Professor Polylogos vs the 300
Once again ancient history is in the box office, with two offerings - 'Pompeii' and '300- Rise of an Empire' to tempt moviegoers into the world of antiquity. I have to confess to having seen neither film, though '300' is sorely tempting. However, my policy is to avoid historical fiction (apart from the stuff I write myself) because if it's done well, it's too easy to confuse with historical fact when writing later books, and if it's done badly what's the point of engaging with it?
One reviewer remarked that the '300' movies are to ancient history what synthetic fast food is to a meal in a good restaurant. That's true, but so what? There are times for top-rate cuisine, and times for shoving curly-wurlyz through your face while you watch, well, movies like '300' on the DVD. There's another reason why I'm in favour of such films, and that's because they misrepresent ancient history with a huge abundance of lustful energy (and if you ever do get to see Eva Green in action as Artemesia, you'll know that 'lustful energy' is exactly the right expression).
There's this terrible perception among some sections of the public that 'Classics' are the preserve of upper-class twits in corduroy jackets who analyze the use of the infinitive conjunction in Cicero. The fact that Latin also contains the bawdy and scurrilous verses of Catullus and Martial is something that is carefully hidden from the average college student, let alone the general public. So ancient history as histrionics, blood and guts by the bucketful and trireme battles to the accompaniment of Black Sabbath's 'War Pig' (an inspired choice) is a useful counter-balance.
Who knows? Maybe the movies will persuade some viewers that ancient history is not some dull, obtuse subject to be suffered in class but what it actually is - a collection of fascinating stories, and indeed full of histrionics and bucketfuls of blood. When those viewers follow up to find out 'what really happened' in Herodotus, hopefully they'll do so to a mental soundtrack of Black Sabbath rather than some professor droning on in the background. As a final thought - if ten years after the battle of Salamis, the ancient Athenians had a choice of viewing a '300'-style re-enactment in the theatre or attending a lecture on 'Trireme distribution and numbers at Salamis' by Professor Polylogos, where do you think the crowds would go?
So bring on the pseudo-historical trash. It might be a parody of the real thing ('rock opera history on steroids' says one review) but the real thing is in there somewhere, inviting viewers to take a closer look, and re-defining ancient history as something worth doing for fun.
And how did 2014 start for you?
My new year resolution for 2015 will be 'don't start the year with a major gastrointestinal bleed'. Not only does it scare both wife and cat, but it takes ages to get the blood out from between the tiles in the bathroom. Furthermore, I was inconsiderate enough to be hospitalized just as my latest book was hitting those last minute pre-publication snags that require immediate attention. So, much to the annoyance of the nurses who were trying to change drips or extract samples of the little blood I had left, I was pecking away on my iPad, phoning home for extra reference books, and tweaking a bibliography even as various tubes were inserted into parts of my anatomy. It came as a considerable relief to both me and the hospital when I could opt for an early discharge and be reunited with wife, cat and library (not necessarily in that order).
Fortunately Yale has sent me a pre-publication book to check over, so now mornings are spent sitting in the sun by the window enjoying the view and making copious annotations to the text. The afternoons are dedicated to a variety of projects. There's a lecture I'm giving in New York later this year to be roughed out, two book projects to submit, and the next chapter of a novel to write. The novel is a successor to 'The Gold of Tolosa', for which I see 'Ancient Warfare Magazine' has just published a very positive review. And that review was followed by another, equally favourable, review of my non-fiction book on Petellius Cerialis. All good stuff.
So there will almost definitely be two new books of mine published this year - 'Cataclysm 91 BC' from Pen & Sword, and OneWorld's' 'Beginner's Guide to the Roman Empire'. And all going well, 'Servant of Aphrodite', my next novel, should be out just in time to fill a few Christmas stockings. But just to be on the safe side, I'll be campaigning for the emergency room at the Regional Hospital to be kitted out with a proper keyboard and word processing software.
Aroldus Figulus et amici (Harry Potter and Friends)
Over the holidays I had reason to watch the Harry Potter films which a local cable station was showing sequentially each night. I've looked at the odd Potter book before, but a more thorough exposure revealed how much Latin and classical lore is woven into the stories. Not only are some of the magical creatures straight out of ancient mythology (for example there's the hell-hound Cerberus hiding under the whimsical alias of 'Fluffy'), but several of the characters take their names from the ancient world as well. There's Hermione, who was originally one of the daughters of Helen of Troy - and who complained of being the victim of magic rather than being a perpetrator of it. Then there's Severus (Snape in the books/Septimius in reality) and Regulus (Black in the books, Atilius in reality, though another Regulus did well under Nero - and 'nero' means 'black' in Latin.)
