November 30, 2011
Today is the day I turn thirty – yes, the big 3-0. According to everything I've read, I should be having a nervous breakdown at the prospect of turning older. But that hasn't happened yet: frankly I can't wait to get older so I can turn into one of those terrifying sharp-tongued dowagers like Maggie Smith in "Downton Abbey," or Judy Dench as M. Instead of getting depressed I've gotten speculative. Turning 30 means one thing to a woman in the 21st century – what did it mean in centuries past? What would it mean if I'd been born in the fifth century, or the fifteenth? Keeping that in mind, I cranked my memory back to those birthdays I might have had in some very different eras of history.
B.C. 2542, Egypt
I'm a priest's daughter in a small Egyptian village by the Nile. I spend my 30th birthday having my brains pulled out through my nose with a hook, because I'm dead: a small accident involving a block of sandstone and the local quarry supplying the building of the pyramids at nearby Giza. My father didn't have enough money to get me married, but he does scrape up enough to get me mummified, so I spend the day getting my internal organs yanked out before I can be salted, resined, and wrapped. I didn't even get to see the first level of the pyramids go up, either.
B.C. 321, Athens
I'm a wool merchant's wife, and I spend my thirtieth birthday just like I spent the twenty-ninth, and the twenty-eighth, and in fact every birthday since my fourth: weaving. That's all well-born Greek women do, you see. My husband is going to a symposium this evening, and he gets to talk philosphy with Aristotle, but do I get to go? Nope, I'm stuck in the back room with my mother-in-law, my two unmarried sisters-in-law, and my three daughters, all of us sitting at those damn looms till we die. Age of Enlightenment, my ass.
A.D. 70, Rome
I'm a senator's wife in ancient Rome under Emperor Vespasian – or rather, I'm currently a senator's wife. He's my fourth husband; I married the first at sixteen, divorced him when he lost all his money investing in silver mines in Britannia under Emperor Claudius, remarried a wine trader who got exiled for plotting against Emperor Nero, divorced again, married a praetor who lost his head under Emperor Otho. Hopefully this husband lasts longer than the first three: he's already given me a very nice emerald necklace for a birthday present, and if I let slip that I know just how many of the slave girls he's sleeping with, I can probably get a pair of bracelets out of him too!
At age thirty in the Dark Ages, I'm dead again. I've been dead for two years, actually: married at thirteen to a fisherman, pumping out six children and five more miscarriages, losing most of my teeth by twenty-one, and finally dying at twenty-eight when my seventh child comes out backward and rips me apart in the process after forty-six hours of excruciating labor. Happy birthday to me!
1066, Senlac Hill, England
Not a great birthday this time either. I'm a Saxon warrior's wife, and I've managed to survive the birth of four children and the bout of fever that carried off three of them. But the Norman invasion just about does me in: my husband dies in the Battle of Hastings, and I get raped afterward by three Norman knights who frankly smell like French pigs. But one of them is nice enough to me afterward, gives me a gold chain and marries me a year later. I've got a daughter to raise, not to mention the coming baby fathered by one of the three French pigs, so I settle down to my new life with a shrug. The Normans are clearly here to stay, so a girl might as well get used to it.
1488, Republic of Venice
My thirtieth birthday marks a tremendous occasion: I'm a grandmother! My eldest daughter is fifteen, the same age I was when I birthed her, and she's just given me my first grandchild. Only a girl, but at least a healthy one, and my daughter came through the birth easy as pie. (She gets those hips from me; I squeezed out eight babies and never lost a one!) I'm bustling off to the Basilica San Marco to light a candle in thanks, and another candle to make sure she gets a boy next time.
It's not till after the riot that I remember it's my birthday. It all started fairly low key; a lot of grumbling in the marketplace about how expensive bread was getting. I really couldn't tell you how I ended up with a pike on my shoulder, marching to Versailles with a lot of other women to go talk to the King. But I have to say, it was thrilling! My husband belongs to the Jacobin club, so he was proud as punch when I came roaring back into Paris with a mob of thousands, bearing King Louis in my wake. And now that I've seen the King in person, I can tell you I'm not impressed. Weak chin, and can you really respect a man who lets a lot of baker's wives drag him out of his own palace? Really, I don't see why we need a King in France at all.
1894, New York
Thank goodness I've turned thirty at last – in the Gilded Age, you simply aren't taken seriously as a hostess until you've got a little experience under your belt. My husband (railway magnate; lights cigars with $100 bills along with Cornelius Vanderbilt and all that crowd) celebrates the occasion by giving me a quadruple-strand pearl necklace worth $23,000 dollars – I'll wear it at the opera tonight with my latest Worth dress. No searching in the mirror for crow's feet for me; everyone knows a woman in her thirties is just hitting her prime. As Oscar Wilde put it, “London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years.” And I do aim to crack London society someday – my eldest daughter is only four, but I'm grooming her for a London season and a ducal husband.
