Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Ancient Novel.

I've just finished reading (well, two days ago) the English version of Niklas Holzberg's "The Ancient Novel: An Introduction", which I think is a pretty neat little text.

In the final year of my Masters I took a course on the Ancient Novel, and as fun as it was, I now realise how heavily it was based on Holzberg, which is a great compliment to the book - I suppose it forms the basis of all modern introductory courses on the topic.

It's 129 pages, all in - including the author's note, bibliography and index, which is made up of five chunks: the genre; the rise of the genre; the idealistic novel in early Imperial times; the comic-realistic novel and finally the idealistic novel in the age of the second sophistic. A chronological route, then.

The opening two sections set the tone - the first, especially, puts down the thrust of the whole work - that the ancient novel exists as a separate and defined genre, which the second supports by describing it's origins. Both of these are convincing. Holzberg discusses how the novels we have exhibit clearly defined motifs (or inversions of these motifs) throughout, and how the form of the novels, while influenced by other genres, clearly came about from a conscious decision to create a new genre that was separate, unique and different.

Holzberg then goes on to discuss the various novels we have in chronological order, with a large focus on detailing their respective plot lines. This is of the highest importance because by the end of the book one has the overwhelming feeling that the novel exists as a separate and distinct genre, which exhibits clear and unique motifs throughout.

The text, as a whole, is an attempt to justify the study of the novel as a distinct genre and prove not only to posterity but to classical scholars that it's worthy of consideration and that it most certainly exists as single genre with defined parameters. Holzberg is successful in doing this, for sure.

The novel has perhaps been ignored as a genre until modern times, and derided by scholars as insignificant in the classical corpus - wispy sort of stuff not really worth studying. Holzberg organises a defence of it, and it works. I like the ancient novels - they're interesting, fun, escapist but with plenty of depth and worth.

There is nothing essentially wrong with the text at all - it's a fantastic introduction, and therein is perhaps the only qualm I have with it - it does nothing more than establish the novel as a genre, further discussion is not all that frequent. Introductory texts don't usually have to defend the genre they will discuss (too much, anyway) but the novel very much needed the help, and so I can hardy moan about the book being too "introductiony".

Having a more clearly defined conclusion may have helped, and given the reader a chance to have everything summed up, but it was perhaps Holzberg's active decision to not include one, and leave the work very much as a departure point - the very foundations, so to speak, upon which a study of the genre could be built upon. In that respect, it's not such a big loss.

I recommend the book for anyone who hasn't really considered the ancient novel before - it gives a nice overview of the genre and is easy enough to read. It's concise and to the point and should be the starting point for pretty much anyone interested in the novel, but unsure how to approach it or how it fits in with classical studies more generally.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: Not so bad after all?

Surprisingly the most recent low budget recreation of the ancient world, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, is actually pretty damn good.

I saw the first season in full a while ago (from U.S TV) and I was surprised how fun and interesting it really this. The teaser trailers made it look ultra low budget, faux stylistic and a little silly, and while that's all pretty much true - they've actually managed to make a pretty decent TV show that gets better as the first season goes on. That seems to be the consensus among many people - it's surprisingly not bad and it gets better episode by episode.

I'm a huge fan of the BBC'S I, Claudius and HBO's Rome, both of which are immensely well done shows that capture the essence of the classical world in different yet interesting ways. I suspected Spartacus would be a cheaply done 300 in episodic form - entertaining enough but missing something. I suppose I was wrong.

The show basically chronicles the rise of Spartacus and his reasons for initiating the servile rebellion. Since we know very little of the real Spartacus (such as one can now exist), most of this element of the show is fictive. The context it's set in (late Republican Rome) is, of course, not fictive, and the show does reasonably well in rendering the period in which Spartacus operated.

It's been remarked that the moral behind Spartacus' rebellion (betrayed by a Roman, his wife in slavery) is quintessentially modern in conception, which is true I think, but it does give some pathos and motivation to the character (despite said motivation being very similar to that of a certain Maximus Decimus Meridius, give or take).

It seems the show has been popular enough to continue, although they are making a prequel (which has to be entirely fictional) owing to the lead actor, Andy Whitfield, developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as opposed to a sequel.

If the sequel is made, I wonder how they'll characterise the defeat of Spartacus at the hands of Crassus, and if it'll essentially be Kubrick's Spartacus all over again. There is some mileage in romanticising characters who face the nefarious might of the Roman state and are unceremoniously crucified along the Appian Way, but it's curiously modern. I'm supporting the Romans here - and history does too. Despite the several servile wars - they were all crushed - slavery continued for centuries and Spartacus is nothing more now than a figure fit for embellishment in low budget TV shows. Kind of sad, really.

