I, Claudius: Republic vs Monarchy

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One of the major themes in I, Claudius is the tension between the concept of the Roman Republic and the reality of the new Roman monarchy. It comes up in every episode in some form or another. But there are major problems with the way the series handles the issue.

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The End of the Republic

Before we can see what’s wrong with the series’ approach to the issue, we need to look at what was actually happening in Roman history. The last century of the Roman Republic witnessed the state in the process of slow collapse. The causes of the collapse of the Republic are extremely complex. Starting in 133 BC, there were repeated violations of the Republic’s constitution; a man was only supposed to hold office for one year and was not allowed to stand for office while holding one, but increasingly men were illegally re-elected to offices they currently held. Soldiers gave their loyalty to their generals rather than to the Roman state, and that enabled ambitious generals to wage civil war in pursuit of political aims; civil wars happened nearly every decade, and sometimes more than once in a decade. Political factions tore Rome apart in pursuit of mutually opposing goals. Perhaps the ultimate cause was that the Republic was really only meant to govern one city, but had been increasingly stretched to govern the whole Mediterranean basin, and eventually the system simply couldn’t endure the political pressures on it; imagine the mayor and city council of Chicago serving as the government for the entire United States.

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Julius Caesar

In 44 BC, Julius Caesar appeared to emerged as victor in the brutal Hunger Games of the Late Republic. But Caesar was a man of such blatant ambition that once he was truly ascendant, he was unable to conceal what looked to contemporaries a desire to become a king. The Republic was established to prevent the emergence of a new king, and while the Republic as a system was so moribund as to be non-functional, there was still a deep antipathy of the concept of a king; eastern peoples had kings, but Rome had elected consuls. Eventually Caesar’s close friends came to the conclusion that his ambition was a threat to theirs; the result was his infamous murder at the hands of several close friends.

His heir was his adoptive great-nephew Octavian, who fought several more civil wars before his final triumph over Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 BC. That victory left Octavian the unchallenged ruler of the Roman state. There was simply no one who could practically challenge him. But that had been Caesar’s situation as well, and when Caesar accordingly acted like a king, it got him murdered. So Octavian was left with a conundrum. He was unquestionably the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, but he could not admit to being the sole ruler without running the very real risk that he would be assassinated. So he had to find another way to rule.

Octavian (or as the Senate renamed him, Augustus) adopted the approach of claiming that he had ‘restored the Republic.’ Instead of inventing new titles and offices like Caesar’s perpetual dictatorship, he preferred to employ traditional Republican ones. He was named princeps (loosely, translated as ‘first citizen’, a traditional honor given to the longest-serving senator) and imperator (roughly, ‘one with the power to command’), another traditional title; from these two words we get the terms ‘prince’ and ‘emperor’, but crucially these words did not carry any suggestion of royalty, the way they do for us today. Rather than disrespecting the Senate, as Caesar had done, Augustus consisted treated the Senate with a great deal of respect, frequently asking for their advice. After several years of monopolizing the consulship, he realized that this was thwarting the ambitions of prominent men, so he stopped having himself elected consul so that others could enjoy the honor. Although he had been granted wide legal powers, he generally preferred to operate through traditional Republican officials, to maintain the illusion that the Republic was running as it always had.

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Augustus

In reality, however, Augustus ran the Roman state as he willed. The senators understood that they were no longer truly in charge and evidently appreciated being allowed to remain as prominent figures without much true power. After decades of civil war, they must have been desperate for a man who could truly guarantee peace and stability. Augustus eviscerated the inner workings of the Republic but kept its exterior for show; having gutted the Republic, he was walking around wearing its skin and claiming that the Republic had been restored to health with his help. He created a system modern historians call the Principate, a system in which the man in charge pretended he was nothing more than the ‘first citizen’ of Rome.

Such, at least, is the traditional picture of Augustus. That’s the version I learned as an undergraduate and it’s the version I teach to my students. But in the past generation, some historians have argued that perhaps the truth is more complicated. They point to the fact that much of our information about Augustus and his immediate successors is drawn from 2nd century AD historians such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, all of whom were writing with the knowledge of what the Principate looked like a century after its establishment. These historians argue that perhaps Augustus was serious about reviving the Republic but that the system was too moribund to be salvageable as anything more than a fiction. They note the very considerable continuities between the Republic and the Principate, such as its legal system and the major officials.

I’m not enough of a Classicist to go into much detail about this revisionist approach to the early Principate, so I’ll just leave it as a note that there is some debate among modern historians about exactly what Augustus thought he was doing. Whether Augustus was serious about reviving the Republic or if he was just cynically disguising his intentions, one thing is clear, he was not ruling openly as a monarch. He consistently avoided most of the trapping of monarchy in his day, such as a crown or a throne. Unlike kings, he did not dress in purple clothing; he preferred to dress simply, And he consistently refused to let the Romans worship him as a living god, because that was an honor demanded by Hellenistic kings in the eastern Mediterranean. He adopted a variety of dodges, such as allowing the dedication of temples to ‘Rome and Augustus’, but open worship as a living god was too strongly associated with kings for Augustus to be comfortable with it, even though he allowed the Senate to deify his dead adoptive father.

The Principate in I, Claudius

In I, Claudius, however, Augustus (Brian Blessed) and the members of his household talk plainly about the Republic being dead and discuss the Principate as a monarchy. In the first episode, Tiberius (George Baker) directly asks Drusus “do you think the monarchy will survive Augustus?” His brother Drusus (Ian Ogilvy) replies that Rome will be a Republic again. There is a great deal of discussion about the line of succession, with everyone assuming that it will follow biological order, the way it might in a monarchy. Drusus and Livia explicitly discuss Augustus as a monarch.

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Blessed as Augustus

In the same episode, Julia wonders why her father puts up with the Senate at all, and Livia (Sian Phillips) replies that Augustus ‘observes the forms’ and that the Romans like to think they govern themselves. She’s exactly right about this, but it’s virtually the only hint the series gives about the historical Augustus’ strategy for governing. Julia’s response is that the younger generation don’t care about such things.

After Marcellus dies, a mob forms outside Augustus’ house. Livia confronts it, shouting “What do you want? The Republic? The Republic is all humbug!…You’re all crying for the moon!” Such a blatant statement that the Republic was dead was exactly the sort of thing that Augustus would not have permitted, and the historical Livia certainly understood that.

The Senate is treated as being a bunch of largely useless fools and in one scene Augustus’ wife Livia summons a senior senator and simply gives him orders. Since Livia had no official role in Roman government, the idea that she would boldly gives orders to key senators is rather improbable. Livia certainly was a powerful woman, and she took some of the work of governing off Augustus’ shoulders, but not in such a blunt and obvious way. That sort of disrespectful treatment of senators was exactly the sort of thing that Augustus knew he needed to avoid.

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Phillips as Livia

Repeatedly, the good characters in I, Claudius talk about bringing back the Republic. Drusus is openly in favor of a Republic and encourages Augustus to retire. Postumus (John Castle) and Germanicus (David Robb) are both portrayed as favoring a return to the Republic, and Claudius (Derek Jacobi) consistently expresses Republican sentiments, including grooming his son Britannicus to lead an overthrown of Nero and restore the Republic. There’s absolutely no evidence that any of these men felt this way; it’s entirely the invention of Graves and the show’s screenwriters.

Much of the plot of the first third of the show revolves around the question of Augustus’ successor, and, as I noted, the series approaches this question as if it’s obvious that Augustus’ office will pass by simple hereditary succession following something like primogeniture. In the first episode, the order of succession is Marcellus (Augustus’ nephew and adopted son), followed by his sons Gaius and Lucius, and then Tiberius, the son of his wife. But actual Roman law was rather more complicated than that. Roman law made a man’s heirs his sons and daughters in equal shares, as well as his son’s children, but not his daughter’s children. But the law made no distinction between biological sons and adopted ones. So in fact, Tiberius was not in the line of inheritance at all, because he was not adopted by Augustus until 4 AD, after Marcellus, Gaius, and Lucius were all dead, whereas Julia would have been in the line of succession, had there been such a thing.

