Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome
Catharine Edwards presents this series about the women with power in the Roman Empire. While there was no woman who was an Empress in her own right there were still women who helped to shape the politics of the empire. In the first episode Edwards’s focus was on Livia who was the wife of the first Emperor, Augustus. Her public role was as the epitome of the perfect Roman matron – she was submissive & demure, and attended to the domestic sphere rather than the political (spinning & weaving for instance). Augustus used this public persona of Livia’s to his advantage – first to contrast her with Cleopatra. And also to help his personification of his rule as back to basics & himself as just the first amongst equals. Behind the scenes Livia wielded more power & there are references to her influencing the outcomes of trials, and pulling strings to get things done. After Augustus’s death she was given the title Augusta & made the high priestess of his cult, and she started to wield power somewhat more overtly (which her son Tiberius who was now Emperor wasn’t so keen on).
During the programme Edwards also told us about Julia, the daughter of Augustus and Julia’s daughter Agrippina. Both of these women misjudged their way in the balance between power & appearances. Julia behaved scandalously – although her children were all presumed to be her husband’s this was because she’d made sure to only take lovers while she was pregnant. But the scandals were to be her downfall, she didn’t fit in with the image of the imperial family that Augustus wanted to portray, and she ended up exiled for her behaviour. Agrippina was married to one of Livia’s descendants and was the mother of Caligula. After her husband’s death in suspicious circumstances, which she blamed on Livia & Tiberius, Agrippina returned to Rome to fight for justice & for her family’s right to the throne. She too ended her days in exile.
The second episode covered Agrippina the Younger & Messalina. This Agrippina holds the distinction of having been sister of one Emperor (Caligula), wife of the next (Claudius) and mother of the one after (Nero). Messalina was the wife of Claudius when he became Emperor & she and Agrippina were bitter rivals during Messalina’s lifetime. Edwards spent some time discussing Messalina’s ruthlessness in getting rid of rivals (including Agrippina’s sister), and also Messalina’s bad reputation. She’s been immortalised in history as a nyphomanic, but Edwards pointed out that this sort of gossip was a way of attacking the power of the Emperor – if he can’t even control his wife, how can he rule the Empire? Of symbolically castrating him. So the reputation is probably undeserved. However, it was sexual misconduct that brought about her downfall – she is said to’ve undergone some sort of a marriage ceremony with a lover in front of witnesses & “spent the night with him as man & wife”. When Claudius heard of this she hoped to be able to talk her way out of it, but some of Claudius’s loyal freemen had her executed before she could do so.
After Messalina’s death Claudius married Agrippina – she engineered this, but it made sound political sense as she was a direct descendent of Augustus (unlike Claudius who was descended from Livia). But he was also her uncle, which made it an illegal marriage so it needed special dispensation from the Senate. Agrippina pulled strings to get this to happen. After her marriage she was pretty much an equal partner in the government of the Empire, and publicly visible as such – which the various later Roman historians like Suetonius and Tacitus did Not Approve of. She took care to organise things so that her son Nero would become Emperor next, rather than Claudius & Messalina’s son. This included having Nero adopted by Claudius, and by having Nero marry Claudius’s daughter. So the woman Nero was married to was a) his wife, b) his step-sister, c) his adoptive sister and d) his first cousin once removed. Which seems a few more relationships than are really necessary 😉 And he didn’t like her, either. Once Claudius died (conveniently timed for Agrippina, and probably at her orders) Agrippina attempted to continue to rule as the dominant partner with Nero as the junior. Edwards pointed out the Agrippina wasn’t one to compromise or persuade, and Nero as a teenager who was being taunted about being under his mother’s thumb did not appreciate her “help”. Eventually he had Agrippina murdered.
The Burrowers: Animals Underground
This series presented by Chris Packham is looking at the underground life of three burrowing British mammals. The first episode introduced us to the animals – rabbits, water voles & badgers – and showed us how the team have built burrows for each species that have cutaway sections where the researchers & cameras can see the animals. So far the rabbits moved in and started breeding like rabbits. The pair of water voles seemed less keen on each other, separating to opposite sides of the burrow, but at the end of the programme we were show indications they may’ve bred after all. And the badgers are all orphan cubs, which are bonding to form a social group – the drama here is that the last addition might or might not integrate (and won’t survive if she doesn’t).
Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve
The last instalment of how we’re screwing up the planet, Indian Ocean edition, covered Indonesia to Australia. Along the way Simon Reeve visited an area of Indonesia where they’re enforcing strict Sharia law, including arresting teenagers who are incautious enough to make public displays of affection. He also visited a team who study slow lorises, which are really very cute and very endangered. The team don’t just study them in the wild they also rehabilitate animals that’ve been sold as pets and subsequently confiscated from their owners – they are generally mutilated before sale, their teeth are removed because their bite is poisonous. Reeve managed to surreptitiously film in a pet market in a nearby city where there were slow lorises openly for sale, along with other endangered species, all kept in poor conditions.