I spend my thirtieth birthday handcuffed to the railing of 10 Downing Street, shouting “Votes For Women!” at the Prime Minister. I knock the helmet off the policeman who comes to restrain me, and wave to all my friends as I'm hauled away in the Black Maria. Fortunately I don't have a husband to pay bail, so I'm free to spend my birthday evening throwing my food out the window of my cell in Holloway Prison, and going on hunger strike. I'm in good company: Emmeline Pankhurst and Alice Paul, I hear, are in the cell next door. We're BFFs forever: there's no bond like force-feeding, prison beatings, and civil protest!
And finally, my current birthday: curled up on the couch listening to Dvorak serenades, a little black dog at my feet nagging for his walk, a bottle of champagne chilling in the refridgerator, a chapter of my new book pestering the back of my mind to be written, lots of “Happy Birthday!” Facebook posts and a bouquet of stargazer lilies from my husband. I think I'll take this birthday over any of the other ones. Okay, maybe a thirtieth birthday spent in a Worth dress and a $23,000 pearl necklace in Gilded Age New York is tempting. But overall, I'd say women in the 21st century have a lot to be thankful for on their thirtieth birthdays. Sure, maybe you're starting to get crow's feet. But look on the bright side: you probably aren't a grandmother. You probably haven't been haven't lost your teeth due to malnutrition, your health due to pumping out eight children in eight years, or your life due to repeated gang rape by enemy warriors. You aren't stuck in a back room weaving till you die, you can choose your own husband, and you have the right to vote.
Don't fear thirty. Celebrate it – you've got lots to celebrate. Thirty in the 21st century is pretty goddamn good.
November 8, 2011
Well, this is a nice surprise: halfway through researching my next book and trying not to rip all the hair out of my head, I receive the official, finalized UK cover for my third book! And may I say, it is GORGEOUS.
Please note that the UK publication of "Empress of the Seven Hills" has a different title: "Empress of Rome." Same book, two titles - so please don't buy "Empress of the Seven Hills" and "Empress of Rome" thinking they are two different books! It was a marketing decision made in-house by my publishers - if it had been left up to me, this book would probably still be called "Rome Book 3" because I am terrible at titles.
Call it "Empress of the Seven Hills" or "Empress of Rome," my third book is a sequel to "Mistress of Rome." My US cover features Vix and Sabina, who you may remember as children from "Mistress of Rome," now all grown up and having adventures of their own. My UK cover here just features Sabina. I love both, and hope you will too.
November 4, 2011
With my latest book finally sent off to the presses, I've got some time on my hands – and what better way to kill it than watching movies about my favorite time period? Hollywood has churned out quite a few films with ancient Rome as a setting, far more than I can review here, but I devoted a weekend to some of the most notorious. I've already done reviews
of “I, Claudius”, “Rome”, and “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”, so I left those out. Ditto anything from the fifties with Victor Mature (shudder). But here's a viewing list of ten movies that will take you back to ancient times.
The Charlton Heston classic about a wealthy Jew sold into slavery, clawing his way out via chariot-racing fame to seek revenge on his enemies, and learning at the crucifixion of a certain never-quite-seen criminal that forgiveness really is the better way to go. An old movie that ages surprisingly well, despite the sometimes creaky message stuff about Christianity. Say whatever you like about his politics: Charlton Heston in his youth was a serious hunk, able to administer a single hard kiss like a badge of possession. He does an equally good job at playing hard and vengeful – see the vicious stare-down he conducts with a Roman general despite being chained to an oar. And the iconic chariot race is still just about the most thrilling sports scenes ever filmed. Watch it here
for some serious shivers. B+
The only sports moment ever to beat this one is 2004 Red Sox-Yankees.
An old movie that doesn't age quite so well – I admit I couldn't make it through this classic about Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Elizabeth Taylor looks stunning in cat's eye liner, but if I want to see her rough-housing with Richard Burton I'd rather watch them in “Taming of the Shrew,” which had a better script. I admit the woman knew how to make an entrance, though – both Cleopatra and Elizabeth Taylor. Watch her swan into Rome here
. Otherwise, C-
Not only is "Cleopatra" a bad movie, it also gave us a generation of cat's eye liner. Ms. Taylor, you might look sensational in it, but no one else does.
I admit, I fell asleep during “Quo Vadis.” I blame the starring performance of Robert “Stick of Wood” Taylor – put him next to Michaelangelo's statue of David, and by comparison David is overacting. All I really remember was Peter Ustinov camping it up as Nero, and his wife Poppaea in some seriously fabulous jewelry. Grade: Incomplete.
I'll take the leopard and the emeralds, please.
There are only two reasons to watch this piece of crap: to get titillated by all the orgy stuff, and to wonder how a movie this bad managed to get actors like Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, and Peter O'Toole. Technically it's a movie about the life of depraved Emperor Caligula. In reality, it's porn with a Roman setting and a lot of Oscar winning actors who look like they're counting the minutes till they can take home their paycheck and shovel this movie to the very bottom of their resumes. F
I can't post any pictures of "Caligula," because they're mostly X-rated. So here's Peter O'Toole in a much better movie called "Lawrence of Arabia." Do yourself a favor and see that one instead of "Caligula."
