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Roman Britain on screen

Tony Keen

The world of ancient Rome continues to be a source of fascination for cinema and television. As I write, Gladiator 2 is slated for a November 2024 release, whilst the second season of Domina, telling the story of Livia, wife of the first Roman emperor, has just premiered on UK television. These productions garner much attention. A little less discussed are movies and television series set in the Roman province of Britannia. But such productions have been made for nearly a century now, beginning with Boadicea in 1927, and that is what my new course for MANCENT is all about.

The story of Roman Britain is one told through a few key moments. A particularly popular one is Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain, often (wrongly) seen as the point at which Britain became a Roman province. Curiously, almost all treatments of Caesar’s invasion are comedies, of which Carry On Cleo (1964) is surely the best known. There are quite a few productions set in the reign of the British King Cunobelinus, who reigned in the wake of Caesar’s invasion; these are all adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.

Compared with Caesar’s raids, the invasion in 43 CE of the emperor Claudius, which actually imposed direct Roman rule, gets little coverage, though it is mentioned in I Claudius (1977), and is the basis for weird fantasy Britannia (2018—2021). Much more popular is the revolt of Queen Boudica (better known until recently as Boadicea). This is almost always treated seriously, and in quite a grem fashion, though the two treatments by Horrible Histories, once on television (2015) and once in cinema (2018) are exceptions.

The fate of the Ninth Legion and Hadrian’s Wall have often been linked, and so they are on screen, with such productions as Centurion (2010) and The Eagle (2011). Both can also be linked to a final ‘historical’ moment, the time of King Arthur. Though many Arthurian movies, such as Excalibur (1981), retain Malory’s setting of a quasi-medieval Anglocentric patriarchy, some seek to place him in the context of the end of Roman Britain; Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword (2017) is an example.

Certain motifs recur again and again across these productions: the weather is awful, with almost constant rain; Britain is a backwater in the Roman empire; its people are primitive compared to the sophisticated Romans; and there are Druids everywhere. What is interesting is that, where most movies and television shows give an American view of the Romans, productions about Roman Britain generally emerge from British writers, directors, and producers (or, in the case of two Asterix movies, French), and so we see Rome from a different perspective.

This course runs from 18 September to 27 November, with a break for 23 October. All sessions are two hours, and are recorded. You don’t have to be able to make the live sessions to get the recordings and can be booked here.

The picture is from Britannia (2018–2021) David Morrissey as Aulus Plautius, in search of some scenery to chew.


Britannia (2018–2021) David Morrissey as Aulus Plautius, in search of some scenery to chew.


Britannia (2018–2021) David Morrissey as Aulus Plautius, in search of some scenery to chew.


Britannia (2018–2021) David Morrissey as Aulus Plautius, in search of some scenery to chew.


Britannia (2018–2021) David Morrissey as Aulus Plautius, in search of some scenery to chew.


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Why talk about Silkroad in the Indian Ocean?

Birgitta Hoffmann

Everybody knows the Silkroad. Originally, we thought it went overland from Xi’an to the Mediterranean. But this is only one of many, many routes that were used since about 6000 BC to facilitate long-distance exchange between Africa, Asia (including the Western Pacific) and Europe. Today we know these routes were a huge network, forever changing and adapting to political and climate change, but always driven by the need to carry goods and ideas from one end of the world to the other.

One of the biggest parts of this network is the Maritime Routes and the Indian Ocean and in the middle of it, the Indian Subcontinent is a crucial turntable for this trade.

According to the ancient sources the biggest harbour in the South of India, in the area now known as Kerala was Muziris or Muchiri in the Tamil texts. During the Roman Period goods were brought here from the West and fortunes could be made by bringing Indian produce from spices to Cotton to Gemstone back. in 2009 the Archaeologists found this site at a place known as Pattanam, which means the harbour/port. The picture shows some of the amphora found at the site, but I also could have shown you pictures of gemstones and the remains of a wharf and store buildings.

Pattanam is probably the best-known of the sites that were discovered in the last 20 years of research into the Maritime Silkroad in India and I really look forward to talking about these new discoveries in my Course on the Silkroad trade in the Indian Ocean on Thursdays for MANCENT 
The course is online and recorded and open to international enrolment via Eventbrite and thanks to the recordings available at a time convenient for you.

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MANCENT 2023 Programme now out

Just in time for the bank holiday weekend, MANCENT is publishing its Autumn programme.

Courses will start in September and there is a wide range of humanities courses from Music to literature to History and Archaeology.

We are also reviving our Cultural day trips to various museums and sites and hope that will once again prove popular.

The full programme is on the website and can be booked either by contacting the lecturers or with many of them the online courses via Eventbrite links, which are very popular with our overseas students.

All the best and we look forward to seeing you soon at one of our events.

Birgitta Hoffmann
MANCENT Course Director and her team.

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Thinking about Religion in Roman Britain

Birgitta Hoffmann

Time to look towards the Autumn lecture courses and I am beginning to review material for a course on the Religious World of Roman Britain. Sound like a clumsy title, but I am trying to introduce the students to the complexity that were the competing or coexisting belief systems in Roman Britain. And yes I will compare it occasionally with the very complex religious universe of the Indian subcontinent.

One of the issues that interest me is the different levels at which some cult followers made decisions on how to be seen by the wider population.
This is the Aesculapius stone from Maryport. It isn’t the only stone to Aesculapius in Britain and it isn’t the only Greek inscription from Britain either. But this one was found in Maryport, not exactly a Roman place that you would associate with words like ‘multiethnic’ beyond the Roman/Iron Age divide (?) and certainly not a place you would expect to see a lot of Greek speakers….and still Aulos Egnatios Pastor chose to use Greek on his dedication to Aesculapios. Did a Greek god give premium service to Greek speakers? Was this part of a small Greek-speaking group? Does that mean the language of the services was Greek?
And would everybody else feel excluded or welcomed to a mysterious cult that used special magic words and must therefore be powerful?

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Why study Greek and Roman Myths by Tony Keen

Whenever I visit the National Gallery in London, I always stop in front of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-1523). It is one of my favourite paintings ever because mythologically it’s so rich.

Most mythological paintings of the sixteenth century and later draw upon the work of the Roman poet Ovid and his fifteen-book epic the Metamorphoses. Titian (full name Tiziano Vecelli) certainly drew upon Ovid’s work for paintings that came late in his career such as Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon, and the Death of Actaeon. But the source for Bacchus and Ariadne, painted when Titian was in his thirties, was not the Metamorphoses. Ovid does mention the story, but not in detail. The best-known version of the tale is in an earlier poet, Gaius Valerius Catullus. Catullus’ poems were mostly short, but a small collection of longer poems survive. Of these, the longest is Poem 64. A ‘mini-epic’ of 408 lines, it covers a number of mythological accounts, including that of Bacchus and Ariadne.

Ariadne was a daughter of King Minos of Crete. She aided the Athenian hero Theseus when he came to Crete to kill her half-brother, the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Understandably, afterwards, she had to flee Crete with Theseus. But then, for reasons no account really explains properly, Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. This is the moment Titian dramatises.

Ariadne is caught waving towards the ship of Theseus, which can be seen on the horizon, sail billowing in the wind. But Ariadne is suddenly distracted by the coming of the god Bacchus (the Greek Dionysus), the god of wine and revelry. We see her having turned her head towards the new arrival.