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Summary: An interesting monograph on the topic of murder in the Roman Republic and Empire, but marred by the very large ax the author has to grind. Recommended with reservations.


A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, by Emma Southon, should be of interest to the general student of Roman History and the history of law, because it covers because it explores an intriguing question: how did the Roman people and state view the deliberate killing of one person by another outside the context of war? In our time, murder, the unlawful killing of one person by another, is viewed as a grave crime warranting the intervention of the State through the police and courts. But how did the Romans, from whom we take many of our concepts of the Rule of Law, themselves see it?


Southon, who holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, over the course of nine chapters explores these differences, which can be striking. Looking at homicides ranging from the highest classes of Roman society, emperors and consuls, to the lowest – slaves, gladiators, and prostitutes – she looks at a fundamental question: whose deaths were, in the Roman perspective, even worth caring about? From there she goes on to “Okay, this person is dead. Now what?”


(It should be noted that Southon uses a very broad definition of murder, essentially equating it with homicide: “…I have used a very comprehensive definition of ‘murder’ to include basically all killing. Rightness and wrongness are products of social space, where gender, status, race, location, means, time, wealth and infinite other variables shift and move and come together to create rightness and wrongness that are never static. Because of this, I have interpreted the concept of murder very (very) broadly.”)


In looking at these questions, Southon makes two valuable observations (at least, two that stick with me days after finishing the book). The first is that not all lives mattered. In our Judeo-Christian/Anglo-American ethics and jurisprudence, the ideal is that the murder of “someone important” is no different from the murder of a nobody: killing a homeless person is just as much a crime as killing a billionaire or a celebrity. Each is of equal worth as a person and each has an equal right to life.


Southon points out, I think rightly, that the Romans (and, I suspect, much of the Ancient World) would scratch their heads at that. Society was rigidly divided into those who came from powerful families and did important things and who had dignity, the honestiores, and those who didn’t, the infames (“infamous”) who were barely above animals. Romans and the Roman State simply didn’t see the killing of the latter as any big deal. Stab Julius Caesar, for example, and the civil war is on. Beat Publius the slave to death because he broke a vase and, oh well, you can always buy another slave.


She’s also right to point out the inferior and more vulnerable position of Roman women, though I think she errs by omission by failing to point out the status of women in, for example, in Classical Greece was far worse. In Rome, at least, women could own property and businesses. They were, however, still at the mercy of their husbands and fathers.


And this leads to another interesting observation Southon makes, that murder in Rome was not a crime against the sovereign (the Crown in the UK and the People in the US), but often a private family matter. Killings were often kept “in house” lest exposure cause scandal and a stain on the family reputation. If someone committed a crime worth killing for, such as plotting to poison dear old Pater to get his money, it was usually up to the family to deal with it themselves. There was no public prosecution as we think of it.


One could seek to take a killer to court in Rome, but this was again a matter of a family bringing its case to a court and hiring an advocate to speak for them. (Cicero being among the most famous) A variant on this lead to one of my favorite stories in the book, regarding how the Emperor Tiberius personally investigated the case of a woman found dead and determined her husband had murdered her. But, again, Southon’s point holds true: all of the actors in this story were Important People whose lives were considered to have worth. One doubts very much if the Emperor would have investigated the killing of a tavern keeper’s wife.


Southon, as I see it, approaches her topic from a leftist-feminist perspective, looking at class, gender, and power relationships. This itself I have no problem with, even if it’s not a perspective I share; different lenses or filters bring other facts into focus that can provide insight.


The problem as I see it, one that hurts an otherwise worthy book, is Southon’s tone and style. The book, and especially its notes, are written in a casual, even foul-mouthed style as if one were talking with a colleague in a bar over beers one evening. And there is plenty of “Can you believe they would do this shit?” anger on behalf of the victims throughout, as well as humorous references to modern pop culture. (Southon co-hosts a podcast called “History is Sexy,” so I gather this style is her metier.)


