War was a real event. Regardless of whether it was or not, the Trojan War played a central role in the two greatest works of Greek literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and if you were a well-educated Greek, you knew these stories as well as modern people know Shakespeare’s plays. The two Homeric epics have stood the test of time and both tell profound, powerful stories. It’s surprising that modern cinema hasn’t drawn off these well-known classics more than it has.


So I was sort of excited to see the BBC/Netflix series and how it would treat the Trojan War. Sadly, the series is pretty disappointing. The show’s pacing is simultaneously fast-paced and dull, an impressive accomplishment, but probably not one it was aiming for. The acting is nothing to write home about, the dialog feels limp, and the show offers little insight into these ancient characters nor anything to make the story feel relevant to the modern world. The scenery, with South Africa standing in for Asia Minor, is pretty though, and the show’s approach to the Greek gods is sort of interesting, albeit in a rather unsatisfying way. I want to like the show, but I just don’t.

Unlike the 2004 film version of Troy, Troy: Fall of a City makes some real effort to be faithful to the original material. It follows the broad outline of the Iliad: the taking of Chriseis by Agamemnon (Johnny Harris) triggers a plague sent by Apollo that forces him to return the girl. He soothes his wounded pride by taking Briseis (Amy Louise Wilson) from Achilles (David Gyasi), who furiously withdraws from the war effort, and so on.

And it tries to fit in as much of the back story to the Iliad as it can. At the start of the series, Paris Alexander (Louis Hunter) discovers that he’s not some rough commoner but member of the royal house of Troy, which is basically true to the myths, in which Hecuba and Priam are given prophecies that their son will destroy Troy so they order the baby killed, but the kind-hearted servant instead spares the boy. And then the gods ask Paris to decide which goddess is most beautiful. Aphrodite (Lex King) bribes him with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world, and the show’s plot is set in motion.

Troy - Fall of a City generics

Francis O’Connor as Hecuba

After he is reunited with his family, Paris is sent on a simple mission to Sparta to give him some experience at diplomacy but he falls in love with Helen (Bella Dayne), who basically Fed Exs herself to Troy, much to Priam’s (David Threlfall) consternation.

When the Greeks want to set sail, they discover that Artemis is angry and will not let them sail until Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia to her. So throughout the show there are nods to actual Greek myths both large and small, instead of just focusing on the Iliad, which after all only covers one period 9 years into the war without either the beginning or the end. Sticking to just that material would have made a rather awkward story by modern standards.

Unlike the 2004 Troy, which tried to tell the story of Troy without the gods or anything else supernatural, this Troy does include the gods. Throughout the show, the gods intervene in small ways. For example, when Paris first sees Helen, Aphrodite slowly walks through the room.

But at the same time, the show also wants to modernize the story by making the characters more psychological and smoothing over some elements of the story that don’t play well for a modern audience. The show takes an essentially race-blind approach to casting, so that the Greeks and Trojans are played by various black or white actors; Achilles and Patroclus are both black, as is Zeus.


Gyasi (left) as Achilles, talking to Patroclus

As it happens, Chriseis bares a strong resemblance to Iphegnia, so Agamemnon’s reluctance to give her up is more about his emotional trauma from having to sacrifice his own daughter. That’s not a bad twist on the material. But things work less well with Briseis. The show doesn’t want her to just be a slave girl, so Achilles insists that he’s interested in her as a person, and he and Patroclus have a bisexual three-way with her. As a result, Achilles’ anger isn’t over his wounded pride; it’s because Agamemnon has stolen his girlfriend. The reason that’s a problem is that in the Iliad, Achilles’ rage is about his own inability to empathize with anyone else, and the poem ends when Achilles is finally able to achieve a moment of empathy with his enemy Priam. Here, not so much.

Similarly, Andromache (Chloe Pirrie) is having trouble conceiving until Helen tells her about a fertility remedy she knows. That’s sort of a nice idea, given the pathos around what will eventually happen to the baby after the city is captured. (Spoiler: in the myths, baby Astynax gets thrown off the walls of Troy so that he can’t grow up to avenge his father’s death.)

But the show feels a need to insert a variety of boring sub-plots because it doesn’t find enough in the Iliad to make the mid-part of the story interesting. After a year of being sieged, the Trojans decide to dig a tunnel that will connect to one of their allied communities. But Paris and Hector (Tom Weston-Jones) have to *yawn* make a daring ride overland past the Greeks to get to that community and then the Greeks figure out what’s up and just after the tunnel gets opened the Greeks slaughter the allies and the Trojans have to close the tunnel. And then it turns out the Odysseus has a spy inside Troy   *yawn* and then Achilles sneaks in and sees his old girlfriend Helen who persuades him to leave but then one of the servants sees and starts to suspect her *yawn*, and then just as the Trojans are about the attack the Greeks, the spy releases all the Trojans’ horses, and…

Yeah. Having decided to tell the story of the Trojan War, the screenwriters immediately decided that they didn’t have enough story to tell and had to come up with something else.


Paris (Louis Hunter) deciding which goddess he’s not going to piss off

Likewise, although the gods are characters in the show, they don’t actually do very much. For example, in the Iliad, Menelaus and Paris have a duel to settle the war once and for all. But when Menelaus is about to kill Paris, Aphrodite intervenes to magically carry him back to Troy, where he can be safe and have sex with Helen (she’s the goddess of love and sex, so the mortals she patronizes get to have a lot of sex). But in the show, all Aphrodite does is briefly distract everyone long enough for Paris to throw sand in Menelaus’ eyes and then run off into the wilderness where he spends an episode wondering why his parents didn’t love him.

At a different point, Hera accuses Zeus of having orchestrated the whole thing, but Zeus denies it, saying that he gave Paris free will to see what he would do with it. But that rests rather awkwardly with the fact that Aphrodite got everything going by bribing Paris with Helen’s love. It also doesn’t really fit with the prophecy that Paris is going to be the cause of the destruction of Troy, or with the fact that Cassandra can see the future. In Greek literature, prophecy is a rich source of irony. Priam, like Oedipus’ father, tries to avoid the prophecy but can’t, while poor Cassandra knows the future but can’t persuade anyone to listen to her.

The Iliad was written before the Greeks had really begun to wrestle with the whole tension between divine will and human free will. The gods are constantly causing things to happen. Athena and Hera want to see Troy destroyed because they are mad at Paris for giving the golden apple to Aphrodite instead. Zeus orders all the gods to keep their hands off Troy, but Hera intentionally distracts him so the other gods can sneak down and interfere. Athena actively suckers Hector into standing and fighting Achilles precisely because she knows that Achilles can kill Hector. So the gods are often ‘Homer’s’ way of giving characters some degree of psychological interiority. Instead of characters making complex emotional decisions, the gods whisper to them to get them to do things. So the whole story is about humans trapped by divine causality because the gods are angry about things. It’s a problematic dynamic, and one that later Greek authors like Sophocles would challenge by articulating notions of free will and human responsibility for their own mistakes.


The show’s approach to costuming is not exactly faithful to Bronze Age Greece

So the show is compromising. It wants the gods to be figures in the show because they’re important to the Iliad, but it also wants the characters to be fully responsible for their own decisions and have complex interior lives because that’s how modern cinema operates. The result is muddy theology and gods that drift around getting dramatic camera shots but not really doing anything. It’s an unsatisfying solution.

So the show isn’t really that good. But if you’re looking for something that tries to tell the stories of the Greek myths, you don’t have a lot of other options, unfortunately.

Want to Know More?

There are lots of translations of the Iliad. The one that’s most commonly used in classrooms is probably Richard Lattimore‘s. I’m pretty partial to that one. There are also tons of books on the Iliad. If you want a really interesting and very readable analysis that views it as exploring the horrors of war, try Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles.

Troy: Fall of a City: Did the Trojan War Happen?


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In February of 2018, Netflix and the BBC released Troy: Fall of a City. Filmed in South Africa, it tells the story of the Trojan War, drawing fairly extensively off of the Iliad and other Greek myths. Before I tackle the series itself, however, I first need to discuss whether the Trojan War is actually an historical event.


While the Greeks believed that Troy was a real city and the events of the Trojan War were historical, by the 19thcentury, most scholars assumed that the story was fictional and that Troy had never existed. In the 1860s, however one of the first archaeologists of note, the German Heinrich Schliemann, became convinced that Troy was a real place (although Schliemann is sometimes described more as a treasure hunter than a genuine archaeologist). Working from information provided by another archaeologist, Frank Calvert, Schliemann eventually conducted a dig at Hisarlik in modern Turkey, on the northwest corner of Asia Minor. He discovered the ruins of a series of layered ancient cities which he declared to be Troy, although his excavations caused enormous damage to the site, to the point that one scholar declared that Schliemann had done to Troy what the Greeks had been unable to do in ten years.