That idea, though, is ever so slightly cerebral, which I can be guilty of, and it really shouldn't take too much away from enjoying this show!

In other business, I'm reading a book about the ancient novel and I'll hopefully put something up about that soon.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Did Marathon Change Everything?

Via rogueclassicism and

Prof. Richard Billows, in the article mentioned above claims, in a lecture aimed at supporting his soon-to-be-published book on the topic, that the Battle of Marathon can be considered one of the pivotal moments of world history.

He argues that had the Athenians lost the battle at Marathon to the Persians, Western Civilisation would be radically different - there would be no democracy, no Socrates or Plato, no Aeschylus or Sophocles. Essentially, he's claiming that the victory at Marathon set the tone for the next two generations - a period of immense intellectual, cultural and political development.

His argument is full of "mays", "maybes" and "mights". I have to say I find it a little bit tiresome. It can be an interesting exercise, but it seems like a stroke of poor imagination to pick an event (even though Marathon is well chosen) and say: "things could maybe possible be much different if that single event had never transpired or ended in a different fashion!".

I think as human beings we like these kind of explanations - they appeal to us and we enjoy the mental exercise of "what if?", but I think "research" and speculation on the topic is mostly a waste of time. I don't think we need a book on it.

Moreover - why choose Marathon? It's a single event that can be easily labelled, I suspect. Why not choose, say, the Persian decision to invade Greece, the weather or any assortment of other factors? I reckon it's because they don't have the same "pull" as the "big" events of history, but they seem to be to be just as equally valid.

Speculative counter-factual history can be interesting or fun (Nazi's hiding on the moon!?) but in the field of classics, and especially when taken seriously, it seems like a colossal waste of time to me. It has a tiny bit of merit insomuch as it may call attention to things we take for granted, but it's a fun mental exercise, nothing more.

It's overly simplistic to choose a single event and say it changed everything. Ignoring the fact that it's built on the idea that ultimately there is a prime mover of some sort in every sequence of events, it just demonstrates a lack of true imagination and demonstrates a fondness for simple or stark explanations. The flourishing of Athens after Marathon was part of a development stretching much further back in time - it was an instance on an enormous time scale which we can't really comprehend. Explanations such as this one are poor attempts at doing so.

I don't have a problem with artistic licence being taken in books, novels or TV shows - in fact, in these cases, reading into historical events can be interesting, it's just the notion of taking counter-factual history as a useful tool in genuine historical discourse that I dislike. Maybe I'm being a stick in the mud, though!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Should the Colosseum Even Be Open?

It was reported this week that some "chunks" have fallen off the Colosseum in Rome (link). As ever, the show continues and the Colosseum remains open.

Should it be? I know there is a feeling that classical sites must be opened so that the millions of tourists that visit each year can spend 15 seconds of confused wonder snapping endless photographs for their Facebook pages (do people only go on holiday now so that they can let other people know about it via social networking?), but I'm not sure I hold to it.

Many classical sites desperately need some repairs (the Italians, especially, care more about marketing and flare than genuine care - although I'm generalising, of course) but they remain open, even when "chunks" are falling off of them.

I believe that the physical remains of the classical world that we have left must be preserved not to merely service the tourist industry, but to remind people of the glory of the classical past, its wonders and what it has given to us. At the moment it seems to be a numbers game, and that's rather sad.

My proposal, then, would be to make sites such as the Colosseum (those which can be damaged by constant visitation, or need repairs due to unavoidable decay) harder to visit. People can mill around outside, but make the process of actually visiting more complicated. Not elite, nor difficult, just harder. My hope would be that then only people who truly wanted to visit and are willing to appreciate what they're looking at would bother sorting it all out.

Visiting Rome now seems like an exercise in ticking things off a list for most tourists. In some ways that is similar to the Romans who simply had to see the wonders of Greece, but I hazard a guess that the modern tourist does it with much less reverence than their Roman predecessor. The process has been cheapened, somewhat, and I wish that rot could be reversed.

Again, I don't want to sound elitist at all - the remains of the classical world are our heritage, but given that we're unable to appreciate that (on the whole) something else needs to be done.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Gone missing...

I'm afraid I've pretty much just gone missing these past two months. I suppose, sadly, it's simply a consequence of classics being directly unrelated to my job and so it occasionally gets put on the back burner.

I've still been thinking about them a great deal - I just haven't posted anything. I've been reading up about the genre of the novel, I'm rewatching HBO's Rome and I've been keeping up to date with classical news and blogs, but just while remaining silent.

My hope is to fit the blog into my life somehow and manage a post or so ever week. That's significantly less than before, but better than nothing.