Left image from BBC’s Atlantis; right image from Xena: Warrior Princess.
A couple of years ago British television and computer screens were abuzz with the BBC’s own addition to the horde of classical adaptations and reinterpretations to make it onto the ‘little’ screen. If you have been living under a rock, or perhaps actually living, you might not yet have heard of Atlantis; the epic saga of Jason, born in 2013 only to find himself in the yet to be submerged city of Atlantis living in a flat-share with Pythagoras and Hercules (or Heracles) during some unspecified period of ancient Greek history all because his submarine accidently stumbled into what was presumable a wormhole in the fabric of time, and reality, under the sea.
This show took ancient philosophers and mythological heroes, however questionably heroic they may be represented, and blends them together against a factually uncomfortably backdrop. The abandoned facts need not be historical; no objections to the show have insinuated Jason and Hercules were genuine historical figures but that does not mean ancient writers have given us any less established (f variable) stories of their lives. As television screenwriter’s everywhere run in fear from the confines of the original tales offended historians and classicists have crawled back out of the woodwork to once again object on the behalf of antiquity.
Television and film for a long time now have been great lovers of antiquity and the rich story-bed that it provides. As much as they love ancient history and mythology however no one seems to love it quite the way it is. Even if Suetonius’ Life of Nero was not enough to satiate our desire for drama surely the original story of Jason’s legendary quest for the Golden Fleece and his ill-fated love affair with the sorceress Medea makes for exciting television in itself; Jack Donnelly could still have spent the majority of his screen time in the buff.
How would first year university ancient history classes have been different if delivered to us by television networks and screenwriters anyway?
We would have learned that the Trojan War and the life of Julius Caesar both fell within the time frame of one woman’s life (namely Xena: Warrior Princess); Xena being an earlier example of classics based television’s aversion to the original information. Even if we ignore the inconsistent casting of Cleopatra in Xena as two different actresses both of different ethnicities it might be a little more difficult to overlook the replacement of her entirely as the lover of Marc Antony (Xena again). Note that Xena was also in the arms of a besotted Ulysses on the verge of leaving Penelope for our ancient enchantress not long before.
The same writers of Xena do however perhaps deserve a pat on the back for acknowledging Hercules’ strained relationship with his step-mother in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys rather than going down the Disney route of deleting his illegitimacy all together and instead having him fawned over by a rather luminous pink depiction of Hera. Nor do they have him attending an Americanized high school in ancient Greece with Cassandra, the seer, and Icarus, the boy that did not listen to his father (although Disney has him only mildly scolded rather than incinerated from his altercation with the sun).
Should shows that present themselves as ‘based on history or mythology’ take artistic freedom to such an extreme? Or should the ‘based on’ in that statement be an indicator that audiences should be prepared for utter freedom from the ‘facts’ when viewing. In fact ITV’s comedy ‘Plebs’, set during the early Roman Empire, may be the most accurate antiquity ‘based’ show for any budding historians and classicists. With its eerily accurate nod to the ever popular ‘dirty’ vase painting in antiquity and the successful absence of the Colosseum before its time, a common television mistake.
There is certainly no lack of exciting stories provided by antiquity so why do we need to alter and muddle the originals to such an extent to inspire interest in modern viewers? Or is it perhaps this sheer abundance of material that results in scriptwriters typing themselves into complicated, nonsensical knots desperately trying to squeeze as much of the classics as possible into one episode of a television show?
All jokes aside, should this freedom from the facts really offend? Although unnecessary are they necessarily negative? Maybe the BBC is contributing to the misinformation of young minds or maybe it is inspiring the next generation of classical archaeology and ancient history students. Sure they will get a shock when they sit down in their first lecture only to discover Theseus slayed the Minotaur and Atlantis was not an Ancient Greek city-state. But maybe just maybe they will be pleasantly surprised by what they do discover because despite the artistic liberties taken by television they definitely got one thing right, the stories antiquity has to offer are certainly not disappointing.
Note: This feature is a revision of a piece I wrote for my undergraduate student journal ‘Retrospect’.