Heinrich Schliemann

Scholars agree that Schliemann’s identification of the ruins at Hisarlik with the Troy of Greek mythology is essentially correct. But Troy was not exactly one city. Instead the ruins show a whole series of cities at Hisarlik, the earliest being founded around 3000 BC and the latest being destroyed late in the Roman period. By tradition, these various cities are known as Troy I, Troy II, Troy III, and so on down through Troy IX (the highest and most recent city). One layer, termed Troy VIIa, flourished in the 13thcentury, during the Mycenaean Period of ancient Greek history.


The 13thcentury BC is sometimes called the Heroic Age, because it corresponds to the period when according to Greek mythology the major Greek heroes were active. Historians call it the Mycenaean Period, because the archaeological layer characteristic of the culture was first identified at Mycenae. The Mycenaean Period was the first flourishing of Greek culture, characterized by large citadel-palaces and a wealthy warrior aristocracy.

Mycenaean Greece was part of an international network of cultures that included Egypt, Babylon in Mesopotamia, the Hittites in Central Asia Minor, the Trojans in northwestern Asia Minor, and the Minoans on Crete.  These cultures traded extensively with one another and carried on a lively diplomacy in the 14thand 13thcenturies BC. The Mycenaeans developed a form of syllabic script called Linear B that they used for simple record-keeping.

And then, for reasons that historians are still trying to piece together, it all fell apart at the end of the 13thcentury. The Hittites, the Kassite Babylonians, the Trojans, the Minoans, and the Mycenaeans all suffered a total collapse. Their societies gave out and never recovered, all within about a half-century on either side of the year 1200 BC. The New Kingdom in Egypt held together for about another century before giving way to the Third Intermediate Period.


The Bronze Age Collapse

There are numerous theories about what caused this catastrophe, which is rightly considered the worst disaster of the ancient world. There was clearly a great deal of violence; most of the Mycenaean and Minoan palaces show signs of violent destruction. Both disease and earthquakes have been pointed to as contributing factors. One of the more interesting theories is that the emergence of iron-working technology destabilized the established military systems of the era, which depended on bronze. Since bronze was inferior to iron in terms of strength and hardness, the spread of iron weaponry would have upended existing military arrangements. Among the Greeks, the collapse was so severe that they literally forgot how to write. Linear B was entirely forgotten, and the Greeks wouldn’t acquire the more familiar alphabetic script until the 9th century, with the result that for about 300 years, the Greek ‘Dark Age’ is totally undocumented. Our best sources of information for the Dark Age are archaeology and linguistics (we know a bit about what Greek was like before the Dark Age and we know what it was like afterwards, so the changes give us some clues to what’s happening in between).

Troy VIIa was destroyed around 1190 BC, although only pieces of it have been found. There is some evidence of a fire in the one part of that level of the city that has been excavated. Some partial human remains were found in buildings, and one skeleton with skull injuries and a broken jaw was found near the city’s walls. Three bronze arrowheads were found. All of that is consistent with some sort of war, although none of it is proof of war. And the city does not seem to have been completely destroyed. The Troy VIIb layer suggests that the city remained inhabited, so that whatever happened to VIIa, it was not a complete annihilation of the community.


The walls of Troy (but not Troy VIIa)

Crucially, a date around 1190 BC is loosely consistent both with the Bronze Age Collapse and with the period when later Greek legend claimed that the Greeks (or more properly the Achaeans, since the Trojans were also a branch of Greek culture) destroyed Troy. So it’s not wrong to say that we have evidence that the Trojan War actually happened. There is reasonable evidence that Troy really was at least partly destroyed in a war and that this probably happened as part of the Bronze Age Collapse.

However, having said that, I immediately have to qualify it. The fact that a war might well have overwhelmed Troy VIIa is not the same thing as saying that the Trojan War as it has come down to us is real. We have no evidence at all that any of the people named in the Greek myths actually existed. There may have been a Troy, but we can’t say that it was ruled by Priam and Hecuba and defended by Hector the Breaker of Horses. We can’t say that Troy’s calamity began when the Trojan Prince Paris stole Helen away from her husband Menelaus of Sparta, and we have no proof that the attackers were Achaean Greeks, much less that they were led by Agamemnon and Achilles.

What about the Iliad?

What about it?

Ok, it’s actually a fair question. If the Iliad tells use the names of all the major players in the Trojan War, why am I so skeptical that those were real people?

The answer to that question is kind of complicated and gets into all sorts of questions about when the poem was composed and who composed it. First, it has to be noted that the world the poem describes is filled with all sorts of historical errors in terms of Bronze Age Mycenaean culture:

  • The armor described sounds much more like Archaic period (9ththrough 6thcentury BC) armor than Mycenaean armor. Mycenaean helmets were made of animal tusks, not bronze.
  • The heroes ride to battle in chariots, which the Mycenaeans used, but use them all wrong. Instead of firing missiles at their opponents from fast-moving platforms, Achilles and company ride up to their enemies in chariots, leap out to fight hand-to-hand, and then jump back into their chariots.
  • The Mycenaeans buried their valued dead in vaulted beehive tombs called tholoi, but the dead heroes of the Iliad are cremated instead of buried.
  • The few scraps of written information surviving from the Mycenaean period describe complex distinctions of leadership that are absent from the Iliad.
  • The Iliad fails to mention many major Mycenaean communities.

Despite all of this, we do have some scraps of information from the Mycenaean period that point toward the Homeric tradition. Surviving Mycenaean documents do mention a number of the gods worshipped by the classical Greeks, including Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, and Athena. The name ‘Achilles’ occurs in one document as the name of a shepherd. Records from the Hittite kingdom of central Asia Minor mention a place called Wilusa, which might be Ilion (the alternative name for Troy that gave the Iliad its title), whose king was Alaksandu the son of Piyama-Radu; Alexander was the actual given name of the Trojan hero Paris, the son of Priam. Most famously, a throw-away detail in the poem known as the Catalog of Ships mentions a long list of places that existed in the Mycenaean period, some of which no longer existed by the Archaic period. So there are a few hints that a genuine historical tradition lurks under the Iliad.


This Mycenaean suit of armor looks nothing like later Greek armor

Greek tradition claims that the Iliad (and the Odyssey) were written by a blind poet named Homer who presumably composed the poem in one long act of composition. The reality was much more complicated. In the 1920s, American scholar Milman Parry proposed that the poem was composed according to what he termed Oral Formulaic Theory. To be simplistic about it, Oral Formulaic Theory holds that instead of memorizing an enormously long and complicated poem like the Iliad, what oral poets actually did was to memorize the outlines of a story that could be expanded or contracted to fit the poet’s needs during a given recitation. For example, if the poet were performing the Iliad at Ithaca, where Odysseus was from, he could greatly expand the material about Odysseus and perhaps contract the material about Menelaus of Sparta based on what he assumed would go over well with his audience. So instead of reciting the poem verbatim every time, he essentially composed a new version of the poem each time he performed it. To help him in the task of composing on the fly, the poet made use of stock phrases that bought him time to compose the next line in his head as he recited the previous one. For example, when the sea is mentioned, it is always ‘wine-dark’, when Athena appears, she is usually ‘grey-eyed’; that’s the Formula part of Oral Formulaic. Parry was able to prove that this was the way that Yugoslav poets worked when they performed, so his theory has solid evidence behind it as a system of performance.

If that’s true for the Iliad, then it’s much harder to speak of a specific author. Homer wasn’t so much the author of the poem we have today as he is a collective name for the many poets who memorized the structure of the poem and then constantly changed it as they performed it and passed it on to a new generation of poets. Perhaps the poem (or a piece of it) was first composed within a generation of 1190 BC, but by the time it got written down in the 8thcentury, it had passed through so many hands that must have undergone enormous change from its first version. Because there’s no good way to tell what has changed and what hasn’t, it’s impossible to locate whatever original nuggets of fact might still exist in the poem.

It is, however, possible that the written version of the Iliad was reworked by the final person whose hands it passed through. The structure of the poem is, in it own way, quite tight (though not as tight as the Odyssey), and the characters in it demonstrate reasonably consistent personalities. It opens with a declaration of its theme, the wrath of Achilles, and concludes when Achilles is finally able to lay aside his wrath. All of that sort of suggests that a conscious mind was at work, trying to achieve a consistent and satisfying story. So perhaps we can say that Homer is the final editor of the poem.

What’s Actually In the Iliad?