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Jacobi as Young Claudius

I say ‘had there been such a thing’ because all of this assumes that the Principate was a form of property that would pass to Augustus’ heirs the way kingship would pass to a son. However, Augustus’ approach to governing involved denying that he held any special office. His governing powers were not rooted in a specific office but were rather cobbled together in an ad hoc fashion to meet his needs. There was no way to pass these powers on to an heir. This was, in fact, the biggest flaw in Augustus’ system. How could he pass on an office he couldn’t admit to holding? Over the course of his reign, Augustus’ solution to this was to build up a chosen man in prominence through office-holding and military service; then he adopted the man so that the man would inherit his wealth and his family name. So his strategy was to promote the man without explicitly designating him as a political successor. The problem that he encountered is that his chosen successors kept dying: Marcellus, Agrippa, Lucius, and Gaius. As we’ll discuss in a later post, Graves’ approach to this is that Livia was systematically murdering all of Augustus’ possible heirs until he finally settled on Tiberius, and then murdering anyone who might be an obstacle to that succession.

So the series’ approach to Augustus’ rule is mostly wrong. Perhaps his family might have privately spoken about Augustus as if he were a king, but they would certainly have known that he wasn’t a king and that his rule was based on a constitutional fiction that would collapse if it was openly discussed. Augustus’ system is hard to explain, and it’s understandable that the series decided to simplify it for the viewers, but they simplified it in a way that misrepresents how the system worked.

Want to Know More? 

I, Claudius is available on Amazon, as is the combined I, Claudius pair of novels by Graves.

There are many excellent biographies of Augustus. One good one is Adrian Goldsworthy’s Augustus.

Buying items through these links is one way to support this blog, since I get a small percentage of the sale. Another option to support me is to donate through Paypal. This series of posts was commissioned by someone who made a generous donation and asked me to review I, Claudius. So if there’s a film or tv show you’d liked to get my thoughts on, please donate and let me know what you’d like me to review.



I, Claudius: First Comments

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As I was growing up in the 1970s, my parents were devotees of Masterpiece Theater, which ran a seemingly endless series of BBC costume dramas. We only had one tv set (apart from a crappy little black and white set that lived in the kitchen), so I watched what they watched: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, Upstairs Downstairs, and I, Claudius. I think those shows played a big role in teaching me to love history. By the time I Claudius rolled around, I was old enough to have some real understanding of what was going on. It was my first introduction to Roman history, and I confess that whenever I think of Augustus, Livia, Caligula, and Claudius, I still tend to picture Brian Blessed, Sian Phillips, John Hurt, and Derek Jacobi. I watched the show again when I was in college and had studied some Roman history, so I appreciated it more. And over the years, I’ve thought about watching it again, now that I’ve had a chance to dig further into Roman history.

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So I was incredibly excited when a reader of this blog made a very generous donation to my Paypal account and asked me to review I, Claudius. Last night as I sat down to watch the first episode, I felt a thrill of childhood nostalgia as the brash, jarring opening music played and a serpent slithered across a portrait of the Emperor Claudius. So my next couple of posts will be about this classic look at Rome’s first emperors.

The show has a lot to recommend it. The cast is excellent and one of the joys of the series is spotting actors you know for elsewhere, like Patrick Stewart, John Rhys-Davies, Simon McCorkindale, Bernard Hill (Theoden in the the Lord of the Rings movies), Kevin McNally (from the Pirates of the Caribbean series), Patricia Quinn (of Rocky Horror fame), John Castle (from my favorite movie ever), Patsy Byrne (Nursie in the second season of Blackadder), and someone from damn near every episode of Doctor Who ever made. The script is rich and complex, the characters fully-realized, and the story combines the emotional complexity of a family drama with the high melodrama of political intrigue. This show has everything: scheming, adultery, false accusations of rape, murder, poisonings, insanity, betrayal, incest… It’s everything American soap operas hope to be, but done much better and solidly based in historical fact.

The series is based on Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, published n 1934 and 35. Graves was a celebrated poet, novelist, and non-fiction author; his White Goddess exercised a profound influence on the nascent neo-pagan revival, his collect of Greek myths still sells well, and his translation of the Latin classic The Golden Ass remains one of the best. The two I, Claudius novels, however, represent his greatest work; they still rank high on the list of the best English-language novels ever.

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Robert Graves

The novels purport to be the autobiography of the Emperor Claudius (41-54AD). According to the conceit, after Claudius became emperor he decided to write his autobiography to reveal all the sordid truths about his extended family and predecessors, the Julio-Claudian dynasty. But a sibyl prophesied to him that the book would not be read for 1900 years. The scenario is less preposterous than it sounds, since Claudius was actually an historian and is known to have written an autobiography, although none of his writings have survived.

Graves’ books and the tv series are heavily based on three major narrative sources for the first century, the Annals and Histories of Tacitus, the 12 Caesars of Suetonius, and the Roman History of Cassius Dio. While there are other sources for the Julio-Claudian dynasty, these three sources give the most sustained narratives for the period. Graves’ novels draw heavily from the stories these three authors tell, but he fills in a lot of blank spots with his own invention to create a fiction that draws heavily from historical sources.

One of Graves’ concerns with these novels was to liberate historical novels with the self-conscious archaizing that was so common in 19th century historical novels. His characters don’t use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and other such old-fashioned language meant to convey a sense of the seriousness and importance of the past. Instead, his characters speak in common 20th-century English, employing contemporary idioms, to communicate a sense that the past felt like the present to those who lived it. So, for example, early in the series, Augustus comments that he wants some information ‘chapter and verse’. That’s a reference to the division of the Bible into verses, which was done in the 13th century by Archbishop Stephen Langton, so there’s no way Augustus could have used such a phrase. But the anachronism works because it makes Augustus seem like a contemporary of the reader, which was Graves’ whole point.

However, Graves used his sources very uncritically. His goal was to create a satisfying fictional story, not a truly accurate historical piece of work. The major problem with the three Roman authors is that all three were writing in the 2nd century AD, long after the establishment of the imperial office, and none of them were fans of the Julio-Claudian emperors. Tacitus provides the most coherent narrative but consistently speculates in negative ways about his subjects. Suetonius had access to the imperial archives and therefore probably had the best source of information, but was deeply hostile to the emperors, was happy to rely on sources like drinking songs and obscene graffiti, and generally twisted his material to present his subjects in the worst possible light. Dio’s narrative is much more removed from the events, since he was writing at the end of the 2nd century AD, and large portions of it have not survived; he also made a lot of factual mistakes.

The result is a rather lurid story about these men and women, but one that is probably not really true in its essence, despite being rooted in historical sources. While Graves was interested in history, he was far more interested in getting to what he considered the higher poetic truths behind the facts. In the next several posts, we’ll look at some of the problems with I, Claudius’ version of events.

The Eagle: The Interview

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As I promised previously, it’s time for an interview that I had the pleasure of doing by email with Lindsay Allason-Jones, who worked as the historical consultant on The Eagle (2011, dir. Kevin McDonald).

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Lindsay Allason-Jones is the founder and former director of the Cluster for Interdisciplinary Artefact Studies at Newcastle University, as well as a Visiting Reader at Newcastle.  (For those not familiar with British universities, a ‘reader’ is the equivalent of a full professor at an American university.) She is a specialist in the archaeology of Roman Britain, and was thus a very good choice to consult on The Eagle, whose director was serious about trying to by historically accurate with the film.

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Lindsay Allason-Jones

So let’s get to the interview (which has been edited for readability).

