Greek and Latin References in Netflix ‘Versailles’ (Season 3)

Jean-Hughes Anglade as the Man in the Iron Mask


This is the third post on Netflix Versailles — one for each of the three seasons. The overarching storyline of season 3 is that of the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ — the story of a claimant to the throne who lives as a prisoner, his head encased in a mask to suppress his threat to the man who reigns as king. The story is known from other films and books, but in Versailles — the extraordinary palace created from a royal hunting lodge by the reigning king, Louis XIV — it serves primarily to advance the theme of self-knowledge, or the ideal of ‘know thyself’, which is associated in an ancient Greek context with the Oracle at Delphi, and was cultivated in both season 1 and season 2.

In the first episodes of season 3, Philippe, Duc d’Orleans (Alexander Vlahos), brother of Louis, happens upon a mystery. When visiting a prison, he catches a momentary glimpse of a masked prisoner. He is promptly knocked unconscious by an unseen assailant. When the recovered Philippe investigates, he finds that the prisoner in the mask is now dead in an apparent suicide. Puzzled and frustrated, Philippe suddenly recalls that the man in the mask he glimpsed before being knocked out had blue eyes. The corpse just shown to him had brown eyes. He enlists Marchal (Tygh Runyan), head of the King’s secret police, to investigate the matter further. Philippe has no power over the King’s secret policeman and can appeal only to his interest in the task. Intrigued, Marchal agrees.

Phllippe investigates the prison where he saw the man in the mask.

Episode 3 of season 2 in particular foreshadows the third season’s themes. Louis (George Blagden) has a dream in which he is an actor on stage addressing the court about his concerns and everyone laughs. Bontemps tells him he isn’t the king; that he is an actor, not a king. The court has only pretended so because it was funny. Asking who he is, if not the king, Louis is informed that he is foot servant to the second chamberlain. When he asks who is the king, he sees Madame de Montespan (Anna Brewster) dressed in gender-ambiguous fashion.

Louis’ dream reveals his anxiety about his own legitimacy as king. He has not (yet) questioned in his waking life whether he is really the legitimate heir to the throne, but this dream clarifies his anxiety and sense of inadequacy in his own gender performance. As King, he should dominate, but does his mistress dominate him? If so, or if it is believed so, then who really is king? As of season 2, Louis is experiencing what is commonly referred to today as ‘imposter syndrome’.

In the fiction of season 3, however, Louis discovers that he, in a very real sense, actually is an imposter; albeit one put in his current position by the previous king — who was the legal husband to Louis’ biological mother. Louis learns, however, as a result of Philippe’s investigations, that he is not in fact Louis XIII’s biological son. Louis XIII and his wife are reported in the show as having had one son who died in infancy. After that, however, Louis XIII, unable to father another child, secretly engaged a servant from his and his wife’s immediate circle to impregnate the queen. Louis XIV and Philippe are the offspring of that union.

In Season 2, Episode 3 Louis dreams he is not the king.

References to Greek Myth

In season 3, Louis discovers that his former lover M. de Montespan is the source of certain rumors plaguing the current object of his affection M. de Maintenon (Catherine Walker). Louis punishes M. de Montespan with exile to a convent. In reply to this sentence, Montespan declares that she now sees in Louis ‘the stone face of a tyrant’. She also reminds the King of the story of Icarus flying too close to the sun. Louis is of course the self-styled ‘Sun King’. To associate Louis with Icarus is to suggest that he is not the sun, but rather an impetuous child recklessly moving toward it with disastrous consequences in the offing. It is a brief moment, but M. de Montespan draws the King’s attention, perhaps unwittingly, to the accusation that he is not what he says he is.

M. de Maintenon, on the other hand, rejects Louis’ amorous advances, saying that he takes advantage of his station. This tests Louis’ sense of entitlement to the bodies of those around him — in effect, it tests his willingness to embrace being perceived as a tyrant by someone he currently cares for. Louis even says, speaking of their relationship, he sometimes ‘is not sure what his station is’. The theme of ‘know yourself’ runs in parallel in season 3 between the King crafting what his role in governance of France and within the walls of Versailles is to be like and, secretly, navigating revelations that he isn’t the person that he and everyone believe him to be.

A Latin Name

By episode 7 of season 3 classical allusions having given way to Biblical references (mark of Cain, etc.). Yet, the Man in the Iron Mask (Jean-Hughes Anglade) is introduced with a Latin name: Duc de Sullun. ‘Sullun’ is an anagram for the Latin word nullus, meaning ‘No One’. De Sullun is the symbolic equivalent of the character Agathe and the imagery of the Minotaur and Satan in season 2. De Sullun is the mysterious entity at the heart of a deadly labyrinth. Unlike Agathe, however, he is not malevolent. He embodies danger, he does not will it.

In response to Louis’ questions, de Sullun says, “It is not my name, but who I am that matters.” Louis replies, “Who are you?” de Sullun: “I am your father.” Afterwards, Louis and Cardinal Leto meet. Indeed, with the metal mask and the paternity theme, the Duc de Sullun resembles a strangely gentle Darth Vader. The Latin name fits the associations with Latin, both ancient Roman and medieval, that it had in season 1. Latin in both scenarios emerges in connection with secrecy, uncertainty, and the sense of lurking danger.

‘Know Thyself’

The Vatican, it is revealed, has known Louis’ secret the entire time. Its emissary Cardinal Leto, attempts to leverage this knowledge into power over the French throne. Louis now works to redefine the identification of his monarchical power vis-a-vis the Church (from S3E8): [Louis] “The Pope may be God’s representative on Earth but I am born of God.” [Leto] “But you and I both know that isn’t true.” [Louis] “I am who you see before me. I am Versailles. And I have all the power I need.” [Leto] “But not if the truth comes out.”

In spite of putting up that defiant front, Louis later asks a puzzled M. de Maintenon, “Do you know who you are?” [de Maintenon] “Of course, sire.” [Louis] “But how can you tell? How can you know it’s not just a fiction? An invention of those around you? What if everything you know is made up of lies, and you are not who you think you are, but who you’ve been told you are?” [de Maintenon] “Why are you thinking this way?” Her question pertains in particular to his manner of late. She adds, “You’re not yourself, Louis.” When a member of the Protestant community, loyal to Louis, brings leaflets that have been spread by Protestants in Paris attacking him, the King is uncharacteristically passive. He simply wonders if it’s true and leaves the room.

Cardinal Leto (Ken Bones) accompanies King Louis and M. de Maintenon.

M. de Maintenon overtakes him outside and asks what’s wrong with him. Louis replies that she forgets that she is talking to her King, to which she says, “That man in there was not my King. What has happened to you? Where is the King who makes decisions? Where is the King who was building an empire? Where is the King born of God?” Maintenon’s question, “Where is the King born of God?” — the phrase is striking. The show develops it to suggest the perception, at least, that Louis is aspiring to godhood, perhaps becoming parallel to Jesus — whom his France also recognizes as being born of God. Perhaps we are mean to remember that Louis characterized the building of Versailles in season 1 as building a temple. The Greeks built temples to their gods. Versailles would be a temple to France and to God. Yet, Louis dwells in this temple. Is it ultimately a temple to him?

The brothers consider what to do with their true father.

Leto threatens Louis with excommunication, plus exposing the truth about his father. “Louis the Great would be an outcast in the eyes of the world and God himself. You would not even exist. Versailles would collapse. Everything you have built would tumble to nothing.” He still remains outwardly defiant in the face of the Cardinal, but Louis is wracked with uncertainty.

Philippe announces (S3E8), “Our father sends you a message. He says he can answer your question.” Louis asks his father (rhetorically) what he is to do with him. Duc de Sullun replies, “Look into your heart. If you know who you really are, you will know what to do.” The camera cuts to a new scene in a 1st person shot, gazing through the mask at a mirror. It is Louis, not his father, looking through the mask. He pulls it off and throws it at the mirror, smashing it. Bontemps enters. Louis says, “I don’t know who I am anymore.” A distressed Bontemps replies, “You are my King.” Louis declares, “I’m nothing.” Bontemps interrupts him and reassures him with great — almost frantic — vehemence of his identity. Louis is relieved by Bontemps’ sincerity and faith in him. In a strangely calm, yet drastic measure, Louis takes Bontemps alone to a cliff, where he quite suddenly tests the divinity of his role. Louis jumps from the cliff into the river below. The jump from the height recalls the second temptation of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:6). The tempter encourages Jesus to demonstrate his power by casting himself down, for angels will intervene to prevent harm from coming to him. Louis, in effect, tests God, which Jesus declines to do. Louis casts himself down, briefly losing consciousness under water. He awakes beneath the water. Arms reach out from below to grab him. They seem demonic — perhaps his victims? — meaning to pull him down. But he moves toward the surface just in time. Having survived, he takes the test as an affirmation of everything he wills himself to be.

Louis and Philippe share a final moment with their father. Accepting his fate with the contentment, perhaps, of helping his sons, de Sullun drinks poison at Louis’ direction. They bury their father in secret. Striking the theme of aspiration to divinity, Philippe says to Louis: “You’re treating your people with cruelty. All of us. You’re behaving like a god, but you’re not even a real king.” Louis replies, “I know exactly who I’ve become: A man chosen by God as his ruler.” In this fight between the royal brothers, it becomes clear that, where the living father threatens Louis’ identity as King, his death destroys that identity in the eyes of his brother. Yet Philippe ultimately sides with his living brother, despite the unnecessary (so he felt) loss of their father. In the season’s climactic conflict, Philippe saves Louis from an assassination attempt, after which he praises Louis’ strength and commends him for doing what he could not: doing the harsh, even unbearable things that an ordinary person cannot face.

At the series finale’s end, Louis meets briefly his own son and warns him of questions that will beset him: “Do I have the strength? Do I have the knowledge? Who am I?” Louis warns him, “Trust only in yourself above all others. Because you are the King. Chosen by God.”

