Tag Archives: antiquity

Screening History: “Troy: Fall of a City” (2018) and the Critique of Epic Masculinity

The story of the Trojan War has been told countless times in numerous forms: poetry, literature, film and, of course, television. Moving, tragic, and exhilarating, this narrative has produced works of great genius and lasting power (The Iliad) but also, unfortunately, some rather lackluster interpretations (Troy). Now, we have Troy: Fall of a City, a joint venture between Netflix and the BBC. More family drama than epic per se, the series nevertheless provides a stirring, at times even heart-wrenching, experience of this eternal myth.

One of the first things that struck me about this new retelling of the ancient myth is the impact that the medium of television has on the way in which the story is told. Whereas epic films tend to focus on huge battles, sweeping vistas, and larger-than-life heroes, television dramas focus more on personal relationships that nevertheless have enormous political and historical consequences. Thus it is that Fall of a City, while populated by the requisite heroes of antiquity–Agamemnon, Menelaus, Hector, Priam, Paris, Helen, Hecuba–manages to paint them as individuals with well-rounded personalities rather than archetypes. These are deeply-flawed human beings caught up in events and emotions that they cannot control but which will have a momentous impact on their world.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is Paris who is the center of the narrative. Portrayed by a strikingly handsome Louis T. Hunter, the Trojan prince raised by shepherds is a far more charismatic, and heroic, character than he traditionally appears in modern interpretations. True, he is quite pretty, but it is a more traditionally “masculine” sort than, say, Orlando Bloom, who brought a signature softness to the role. As a result, Troy paints this Paris (who it prefers to refer to as Alexander) in a more martial light. Far from sheltering under Hector’s blazing military glory, Alexander forges his own destiny, even stepping into his brother’s shoes when the former meets his agonizing death at the hands of Achilles.

Though Paris commands most of the attention, the series also adeptly fleshes out the struggles, both physical and emotional, of the other major players in this drama. What’s more, it imbues them with a deeply resonant emotional impact, so that the deaths that we know are coming–and, of course, the inevitable fall of Troy itself–are incredibly wrenching. If you don’t shed tears when Hector meets his fate at the hands of Achilles, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Because it has more running time through which to work, Troy reveals the competing and yet mutually-reinforcing causes of antiquity’s most famous conflict. While of course Paris’s taking of Helen (here portrayed as willing on her part), is the stark to the tinder, it is made clear that there have long been resentments and jealousies on the part of the Greeks, particularly Agamemnon. And, of course, there are also the gods, who periodically interfere with the affairs of humans, often to work through their own contentious relationships.

If this series proves anything, it’s that sometimes television is better at bringing out the fundamentally human drama at the heart of the ancient stories. Eight hours of running time allows us a significantly greater investment in these characters and their relationships, whether that be the psychologically complex Helen (a refreshing change), the deeply loving relationship between Hector and Andromache, or the tempestuous (but physical and sexual) relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. And, while we’re at it, let me just say how absolutely thrilled I was to see an Achilles and Patroclus depicted as lovers rather than as “cousins” or some other, equally infuriating euphemism.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that Troy works more in the idiom of the tragic than the epic, at least as these have taken shape within modern media. These are characters determined to make the best decisions that they can, even though each are condemned to follow a path they cannot shape to their own ends. Even the gods, who supposedly have more power than their mortal counterparts, seem unable to affect the course of the prophecy that has already foretold the doom of both Paris and his city.

Furthermore, Troy strips away the patina of legitimacy that typically adheres to Greek epic heroes, so that although Agamemnon, Menelaus, and even Achilles and Odysseus all exhibit exactly the types of behaviour that we have come to expect from our epic heroes, their violence remains coded as deeply sociopathic. Even Odysseus, arguably the most sympathetic of the Greek heroes, lies and deceives in the service of what he deems a higher purpose, even as he recognizes that Agamemnon and Menelaus are the worst that Greece can produce. Their lies are largely for their own gain, regardless of the cost to others. Achilles is ultimately deceived by his fellow Greeks into launching an all-out assault on the Trojans, an action which leads almost directly to his death at the hands of Paris.