When students actually read the Iliad for the first time, they are often surprised to discover that it doesn’t tell the whole story of the Trojan War. It actually only tells the story of one important moment during the 9thyear of the 10-year campaign. It doesn’t tell us about how the war began; it makes no mention of the Golden Apple that Paris was asked to award to the loveliest goddess. It doesn’t tell us how Aphrodite, the winner of that contest, awarded Paris Helen of Sparta and how he stole her from her husband Menelaus. Nor does it tell us anything about the end of the war. The famous Trojan Horse and the Fall of Troy won’t happen for another year after the end of the poem.

Instead, the poem opens with Chryses, the priest of Apollo, seeking the return of his daughter Chryseis, whom Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, has taken as a slave. When Agamemnon refuses, Apollo strikes the Greeks with a plague that forces Agamemnon to return the girl. Butt-hurt over having to give up his war prize, Agamemnon petulantly confiscates Briseis, Achilles’ slave girl. That causes Achilles to get pissed off, so he decides he’s going to sit out the war and just sulk. Given that he’s the greatest warrior on the Greek side, the consequence is that the Trojans have the upper hand. Hector proves a greater warrior than anyone on the Greek side except Achilles.

Eventually Agamemnon swallows his pride and sends Odysseus to Achilles with an offer to return Briseis. But Achilles has built up a good head of anger and refuses. Eventually Patroclus, who is probably Achilles’ lover although the poem never makes that explicit, begs Achilles to let him borrow Achilles’ armor so he can fight. Since he’s wearing Achilles’ armor, everyone will think Achilles has changed his mind and this will boost the Greek morale. Achilles agrees but tells him that he cannot pursue the Trojans if they retreat. But you already know what’s coming. Patroclus ignores Achilles’ command and pursues the Trojans back to the gates of Troy, where Hector fights and kills him, thinking he’s just killed the greatest hero of all time.


Achilles bandaging up his boyfriend Patroclus

Achilles is furious with grief when he learns his sexy daddy Patroclus is dead. Since his mama is a goddess, he gets a new set of armor made by Hephestus himself and goes and wreaks havoc among the Trojans. Eventually Hector goes out to fight him but chickens out and instead they get into a foot-race around Troy. Athena, who is still pissed at the Trojans because she didn’t get the Golden Apple, eventually tricks Hector into standing to fight, at which point Achilles gets Mycenaean on his ass and kills him. Then, because he can’t make Hector any more dead, he ties Hector’s corpse behind his chariot and drags it around Troy a bunch of times. It’s an act of total savagery, but he’s so torn up that his lover is dead that he can’t stop himself.

Eventually, in one of several remarkably moving moments in the poem, the aged Priam goes to Achilles, kneels before him and begs for his son’s body so he can bury it properly. Achilles finally realizes that his grief isn’t any different from Priam’s, and he agrees to return Hector’s body, allowing the Trojans to bury and mourn their great hero.


Priam begging for Hector’s body

At the end of the poem, the writing is on the wall. With their greatest hero dead, it’s clear that the Trojans will lose. But it’s still going to take a year and the most famous military trick in world history to take them down.

In my next post, we’ll look at how Troy: Fall of a City handles this material.

Want to Know More?

There are lots of translations of the Iliad. The one that’s most commonly used in classrooms is probably Richard Lattimore‘s. I’m pretty partial to that one. There are also tons of books on the Iliad. If you want a really interesting and very readable analysis that views it as exploring the horrors of war, try Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles.

If you’d like to know more about the Bronze Age Collapse, I really liked Robert Drews The End of the Bronze Age.

Turn: Washington’s Spies: Slavery


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I had a few things I wanted to say about the depiction of slavery on Turn: Washington’s Spies. Because of the long gap in posting, I’m going off memory, so this is going to be a much less detailed post than normal, but I figured I’d put a few thoughts out there. It’s great that the show wanted to acknowledge that there were black people around during the Revolution and that some of them played roles in what happened. But I wish it had done a better job of it.

In episode 5, “Epiphany”, Anna and Selah Strong’s slaves are confiscated because of the Dunmore Proclamation. The Proclamation was issued in 1775 by John Murray, the earl of Dunmore and the Royal Governor of Virginia. It promised slaves in Virginia their freedom if they took up arms for the Crown. So the Proclamation was a real thing, but the show has almost entirely gotten it wrong. It didn’t grant freedom to slaves of suspected patriots as the show has it; it only granted them freedom on condition of fighting for the British. And it didn’t apply in New York where the show is set, because Dunmore’s authority didn’t run in New York. And it basically required the freed slaves to rebel against their owners.


Idara Victor’s Abigail

Also, although there were certainly slave owners in New York State, it’s sort of odd that Anna (Heather Lind) and Selah are shown as slave owners. In the show, the only clear information we get about their livelihood is that they run a tavern. Perhaps they might have owned a slave to help them run the tavern, but it’s pretty unlikely that they would have owned the roughly dozen slaves the show seems to present them as owning at the start of the episode. Perhaps the Strongs had a farm that we don’t see, but it seems unlikely that they would have needed that many slaves to run it.

One of the Strongs’ slaves, Abigail (Idara Victor) has a young son Cicero (Darren Alford) whom she leaves behind with Anna. Somehow, both Abigail and Cicero are literate. That’s unlikely. It wasn’t common to teach slaves to read and write unless their work would have required it somehow and Abigail and Cicero seem to be domestic servants. But let’s give the show the benefit of the doubt and assume that Anna or Selah taught them to read and write for some reason; although the show makes no indication of it, perhaps the Strongs are devout Christians who care about the salvation of their slaves and wanted them to be able to read the Bible.


Darren Alford’s Victor

But the show suggests that slave literacy was a punishable offense. When Abigail leaves Cicero with Anna, she tells him that he must be extremely careful not to let anyone know that he can read. The implication here is that slave literacy is not allowed and punishable, although it’s not clear if this is supposed to be a crime, or just something white people don’t want slaves to be able to do. It’s true that many southern colonies/states did pass laws against slave literacy because they feared that it could encourage slave rebellions, but none of the northern colonies/states ever passed such laws. So once again the show is incorrectly generalizing from a specific situation in the South to all the colonies.

The most problematic thing in the show, however, is the dynamic between Abigail and Anna. Anna clearly views her slaves as valuable property, because she’s distraught about having them confiscated by the British; it puts her in a very precarious situation economically. That’s reasonable; a dozen or so slaves would have represented a very significant financial investment for any family. But then she goes to Abigail and begs her forgiveness. So despite clearly viewing her as property, Anna also somehow suddenly views Abigail as an actual human being. This feels totally implausible to me. Anna was apparently ok owning Abigail until she didn’t, and then suddenly she feels bad about it. Clearly, the writers realized that having a major sympathetic character be an unrepentant slave owner wouldn’t work for the audience, but given how suddenly the issue comes up (prior to episode 5, there’s no mention of slavery or any hint that the Strongs own slaves), this just felt ham-fisted.


Even worse, Abigail forgives her immediately and the two suddenly become very close friends. Slaves did sometimes become emotionally intimate with their owners—the classic examples are a mistress’ maid and a master’s concubine. But those were very fraught relationships. The slave in question had no say in the relationship and typically used that relationship to try to get protection, less harsh treatment, and other similar things from their owner, in the hope that if their owners felt some affection for them, they would be less likely to do things like beat them or sell their children. So these relationships weren’t normal friendships, because there was such an intense power differential involved, and the slave typically had to conceal his or her real feelings and feign affection and acquiescence toward the owner. So Anna might have thought that she and Abigail were friends, but Abigail would certainly have had much more complex feelings toward her former owner than the show suggests.

The idea that slaves loved their owners and could become close friends with them was entirely a belief that white owners developed in order to help themselves avoid dealing with the brutal realities of owning another human being against his or her will. In general, the owners were deluding themselves, and the slaves were generally actively lying to their owners, faking friendliness because the consequences of expressing their bitterness and anger were too high.

So what the show is doing is taking a fantasy that slave owners came up with make themselves feel better about brutally owning and exploiting other humans and presenting it to us as a real thing that actually happened. Doing that is essentially claiming that slavery wasn’t so bad because slaves somehow enjoyed part of being slaves enough to allow them to form friendships with people they should actually have hated. It’s pretty damn offensive.


Want to Know More? 

Turn: Washington’s Spies is available on Amazon.

Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The True Story of America’s First Spy Network is the basis for the whole series. Rose isn’t a professional historian, but he does a good job of laying out the facts around the Culper Ring, as well as around the unfortunate Nathan Hale, and Benedict Arnold, and he makes extensive use of surviving letters (including the Culper Ring reports). He emphasis narrative over analysis more than I would prefer, but it’s a good introduction into Revolutionary-era espionage.

One good book dealing with female slaves in this period is Catherine Adams and Elizabeth H. Pleck’s Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England.