The series down to its last minutes emphasizes the theme of identity, framing Louis’ answer to the question of ‘who am I?’ as ultimately bringing on revolution. The implication, brought to the fore by the attempted assassination of the King by members of an angry, oppressed group of Protestants (which has one the good will of Marchal), is that Louis’ embrace of his identity in the 17th century provokes the Revolution of 1789, which will result in the execution of his descendant Louis XVIII.

George Blagden (Louis XIV) visits Paris on a good will journey to lay hands on his subjects. At this event, a group of Protestant conspirators, aggrieved and exhausted by their experience of his rule, try to kill him. He is saved by the intervention of several protectors, the last of whom is his brother Philippe.
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References to Ancient Greece in Netflix ‘Versailles’ (Season 2).

Marquise de Montespan

When the refreshingly down-to-earth and slightly awkward Princess Palatine (Jessica Clark) sees King Louis’s mistress, Marquise de Montespan (Anna Brewster), from across the room, she compares her to a Greek goddess (S3E3). This newcomer’s evaluation of the King’s lover confirms an impression that the Louis of season 1 wants very much to establish in Versailles and, through it, to posterity: a world of Hellenic beauty and awe with himself at its center.

Season 2 begins with an exhibition at Versailles of a technological accomplishment associated with the Greek tyrant, Hiero II of Syracuse, who employed Archimedes: a mirror capable of focusing the sun’s rays to deadly effect. The device causes a small object on the other side of the room to catch fire. The scientist in charge of the demonstration explicitly compares Louis’s power with this mirror in his possession with that of Archimedes when he allegedly set the Roman fleet ablaze. The comparison offers a fantasy of the king’s power to destroy his enemies.

A theme consistent across all three seasons of the series is the fearful dimensions of the reckoning that awaits, perhaps not Louis, but certainly his successors to the French throne. The early years of the Second Punic (or ‘Hannibalic’) War put Hiero II of Syracuse in a difficult position. His was a prosperous city-state located in Sicily, a territory that Rome had wrested from Carthage during the First Punic War. Carthage sought to regain its lost possession, but Syracuse was now allied to Rome. The Carthaginian commander Hannibal inflicted a series of devastating losses on Rome in these first years of war, which increased pressure on its allies to defect.

Hiero charged Archimedes with strengthening the city’s defenses against whatever might come. He died in 214 BCE without having deviated from Rome. His fifteen year old grandson Hieronymos succeeded him as tyrant of Syracuse. Overwhelmed by the pressures of crisis and factional divisions among his advisors, Hieronymos was assassinated just a little over a year into his reign, during which time, Syracuse pivoted away from its alliance with Rome in favor of Carthage. As a consequence, Rome attacked Syracuse, laying siege and eventually taking the city in 212, despite Archimedes’ storied war machines. Like Hiero II, Louis is a capable monarch with vision and resourcefulness, but both chart a course toward a future that their successors can neither control nor even survive.

Season 2’s first episode ends with Louis and his court watching an eclipse. Given that the episode began with a device that projects the sun’s power to destroy upon a target of the king’s choice, the solar eclipse signals that Louis, the Sun-King himself, is now crossing into uncertain terrain, fraught with danger.

The Sun King watching an inescapably symbolic eclipse with his court at the close of S2E1.

References to Greece and Rome increase in season 2, partly because, unlike season 1, ancient Greek history and myth are no longer the King’s private domain. The Chevalier de Lorrain, Philippe’s lover, offers a comical example of this new direction with his own take on a possible Greek identity for Louis (S2E3): Chevalier de Lorrain: “I hear the King has finally finished the building works and is finally doing something about the interior. Imagine, new art, better chairs, clocks that work, frescoes all over the place, and so much gold it looks like King Midas went around fondling the entire palace.”

Marquise de Montespan talks to Madame Agathe

The King’s enemies are now also looking to the Greek past for the symbols of their identity. In so doing, they offer a reflection (through a mirror darkly) of Louis’s aspiration to become a Franco-Hellene monarch through the creation of Versailles. This is the space the nobles now inhabit. They come, often against their will, leaving behind their ancestral estates, to live out their lives on terms not of their choosing. For those most bitterly opposed to this upending of their lives, the Greek architectural analogy for Versailles is not an exalted temple-like space, but the labyrinth of Minos, mythical king of Crete. According to myth, Minos had subjected the Athens of King Aegeus, which had to demonstrate its loyalty by sending seven young males and seven young females to Minos, who would send them into the Labyrinth where the creature kept hidden within it, the Minotaur, would devour them.

The notion of a Labyrinth is often thought to be a later impression of the incredibly sophisticated and complex Minoan palaces with their hundreds of rooms. This idea, a palace perceived to be a labyrinth into which human tribute was sent to feed a monster lurking at its center, serves very much as the archetype for Versailles’s the second season’s plot arc. Fabien Marchal, the King’s head of security gives Louis the opportunity to interrogate a conspirator, Madame de Foix:

Madeleine de Foix (Greta Scacchi)

(de Foix) “You are walking blindly toward an enemy that you do not know. You have opened the door to him and now he will destroy you.”
(Louis) “Who is this enemy?”
(de Foix) “Have you any idea the hell you’ve created here? Hundreds of nobles driven from their homes, forced to live in squalor, told how to behave, what to wear, what to eat!”
(Louis) “Give me a name.” (de Foix) “He has no name.”
(Louis) “Everyone has a name”
(de Foix) “Come closer, sire, and I’ll tell you. Closer, closer: Satan!”

We learn that there is a thriving market in narcotics, or ‘social powders’ at work in Versailles, as the nobles in residence seek diversion or simply to deaden their misery. Within this market in powders runs a second market in poisons. In some cases, the poisons are substituted for powders by Madame Agathe and her agents in order to assassinate a particular member of court. In other cases, the poisons are requested by one spouse to kill the other in order to make room for a new lover and the like. In all cases, Agathe and her agents do their utmost to rain down destruction on the court. In the prime example of this phenomenon, Justice Minister Reynaud is poisoned and Marchal discovers that his wife possesses powders. She claims they are aphrodisiacal. Marchal concludes that they are the poison but that Reynaud’s wife was deceived into administering it. The vial she used with the ‘love powder’ was replaced with another containing a very powerful poison. Later Madame Reynaud is poisoned in her cell (S2E1).

Marquise de Montespan, increasingly insecure with her place in the King’s life, consults Madame Agathe, whom she takes to be a fortune-teller. de Montespan introduces Agathes to Louis, whereupon she delivers this chilling fortune to the King:

“You have sought paradise. And you have built paradise for yourself. But now a scourge is coming. Five points of the same vengeful star. The well is poisoned, but still you drink. Hell will rise, sire, and consume all you have built. The fires are coming, not just for you, but for all of France. Terrible things happen to kings.”

As Louis struggles over the course of the season with the apparent unravelling of his plans at the hands of his hidden and known enemies, he ponders who and where the enemy in his palace might be. This enemy waits Minotaur-like in the palace. For Madame de Foix/Ariadne and Agathe, on the other hand, Louis is Minos, the one who demands who human tributes for sacrifice to the terrible beast lurking within his palace. They yearn for a Theseus-like destroyer to liberate them.

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Greece and Rome in Season 1 of Netflix ‘Versailles’ (2015/16).

In Season 1 of Versailles, references to Greece and Rome are connected respectively to themes of royal aspirations and self-conception on the one hand and the conspiracies and paranoia to which they give rise on the other. Clichés of Hellenic greatness inspire Louis XIV’s (George Blagden) sense of what he wants to create in the world. Louis, the future ‘Sun King’, introduces his vision for Versailles’ future status as follows (S1E1): “Greeks built temples as dwelling places for their gods. France will build a temple to the sun and for the people.” At the beginning of the series, Versailles is a hunting lodge, albeit a lavish one, built by King Louis’ father. The son means to transform it into the signature royal monument of France under his reign.

Mid-season, as he encounters resistance among the workers at Versailles who complain of insufficient attention to their working conditions and pay (as resources are diverted to a war against Spain), Louis utters this complaint (S1E6):

“By the age of thirty Alexander the Great created an empire stretching from Greece to India. But without his men beside him, King Darius would have driven him into the sea. I will not be pushed into the sea by a builder on a scaffold.”

There are two possible metaphorical identities for the workers in this comparison. The workers are either beside Louis/Alexander advancing his conquests or they are Darius, pushing an abandoned Louis into the sea. The analogy betrays Louis’s blindspot where the people’s sense of their own wellbeing is concerned. He speaks of Alexander’s war of conquest, but his workers are all too aware that they are receiving inadequate care and compensation exactly because Louis is pushing the project on which they are working at the same time as he is waging an extremely expensive war.

George Blagden’s Louis XIV in the Franco-Canadian television series Versailles on Netflix

The King’s comparison to Alexander makes no room for this reality. At the same time, it is to Fabien Marchal (Tygh Runyan), his chief of secret police, that the King delivers this comparison. Implicitly, the inability of Louis’ lieutenants to contain the situation also aligns them with Alexander’s men, without whom the young Macedonian king could never have vanquished Darius. Like much in the series, especially in its later seasons, this remark anticipates the concerns of the French Revolution. By introducing the relationship between the Macedonian Alexander and his army into his conversation with Marchal, however, Louis does acknowledge the imperial work that others must do in order for him to attain his ambitions of Franco-Hellenic greatness.

The theme of Socratic inquiry to one’s identity tends emerges when circumstances compel the King to rethink his approach to achieving this ideal. In the second episode of season 1, Louis learns that his newborn daughter is not in fact his biological child, but the offspring of an adulterous union between his wife, Queen Marie-Thérèse (Elisa Lasowski), and Prince Annaba (Marcus Griffiths) of Assinia (in Côte d’Ivoire). Putting her adultery in the context of international relations and the threat he perceives to his realm if he were exposed as a laughing stock to the monarchs of Europe, he denounces his queen as a traitor (S1E2): “Do you know what Socrates had to say about marriage? He said: “By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll be happy. Get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher. I must tell you madam, I am feeling very philosophical.” The baby is black and so her identity cannot be immediately redefined. After consultation, the child is spirited away and kept in safety for the time being.