An Historian: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I’ve wanted for some time to interview someone who’s worked as a historical consultant, and The Eagle impressed me as demonstrating more attention to detail than a lot of films set in the Roman Empire. How did you wind up as the historical consultant for The Eagle?

Allason-Jones: The director, producer and script writer came up north to see if it was possible to film on Hadrian’s Wall – sadly it proved to have changed too much for this to be viable – and met me in the old Museum of Antiquities where I was director. We had a general chat and I thought no more about it until I was contacted a few months later and asked if I would be the formal advisor.

H: What did your actual work as the consultant look like? Were they calling you up with questions, or having you on-set to give advice?

A-J: I was first sent a typescript of the film and asked to check it out for inaccuracies. My blue pen became very blunt pretty quickly! This wasn’t the script writer’s fault but was due to the fact that Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel was 50 years old and written by someone who wasn’t up to date even then with archaeological thought. Example: RS had her hero Marcus, a centurion, in charge of a fortress; a Roman fortress had 5,500 soldiers in it whilst a centurion would only have been in charge of 80 men. Also, at the time the action was supposed to be taking place, there would have been no fortresses in the south west. We got round this by inventing a (plausible) look-out post in the Severn estuary.

I had hoped I would get to visit the set but most of the filming was in Hungary and Newcastle University wasn’t keen to let me wander off in my busiest teaching period so I never got on set. The Director’s assistant, Ben, and I corresponded by e-mail and telephone and I would send what I hoped was useful bumf about what things would have looked like and how people would have behaved for the costumiers etc.

H: Is there a detail in the film that you feel particularly pleased about—something that you got them to include or that you felt that the film got just right?

A-J: I was particularly pleased with the milecastle on Hadrian’s Wall. When I worked out the approximate timescale when the action took place I realised that Hadrian’s Wall had been largely abandoned and the frontier was up on the Antonine Wall. Rosemary Sutcliff clearly hadn’t realise that and it would have been very confusing for the audience to introduce the idea of two walls but I persuaded them to make Hadrian’s Wall look really scruffy and any guards on duty obviously low grade troops and that they did very nicely.

H: Was there any thing you were disappointed about—something that they chose not to follow you recommendation on or that you wished they had done differently?

A-JThere were two things I said very firmly at the beginning – no togas and no stirrups (the Romans didn’t use stirrups) so I was a bit cross when togas were worn by some actors and the two lead actors had stirrups – although you had to look very carefully to see they did. When I told Jeremy off for these faults he said that re: togas, when early rushes of the film were shown to an American focus group they said they didn’t know who were the Romans and who the Brits if they all just wore tunics. Re: stirrups, apparently both the leads had to learn to ride for the film and the insurance company wouldn’t let them on a horse without stirrups, despite the fact that it almost impossible to fall out of a Roman saddle! I was very entertained by both these arguments.They are also examples of how practical matters often get in the way of historical accuracy in making a film.

Some of the armour was a bit odd as well but that was because it’s, apparently, not usual to invest in new armour for all the cast of a film as that is prohibitively expensive, so you have to use whatever is already at your preferred costumiers. I have since discovered that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and Sid James and Fenella Fielding in Carry On Cleo were wearing the same costumes!

Occasionally there were a few glitches – there is definitely a 4th century brooch being worn two centuries too soon but I suspect I’m the only person to have spotted that, whilst the tableware at the Governor’s palace at the end of the film is spot on.

H: Do you have any fun stories you’d like to share about your experience?

What I found fascinating was that when a film is finished it is handed over to another firm to sell it and promote it. At this stage I found I had to start all over again explaining the difference between a legionary and an auxiliary, etc. The distribution company wanted to produce a leaflet for schoolchildren, which I was asked to check. This included the wonderful line that ‘a Roman legionary carried a gladiolus’! I was very tempted to leave that in as the idea of Roman soldiers going into battle waving their gladdies in the air like Edna Everage appealed, but I did change it to gladius after a wrestle with my conscience.

People have since asked me why film people, having decided to make a film of a book because they like the book, then change it. In the case of The Eagle there were several details that had to be changed because they were completely wrong or would have disturbed a modern audience (Marcus’s relationship with the little girl would have seemed unsettling today) but other things I have no idea why they changed them. In particular, the beheading scene was not necessary and simply ensured that the age group the book had been written for couldn’t see the film, which struck me as ridiculous on so many levels.

I enjoyed the experience and it was lovely to see how my students enjoyed seeing the film with me – as one of them said, it is rare for a student to be able to be involved in a lecturer’s research in that way. They al stood up and cheered when my name appeared I the credits, which I was very touched by though it rather confused the rest of the audience.

H: How important do you think historical accuracy in film is? Did you work as a consultant influence the way you understand depicting the past on film?

A-J: I think it is imperative that films don’t try to change history as this misleads people. However, the odd detail being wrong probably doesn’t matter as much as long as it isn’t so obvious it detracts from the audience’s enjoyment because it is distracting.

I enjoyed myself and would do it again because, no matter how many books I write or lectures I give, I can’t reach as many people as a film, particularly one as popular as this one, and I believe that academics need to make their knowledge widely available.

H: Thank you so much for such detailed answers!

Hidden Figures: Laudable Lies

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I know that I promised my next post would be with the historical consultant for The EagleBut I just saw Hidden Figures (2016, dir. Theodore Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly) and I really wanted to get my thoughts about it down in blog form. So I promise I’ll get to the interview in my next post.

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Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning on seeing this movie, you may want to put off reading this, since I talk about major plot points.

Hidden Figures tells the fascinating story of three African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1960s. All three were originally hired to work as ‘computers’, women who did the low-status work of laborious mathematical calculating and double-checking the work of higher status male scientists in the era before the birth of electronic computers. Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematician whose calculations proved invaluable to the launch of the Atlas rocket that made John Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is the head of the ‘Western’ Computing group, a group of African-American female computers kept separate from the ‘Eastern’ Computing group, who were white women; realizing that her job will eventually be made obsolete by the arrival of an IBM computer, Vaughan teaches herself Fortran and becomes an expert in computers. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) pursues her ambition of being an engineer for NASA.

All three women encounter racist obstacles at NASA. Johnson struggles with the fact that the only bathroom African-American women can use is located literally half a mile away on the Langley campus where she works, forcing her to take extended breaks simply to use the bathroom and thereby drawing the ire of the division head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Vaughan is long overdue for a promotion; she has been acting as the supervisor of the Western Computing group, but hasn’t been given the title or the pay of a supervisor, and the woman she reports to, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) doesn’t seem to care. Jackson needs to take night classes in order to apply for the engineering position, but the only school that offers such classes is segregated, and she has to persuade a judge to allow her to attend the classes.

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Monáe, Henson, and Spencer

Ultimately, all three overcome their obstacles. Johnson repeatedly demonstrates her invaluableness to Harrison, who increasingly bends the rules to allow her to participate in the work of getting Glenn safely into space and back. Vaughan masters the newly-installed IBM computer before anyone else, and then teaches the other members of the Western Computing group how to work with it, thus saving all of their jobs and giving them a future on the cutting edge of computer science. This convinces Mitchell to arrange Vaughn’s over-due promotion. Jackson persuades the judge to let her attend the night school classes she needs and by the end of the film is on her way to becoming an engineer.

The story is well-told all around. The script is funny and does a good job of making the mathematical problems of early space flight intelligible to a general audience. The performances are all solid, especially Henson’s. And the costume designer does a very subtle job of highlighting the exclusion of African-American women from NASA; the white men tend to vanish into a sea of identical white dress shirts and dark ties, while the black women stand out in demur but colorful skirts and blouses, highlighting the absence of ‘colored’ people whenever they’re not around.

