The Eagle

Title: The Eagle

Director/Stars: Channing Tatum (Actor), Jamie Bell (Actor)

Genre: Period Adventure

Year: 2011

Watched: July 7, 2011

Summary: Decent.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

It’s interesting that in the last year or so there have been two movies about the Roman legion “lost” in North Britain during the Hadrianic period. The other is Centurion which I review here. It just goes to prove that Hollywood loves to copy. Two volcano movies? Two Wyatt Earp films? Two Lambada films?

And, to boot, it’s unlikely the legion was actually “lost” (as in militarily). More likely it was just disbanded and the sketchy historical record makes it seem to have disappeared.

In any case, The Eagle is less stylized, and perhaps less anachronistic in terms of it’s action and look than Centurion. However, it doesn’t work as well. Centurion is a very fine chase movie, with almost no character development. The Eagle tries for the latter, with mixed success. The first half works best. Our hero, Centurion Marcus, is posted (on request) to a fort in Britain, proves himself and is injured, then gets shipped out to his uncle’s villa to recover. I liked this opening section, and the film is very well researched from a visual standpoint. The scenery and costumes are great. They didn’t, however, get as much right involving the way in which the Roman army is organized. They insisted on using modern terms like “duty roster” and “honorable discharge.” Roman soliders (of this period) weren’t enlisted out of civilian life. They were either senatorial/imperial appointees (mostly officers) or serving a fixed (20+ year) service.

But I did like this early section. The battle sequences were well done. I liked the crazy druid and his chariot (still in use then by tribal groups in Britain). I liked the legionaries fighting in formation (mostly).

But after recovering, Marcus makes the ridiculous decision to go north of Hadrian’s wall (into enemy Scotland) by himself, accompanied only by a celtic slave who owes him his life. His mission, taken upon himself, is to recover the Eagle (battle standard) lost by his father a decade or so before. He has no idea where it is. Scotland is a big place, full of celts and picts. They don’t like Romans.

But he blunders right into it after riding across some gorgeous wet looking scenery. Again, landscape and costumes look amazing. The movie also doesn’t have a lot of CG, which is good. The natives feel very… well native. I was reminded visually of The New World — a movie of stunning visual lushness about the Jamestown colony. After all that we have an encounter with this seal tribe, a fictionalized Northern British coastal tribe. Their look and ceremonies are wonderfully depicted. Marcus has a bit of slave/master reversal with his friend, but eventually the two grab the eagle and make a run for it, followed by a showdown.

The finale devolved into a kind of anachronistic “all cultures are equal” kind of thinking that just did not exist in the second century. Not only didn’t it exist then, it didn’t even exist during World War I, or any time in between. This modern, intensely modern, way of thinking was formulated during the 20th century. Sure a few people may have thought this way — slightly this way — in the 18th and 19th centuries. But precious few.

Romans. No.

The Roman’s were actually very accommodating and tolerant of foreign cultures and races, radically so compared to medieval Europe, incorporating them in great numbers into their polity. But this stemmed not from any sense of cultural relativism, but from an intense pragmatism, and a world-crushing confidence in the ability of Roman society to absorb and transform.

But back to the film. Overall, I enjoyed it, but mostly from a visual and historical standpoint. The costumes, locations, and sets really are fantastic. It has a pretty ancient feel — ignoring some of the dialog. It’s not nearly as satisfying an adventure movie as Centurion. But it tried to be more. I also appreciate the extremely well done more traditional style of filmmaking. This is no 300, full of garish comic book stylization and whacky CG.

For more film reviews, click here.

At the Roman Table

What better intersection of my interests than a meal based on Ancient Roman cuisine. On Thursday July 14 and 15th the Getty Villa offered a combination of lecture on ancient food and a meal of authentic Roman dishes based on the legendary recipes of Apicius. I had used this very same cookbook as the basis for our Empires of the Ancient World Ball back in 2006! The event page for the Getty dinner is here, although it might eventually go away.