From left: Prince Annaba, Bontemps (back), Louis XIV, and Queen Marie-Thérèse (back).

The father of his wife’s child is visiting in order to discuss giving France preferred trade privileges. After consultation his valet and advisor Alexandre Bontemps (Stuart Bowman), Louis decides not to act punitively toward any of the principal figures involved in the adultery. Keeping trade negotiations in view, the King confronts the father and parlays his tolerant — read philosophical — perspective on the adultery and the fate of the child into an example of how the France of his reign differs from all others past and present. Among other benefits, Prince Annaba will be allowed to take the child home with him. Impressed, Annaba agrees to Louis’ offer.

An epilogue to this secret negotiation suggests that strategic motives aside, Louis is less different from other kings than he pretends. Dr. Masson (Peter Hudson), the physician who delivered the child, immediately perceives the dangers of the situation and fears for both his life and that of his daughter Claudine (Lizzie Brocheré) who assisted him. Masson assumes that the King will have any witnesses to the birth murdered to cover up the scandal. Thinking as quickly as he can, he explains to Louis that the baby’s skin color must be the result of Nabo, the Queen’s Moorish jester, giving Her Majesty a “particularly penetrating look.” Since Nabo is black, opines Masson, his look altered the fetus’ skin color. Incidentally, this explanation seems to indicate that Nabo is a male character played by a female actor.

Dr. Masson, who contrives a medical explanation for the royal child’s skin color.

Masson’s motive, of course, is not to convince the King, but to perform for this royal audience his ability to project confidence in a medically explicable reason other than adultery. After Louis’ successful presentation to the child’s father, revelers on the palace grounds discover Nabo’s corpse. The implication is that the King accepted doctor’s immediate medical explanation as sufficient to spare the lives of everyone in the room who witnessed the child’s skin color at the moment of birth, except for Nabo, whom Masson’s diagnosis holds responsible for the child’s skin color.

Anyone not in the room believes the child white and stillborn, but for other audiences it suggests one or more of three things. First, for those who were in the room and anyone who learns from rumor of a black baby born to the queen, Nabo’s murder stands as a royal seal on the official/unofficial cause of it in the jester’s gaze. Secondly, apart from Louis’s attempt to play the part of a Socratic husband in his male monarch to male monarch conversation with Annaba, the murder stands as the King’s decidedly non-philosophical response to the Queen who loved Nabo and found in his company the only comforting remnant of her life in Spain. Third and finally, Louis’s persuasive argument to Prince Annaba shows that he can take adultery in stride when he needs to do, but it implies something more to Versailles‘ television audience. It suggests that his France may be a place where a black body won’t be destroyed because a white mother gives birth to a black child. Nabo’s murder shows otherwise. The transgression was important enough to Louis that he substituted and killed another black body (Nabo) for the one he spared (Annaba).

Nabo, jester and beloved companion to Marie-Thérèse.

At the conclusion of S1E2, Louis reveals another direction in which he means to take the theme of discovery of identity. He is already concerned to find out who is conspiring against him. Accordingly, he publicly exposes the secretly villainous and outwardly suspicious and unappealing Montcourt (Anatole Taubman) whom he suspects of being in league with a foreign conspiracy against his life. Louis’s tactic, however, is not to expose Moncourt as murderer and accomplice to murder, but as lacking the aristocratic lineage required to attend the royal court. Louis uses the occasion to announce a new policy of demanding documentary proof of ancestry from all nobles at court. While denouncing Montcourt, Louis declares ominously, “We shall all soon discover who we are.” Speaking privately to Bontemps, the King says: “I will not be king of Paris. I know who I am.” “Who is that […]?” asks Bontemps. “I am Louis XIV, King of France. Now these nobles must prove their worth to me.” By episode 8, such certitude is in short supply. When Louis wistfully recalls to his longtime friend Rohan (Alexis Michalik) a shared past when (S1E8), “We knew who we were.” The audience is a aware at this point that Rohan is one of the deadliest conspirators against Louis.

The Latin language and ancient Rome play slightly different roles. In S1E5, Louis enters the room and notices that his lover Henriette (Noémie Schmidt) — also his brother’s wife — is reading a book. He asks her if it is a diverting volume. She replies that it is not and holds it so that Louis can see only its cover. She reports that Philippe (Alexander Vlahos), her husband, brought it back from the front and gave it to her as a gift, though it had originally been a present for his same-sex lover, the Chevalier de Lorrain (Evan Williams). Louis takes it from her and pages through it, allowing the audience to notice both that it is written in Latin and that there are symbols on the upper right corners of its pages. It appears to be a book of Psalms, an unlikely gift for Philippe to give to his lover. With considerable suspicion, Louis asks Henriette where his brother found the book. The scene then changes abruptly. Shortly after, Marchal announces that he has identified the code, to which the symbols in the book belong, as a rare, almost forgotten “Cistercian codex” from the Low Countries.

Fabien Marchal, the King’s secret policeman.

This appears to be a mistaken usage in the script. Or, if not a mistake, then an invented use meant to sound archaic and technical. The word code does derive ultimately from the Latin ‘codex’, but the latter in itself refers only to the physical form of a book; i.e. leaves of whatever material sown together, rather than, for example, rolled up as in the case of a scroll). Marchal nonetheless uses the term as though it means ‘code’. He is holding a pamphlet consisting of the code as he speaks, so he is not in fact holding a codex per se (i.e. a book). Marchal identifies the psalm book as coming from the Spanish Netherlands, indicating that the conspiracy originates in the same place.

The use of the Latinized word ‘codex’, the a Latin psalm book, and the tying of this part of the storyline to the solitary figure of Marchal who tends to lurk about in dark passage ways, ill-lit chambers, where he occasionally carries out torture, all evoke a generalized medieval air, akin to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986), a film adaptation of Umberto Eco’s novel of the same title. In it, a monk must solve a string of murders at a remote monastery that involve codes, ancient books, and apocalyptic symbols with seemingly Satanic implications. Marchal conducts this work with tools, both in terms of codes and torture devices, that belong to or seem most at home in the medieval world. Indeed, his character seems a blend of The Name of the Rose‘s Brother William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and the sadistic inquisitor, Bernardo Gui (F. Murray Abraham). Yet, Marchal himself may suggest that his self-conception is aligned with the ancient Roman, rather than medieval, world.

In S1E6, Marchal is examining the psalm book in question and taking notes, when Béatrice de Clermont (Amira Casar), his lover and (as it turns out) the arch-conspirator against Louis in season 1, enters his chamber. She takes note of what she sees, even as Marchal tries to obscure what is on his desk. When asked what he is reading, he lies, saying that it is a treatise on espionage in the Roman Empire. Béatrice glimpsed the notes on his desk, however, and realizes that their code has been broken.

Béatrice de Clermont conspiring with a mysterious stranger.

The title that Marchal thinks to give to the book Béatrice asks him about reflects his self-conception. It invokes the Roman Empire in the way that Louis makes various Ancient Greek associations into emblems for himself. In Rome, Marchal chooses an empire whose name is a watchword for imperial dominance. His king prefers to think of reign in terms of radiant Hellenic images. Between Louis and Marchal arises the paradox that the Romans were the conquerors and oppressors of the Greeks, but it is henchman Marchal’s Roman identity that proves the first and last means of securing Louis’s Greek one.

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“The Latin in Episode 5 of Mayans MC (2018- )”

In episode of 5 of Kurt Sutter’s series ‘Mayans, MC’, club prospect EZ Reyes (J. D. Pardo) exchanges Latin phrases in an encounter with drug cartel leader Miguel Galindo (Danny Pino), the current husband of EZ’s former girlfriend Emily Thomas (Sarah Bolger). Galindo takes Reyes to a remote spot and mentions his plans for the area.

[To read about Kurt Sutter’s use of the ancient Greek tragic play Ajax in Sons of Anarchy, the prequel series to Mayans, MC click here]

Reyes listens, as Galindo describes his development scheme for a desolate region outside of town. EZ then smiles and says “Michael Corleone,” implying that Galindo is trying to work his way toward legitimacy for his family through above board business deals and trying to escape his bloody past, as Godfather characters Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his son Michael Corlone (Al Pacino) dreamed of doing. After a brief exchange on The Godfather, a reflective Galindo says “Ne prodas genus (‘Don’t betray the family’).” EZ replies with a smile, “Cor aut mors (Heart or death).”


Galindo is surprised, remarking, “Can’t be a large percentage of outlaw bikers who speak Latin.” EZ replies, “Or cartel leaders saving a migrant town from extinction.” After this moment of respectful acknowledgement, EZ comments that he doesn’t suppose that they are meeting in this deserted spot to bond over dead languages. Galindo then tells him to stay away from his wife (EZ secretly went to see her when she was hospitalized).

Both EZ’s and Miguel’s Latin phrases are mottos. They fit just as well on a coat of arms or a tattoo. Galindo’s phrase continues the sense of the Godfather discussion through its explicit emphasis on family. It speaks to his sense of duty, public and personal. For some viewers, Latin’s ceremonial character may lend additional dignity and severity to his sentiment. EZ’s ‘cor aut mors’ is interesting partly because it appears to have a precise meaning (heart, i.e. the things that matter most, or death), but no author or precise point of origin that I know of. It contrasts in tone with Miguel’s phrase, suggesting impulsiveness, passion, and commitment to whatever those qualities bring. ‘Cor aut mors’ appears on a Wikipedia list of Latin phrases (minus any author connected to it). It also appears frequently across the internet in a variety of ways, including as a social media user handle.

Nothing from the immediate context of the scene requires any of this be in Latin. This exchange does establish a sort of intellectual and educational common ground for EZ and Miguel. EZ has already made his mark in the show through a photographic memory. Here we see that his knowledge is more than simply retained observational data. He has pursued knowledge for its own sake. The first episode suggested that he attended for a time or was going to attend Stanford. This moment refreshes the audience’s awareness of this side of EZ.