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Katherine Johnson

The story it tells is an important one. These three women all played important roles at NASA and made major contributions to American space exploration for several decades. Their story deserves to be told, and it’s exciting to see the movie do so amazingly well at the box office. All too often, American history is presented as the accomplishments of white men, and Hidden Figures does a good job of reminding us that women of color have made great contributions to the country as well. It’s particularly nice to see a biopic about African-Americans who aren’t entertainers or athletes. These women are important not because they’re pretty or can sing, but because they’re smart. And the film confronts the problems of segregation head-on, particularly in Johnson and Jackson’s storylines. Americans need a reminder of just how ugly and unjust segregation and Jim Crow were.

The problem with the film is that in the pursuit of its goal of highlighting the struggles these three women had with segregation and racism, it significantly misrepresents what was going on at NASA in the 60s.

NACA and NASA

The organization we think of NASA began life in 1915 as NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. It existed until 1958, when it was shut down and replaced with NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NACA began hiring African-Americans to work as computers already in 1941, but like many branches of the American government in the period, NACA was segregated. It had a system of bathrooms, cafeterias, and other facilities for whites, and less well-maintained parallels for blacks.

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Henson as Johnson solving a problem involving the space capsule

However, when NASA was formed in 1958, it wasn’t segregated. For example, NASA abandoned the system of segregated bathrooms, even though many of its properties were carried over from NACA. The story about Johnson having to run back and forth between buildings to use the bathrooms is actually a story that Jackson told about NACA in the 1950s. In the film, Johnson has to make several bathroom trips, once in the rain, trying to do her calculating work on the toilet so as not to fall too far behind in her work. Finally, when she breaks down and complains to Harrison, Harrison angrily goes out and uses a crowbar to tear down the sign labelling a particular bathroom as being for colored women. It’s a great scene that produces cheers in the audience, but it’s simply untrue.

Similarly, Vaughan was denied the supervisory position she deserved for some time, but that was during the 1950s. By the time the film opens in 1961, Vaughan had already been a supervisor for 3 years. Jackson was offered a position in an engineering team and then had to find a way to get into those classes, whereas the film suggests that she is kept from applying for the position because Mitchell is somewhat racist and unwilling to bend on the rules. So far as I can determine, the film consistently projects the segregation of 1950s NACA half a decade backwards onto 1960s NASA.

NASA in the 1960s was actually a tool for desegregation. Already when he was the Senate Majority leader, Lyndon Johnson saw NASA as a way to advance African Americans by hiring and promoting them into better-paying and more respectable positions. It’s no coincidence that NASA desegregated in 1958; Johnson was the head of the subcommittee that oversaw the passage of government act that created the agency.

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Morgan Watson, NASA’s first black engineer

Katherine Johnson herself denied experiencing the treatment the film shows her receiving. “I didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research…You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job…and play bridge at lunch. I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.” Likewise, Jackson only recalled one instance in which she felt disrespected, and the man involved subsequently apologized when he realized that he was in the wrong.

So by painting early 1960s NASA as a strongly segregated environment, the film is somewhat unfairly tarring NASA for NACA’s failings, and denying NASA’s modest role in helping advance the interests of African-Americans. The real racism that the women experienced in this period seems to have been from the communities around Langley. Vaughn had difficulties find a place to stay. In the 1960s, many of the black male engineers encountered threats and violence from the white locals, and one white NASA employee was so badly injured and threatened that he left NASA entirely. Had it chosen to, the film could have made its point more honestly by contrasting the comparatively accepting environment of NASA with the much more racist environment beyond its gates.

Racism or Sexism?

The more I think about the film and read about the background, the more I find myself thinking that the real problem Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson experienced wasn’t so much racism (although they clearly did encounter some of that) but sexism. Consistently, there is a pattern of the men doing the important, high-status work (such as figuring out the physics of space flight and designing the capsules) while the women (both black and white) are relegated to the low-status work of computing, even though the film makes clear that doing so is a waste of their talents, especially Johnson’s. Apart from Johnson, the only other woman in the Space Task group, Ruth, appears to be a secretary, and there are no women at all in the engineering group that Jackson is involved in.

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Dorothy Vaughan

Johnson repeatedly insists that she needs to be involved in the key meetings where decisions are made, because excluding her means that she has to wait to get the data she needs, which often renders her work obsolete by the time she’s finished it. She persuades Harrison to bend the rules for her to sit in on briefings with the Air Force, and eventually he invites her into Mission Control when Glenn’s flight happens (a decision that the film claims probably saved Glenn’s life). The issue here is not that she’s African-American, but that she’s a woman and the men around her are uncomfortable with her presence.

While the film suggests that the white computers earned more than the black computers, the truth is that the two groups were paid the same, but that their pay was 40% less than the equivalent male pay, even during the NACA period.

So I think that the real problem with the film, at least for me, is that it was trying too hard to make its point about segregation, a point it could only make by misrepresenting the degree of segregation at NASA. Instead, the real story in the material seems to be the way that NASA was excluding women of talent from important roles. Their obstacles were clearly intersectional, involving both their race and their gender, but the film discourages us from thinking too much about gender by highlighting a simultaneous divide of gender and race; the scientists and engineers are all white men and the computers almost entirely black women (the exception being Vivian, who leads the white female computers, but who is never shown making any intellectual contributions to the project and who mostly acts as an administrative obstacle to Vaughn). The result is that whenever gender emerges as an issue, race is almost always there at the same time. There is one scene when Johnson’s future husband (an African-American) makes a sexist remark, but that’s almost the only moment when gender is highlighted as an issue. So the film tends to subsume gender issues under race issues in a way that makes it hard for the audience to see the gender component of the problem.

None of this makes Hidden Figures a bad movie, merely a movie that privileges its message over the facts. It tells an important story that people need to know. I just wish it had been a bit more honest with the facts.

(I feel a need to point out that I’m not a specialist in either American history or NASA history. I’m basing my comments on information I’ve been able to dig up online, and it’s possible that I’ve missed evidence that NASA was a more segregated environment than I realize. I’m certainly not suggesting that NASA was magically free of racism in the 1960s. It clearly wasn’t. I’m sure that these women encountered many obstacles due to their race, but they weren’t the specific obstacles the film offers.)

 

CorrectionAn earlier version of this post described John Glenn as the first American in space. I should have written that he was the first American to orbit the Earth, since Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom both flew high enough to be in what is defined as space prior to Glenn’s flight, but neither of them achieved orbit. I regret the mistake. Thanks to T Rosenzveig for catching it!

 

Want to Know More?

Hidden Figures is still in the theaters, so it’s not available on Amazon. However, if you want to do some reading about these women, their story is told in Hidden Figures, by Mary Lee Shetterly. Another book about them is Sue Bradford Edwards’ Hidden Human Computers. Richard Paul and Steven Moss’s We Could Not Fail discusses the history of African-Americans in the space program.

Finally, you could look at Steven Moss’s unpublished master’s thesis, NASA and Racial Equality in the South, 1961-1968, which is available online.


The Eagle: Roman Scotland

My previous post on The Eagle (2011, dir. Kevin McDonald) took issue with the film’s terrible prologue text. So let’s look at the film itself and see what there is to say about it.

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The Eagle’s plot focuses on Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum), and for once a Hollywood film gets the Roman names right. His father was the commander of the ill-fated 9th Legion, lost in Scotland a generation before. Initially, he wants to make up his family’s dishonor through military service, but in a battle with the Celts he suffers a leg injury that leads to his honorable discharge. So he decides to travel into Scotland seeking the lost Eagle Standard of the 9th Legion. He is accompanied only by Esca (Jamie Bell), a slave that he rescued from a gladiatorial fight.

Once they are north of Hadrian’s Wall, Marcus becomes heavily dependant on Esca, who can communicate with the Picts when Marcus can’t. Eventually they discover that the Seal People have the Eagle. The Seal People chieftain (Ned Dennehy) welcomes Esca, who claims that Marcus is his slave. Esca figures out where the Eagle is kept and they steal it, but in the process they slay the chieftain and must flee back toward the Wall, pursued by the Prince of the Seal People (Tahar Rahim) and their warriors.