At first, I found this refreshing and enjoyable, but, after a couple of chapters, it became tiresome. I found myself thinking “Okay, I get it! The Romans were scum and they casually killed people in really horrible ways. The horse is dead, you can stop beating it now.” After a while, I was yearning for just a dollop of boring old scholarly objectivity. In short, the attempt to be relatable and casual with the reader wound up distracting from the message she was trying to get across.


Format note: I read “A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” in Kindle format. The copy was clean, with no editing or formatting mistakes that I saw. Too often, Amazon tolerates these. I was happy to see the publishers took care with this book.

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Dana Delany as "Megan Hunt"

I watched Dana Delany’s new ABC show, “Body of Proof,” last night and I can’t say I was impressed. The brief review is that I’ll give it another couple of episodes, but I don’t expect it to last.*

Body of Proof follows the life and career of Medical Examiner Megan Hunt, once a high-flying neurosurgeon, who now works in Philadelphia’s Medical Examiner’s Office after a car accident abruptly ended her neurosurgery career. As a Medical Examiner Megan applies her vast medical knowledge, keen instincts and variously charming and scalpel-like personality to the task of solving the medical mysteries of the dead and bringing the people responsible for their deaths to justice. But that’s only half the show.

Read showrunner Chris Murphey’s pitch to the public for the rest.

On the surface, the show sounds promising; in addition to her job as a Medical Examiner, Megan Hunt has no real friends (thanks to her often-acerbic personality, which she uses to keep people at bay), a failed marriage, and a broken relationship with her young daughter, the latter two thanks to her obsessive dedication to her former career. In addition to the weekly mysteries, then, we should be intrigued to see how Megan overcomes her weaknesses, rebuilds her old relationships, and builds new ones.

Trouble is…. We’ve seen all this before. Irascible medical detective? Quincy. (Or, for those too young to remember Quincy, House.) Crime fighter with broken personal relationships? The Equalizer. Scientific crime-fighting with cut up bodies on a table? Almost any procedural of the last 20 years. Witty, snappy, ironic dialogue? Too many shows to name, and it’s become cliché.

And that’s the problem with Body of Proof: there’s nothing special about it. Not the stories, not the investigation, not the dialogue, and mostly not the cast. Regarding the cast, Delaney herself is an excellent actress deserving of better writing. From among the supporting cast, Sonja Sohn (“Detective Baker”) is a favorite from her role in The Wire. The rest… eh. Jeri Ryan (“Dr. Kate Murphy”)  didn’t appear enough to make an impression. Windell Middlebrooks (“Dr. Brumfield”) risks being turned into the show’s regular punching bag. John Carroll Lynch’s character (“Detective Morris”) is a walking stereotype, “the cop who hates the star’s character but eventually turns into an ally she charmingly annoys.” Nicholas Bishop as Delaney’s sidekick (cop-turned-ME “Peter Dunlop”) who’s willing to tell her what she needs to hear… well, lose the stubble-beard, guy. It’s another cliché. Of course, so is the whole character.

The one relatively bright spot was seen in Delany/Hunt’s relationship with her daughter. Obviously estranged (a fact perhaps exacerbated by her ex-husband, who has custody), Hunt struggles to find a way to begin reconnecting with “Lacey” on the occasion of Lacey’s birthday. No spoilers, but, she does, and the final payoff is nicely handled — for once avoiding the trite.

But, that was about it. As I wrote at the start, I’ll give the show another couple of episodes to see if it improves, but I don’t think this “Body” will be rising from the table any time soon.

*Yeah, I know I said that about Rizzoli and Isles and was proved massively wrong, but cable has relatively lower standards for what constitutes a “hit” than do the broadcast networks. “Body of Proof” has a much higher hurdle to clear.

UPDATE: According to Variety, Body’s premiere enjoyed “3” rating in the coveted 18-49 category, with 13.9 million viewers. That’s a good start, but the key will be to see the trend over the next several weeks.