Turn: Washington’s Spies: The British


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I have to apologize for my long and unintentional absence from this blog. The past three months saw me dealing with a tsunami of grading work (as well as two important conferences), which ate up all my energies. I started to write this post, then had to set it aside, and the longer I was away from it, the harder it was for me to gather my thoughts and remember the things I wanted to comment on, without rewatching the first season again. But, now that my semester is finally over, I’m back!

In my previous post, I talked about the American side of Turn: Washington’s Spies. This post is going to look at the four major British characters in the first season: Major Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorham), Lt-Col. John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), Major John André (JJ Fields), and Major Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen). Once again, they’re all real people.


Major Edmund Hewlett

In the first season, the British Major Hewlett spends his time in Setauket. He’s taken over the church and is using it as a stable for his horse, as an administrative office, and as a courtroom in one episode. Historically, the British did use the church as a stable, so I doubt they were using it for an office as well, because who wants horse shit all over their office? But let’s not worry about that. Hewlett’s a committed Loyalist who is very serious about law and order, and generally comes across as decent, if quite strict. He’s very focused on keeping order in the town, but eventually has a falling out with Lt-Col. Simcoe because Hewlett at least tries to be a reasonable man.

As this article explains, the historical Richard Hewlett (actually a lieutenant colonel, not a major, and having been given a less American-sounding name) was actually a native of Long Island and spent the entirety of the war there, assigned to various locations. At the time of the Revolution, he was in his 40s, married, and was in the process of fathering eleven children. In fact, Hewlett’s unit were not British redcoats but American loyalists.


Burn Gorman’s Major Hewlett

Assigned to Setauket, he was aware that the town was vulnerable and decided to fortify the church by pulling up gravestones to create a defensive perimeter for his troops to crouch behind. The show builds a whole episode around that issue. Historically, I doubt we know much about that process, but the show does a nice job dramatizing what might have been a moment of significant social tension in Setauket (although the episode studiously avoids touching on any actual religious ideas anyone might have had at the time). The actual Battle of Setauket seems to have been a pretty minor affair; there was a three-hour exchange of gunfire that left one Patriot wounded, and the Patriots decided to retreat for fear that British warships might spot the conflict and intervene. Hewlett received praise from his superiors for his actions.

Hewlett, like many Loyalists, emigrated to Canada when the British surrendered.

Overall, Burn Gorman’s Hewlett is probably as realistic a portrait of the man as is possible, given that we don’t know a lot about the man in terms of his personality, although one person who knew him described him as ‘spirited’, not quite the rather calm, focused figure the series gives us.


Lt-Col. John Simcoe

Samuel Roukin’s John Simcoe is a violent man to the point of sociopathy; he seems like a sadist who has few morals apart from a loyalty to the British Crown.  Over the course of the first season he repeatedly demonstrates a willingness to kill with virtually no hesitation. In one episode, he concludes that the man seated next to him at a dinner party must be an American spy, so he casually stabs the man in the throat like he’s spearing a piece of meat to put on his plate. That depiction is a serious problem, because Simcoe is actually an important historical figure.


Samuel Roukin as John Graves Simcoe


John Graves Simcoe grew up in England and enlisted in the British army in 1770 when he was 18. His unit was sent to the colonies and when the war broke out, he saw considerable action, including the Siege of Boston in 1775-76, and the Philadelphia Campaign in 1777-78, which resulted in the capture of Philadelphia, the capital of the young country. During that campaign, he organized a unit of rangers made up of free blacks and led the battle of Crooked Billet, inflicting significant damage on the Revolutionary forces. His unit proved extremely effective throughout the war, and was the first unit of rangers to wear green instead of red (a rather important innovation for troops that were intended to sneak through forests).

During the war, Simcoe ordered a number of massacres. In 1778, he ordered the slaughter of ten Americans caught asleep in southern New Jersey. But an additional 20 men were taken prisoner either during the assault or soon thereafter. The same year, he ordered the massacre of 40 Native Americans who were serving alongside the Continental Army in the Bronx. So on the surface that would seem to justify the series’ treatment of Simcoe as a maniac.

However in 1777, during the Battle of Brandywine, Simcoe is rumored to have restrained his men from firing on fleeing rebels (one of whom is said to have been George Washington). This act of restraint or mercy potentially changed the course of history, since if Washington had died in 1777, not only the war, but all of American history would have gone quite differently. In another incident, after he forbade his troops to confiscate the property of captives, he discovered that his troops decided to simply kill those who surrendered. Disturbed by this, Simcoe reversed his policy and allowed the confiscation of property in order to reduce the loss of life. He is also known to have approved General Howe’s restraint during the Siege of Boston and Howe’s decision to not burn the city. None of this is in line with Roukin’s portrayal of the man.

But Simcoe’s real importance lies after the war. He was elected to Parliament in 1790. In 1792, he resigned from Parliament to become the lieutenant governor of the newly created loyalist province of Upper Canada (or as we call it today, Ontario). In this capacity, he was responsible for the abolition of slavery in Canada. In 1793, a political incident arose involving Chloe Cooley, a young slave woman brought to Canada by her owner Adam Vrooman. Vrooman had emigrated from New York after the American victory in the Revolutionary War, taking his slave with him. But he began to worry that the government of Canada might abolish slavery, so he decided to sell her to an American who lived across the Niagara River. In the process of loading the tied-up Chloe into a boat for transport across the river, he beat her, and Chloe struggled and screamed for help. Vrooman seems to have successfully completed the sale, but after he returned, charged were brought against him for disturbing the peace, because witnesses had seen the altercation between him and Chloe. The charges were eventually dropped because Chloe was legally his property.


John Graves Simcoe

This outcome offended Simcoe, who leaned heavily on the government council to outlaw slavery, against the opposition of nearly half the council, who were themselves slave owners. The result of his efforts was the 1793 Act Against Slavery, which forbade the importation of slaves into Canada and declared that the children of slave women would automatically be freed when they reached 25 years of age. The Act made Upper Canada the first British colony to take solid action against slavery, although it did not abolish slavery within the province. That wouldn’t happen until 1833, when the British Parliament outlawed slavery throughout the Empire. In a speech to the council in support of the Act, Simcoe declared

“The principles of the British Constitution do not admit of that slavery which Christianity condemns. The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America, or Europe.”

Hardly the sentiments of a sociopath. In fact, one historian has opined that Turn’s depiction of Simcoe is so egregious that it would “undoubtedly expose the producers to a defamation of character suit were the people portrayed in the series still alive.“

Incidentally, Simcoe also helped found the city that became Toronto, and he named Simcoe County in Ontario after his father.

Fun fact: Simcoe also sent the first known Valentine in America in 1779, to Sarah Townsend, who unbeknownst to him was the sister of a member of the Culper Ring and who was actively passing information to the ring.


Major John André

John André was a British citizen of French and Swiss descent who joined the 7th Royal Fusiliers based in Quebec. But after about a year he was captured when the Americans invaded Quebec and successfully sieged Ft. Saint-Jean. The siege stalled out the American invasion and ultimately they burned the fort and retreated, taking André and other prisoners back to Pennsylvania. At the end of 1776, he was freed during a prisoner exchange. He became a major in 1778 after joining Henry Clinton’s staff. His charming manner, fluency in four languages, and artistic skills all made him both socially popular and highly useful to Clinton during the occupations of New York and Philadelphia. In Philadelphia he lived in Benjamin Franklin’s house. In April of 1779, Clinton gave him charge of the British intelligence operations.

So the show has him conducting espionage about a year too early. But the show’s depiction of an urbane man who hosted popular parties is basically accurate. He was not, however, a master of espionage. He did effectively impose some organization on Clinton’s intelligence efforts, but he was not especially good at deception and his recruiting of Benedict Arnold seems to have been his one major accomplishment in British espionage. There’s no reason to think that he and Abraham Woodhull ever met.

One detail of the show stood out to me as bizarre. He is always show wearing a rat-tail braid behind each ear. (Oddly, it’s white, even though his hair is brown.) Take a look.


JJ Fields as John André


In a show that made some attempt (but only some) to get basic costuming right, the inclusion of such an obvious 20thcentury anachronism was startling. What the hell were they thinking?

It turns out that the show actually had some legitimate basis for this odd style. Namely, a painting of John André that clearly shows him wearing a rat-tail braid. Take a look.


The title of this painting is “A Soldier called Major John Andre”


Unfortunately, as it turns out, this painting isn’t the right John André. But the fact that rat-tail braids were an actual thing in the late 18thcentury floored me.