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Tatum as Marcus

When it looks like the will be overtaken, Esca manages to find the survives of the 9th Legion, who have been living among the Picts. He persuades them to stand and fight for their lost honor, and this motley army manages to deal the Prince of the Seal People and the other warriors, thus enabling Marcus and Esca to return the Eagle Standard to the Roman authorities.

The film has a simple plot, and despite the somewhat improbable final battle, the film works as a modest story of a man recovering his family’s honor through a single brave deed. It doesn’t try to be more than it is, and it avoids the grandiosity that so many action films have these days. A particularly effective sub-plot is the relationship between Marcus and Esca, who begin as master and slave, then have that relationship literally inverted, before finally become friends. Esca’s loyalty to the man who saved his life is a familiar film trope, but it works here perhaps because the source material is a Young Adult novel; the earnestness of the moral point feels genuine, and Bell does an excellent job with his character’s evolution. Tatum’s modest acting skills actually work to his advantage here; he conveys the appropriate Roman Stoicism nicely.

What’s North of the Wall?

In the film, the people north of the Wall are referred to in passing as the Picts, but other than that, the film doesn’t identify them, and its clear that the Seal People are just one tribe in the region. The Seal People dress differently from the other peoples Marcus and Esca talk to; in particular their warriors coat their bodies with some sort of mud or brownish body paint.

Historically, as I’ve discussed before, the people living in what is today Scotland in the 2nd century were not Picts, but rather Caledonians. The exact relationship between the Caledonians and the later Picts is unclear (since neither was a literate people, and the Romans wrote about them only in passing), but Pictish society may have emerged out of a collapsed Caledonian society. But the term Picti (Latin for ‘painted ones’) only occurs in the later 3rd century. In the 2nd century, soldiers at Hadrian’s Wall used the term Brittunculi (roughly, ‘nasty little Britons’).

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The Seal Prince (Rahim) threatening Marcus while Esca watches

So the film is, like all films about Roman Scotland, simplifying by projecting Pictish society back in time a little bit. But at least these Picts aren’t painting themselves blue the way most cinematic Scottish people do.

Another problem with the film’s depiction of Caledonia/Pictland/Scotland (for convenience, I’ll just call it Scotland) is that once the characters pass Hadrian’s Wall, they are in a sparsely-inhabited wilderness where no one knows Latin at all, thus making Marcus rely on Esca’s knowledge of the Celtic language.

There are a couple issues here. First, the film finesses the language issue a bit. We don’t know what language the Picts spoke. Scholars have debated whether Pictish was a branch of the Celtic language or a totally unrelated indigenous language. Esca is a Brigantes, the Celtic tribe in northern England, so if Pictish was a branch of Gaelic it’s reasonable to assume that he could have muddled his way through simple conversations with people who spoke a related language. But if Pictish was unrelated to Gaelic, it’s less plausible. But the film does a decent job of trying to handle the language issue. The Seal People speak modern Scots and Irish Gaelic, and the film went to the trouble to casting actors who actually know those languages rather than just giving them a dialect coach.

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As I’ve mentioned before, skin-tight leather wasn’t a thing back then

Another problem is that the film is set in the 140s, about 20 years after the 9th Legion’s supposed destruction. But in the 140s and 150s, the Romans were attempting the occupation of southern Scotland, so that Hadrian’s Wall would not have been the Roman frontier at all, and it is likely that people north of the Antonine Wall (the new frontier) would have been more familiar with the Romans than this film suggests. And Scotland wouldn’t have been desolate and unoccupied as the film suggests.

But we can probably forgive these mistakes. Explaining that Britain had two Roman frontier walls would have been more complicated than it was worth. The film never directly explains the geography. It’s unclear just how far north Marcus and Esca go before they find the Seal People, although the geography suggests northern Scotland (and in fact the film used a location in northwestern Scotland for the Seal People village).

If you analyze it too closely, the geography doesn’t really work. The 9th Legion marched into Scotland and got wiped out in an ambush by the tribes in the region. This seems likely to have happened somewhere in southern Scotland—how could they have marched all the way north without encountering resistance and only then get ambushed? But if they were ambushed in southern Scotland, why were the Seal People involved? The surviving Romans appear to be living 1-2 days south of where the Seal People live, suggesting that Marcus and Esca traveled the length of Scotland and barely ran into anyone on the way, but if Scotland is that depopulated, it seems unlikely that there were enough Picts to annihilate a whole legion of about 5,000 men. But that’s a small quibble. The film is compressing geography for the sake of story, and that’s entirely reasonable.

One very nice touch is that the film gets the difference between Roman and Celtic fighting systems correct in the two battle scenes it shows. The Romans are heavily armored and employ complex tactics like the testudo, whereas the Celts are essentially naked and rely on swarming the enemy and using raw fury to overpower their opponents. This explains why a small Roman force is able to prevail over a much larger group of enemies. Unlike in most historical action films, armor actually has protective value and brute force doesn’t win the day.

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The Roman testudo

In my next post, I’m excited to be able to offer an interview with Lindsay Allason-Jones, the historical consultant on the film!

Want to Know More?

The Eagle  is available on Amazon. Sutcliff’s original novel (and its two sequels) is too.

If you’re interested in Roman-era Scotland, there are not a lot of books on the topic, but David Breeze has written a number of works on the subject, including the appropriately-titled Roman Scotland and The Antonine Wall. There’s David Shotter’s The Roman Frontier in Britain: Hadrian’s Wall, the Antonine Wall and Roman Policy in Scotland.




The Eagle: Worst Prologue Text Ever

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The Eagle (2011, dir. Kevin McDonald, based on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth is at least the third movie set in Roman Scotland (along with King Arthur and Centurion), and it’s by far the best of the three. There’s a lot of things to like about this film, but the prologue text is not one of them. It might, in fact, be the worst prologue text to a historical film I’ve ever seen, because virtually every element of it is problematic.

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Here it is:

“In 120 AD, the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army marched into the unconquered territory of Northern Britain. They were never seen again. All 5,000 men vanished, along with their treasured standard…The Eagle. Shamed by this great loss, the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a giant wall that cut off the North of Britain forever. Hadrian’s Wall marked the end of the known world.”

Normally in historical films, a prologue text is used to provide important historical background for audiences unfamiliar with a particular historical setting. Some films also use them to set a mood or establish the film’s viewpoint on the setting, but they almost always provide a little basic fact to orient the viewer.

With that in mind, let’s take this prologue text an element at a time.

“In 120 AD, the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army marched into the unconquered territory of Northern Britain. They were never seen again. All 5,000 men vanished, along with their treasured standard…The Eagle.”

As I’ve discussed before when I looked at Centurion, this isn’t historical fact at all. It’s entirely the invention of British children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff. When she wrote The Eagle of the Ninth, she offered an interesting explanation for what happened to the 9th Legion, which disappears from the historical record in the early 2nd century AD after being stationed in Britain. Her theory that the Legion was sent into Scotland and subsequently destroyed is certainly a possibility, but there’s literally no evidence for it. It’s more likely that it was destroyed during a rebellion in Roman Britain. There’s a bit of weak evidence that it was redeployed to the Rhineland. Perhaps it was just disbanded for administrative reasons. But it’s important to realize that the film’s scenario is entirely made-up.

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Rosemary Sutcliff

“Shamed by this great loss, the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a giant wall”

If the Legion’s debacle in Scotland didn’t happen, it should be obvious that it wasn’t the reason Hadrian built his famous wall. We don’t actually know what Hadrian was thinking when he ordered the construction of the wall for the simple reason that we don’t have any documents about that decision. We can certainly make some reasonable inferences based on Roman policy toward its European frontier, but it’s not provable what the intention was.