Hard to believe a movie about a gladiator revolt could be so slow-paced, and I mean that as a compliment. The Starz remake of Spartacus amped up the sex, the nudity, and the violence, but this Kubrick classic remains the gold standard: a moving story that takes time to build its characters and make you care for them. Kirk Douglas could play wounded inarticulate warriors like no one else, and he's backed by a gorgeous array of secondary characters – the greedy trainer, the sympathetic slave girl, the ruthless senator, the nameless gladiator who is the first to turn on his audience. The battle scene with the advancing checkerboard of Roman legions still brings me out in a cold sweat, and the ending always makes me choke up. A+
Kirk Douglas, effortlessly heroic as gladiator/rebel. Sigh.
The Oscar-winning epic that launched Russell Crowe as a superstar. I have mixed feelings about this one. Some historical inaccuracies I can take – Marcus Aurelius was not murdered by his son; Commodus died in his bath instead of the arena; the gladiator armor was all inaccurate – but ok, those are changes I can live with. The terribly hoky bit about returning Rome to a Republic, though, is where you lost me. The Republic by this point had been dead for over a hundred years, and it wasn't coming back just because Russell Crowe said so. Still, Crowe carries this movie along, making it work despite everything – he's so wounded, so silent, so effective, and his Colosseum fights will raise the hair on your neck every time. B+
No caption needed. Just a napkin to wipe off the drool.
I know, I know – “Troy” is about ancient Greece, not Rome, and a semi-mythical ancient Greece at that. But it has that same big-budget ancient-world epic-movie feel, so I included it here. On first watching, I thought “Troy” was quite good – Eric Bana is such a powerful Hector, Sean Bean such a perfect Odysseus, and a couple of shots like the panoramic view of the Greek ships with the painted eyes on their hulls winging across the sea is enough to take your breath away. On second viewing, however, I realized that “Troy” kind of sucks. The casting is good (except Diane Kruger, who might be beautiful enough to be Helen, but is far too mopey and self-deprecating to be a daughter of Zeus), but the city of Troy looks like it was decorated by Pottery Barn, and the whole plot falls apart after Hector's death. Because let's face it, there's no real way to stick a happy ending on the Iliad: Troy burns up, most of the characters die, the villains like Agamemnon get away scott-free (at least until the Oresteia) and there's no real way for Hollywood to fix that. And the Josh Groban pop song they stuck on the end of a very good soundtrack for the end credits is just unforgiveable: “Homer vs. American Idol.” Homer lost. C-
Eric Bana as a somber and studly Hector, getting ready to die. After that, the movie's pretty much all downhill.
A lean, efficient little action movie that just happens to be set in Roman-era Britain. A ragged band of survivors from a massacred legion tries to make it back to Roman territory, getting picked off one by one by a team of blue-painted savages. The fight scenes are fun, and so is Olga Kurylenko who models an attractive line of Barbarian Chic as she leads the team hunting down the heroes. And Michael Fassbender is just as hunky in a breastplate as he is in Mr. Rochester sideburns. A solid B.
Announcing Calvin Klein's 2011 Barbarian Chic line: frosted hair and blue face paint, topped by a dead animal skin.
Another lean little action movie with a Roman setting – not sure if it's supposed to be related to “Centurion” or not, but it has the same gritty landscape, choppy fights, and grim grimy men. This time we see a young officer heading north of Hadrian's Wall to find the eagle standard lost there by its legion, which included his father. Jamie Bell is effective as the hero's slave; you're not quite sure where his loyalty lies, and neither is the hero. Could have used a dash of campy fun like Olga Kurylenko with her chic blue eyeliner and layered barbarian furs as designed by Calvin Klein, but the action is exciting and the final battle in the stream quite moving. I'd give it a B, but that got downgraded because a horse dies. I can watch people die in movies, but not animals. C+
If it stars a cute guy in a muscled cuirass, I'm there.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
Starz's prequel to the entertainingly trashy “Spartacus: Blood and Sand.” Lucy Lawless is always fun as the scheming Lucretia, and she gets not just one but several threesomes over the course of this six-parter. Dustin Clare is the gladiator hero before Spartacus is on the scene, and his cocky swagger makes him more fun than Sparty, who never really did anything but mope around being noble. Plenty of plotting, nudity and gore, and possibly the most wince-inducing sex scene ever – the moment when a gladiator is ordered to have sex with a slave girl to entertain the dinner guests, and she just happens to be the wife of his best friend. (And really, who wants to see a live sex show after dinner? Haven't these people ever heard of coffee and dessert?) The Starz Spartacus ain't Kubrick, but it's trashy good fun. A-
Orgies, poisonings, and fights to the death: all the things Starz does best.
Bottom line: if your Netflix queue is running empty and you fancy a trip to ancient Rome, there are enough flavors of movie to satisfy anything you're in the mood for. Though HBO's "Rome" and BBC's "I, Claudius" still remain the best.