Major Robert Rogers

Robert Rogers was a moderately important figure in colonial America. His father brought the family to New Hampshire when Robert was 8. In 1756, he joined the British army during the French and Indian War and recruited a unit eventually known as Rogers’ Rangers, proving remarkably effective at operating in winter conditions. He was a skilled woodsman who learned a great deal from the local Indian tribes and frequently employed them in his unit. He was known for being harsh to prisoners, often killing and even scalping them. In 1763, when Pontiac’s Rebellion broke out, Rogers was involved in an ill-fated surprise attack on Pontiac’s position. Unfortunately, Pontiac was aware of the attack and ambushed it, killing or wounding 54 British soldiers.


After that, Rogers went to England and enjoyed some success as the author of play about Pontiac. He got an audience with George III, who gave him an appointment as governor of what became Mackinaw City, Michigan. Unfortunately, Rogers fell afoul of General Gage, who viewed him as a supporter of one of Gage’s chief rivals. Gage felt that Rogers close ties with the Indians marked him as suspect, and so in 1767, he had Rogers arrested for treason. Rogers was found innocent, but was unable to maintain his position. He returned to England badly in debt, wound up in debtor’s prison, and tried to sue Gage, who bought him off by granting him the rank of major.

When the American Revolution erupted in 1775, Rogers returned to America, but he was in an awkward position. He had been a skilled ranger, but by this time he was a hopeless alcoholic and penniless. His service to the Crown rendered him suspect to the Americans but Gage’s hatred of him meant that serving in the British army was out of the question too. So he tried to play both sides off against each other. He was immediately arrested in Philadelphia but released the next day with a promise not to take up arms for the British.

Fortunately for Rogers, soon after his release, Gage resigned, and General Howe proved more willing to employ him. Rogers then contacted Washington seeking a command. But Washington found out about Rogers’ double-dealing and had him arrested. He escaped and went back to New York, where he climbed up the anchor chain of the British flagship docked in the harbor, snuck past the guards, and crashed a dinner party. That show of skill was good enough for Howe, who commissioned him to recruit a new unit of Queen’s Rangers, with a promotion to colonel. Rogers captured Nathan Hale, Washington’s first attempted spy, in September of 1776.


Angus MacFadyen’s Robert Rogers

But after that, things went downhill for Rogers. The men he recruited into the Queen’s Rangers were a motley group, notorious for pillaging, which made them a nuisance to both Loyalists and Patriots alike. They were also prone to desertion; by early 1777, 80% of the men Rogers had recruited had abandoned their unit. When that became clear, Howe forced Rogers to resign. He went to Quebec the next year, and thereafter to London, New York, and then Quebec again. In 1781, he was captured trying to get back to New York, and wound up in prison. He was sent back to London when the British pulled their troops out at the end of the war. He died in poverty and obscurity.

Despite a fascinating history, Rogers’ one significant contribution to the story of the American Revolution—the capture of Nathan Hale—was already over with when Turnopens, and the activities of Angus MacFadyen’s Rogers are pretty much entirely made up. In fact, by the time the show starts, Simcoe had already taken charge of the Queen’s Rangers.


Want to Know More?

Turn: Washington’s Spies is available on Amazon.

Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The True Story of America’s First Spy Network is the basis for the whole series. Rose isn’t a professional historian, but he does a good job of laying out the facts around the Culper Ring, as well as around the unfortunate Nathan Hale, and Benedict Arnold, and he makes extensive use of surviving letters (including the Culper Ring reports). He emphasis narrative over analysis more than I would prefer, but it’s a good introduction into Revolutionary-era espionage.

There’s also a very good blog about Turn: Washington’s Spies, Turn to a historian. It has loads of material on a variety of facets of the series, so if you want to dig into the show more, this would be a good resource.

Turn: Washington’s Spies: The Americans


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Some day soon I hope to get back to a more regular posting schedule. But my egregious work load last semester seems to be continuing this semester too. I’ve just been way too busy prepping for a new course to get much blogging done. Sorry.

But I did manage to find time to watch the first season of AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies. I put off watching it for quite a while because I think I expected a Revolutionary-era Reign. And the first few episodes aren’t easy to get into. But as I watched it, I started to notice something quite interesting. The show is actually moderately serious about using real historical characters. At one point late in the season I watched two scenes with a total of about 8 speaking characters and I suddenly realized that every character with dialog was a verifiable historical figure. Given that the average historical TV show is lucky to have more than 25% of its characters be real people, I find myself kinda impressed.


It helps that the series is rooted in a specific book, Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The True Story of America’s First Spy Network (New York: Bantam, 2007). Rose tells the story of George Washington’s efforts to establish a network of spies who could get him intelligence about Loyalist-held New York City, a major focus of the war efforts. Although Rose discusses a couple of different spies, he focuses his attention on the Culper Ring, which centered on Abraham Woodhull, Richard Townsend, and their handler Col. Benjamin Tallmadge. The book has been very useful to me in checking the facts in the show.


The Revolutionary War

Modern Americans, when we picture the American Revolution, tend to imagine that everyone in the American colonies hated the British and whole-heartedly supported the war. The reality was far more complex than that. At the start of the war, only about 25% of the population actively supported the Revolution, while around 20% were die-hard Loyalists (or Tories, the term for the faction in British politics who championed the power of the king). The remainder of the population either wanted to remain neutral or felt caught between the two competing groups and simply had to navigate the war as best they could, which sometimes involved making hard choices and sometimes involved being plundered by both sides.

The Mid-Atlantic zone during the Revolutionary War was something of a patchwork. New York City, Long Island, parts of Rhode Island, and patches of New Jersey were basically Loyalist territory, whereas Connecticut, much of rural New York, and parts of New Jersey and Rhode Island were held by the ‘Patriots’ (also called Whigs, the term for the faction in British politics that wanted a weaker king). That patchwork of Loyalists and Patriots created challenges for men and women trying to live their lives and go about their business. A Patriot household could easily be located in the middle of a Loyalist community and vice versa. Merchants traveling for business might have to cross the lines between Patriot and Loyalist communities, and Patriot farmers might have to sell their produce to the British Army.


That sort of messiness created fertile ground for espionage, as Rose repeatedly demonstrates. The fact that New York City and Long Island were linked through the fact that the city needed food from the farms and yet the region was not far from Connecticut particularly created an opportunity for Patriots on Long Island to spy on New York City for General Washington, who was badly in need of information about troop movements, preparations for military campaigns, and the like.

That need ultimately drove the creation of the Culper Ring, so called because it’s two major spies, Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend were referred to in correspondence as Samuel Culper Senior and Samuel Culper Junior. The ring was organized by Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, who recruited two men he knew from childhood, Woodhull and Caleb Brewster. Woodhull then recruited Townsend. Using a combination of code, cipher, and invisible ink, these men provided Washington with much-needed intelligence on New York City and its environs.


Col. Tallmadge

The basic system they used is that Townsend wrote out his report, give it to a courier who got it to Woodhull’s town of Setauket, Long Island, and buried it in a box on Woodhull’s farm. Woodhull retrieved the message, added his own observations to it, and then had a local woman, Anna Strong, signal Brewster by hanging a black petticoat out to dry (along with a number of handkerchiefs that signaled where Brewster was to meet Woodhull), and when Woodhull passed him Townsend’s report, Brewster would get it to Tallmadge, who then sent it to Washington. (The detail about Strong’s washing line has never been proven, but relies on local tradition and fits what is generally known about the ring’s operation.)

Between 1778 and 1781, the Culper Ring had a number of major successes. It alerted Washington to a planned assault on French forces at Newport, helped thwart a British attempt to collapse the young American currency through counterfeiting, warned Washington that a raid on Connecticut was actually a diversionary feint, and revealed that a high-ranking American office was planning to turn over West Point to the British, although they were unable to identify Benedict Arnold specifically.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the American characters in Turn: Washington’s Spies.


Abraham Woodhull

Abraham Woodhull was a farmer in Setauket who was recruited by Tallmadge in 1778 to act as a spy because selling his produce gave him a good excuse to be heading into New York City occasionally. Whereas Jamie Bell’s Woodhull is a brave man willing to take risks but reluctant to engage in physical violence, the real Woodhull seems to have been a rather nervous man, constantly worrying about being found out; Tallmadge had to learn to manage the man’s anxieties. But I suppose centering your show around a character like that seemed like a tough sell to audiences.


Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull (that cap, incidentally, is not an unreasonable take on Revolutionary-era headgear)

But other changes are more problematic. The series gives Woodhull a rather complicated back story. He studied law at Yale and was courting Anna Strong (Heather Lind) until his other brother died and his father, Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin R. McNally), pressured him to return home to Setauket and marry his brother’s fiancé Mary (Meegan Warner), thus creating a rather complicated romantic knot for the characters in the show.