The Latin exchange also removes EZ and Miguel from their respective social contexts for a moment and puts their contrasting sensibilities in relief, while showing the possibility of communication between them. Latin, like their desolate surroundings, offers a sort of momentary neutral ground on which they can meet and talk, before returning to their adversarial roles.

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The Epic Voices of Terrence Malick’s ‘The New World’ (2005/8)

[For more on the relationship between ancient Greek lyric and The New World, especially the Malick’s use of Sappho, see my post “Sappho’s Poetry in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005/8).”]

Epic is the political genre of the Greco-Roman world par excellence and also the category to which one intuitively assigns movies about culture heroes and wars of foundation. One may envision The New World as an Odyssey in which John Smith comes to Virginia as an Odysseus figure, yet passes that mantle to Pocahontas who makes her own great journey, not only into the life of the English settlers in Virginia, but to England itself.[i] Still more, it resembles Vergil’s Aeneid, in which Smith, a would-be Aeneas, misses his opportunity to play the part of symbolic founder-ancestor of a new Roman nation born, like the old, of two peoples. In his stead, Pocahontas becomes its very different progenitor. In support of this conception of Malick’s Pocahontas is the comment to the New York Times from the president for marketing at New Line Cinema, Russell Schwartz: “Terrence said to me very early on, ‘This is our original mother,’ meaning that her journey is that of America itself….”[ii] The Pocahontas of this film grows within and, eventually, beyond a traditional epic role to develop a perspective that envisions, evaluates, and selects from possible destinies. In the course of these experiences, she rejects self-destruction and loss of original identity.

It is Pocahontas’ navigation both of her desires for John Smith and John Rolfe and of the consequences of each relationship that enables her to assume and preserve the protagonist’s part. Smith is the obvious competitor for this position, but he loses it through his refusal to acknowledge his desires or to confront their consequences. Instead, by making the traditional epic hero’s choice to continue his quest, he forfeits his role as protagonist.For his characterization of John Smith, Malick draws on Vergil’s Aeneid, the signature epic of the Roman tradition, much as he employs Sappho for Pocahontas.  This connection is unsurprising, for there has been a Vergilian presence in the Pocahontas tradition since 1801, when John Davis published his romanticizing version of the tale. Davis compares Pocahontas to Dido, the Carthaginian queen.

When Aeneas and his followers, fleeing the Greek destruction of Troy, are washed up on the shores of Libya, Dido gives them refuge. The goddess Venus, Aeneas’ mother, protects him by ensuring that Dido falls in love with him. She also arranges for Jupiter to insist that he leave Carthage to pursue his destiny of founding a new people in Italy, which down the generations will become the Roman nation. When Aeneas leaves, Dido despairs and commits suicide. Aeneas’ quest leads him to the Underworld where he must seek the counsel of his deceased father. There he encounters Dido in the company of her first husband, whose murder by her brother originally drove her to flee to Libya and found Carthage. Aeneas greets her, expressing his shock and sadness at finding her there. Dido stares in silence at the ground, refusing to acknowledge him.[iii] It is this response that Davis, quoting the Latin, uses to describe Pocahontas’ encounter with Smith.[iv]

Pocahontas, now Rebecca Rolfe, has visited England in the company of her husband John Rolfe years after Smith leaves Virginia. While there, she encounters John Smith, whom she had thought dead. This meeting inspires Davis’ quotation from the Aeneid. Malick’s use of Vergil accepts Smith as an Aeneas figure, while emphasizing Pocahontas’ difference from Dido. Most fundamentally, in The New World she is not a Dido figure because she is not undone by loss and her lover’s duplicity, whereas Davis’ quotation from the Aeneid reduces her to a self-silenced protest against Smith’s caddish conduct.

Malick’s John Smith speaks in voice-over the first time that we hear his voice in the film: “How many lands behind me? How many seas? …. What blows and dangers? Fortune ever my friend.” These lines draw on Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of Vergil’s Aeneid, but they come not from Aeneas, but his father Anchises. The ghost of Anchises awaits his son’s visit to the Underworld and, as he sees him approach, utters this address: “I greet you now, how many lands behind you, / How many seas, what blows and dangers, son! / How much I feared the land of Libya / Might do you harm.”[v]


Anchises’ anxiety about the land of Libya, Dido’s home, suggests a fear that Aeneas might have abandoned his colonizing quest due to love for the queen. By making these lines part of Smith’s internal dialogue, Malick implants in him an intuition that plays the part of an epic father figure mindful of the concerns of glory. This allusion to the Underworld sequence in the Aeneid resonates with the circumstances of Smith’s arrival on the shores of Virginia: an execution from which he is reprieved at the last moment. The visual of his abortive hanging reinforces the sense of Smith’s presence among the dead.

Pocahontas’ declaration, “A god he seems to me,” offers a useful point of departure for appreciating Malick’s film as a Sapphic epic. [For more on this see my post “Sappho’s Poetry in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005/8).”]“God-like” is a standard epithet in Homeric epic, marking the superiority of one mortal over others.[vi] In both fragment 31 and The New World, resemblance to a god introduces an example of male attractiveness, for which desire for another is promptly substituted. The Homeric echo in fragment 31’s “like a god” resounds still more strongly in fragment 16.

This poem is important to the broader sense of the significance of ancient authors for The New World. It offers a model for approaching the content and concerns of the Iliadic tradition while keeping Helen at its center. The speaker in the poem recalls the example of Helen as an analogy for her own experience of desire (fragment 16, lines 1-8):[vii]

Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry, and

Others of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the

Black earth, but I say it is whatsoever a person loves.

It is perfectly easy to make this understood by everyone:

For she who far surpassed mankind in beauty,

Helen, left her most noble husband and went sailing

Off to Troy with no thought at all for her child or dear

Parents, but (love) led her astray … lightly …

Although Malick does not quote from this poem, it merits attention insofar as it draws together the ideas broached in Malick’s allusions to Sappho’s god-like man, her characterizations of desire, and the relationship of both to the context of Pocahontas’ story. This fragment’s brief narrative of Helen offers parallels to the film in that both women abandon their communities for a foreign visitor. Unlike the Greek Helen, Pocahontas does not provide the occasion for her people to go to war. Nevertheless, in the film’s version, the help she gives to Smith prevents the Powhatan from eliminating the English colony before the return of the English ships with the personnel, weaponry, and supplies that ensure its survival and their defeat.

For Sappho’s Helen and Malick’s Pocahontas, desire informs their decisions. Force may swirl about them, but they choose where they go. In neither case, however, does this attribution of agency serve as a basis for their condemnation or removal to supporting roles in the stories of male lovers. Pocahontas’ father exiles her for her actions, while she confesses to her uncle, late in the film, to having made “many mistakes.” Even here, she is allowed to address the issue. Most importantly, the man who resembles a god does not have final authority to determine what Pocahontas does with her desire. Likewise, to look at the film through the lens of fragment 16, Smith’s epic world with its troops and ships does not command her attention. What, or whom, one loves and why are the questions on which the film turns. Accordingly, when Smith abandons love, he drops from the film. When he returns briefly, it is to comment on that abandonment.

Film scholar Lloyd Michaels identifies four types of story in The New World: epic, creation myth, love story, and personal story.[viii]  Malick’s Sapphic voice unites these four dimensions, combining allusions to a male-centered epic tradition and Sappho’s woman-centered erotic lyric. These allusions and the narrative directions they open up enable Pocahontas to experience the passion and loss characteristic of the abandoned women of epic, yet to emerge, without any sense of anachronistic gender identity, as the protagonist of a revisionist epic of desire and discovery.

[For a fuller treatment of classical allusions in this film see my chapter entitled “Sappho and Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005)” in Screening Love and Sex in the Ancient World. Monica Cyrino, Ed. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013.]

[i] Bleasdale (2011) 50. Bleasdale observes that Pocahontas is presented as the successful explorer, Smith the failed one.

[ii] James (2005).

[iii] Aeneid 6.469 (in the Latin original). Line numbers of translations will vary. The line numbers of Sarah Ruden’s translation are closest to those of the Latin.

[iv] Davis (1801) 292-293.

[v] Autochthonous88 (2008a). Fitzgerald (1981) 184. Book 6, lines 927-930 in Fitzgerald’s translation and Book 6, lines 692-694 in the Latin text.

[vi] Page (1955) 21n1.

[vii] Campbell (1982) 67.

[viii] Michaels (2009) 85.


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Roman and Japanese Intersections in ‘Thermae Romae’ (Takeuchi, 2012)

Thermae Romae (trailer here) began as a manga in 2008, written by Yamazaki Mari. It was later made into a six episode flash anime series (January 12 – 26, 2012) in the lead-up to the release of its film adaptation on April 28, 2012. Yamazaki has garnered honors for this project, winning both the Manga Taisho (‘Grand Cartoon’) Award and Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize Short Story Award in 2010, and in 2017 receiving the Order of the Star of Italy from the Italian ambassador to Japan for her incorporation of Italian heritage in her work. [1] The movie went on to become the second highest grossing film at the Japanese box office that year. As of 2015, it was the 95th highest grossing overall. [2] Structured as a romantic comedy, Thermae Romae’s characters grapple with the importance of thinking of others before oneself, the elusiveness of professional fulfillment, and the under-appreciated creativity involved in borrowing ideas from other cultural contexts.

