Friday, September 22, 2006

Anachronisms in Rome

Living beyond the range of cable television and not willing to pay for a satellite dish, M. and I watch HBO series with a year's delay.

Right now we're working our way through the first season of Rome. And we like it, right from the starting sequence of the animated graffiti (based on originals in Pompeii, or so they say.

But despite the presence of historical advisors, anachronisms both religious and mundane creep in.

For instance, in Episode 8, Cleopatra is shown smoking opium, which is wrong on two counts. First, as far as I can tell--and I have researched this some--the technology of smoking with a pipe, as opposed to throwing herbs or resins onto glowing coals, was unknown in Eurasia until Columbus sailed to the Western Hemisphere.

Second, the pipe shown is not an opium pipe, but an East Asian tobacco pipe. The bowl is wrong.

Opium had been used in Europe since the Bronze Age, at least, but not in pipes.

Steven Saylor felt that Cleopatra's character was wrong, as well, but that is another story.

The show's makers fudged the stirrup question. The Romans did not have stirrups--no Europeans knew them until a few centuries later. Yet if you look, you can see that riders in long shots are riding with them. Close up, however, they have been removed for verisimitude's sake.

I was skeptical about the brothel-keeper in Episode 7 counting with her abacus, but apparently the Romans indeed did have them. The one in the scene looked more Chinese, however.

And I wonder at seeing candles everywhere instead of cheap ceramic oil lamps. The latter are not hard to find--they are still made for the Middle Eastern souvenir trade.

On the religious side, in one of the early episodes, there is a brief depiction of the taurobolium, or purification in the blood of a sacrificed bull. That rite was not known in the last days of the Roman Republic, which is when the series begins.

The other rites, whether in temples or at home altars, have to be admitted as reconstructions. There is so much of basic religious practice that we do not know, really. Music, too, can only be guessed at.

Quibbles aside, it's worth renting the series on DVD if you have not seen it.



Blogger Jason said...

I liked it too (despite the flaws). But then I loved "I, Claudius" as well. It seems the second season will be the last due to the amount of money it takes to film the thing.

I appreciated that they made the people of Rome religious (and superstitious) and not some sort of proto-monotheists as I've seen in some movies (although they made young Octavian a proto-monotheist, something that seems wildly out of character for him).

All in all, it is very much worth the renting (can't afford to blow 80.00 on my own copy yet).

2:24 PM  
Blogger Chas S. Clifton said...

Stirrups or not, give me some slimy corrupt high priests, and I'm happy.

I too am curious to see how Octavian/Augustus turns out.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Oh, what fun! Given the relatively trivial nature of the errors, it sounds like they're doing a lot right.

I'll keep my eyes open for a second-hand copy or one to rent. Thanks for the heads up, Chas!

Honestly, since we got rid of our cable tv, I can't say that I've missed live tv shows at all. Big advantage, having to rely on DVDs--by the time they come out, there are usually enough reviews and so forth so you can avoid wasting any time on shows that are less than great. Not to mention the joys of watching a complex and interesting show's whole season arc, without having to wait an entire year to follow it.

8:23 AM  
Blogger shak el said...

There is evidence of extensive trade with China by Rome. So you could rationalize the chinese items as "trade."

6:41 AM  
Blogger Chas S. Clifton said...

Shak El,

Um, maybe. So long as we don't see Augustus' palace decorated with Han-dynasty ceramics or something like that.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Yvonne said...

I thought the Scythians had stirrups? But still, they wouldn't have had them in the era of the Republic.

4:46 AM  

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