Unfortunately, virtually every word of the preceding paragraph is false. Woodhull never studied at Yale and seems to have just been a farmer. His father was a judge who by the time of the show was in his mid-60s; whether he was a Loyalist, I haven’t been able to determine. There’s no evidence that Abraham ever had any sort of romantic relationship with Anna Strong, who was married to his cousin Selah Strong (the show gets that detail right) and who was a decade older than Woodhull. Woodhull didn’t marry Mary (another cousin of his) until 1781, and there’s no evidence that she had ever been betrothed to his dead older brother.

As a result, the show winds up inventing things for Woodhull to do that are highly implausible. For example, he’s show giving Tallmadge intelligence that leads to Washington’s famous raid on Trenton. That basic idea isn’t unreasonable (someone must have gotten Washington that information), but the raid on Trenton happened in 1776, and Woodhull didn’t start working as a spy until 1778. In other episode, Woodhull uses his legal training at Yale to act as the prosecutor of a bunch of accused rebels (maintaining his cover while finding a way to demonstrate their innocence), but the real Woodhull had no legal training. Nor did he burn down his own farmhouse to cover his murder of a British soldier. But other incidents in the show, such as him encountering a bandit while traveling to New York City and him using a code-book for his reports, are based on fact.


Anna and Selah Strong

In the show, Anna and her husband Selah (Robert Beitzel) run what appears to be a very successful tavern in Setauket, given that they own that tavern, a very large house, and a substantial number of slaves (who seem to be farmhands, suggesting that Selah is also a farmer). At least, they do until the British government confiscates it all from them because of Selah’s support for the rebels. She actively works with Woodhull, hanging her black petticoat to send messages to Caleb Brewster. Later, thinking her husband dead, she goes to New York and spies on the British by disguising herself as a prostitute. Selah, meanwhile, becomes a Patriot soldier.


Lind’s Strong and Bell’s Woodhull

Most of that paragraph is made up too. Selah Strong was a minor figure in the Patriot movement; he participated in New York’s three provincial congresses in 1775 and 76, which were Patriot organizations. He is described in one letter as a ‘justice’, so he was clearly a figure of some local importance. He was arrested and imprisoned, either in the New York sugar house or on the HMS Jersey (which the show does depict). But they seem to have just been farmers (Rice describes them as ‘neighbors’ of Woodhull, which suggests that they did not live in Setauket proper). So far as I know, there’s no evidence that they ran a tavern (and the fact that he was a justice probably points away from that as well). While it’s possible that they owned slaves, since some residents of Long Island did, in order to own the number of slaves the show gives them, they would have to have owned a large plantation. By the start of the Revolution, they already had six children (none of whom appear in the show).

Anna’s involvement with the Culper Ring is poorly-documented. The whole black petticoat story resents on no better authority than family history, making it possible but not provable (and remember, family authority is the basis for the spurious idea that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag). Beyond that, her only known contribution to Woodhull’s espionage was occasionally pretending to be his wife as he traveled to New York City (a man traveling alone was more likely to be suspected of espionage than a husband and wife traveling together). She may have used Tory family connections to get Selah freed from his imprisonment. Afterward, he took the family’s children to Connecticut, while Anna remained on Long Island, probably because if they had both left their house in Setauket, the British authorities could legally have confiscated the property as abandoned.

Incidentally Selah’s sister was Benjamin Tallmadge’s step-mother. The family ties between the Woodhulls, the Strongs, and the Tallmadges were an important element in the Culper Ring. They tended to recruit people they knew they could rely on, so tapping their family connections was a logical choice.


Benjamin Tallmadge and Caleb Brewster

The series is actually pretty faithful to the facts of Tallmadge’s life. The historical Tallmadge was the son of Rev. Benjamin Tallmadge Senior (who appears in a couple of episodes, although they call him Nathaniel, presumably to avoid audience confusion). The show glosses over Major Tallmadge’s impressive education. He was already fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew before he arrived at Yale, where he was a classmate of the unfortunate spy Nathan Hale.

Tallmadge enlisted early in the war and in 1778 Washington assigned him to assist General Charles Scott in gathering intelligence. Scott found this work boring and his somewhat traditional view of espionage meant that Scott achieved little of note. Eventually Washington reassigned Scott and gave Tallmadge charge over intelligence, perhaps in part because Tallmadge was a childhood friend of Caleb Brewster, the one relatively effective agent Washington had. Tallmadge proceeded to recruit another friend of Brewster, Woodhull. So Tallmadge is the one who established the Culper Ring (which, incidentally, was named by Washington, not Woodhull as the show claims). Seth Numrich’s Tallmadge is pretty true to those facts. The early episodes show him chafing under Scott’s approach, which seems broadly true.


Seth Numrich as Tallmadge

Caleb Brewster was a whaleboatman before enlisting in the Continental Army. In August of 1778, he contacted Washington and offered to act as a scout to provide information on troop movements. His intelligence proved good enough that Washington assigned Gen. Scott the task of managing Brewster and recruiting other agents. So Brewster was responsible for the project that give birth to the Culper Ring. As noted, Brewster’s role in the Ring was primarily to act as a courier, picking up Woodhull’s report and getting across Long Island Sound to Connecticut. Occasionally he added his own observations to the report. The show doesn’t give explore him deeply enough as a character for it get facts wrong or right, although it shows his father Lucas being murdered by Col. Simcoe, which seems to be fabricated (and his father’s name was Benjamin, again probably changed to avoid audience confusion).

In 1776, the British forced Washington to withdraw from Long Island, and Setauket was occupied by the British troops, who seized Setauket Presbyterian Church, which was the parish of Tallmadge Senior. They used it as a stable for their horses, and pulled up gravestones to use to establish a defensive perimeter around the church. In August of 1777, Brewster participated in an amphibious assault on the church. Six whaleboats ferried men across Long Island Sound and the troops laid siege to the church when the British Col. Hewlett refused to surrender it. A fierce gunfight erupted, which the Patriots had to abandon when they discovered that British warships were approaching.

This incident is depicted in the series in relatively true form, except that neither Woodhull nor Tallmadge Junior were present, and Tallmadge Senior was not killed during the siege (in fact, Tallmadge Senior only died in 1786). (Woodhull, incidentally, is buried at the church.) Also note that the attack on the church happened before the establishment of the Culper Ring, not after it.


Daniel Henshall Caleb Brewster

So although the show takes a lot of liberties with the facts in order to create action and drama, I’d have to rank it several steps above a show like Reign in terms of accuracy. It’s at least trying to remain grounded in fact. In my next post, I’ll tackle the three major British characters: Major Hewlett, Col. Simcoe, and Major Andre.


Want to Know More?

Turn: Washington’s Spies is available on Amazon.

Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The True Story of America’s First Spy Network is the basis for the whole series. Rose isn’t a professional historian, but he does a good job of laying out the facts around the Culper Ring, as well as around the unfortunate Nathan Hale, and Benedict Arnold, and he makes extensive use of surviving letters (including the Culper Ring reports). He emphasis narrative over analysis more than I would prefer, but it’s a good introduction into Revolutionary-era espionage.

Agora: Religious Troubles in Alexandria


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One of the central themes in Agora (2009, dir. Alejandro Amenábar) is religious conflict. The film’s prologue text tells us “The Library [of Alexandria] was not only a cultural symbol, but also a religious one, a place where the pagans worshipped their ancestral gods. The city’s long-established pagan cult was now challenged by the Jewish faith and a rapidly spreading religion until recently banned: Christianity.”


One of the very early scenes in the film takes place in the agora, the marketplace/public square that was the center of any Greek city. We see a Christian monk, Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom) debating with a pagan philosopher over a bed of burning coals. Ammonius demonstrates his faith in Jesus by walking across the bed without getting burned, and then he grabs the philosopher and throws him into the fire, where he is badly burned. This ‘miracle’ plants a seed of faith in the mind of Davus (Max Minghella) that will gradually blossom into a full-blown and violent conversion.

The religious upheaval in Alexandria remains front and center throughout the film. In 391, we see the pagan scholars of the Library attack the Christians for the assault on the philosopher, which turns into a siege when the Christians counter-attack, trapping Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and Orestes (Oscar Isaac) in the Library. Eventually Emperor Theodosius resolves the problem by ordering the pagans to evacuate the Library and letting the Christians ransack it, destroying all the books in it and tearing down the statue of Serapis. Eventually, it is turned into a Christian church.

The second act opens in 415 and explores the rising tensions between Christians and Jews. Ammonius and Davus sneak into a musical performance that many Jews are attending and break it up by throwing stones. The Jews retaliate by raising a false alarm that one of the churches is on fire, and then trapping a bunch of monks in the church and stoning them to death. This leads to the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria.

In the third act, Hypatia becomes the focus of the tensions, as Christians begin to suspect that she is the driving force behind Orestes’ conflicts with Patriarch Cyril (Sami Samir). They pressure Orestes to cut off all contact with her, and eventually she is attacked by a mob of Christians and murdered. Her death is presented as a sort of martyrdom to the cause of freedom of thought and intellectual inquiry.

