Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Romans, religion and race

Christopher Derrick's characterisation of one type of overdone novel

A grand rowdy mix-up of sex, violence, and religion in some ancient world, real or imagined: gladiators, bosoms, toppling disasters, temples and sinister priesthoods with their rituals and their schemings: slave-girls being whipped to death

readily fits a number of works. Judging by the cover - see William Moulton Marston’s OTHER pastime at Heidi MacDonald's The Beat - Marston's The Private Life of Julius Caesar (aka Venus With Us) probably wins the prize. (Yes, this is Marston, the Wonder Woman guy - see Wondering...). Imperial Rome has all the ingredients ready-made, and no wonder it has inspired so many works, written and visual, right up to the 2000 epic Gladiator (itself rather closely modelled on the 1964 The Fall of the Roman Empire with a deal of input from Daniel P Mannix's factual 1958 account of the Roman Games, Those about to Die).

The Telegraph's Latin and Aramaic version of Ben Hur approved by Boris Johnson is one of many newspapers reporting on Franz Abraham's forthcoming O2 Arena production of Ben Hur - see the official site, Ben Hur Live. Abraham's aim is "to be faithful to the novel 1880 novel by Lew Wallace, instead of following the film adaptations". Nevertheless, spectacle is an essential ingredient that even Lewis Wallace, writing the original novel Ben-Hur; a tale of the Christ (Gutenberg EText-No. 2145) couldn't do without, whatever his pious intent. The The Robe (1942 book and 1953 film) is in very similar vein.

Quite in contrast ideologically, it's worth checking out Frank Yerby's 1968 Judas, My Brother. Whether it was directly intended as a riposte to Ben Hur, I don't know, but it has a Jewish central character who similarly suffers, gets into tangles with Romans, fights as a gladiator, meets Jesus and his disciples, Essenes, Zealots, the disciple Salome (depicted as the beautfiul prostitute Shelomith), etc. However, this central character is Nathan, sometimes called "The Thirteen Disciple", and the whole powerful and gory epic is woven around a heavily footnoted depiction of a demythologised version of the origins of Christianity. The Agnostic Musings of African American Popular Novelist Frank Garvin Yerby (by James L. Hill, Professor of English, Albany State University) mentions the basics of the novel in a general analysis of Yerby's agnostic beliefs, unusual for someone born in the heart of the Bible Belt.

See the New Georgia Encyclopedia and Eugene A Stovall's Frank Yerby Renaissance Project for more about Yerby, who is hardly known despite being the first best-selling African-American author and the first to have a novel - The Foxes of Harrow - bought by Hollywood for a film adaptation. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Yerby attracted criticism for his lack of racial consciousness in his novels, many of which involved white protagonists in the antebellum South. However, Stovall argues in the essay Why Frank Yerby costumed his novels that Yerby's work was iconoclastic in other, disguised, areas of challenging standard historical thinking. Neither was Yerby indifferent to racial issues, which featured in his later novels, written post-1955 after he left America permanently in protest against racial discrimination, spending the rest of his life in Spain (then under the Franco regime).

It's hard to see what he found more congenial about fascist Spain - in yesterday's Independent, Agree humbly... exploring marital advice from the Franco years mentioned just one of the repressions of Francoism. Yerby doesn't appear to have rocked the boat (unlike Mary Renault, who moved to apartheid-era South Africa because of its more liberal attitude to her being a lesbian, but still participated in the anti-racist Black Sash movement).

- Ray


  1. The Daniel Mannix book has a description of naumachia (according to Wikipedia) which gives me an excuse to ask you something that I've always been mildly curious about. How did they get the ships into the arena? The Wikipedia article gives size: "dimensions of a trireme (approximately 35 x 4.90 meters)." Would they custom build a hundred or so boats for the mock battles?

  2. I've no idea. The Wikipedia article just confirms what I'd read elsewhere: that naumachia events varied in scenario, from full-sized ships in lakes/basins to what would have to be static battles (or ones using stylised miniatures) in smaller venues. Hmmm ... nobody thought of that for the Topsham Maritime Weekend a few years back. Could have been consideably more interesting than what we got - little yachts going round and round and round and round.