Also, calling it a ‘giant wall’ is a bit misleading. It was a very long wall, but ‘giant’ suggests size more than length, and as far as we know, the wall probably wasn’t more than 10-12 feet tall. The surviving ruins don’t allow us to know much about its height or battlements, but what survives doesn’t really suggest that the wall was unusually tall, just very long.

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One of the mile castles on Hadrian’s Wall

“that cut off the North of Britain forever. Hadrian’s Wall marked the end of the known world.”

This is just nonsense. Hadrian’s Wall did no such thing. The Wall is the best surviving example of what the Romans called a limes, which as essentially a wall marking a frontier. But it’s not unique. Similar structures (at least in function) existed in North Africa and in Eastern Europe. Although it was garrisoned at small posts called ‘mile castles’ along its length, it probably was not primarily intended to repulse an invasion, for the simple reason that the small garrisons were a mile apart, and the individual garrisons were probably not staffed by more than a half-dozen men at a time. It would have been very easy for an invading force to simply climb the wall in between mile castles, and it would not have been too challenging for a decent force to overwhelm the garrison at a particular post. Furthermore, sailing around it wouldn’t have been too difficult. As a military structure, the Wall would simply have slowed down an invasion a little, giving the Roman forces stationed further south advanced warning of an attack.

Instead, a limes was much more like a customs station than a truly defensible position. Each mile castle had a gateway running through it (although some of the gateways opened onto such steep slopes that they can’t have been seriously intended to handle much traffic). Those gates (one of which the film shows) allowed regular passage between Roman Britain and what we’ll anachronistically call Scotland. It served to allow the Romans to control (and perhaps tax) trade with the tribes to the north of the Wall.

The Romans had no intention of cutting off all contact with the tribes of Scotland. Their first line of defense against those tribes was to maintain regular contact with them. It was standard for the Romans to reward a few tribes beyond a limes with the Roman version of ‘most favored trading status’. By singling out a couple of neighboring tribes to receive trade and periodic diplomatic gifts; this gave the rulers of those tribes privileged access to exotic goods from within the Empire, like wine, silk, and silver tableware. In exchange those tribes provided the Romans with intelligence on the other tribes and might ally with the Romans against hostile tribes. If an allied tribe became a problem, the Romans would simply make one of their enemies the most favored trading partner. By playing the tribes off against each other this way, the Romans rarely had to actually defend their frontiers.

Far from marking the end of the world, Hadrian’s Wall regulated Roman interactions with southern Scotland.

Also, Hadrian’s Wall didn’t create a permanent boundary (except in the sense of a physical wall that still survives). His successor Antoninus Pius decided to push the Roman frontier northward. He built a second wall, the so-called Antonine Wall, that ran between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde. He ordered construction to start in 142 AD. For unknown reasons, the Antonine Wall was abandoned around 162 AD, when the Empire pulled back to Hadrian’s Wall. Then in 208, Septimius Severus decided to re-occupy southern Scotland and ordered the Antonine Wall repaired. This occupation was abandoned just a few years later, at which point Hadrian’s Wall became the permanent frontier for the rest of the Roman period.

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Remains of the Antonine Wall

Whereas most films use prologue texts to establish the actual historical context, this movie uses its prologue text to assert a set of blatant, nonsensical falsehoods.

Let me summarize the problems with this by rephrasing the prologue text to demonstrate just how nonsensical it really is. “In 2017, the American army marched into the unconquered territory of Mexico. They were never seen again. All the men vanished, along with their traditional standard, the American flag. Shamed by this great loss, President Donald Trump ordered the construction of a giant wall that cut off Mexico forever. Trump’s Wall marked the end of the known world.”

Want to Know More?

The Eagle  is available on Amazon. Sutcliff’s original novel (and its two sequels) is too.

If you want to know more about Hadrian’s Wall, you might try Patricia Southern’s Hadrian’s Wall: Everyday Life on the Roman FrontierAmazon also has a lot of guides for walking the Wall; it’s one of England’s top tourist destinations. Having visited the Wall myself years ago, it’s definitely worth the visit if you’re in Northern England.



The Girl King: How to Dress a Lesbian Queen

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One of the standard clichés of royal biopics is the conflict between the monarch’s duties as sovereign and their desires as a private human being. Usually, the monarch yearns for their true love but then has to give that person up for the good of the kingdom. So we get this nice drama in which royal success is founded on royal misery. But occasionally we run into a monarch who goes off-script and chucks royal duty out the window.

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Queen Christina of Sweden is one of the most unusual monarchs in history. Her father, Gustavus Adolphus, had made Sweden one of the great powers of Europe through his military leadership during the 30 Years War, but in 1632 he died on the battlefield when she was six, leaving her his heir. She was well-educated and proved to be a remarkably bright girl; by the time she was an adult, she had studied Greek, Latin, French, German, Dutch, Danish, Italian, Arabic, and Hebrew, as well as philosophy and theology. She took a keen interest in the emerging sciences of the Scientific Revolution, as well as art and history. She corresponded with various artists and scholars. She invited the legal scholar Hugo Grotius to become her librarian but he died before taking up the job. More importantly, she corresponded with the great French philosopher Rene Descartes and invited him to organize a scientific academy, although when they met they did not hit it off and he only saw her few times.

Her biggest challenge, however, is that like Elizabeth I of England, there was enormous pressure on her to marry, and she had a deep distaste for the idea. She disliked feminine things and became known for her unkempt hair. All her life she comported herself in decidedly unfeminine ways; she was a tomboy as a child, insisted on riding astride rather than side-saddle, and enjoyed fencing and bear hunting. She favored men’s shoes. Later in life, she took to wearing a justacorps (the fore-runner of the man’s frock-coat), a cravat, and a man’s wig. At the end of her life, however, she had returned to wearing women’s clothing, including gowns with a scandalously low neckline.

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Scholars have struggled to understand Christina’s sense of her own identity. In addition to her mannish habits, her style of dress, and her rejection of marriage, there is some evidence that she was attracted to women. She wrote passionate letters to Ebba Sparre, her lady-in-waiting, but that was a common style of letter-writing at the time; she also once introduced Sparre to the English ambassador as her ‘bed-companion’. But she seems to have disliked most of her other ladies-in-waiting, considering them overly feminine. However, in her late 20s, she socialized so freely with men, including Cardinal Azzolino, that there was much gossip about it, and she wrote passionate letters to him as well. In 1541, one of her subjects accused her of being a ‘jezebel’, which got him executed.

There is no actual evidence that she ever had sex. So historians have variously classified her as heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian, asexual, and even intersex. (When she was born, she was so hairy that she was mistaken for a boy for several days.) It’s even been suggested that her refusal to follow social conventions might be evidence for Asperger’s Syndrome.

But Christina is most famous for her decision to abdicate her throne in 1654 when she was 28 years old and to abandon the Lutheranism she was raised in for Catholicism. Her interest in science seems to have led her to question Lutheranism, and long conversations with the Portuguese ambassador, a Jesuit, drew her to Catholicism.

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Countess Ebba Sparre

Her decision to abdicate appears to have been the result of a complex set of issues. The constant pressure for her to marry and produce an heir was unpleasant for her. She slowly became more unpopular because of her decision to ennoble more than 300 families, all of whom had to be gifted with property to help them live a suitable lifestyle, and that property had to come from the Crown. Despite being a very hard-working monarch, she was accused of living a life of sport and indulgence. In 1651, she seems to have had a nervous breakdown from the stress of her office. And as queen she had to be a Lutheran. All of this fed into her decision early in 1654 to announce her abdication. She had already named her cousin Karl Gustav as her heir in 1649, so the transition was a relatively easy one.