When the film came out, there were complaints by Christian organizations that the film was propagating stereotypes about Catholics as narrowminded, irrational anti-science bigots. It’s easy to see why the critics felt this way—the Christians certainly come off as intolerant, violent thugs with no interest in understanding the physical world.

The Religious Situation in Alexandria

4th century Alexandria was an extremely complex place. It was one of the largest cities in the ancient Mediterranean. It was one of the major centers of pagan worship, and it also housed one of the largest Jewish communities anywhere in the world after the Jewish diaspora. It occupied two of the city’s five quarters (although that doesn’t mean that 40% of the population was Jewish).


Alexandria was also a major center of Christianity from the 1st century AD onward. Legend claims that the Evangelist Mark was one of the founders of the Christian community there, and by the 3rd century the bishop of Alexandria was considered to be one of the five patriarchs of the Christian world (alongside those of Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and later one Constantinople). Other bishops looked to the Patriarch of Alexandria for leadership, although the patriarchs had little formal power over other bishops. (The patriarchs were essentially ‘first among equals’, rather than hierarchically above other bishops).

By the end of the 4th century, the Christian community was extremely large, although it’s hard to say if it was the majority of the population or not. In the later 4th century, the shifting religious balance of the Roman Empire created all sorts of religious conflicts in many cities. Christians who had up until the early 4th century been the targets of state persecution began to attack pagans and to a lesser extent Jews, but pagans were still strong enough to fight back. Pagans were unused to having to share political and social power with Christians, and Christians increasingly expressed a sense that pagan temples and festivals were inherent threats to them, temptations to sin, and the like. In that situation, both Christians and pagans could easily become targets of religious aggression. Religious riots were a frequent problem in larger cities. While Christians did not always win the fights, the fact that the emperors were now Christian meant that they usually triumphed at the end of the dispute.

But the Christian community was not a monolithic group. Early Christianity saw many debates over Christology (basically, the theological issue of who exactly Jesus was and is). In the 3rd century, the Alexandrian theologian Origen emphasized the Unity of God in a way that tended to downplay Jesus and treat him as ‘the image of God’, like light radiating from the sun. In the 4th century the most heated controversy was over the question of whether Jesus was an original part of God or whether the Father had created the Son as his first act of creation. This debate first erupted in Alexandria in the early 4th century when Arius of Alexandria (the proponent of the latter position) got into a heated dispute with Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria. In 325, Emperor Constantine convened the Synod of Nicaea, which ultimately sided with Athanasius and declared Arianism a heresy. But it took close to a century for the issue to finally get resolved, because Arius had many supporters, and Arianism continued to find periodic political support in various parts of the Empire.


St Athanasius

Arianism wasn’t the only issue of controversy. 4th century Christians carried about theology the way that modern Americans care about things like the economy, racial issues, gun control, whose football team is better, and whether Batman could defeat Superman. Alexandria was home to the Catechetical School, a theological school that also taught logic, literature, and natural philosophy (the sort of proto-science that Hypatia taught at the Serapeum). This ensured that there was a substantial number of men who cared deeply about learned matters from a Christian perspective and who were willing to engage in theological debate. In fact in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the leading scholars of the Catechetical School were arguably more important than the Patriarchs of Alexandria in terms of their influence. The Novatianists rejected the idea that mortal sins (such as murder or worshipping of pagan gods) could be absolved, a doctrinal stance that put them at odds with most Christian theologians.

The New monasticism

In the 3rd century, Egypt saw the emergence of perhaps the first Christian monastic communities. These earliest monks and nuns were seeking to reject the temptations of their bodies by indulging in acts of extreme asceticism (things like prolonged fasting, sleep deprivation, doing without property, permanent chastity, and so on), through which they hoped to learn to ‘turn off’ the physical desires of their bodies so that they could gain a clearer sense of God’s will.

But few of these men were ready to simply go out into the desert all on their own. They recognized that there were a lot of ways that novices could get into spiritual danger. So they tended to gather in communities where the more experienced among them could mentor the novices. One of the major centers of this early monasticism formed at Nitria, quite near to Alexandria. By the 390s, it was a community of thousands, large enough to support merchants and bankers who served the needs of the Nitrian monks. Other major communities developed just slightly further away, at Kellia and Scetis.


Because these monastic communities were so close to Alexandria, it was easy for tourists to come to watch them. And it was easy for the Nitrian monks to get involved in Alexandrian politics. So when controversy was brewing in Alexandria, the Nitrian monks sometimes participated in mob actions.

Alexandria was also home to a group of men called the Parabalani (literally, ‘those who risk their lives as nurses’). This group is very poorly documented but it seems to have been a quasi-monastic organization of men who devoted themselves to caring for the sick and burying the dead. This meant they were exposed to things like infectious diseases, especially during epidemics, and were thus risking their lives as an expression of Christian charity (especially since caring for the sick is one of the 7 Works of Mercy that Christ ordered his followers to perform). They were considered to be members of the clergy, and enjoyed some legal benefits that meant that people sometimes falsely claimed to be members of the group and the wealthy sometimes bought their way into them.

The group seems to have been notoriously disruptive in Alexandria. A law issued probably around 416 declared that there should not be more than 500 Parabalani, that their members should all be poor, and that they not attend public theatrical events or law courts. This was issued “on account of the terror of those who are called ‘parabalani’. “ This suggests that the Parabalani had a tendency to cause trouble at theaters and law courts. In 449, they were accused of bursting into a church and threatening a priest who was quarrelling with the patriarch of Alexandria. So it seems that the patriarchs of Alexandria (or at least the less scrupulous ones) had a tendency to use the Parabalani to bully their opponents into submission.

Turbulence in Alexandria

In 379, the Emperor Theodosius I decided to impose Nicene (Athanasian) Christianity on the entirety of the Empire. He expelled all the Arian clergy from their churches (including in Constantinople, a heavily Arian city). He ordered Demophilus, the Arian Patriarch of Constantinople, to embrace Nicene Christianity or give up his seat; Demophilus chose the latter. Theodosius appointed Gregory of Nazianzus, but another faction tried to sneak in Maximus the Cynic. This group appealed to Patriarch Peter of Alexandria, promising him that Maximus would admit that his patriarchate was inferior to that of Alexandria. But the Constantinopolitan populace was outraged and forced Maximus to retreat from the city. Two years later, Theodosius convened the First Council of Constantinople in an effort to resolve these controversies. After a great deal of wrangling over the question of whether Gregory was qualified to be patriarch, he stepped down, but the Council decreed that the patriarchs of Constantinople had precedence over those of Alexandria, because Constantinople was the New Rome. This ruling so outraged the Alexandrian population that a massive riot engulfed the city, during which the Catechecal School was completely destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

A decade later, in 391, Theodosius issued an order forbidding the public performance of any religious rituals that were not Christian. Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria took control of a temple of Dionysius and when a subterranean worship space was discovered in it, he mockingly displayed the religious paraphernalia that were found therein. This provoked the pagans of Alexandria to riot over this insult. The Christians eventually counter-attacked, probably with the aid of either the Parabalani or the Nitrian monks, and forced the pagans to retreat into the Serapeum. Theophilus apparently appealed to Emperor Theodosius, who responded by pardoning all the pagans for the riot but giving Theophilus permission to destroy the temple.


Theophilus standing on the temple of Dionysius

But Theophilus was not just hostile to the pagans. He also persecuted the remaining Origenists, reportedly massacring 10,000 Origenist monks (the number is probably exaggerated). In 403, he also helped orchestrate the removal of the patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, because John was protecting some Origenists and because Theophilus was hoping to reverse the subordination of Alexandria to Constantinople.

When Theophilus died in 412, a riot broke out over the question of who should succeed him, his nephew Cyril or his rival, the archdeacon Timothy. When Cyril’s supporters won, Cyril quickly began persecuting the Novatianists, evicting them from their churches.

More significantly, Cyril began to quarrel with the Christian governor of Egypt, Orestes, who perceived Cyril as trying to encroach on his political authority. In 415, Orestes issued an edict regulating mime shows, which were extremely popular in Alexandria and were frequently the occasion of violence (remember that law dealing with the Parabalani?). Cyril sent Hierax to find out what the edict involved. Hierax approved of the edict and read it aloud in a theater, which provoked the Jewish population, who considered Hierax a troublemaker and suspected him of trying to incite violence. The Jews rioted and to mollify them, Orestes had Hierax publicly tortured, intending to send Cyril a signal about who was really in charge.