Plot and Characters

Filmed at NuBoyana Studios in Sofia, Bulgaria, its story unfolds in two dramatic contexts: Rome of the second century CE, under Emperor Hadrian (Ichimura Masachika); and Japan of 2012. [3] For the most part, the Roman storyline is dramatic and the Japanese comic. The film begins in Rome, following the character Lucius Modestus (Abe Hiroshi), a Roman bath engineer. Lucius finds himself in a rut, both professionally and personally. In a Roman bath market depicted as thriving on superficial novelty, he has no relevant ideas and frowns on novelty for its own sake in any case. Lucius’ consequent downcast outlook on life has long since infected his marriage, creating distance and disaffection. While at the baths one afternoon reflecting on these matters, Lucius suddenly finds himself transported to modern Japan, where he pops up in a bathing establishment, frequented by the elderly. As the plot progresses, Lucius adapts the novel (to him) bathing concepts from modern Japan to 2nd century Rome, revolutionizing the bath scene of his day and rejuvenating his career in the process. He repeatedly encounters on these time-slips a young manga artist and writer named Mami (Ueto Aya), with whom a largely implicit romantic scenario begins to develop.

Back in Rome, Lucius’ new ideas bring him to the attention of Emperor Hadrian himself who plans to use his talents for the betterment of the Empire. Hadrian recognizes that Rome’s cultural institutions, such as its baths, are the Empire’s connective tissue, with much greater long-term capacity to preserve its disparate cultural components than Rome’s legions. He sees a role for Lucius in capitalizing on this cultural ‘soft-power’. Eventually Mami, who has begun to learn Latin and study Roman history, time-slips back to Rome with Lucius where she discovers that the timeline is about to take a terrible turn. The virtuous Antoninus (Shishido Kai), whom Mami knows to be Hadrian’s successor, is assigned to take over the governorship of a province, while the evil Ceionius (Kitamura Kazuki) will remain in Rome as a likely successor to Hadrian. History says it should be the other way around. Furthermore, Ceionius is supposed to die two years into his governorship when a plague ravages his province. Unless history is put right, the virtuous Antoninus will die instead, while Ceionius becomes emperor in his place. Furthermore — and Mami rouses the morose Lucius with this point in particular: under an emperor Ceionius, the Roman Senate will not deify Hadrian.

Lucius is able to restore Antoninus to Hadrian’s favor and prevent his dispatch to a provincial governorship by crediting him with the idea for an audacious plan. Hadrian is on the frontier overseeing a war with powerful enemies of the Empire. His troops are exhausted and unable to carry on. Lucius secures permission to build a bath adjacent to the battlefield, for the resuscitation of the troops. Confounded by the pace at which he must complete the work, however, Lucius is rescued by a troop of elderly Japanese citizens who time-slipped with Mami to Rome (or rather to the site of the battle that Hadrian’s army is fighting). They realize that, while an indoor bathhouse (sento) is impossible, an outdoor hot springs bathing establishment (onsen) can be built in the time available, and they proceed to do exactly that. The exhausted and injured Roman soldiers recuperate at the onsen, return to battle at full fighting strength, and score a victory for Hadrian.

Communal Bathing

The film’s background themes include the common ground between modern Japan and ancient Rome, based on their shared appreciation of communal bathing. The film indicates that in Japan the health-giving qualities of bathing have received greater attention and that the more group-oriented Japanese society has allowed bathing to function as a restful rather than raucous form of leisure. On the other hand, the film’s implicit recognition of the decline of communal bathing in Japan among the non-elderly suggests a nostalgic perspective. Its depiction of bathing in Roman society as omnipresent and central to Rome’s imperial greatness only underscores this.

The Japanese storyline begins by following the character of Mami, an aspiring manga artist and storyteller who, like Lucius, is unable to interest anyone in her work. Her drawing is good enough, but, according to the criticism of one would-be publisher/mentor, her storytelling lacks inspiration. Walking about, depressed at her latest failure to break into the manga business, she witnesses the nude Lucius on his first time-slip to a Japanese bathing establishment (sento). Believing Lucius to be the perfect model/inspiration for the lead character of her manga, she rushes for her sketch materials, only to find upon her return that he has disappeared.

Although Roman communal bathing is depicted as somewhat crude and chaotic, its social importance, suggested by its ubiquity and rough and tumble vitality, underscores the sense of loss to Japanese culture that the disappearance of communal bathing as institution would entail. In accordance with current cultural trends, the film presents Japanese communal bathing primarily as the province of the elderly. Secondly, it shows the non-elite bathing establishments that the elderly can afford (especially the rural ones) as economically imperiled. Mami’s return to the rural bathing establishment run by her mother (Kimura Midoriko) marks the failure of her career ambitions in Tokyo. She does not want to work there. Yet, to Mami’s dismay — since she still needs a job — her mother reveals that she is near to closing the bath business altogether.

Young and old characters alike are comical in the Japanese storyline, but the aged characters who congregate in the baths ultimately contribute vitally to the plot, whereas the younger ones (apart from Mami) do not. Accordingly, the importance that Japanese bathing and related practices have in the Roman storyline put into relief the importance of Japanese values as expressed through the fortunes of an imperiled cultural institution.

A Tale of Two Phalluses

Buoyed by his newly successful career as a bath engineer, Lucius purchases a gift for his wife. It is a small ornamental phallus attached to a necklace. Since Lucius has been a somewhat absent husband, disinclined toward sex and having children, this gift signifies an about-face, a signal to his wife that he now shares her vision of their marriage. In this context the phallus necklace resembles a fertility charm. When Lucius arrives home, however, he discovers that this gesture is too little, too late. The unpleasant truth is that his wife has moved on. He finds her and one of his acquaintances having sex. Shortly thereafter he time-slips once again to Japan, 2012.

On this occasion, Lucius finds himself in an onsen. He is surprised to see several women in the pool alongside a giant phallus and another woman riding atop it. The film provides no further context for this scene, but its Japanese audience may have recognized it as a festival (matsuri) event in which the attendees engage Konsei Daimyõjin (‘Konsei the Great Shining God’), a kami or divinity represented in phallic form, embodying the male sexual and generative elements. The scene that Lucius witnesses resembles the Konsei matsuri at Õsawa Onsen in Iwate Prefecture: “… held every May since 1965 [that] culminates when women enter one of the open-baths and try to climb on to a floating wooden phallus, an activity that has probably been inspired by other ‘phallus-riding’ events.” [Turnbull, 212]

A number of phallus-themed festivals, some including (non-aquatic) phallus-riding, sprang up in the period from the 1960s through the 1980s. Such matsuri were created in some cases to improve the local tourist industry. [4] [Turnbull, 212] The essential role that Konsei Daimyõjin performs, however, is a serious one:

The achievement of conception is the speciality of this most phallic deity, and websites exist to direct childless couples toward onsen … (hot spring resorts) where a combination of a luxury hotel and the spiritual power of enshrined sexual gods such as the great procreative Konsei Daimyõjin will help achieve their desire for a family. [Turnbull, 213]

The women that Lucius encounters at the onsen are engaged in an activity that lies at the intersection of leisure, popular health beliefs, and Shinto religious sensibilities. The giant Konsei phallus that they unintentionally present to Lucius contrasts comically with the tiny one on the necklace he planned to give to his wife. Although Lucius’ procreative plans do not reappear in the film after his marriage falls apart, the comical onsen encounter suggests that the revitalization he planned for his personal life is to be found through his encounters with Japan rather than his old way of life. The life-changing dynamic that he expects to initiate for himself instead comes to him from others.

‘Glocalized’ Rome

The reception of Rome as a source of visual entertainment, edifying or otherwise, is a global phenomenon. That is to say, the manifold cinematic and televised representations of Rome are, like everything else, consumable everywhere. Like other globalized cultural products, globalized Rome can also be rendered local by people anywhere in the world. The process of making a globalized product local in some fashion has been dubbed ‘glocalization’. [Atkins, 206]

Scholar E. Taylor Atkins, discussing a 1991 educational documentary The Japanese Version, quotes a customer at a Japanese Old West theme bar about the establishment’s cowboy symbolism. His reply:

You guys [Americans] have it all wrong. [Cowboy mythology is] not about being an individual. It’s about working together. Whenever those guys had a problem, they’d gather together and figure out how to solve it. That’s why those [television] shows [Rawhide and Laramie] were so popular in Japan: they used teamwork.” This account “indicates the sense of ownership that Japanese feel about culture appropriated from abroad and the authority with which they invest it with their own meanings and self-stereotypes. [Atkins, 205]

This glocalization of Hollywood’s cowboy culture offers an informative analogy for that of Rome in Thermae Romae. In the film, Rome has many points in common with Japan, but ultimately — to judge from Lucius — it is prone to a toxic individualism with negative consequences for its government and citizens alike. The film’s ‘self-stereotype’ of Japan as a Confucian culture that privileges the group over the individual exists side by side with the depiction of both Mami and Lucius as creatively and professionally unfulfilled in their respective economies — a condition that profoundly frustrates them both. The communities of successful practitioners of Mami’s and Lucius’ respective crafts do not appear in an especially positive light in the film. However, although Mami’s interest in Lucius gives her character purpose, she ultimately has a community that is invested in her, in contrast to Lucius’ lonelier Roman existence. Her community, however, consists by and large of the retired elderly. There is comedic purpose in this, but it also suggests that younger Japan finds itself somewhat more removed from the cultural ideals that their elders still embody.

A second self-stereotype of Japan at work in the film is that it is a nation which primarily takes the products of other cultures and makes Japanese versions of them. This is not explicitly stated in the movie with reference to Japan, but it certainly is made clear in Lucius’ anxiety over taking ideas from Japan and adapting them at Rome. Lucius must grapple with the identity crisis implicit in this stereotype; i.e. the anxiety that he is an imitator of the creativity of others rather than a creator himself. The example of Rome as an imitator of Greece is also invoked in this thematic connection. Part of Mami’s attempt to reconcile Lucius to himself is to show him the positive value in recreating ideas from one cultural context for the benefit of those in another.

One result of casting Japanese actors as the principal Roman characters is that the Rome of the film may even more easily serve as a sort of mirror for aspects of present day Japanese society. Another conception of Japan with much evidence to support it, which is opposite to the one featured in the movie, is that it is a supremely original, creative media mega-exporter (e.g. anime, etc.) that has revolutionized the culture industry around the world. The complexity and contradictions wrapped up in the questions of originality and imitation find perhaps one further implicit comment in the fact that Thermae Romae originated as a manga, an art form original to Japan which has exercised a powerful influence on graphic art worldwide.