We enter the new Getty Villa, which mixes a gorgeous setting, the lovely and semi-authentic original villa, and Richard Meier‘s over-modern Travertine slabs (I personally think the architecture of both Getty’s should have been entirely traditional, as I DO NOT subscribe to the ornament is dead school of thought).


Food historian Andrew Dalby starts the evening by exploring dining practices in the city that once ruled the Mediterranean. He identifies the range of luxuries that comprised a fashionable meal 2,000 years ago: great wines, local farm produce, and exotic spices from India and beyond. Dalby illustrates how invitations and place settings at the table were calculated to impress, persuade, or seduce. Gaius Julius Caesar understood better than any of his rivals that food could serve as a means of persuasion. How did Caesar, a relatively unknown politician, build up the influence that made him a dictator and gave birth to a new political structure? Dalby shares examples from the ruler’s feasts and entertainments to shed fresh light on this pivotal period of Roman history.


Andrew Dalby is an historian and linguist with a special interest in food history. He collaborated with Sally Grainger on The Classical Cookbook (Getty Publications, 1995), which explores the culinary history of ancient Greece and Rome and includes recipes adapted for the modern kitchen. His bookDangerous Tastes (2000), on the origins of the spice trade, was a Guild of Food Writers Food Book of the Year. His other publications include Empire of Pleasures (2000), which addresses food and other luxuries in Roman writings; light-hearted accounts of Bacchus and Venus (Getty Publications, 2003 and 2005); and a new biography of the Greek statesman, Eleftherios Venizelos (2010). His latest translation, Geoponika (2011), brings to light a forgotten primary source on food and farming in Roman and Byzantine times.


Then we proceed into the main villa for dinner.

The food portion was supervised by Sally Grainger, who trained as a chef in her native Coventry, England, before developing an interest in the ancient world and taking a degree in ancient history from the University of London. Combining her professional skills with her expertise in the culinary heritage of the Greek and Roman world, she now pursues a career as a food historian, consultant, and experimental archaeologist.

Grainger’s recent projects include Roman food tastings at the British Museum and the Bath Roman Museum in England. She has demonstrated ancient cooking techniques for English Heritage and also Butser Ancient Farm, a reconstructed Iron Age village and laboratory for experimental archaeology. Grainger recently acquired an M.A. in archaeology and is currently researching the extensive trade across the Roman world of the fermented fish sauce known as garum. With her husband, Christopher Grocock, Grainger published a new translation of the Roman recipe book Apicius for Prospect Books. She has also published a companion volume of recipes, Cooking Apicius.


An aperitif of saffron and honey infused wine. This tasted pretty much the same as the “wine coolers” I made at my party by mixing Soave (a traditional Venetian white that lore has Livia the wife of Augustus praising) with honey.


A table showing off some imperial produce.


Artichokes, pomegranates, raddishes etc.


Suey!!!


More produce.


At the table we are greeted by a menu, and a sprig of aromatic lavender. The full menu can be seen here.

“Traditional White Spelt Loaf: spelt flour, bread flour, yeast.” Rustic roman bread. Food this simple hasn’t changed much, it was pretty bread-like.

“Cucumber in a Mint‐and‐Honey Dressing: cucumber, honey, fish sauce, vinegar, black pepper, mint.”

“Sweet‐and‐Sour Egg and Leek Dipping Sauce with Crudités: cumin, myrtle berries, black pepper, parsley, leek, eggs, honey, white wine vinegar, olive oil, fish sauce”

The cucumbers were very tasty. The sauce was good too, it just had a slightly odd flavor that took a little getting used to.

It’s worth mentioning the infamous Roman fish sauce, garum. This was a type of fermented fish sauce condiment that was an essential flavour in Ancient Roman cooking, the supreme condiment. Although it enjoyed its greatest popularity in the Roman world, it originally came from the Greeks, gaining its name from the Greek words garos or gáron (γάρον), which named the fish whose intestines were originally used in the condiment’s production.