She was granted a pension as well as revenue from a number of estates. She settled in Rome, although she undertook a number of visits to France, Naples, and Milan, as well as two visits to Sweden after the death of Karl Gustav. She contemplated trying to regain the throne, but was rebuffed because of her religion. She died in Rome in 1689 at the age of 62 and was buried in the grottos beneath St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Girl King

The Girl King (2015, dir. Mika Kaurismäki) follows Christina from her coronation to her abdication and does a reasonably good job of trying to condense the complexities of her story into a 90-minute film. Malin Buska’s Kristina is a strong-willing and highly intelligent woman whose free spirit is slowly choked by the demands of her situation. The film emphasizes her unconventional clothing, showing her frequently dressed in pants and men’s vests, although the historical Christina seems to have only adopted men’s clothing on a regular basis after her abdication. She fences, hunts, and regularly wears a sword.

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Malin as Kristina addressing her subjects for the first time

The film is also interested in her intellectual interests. She acquires Grotius’ library after his death, plans to build a 500,000-volume library, and demonstrates her linguistic knowledge several times. The film claims that she became close friends with Descartes and that he helped lay the groundwork for her rejection of Lutheranism. As already noted, Christina and Descartes were not friends, and she didn’t agree with many of his teachings. But the film uses her friendship with Descartes as a short-hand for all the intellectual pursuits that undermined the faith of her childhood.

Any film about Christina has to decide what her sexuality was, and in this film she’s a lesbian. The moment she meets Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon), she is smitten by the woman, and as the film goes on she falls more in love with her. She declares Ebba her ‘bed-warmer’ and flirts with her increasingly. When Chancellor Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist) gives her several dresses as a way of trying to get her to marry his son Johan (Lucas Bryant), Kristina gives them to Ebba as an excuse to have her undress. Eventually, Ebba reciprocates her love, but just as they consummate their passion, Johan stumbles onto them. Jealous of Ebba, he kidnaps her and pressures her into marrying her long-time fiancé. The film suggests that Ebba’s choice to marry was such a deep betrayal of Kristina that it set in motion the queen’s choice to abdicate. This is going far beyond what the historical evidence will support, but it presents a coherent narrative out of the rather confused and indeterminate evidence of Christina’s complex motives.

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Gadon as Ebba

The film certainly oversimplifies. Although it acknowledges a decade passing by, it still manages to compress the events of Christina’s reign into what seems like 18 months; no one in the film ages perceptibly.

And despite its deviations from fact, the film does an impressive job with a lot of little details. For example, the dress that Kristina gives Ebba is identical to one in an actual portrait of Ebba Sparre (compare the two images of Sparre above). Kristina seduces Ebba by showing her the Codex Gigas, the so-called ‘Devil’s Book’, supposedly written by a medieval monk in one night, with the aid of the Devil. The film references Descartes’ interest in the pineal gland and correctly shows foreign ambassadors encouraging Christina’s interest in philosophy as a way to seduce her from Lutheranism (although in this film, it’s the French ambassador, not the Portuguese one). So although the film gets a lot of things wrong, it makes an effort to include a lot of small details that are true.

The film also does a nice job with Christina’s sexuality. Its portrait of a young lesbian fumbling her way toward her first love at a time when lesbianism was taboo is sensitive, not sensational. It presents her desires as natural but still acknowledges that her society cannot accept them, while avoiding exploitation of the subject matter. So if you only see one movie about a lesbian, cross-dressing queen, make it this one.

Want to Know More?

The Girl King is available on Amazon.

There don’t seem to be any scholarly works on Christina that are both scholarly and accessible to the general reader. Veronica Buckley’s Christina Queen of Sweden is probably your best bet. Buckley isn’t a scholar, but she’s been praised for a very readable style.


The Agony and the Ecstasy: Watching Paint Dry

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Many films have attempted to capture the artist’s creative technique. It’s a challenge because making art is by nature usually a solitary act and a very internal one, and it’s hard to find drama in that; as a result, a lot of artist biopics try to mine their drama from the turbulent relationships the artist has. The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965, dir. Carol Reed, based on the novel by Irving Stone) tries to dramatize Michelangelo’s painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by focusing on the tense relationship between the artist and his patron, Pope Julius II.

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Before we start, I feel obligated to explain that the Sistine Chapel was so named because it was built on the orders of Pope Sixtus IV, Julius II’s uncle and the holder of one of my favorite papal names simply because it’s amusing to say.

Charleton Heston’s Michelangelo is a brooding man with a profound sense of artistic integrity. He sees himself as a sculptor and resists the efforts of Julius (Rex Harrison) to force him to work in fresco, but having given in, he gradually embraces the project. He refuses to follow Julius’ plan (which just involved painting the 12 Apostles in the triangular pendentives that support the vault, and instead eventually hits on a more sweeping vision. The ceiling will depict scenes from Genesis, the pendentives will depict men and women who prophesied the birth of Jesus, and the zones above the windows will depict the ancestors of Christ.

From that point on, Julius impatiently presses him to finish the work, or at least take the scaffolding down so that people can see whatever work has been done, while Michelangelo defiantly declares he will finish when he finishes. He doesn’t want to take a break because he wants to get the project over with so he can get back to his work as a sculptor.

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Julius II

That’s not really enough to hang a 2 hour and 20 minute movie on, so the film has to invent more drama. Michelangelo has a chaste romance with Contessina de Medici, the daughter of his Florentine patron Lorenzo, who chides him for obsessing about the work and not attending gatherings in his honor. Later he falls ill and she has to nurse him back to health. Julius tells Michelangelo that he is going to transfer the commission to rival painter Raphael, but this turns out to be a ruse to goad Michelangelo to getting back to work. (In reality, according to Ascanio Condivi, one of Michelangelo’s students, Raphael attempted to replace Michelangelo on the project, forcing Michelangelo to plead his case before Julius.) Julius periodically threatens to or actually does revoke Michelangelo’s commission, before the two men gradually come to understand each other. Although Julius certainly did lean on Michelangelo to speed up the work, the film seems to be exaggerating the number of obstacles the artist faced, and the relationship with Contessina appears entirely fabricated.

On the other hand, first-hand descriptions of Michelangelo’s process describe how physically grueling the work was. Giorgio Vasari, who wrote an important collection of biographies of Renaissance artists, discusses how hard the work was on Michelangelo’s neck, arms, and eyes, and the film captures that quite well. The film is rather interested in the mechanical process of the frescoing, and it gives the viewer a fairly good sense of the basic technique that Michelangelo used.

The other source of tension in the film is Julius’ military campaign. The film provides virtually no explanation at all of these events, but in 1508, Julius sought to counter the rising power of Venice in Italy by forming the League of Cambrai with France, Aragon, and the Holy Roman Empire. By 1510, the League had succeeded in its goals, but then the alliance collapsed and Julius found himself allied with Venice against France in a Holy League. In 1512, Julius was able to temporarily force the French to withdraw from Italy. He died the next year, and thus did not see the French return to Italy triumphantly in 1515.

Rather than delving into this conflict as a subject in its own right, the film simply depicts Julius as struggling to create a Papacy independent from outside control. He fights unsuccessfully against the French, suffering a wound that gradually weakens and presumably kills him. Thus the film contrasts Michelangelo’s successful effort to complete the frescos with Julius’ unsuccessful efforts to create a political order that will outlast him. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s not developed well enough to be really compelling, since the film just milks Julius’ defeats for more obstacles to Michelangelo’s work. Will Julius find the money to pay for the frescos? Will the French destroy the Sistine Chapel as Julius predicts?

Probably the biggest problem, however, lies in its two stars, who are both miscast. Heston’s famously histrionic acting style leaves no room for subtle characterization, and he is unable to convey any sense of an artist finding his inspiration. The thing that finally gets him on-board with Julius’ project is seeing a cloud formation that rather absurdly suggests that famous Creation of Adam fresco. What drives this Michelangelo is unknowable because Heston can’t show us his process beyond what the script tells him to say.