As such, Troy is also a critique of the deeply violent and aggressive epic masculinity that has characterized epic films since at least Gladiator, a critique I’ve noticed in a number of ancient world films produced in the last couple of years. This ambiguity about the value and social function of epic heroism punctures even the end of the film, for while the Greeks have emerged victorious, theirs is a pyrrhic victory, a fact rendered explicit by Odysseus’ craggy, sad visage staring off into the distance at the very end. Any savvy viewer knows that almost of all of them will find their lives irrevocably marred by their actions.

All in all, I enjoyed Troy: Fall of a City for what it was, not for what I attempted to force it to be. Rather than holding it up to the standard of the epic–with its grandeur, its battles, its vast scope–I accepted this as a television drama. As such, I think it has much to tell us about how our expectations of epic heroism have changed and how disenchanted we have become with an ancient model that seems curiously out of touch with the modern world.

Viewing History: “The Greeks” at the National Geographic Museum

I recently had the pleasure of attending the exhibit entitled “The Greeks:  From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” at the National Geographic Museum. As a lifelong devotee of the classics and an avid museum-goer, it was quite compelling to see the world of the ancient Greeks brought to life, with a number of exquisite artifacts from various museums throughout Greece on magnificent display.

I have to say, I really enjoyed the exhibit, both in the vast scope of what it included as well as the information displayed. While most people usually think of classical Athens as the epitome of Greek culture, there was a great deal both before and after, and the National Geographic Museum did a fine job displaying objects from throughout the history of ancient Greece, including objects from Minoan Crete, Mycenae, classical Athens, and Macedon.

I was particularly excited to see both the objects from Mycenae and from the kingdom of Macedonia. In terms of Mycenae, it was really quite thrilling to see one of the masks that the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann believed belonged to the infamous King Agamemnon from The Iliad. There is always something particularly unsettling about these death-masks, and that is certainly true in this case. These are objects that convey an admittedly dim impression of the actual face of the deceased, but one cannot shake the feeling that one is standing in the presence of the ghosts of the past, a ghostly and ethereal reminder of lives past. While only one of the masks was actually from the tomb (the other, more famous, was shown in a replica), it was still a phenomenal experience to see these icons of the ancient world in actual space.

There is something even more unsettling about the helmets that have been excavated from various tombs. Again, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the presence of the dead was everywhere in the room, suffusing the entire exhibit with an aura of faded, yet still potent, grandeur. These were the most powerful and skilled men in their world, now reduced to nothing more than empty helmets in a lavish room, a humbling reminder of the exquisite ephemerality of the human experiment.

The true highlight of the Macedonian section, however, was the crown belonging to Queen Meda, the seventh and final wife of Philip II and the only one permitted to be buried with him in his official tomb. Further, there was also a small medallion with a portrait of Olympias, which the caption claimed was the only verified likeness that we have of her. Needless to say, as a fan of the powerful women of the ancient world, it was quite thrilling to see bits and pieces of their lives, reminders that even in the most patriarchal societies there was still the possibility of revolt and subversion.

At the formal level, I actually appreciated that there has been a shift from live-action reenactments to heavily stylized cartoons. For better or worse, the old style of reenactment has become rather blase, and it is often difficult to take them seriously, even in the most serious environment. Fortunately, these new animations looked very similar to the Greek vase paintings, allowing them to remain aesthetically woven into the fabric of the exhibit as a whole.

I do, however, have one complaint to make about the exhibit, and that is the resolute straight-washing that permeates its entire ethos. Some of the incidents are minor, such as referring to Patroclus as Achilles’ friend, when even the ancient Greeks believed they were lovers. Others, however, are significant omissions that present a skewed vision of ancient Greek culture. There was no mention (or none that I saw) of the same-sex relationships that were key to practically every Greek city-state, whether it was the institutionalized pederasty of Athens and Sparta or the Sacred Band of Thebes. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but it is still distressing to see this historical blindspot in 2016, after generations of classicists and historians have worked so hard to not only bring the presence of same-sex desire into the open but also to show how historically contingent it is (and remains). This is a major shortcoming of the exhibit, in my view, a wasted opportunity to explore the Greeks’ contradictory thoughts about same-sex desire.

Overall, however, I would say that this is a successful exhibit and does a great deal to bring to light the strange and compelling nature of the world of the ancient Greeks. For all that they are looked to as one of the foundations of Western culture, civilization, and government, there was much about their way of being and looking at the world that is completely foreign to and different from our own. This exhibit, fortunately, makes a significant contribution in helping the modern subject to understand that strangeness.