Around the outside edge:

“Chicken Meatballs with a Dill and Rice‐infused Sauce:

Meatballs: chicken, pheasant, sweet wine, black pepper, fish sauce, egg, bread crumbs, dill hydrogarum (cooking liquor): pepper corns, fish sauce, sweet wine, water, Spanish camomile, celery leaves

Sauce: chicken stock, fresh green dill, black pepper, salt, celery seed, arborio rice, defrutum (boiled and flavoured grape juice)”

The meatballs were good, like chicken meatballs with a slightly sweet flavor.


Then in the center:

“Calf’s Kidney stuffed with Coriander, Fennel Seed, and Pine Nuts: calf’s kidney, pine nuts, fennel seed, fresh coriander, black pepper, pigs caul fat, fish sauce, olive oil”

I can’t say I’m a big kidney fan, and this is, well kidney. It was rubbery, with a very very long finish. I just can’t say it was a pleasant one. It’s all the kidney’s fault though, not the recipe per se.

“Oysters with oenogarum: fish sauce, white wine, honey, black pepper, ground celery seed.”

Wow. These were interesting. The oysters are oysters, but the flavor in combination with the oenogarum was REALLY interesting. It added a pleasant, slightly vinegary, sweet briny taste which lasted in the mouth for a good minute or two. I could only describe it as “essence of maryland blue-crab aftertaste.”

“Zucchini Stuffed with Calf’s Sweetbread, Dressed with oenogarum and Served with Mixed Greens: zucchini, calf’s sweetbread, oregano, lovage, fish sauce, eggs, black pepper, mixed baby greens.”

These tasted good, but as usual it’s hard for me to get over my brain aversion, although that was entirely psychological.

“Sea Bass Fillets in a Green Herb Sauce: sea bass, fresh fennel, coriander, mint, rue, lovage, honey, fish sauce, oil, black pepperMain.”

Like herby sea bass!

porcellum hortolanum: Whole Stuffed Roasted Pig

Stuffing: chicken, pork, eggs, cumin, fennel seed, oregano, savoury or thyme, pine nuts, parsley, pepper corns, pepper, salt, bread crumbs.”

Now this was some good stuff. I was reminded of this crazy pig video (below). They have essentially taken a roasted pig, taken out everything inside, and then packed the skin together with sausage, the meat and all sorts of other goodies to make a giant piggy-shaped meatloaf!


The pig plated.

Shredded Cabbage and Leek with Coriander and Caraway: white cabbage, coriander, leek, olive oil, black pepper, caraway, fish sauce.”

Roman cole slaw! Tasted like slightly sweet herby slaw.

“Beans in a Honey‐Mustard Sauce: black‐ eyed peas, pine nuts, honey, whole grain mustard, rue, parsley, cumin, white wine vinegar, white wine, black pepper, fish sauce”

Again slightly sweet and herby, with a distinct mustard taste. Actually very yummy beans.


2000 year old BBQ pork with beans and slaw!

gastris: Sesame Sweetmeat: almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, honey, black pepper.”

I guess this stuff has survived more or less, because I’ve had this greek candy Pasteli that is very similar. Sweet and nutty, kinda dry.

libum: Honey‐infused Cake Served with Apricot Patina: ricotta, eggs, flour, figs, white wine, honey, dessert wine, defrutum (boiled and flavoured grape juice), cumin, black pepper, apricots.”

This is sort of the ancient version of biscuits with stewed apricots. But like all Roman dishes they are more willing to play with the conventional rules of sweet/savory. Hence, the black pepper! The overall affect was pleasant enough, but certainly not radical.


Luna watches over the festivities.

Overall this was a very enjoyable evening. While a bit strange to our palette, it did show how Roman food was anything but primitive (of course I already knew this :-)). Certainly this was a rare treat. Now I just have to find someplace that serves dormice in walnut sauce! It also made me further appreciate the job Celestino Drago did with adapting recipes from Apicus for our 2006 Ball, as they were nearly as authentic. We did, however, skip the kidneys!