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Heston failing mightily to demonstrate nuance

Harrison does a better job as Julius, coming off as a highly-cultured and ambitious man, but ultimately he seems too much a 20th century Englishman to be a 16th century Italian pope. I kept expecting him to tell Michelangelo about the precipitation on the Spanish plains. Harrison bears a strike resemblance to Iain Glen, who certainly could have pulled off what the film was going for with Julius. So maybe it’s time a remake?

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Heston and Harrison arguing about Eliza Doolittle the Sistine Chapel

The film also makes the bizarre choice to open with a 13 minute lecture about Michelangelo’s work as an artist. I certainly applaud the film’s desire to educate the viewer about art history and give them a context for the film, but honestly, just fast forward past this bit; it’s deathly dull and nearly kills the whole film.

Want to Know More? 

The Agony and the Ecstasy is available at Amazon. So is Irving Stone’s biographical novel of Michelangelo. Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is a non-fiction treatment of these events and a good corrective to the film. Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 work, The Lives of the Artists is one of our most important primary sources about the great Renaissance painters and their age.



Gotham: Just a Small Point

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Fox’s Gotham doesn’t have a lot to do with history, but there is one small detail that catches my eye every episode, so I figured I’d explain it, because I’m guessing it slips by most viewers.

In Bruce Wayne’s study (the main set for Wayne manor), this painting hangs prominently on the wall.

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It’s The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David, painted in 1784. It currently hangs in the Louvre.

David painted it in the 1780s, half a decade before the outbreak of the French Revolution. The original idea for the painting was to have it emphasize the principle of loyalty to the state and therefore to the monarchy. But the work that David actually produced was much more politically revolutionary.

The scene that it illustrates is from early Roman history, as recorded by the Roman historian Livy. According to Livy, during the Monarchy, the Romans got into a war with the Sabines. Rather than have the two armies fight each other, each side chose three warriors to fight the battle for them, with the winning side being the one whose warriors eliminated the other side. The Romans chose triplet brothers from the Horatian clan as their representatives, while the Sabines selected triplets from the Curiatian clan for theirs. In the fight, the Curiatii slew two of the three Horatii, but the third, Publius, managed to kill all three of the Curiatii single-handedly, thus winning the battle for the Romans.

David’s painting depicts the three Horatii brothers swearing an oath to their father that they would sacrifice their lives for the good of Rome. By removing the Roman king from the scene and making the elder Horatius the recipient of the oath, David made the painting about the need for self-sacrifice for the good of the community. It was one of many stories Livy tells that emphasize the idea that a good Roman puts the needs of the community ahead of the needs of the individual.

The choice of this painting in the show is a subtle way of foreshadowing young Bruce’s decision to put Gotham’s need for a crime-fighter above his own personal happiness and to devote himself to his life as Batman. And the elder Horatius naturally acts as a stand-in for Bruce’s death father Thomas. It’s a sly touch that makes its point without being heavy-handed.

Want to Know More?

You can real about the early history of Rome (or at least the stories Livy has about the period) in Livy’s Early History of Rome

The Witch: Fear and Loathing in Puritan New England

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The Witch (2015, dir. Robert Eggers) got a lot of buzz when it came out last year, but I only got around to watching it tonight. It tells the story of a Puritan family living in rural New England struggling against a machinations of a malicious witch.

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The film is set in 1630 in an unspecified plantation in New England. It is probably Massachusetts, but could possibly be New Hampshire or Maine. William (Ralph Ineson) is a devout Calvinist who is forced out of the colony because of a never-explained theological dispute within the church of the colony. He takes his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and his children, who include teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harry Scrimshaw), and young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and sets up a small farm on the edge of a remote woods about a day away from the plantation.

Katherine gives birth to a baby boy, Samuel, and that’s when things start to go wrong. Thomasin is watching the baby one day by the woods when he simply disappears. The film makes it clear that he has been stolen by a witch and sacrificed to make a flying ointment. So the film immediately establishes that this isn’t simply in the minds of the family. There really is an evil force hell-bent (quite literally) on destroying them, although we only rarely see it.

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Taylor-Joy as Thomasin

Although the troubles in the film are clearly caused by the witch, the film is really a study of a deeply devout and conservative Christian family trying to cope with the trauma of (literally) losing a child. Katherine grieves inconsolably and cannot stop praying, and William struggles to hold the family together and make this marginal farm thrive. But the crops do poorly, he proves an ineffective hunter, and the family’s nanny goat starts giving blood instead of milk. Mercy and Jonas’ misbehavior start to wear down Thomasin’s patience, and young Caleb, who is only about 9, tries to be the hunter his father cannot be. The family inevitably spirals down to their destruction; this is a horror film, after all.

The film really impressed me from a historical standpoint. It has a lot to recommend it. The film-makers worked hard to capture the material culture of the period, consulting with museums and historians of the period, and Eggers only filmed with natural light outdoors and candle-light indoors. Much of the dialog was lifted from 17th century documents, and the cast does a great job making the archaic language sound real. Even the children turn in excellent performances and make the dialog work.

The film tries to capture genuine 17th century Puritan beliefs of witches. Nearly everything supernatural that happens has a solid foundation in the writings and trial records of the period. The disasters that befall the family are not wild Hollywood spectacle but simple rural crises–the corn grows badly, they keep seeing a rabbit they can’t catch, something kills their dog– that prey on the family’s economic vulnerability. Witchcraft was always primarily about economic and personal disasters, and Eggers does a great job getting us to understand that.The witch’s malevolence is simply a given; she destroys the family purely because she is evil, and that’s where the family’s religious anxieties come in.

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Ineson as the strict but loving William

The film also does justice to the Calvinist beliefs of the Puritans. As William teaches Caleb, they are deeply sinful people, and only Christ’s redeeming sacrifice can save them. Caleb, understandably unnerved by the implication that his baby brother was a horrible sinner, begs his father to tell him what sin the infant committed. William replies that he does not know and that he cannot know that the baby was saved, because they must simply pray that they are among God’s Elect. As a result, what mattered for Puritans was having a spiritual experience that shows them that they truly are one of the Elect. While most movies and tv shows (cough Salem cough) treat such beliefs with contempt and assume that Puritans simply didn’t love each other, The Witch accepts Puritanism as a genuine belief system and shows how deeply William and Katherine love their children and desperately desire their salvation. But prayer isn’t enough to stop the evil assailing them because if it was, this wouldn’t be a horror film.

A big part of the reason that New England saw so may witchcraft charges is that in the 17th century, the American colonies were small and precarious. Life was genuinely hard for these people, and witchcraft provided an explanation for the various things that could go wrong. Additionally, the Puritans saw themselves as God’s tiny minority of the Elect under siege from the forces of Satan. Native Americans were understood to literally worship the Devil, so Satan’s agents lurked just beyond the tree line, unseen but waiting to strike. And witches were the embodiment of many of the moral failings that Puritans struggled against–lust, envy, disobedience to authorities, resentment. So as Thomasin tries to be a good Christian girl and cope with the tragedies befalling her family, her struggles slowly push her into the suspect category of witch.

All in all, I’d have to call The Witch one of the best historical films I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is gorgeous, and Eggers is willing to take his time building the tension for both the family and the audience. The film avoids the usual cheap tricks of horror films, like sound spikes, false scares, and gore, in favor of drawing the viewer into the growing fear and madness of the family, and making you squirm over the way the family inevitably turns against itself. It is certainly the best depiction of early modern witchcraft beliefs I’ve seen on screen.

Got a specific movie you’d like me to tackle? Please make a donation and tell me what movie you’d like me to review. If I can get access to it, I’ll review it for you.

Want to Know More? 

The Witch is available on Amazon.

If you’re looking for an introduction to New England witchcraft trials and beliefs, you can’t do better than Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a WomanIt’s hands down the best thing I’ve read on the subject.