[1] Loo, Egan. AnimeNewsNetwork. “Mari Yamazaki’s Thermae Romae Wins Manga Taisho Award.” March 17, 2010. Accessed March 12, 2018.

Wikipedia, Accessed March 12, 2018.

Hodgkins, Crystalyn. AnimeNewsNetwork. “Thermae Romae‘s Mari Yamazaki Honored with Order of the Star of Italy.” October 13, 2017. Accessed March 12, 2018.

[2] Wikipedia.

[3] As of this writing, it is incorrectly listed on IMDB as having been filmed at Cinecittà.

[4] For an example of the promotion of phallus-riding as a curiosity for the consumption of non-Japanese tourists (virtual or otherwise), see this rather glib write-up about the Iwate prefecture event from SoraNews24, the English language version of Rocket News 24, a Tokyo-based media site.:


Ashkenazi, Michael. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. ABC Clio: Santa Barbara, CA. [27-36]

Atkins, E. Taylor. A History of Popular Culture in Japan. Bloomsbury, 2017: 203-208.

Jarnes, Mark. “Japan Times,” November 5, 2016. “Washed up? Tokyo’s iconic. communal bathhouses face an uncertain future.” Accessed March 10, 2018.

Turnbull, Stephen. Japan’s Sexual Gods: Shrines, Roles and Rituals of Procreation and Protection. Brill, 2015.

Posted in Classics, Classics, Cinema, and Popular Culture, East Asian Reception of Greece and Rome, Non-Western Receptions of Ancient Rome, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Papa’s Goods: ‘Sons of Anarchy’ (2008-2014) and ‘Lonely are the Brave’ (Miller, 1962)

This post examines the relationship of Kurt Sutter’s series Sons of Anarchy (SOA) to the film Lonely are the Brave (LATB) starring and produced by Kirk Douglas, written for the screen by Dalton Trumbo, and directed by David Miller), including ideological, narrative, and visual parallels. It supplements my earlier discussion of SOA, but without direct attention to Greek and Roman elements.

[To read about the use of Latin in SOA‘s spinoff series Mayans, MC, click here]

LATB tells the story of John ‘Jack’ Burns, a complicated loner, a modern cowboy, who returns from the wilderness. He does this in order to break his friend Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) out of jail, where he is serving a two-year sentence for refusing to register for the draft. SOA‘s John Teller, though given to bouts of isolation, wants love, family, and community. Burns too hopes to bring not only Paul, but his wife and son to Mexico where they can enjoy a life of freedom together. Neither man is able to achieve his aim, though each makes his own remarkable attempt.

The Deaths 1 (Jax and John Teller):

The series finale of SOA depicts the death of Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), president of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original). He deliberately provokes a police chase, then deliberately steers his bike into an oncoming truck. He does this, however, because he has been sentenced to death by the council of SOA presidents for the unauthorized killing of another club president. Jax persuades his club members to accept this judgment. Instead of carrying out the sentence by shooting him as is custom, they allow him to escape so that he die in a manner of his choosing. His choice is to recreate his father’s death. His father John Teller died in a crash involving a collision with a semi-truck. For much of the series, viewers are under the impression that he was murdered by his stepfather Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) in conspiracy with his mother Gemma Teller-Morrow (Katey Sagal), who were having an affair. Morrow sabotaged Teller’s bike, causing it to crash. Jury White (Michael Shamus Wiles), the SOA president that Jax kills in ‘The Separation of Crows’ (S7 E9), insists before his death that whatever anyone had done to the bike could not have deceived Teller for whom it was like an extension of his body. This suggests that John Teller may have committed suicide by acceding to his own murder. However winding and obscure the paths that bring father and son to their deaths, though, the dynamics are similar.

The Deaths 2 (John ‘Jack’ Burns):

Burns whose given name and nick name link him both to John and Jax Teller does not die in the movie. He may well be about to die, though. He attempts to ride across a freeway, something he did at the beginning of the film. It is a boundary dividing civilization from the desert wilderness that he prefers and, at this moment in the film, it constitutes the path to Mexico where he can life freely and safe from U.S. law enforcement. The police are chasing him because he broke out of jail. Although on horseback he has successfully evaded them thus far and seems on the cusp of escaping completely. The horse is understandably skittish about crossing a freeway. She almost doesn’t make it at the beginning of the film. The horse panics again, this time with tragic consequences. Burns is definitely not committing suicide, however risky his actions. Like John Teller, however, his mode of transportation rebels against him. The horse panics, the motorcycle malfunctions. See the final sequence here (starting at 1:33.19)

The Truck Drivers:

The drivers of the trucks that inadvertently claim the lives of Burns and Jax respectively both feature as characters in their respective stories. Both drivers are introduced in a truck stop scene.  LATB’s necessarily briefer scene has a random stranger accost Carrol O’Connor’s character, hoping that he can deliver a package for him to Coffeeville, Kansas. He cannot, but the audience learns from the exchange that he is driving to Duke City, NM at 70 mph carrying a freight of 150 toilets.

Carroll O’Connor as the truck driver in Lonely Are the Brave.

He has no connections to the other characters or the plot in general until final moments of the film, when he collides with Burns (Kirk Douglas) who is attempting to flee the law on horseback across a freeway. The viewer with a keen eye on dramatic conventions might guess what purpose O’Connor’s driver would eventually serve in LATB, especially since Burns just barely survives crossing a freeway in the previous scene, but either way this dramatic structure makes the truck into a force akin to fate. SOA’s elaborate mystical ornamentation sets this dynamic in relief. Its corresponding character is likewise introduced in a truck stop scene in ‘Red Rose’, the next to last episode of season 7 (S7 E12).

Gemma en route to visit her senile father (Hal Holbrook), sleeps overnight in her car at a truck stop. A truck driver (Michael Chiklis) taps on her car window, waking her up to ask her to move her vehicle. Later on, they have a relatively relaxed conversation in which, among other things, the audience learns that he is driving north to collect produce and return with it. He has none of the banal mystery of O’Connor’s driver. Chiklis played the main character in The Shield (2002-2008), a series on which SOA creator Kurt Sutter served as a writer. His sudden appearance in the next to last episode of Sutter’s series immediately suggests some further significance to his character.

Michael Chiklis as Milo, the truck driver in Sons of Anarchy, S7 E12-13

When he reappears later that morning waiting in line for a vending machine, he enters the scene just as a startled Gemma recognizes the mysterious homeless woman (Olivia Burnette) who has appeared to both her and Jax at various times throughout the series. This character resembles a woman killed in John Teller’s crash with the semi-truck and adds a supernatural dimension to the series at significant moments. Milo’s first words in this scene compare the homeless woman checking a vending machine’s coin return for change to his ex-wife’s pursuit of their money, thus confirming that he too sees her. Whether her invisibility is literal or that of the homeless generally, no one notices her, apart from Jax and Gemma — and now Milo. In sum, the truck stop scene gathers together in a single shot a truck driver, the character who evokes both a sense of fate in motion as well as the unintended victim of John Teller’s collision with a truck, and Gemma, who is partly responsible for both deaths. [1] The homeless woman’s appearance adds to the audience’s awareness that Milo has a role to play in the events to come. It may also do the same for Gemma at that moment.


The SOA first season moment (S1E4 ‘Patchover’) in which Jax finds the words of Emma Goldman written beneath a bridge evokes the LATB moment when Paul refuses to leave his cell, after Burns has broken through the bar. As Burns tries to convince his friend to breakout with him, he describes an idyllic scenario where he, Paul, his wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands) and son Sid all live together in Mexico:

[John Burns: ] Listen, amigo. I know a place in Sinaloa just aching to hide us. Good cabin. Lots of rain. You’d write your book. I’d run a cow or two. Jerry could paint. And Sid, he’d learn — like we used to talk about — natural man.

Jax describes the concept for the Sons of Anarchy MC that he encounters in his father’s journals as follows: “Seems like his original idea for the MC was something simpler. You know, social rebellion. He called it a ‘Harley Commune’. It wasn’t outlaw. It was real hippie shit.” Burns slightly predates the hippies, as he does John Teller, but his scenario of friends and family living together in Sinaloa could be characterized in the same way.

In the LATB jail scene, Paul turns away from Burns’ portrait of a new life together in Mexico and refuses to leave jail. Burns questions him: does Paul agree with the sentence that he received? No. Doesn’t Paul realize that Jerry and Sid are paying for his idealism too? Yes. This jail confrontation between the two friends resonates with a key SOA first season moment (S1E4, ‘Patchover’), in which viewers learn, via passages read from John Teller’s memoir about the Sons of Anarchy club, that its name derives in part from the words of anarchist Emma Goldman (the link is here). Jax visits the spot where his father mentions first reading them. [2]

[John Teller:] The first time I read Emma Goldman wasn’t in a book. I was sixteen, hiking near the Nevada border. The quote was painted on a wall in red. When I saw those words it was like someone ripped them from the inside of my head.


[Jax Teller reading from the wall:] “Anarchism… stands for liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. It stands for social order based on the free grouping of individuals.”

[John Teller:] “The concept was pure, simple, true. It inspired me. Lit a rebellious fire, but ultimately I learned the lesson that Goldman, Proudhon and the others learned. That true freedom requires sacrifice and pain. Most human beings only think they want freedom. In truth they yearn for the bondage of social order, rigid laws, materialism. The only freedom man really wants, is the freedom to become comfortable.”