Cyril threatened to retaliate against the Jews, which infuriated them even further. They organized a scheme in which they spread word that a Christian church was on fire. When the Christians turned out to save the church, the Jews attacked them, killing many. Cyril responded by expelling a reported 50,000 Jews from the city and allowing the Christians to plunder them as they left.


St Cyril of Alexandria

Both Cyril and Orestes complained about the other to the emperor and Cyril reportedly tried to broker a peace between them, but he seems to have expected Orestes to acknowledge that as a religious leader, Cyril had the superior authority, which Orestes refused to accept. A group of monks (either Parabalani or Nitrians) attacked Orestes and one of them, Ammonius, hit the governor on the head with a rock. In the ensuing brawl, Orestes’ bodyguard fled, but the Alexandrian population intervened to rescue him.

Orestes had Ammonius tortured to death, but Cyril promptly confiscated the corpse and declared the monk a martyr. The Christian population wasn’t convinced, and Cyril eventually had to abandon his attempts to canonize Ammonius. Popular pressure forced the two leaders to reconcile, but both seem to have attempted to get the upper hand. Orestes sought support from Hypatia, who was influential with what remained of the city’s pagan community, while Cyril began claiming that Orestes was abandoning his faith and that Hypatia was seducing him either sexually or with magic.

Eventually, a mob of Christians attacked Hypatia and either dragged her out of her chariot, took her to a church, stripped her naked and then stoned her to death or else dragged her through the streets until she died. Neither of the two descriptions of her death says exactly who did this, saying only that they were Christians led by Peter, who is variously described as a ‘reader’ (a church official) or a ‘magistrate’ (a secular official). Given the violent tendencies of the Parabalani, modern suspicion has tended to fall on them, and since we know that Cyril’s successor as patriarch used them to violently intimidate his opponents, it’s usually suggested that Cyril was behind the killing, either directly or indirectly. It’s certainly a plausible reconstruction from what we know, but it’s going beyond the sources to say either that Cyril ordered it or that the Parabalani were the ones who did it.


Hypatia (Weisz) about to be stoned by the Parabalani


Agora does a pretty good job of capturing the turbulent nature of Alexandrian politics in the period from 391 to 415. Historically, pagans, Jews, and Christians all took their turns both as instigators and victims of violence, and the film shows this. The sequence it offers of Christians harassing pagans in the marketplace, which grows into an anti-Christian riot until the Parabalani get involved and siege the pagan scholars inside the Serapeum until the emperor orders the destruction of the temple is essentially factual. Where the film takes a liberty is that it emphasizes the destruction of the Serapeum’s library, which is not mentioned in the surviving sources, which instead dwell on the destruction of the pagan idols.


Orestes (Oscar Isaac) rioting against the Christians

Later, the film shows the Parabalani throwing rocks at a theatrical performance, which triggers first a Jewish protest to Orestes, then a Jewish scheme to lure the Parabalani into a church and stone them. That triggers the expulsion of the Jews. Hierax is omitted, as are a few other small details, but the sequence of events is basically true.

Cyril’s attempt to reconcile with Orestes is presented as a power play in which the patriarch puts Orestes on the spot during a church service, reading out 2 Timothy 2: 9-12 (“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”). It’s a blatant attack on Hypatia, and when Orestes refuses to kneel before the Bible, he appears to be defying not just Cyril but God. This incident happened, but we don’t know what verses Cyril read out in the church, or that the incident was an attack on Hypatia. Nor do we have any specific reason to think that Cyril was a misogynist, although it would not be surprising if he was.

After that, people mob Orestes as he leaves the church, Ammonius hits Orestes with a rock, and Ammonius is executed. Cyril proclaims him a martyr, and his fellow Parabalani plot to murder Hypatia, despite Davus’ efforts to save her. Davus stabs her to death out of mercy before she can be stoned, but beyond that, Hypatia’s death happens roughly the way one of the sources says it did.


Patriarch Cyril (Sami Samir)

So the film’s narrative is based around a pretty solid core of fact. Some details are left out or simplified, and a few (such as Cyril’s attack on Hypatia during the church service and Davus’ mercy killing) are invented. The parts of the film that focus on the political and religious strife in the city are about 80% accurate and much of what is not accurate is reasonable invention.

However, the film does oversimplify the conflicts. As I noted, the Christians of Alexandria were not a unified group. Theophilius and Cyril orchestrated violence against the Origenist and Novatianists and other Christians whom they felt were religiously in error. In the film, the Christians seem mostly united behind Cyril. Orestes seems to be almost the lone Christian opposed to him. One of Hypatia’s other former students, Bishop Synesius (Rupert Evans) attempts to support Orestes, but ultimately feels compelled to side with Cyril. The incident that starts all the violence, the throwing of a pagan philosopher into bed of burning coals by a group of Parabalani, actually involved two different groups of Christians.

The film also oversimplifies things by making the pagans, including Hypatia, the only people genuinely interested in ‘science’, while making the Christians almost entirely disinterested in the physical world. The one time the Parabalani discuss the issue of astronomy, Davus (who understands the heliocentric theory because he’s heard Hypatia explain it) says that only God knows the answer. That essentially puts the Christians in the situation of believing that the physical world is just a mystery of faith that cannot be understood through reason. But that’s a caricature of what late ancient Christians actually thought. While they wrestled with the question of how to use traditional (that is, pagan) knowledge, they did not necessarily deny the many accomplishments of natural philosophy. The Catechecal School taught many of the same things that would have been taught at the Serapeum. Christian authors were hostile to the parts of ancient learning that seemed to them explicitly polytheistic, but not necessarily to subjects like mathematics and natural philosophy.

I don’t think the film is actively anti-Christian, although it seems likely that Amenábar’s atheism influenced his treatment of the story. But I can understand why some have seen the film as hostile to Christianity. The problem is that historically, the Alexandrian Christians were in fact pretty violent during this period. Cyril is one of the most unpleasant men ever to have been accorded sainthood, and if anything the film goes a little easy on him by omitting some of his machinations against his fellow Christians.

However, the casting decisions do perhaps unintentionally make the Christians seem more villainous than the pagans. Hypatia and Theon are played by two light-skinned British actors (Rachel Weisz and Michael Lonsdale, although Weisz’s family is Jewish), whereas the two main villains of the piece, Ammonius and Cyril are played by more swarthy-skinned Israeli and Israeli-Arab actors (Ashraf Barhom and Sami Samir). Since American audiences are accustomed to seeing Middle Eastern actors in roles like terrorists, this casting choice tends to encourage the audience to read Ammonius and Cyril as villainous even before we understand what they want.


Ammonius (Barhom) and Davus (Minghella)

The depiction of the Parabalani is also probably unfair to them. In one scene, Ammonius shows Davus the pleasure of feeding the poor, and in another scene they are show disposing of the dead (victims of the riots the Parabalani were involved in), but overall the film offers minimal awareness that this group was devoted to charity. Instead, they tend to be shown lounging about waiting for an excuse to be violent, and many of them are shown carrying swords. We have little information about how this group was organized, how they lived, or how much of their time was devoted to charity, but the film draws them in broad strokes and never tries to give the audience an understanding of who the Parabalani were other than violent extremists.

Agora is not a perfect film. As noted, it simplifies and at times oversimplifies things. Its depiction of Hypatia’s research into the heliocentric theory is pure conjecture (although given what we know of her actual interests, it’s not implausible conjecture). It conflates the Serapeum with the Great Library and depicts a single catastrophic destruction of that library when in reality it was more a slow death by many cuts. Its narrative of peaceful pagan science vs violent Christian faith is more simple and tidy than things were in reality. Its depiction of 1st century Roman soldiers in 5th century Alexandria is nonsensical.

But overall, the film approaches its subject with far more respect for the historical facts than most movies. Of its two plotlines, one is basically true while the other is at least respectful of the facts. It delves into a poorly known figure and a moment in time that cinema has rarely (if ever) attempted to depict and manages to provide a reasonable depiction of the events. It treats its audience with respect and manages to explain a complex intellectual puzzle in ways the audience can understand, and it takes as its centerpiece the joy of intellectual inquiry and makes the joy intelligible to non-scholars. I’d rank it as one of the better films on ancient Rome.

This review was paid for by Jerise, who made a donation to my Paypal account. Thanks, Jerise! If there’s a film you would like me to review, please make a generous donation via Paypal and let me know what you’d like me to review. If I can track it down and if I think it’s appropriate, I’ll review it.

Want to Know More?

Agora is available through Amazon.

St Cyril, despite being a rather unpleasant man, was extremely important in the development of early Christianity, and there’s a good deal written about him. Norman Russell’s Cyril of Alexandria would be a good place to start. Russell has also written about Theophilus of Alexandria, Cyril’s predecessor. Taken together, these books would be a good look into the turbulent religious world of Late Roman Alexandria.