From the Cutting Room Floor: Nero’s bits

Co-Editor, Carey Fleiner carries on about ‘The Romans’

Our contributors are beavering away on their chapters – and while it’s some time yet before anyone gets a peek at the finished product, we hope to present to you between now and publication bits ‘n’ pieces from our contributors’ research and writing.

My chapter is all about Romans and humour and Nero – how he’s depicted in 1965’s ‘The Romans’ but also some discussion of the hows and whys such a horrible person has become the comedy emperor in film and on television. Below are excerpts from my chapter – a bonus, really, as this is stuff from the ‘cutting room floor’ as it were.


Nero’s plans for urban renewal


At first I thought of cobbling them together in a tiny essay, but they are extracted from about 15,000 words of writing as I scythed my chapter down to the required 8000. And then I couldn’t be arsed because …


… it’s Chrissssssmas and my shiny new tiara isn’t going to wear itself.


Then I thought, hang on. When I was a kid, one of my favourite kinds of history books were the ones that just collected together trivia and lists and did-you-know sort of soundbites, especially the ones that plunder the primary sources and are well-researched. I still find these kinds of collections great – check out, for example, Philip Matyszak’s nifty Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day (Thames and Hudson, 2007) and Ancient Athens on Five Drachma (Thames and Hudson, 2008) a day – as well as his handbooks on how to be a gladiator and life in the army for a new recruit. Vicki Leon’s Orgy Planner Wanted: Odd Jobs and Curious Callings in the Ancient World  (Quercus, 2007) is fab, too.


Even better: the classical Romans loved these sorts of works, too: they fall under the collective name of ‘historical miscellanies,’ and the intention behind the works was to give Roman aristocrats fodder for kicking off dinner-party conversation.

A number of them survive, and it’s where we can find all sorts of interesting oddities and tidbits; because these authors culled them from now-lost resources, they are doubly important for preserving otherwise vanished authors. Amongst my faves are Aulus Gellius (c. A. D. 125-after 180),  Aelian (A. D. 175-235), who compiled three books of this stuff plus tomes on animal trivia, Cornelius Nepos (c. 110-c. 25 B. C.), and Macrobius (fl. Early 5th C A. D.). Don’t overlook Rome’s answer to the encyclopaedia, Pliny the Elder (c. A. D. 23- 79), either.


You don’t see any Wikipedia editors taking on a live volcano, now do you?

So here you go: deleted sections of my chapter, chosen at random, and with no context: enjoy!

* Fair enough, as Caesar himself was a fan of quoting his favorite shows; when he said, “The die is cast,” before crossing the Rubicon, he was quoting from Menander, a wildly popular Greek New Comedy playwright. It’s from his play Arrhephoros, and this is one of the only surviving fragments of it.


 Caesar’s wheels?


*Not to mention Nero’s thuggish behaviour when he roamed the streets at night in disguise, mugging people; he abandoned this hobby after one of his victims beat him up (Suet., Ner. 24. 1-2)


*The film was made in Italy with a mostly British cast, including John Simm who, as Caligula, admittedly leaves very little scenery for Nero to chew even had he wanted to.


Either these curtains go, or I do


* Coping with such atrocities with humour dates from the earliest stories of the martyrs as Lawrence of Rome (c. 225–258), while being roasted alive, cheerfully told his persecutors, “Turn me over; I’m done on this side!”

* Donald Cotton, who novelized “The Romans,” wrote “The Myth Makers” (1965), is presumably responsible for an extensive crib sheet of Bronze Age Greek history and bibliography exists in the BBC Written Archive for this serial (WAC T5/647/1 Dr Who General 1963, not dated, but titled “Historical Facts About the Trojan War”).

* Early in the serial, Ian breaks in his new Roman hairstyle by solemnly declaiming Antony’s speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and he quotes Cicero’s “O mores, o tempora” as he settles into his role. Ian’s quote may have been fairly familiar to viewers less because they were students of Shakespeare and more because the BBC screened in 1963 The Spread of the Eagle, a three-part drama starring Barry Jones (Caesar), Keith Mitchell (Antony) and Mary Morris (Cleopatra, and who would appear later in “Kinda” [1982] as the wise woman) – apparently the swords with which Ian later fights were borrowed from this drama for “The Romans” (WAC, T5/1, 234/1 Dr Who Serial M, Episode 1, TX 65.01.16, 8 December 1964).



*“The Romans” “behaves” for the most part with the Doctor still somewhat adhering to the admonition he gives to Barbara in “The Aztecs:” “You can’t change history! Not one line!” In “The Romans,” the Doctor rebukes Vicki for interfering with Locusta the poisoner’s tray of poisoned wine goblets, saving Nero from an untimely death (but not Nero’s poor servant Tigellinus – and that poisoned wine was intended for Barbara). Forty-three BBC years later, he tells companion Donna Noble that they cannot rescue even one family from Pompeii; the event is a fixed point in time. Later, however, the Doctor scolds Vicki when she blames him for giving Nero the idea for starting the great fire. Nonsense, he says; it was destined to happen, and Nero would have got the idea one way or another. But he still giggles with delight that he may have been the catalyst (as it were).

There you go…more to come!


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