The extract from Goldman and, in particular, the senior Teller’s reflections on it describe what happens in the cell confrontation between Burns and Paul. ‘Natural man’, an Enlightenment concept invokes indirectly the philosophical content that SOA approaches explicitly through the quotation of particular post-Enlightenment philosophers. The rural mountain Nevada/California border context of the SOA scene deepens its resonance with the New Mexico setting of LATB. Teller’s declaration about what most people want speaks directly to the disagreement between Burns and Paul. Paul Bondi lives up (or down) to one resonance of his name insofar as he quite literally chooses the “bondage of social order [and] rigid laws” and rejecting just as literally Burns’ offer of “liberation from the shackles and restraint of government” and a new, anarchic “social order based on the free grouping of individuals” in Sinaloa. While some — and presumably he in particular — may find his commitment to principle noble, he arguably finds greater comfort in enduring society’s imposition of unfreedom than satisfaction in the possibility of freedom and free association. This perspective, applied to SOA‘s own conclusion, raises the question of whether Jax’s ultimate decision to accept the sentence of death from the SOA presidents and to protect the Club from the law enforcement is noble or a decision, like that of Bondi, to endure a harsh penalty because it is more psychologically comfortable to do that than seek a more uncertain form of freedom.

Symbols in Collision and Fate:

In addition to the above ideological connections, we can point to thematic similarities in the closing scenes of SOA and LATB. In the last scene, LATB focuses on Burns’ cowboy hat lying on the freeway. SOA‘s series finale ends with a shot of crows pecking at a hunk of bread on the road, while Jax’s blood streams toward it. The technique of transitioning from a scene by focusing on an inanimate object is a standard cinematographic device. Symbolically the hat on the road (1:47:00) points to the brokenness of Burns’ chosen identity. His horse is dead, his life hangs in the balance, and the signifier of the cowboy, his hat lies on the road, separated from its owner, soon to be crushed by traffic. SOA invests this transitional device with Christ symbolism (see Jax’s pose below, as he approaches the truck). The shot following the collision replicates the opening shot of episode one of the first season (S1 E1, Pilot), but for the addition of the blood and wine in the finale’s closing shot. [3]

The crows eating bread and wine, as Jax’s blood flows into the frame, his final encounter with the homeless woman earlier in the same episode, where he finds her sitting with bread and a bottle of wine at her feet. [4]

In LATB, the truck embodies a fate consisting of the depersonalized and unintentional violence in U.S. society that simply eliminates what resists it, including noble, iconic characters. It is therefore essential that a hapless, well-meaning driver trying to deliver 150 toilets on schedule destroys Burns. The fact that we follow the driver from early in the film creates the impression that the moment of collision is a feature of a the driver’s schedule more than the act or failing of the driver. This in turn creates a sort of fate, which deliberately offends the viewer. But it does so possibly less with its meaninglessness than with the impoverished meaning that it imposes on the terrible outcome: schedules have to be kept, individuals need to stay in their lanes (or out of them altogether), and everyone must pay what they are told that they owe. So, an exhausted truck driver continues his route through conditions unsafe to himself and others with lethal results. So, Paul Bondi chooses to serve two years in prison for conscientious objection. As the film presents it through Burns’ perspective, there is a maddening paradox in this. Bondi refuses to do military service, because he thinks that the state cannot ethically or constitutionally require him to do it. Yet, he insists that he must remain in prison because he does accept that the state can ethically and constitutionally impose that on him for refusing to do what — he believes — it has no right to ask him to do in the first place.

SOA‘s crime drama brand of American violence, on the other hand, is very much on its surface. Violence is deeply personal to the characters. It gives them structure and direction, even though the forces that drive it derive from larger systems of profit and ideology that they do not fully comprehend, cannot control, and by which almost all of them are ultimately consumed. Furthermore, the capacity of these characters and their loved ones to suffer violence is a principal means of securing sympathy for them. The elaborate supernatural apparatus haunting the show, however, insists on a level of respect viewers might not otherwise think to give. We may feel for these characters or be impressed or distressed by their deeds, but the supernatural dimension also demands that we accept that they matter to God or gods, to ghosts, or that they have fates which great and terrible.

Accordingly, the perfusion of symbols woven through the show elevates and isolates certain characters much as the Weird Sisters do Macbeth and of course the ghost of Hamlet’s father does his son. All this makes a wide range of viewers reluctant to discount the passions and ambitions of characters they may otherwise find repugnant. Therefore, even though Milo and Carroll O’Connor’s driver are both solidly built, middle-aged men as unremarkable as the hats they wear, the former, for all his decent simplicity, walks into a role laden with symbols of terrible forces drawing near to their deadly conclusion. In a truck with the words ‘Papa’s Goods’ painted on its side, Milo gives Gemma a ride to the place where, unbeknownst to him, her son will find and kill her. Then, on his return, he will unwillingly serve as the son’s instrument of suicide.

[1] Series producer Paris Barclay discuss her briefly in this post-finale interview. For a complete list of the homeless woman’s appearances in the series, see the SAMCROpedia entry. Her character is a reminder that, however much Teller may have rejected the Club’s violence by the end of his life, if he did indeed accede to his own murder, his debt is not simply that of abandoning the living and failing to stop an evil that others wove around him, he also took the life of an innocent.

[2] The following paragraphs, including quotations and screen caps are drawn from my post on SOA and Sophocles’ Ajax.

[3] The image of the opening and closing shots of the series are taken from Sons of Anarchy on Pinterest. The image compilation of Jax’s suicide is from Project Fandom.

[4] The SAMCROpedia entry in note 1 documents the multiple convergences of symbolism in these shots.

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A StoryMapJS Visualization of the Plot of “Ulisse” (Camerini, 1954).

This is a link to my StoryMapJS visualization of the plot of the 1954 film Ulisse, an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, directed by Mario Camerini and starring Kirk Douglas, Silvana Mangano, and Anthony Quinn. I originally made it for an undergraduate course in which we were studying the film.


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Lego Vitruvius and Roman Vitruvius on the Importance of Parents Educating Children.

In a previous post, I wrote about the ancient Greek references in the The Lego Movie (see post ‘The Lego Movie and Aristophanes’ Alternate Realities in the Birds and the Clouds’). Here, I focus on a Roman connection. Until 2014, the most famous person to hold the name Vitruvius was undoubtedly Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the first century BCE (and part of the first CE) Roman author of a ten chapter treatise on architecture, appropriately entitled On Architecture (De Architectura). Since 2014, the most famous holder of that name is no less undoubtedly the character Vitruvius from The Lego Movie, voiced by actor Morgan Freeman.


[Film summary with parts relevant to this post]

The Lego Movie (Lord and Miller, 2014) recounts the fantasy of a boy named Finn (Jadon Finn), as he plays — without permission — amidst his father’s vast lego collection. The father (Will Ferrell) has meticulously created a lego metropolis, which he does not want touched or changed in any way. In order to defend his creation, he forbids his son from playing with it, thus banishing the opportunity for the two of them to play together and enjoy a relationship free from rules and domestic hierarchy. Finn sneaks into the basement anyway, picking a nondescript lego construction worker Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) on which to project his loneliness and helplessness. He imagines for Emmet a universe in which to deal with his frustrations with his father, as well as hopes for a solution.

Overhanging the whole fantasy is a sense of impending doom at the machinations of the tyrannical Lord Business, a lego character whose diabolical plan it is to immobilize every other lego character. Lord Business stands in for Finn’s father, who plans to glue his entire lego metropolis in place so as to keep all aspects of it in perfect order. For Finn’s father, therefore, the lego world offers a fantasy of control. It comes at the cost, however, of his son’s fantasy life and, with it, Finn’s ability to cope with his lack of a close father/son relationship.  Emmet’s ordinariness speaks to Finn’s sense of inadequacy, especially in comparison to the evil brilliance of Lord Business/his father. The symbol — indeed the evidence — of that creative brilliance is the lego metropolis itself, both as creation of his father and as the dominion of Lord Business. Ultimately Finn makes common cause with Lord Business, rather than try to defeat him. This decision causes fantasy and reality collide and interpenetrate at the conclusion of the film.

Lord Business is the avatar of his father strictly in connection with his oppressive role in the lego room and any associated aspects. The father has another identity, as well, in Finn’s fantasy. Emmet has a vision of a mysterious, seemingly divine ‘Man Upstairs’. This turns out to be Finn’s father as well, but in a different aspect — the part of his father that exists beyond Finn’s perception of him as the caricature of a hypocritical tyrant. This aspect of his father is where there is potential for growth. In Finn’s fantasy, Emmet’s vision of the Man Upstairs qualifies him to be snatched from his bland existence as the least interesting member of his construction crew by a female Lego character — the exotically monikered Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). She too has adequacy issues, as it turns out, when it is revealed that her real name is Lucy.

Delivering the The Terminator II line, “Come with me if you want to live,”Wyldstyle/Lucy whisks him away from the ordinariness of his day to day existence into a series of alternate realities a la The Matrix. In the non-animated dramatic frame of the film, the father actually is upstairs. The lego set is in the basement. This bifurcation of the father and son into characters both inside and outside the fantasy frame sets up the surprising conclusion of the film, where Emmet/ Finn finds rapprochement with, rather than a victory over, Lord Business/his father.


Lego Vitruvius of course hearkens back to the character Morpheus from The Matrix (1999, The Wachowskis), portrayed by Laurence Fishburne. The name Morpheus belongs ultimately to the god of sleep depicted by the Roman poet Ovid in his epic the Metamorphoses. Like Morpheus, the name Vitruvius is Latin and ancient-sounding. The Roman Vitruvius, however, was not a god, but an architect and author — a master builder, in the terminology of the film. The part of Vitruvius’ treatise relevant to this discussion of The Lego Movie concerns education.

In the introduction to Book 6 of his On Architecture Marcus Vitruvius argues that fathers or other kinsmen should educate the family’s junior members. He commends his parents for ensuring that he received a broad liberal education, which, he notes, has equipped him to write a treatise such as On Architecture. Vitruvius addresses Emperor Augustus in this introductory section, emphasizing that architecture is a liberal arts discipline worthy of esteem, in addition to a useful knowledge resource. As a noble precedent for his claim that the best architects are taught by their fathers or other relatives, Vitruvius notes that the comic playwrights of Athens praised their city for limiting the requirement that children maintain their parents in old age to only those parents who had seen to the education of their children. Other Greek states, says Vitruvius, required children to maintain their elderly parents without exception. [1]

Of the four comic playwrights that Vitruvius names, it is number three on the list that concerns us: Aristophanes. Cloudcuckooland and The Thinktank, key locations in The Lego Movie, derive from Aristophanes’ plays Birds and Clouds respectively. I argue for the relevance of these plays to the themes of The Lego Movie in my earlier post, Here I stress only that it is the Roman Vitruvius, namesake for Lego Vitruvius, that bridges the film’s allusions to Aristophanes’ plays and the theme of parental responsibility for their children’s education.

