This week's reviews:
Pax Romana by Adrian Goldsworthy
History never gets done being written. No matter how masterful a treatment by a historian (e.g. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon), a revisit to the same subject is always welcome, for what concerned readers in the 18th century is different from what concerns readers in the 21st. Pax Romana by historian and classicist Adrian Goldsworthy was released in August of this year and is a welcome addition to the literature on ancient Rome. It is not a general history but focusses on the nature and evolution of Roman imperialism. Today “imperialist” is an insult, but only a century ago it wasn’t. For all of history prior to then – not just in the West but everywhere – imperialism with an entirely good conscience was the default foreign policy conducted by powers around the world.
The Romans never questioned imperialism. While Julius Caesar did not conquer Gaul from altruistic motives, he had no doubt that the Gauls for all their casualties were better off for the conquest. There is even something to the argument. Caesar didn’t really kill more Gauls than would have died anyway from battle and pillage – the Gallic tribes and towns regularly fought, sacked, and enslaved each other as a matter of course. His campaign was devastating but fairly swift, and when he was done the province was at peace and had been united with a larger Mediterranean civilization. Roads, baths, libraries, and aqueducts soon followed. Goldsworthy explores what it was about the Romans that made them such successful imperialists. Why was there only one permanently successful revolt by a province (Germany east of the Rhine), and even that one in a place where the Roman hold was new and tenuous? Why, in general, did territories conquered by Rome remain Roman – and soon self-identify as Roman?
The short answer is that the Romans employed a peculiar mix of tolerance, brutality, and inclusiveness. They were quick to stamp out rebellion ruthlessly but were almost as quick to hand out citizenship – and they didn’t interfere much in local customs. Though the deeply authoritarian instincts and casual brutality of the ancient Romans are jarring to modern sensibilities, there is nonetheless something refreshing about their self-confidence that their empire was good not just for themselves but for whomever they conquered. By and large the provincials agreed.
Thumbs Up: well-researched and a good read.
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008)
By 2008 writer/director/producer Joss Whedon had a hefty passel of dedicated fans thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. I wasn’t one of them. The late ‘90s and 20-naughts were eventful ones (mostly not in a good way) for me, and a lot of popular culture passed me by – including Joss’ TV shows, films, and comic books. I am one of them now. In recent years a few of his movies caught my fancy and prompted me to look back to his earlier work.
One of Whedon’s most idiosyncratic productions is Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008), which I got around to viewing only last week. Buffy fans will remember that one episode in 2001 was a musical. Joss must particularly have enjoyed writing and directing it, for he returns to the format here. Despite some notable star power including Neil Patrick Harris and Whedon veterans Nathan Fillion (Firefly) and Felicia Day (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), this was never intended as a serious commercial venture. The 42 minute microbudget production is pure playfulness that was given away for free on the internet. You still can find it there, but if you prefer to pay for it the DVD is currently available as well.
Even though this is just lighthearted fun, Whedon as usual blends genres and messes with expectations. It is a comedy and a melodrama. The superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) truly does fight the good fight and is on the right side of things; yet, he personally is a self-important jackass for whom it is impossible to root (see clip below). Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), on the other hand, truly is a villain in his public actions, yet he personally is a likable and sympathetic character. Whedon is not averse to happy endings but has no commitment to them at all in any genre, so, here as elsewhere in the Whedon-verse, until we see it we viewers know only it could go either way or anywhere in between.
Thumbs Up: Surreal and definitely not for everyone, but if one simply can accept the silliness it will evoke a smile.
“Captain Hammer”: Everyone’s a Hero