Then there's the spells, which are often Latin, or something approximate to it. Consider, for example 'Cave Inimicum' which wards off enemies and means 'beware of the foe'; and 'Colloportus' which means - and does - 'lock the door'. 'Expecto Patronum' is a spell which plays a major part in the later plots. It means 'I expect a protector' and a protector is what the caster of the spell usually gets. 'Expelliarmus' is interesting. The spell violently wrenches a wand from a rival wizard's hand. But is it dog Latin for 'we expel' (and if so why, 'we'?) or is it 'expellio armorum' ('expulsion of weapons')? Since circumstances would demand that the words be said rapidly, the shorter form of 'expelliarmus' is understandable. In fact, as a quick Google search will reveal there's a whole sub-genre devoted to translating or figuring out Potter spells.
And this is just one of an increasing number of 'teen gothic' shows out there, many of which mix Latin and classical themes with vampires, werewolves and other denizens of myth. (There's also a fun book called 'De bello Lemures' which goes the other way and has a Roman legionary unit standing off zombies in a deserted Gallic farmhouse.) Personally I think there's nothing wrong with introducing characters from classical history and myth in this way. Hopefully this leads both readers and viewers to follow up these modern interpretations to explore the original stories which inspired them. And judging from the fact that British readers have recently been buying my 'Greek and Roman Mythology' in large quantities, that's exactly what's happening.
Almost there ...
This past month has seen an unusual experience for me - I've been writing to a deadline. This is not to say that most of my projects are open-ended, but the deadline is not usually an issue. This is because once I get into a project, the thing tends to take over my life and I find myself researching or writing enthusiastically into the small hours of the morning. As a result most books are finished months ahead of schedule, and I then start tentative enquiries to see if my cat, friends and wife remember who I am. That's the usual procedure.
This year has been different, because it's been a good year for me. Firstly, as readers of this blog will be aware, I tried my hand at writing fiction and produced a novel. I also tried my hand at writing a course for online teaching and produced that too. Then there was the third book in my contract with Pen & Sword, on the events of 91-81 BC, which is a fascinating period and one of those decades on which the entire future of the world hinges. (Read the book to find out why.) The problem was that some key texts were in Greek and Latin for which there was no translation, or the translations were so unreliable that I had to wrap a wet towel around my head and attempt it for myself.
All these things took time. Then a book project - a history of the Roman empire - was scheduled by the publishers for early release next year, so final edits suddenly moved from a leisurely pace to turbo-charged. Once that was done, I suddenly had a month left of 2013 and a good chunk of book still to write. Not really a problem because the research was all done, and it was just a matter of changing a mare's nest of scribbled notes and time-lines into legible prose. It helped that I was able to say 'I've a deadline to meet' to everything from prospective book reviews to social engagements. Fortunately it's been snowing hard and it's unreasonable to expect anyone to go far in half a meter of snow, which is what we have had in the last week. So I've written over 10,000 words in that time. At this rate I'll be finished well before Xmas.
Too hectic for Hecate?
Ah ... here comes December, and this year it's rolling down on me like an avalanche. I'm really going to have to get better at saying 'no', but each of the different projects that has come up this year has been too attractive to resist. With the result that I'm occasionally sitting at the keyboard or deep in research while other things (meals, sleep, social interactions) pass me by.
A general rule established by years of trial and error is to never accept a deadline later than the end of November, because that way my loved ones have a sporting chance of my being present at Christmas. This means 'present' in mind as well as body, and not being silent through the festivities, only to remark 'you know, I'm not sure about Pliny's definition of res mancipi' just as everyone is settling down over the turkey.
The trouble is that it took longer than expected to get the novel up and out the door. (Where it is doing rather well for itself in the big, wide world - so thanks to all those who purchased a copy, and even more thanks to those who have reviewed it, especially as no-one has yet reviewed it unfavourably.) This had a knock-on effect with other projects, so I was preparing one end of an academic course even as the students started at the other, and the latest book will be delivered to the publishers merely on time instead of three months ahead; which usually happens because I get really into writing once started on a project.
You'd think that I'd learn from this, but here's this invitation to do a piece on Hecate, that most fascinating of goddesses, and another book idea on a mythological theme. And they're already talking about a sequel to the novel and whether we can adapt my book on the Roman Empire into a course using the book as a set text. (The book is due out next year, and I'm currently going through the galleys instead of watching ice hockey on the big screen down at the pub.)
So it's pretty much non-stop right now from dawn past dusk, which means I'm having the time of my life. Any time that I'm not buried in my work, you can bury me for real.