To check out another Getty event involving my favorite Dionysian disciples, the satyrs, click here.

Or for some modern Italian dining, here.

Book Review: The Road to Tyburn

Title: The Road to Tyburn

Author: Christopher Hibbert

Genre: Biography / History

Read: Feb 18, 2011

Summary: Really fun glimpse into a sordid little world.

_

In the last 2-3 weeks I’ve read at least 8-10 books on 18th century London, many on the criminal element of said city. Lest one think I’ve got an unnatural fascination with antique crime this is research for my new novel (more on that here). This book, however, was a standout, and despite being long out of print is well worth mentioning.

It’s short (160 pages), and very lively, reading as fast as a novel. It does a very good job characterizing the bizarre underworld of 1720s London, pretty much that which is depicted in the engravings of William Hogarth. London of this time was a city unique on earth, transitioning out of the 17th century’s religious zealousy and into the head long rush toward industrialization. It was a place of great freedom, great crime, great industry, and an infrastructure and society nearly overwhelmed by change. Pretty damn fun, and why I chose it for my novel.

Jack Sheppard — not to be confused with the protagonist of Lost — is a colorful character I hadn’t previously encountered. More or less just a charismatic young house burglar, he entered the public eye in a huge way – foreshadowing today’s media fascination with crime and criminals — by being a prison breaker of staggering talent. Nothing could keep the guy down, tied, barred, locked, or whatever. He broke out of the notorious Newgate prison no less than three times! (and several others as well).

As a working class, non-violent, handsome, achem… thief, seemingly able to escape punishment at will, he captured the hearts and minds of his fellow Londoners. For me, one of the book’s great moments is the description of his insanely daring and audacious fourth escape, known even then as the “Great Escape.” The guy used only a single bent and rusty nail to extract himself from a huge pile of irons, fetters, and chains, broke open a masonry chimney, climbed up, picked and opened five heavily fortified prison doors, leapt across rooftops, and descended great distances on a rope made of bedding. If anyone ever earned an escape, it was this guy!

Too bad they hung him when they caught him the last time. But he seemed to enjoy the attention and show.

The book does a great job telling Jack’s life story intermixed with really vivid and quick background sketches. The story of the the infamous Jonathan Wild, self proclaimed “Thief-taker General of Great Britain and Ireland” is also an eye-opener as to the origins and history of organized crime. As the book states, no other criminal mastermind in 300 years has ever had London crime (a pretty notorious city) so well organized!

Some Ideas Never Die

I was back at my parents for the ThanksGavin and I noticed the magazine cover to the right sitting in their powder room. This ceramic dog head, it turns out, is an late 18th or early 19th century British object called a Stirrup Cup. These popular objects were used by aristocratic gentlemen and ladies for the purposes of libations (getting drunk) while hunting. They were ordinarily gifts the host offered during the fox-hunt, on the occasion of the final drink, usually containing port or sherry. Now this in itself is normal enough — considering the British — but for me as a History geek I was stuck by its resemblance to the object on the left.

This little fellow, which is known as a Rhyton, is Greek. Probably Apulian from the look of it, meaning made by Greek colonists in the boot-shaped part of Italy, somewhere roughly in the 4th or 5th century BC. 2200 years before.

So what? But I love this stuff. A Rhyton served the exact same function as the Stirrup Cup. You drank from it while hunting. In the case of the Greeks, undoubtedly wine. The lefthand example is typical Athenian-style glazed terracotta.

But the Greeks didn’t invent this form. It’s much older still, of Persian origin. Here are a trio of Persian horns from three different periods of Ancient Iranian history.

The lion in the upper left is Achaemenid, the Empire of Xerxes and Darius, featured as the villains in the movie 300 (boo hiss), and conquered finally by Alexander the Great. This specific vessel (or one like it) actually makes an appearance in my novel The Darkening Dream, as my 900 year-old vampire al-Nasir owns one. He’s partial to gold. And things owned by kings.