Lego Movie Finn & Father

Emmet’s final heroic act, taken after his rapprochement with Lord Business, is to leap beyond his reality into that of Finn and his father. There, Finn must now duplicate in his reality the coming to terms that his Lego avatar Emmet has done in fantasy. By doing this — getting his father to engage in his imaginative life — Finn both lays the foundation for a more positive father-son relationship and brings the film’s plot its resolution. [2]

By gaining permission to build in the Lego city, Finn wins recognition from his father as legitimate builder in what was formerly his space. This in turn enables him to move beyond his isolated fantasies, contrived to help him cope with inferiority and loneliness, into a fantasy space shared with his father. Although his father engages with Finn at the level of his games, this time together is also a fresh opportunity for Finn’s development through (hopefully) positive parental influence. All this also frames Lego products as positive educational accessories for the family unit. The film has already framed Emmet’s character development as a process of education about himself through an appreciation of his own skills and limitations as lego builder. Vitruvius is the educational authority and wisdom figure in this fantasy journey.

While this post does not touch on the film’s highly commercial dimension, Lego’s marketing has long commanded respect among parents for its claims to educational and developmental value. [3] The Lego Movie ends with a modern spin on the hierarchical character of both the Roman pedagogical model and the novice/master dynamic of the conventional ‘hero’s journey’. Instead of a parent attempting to impart knowledge to a child about how to build more perfect Lego cities, a dynamic of shared play takes over both father and son. It is in this new relationship of play that the theme of education reaches its conclusion.

Part of the joke in the final sequence of the film is that the father’s hobby is a lego set with recommended ages of 8-14. “Those are just suggestions,” insists his father. The symbolism of a father using educational time to join in his son’s game might not have met with approval from Marcus Vitruvius. Officially, at least, a Roman father should see to his sons’ education, but should not be involved in children’s games. Presumably — and hopefully (from my culturally relative perspective) — the reality was more complex. However that may be, education as play is a key characteristic of Lego as a commodity. The conclusion of the film shows educational play happening through Lego building. Once that begins to take place between parent and child together, rather than separately, Finn’s father is fulfilling the role that the Roman Vitruvius assigned to parents and in support of which he cited the example of the Athenian comic poets’ praise of Athens


[1] De Architectura, 6.2: Non minus poetae, qui antiquas comoedias graece scripserunt, easdem sententias versibus in scaena pronuntiaverunt, ut Crates, Chionides, Aristophanes, maxime etiam cum his Alexis, qui Athenienses ait oportere ideo laudari, quod omnium Graecorum leges cogunt parentes a liberis, Atheniensium non omnes nisi eos, qui liberos artibus erudissent.

[2] The idea of a daughter participating in this lego-building relationship is introduced as a comical note of chaos in the closing moment of the film, when Finn’s little sister’s invaders from ‘Planet Duplon’ burst onto the scene.

[3] By way of an example from a quick internet search, here is the following from Educational Technology and Mobile Learning:

Skills Lego develop :

  1. Lego provides tools that develop lateral thinking in a fun environment
  2. It teaches kids to think in three dimensions
  3. It improves literacy as kids work with instructions
  4. It develops problem-solving, organization, and planning by construction
  5. It improves creativity
  6. It enhances communication and critical thinking
  7. It boosts kids motor development.
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The Battles of Winterfell and Marathon: GoT/’Mother’s Mercy’ (2015) and ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ (2014).

[This post has been updated as of 10/29/2018]

Television often borrows from films as a means of visualizing its stories and shaping its plots. I have argued in other posts that ‘Mother’s Mercy’, the season 5 finale of Game of Thrones, adapts elements from Intolerance (Griffith, 1916) (discussion here) and that the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer draws visual and musical echoes from Gladiator (Scott, 2000) (discussion here). In this post, I return to ‘Mother’s Mercy’ (airdate: June 14, 2015) to examine another component of the Battle of Winterfell.

In this episode, the Bolton forces, led by the repugnant Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), carry out a successful attack on Stannis Baratheon’s (Stephen Dillane) newly arrived army, ending his hopes of securing the Iron Throne. By this point in its progress, the HBO series had outstripped the novels on which it was based. George R. R. Martin had not yet completed the volume that would presumably reveal Stannis’ fortunes at Winterfell (nor has he, as of this writing). In short, showrunners that were accustomed to having a map from which to work suddenly lacked orientation for a very significant moment in the show — one which they had decided would mark the end of Stannis’ three season character arc.

I argue that the showrunners found an alternative template for the Battle of Winterfell in 300: Rise of an Empire (Murro, 2014). The scene of Stannis’ arrival and the commencement of the battle closely recall the newly landed Persian army’s encounter with the Athenian assault at Marathon, as depicted in 300: Rise. The Boltons are made to parallel the Athenians and Stannis’ army the Persians. Stannis arrives at Winterfell at dawn, following a night march. He halts his forces and directs them to establish a camp and prepare for an extended siege. The Boltons, who now occupy Winterfell, take him by surprise, launching an immediate attack on his weary and disorganized forces [View the scene here, starting at minute 2:37].

The release date of 300: Rise, March 7, 2014, falls about a month before April 8, 2014, the date on which the HBO network ordered ‘Mother’s Mercy’. It was therefore available as a resource for visualizing their scenario within the period of the episode’s creative formation. I have argued in another post that 300: Rise adapts elements from GoT season 2 episode 9, ‘Blackwater’ (Neil Marshal, 2012), in which Stannis attempts a naval assault on King’s Landing. In season 5, GoT collects on this debt. Such narrative resource-sharing complements the central roles that actor Lena Headey plays in each franchise, as Cersei Lannister and Queen Gorgo respectively. As the latter, she provides the voiceover narration for the Marathon sequence in 300: Rise. 

300: Rise begins with Gorgo, now the widow of Leonidas, narrating the background to the Persian King Xerxes’ (Rodrigo Santoro) invasion of Greece. She describes the bold Athenian strategy against Xerxes’ father Darius (Igal Naor) as follows: “So, at dawn the hopeless Athenians do the unthinkable. They attack. They attack the weary Persians, as they disembark their ships on shaky legs after a month at sea. They attack before they can set up their war camp and supply their soldiers.”


A Persian officer looks over his should and watches the oncoming Greek attackers. The attack is so unexpected, he seems at first unable to understand what he is seeing.


As the Athenians are protagonists, the camera follows them in profile, showcasing their physical impressiveness and determination in slow motion.


Gorgo’s description of the Persian forms fits the Baratheon army in all respects, save for its arrival over land. Stannis is similarly in the very act of setting up his war camp when the Bolton forces are sighted. In both movie and episode, the camera registers the significance of the attack through an initial emphasis on the bewilderment of the minor characters that first spot it. In both, the defender’s preemptive strike at dawn surprises and eliminates the invaders, already weakened by rigors of their journey.


Stannis directs the construction of the army’s camp, oblivious to the Bolton attack which the general standing behind him has just noticed.

Battle_of_Winterfell_Bolton charge

Antagonists in this conflict, the Boltons are seen from a distance. The camera is concerned only to register their impact on Stannis and his soldiers and to communicate Stannis’ fate to the audience.

Finally, ‘Mother’s Mercy’ and 300: Rise both feature the death of the invading monarch. In each case, this is a divergence from the texts which they respectively adapt; i.e. Martin’s published novels (as of that date) on the one hand and the Ancient Greek historical sources on the other.


Stannis survives the battle that destroys his army, but is mortally wounded while killing two Bolton attackers. As he bleeds to death, he is discovered by Brienne of Tarth, who kills him in revenge for his murder of her lord (and his brother) Renly.

Igal Noor Darius

King Darius in 300: Rise is mortally woundedby an arrow while observing the Battle of Marathon from shipboard.

300: Rise makes Darius so confident in his numerical advantage that he expects no resistance on landing. He simply assumes that no defender would dare attack such a force as his. Stannis’ army, however, has received severe setbacks en route. At this point, he could very nearly assume that the Boltons outnumber him, a consideration that recommends against his disorderly arrival into full view of the adversary’s fortress. Nevertheless, he marches straight to his fate.

Unlike 300: Rise, which explains a tactical mistake as the hubris of Darius’ bland overconfidence, ‘Mother’s Mercy’ leaves viewers to attribute Stannis’ fall to his general unsoundness of mind. His fevered brain has become both the source and the sum of the terrible lengths to which he has gone to secure the crown he believes is owed to him, including the murders of his brother and daughter. Some fans have seen this unsoundness of mind, perhaps rightly, as the beginning of GoT’s diminished storytelling. Once the show’s pace eclipsed George R. R. Martin’s ability to produce the next installment in the series, its producers were forced to go from creative adaption of his novels to invention within their universe.

Critics of Stannis’ storyline find it difficult resolve his reputation for military good judgment and inflexible attachments with the descent into madness that robs him of those qualities. A feature that accompanies tragic decisions in Ancient Greek historian Herodotus’ account of Greco-Persian history is ate (pronouned ah-tay), or ‘folly’. This is nowhere invoked in the show, but it helps to make sense out of its storytelling choices. If one chooses to accept the ending that the show-runners have given to Stannis’ arc, rather than reject it as incompetent storytelling, one can see ‘Mother’s Mercy’ as connecting his fall to a hubris more complex, profound, and generally true to the word in its ancient sense, in which it implies the commission of outrageous violence, whether actual or metaphorical, in combination with a folly that clouds otherwise sound judgment.


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