Once in Australia Reeve started by visiting a fish farm & the helping to catch a salt water crocodile. These are very dangerous animals, and so if they start harassing an area where people live they need dealt with – often they’re shot, but they are also endangered. So the people Reeve was helping catch them & put them in a wildlife sanctuary instead … it was a pretty hair-raising sequence, much respect for people who willingly get that close to an over 8 foot crocodile. After that he visited the mainland of Australia to see the sorts of places where vast industrial complexes are being built to get at the mineral resources. The programme did end on a note of hope though – a team in south west Australia who are championing establishing National Parks in the oceans around Australia. Over fishing has been a theme through the series, and this scheme is a part answer to that problem – if there are areas where people cannot fish, then the wildlife recovers and this will spill over into replenishing fish stocks in the surrounding ocean too.
This has been an interesting series, but interesting in a sobering way. Although Reeve did visit some nice places & see some interesting things the theme was mainly how we’re screwing up the environment through our (the West in particular’s) desire for cheap food, and how people are treating each other badly.
The Story of the Jews
The second episode of Simon Schama’s series about Jewish History covered over a millennium from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem through to the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492. The title of the episode was Among Believers & this was one of the threads tying the programme together – the Jews lived in Christian or Muslim societies through the majority of these years. Schama looked at both how they worked at staying Jewish & at what this cost them. To keep their faith & culture in the absence of the ritual centre (the Temple) the Jews turned to even stronger veneration of the word. In the early years their Bible was extended with commentary and the oral traditions of the Jews, and books were written that reorganised & gathered together the laws & teachings – so you could for instance look up what was & wasn’t permitted on the Sabbath in one place rather than search through the text for all references. This was later extended further with commentaries (and still, I believe, gets extended) and commentaries on the commentaries into the Talmud. This collection of the original text & the thoughts of Rabbis over the years on these texts is part of an on-going conversation or argument across the centuries about how to be Jewish in the changing world around them.
In terms of what it cost them – demonisation of the Jews started early in Christianity, with Paul. His message of the Christ killers who didn’t recognise the Messiah was taken further by John Chrysostom who preached against the Jews as not fully human devil worshippers who sacrificed their own children. Unsurprisingly when Islam first arose Jewish relations with Muslims were better – there was even a brief period right at the start when it looked like the two traditions might exist in harmony (it didn’t last). But in the medieval Islamic world Jews (and Christians) were “only” treated as second class citizens – they had to distinguish themselves by their clothing, there were whole lists of petty things they couldn’t do (like not ride horses, too dignified, only riding donkeys side-saddle like a woman was permitted). But at least they were treated as human beings rather than demonic devil worshippers. Muslim Spain was a particular centre for a flourishing of Jewish culture – Schama quoted us poetry & show us beautiful books & architecture from that time. Sadly the Reconquest of Spain by the Christians and the replacement of the Caliphate with fundamentalist Islamists from Morocco brought this golden age to a close ultimately ending with the expulsion of all Jews from Spain.
Schama also covered Jews in the rest of Christendom during this period – using Lincoln as his example because it had good examples of both threads. On the one hand Jews were terribly useful to the governments of the day – they would lend money (at interest) to Kings, nobles or the Church, which was a sin for a Christian. Aaron of Lincoln was one of this money brokers, who became very rich from lending money to build such places as Lincoln Cathedral. But then they were resented as they got rich, and the same people who took advantage of their loans would look the other way while angry mobs attacked them (and conveniently destroyed records of loans, oh how fortunate). And the mobs were fuelled by the sorts of things Chrysostom had preached about so long ago – in Lincoln there was an incident of a young boy, Hugh, who was murdered. Fury was whipped up by a story that he’d been tortured & killed by Jews in a mock crucifixion – the blood libel that has often been falsely raised against Jews. While Hugh wasn’t officially canonised there is still the remains of a shrine to “Little Saint Hugh”, and only shockingly recently has the sign next to it been changed to reflect the fact that the stories told about his death were lies.
The other thread running through the programme was a quote from Deutronomy:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed;*
Schama used this to illustrate how even after being expelled from their homes, after being demonised & libelled, the Jews continued to choose life & to choose to continue as Jews. Their books of may’ve been designed to be portable – suitcase ready, Schama said – but they were still beautifully made, and treasured. Even tho ultimately their homes may’ve been temporary and were only theirs at someone else’s sufferance, they built beautiful synagogues to meet in.
*I looked this up to check the wording, but only via Googling for it, so hopefully I have the text correct. I used this wording because the site is explicitly saying it’s Jewish rather than Christian.