The stag is from Parthia, in North East Iran, and probably a bit later. You can see the more dramatically accentuated horn shape here.

This lovely little bovine is Sassanian, the later empire that existed in Persia during the late Roman period and prior to the Islamic conquest. This is the setting for Aladin by the way — more or less.

This form may be extremely ancient in central Asia, possibly going back for millennium and animal shaped drinking vessels have been found from as early as 5000 BC! Horns were probably in use as drinking vessels in the region since Neolithic times or earlier, and terracotta replicas could easily be 10,000 or 15,000 years old.

But how did it end up in Greece?

The Greco Persian War of course — again the subject of 300. Many of these were captured, and the Greeks took a liking to them. So they minted out all sorts of Hellenized versions, usually in terracotta, as this was the typical material for Grecian drinking vessels.

The resemblance is a bit more than coincidental. Athenian pottery in particular was immensely influential in the entire Hellenistic and then Roman world. These vessels remained in use, modeling all sorts of animal flavors from the 5th century BC until the late Roman period (and possible later), circa 3rd century AD.

By the late Roman period the influence of such things such things were undoubtedly well installed in the mindset of many people as part of hunting and feasting traditions. So therefore we find things like this.

These gold examples, in clear imitation of the Greek forms, were found in a hoard in Bulgaria. I’m too lazy to really research it, but I would suspect they are from the Bulgarian kingdoms of late antiquity. They could be earlier, possibly even Hellenistic.

So what happened to the Rhyton during the long dark period of Europe’s middle years. I tried to find out (casually, using only Google). Drinking horns themselves were in great use, particularly among Celtic and Germanic groups. Some retain animalistic features like.

This is not as obviously derived from the same prototype, but certainly could be. Undoubtedly the functional object, the hunting horn vessel never went away. But by the 18th century, particularly in Britain, the Stirrup Cup appears and with it full and intense revival of the ancient form. Is this due to continuos conservation of the form and idea through the entire Middle Ages? Probably not, but more likely reflects a deliberate harkening back to the classical era. All sorts of neoclassical trends were at work during the 18th century. Stylistically the three great trends of this era were: Neo-classicism, Rococo, and Chinoiserie.

This rabbit and fox are clearly the same idea. Like the Greeks before them, the British, with their own thriving new ceramics business, chose the medium of pottery.

Above is an early 19th century example in the Medeval Revival style that is clearly aping the older chicken legged drinking horn, if not the orginal prototype.

The British template made it across the shores to America in the above example, being particularly Southern. I’m sure these were quite popular with the Gone with the Wind set.

And finally, persists even today, in an over-commercialized red-neck variant.

Satyrs and Maenads, Oh My!

On Friday, Nov 19, 2010 we went to a special event at the Getty Villa.

The Making of a Satyr Play
Villa Education presents a workshop on Sophocles‘ play Trackers, the second most completely preserved script of a satyr play, featured in the exhibition. Michael Hackett, chair of the UCLA theater department, directs UCLA theater students and graduates in this presentation, accompanied by an introduction to satyr plays and a visit to the exhibition lead by curator Mary Louise Hart.

This was a very interesting event. Most of you probably don’t know that there was a third type of Greek Theatre besides comedy and tragedy: The Satyr play. At the theatre festival dedicated to Dionysus (as all theater inherently was — Dionysus being the god to which theater, masks, and acting was sacred) a day consisted of three tragedies and a satyr play all written by the same playwright/poet and performed by the same amateur troop. The satyr play is a kind of tragedy which is somewhat funny (but not a comedy), and which generally involves some mythological theme into which satyrs have been inserted. If you insert satyrs anywhere, things get inheriently funny.

Case in point to the left here. Satyrs are the sacred disciples of Dionysus, and befitting the god of madness, intoxication, and altered states are hybridizations of male nature with beasts, specifically horses. Some might even argue that this is in fact the natural state of men, and doesn’t require a mythical race. In any case, satyrs inherit the tail, ears, and oversized member from their equine parent.

