Difficult languages and dry history were nowhere to be found at the Classics lecture entitled ‘Wicked Empresses on Screen’, run by Sandra Bingham and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, which looked at how we receive ancient history on screen.
Sandra Bingham explored the role of Livia, wife of the Roman Emperor Augustus, in the 1976 televised version of ‘I, Claudius’, based on books of the same title by Robert Graves. Taking us briefly through the ancient sources and books, she showed us how by the time the BBC’s version of Livia reached popular audiences, a mysterious woman with little real power had been transformed into a powerful stepmother in a mafia-like family. Clips showing the fantastic Sian Phillips as Livia, addressing a group of gladiators as ‘scum’, or indulging in a dark sense of humour, enthralled the audience, and while the original Livia may have been misrepresented as a murderous mother willing to poison anyone in the path of her son Tiberius, it reminded us all that some classics are well worth a watch.
Next, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones brought us to Hollywood with a focus on the films of director Cecil B. DeMille. His 1932 ‘The Sign of The Cross’ contrasted Christian purity with the sex and violence of the reign of Emperor Nero, brilliantly played by Charles Laughton. More media revealed Poppaea inviting a friend to join her in a large bath of milk and undertones of lesbianism in a dance scene featuring Joyzelle Joyner. Despite the pro-Christianity angle, which DeMille argued for as converting the American masses, we heard how the film played a definite part in the 1934 Hays Production Code, which regulated ‘moral standards’ in film.
In highlighting the depiction of ancient empresses, this event also revealed the fascination that film of the 20th Century still holds for us today.