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Last Monday I caught the second episode of the new “Rizzoli & Isles,” from TNT. According to the hype, this show:

…follows Boston detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles, complete opposites and good friends who solve crimes and bust some of Boston’s most notorious criminals. Growing up at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, the two remain strikingly different from one another in many ways.

Get it? This is a groundbreaking cop show about a hardnosed Italian-American female cop in Boston and her uber-smart female forensic scientist buddy, who has trouble relating to people. And, of course, they’re both hawt. (In case you missed it, that should be read with a note of cynicism and sarcasm.) The cop, Jane Rizzoli, is played by Angie Harmon (who really is hot and thankfully a good actress) and Isles, the scientist, by Sasha Alexander.

The show was developed from a series of popular novels, and the premier last week earned great ratings. I’m sorry I missed it, because the episode I saw was utterly cliche and formulaic, from the plot through the characters and their relationships. Isles, the scientist, is clearly an attempt to copy the popularity of Bones. (Hmm… If that means Angie Harmon’s character will parallel Bones’ “Seeley Booth” and fall for her, that could be promising… Never mind.) Character interaction involved standard sharp and witty banter among cops with the woman showing she can dish it out as well as take it. Woot! How original!

The plot was a let-down, too. At first it looks as if the Boston Strangler has returned and that the police in the 60s nailed the wrong guy. Naturally, BPD doesn’t want to hear it and Rizzoli has to go against her bosses to get to the truth. (Oooh! That’s never been done before!) Finally, they arrest a guy who did time with Albert DeSalvo (the real Strangler) and the case looks solved. Only…

You guessed it: a retired cop who was on the original investigation and was sure DeSalvo didn’t do it framed the ex-con whom the BPD arrested, because the retired cop was sure the ex-con did it and wanted to “close the case before dying.” So, he went around strangling the modern victims, planting the evidence.

Yes, another “rogue retired cop” story. Something that’s been done dozens of times in the last decade, and with no variation on the theme. What a missed opportunity; it would have been so much more interesting had they turned the killer into, for example, a sociopathic copycat who then becomes Rizzoli’s nemesis for a season or two. Instead, it looks like the writers mailed it in.

In spite of this disappointing first encounter with Rizzoli and Isles, I’ll follow their adventures for another couple of episodes to see if they improve. This is a good cast that deserves better, but I didn’t see much of promise here.

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blueseed-beyond

(The following is a review I posted at Netflix for Blue Seed: Beyond, the sequel to the wonderful anime Blue Seed.)

The original Blue Seed is my favorite anime; it has everything I like about the form, Blue Seed Beyond, however, doesn’t live up to its predecessor. These three episodes feel more like a coda or an epilogue –or even an afterthought– than a true continuation of the story of Momiji and the TAC.

The first two episodes tell the story of a reappearance of the arigami, only this time as a mad plot by a US scientist. (Blue Seed has always had a hint of Japanese nationalism to it.) While all the main characters appear, and we learn what has happened to most of them in the intervening two years, the story is quite rushed, especially in comparison to the pace of the original series.

The third episode is unrelated to the first two: the women of the TAC travel to a Japanese hot spring to enjoy the baths, and a terrorist plans to blow them up. The highlight for me comes when Kome, my favorite character, tracks the bad guy to his lair. Things go wrong and her reaction is typically “Kome.” The animation is good, though sometimes strange. At times, Kome looks like an identical twin to Momiji. The rest of the characters look mostly like themselves from the original series, however. The voice acting is adequate, though the English-language actor for Kusinagi just doesn’t compare to his predecessor.

It must be noted that this series give in far more to “fan service” than the original series: Momiji has grown from a flat chest to a very full “C” (thus killing one of her humorous anxieties from the first series), while all the women of the TAC regularly run around semi-nude. I’ve no objection to nudity or sexuality in anime, but this much feels out of place and, indeed, gratuitous in Blue Seed. Parents who let their kids watch the original series might want to preview these episodes.

Overall, for those who are new to Blue Seed, rent the original series first; it’s surprisingly good. For fans who have already seen the original, rent Blue Seed 2, but don’t expect too much.

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