Back to satyr plays. We know little about them, as there are only 1.5 in existence. That’s right, dozens, possibly hundreds were written and performed, but beside a few scraps we only have the text of “Cyclops” by Euripides and half of  Sophocles’ “Trackers,” which was performed at this event. Ancient texts pretty much needed to be copied to survive, and well, monks weren’t that fond of satyrs.

The Trackers is the story of how Hermes steals Apollo’s sacred cows and builds the first Lyre, which eventually he trades to Apollo. So it could be thought of as the origin story of Apollo’s Lyre, which is one of the sun god’s primary attributes. Amusingly, and highly appropriate to satyrs, the tracking of the cattle involves detailed inspection of cow patties. Satyrs love a good shit joke, and this play has a veritable butt-load of them. The translation was brilliant, rendering them in meter and rhyme. It can’t be easy to translate poetic scatological humor from Greek to English.

Anyone who knows me well knows I’m an ancient history “amateur“, and how I’m particularly partial to death and resurrection gods like Dionysus and Osiris. So this was a brilliant and rare opportunity to see/hear some of this stuff in real life. They did some demonstrations of actor chorus interchange in Greek which I found fascinating. Then they paired this with reconstructed dance and limited music. You just don’t get to see/hear this very often. I know intellectually that Greek theatre was all written in meter, but it’s very different to hear it, even for someone who doesn’t (unfortunately) speak Greek. It gave me goosebumps. The UCLA students and professor who did the performance did an amazing job reconstructing the movements of the actors as well. Most of our visual information on Greek society comes from vase painting, and theatre (like drinking) is a favorite subject. To the right you can see an actor dressed as Hercules (left) and as Papa Silenus (right — father of the satyrs). Notice how the Silenus costume is basically a “furry body suit,” very cool. The actor holds the craggy old satyr faced mask up. As I learned yesterday, mask and “in character” are the same word in Greek. I love that, as I love masks and their Dionysian associations. My personal corporation is after all Mascherato, which is just Italian for masquerade. Back to the production. They did a really interesting job translating the postures and poses of satyrs and actors playing satyrs. You can see one of those in the upper right hand corner, recognizable by the fact that he is holding the head, actually a mask, of a satyr, and wearing special hairy “satyr pants.” These pants are the differentiating factor between real satyrs, like the one on the left “playing” with his wine vessel (real) and the upper right one (actor in satyr costume). It’s hard to explain in writing how they managed to copy the depicted mannerisms of satyrs, but they did.

The pairing of this often complicated motion, not so disimilar in some ways from modern dance, with the rhythm of the play’s dialog and the beat of the drum was very intriguing, and entertaining. One can totally see how these were exciting performances, and I think you could make a truly awesome modern ballet version of a satyr play. Perhaps with the satyrs and maenads preparing for the arrival of Dionysus. If I had a time machine I’d produce it, getting Stravinsky to write the music. Awesome! I guess you could do a production of The Rite of Spring with satyrs — as more or less was its intent — but I had in mind music that was somewhat more ancient in composition and instrumentation. The cult of Dionysus is not some happy go lucky party thing, but is essentially bound up with madness, chaos, and ecstatic murder. In other words, it’s pretty badass.


It’s worth mentioning our own little homage to the spirit of Dionysus, representing as it does an essential aspect of human nature. Our 2006 “Empires of the Ancient World Ball.” This was one of a series of black tie costume balls we hosted. This one included not only guests dressed as ancient characters and gods, but ancient music, theatre, and my personal favorite touch: A menu constructed entirely by recipes we selected from Apicius, the greatest of ancient chefs. The amazing Celestino Drago was kind enough to humor us by recreating these selections from an Italian version of the Latin cookbook. I should maybe blog separately about Apicius, but the flavor profiles of Roman cooking were in a lot of ways similar to watching this bit of ancient theatre: an exotic taste of the past. Both remind us that despite the passage of twenty five centuries, humans remain human, and interests, be they arts, food, politics, power, love, wealth or family, all remain at their core, the same.